A Salt and Battery – Liliana Hart

“I promise, you’re going to love this place,” Agatha said, winking at Hank. She wound her arm through his, and they followed the neatly dressed event planner through a sunkissed corridor toward the grand banquet hall. Tabitha Taylor was as bright and bubbly as her name suggested. She was young, blond, and had a cute little dimple in her cheek, and there were dollar signs flashing in her eyes at the kind of reception Hank and Agatha wanted to have. They’d already made the deposit on the room, but the real expenses would add up with the catering and décor. Hank looked a little shell shocked. “Why haven’t we ever been here before?” he whispered to Agatha. “This place is incredible.” “Because we’ve never planned a wedding before,” Agatha said. It was a good day, and she was in a teasing mood. She hadn’t thought she’d ever get married, but now that she’d found the love of her life, the day couldn’t get here soon enough. Hank tugged at the zipper of his Penn State windbreaker, and she grinned. He’d been doing that a lot lately. This was way out of Hank’s comfort zone, and he wasn’t the kind of man who enjoyed shopping for anything, so wedding planning was a little bit of an overload for him. Which was why she appreciated him being here all the more.

“It’s going to be great,” he assured her, squeezing her hand. “Y’all are going to love this place,” Tabitha said, dimples flashing. “The hotel used to be a Spanish mission, and it was newly renovated a couple of years ago and expanded. The rooms are all suites, and we have an award-winning chef in our restaurant. Not to mention the golf course.” The biggest selling point to Agatha was the proximity to Rusty Gun, which was where the guests would all be driving from after they said their vows in the church. “Do you play golf?” Tabitha asked Hank. “Not well,” he said, tugging at his jacket again. “It’s okay, baby,” Agatha said. “They probably won’t make you play in your tuxedo.

” “Very funny,” he said. “You okay?” she asked. “Of course,” he said. “It’s just a little warm.” “Now I know y’all have reserved the Sam Houston Room for your reception, but unfortunately, it’s being prepped for an event. But we’ve got the Jim Bowie Room available for y’all to look at today. It’s a similar setup to the Sam Houston Room, just a little smaller.” “Oh,” Agatha said, disappointed. She was a planner. She couldn’t help it.

Even her lists had lists. And seeing a room that wasn’t the actual room they were having the reception in was no help at all. Hank gave her a long look, and she tried to smile and reassure him, but she had a feeling it came out looking like panic. They didn’t have a year to plan their wedding. Only a couple of months. “Tabitha,” Hank said. “If they’re only setting up for the event, then we’d like to poke our heads in and take a look. We really need to see what we’re paying for, especially with the time constraints.” “Oh, I don’t know,” Tabitha stammered out. She looked around as if she were searching for someone to give her the correct answer.

“Surely just poking our heads in won’t disturb things too much,” Hank said, giving her a charming smile. “Well, I guess so, but—” “But?” Hank asked. “It’s not just a regular event,” she said, excitement filling her eyes. “They’re filming a very popular TV show in there, and they were really insistent about keeping things private.” “Oh, wow,” Agatha said, raising her brows. TV was her guilty pleasure at the end of a long day of writing. She especially loved reality TV. “I can’t think of anything that’s filmed locally.” Tabitha squirmed from foot to foot, and Agatha thought she might burst from keeping the secret. And then she exhaled like a balloon losing all its air and managed to spew everything out in a rush of words.

“It’s a season premiere for Top Shelf Chef,” she squealed. “We’re so honored they chose us.” “Wait a second,” Hank said. “How long are they going to be filming? It’s not going to interfere with the reception, is it?” “Oh, no,” Tabitha said. “Rest assured, the show is only here to film the opening episode.” “That’s great news,” Agatha said, letting out a nervous breath. Planning a wedding was a lot more stressful than she thought it would be. The only reason they’d gotten the Sam Houston Room to begin with was because there’d been a last-minute cancellation. Then her thoughts went back to Top Shelf Chef. It was one of her favorite shows.

The drama between the chefs was way more entertaining than anything they cooked. “Oh, gosh,” Agatha said. “I’m such a fan. Any chance of meeting the celebrity judges?” The excitement in Tabitha’s face drained and was replaced with worry. “Umm,” she said. “You see—” “Aggie, can I talk with you for a second?” Hank asked. Agatha let Hank lead her a few feet away from Tabitha, wondering what could be wrong. “Can you believe it?” she whispered. “I love Top Shelf Chef. It’s my favorite show.

” “I’ve never seen you go fangirl before,” he said. “I’ve never even seen you watch the show.” “It’s my guilty pleasure,” she confessed. “It’s awful. I love it. I get great ideas for narcissistic villains when I watch.” “Good to know,” Hank said. “But I think you’re putting Tabitha in a tight spot. She might get into trouble, and we’ve still got to work with her for the next couple of months.” “Yeah, yeah,” she said, wrinkling her nose.

“You’re right. Sorry, I got carried away. I think this wedding is making me crazy.” Agatha leaned around Hank and called out to Tabitha, “Sorry about that, Tabitha. We’ll take a look at the Jim Bowie. We don’t want you to get into any trouble.” Tabitha beamed. “Oh, I appreciate that. Those TV people are scary. Always shouting orders and threatening lawsuits.

They’ve got half the staff running around like a chicken with its head cut off, and the other half is just trying to stay out of the way. Y’all can follow me to the Jim Bowie Room and take as much time as you want in there.” The main corridor had pale stucco walls and was accented with gold and deep burgundy. The furniture was Spanish and ornately carved, and the view of the golf course and grounds was spectacular no matter which direction you looked. The Jim Bowie banquet hall was gorgeous. “Everything is bigger in Texas,” Agatha said. “And I can assure you the Sam Houston Room is even better than this,” Tabitha said. “I think I’ve seen everything I needed to see,” Agatha said. “We appreciate the time.” “Any time,” Tabitha said.

“I’ve got to head out. I’ve got a full day. Y’all feel free to stop by the restaurant and have lunch on us. Just tell them Tabitha sent you over.” “Thanks,” Hank said and then looked at Agatha. “You ready to go, sugar?” Agatha waited until Tabitha had slipped back into the hallway. “Sure, baby, but I need to make one little stop before we go.” “Where’s that?” “Come on,” she said, grabbing his hand and leading him out of the room. She stuck her head out the door and looked both ways, and then pulled Hank behind her. “It’s a pretty day for a motorcycle ride,” Hank said.

“Are you going to tell me where we’re going?” “It’s a surprise,” she said. “Wait here.” Agatha wasn’t a woman to waste an opportunity, and she went to the reception desk and talked to the man behind the counter. When she came back to Hank, she leaned in to kiss him and said, “I’m really glad you’re marrying me.” “I’m really glad I’m marrying you too,” he said. “What did you do?” She grinned. “You’re a crackerjack of a detective.” “I’ve been told that before. What did you do?” “I didn’t want to waste the opportunity while we were here, so I got us a room for the night. It’ll give us a chance to test out the property before the wedding.

” “And if we just happen to run into a few celebrity chefs while we’re here then that’s just a bonus, right?” “Crackerjack,” she said again, swatting him on the behind. “I’m lucky to have you.” “You sure are,” he said. “And you owe me a motorcycle ride.” “Deal,” she said. “We don’t have clothes,” he said. “Or toothbrushes.” “Leave it to me,” she said, pointing to the boutique at the front of the hotel. Hank wasn’t sure how he’d lost the upper hand, but he found himself playing Sherpa for the bag of clothes and toiletries Agatha found in the boutique. Probably a ridiculously overpriced boutique.

He wasn’t surprised to see that the room Agatha had gotten was a two-room suite. They’d made the decision to wait on the intimacy side of things until they got married, though he had a feeling the next couple of months were going to be torture. The suite overlooked the golf course’s eighteenth hole, and he supposed it was a magnificent view, but it was lost on someone who thought golf was about as exciting as watching the grass grow. “You ready?” Agatha asked. “Ready for what?” he asked. “Did you manage to find a motorcycle in that boutique for me to ride?” She blew a raspberry at him. “I told you I’d make it up to you. Let’s head downstairs. I want to grab a snack.” He narrowed his eyes.

“Uh-huh. I’m sure you just want to get a snack. Might as well get this over with.” Hank took off the Penn State windbreaker, not wanting to draw attention to themselves if they were about to break into the Sam Houston Room. “You do know that if we get busted,” he said, “they may not allow us to use the resort for our reception.” “It’s a chance I’m willing to take,” she said. The look in her eyes was the same halfmanic look she got just before she finished a book. He felt a shiver go down his spine. Hank wanted to laugh at Agatha’s brazen attitude, but he was a little perplexed by the fascination with a reality show. He hadn’t even known she liked that show.

But he was her ride or die, and for better or worse, he was going to help Agatha get into the banquet hall. Worst-case scenario, they’d get kicked out and he’d get to ride his HarleyDavidson after all. Besides, his best friend, Sheriff Reggie Coil, had already offered the use of his barn to hold their reception if they couldn’t find anything. “You want to eat here?” he asked, looking at a ridiculously long line. “I don’t think I’m that hungry. Maybe we should sneak over to the Sam Houston Room while everyone is at lunch.” And then the crowd parted and he saw the sign next to the door boasting a meet and greet inside the café for Martha Magee, one of the celebrity chefs from the show. Tabitha stood inside the door, greeting everyone as they made their way inside. “Tabitha,” Agatha said. “What a surprise to see you here.

” “A busy day for the event planner,” she said, her smile strained. “We decided to stay for lunch before making the drive back home.” “Well, enjoy your lunch, and I’m excited to be working with you for the wedding. It’s going to be beautiful. Especially if you go with our premier package.” “Wedding?” a woman asked. She’d been passing by them when she’d overheard Tabitha. “I love weddings.” Hank didn’t recognize her, but the way the crowd had reacted to the sight of her had him thinking she was someone of influence. And she was looking him over like he was a piece of prime beef in the butcher shop window.

“We’re getting married in June,” Agatha said, her head down as she dug through her purse. The woman was more interesting than beautiful. Hank would’ve put her in her thirties at first glance, but the closer he looked the more he figured she was probably at least midforties. Her hair was several shades of blond and her skin was perfectly sun kissed and smooth. She screamed California. The only thing that made her a little different was the 1950s retro dress she wore and the black-rimmed glasses. “My, my, my,” the woman purred. “You marrying this beefcake, honey?” The woman reached out and pinched Hank’s arm, and he jerked it away. “Beg your pardon?” Agatha asked, her head popping up. Hank nodded his head and crossed his arms over his chest, waiting for Agatha to mark her territory and scratch the woman’s eyes out.

But Agatha was struck speechless. The color drained from her face, and Hank thought he might have to catch her. “Oh, wow,” Agatha said. “You’re Martha. Martha Magee.” Martha never took her gaze off Hank, and he was starting to feel uncomfortable. Clearly she’d heard he was engaged to be married. “I sure am,” she said. “Looks like you got a woman with good taste.” She licked her cherry-red lips provocatively and Hank felt the heat rush to his cheeks.

“I’m a huge fan of the show,” Agatha said, not noticing his discomfort at all. “You and everybody else,” Martha said, waving her hand to encompass the excited crowd. “People get a little overzealous. Especially the crazies. They like to call themselves superfans, but I think they’re just nuts.” “Or maybe they just love the show,” Agatha said stiffly. “Oh, don’t take offense, honey. I never thought you were one of the nutty ones. Not if you landed a man like this. They don’t make men like they used to.

” She squeezed Hank’s arm again and then hurried off to the table where she was supposed to be signing books. “Creepy woman,” Hank said, wrapping his arm around Agatha. “Sugar, I gotta admit. I’ve never seen you act like this. She’s just an actor on a reality show. You’re just as famous as she is.” “It’s different,” Agatha said. “No one knows who I am. People don’t care what authors look like as long as they tell a good story.” “Which is probably a good thing, considering the amount of days per week you wear yoga pants.

” “Shut up,” Agatha said, lips twitching. “I don’t know why I’m acting like this. We don’t have to do this. Let’s just skip out and go to the other restaurant. I really am hungry now.” “Too late,” Martha said. “You’re at the front of the line and I’m already signing a book for you.” It was then Hank noticed the giant designer handbag sitting behind her on the floor, and inside it was a copy of A.C. Riddle’s latest bestseller.

“Is that A.C. Riddle you’re reading?” Hank asked. “Sure is,” Martha said. “Been reading him for years. I love his books.” Hank nudged Agatha, and she shook her head. She wasn’t a fan of revealing her alter ego to people. “What am I missing?” Martha asked. And then she stood up and her eyes went wide as she stared at Hank in a whole different way.

“Wait! Are you him?” Hank took a step back. “Me? No way. It’s her,” he said, pointing to Agatha. “Riddle is a woman?” she asked incredulously. “Yep,” Agatha said, her lips pressing together and a slight color coming to her cheeks. “Well, it looks like it’s my turn to go all fangirl,” Martha said. Agatha seemed to shrink from the praise. She’d purposefully avoided being identified as a bestselling novelist, and she’d portrayed A.C. Riddle as a man for a number of reasons, one of which was for privacy.

“Looks like two celebrity worlds collide in the café,” Hank said, trying to smooth out the awkwardness. “While you’re here I’d love for you to sign my book,” Martha said. “You never do signings. I guess I know why now. Wait until my book club finds out you’re a woman.” Agatha winced and Hank felt the guilt creep up on him. It was going to be impossible to stop the freight train that was Martha Magee. “Great idea,” Hank said. “But maybe we could do the signing and a picture over in the Sam Houston Room. We booked it for our reception but they won’t let us see it because of the show.

” “Oh,” she said. “I guess we could do that.” She waved for Tabitha to come over to the table, and when the girl arrived Martha said, “Let’s head over to Sam Houston. These people want to see the room, and I want to get a book signed by my favorite author.” “Oh,” Tabitha said. “But you’re not scheduled for a break for another twenty minutes.” Martha patted Tabitha on the cheek and said, “I’m Martha Magee. They’ll wait until I get back. You can sit right here at the table and hold my place.” And with that, Martha cut through the crowd with practiced ease and Hank and Agatha followed behind her.

She spoke with a security guard who stood stiff legged on the outside of the banquet room, and then she squeezed through the double doors and waved for them to follow her inside. “Oh, my goodness,” Agatha said. “It’s going to be gorgeous. Thank you for allowing us to see this.” Hank reached out to squeeze Agatha’s hand and then pulled her in close to kiss her on top of the head. “Aww, y’all going to make me cry,” Martha said. “Y’all remind me of how I was with my first husband. So romantic. Let me get my picture and I’ll get out of here so y’all can look around.” Martha gave Hank her phone so he could take the picture, and the two women stood close and put their arms around each other.

Agatha was considerably taller and dressed quite a bit more casual, but they looked perfectly matched as he centered them in the frame. “Hey, move to the left, and I’ll get the show’s logo in the background.” Hank figured if Martha shared it on social media Agatha might get a nice boost in sales. “Like this?” Agatha asked as they both scooted over. Hank looked through the screen, but his eyes were playing tricks on him. He blinked a couple of times and then zoomed in so he could take a closer look. “Hank, you okay?” Agatha asked. “Yeah,” he said. “But the dead guy behind you has had better days.”

.

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