Agent of Salt

by Rachel Anne Jones

Agent of Salt by Rachel Anne Jones
When blonde-haired hazel-eyed Jeri White walks into a no-name bar on a Friday night, the last thing she wants is to meet someone. She’s had a long work week at her job as a bail bondswoman. All she wants to do is go home, but her friend and co-worker Charmaine chases TikTok fame.

Caden Brown sits on a stool sipping a beer and watching the game when his night is interrupted by a nosy little blonde slapping her business card in his face, demanding to be heard. If that wasn’t annoying enough, she has the nerve to tell him the only way he’ll be calling her is from behind bars.

Sparks fly between them as fast and furious as her judgy hazel eyes flash in his general direction. Jeri assures him he’s the criminal type. All Caden knows is he’ll be seeing her again one way or another.

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Release Date: May 14, 2024
Genre: Contemporary Romance

A Pink Satin Romance


Chapter One

“Gimme a Bud Light,” Caden Brown says as he slaps down his credit card and prepares to belly up to the bar to watch the basketball game from his favorite bar stool, the one with the asymmetrically cracked seat cushion that gives in all the right places beneath his 187-pound, six-foot two-inch build. It’s close enough to the corner TV he can hear the sportscaster in one ear and whomever he’s talking to in the other. Having a cold beer on his favorite stool isn’t everything, but it’ll make up for the crap week he’s just had despite being promoted to salt mine foreman twenty-two days ago, which had him shopping for Docker’s and button-up shirts and tossing his bagged-up stained jeans and mining jacket to the back of his closet.

Caden was thrilled with the promotion that he never thought he’d get. He recalls the last day of riding the elevator up out of the mine. He was so happy he was doing a Travis Kelce dance-of-joy for all his haters that said he’d never make management inside his head. He can’t believe he already has the urge some days to go back down below. Desk jobs can be a real headache, and today was no exception. He grabs his Bud and walks toward his seat, but someone slides in first.

Caden pauses and reminds himself he’s a grown man and that he doesn’t own a bar stool despite the fact he’s been sitting on it for two years straight every Friday night between the hours of 7:30PM and 9:30 or 10:30 PM, depending on who’s bartending, who walks in, and if there’s good conversation. Caden searches for Owen, his favorite bartender because he’s the friendliest and never short on interesting topics, but there’s someone else, someone he doesn’t know.

“Terrific. The hits just keep comin’,” he mumbles while he plops down a bar stool two stools down from the one he wants, just in case the stool-stealer with his back turned to him moves. Caden takes a long draw from his beer, hoping it’ll cool his irritation.

Jeri White leans on the corner of the bar, wishing she’d never let her co-worker Charmaine talk her into going out on a Friday night to some no-name smalltown bar in a mining town no less, chasing down some random TikTok hottie.

“You don’t even know if he lives here anymore,” Jeri whines in Charmaine’s ear, which is hard to do through all the decoration. Charmaine’s got so much metal in her ear Jeri’s sure she’d set off the metal detector at an airport. “Who knows how old that TikTok is.”

Charmaine turns on her. “Gir-l, quit your whinin’. It’s Friday night. We ain’t gotta work tomorrow.”

Jeri supposes she’s right, but she’s annoyed. “I could be home right now watching Dateline,” she grumbles.

Charmaine makes bug eyes at her friend. “DVR your stupid show. That TV can’t compete with a memory. We might meet a famous TikTok’er tonight,” she says with a voice full of hope.

Jeri feels bad for trying to pop her friend’s happiness bubble, but sometimes Charmaine’s misplaced enthusiasm is exhausting, especially because most of it is tied to the nightlife. Meeting guys under the influence of dim lights and alcohol has never seemed like the best idea to Jeri. Charmaine hikes up her already-short skirt before hauling her vertically challenged self onto the high barstool. She proceeds to rest her girls on the bar. Jeri’s relieved to see colorful booty shorts underneath her friend’s hiked-up skirt. Her eyes pop when she spies Charmaine’s red satin bra peeking out of the single-buttoned cropped cardigan.

“Do your booty shorts match your bra?” Jeri asks a little too loud.

Caden chokes on his beer and looks in their direction. He gives the curvaceous sister a bold wink before checking out the awkward loudmouth hiding behind her. All he sees of the louder-than-necessary blonde is her plain-colored shirt and long dark sweater. He leans back just enough to see if he can see anything of her legs, but they’re covered up by some formless skirt that almost hits the floor.

His eyes meet hers. She stares straight at him, but her look is not the usual look of appreciation he gets when a woman looks in his direction. Before he knows it, he’s off his stool. He swaggers a little more than usual just to piss her off. From the growing scowl on her face, he’d say it’s working.

He zeroes in on the barely-covered sister. She looks much friendlier. “You’re new here. Can I buy you a drink?” he offers in a casual tone.

Before she can answer, the tiny nondescript blonde beside her shakes her head. “No, we were just leaving,” she says. Her voice is a little low for a woman, but at least it’s not squeaky.

The vibrant sister beside him lays a hand on his arm. Her nails are long and jeweled. Caden doesn’t care for high maintenance, but he’s curious to see if he can make the blonde jealous. He stays where he is.

“I’m Charmaine. We can stay for a drink,” the sister says as she bats her bright purple eyelashes at him. She gestures toward the scowling blonde. “This is Jeri.”

Caden gives Jeri a flirty wink and a come-hither smile. She scowls even harder. He didn’t think that was possible. He resists the urge to laugh. He turns back to Charmaine.

“What’s the deal between you two? Is she like your parole officer?” he teases.

Charmaine laughs out loud. “I’ve been called a lot of things, but never a criminal,” she says with an open smile. “That’s pretty good.”

Caden can’t figure them out, but he likes Charmaine. She’s funny. “I don’t think your friend likes me very much,” he teases.

Charmaine giggles. “She’s all work and no play.” She drags a nail down the inside of his forearm and leans forward. Caden didn’t think her top could get any bigger. He resists the urge to scoot back. “I don’t mind a little of both,” she teases.

The blonde drops her phone face-up on the bar with a clatter. She taps her middle finger on the screen in a pointed manner. “Do you know this man?” she demands.

Caden gives her an exasperated look. He picks up the phone and squints at it, turning it this way and that. He knows exactly who it is. He’s just enjoying seeing her get all sorts of worked up. He keeps her phone until she puts her palm out with a glare. Caden doesn’t understand himself or the need to touch her, but he thinks it has something to do with wanting to rattle her cage. He sets his beer down and takes a hold of the underside of her hand before laying the phone down in her palm. He keeps his hold.

“What’ll you give me if I do?” he asks in a suggestive tone. Her cheeks pinken. This makes him feel better than he’d like to admit. He can’t believe he’s attracted to a woman who dresses and acts like a grandma.

Jeri whips her business card out of her pocket and slaps it on the bar before jerking her hand and phone away from his hold that sends more shocks of heat through her than she’d like to admit. “There’s my number. Give me a call day or night,” she barks before spinning around so fast she bumps elbows with her friend who falls against Caden.

Caden keeps his eyes on the card while he waits for Charmaine to right herself. “She’s a bail bondsman?” he says in a voice of disbelief. He would have pegged her for a schoolteacher or an accountant, what with all the stuffiness in her tone and the rest of her being as rigid as a 2x4.

Charmaine exhales slowly. Her warm manner cools. “She’s got you, don’t she,” she teases in a light-hearted manner. She taps her jeweled nails on the bar. “So who’s the TikTok guy? I’m the one who’s lookin’ for ‘em.”

Caden can’t believe how relieved he is to hear the blonde isn’t chasing after Tony, the TikTok’er who put their tiny town of Michigan on the map. “He’s in L.A.” he says. Charmaine’s face falls. He feels kind of bad. “You still want that drink?” he offers.

She pats him on the arm. “Nah, but thanks anyways. If I don’t follow her out, she’s liable to leave me.”

The tiny blonde bun pops back up beside Charmaine. She’s so close she almost bumps into Caden. In this light, she looks much younger. Her fair skin is flawless. Her lips are just the right shade of pink. He wishes he could make her smile. “You came on awful strong with that line. It’s kinda agro,” he teases, trying to see if she has a sense of humor.

Her glare intensifies. “I wasn’t hitting on you,” she growls before poking him in the chest. “Trust me, before the end of the night, you’ll be callin’ me from behind bars. I can spot recklessness a mile away. You’re not my type. You should have stuck with Charmaine.”

His jaw drops. He can’t believe how rude she’s being. He glances at Charmaine. She shrugs her shoulders and gives him a saucy smile.

He takes a long swig of beer. He can’t believe how judgmental Jeri is, or how much it turns him on. “Honey, I wouldn’t call you if I was sittin’ in a jail cell and you were the only bail bondsman in a two-hundred-mile radius,” he growls right back.

Jeri gives him her cheesiest smile. “We’ll see about that,” she says before puckering up and blowing him a noisy kiss as she backs away. “I always get my man.”

Caden knows she’s being a smart ass, but her little act steals his breath. He watches her walk away, leaning into her friend. Her tight little bun doesn’t move a hair as she tilts her head towards Charmaine’s. They’re probably laughing at him. Caden watches the sway of her skirt as it flirts with the floor. Charmaine’s skirt barely covers her booty. Caden can hardly believe an insulting, uptight woman dressed like a church lady is the one who has him starin’.

He shakes his head to clear it and stomps back to the empty barstool that’s not his. “She thinks she’s so smart. She doesn’t know me. There’s no way I’m spendin’ the night in jail. I’ve never even broken the law,” he grumps.

“Caden, Is that you? No way,” a voice booms. Caden fights the urge to duck and cover as he turns slowly toward the right to affirm he should’ve left right after Jeri and all her sass made such a memorable exit. He pastes a surprised look on his face as he catches Bairn’s eye.

“Hey, man. What’s up?” Caden asks Bairn Barnes, an old junior college teammate, a guy he hasn’t seen in two years. Caden tries to keep a straight face when it hits him the last time he saw Bairn was at another teammate’s wedding dance. Bairn was so drunk he was incoherent. Caden was trying to figure out how to turn down an overly tipsy, newly-divorced Stephanie who was determined to walk him to his car when he accidentally stumbled upon Bairn lying face down drunk in the ditch on the way to the parking lot. Caden was never so relieved to toss Bairn in his car and drive off with him while pretending to not hear Stephanie yelling call me at him through his mostly rolled-up window.

“Not much, man,” Bairn answers. “How have you been?”

“I’ve been alright. Just workin’,” Caden answers in a bored tone he hopes implies he wants to be left alone so he can chill out, watch basketball, and forget all about the judgy little blonde woman who was as rigid and uptight as the neat little bun on the top of her head. He’s never found gritchy women attractive, so what’s so special about this one, he wonders.

“Hey. Remember when we played the game back in the day?” Bairn asks in a tone that tells Caden he’s just getting started. Caden holds in a groan. Bairn never tires of reliving the glory days that never were, as far as Caden is concerned, and he’s perfectly fine with it too. They went to a junior college. Ain’t no shame in that, in Caden’s opinion, but it also means there were never going to be any awe-filled moments that were going down in sports history or written on a plaque hung on a wall. Seven long minutes and fourteen points scored by the wrong team later on the corner TV that Bairn keeps blocking with his stupid baby face that’s gone into full pout mode, and Caden has had enough.

“Dammit, Bairn, I’m tryin’ to watch the game,” Caden barks a little too loud about the time he sees Bairn’s already red face grow even darker.

“I know, man. It was some game. We shoulda won it, and we would’ve, but someone paid the refs,” he says as he slams his mostly empty beer on the bar. “It was so unfair. We got robbed.”

Caden blinks. He’s a little fuzzy from downing two more beers in the span of four minutes to try to block out Bairn’s never-ending over-exaggerated recount of every game they ever played together, most likely, because that’s how every conversation goes that comes out of his mouth. “Dude. I’m talkin’ about the game on the TV,” Caden grumps as he waves his arm past Bairn’s left shoulder to point in the general direction.

Bairn’s stares up at Caden through his beer haze. “Why do you care about that stupid game? It’s not even the play-offs. I haven’t seen you in forever. I thought we were catchin’ up.”

Caden knows it’s foolish and a little cruel, but he’s had enough. His favorite team just lost, and he missed the last five minutes because he had to listen to the same conversation he hears every time he and Bairn get together, which just became one time too many.

“We aren’t catchin’ up, Bairn. I’m sittin’ here trying to ignore you while you go on about your glory days that were never that glorious. I’ve worked a long week. I’m tired. I just want to sit here and enjoy my beer and the game before goin’ home to a quiet apartment to chillax. I wasn’t up for you sittin’ on my stool, in my spot, blockin’ my view with your stupid fat head.” All the air goes out of Caden about the time Bairn sucks it up.

Bairn hops off the barstool. Caden feels bad because he thinks Bairn was probably taller when he was sitting on the stool. Bairn’s chest puffs out. Caden’s never figured out how Bairn can manage to look down on guys when he’s shorter than most, a fact that wouldn’t bother Caden a bit if Bairn weren’t so obnoxious.

“You’re lucky I know you’re drunk, Caden, or I’d beat your ass right here, right now,” Bairn threatens.

Caden knows he should either agree and walk out or let Bairn have his swagger just like every other time it’s happened ever since they were little. Like when Bairn paid him twenty bucks to take the fall in a fake fight to impress a girl, because he thought that would cause brown-eyed art student Mia to fall fuschia-colored hair over her crazy patterned tights and mis-matched Converse for him.

Boy, was he wrong. Mia called Bairn a barbarian before giving Caden a shove on his way up out of the dirt at recess, muttering idiots under her breath at him, but she gave Caden a smile that told him she didn’t believe for a minute Bairn could ever knock him on his butt. Her smile, although mostly fake, was more than Bairn got. Bairn’s big mouth didn’t do him any favors then, just like it isn’t now, Caden thinks as he stands up to his full height of 6’2”.

Caden stares down at Bairn, who had the unfortunate experience of having a mother who loved all things Scottish and didn’t realize she was giving her only son a name that would stick with him all his life like a personality flaw. “I’m not drunk,” Caden drawls in a tone as stiff and neat as the whiskey he’s going to drink as soon as Bairn is out of his sight. “Not even close,” he adds for good measure.

With all the experiences between them as teammates, Bairn ought to know Caden’s patience is just about gone, because Caden’s grammar improves the more irritated he gets. But anyone who knows Bairn knows he’s as stubborn as an ass. He’s got more pride than three men put together.

“What are you saying?” Bairn demands as his gray-blue eyes blink in rapid succession while he stares up at Caden, whose easy-going demeanor has all but disappeared, save for the tiny smirk that’s impossible to miss.

“I know you heard what I said,” Caden enunciates in a tone that is more of a reprimand, “and I’m not saying it again,” he says as he starts to move past Bairn. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go to the men’s room, a place you’ve yet to occupy,” he taunts as he lays a light hand on Bairn’s shoulder just as he passes by.

Bairn flings Caden’s hand off his shoulder in a dramatic manner right before he punches Caden in his back left side. Caden doesn’t think twice before reacting. He pivots on his foot and comes around with a right hook that slams into Bairn’s dimpled chin. Down Bairn goes. Caden stands over an unmoving Bairn for too many seconds, but he’s not worried. He knows Bairn all too well. He’s perfected playing the victim. Besides, Bairn threw the first punch. Caden wants to leave, but he figures the least he can do is help Bairn up off the floor whenever he’s ready to quit acting like a child.

Twenty seconds later, Bairn still hasn’t moved. Caden leans over and nudges him in the side with the back of his hand. Bairn just lays there. Caden pokes him between the ribs. Bairn swats his hand away and groans. Caden throws his head back and laughs. He can’t believe what a wimp Bairn is being. It was one thing for him to act like this in junior college on the basketball court when he was trying to get a technical called on the other team, but they’re men now. Their seven-year high-school reunion is coming up as a reminder of that fact. Bairn’s way too old to be playing opossum over a fight he himself started.

Caden still hasn’t decided if he’s going to the reunion. Over half of them are married and have started their families. Caden hasn’t done either. He doesn’t even have a girlfriend. He supposes he’s always been a bit particular, but he’s never been one to treat dating like a sport. He’d rather be alone than be with somebody just so he won’t be alone. He feels slightly ridiculous that he’s not embarrassed about being single, but he knows one thing—he’s not spending the whole night of the reunion sitting around with Bairn, listening to him blather about the good old days.

Caden grabs a hold of Bairn by the upper arm. “C’mon man. Get up. You’re makin’ a fool of yourself.”

Bairn shoves his hand away and makes a show of pushing himself up off the floor. “Why’d you do that? I thought we were friends,” he whines.

Caden feels a little bad when he sees Bairn’s split bottom lip and swelling chin, but not bad enough. It’s not his fault Bairn has such a small face and Caden’s hands are a bit big. “What are you talking about?” Caden demands. “You hit me first. I just reacted,” he argues.

Bairn dabs at his lip with the bar napkin. “I tripped and fell into the back of you. It was an accident.”

Caden rolls his eyes. “Whatever, man. You’re still singin’ the same song, always blamin’ someone else. Nothing is ever your fault.”

Bairn’s eyes water. Caden can’t believe he’s about to cry. “You’re just jealous of me. You always have been. That’s why you punched me,” he accuses.

Caden shakes his head and taps his closed fist on the bar. “Whatever, man. Just keep tellin’ yourself that if it helps. You’re delusional.”

Bairn’s swollen lip pops out even more as he stares Caden down. “You’ll be sorry you did this to me. Just you wait and see.”

Caden takes another drink of his Bud Light as Bairn heads for the front door of the bar. “Yeah, okay. I’ve heard that one before,” he yells at Bairn’s retrieving back before turning around to the bartender. “Give me a whiskey, neat,” he says.

The bartender raises a questioning eyebrow. “Are you sure?”

Caden nods. “Yeah, I’m sure. I haven’t seen that guy in two years, and as soon as I do, I wish I hadn’t. What a chump.”

The bartender’s only answer is to slide the whiskey across the bar in front of Caden who takes a sip before carrying it over to sit on the seat Bairn was just on. He shifts around until he hears the tiny crinkle beneath his right thigh. “That’s more like it,” he says with a smile before turning to read the bartender’s nametag. “Hey, Jeff. Turn that game up, would ya?”


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