I cringed as my phone vibrated in my purse. Again.
The judge banged the gavel, making me recoil even more. He raised one imperious, silver eyebrow. “Mrs. Jenkins, do you need to get that?” he asked. He glared at me from across the big desk behind which he sat. My phone made another plaintive noise. The vibration from it was barely detectable. But, of course, the judge had heard it. He’d heard it every one of the ten times it had gone off in the past five minutes.
“No, your honor,” I said. The defendant next to me fidgeted in her seat. “I’m sorry,” I mouthed at her.
“Let’s take a break while Mrs. Jenkins takes that phone call. Then we can all stop being distracted by her phone going off repeatedly.” Bang! went the gavel again.
I let out a breath. I’d had no less than ten calls in the last five minutes. That was a record. I scuttled out of the courtroom as fast as my heels could take me, dashed into the ladies’ room, pulled my phone out of my pocket, and saw that unknown caller who had tried repeatedly.
Just as I stared down at it, it rang again. I lifted it to my ear. “Hello,” I said quietly, pretty sure that someone wanting to sell me an extended car warranty wouldn’t have tried me ten times.
“Hadley, is that you?” a voice said. I knew that voice. I froze.
“Jace,” I replied. Then I cleared my throat. “Jason,” I said more formally, “what do you want?”
“Oh, my God,” he whispered. “I’m so glad I found you. Can you come and get me?”
My heart stuttered. It actually stopped beating for a second. “What?” I whisper-hissed.
“I need you to come and get me.” He let out a breath.
“Why?” I replied, still baffled that he’d called me, and I was even more confused by what he was saying. Jace and I hadn’t talked in over a year. And when we had spoken before, it never went well.
“They won’t let me leave without someone to take care of me.”
“Leave where?” The absurdity of the situation made my skin tingle. “And why on earth would you call me?” I held the phone away from my ear to stare down at it. Maybe I’d entered some kind of warped reality. “Is this a joke? If it is, it’s not funny.”
He sniffled. “Hadley, I need you. Can you please come?” he whispered, and his voice broke. “I’m so confused.”
Just then, my co-chair, John, dashed into the bathroom, all six feet of him. He walked quickly toward me when he saw no one else in the bathroom. “Hadley, sweetie,” he said calmly. His voice was way too calm. He spoke to me like I was an injured dog on the side of the highway. Like I was a horse that was ready to bolt. He thrust his phone at me. “Look at this,” he hissed. I took the phone and stared down at it. He had a video pulled up from a social media site. It showed a horrific car crash. One of the cars had been mangled and was lying on its roof.
“That happened two nights ago,” he said.
I shoved his phone at him. “So what?”
He bent down so he could stare into my eyes. “Sweetheart, that’s Jason’s car. He’s in the hospital. It’s all over the news.”
I sucked in a breath. Then I steeled my spine. “What does that have to do with me?”
He looked at me, his eyes softening in sympathy. “It has everything to do with you, and you damn well know it.”
“We are divorced,” I reminded him.
He took a deep breath through his nose like he was steeling himself. “Sweetie, you need to go to the hospital,” he tried again.
I heard a voice from my phone. I lifted it back to my ear. “Look, Hadley,” the voice said, “I have no idea what’s happening. I don’t understand anything. But I do know that I need you. Can you please come?”
He sounded almost like the old Jase, the one I used to love. But that man was long gone. He’d been gone for a long time.
“This can’t be real,” I said.
“Please,” Jase said again. I could hear beeping and voices in the background where he was.
“Where are you?” I asked.
“At the hospital. The one close to our apartment,” he explained.
“Our old apartment,” I reminded him. We’d both moved before the divorce.
“What?” he asked. “What happened to our apartment?”
I sucked in a breath and let it out slowly. I would have to go there, if for no other reason than to tell him he could go and suck donkey balls. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“Thanks, Hadley,” he said, and I could almost hear him smiling through the phone. Jace didn’t smile. Not anymore. Now he smirked, but he never smiled. He’d forgotten how.
“Sure,” I replied. I tapped the screen to end the call.
“Do you want me to drive you?” John asked.
I shook my head. “I need you to find out what’s going on,” I said.
“Go to the hospital, Hadley. Find out what’s going on for yourself.”
I nodded, and John and I arranged for him to replace me in court. The judge wasn’t too happy, but John knew everything about the case and would, at worst, ask for a continuance.
“Call me later, okay?” he said.
I nodded and jumped into my car to go to the hospital, the hospital that was near the apartment that wasn’t ours anymore, to see the man who wasn’t my husband anymore, knowing that I would have to reopen those old wounds that had finally scabbed over.
I steeled myself on the ride over, and when I parked, I stepped out of the car feeling like I was walking to my execution.
I strode through the doors, the whoosh of air from the ceiling blowing my hair back. I always wore it loose when I was in court. A pleasant attorney won more cases. Successful women had to also look pretty, after all.
I marched up to the desk, and the woman ignored me. I rapped on the window with my knuckles, and she looked up. She rolled her eyes, slid the window open, cracked her gum, and said, “May I help you?”
“I need to know where to find Jason Jenkins?”
“And you are?” she asked.
“His…” I stopped. What was I? I was nothing. Not anymore. “I’m his wife,” I lied. Ex-wife. Wife. To-may-toe, to-mah-toe. I held up my phone like it mattered. “He called me,” I explained.
She tapped on her keyboard, staring at the screen, and finally lifted her gaze. “Level five,” she said. “Room 512.” She closed the little window with a clunk.
I turned to find the elevator, my heart in my throat as I went up.
When I got to the fifth level, I looked for room 512, stopped outside, and took a deep breath. “Mrs. Jenkins?” a voice called, and a white-clad doctor strode toward me.
I nodded. “Yes?”
“If I may have a word?” he said, his voice calm, almost soothing.
I tugged on the tail of my jacket. “About?”
He took a deep breath like he was steeling himself.
“Your husband has suffered a traumatic brain injury,” he explained. His eyes narrowed. “You’re aware that he was in a car accident?”
“I just saw the pictures on a news app,” I explained.
“Two days ago, he was brought in with a sprained wrist and a bump on the head.”
“Okay,” I replied. I looked through the little window on the door and saw Jace staring at nothing. “Is he going to be all right?” I asked. I shouldn’t even care. And if this doctor knew anything about our relationship and how it had ended, he wouldn’t ask me to.
“His wrist will heal, but his head may take longer.”
“How bad is it?”
“Here’s the thing,” he said as he winced. “His head injury will heal. He might suffer from headaches, nausea, vomiting, and some other issues, but the big problem he’s having right now is memory loss.”
I spun around to face him. “Memory loss?” I repeated. What did that even mean?
“He doesn’t remember any current events. His last memory is from five years ago.”
“But his memory will come back?”
He winced again. “We never know with the brain. The good news is that he’s retaining current information. He remembers yesterday, and he even remembers two days ago. But he doesn’t remember anything before that.” He held his hands about a foot apart. “There’s about a five-year gap in his memory.”
“Well, you can keep him here until he’s better, right?”
He shook his head. “Our hospital is over-run. We need the bed. And, physically, there’s no reason to keep him here.” He reached into a little pocket on the outside of the hospital room door and retrieved a folder. It had doctor’s notes, medication information, prescriptions, handouts about brain injuries, and reminder cards for future visits.
I held up the folder. “Did you call me because I’m still listed as his emergency contact? He should have had that changed by now.”
He shook his head. “We called you because you’re the only person he asked for. The nurses called about a dozen times, and then he started calling too.” He smiled gently. “He remembered your number.”
But he didn’t remember that we’d divorced. And that it wasn’t at all amicable. It was painful and time-consuming, and it changed me a little bit on the inside.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll talk to him briefly and take him wherever he needs to go.”
He shook his head. “I don’t think you understand, Mrs. Jenkins. He can’t be left alone. Not right now. He will need care.”
I puffed out a laugh that sounded a lot like a fart. “And you think I’m going to give him that?”
He pointed toward the room and jabbed his finger in Jace’s direction. “No, he thinks you’re going to give him that.”
He shook his head and turned to walk away.
I knocked on the door and shoved it open at the same time. Jason turned to face me, and he smiled at me. It was that old smile that he used to have, the one that made me think he loved me more than anything in the world, and I stumbled as little as I fell into the room.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” he gushed as he turned the wheelchair he was sitting in toward me.
I sat down in the chair across from him. “Jason,” I said slowly.
He startled so visibly that I could see his muscles tense. “What’s wrong with you, Hadley?” he asked, his brow furrowing. “You never call me Jason.”
I called him Jason because he wasn’t my Jace anymore. He wasn’t anyone I knew or wanted to know.
“Why did you call me on the phone, Jason?” I asked.
“Who else would I call?” He stared at me, confused.
I threw up my hands. “Anybody!” I said. “You could have called anybody.” I took a deep breath and tried a different tact. “The current year is 2023.”
“I know. They told me. I don’t understand, though.”
“What’s the last thing you remember?”
He smiled. “We took a trip to the mountains to go camping. We went for a week, and we hiked the big trail.”
I reached back into my memory. “That was in 2016.” So, he had forgotten a little more than five years.
He nodded. “Our anniversary. Do you remember, Hadley? We fished for our dinner, walked the trails all day, and made love all night.” His eyes look happy. He didn’t look like Jason at all. He looked like my Jace.
“You don’t remember anything after that?”
He shook his head. “No, but they say my memory can come back with time. I just need time.”
I reached up and massaged my forehead. I got to my feet. “I can’t do this, Jason.” I really couldn’t do this. Not with him. Not now. Not ever.
His brow wrinkled again. “You don’t call me Jason,” he said again. “Stop it. It’s weirding me out.”
I leaned toward him and spoke succinctly. “I don’t call you anything.” Or at least not anything nice. “We’re not married anymore.”
“Why not?” His eyes danced across my face. “What happened to us?”
“It’s a long story,” I prevaricated. I rubbed my chest because my heart hurt. It was so tender right now, and I’d promised I’d never put myself in this position again.
“I have time,” he said softly.
“Well, I don’t.” I gestured toward the door. “They said you need to go with someone who can care for you. Do you want me to call someone?”
He finally looked away. “You know I don’t have anybody but you, Hadley,” he said.
His parents had died about ten years ago. He was an only child, and he’d never known his grandparents or extended family.
“Do you have a friend you can call?” Someone he was dating, perhaps.
He shrugged. “Not that I know of.” He whispered, “There’s just you.” He patted the arms of his chair and smiled. “Let’s go home.”
“We don’t have a home.” I’d already told him this. “We moved out of the apartment.”
“Where do you live?”
“I moved to the cottage.”
“Your grandmother’s place? I love that cottage. Let’s go there.” He wheeled himself forward and went past me. “Come on. Let’s go.”
I shook my head. “No.”
“Hadley, where am I going to go?” He suddenly looked like a lost little boy. And I couldn’t just leave him.
If I left him here, he’d be unsafe. But if he went with me, I would be. I took a deep breath.
“Fine,” I said. “But you’re sleeping in the spare room.”
His brow furrowed. “Why?”
“We are not married anymore,” I said again. “It’s the spare room or nothing.”
His brow furrowed, but he shrugged. “Okay.”
“And this is only temporary, Jason.”
“Jace,” he corrected softly.
I shook my head. “You are not my Jace anymore,” I bit out.
“Well, you’re still my Hadley,” he said.
“You are.” He grinned playfully, which made me groan. “Tell me one thing,” he said.
“What?” I heaved out a breath.
“Why do you hate me?” He stared into my eyes, his brown gaze not even flinching.
I rubbed my chest again because it still hurt. “Let’s go,” I said. I looked down at the folder. “I think we have to pick up some medications from the pharmacy.”
He nodded. “Okay,” he said softly.
“This is temporary,” I reminded him. “Just until I figure out what to do with you.”
“Okay,” he said again. He rolled toward the door. “Let’s go.”
An impromptu trip to Australia. Two adults who’d made a pact as kids to remain friends forever. Two precocious children. Two huge unruly dogs. What could possibly go wrong?
Everything. Everything could go wrong. And it did.
When Liam Scott looked up and saw Frankie Thompson standing in the doorway of his office, he’d almost had to pick himself up from the floor. Frankie showing up meant one thing: she needed his help. He’d never been able to turn Frankie down, and he couldn’t turn her down this time, either. Liam would do anything for Frankie—always had, always would.
So, he packed up his kids and took off for Australia. The plan was simple: visit the zoo, maybe do some snorkeling, some outback sightseeing with his children…and spend some time with Frankie.
For her part, Frankie had loved Liam for more than twenty-five years. She’d needed him and he’d come, just as she’d known he would.
And now they were stranded af in the middle of nowhere, and it was all Frankie’s fault.
But what if getting lost meant finally finding it all?
CHAPTER 1 – Scotty
The pops and flashes of cameras are nearly blinding as our handler opens the door and ushers us toward the front of the room. I lift my hand to shield my eyes. Immediately, questions ring out, before we can even take our seats. Frankie gives me a look, and I give her what I hope is an almost imperceptible nod. Yes, I hate this as much as you do. Yes, I want to go home. No, I don’t want to do this.
We take our seats behind a formal table draped with cloths, with a pitcher of water and glasses in the middle, and I can’t help but think how much we needed that water when all this started. The pitcher sparkles and a dewy drop of condensation slides down the side until it dampens the tablecloth, spreading through the fibers like vines. There was a time when I would have bent and licked the tablecloth, trying to get that precious little bit of moisture.
The attorneys that Frankie’s grandmother sent as well as the representatives from the charter company all stand to the left of the podium, out of the way but not out of sight. We know they are there, and we know—because we have already been warned—that they will stop the incoming questions if we don’t answer appropriately or if the reporters get too personal with their questions.
Ever since our ordeal became public, we are constantly bombarded by the media at home, on the street, everywhere—and even the kids aren’t safe from it. They told us that if we agreed to do this press conference, we could finally have some peace. These particular reporters have promised to tell our true story.
Our handler, who I’m sure was hired by someone with bigger interests than ours, steps up to the podium. “Liam and Frances will take questions now,” she says quietly.
It feels weird hearing my real name. I’ve been Scotty since we took off on that ill-fated flight. Frankie’s Scotty.
I reach beneath the table skirt for Frankie’s hand, but she brushes my questing fingers away, scolding me without even saying a word. I pull my hand back, and I run my hands up and down my new dress pants, wiping the sweat from my palms.
“Before this fateful experience, you guys already knew one another, correct?” one of the gathered reporters calls out. “You two weren’t strangers.”
Frankie looks at me and I see a small smile tilt her lips. “We have been best friends for a long time. A really long time. Since we were young.” Her brow wrinkles. “What were we, twelve?”
“You were twelve.”
Frankie grins at me and rolls her eyes.
“I was twelve and a half,” I remind her.
* * *
The first time I ever saw Frances “Frankie” Thompson, she was sitting astride a metal propane gas tank pretending it was a horse. She was wearing a pink baseball cap with her ponytail pushed through the hole in the back closure. That poor little hat was threadbare, but Frankie loved it. It could barely contain the curls that Frankie sported. The rim of the hat was worn and frayed almost as badly as her shoes, but Frankie didn’t care. She was twelve and I was twelve and a half and I fell head over heels for her at first sight.
Frankie and I didn’t come from the same kind of background—her dad had money, and mine lived paycheck to paycheck—but we’d found a common ground quickly. She had been staying with her grandmother during summer break, and her grandmother lived next door to us.
“Get on out there and introduce yourself,” my mother had teased from her spot in front of the kitchen sink where she was washing dishes.
“I don’t want to,” I grumbled. But I didn’t step away from the window.
“You can’t just watch the world go by, Liam,” Mom warned. “Get on out there. You know everybody but Frankie.”
I frowned. “Frankie?”
“Her name is Frances, but everyone calls her Frankie, or so Mrs. Thompson said.”
“Frankie,” I whispered.
“She’s staying with her grandmother for a few weeks this summer. She won’t even be here long, so you had better enjoy it while you can.” Mom threw a dishtowel at me, hitting my shoulder. “Go!” she said. “Scram. I don’t want to see you until dinner. Bring Frankie back to eat dinner with us if she wants to come.”
I had opened the backdoor and walked out, feeling like I was going to my execution. But when I got to the edge of the yard, one of the neighborhood boys I knew well called me over, giving me an excuse to walk over there where she was. Then she turned and smiled at me, and I was a goner. She was missing a tooth right in front to the right of her two front teeth. She grinned around the gap. I’d stopped losing my teeth a year ago. Maybe she was a late bloomer or whatever my mom called it.
“You want a turn?” Frankie called out as I walked close to where the small group of kids was playing in her grandmother’s backyard. She dismounted from the gas tank with all the grace of a twelve-year-old tomboy, and she motioned for me to go ahead.
“I’m okay,” I said quietly.
I had been watching Frankie from out our back window all morning. She had an ease with people that made everyone an instant and trusted friend, and I became one too on that very day. If only I’d known how much trouble it would get me into, I’d have stayed far, far away from Frankie Thompson.
Or maybe I wouldn’t. Who knows? I can’t take back anything I’ve done. I can’t bite words back out of the air, nor can I rewind the tape that was our lives together. If I could, I might have done things a little differently.
Or who knows, maybe I wouldn’t have changed a thing. I’d fallen in love with Frankie when I was twelve and a half, and I’d never really fallen out of it. So, when she came knocking on my door on a Friday morning twenty-five years later, I smiled, because it was good to see her. It was really good to see her.
“Knock, knock,” a voice called out. I looked up to find Frankie Thompson standing in the open doorway. My breath stuck in my chest, and I sputtered as I choked on my own spit. Frankie always had been able to take my breath away.
“Frank?” I said quietly, sure my eyes were deceiving me. I hadn’t seen Frankie in many years, yet I’d know her anywhere, and there she was standing in the doorway of my office.
“Stand up and give me a hug, asshole,” she said as she walked in. She was wearing a pair of cut-off jeans, sneakers, a t-shirt with a faded concert logo on it, and a blue baseball cap. It wasn’t ragged like her old pink one, which she’d worn until her parents’ maid had thrown it out and replaced it with a new one she refused to wear. She’d told me about it in a letter she’d written to me the winter after our first summer together. She’d cried over that cap.
I stood up, my heart racing as she rounded the corner of my desk. Even as an adult, she was still the same precocious girl I’d known and loved.
She smelled like soap and sunshine. Frankie always did. I sucked in a breath of her as she wrapped her arms around me. Frankie hugged just like she did everything else—with gusto. I wrapped my arms around her as she hugged my waist, her face settling against my chest as she held on a few seconds longer. I palmed the back of her cap, and she tilted her face to look up at me, without releasing her hold.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I asked, somewhat out of breath.
She lifted her eyebrows at me. “Can’t I stop by and say hello to an old friend?”
“Any time!” I assured her and motioned for her to take the chair across from my desk as I sagged back into my seat. But, of course, Frankie didn’t do it. Instead, she walked around my office, taking in the pictures on the walls and shelves one by one.
“This is your place?” she asked, as she looked around.
“Yep. All mine.” I’d just bought the little airstrip with a big metal building that housed my small planes.
“I knew you’d do it one day,” she said with such conviction that I felt my chest expand more than a bit with pride. I’d wanted to be a pilot since I was big enough to take my first flight with my dad. He was a pilot, too, and he dusted crops, did air surveillance, flew small charter flights, things like that. I wanted to be just like him. “You know, Scotty,” she said, narrowing one eye at me as she waited for a beat, “when you joined the military, I thought you’d turn that into a career.”
Frankie was the only one who’d ever gotten away with calling me “Scotty.” Other kids had tried to use it after hearing her say it, but it had never seemed right except with her. My name is Liam Scott. But I had become “Scotty” to her right off the bat.
She’d just casually used the name I hadn’t heard in so very long. “Scotty” took me back. Years. I shook my head. She’d asked about my flying. Right. Flying was what I’d always wanted to do. It was the only thing. “The military taught me how to fly,” I said with a shrug. “But I didn’t like being away from home even when I didn’t want to be. When the kids came along…” I shrugged again and let my sentence trail off.
She grinned. “How are the kids?”
Although we hadn’t seen each other in years, we’d kept in touch through sporadic phone calls and texts every now and then. I’d kept her up to date with photos and news. Because that’s what friends do. So, she knew about my children—and my failed marriage. “Tanner is fourteen now and he hates my guts on principle. And Livvie is eight. She’s still a delight, thank God.” I stared at her. “How are you?”
Her smile fell away. “Good,” she said quickly. A little too quickly.
She took her time staring at my photos one by one. “And how’s…oh, what’s her name…” She snapped her fingers and looked at me. “Gloria? Is that right? How’s Gloria?”
I grinned in spite of myself. “She’s fine.”
“She’s fine,” she mocked, deepening her voice.
“Be nice,” I warned. But secretly, I was pleased that Frankie had no love for Gloria, even though they’d only met once years ago. I suspected Frankie would take a dislike to any woman I was with, and that warmed my heart.
She picked up a paperweight from my desk and started tossing it from hand to hand as she finally sat down across from me. Even after twenty-five years, I still knew her well, and something was up. It was good to see her, of course, but she didn’t just happen to be in the neighborhood.
“Frank?” I said. She didn’t look at me. I let out a long sigh. “Frankie!” I said a little more loudly.
She set the paperweight back on my desk. “Yes?” she said, expelling a breath.
“Why are you here, Frankie?” I asked succinctly.
“I need a favor, Scotty,” she said, her voice tiny and high-pitched. Almost meek.
The Frankie I knew and loved was anything but meek. So, this immediately made me suspicious.
“So, you only show up when you need a favor?” I teased. I sat back and crossed my arms, staring at her, still in awe that she was even here. “Okay, I’ll bite. What do you need?”
“Well, it’s kind of a long story,” she said, wincing as she said it.
CHAPTER TWO – Frankie
I hated lying to Scotty, but I knew that if I told him the truth, he’d never agree to help me. “So, do you remember how, back when my father died, my evil step-monster contested his will?” I’d told him all about it on one of our rare phone calls. “She won and she got everything.” Well, except for my trust. She couldn’t touch that.
“Yes.” He folded his hands in front of him on the desktop. I had all his attention. “She claimed he was incompetent when he left you everything, right?”
“Right.” She snorted. “My father was not a nice man, but he was far from incompetent. He’d found out she was sleeping with the guy that ran the stables and he cut her out of his will. Anyway, after he died, she contested it, had it overturned, and she got everything. But I really only wanted one thing. Well, two actually.”
“The dogs?” Scotty asked, intuitive as ever.
My father had two really expensive—and ginormous—Tibetan Mastiffs. The sire and dam were champions, and they’d come from an even longer line of champions. He’d bought them on a whim when they were puppies from two different breeders of championship puppies. They had been born within days of one another. He’d bought them right after he’d had his first heart attack, when he couldn’t work anymore, and he thought the dogs would be good company. A new hobby. I’d gone to stay with him during that time, and I’d gotten really close to the dogs. I’d spent almost all my time with them, and every time I saw them it was like I was coming back home again.
I nodded. “The dogs.” I sucked in a breath. “It’s a great big long-drawn-out story that I know you don’t have time to listen to. Yadda, yadda, yadda, whatever.” I made jazz hands in the air. “Anyway, to make a long story short, I have to fly to Australia to pick up the dogs.”
“Um…congratulations?” He sounded skeptical. “And why are the dogs in Australia?”
“After my dad died, the step-monster packed everything up and moved to the estate in Australia.”
“With the horse trainer?”
I shrugged. “How should I know? I just know that’s where they are. That’s where the dogs are.” I leaned my elbows on his desk so I could get closer to him. “Don’t you see, Scotty? I can get the dogs back.” I winced again. “I just need some help.”
His brow furrowed. “What kind of help?”
“Well, they’re Tibetan Mastiffs. And my step-monster only wanted them because they are worth a small fortune. But she took them and put them in a building on the back of the property, where she plans to breed them, and she ignores them, and they’re living in deplorable conditions. She’s abusing them, Scotty. I have to get them back.” I tried not to sound desperate, but it was hard. Mainly because I was desperate.
“So, what do you need me for?”
“I rented a plane coming out of Australia so we can move the dogs back to the States.”
“Why can’t they fly commercial?” he asked. His brow made that little furrow again.
“Because they’re Tibetan Mastiffs. A lot of airlines won’t fly them. Plus, they wanted me to add all kinds of insurance on them.” I couldn’t exactly add insurance on dogs that weren’t mine. I couldn’t get the appropriate vet checks or flight clearance. There were a lot of reasons why I couldn’t do this the legal way, most of which I didn’t want to explain. I patted my hands on the desk, trying to contain my excitement. “So, can you help me?”
He sat quietly and stared at me for so long that I grew uncomfortable. “Frank…” He shook his head and sighed.
“My dad wanted me to have them,” I put in quickly. “Not her. You know that. And now I can get them. I already made the arrangements for the plane. I just need a pilot. So, you and I can go together to Australia on commercial flights, then we can go to the airfield, where they’ll already be loaded on a plane, and you can fly them right back home. With me.”
“Something doesn’t sound right, Frankie,” he said, and he shook his head slowly. “Plus, I have my kids for the summer. I’m sorry, but…no.”
I hated hearing the word no. “You can bring the kids with you! I’ll pay for their flights. Maybe go to the zoo or something while you’re there. Take them snorkeling. An outback adventure. It’s Australia, Scotty! So much to see and do. And I’d love to see your children again. It’s been so long. The years just keep slipping by…”
“I don’t know,” he said slowly, shaking his head.
“We can take the long way back,” I tried. “We can make a stop in England and show the kids all the places we visited that time we went backpacking through Europe. Don’t you remember how much fun that was?” We would have to stop for refueling anyway. We could just go west instead of east.
He still looked skeptical. “What if she won’t give you the dogs?”
I huffed. “Those dogs belong with me. I’d like to see her stop me from taking them.”
“I don’t know, Frankie. As fond as you are of them, those dogs are still property, and those particular dogs are worth enough to make it a felony to steal them. You can’t just take them. Not to mention animal quarantine laws—”
I waved that off. “I’ve got it all worked out. Trust me.”
He scoffed. “Famous last words.”
I rolled my eyes. “Would I lie to you, Scotty?”
I would, and he knew I would. I knew I would. We both knew I would. I batted my eyelashes at him.
“Frank,” he groaned, letting his head fall back.
“Please, Scotty?” I wasn’t above begging.
CHAPTER THREE – Scotty
“Can you tell us about the day the plane went down?” someone asks.
I look at the attorneys and one of them gives me a subtle nod. I pull the microphone that rests on the tabletop toward me. “It was a Tuesday,” I say.
Frankie lets out a nervous titter. I look at her, and she motions for me to continue.
“We started in Australia,” I say.
“What was your purpose for being in Australia?” someone else calls out.
I look to Frankie because this is her arena. She explains, “I was moving two dogs from there to my home in the States.” She jerks a thumb in my direction. “He was flying the plane.”
Someone chuckles. “We can assume you’re not talking about tiny little house dogs when you say you were moving dogs?”
She shakes her head, as a grin tugs at her lips. “No, not house dogs. They’re a pair of Tibetan Mastiffs.” Her smile doesn’t fade. “Such beautiful animals.” No one asks what happened to the dogs and for that I am grateful. “We were taking the long way back, planning to make a stop in England where we wanted to stay for a week before coming all the way home.”
“Can you tell us what happened before the plane went down?” another calls out.
I see Frankie’s eyebrows pull together.
“We lost fuel,” I explain. “We lost fuel quickly. All of a sudden, we didn’t have enough, and we couldn’t turn back.”
“Tell us about how you felt before the flight. Did you have any worries? Or did you know you were setting yourself up for failure when you boarded a plane that hadn’t been serviced adequately?”
The charter company’s attorney strides toward the mic. “There’s no evidence that the plane wasn’t serviced adequately,” he states.
“Yet the plane went down in the Indian Ocean.” The reporter glances down at a paper in his hands. “The preliminary investigation cites a lack of fuel as the cause of the crash.”
“Yes, that’s correct,” the attorney replies.
“What actually was the cause of the crash?”
He clears his throat. “We have no way of knowing that. We have not recovered the plane.”
“When did you two know things were going to go wrong?” someone else calls out.
I look at Frankie. “We knew as soon as it was too late to turn back,” I reply.
She nods and stares at the water pitcher. “We thought we were home free. But we weren’t.”
* * *
“I thought this flight was supposed to be on a real plane,” I muttered. It was supposed to be a small passenger plane with a large cargo area in the back. Instead, this was a Vietnam-era plane with most of the seats removed to make room for two large animal cages in the rear.
“This is a real plane,” the representative from the charter company said as he passed me the preflight paperwork. He wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead. He’d sweated through his shirt in several places. “It’s just an older plane. Still safe. It’ll get you where you need to go.”
“Frankie’s not going to like this,” I said more to myself than to him. I heard the clank of a door shutting and locking, and I looked over. “Good grief, are we carrying dogs or horses?” I watched workmen move two big cages, each with a pacing animal inside, into the belly of the plane. They fumbled and cursed, and Frankie kept correcting their actions with snaps of her fingers and muttered oaths. “Frankie approved this plane?” I asked the rep, sticking my chin out toward where Frankie stood giving orders, wearing a pair of jeans, hiking boots, and another colorful t-shirt with a band logo.
“Frankie was willing to take what we offered, considering what she’s doing with it.” He sniffed and swiped his hand across the back of his sweaty neck.
I frowned. “What do you mean?” He ignored my question, so I signed the last of the paperwork and did my pre-flight inspections outside the plane.
“I hope she can handle those animals if something goes wrong,” he said.
I grinned. “Nothing goes wrong on my flights.”
He rolled his eyes. He caught Frankie’s attention and motioned her over. She looked toward the plane where the big dogs were now safely stowed, then at the charter rep. “What is it?” she asked. She glanced impatiently at her watch, her dark lashes falling against her cheeks.
“I just wanted to wish you a safe journey—”
Frankie completely ignored him and focused on me. “Are you ready to go?” she asked.
“Are you in a hurry?” I tossed back.
She looked at her watch again. “Actually, I am. The dogs are going to get warm back there.”
“Ready when you are,” I replied. I dusted my hands together, even though they weren’t dirty. My phone rang in my pocket, and I pulled it out to look at the number.
She glanced at my phone. “Do you need to get that?”
I shook my head. “No. It’s just Gloria.” I did not need to talk to my ex-wife. We’d said everything that needed to be said last week when she’d left the kids with me for the summer. And none of it had been pleasant.
“Let’s go, then, before the dogs get too hot.”
We entered the plane, and she was startled only momentarily when she saw the two children sitting there in the front row. “Holy crap,” she muttered. “I completely forgot for a minute that they would be here.” She glanced from them to me and back.
Frankie and I had ended up flying out here separately. Frankie came a week ago since she said she had a lot of paperwork to handle before we could move the dogs. I hated that the kids had to fly so far, but I also wasn’t fond of leaving my kids at home just to do Frankie a favor when I didn’t get to see them all that often. So, the kids and I had turned this into an adventure. We’d gone to the zoo in Sydney, and we’d done a lot of sightseeing. The kids had a grand old time, and I was gratified that they were experiencing something new. With me.
“You still owe me for their plane fare.” Frankie knew I didn’t give a damn about plane fare. I gestured toward the kids. “These are my kids, Tanner and Livvie. They’ve grown a bit since you last saw them.” Frankie had met them a couple of times throughout the years, but Frankie’s visits were just like Frankie—sporadic and spontaneous.
So, it wasn’t like she was “Aunt Frankie” or anything like that, but the kids knew who she was. I jerked my thumb toward her. “Kids, you remember Frankie, right?”
Olivia, who we called Livvie, at the age of eight, was still fun to be around. She lifted her hand and waved at Frankie, and Frankie wiggled her fingers in return. My son said nothing, which was pretty normal for him. He scowled and brooded and wandered around staring at his phone most of the time. At the age of fourteen, he pretty much hated my guts. My friends with adult children kept telling me that by the time they hit twenty-five, you started to like them again. I wasn’t so sure.
“They’re spending the summer with me,” I explained to Frankie. “Remember, we talked about this.”
She nodded. “Of course, I remember.”
“Forced exile,” Tanner groaned.
“You’ll survive,” I tossed back.
What I wasn’t sure about was whether or not I would survive.
The plane had two rows of seats, each with two seats side-by-side, in front of the cargo area. The metal cages took up the entire rear of the plane. One of the dogs growled as I walked around and made sure that the safety equipment was in place.
“Are they yours?” Livvie asked Frankie, her voice quiet.
“Yes, they are now,” Frankie said. “They were my father’s, and then he died.” She let out a breath. “Long story. I’ll tell it to you later.”
“They can’t get out of there, can they?” I asked.
She shook her head. “No.”
“If they did, what would happen?” Tanner asked.
“They’d try to eat you for dinner,” she said, deadpan. She looked toward the cages. “We didn’t feed them today because we were afraid they would throw up on the flight. So, they’ll be extra hungry.”
I couldn’t tell if she was serious or not. Tanner grinned. He appreciated sarcasm in any form. But Livvie leaned closer to Tanner. I just shook my head and finished my pre-flight checklist. “Frankie, do you want to sit up front with me?” I asked absently, the same way I asked every passenger if the plane was almost empty.
Her eyebrows shot up and I immediately couldn’t help but think that this woman could still carry on an entire conversation with those eyebrows alone. “Do you need me to sit up front with you?” she retorted.
I shook my head. “Not particularly.”
“Then I’ll stay back here.”
“Tanner, do you want to sit up front?” I asked him.
“No.” He stared out the window at nothing.
I heaved out a sigh. “Livvie?” I asked. She shook her head. “Okay, then. Everybody buckle up.” I made my way to my seat. Frankie gave me a smart salute, which was more than a little irritating, before she sat down and did what I asked.
I buckled up, put on my headset, got my take-off instructions from air traffic control, and we began to taxi.
“Is this plane okay?” Frankie called out.
“It’s fine,” I called back. If she’d wanted to talk, why had she sat back there?
“But you do know how to fly this one, right?” she yelled.
I bit back my smart-ass answer. “I wouldn’t be sitting here if I didn’t.” I turned to look at her, and I saw her white-knuckling the armrests, as the big dogs paced from one side of their cages to the other and back. “I’ll get you there in one piece,” I said. I winked at Livvie, who smiled back at me.
“Have you ever flown a plane like this?” Frankie called out as we slowly turned to get into position to hit the runway.
I didn’t answer.
“He flew planes in the military,” I heard Tanner say when I didn’t answer. “He can fly anything.”
I suddenly felt like a jackass, but I didn’t know why. Something wasn’t right about this flight, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. As we lifted off, I looked down to find the airfield filled with Australian police vehicles. I lifted us up just as I noticed a few officers pointing in our direction.
“Frankie!” I yelled. She unbuckled and came to sit next to me.
“Um, yeah,” she said. “About that…”
“Frank!” I barked, turning to look at her face. “Please tell me you didn’t steal this plane.”
“No, I rented it.”
“Then why are the police here? Does it have anything to do with the cargo on this plane?”
She bit her lower lip and said nothing.
I glared at her. “I suggest you start talking.”
“I rented the plane. I didn’t steal it.” She sucked her bottom lip between her teeth and chewed on it. And then she admitted, “But I might have stolen the dogs.” She winced.
“You did what?”
“I stole the dogs.”
“Frankie…” I shook my head, gritting my teeth until my jaw ached. “You stole the dogs?”
She nodded, gnawing on her lower lip. “I’m sorry,” she finally blurted out.
“I’m sorry, Scotty! I…” She waited a beat. “I thought we would be in the air before the step-monster realized the dogs were gone. I really did!”
“Frankie,” I said, “why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t think you’d help me if you knew,” she admitted sheepishly.
Damn right I wouldn’t. “You put my kids in danger, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to forgive you for that.”
She unbuckled and went back to sit with the kids, because I didn’t have anything else to say to her. After we stabilized, I turned to look back. She stared out the window at the open water. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” I heard Tanner say.
“Beautiful and scary all at the same time,” she replied, raising her voice so he could hear her.
If you’d like a signed copy of any of my books, you can get them here! The cost includes the cost of shipping via Media Mail if you’re in the US. If you’re outside the US, please contact me directly for pricing at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pop culture has proven to the public that every superhero has his one weakness, that thing that can bring him to his knees. Little green Martians are susceptible to ray guns. The cat will always go after the canary. Vampires can be felled by garlic and wooden stakes. And Grady Parker…well, he has Evie Allen.
For his whole adult life, Evie Allen has hated Grady Parker’s guts. And all the rest of him too, truth be told. But after a night out featuring a Mason jar full of Junior Adams’ grandpappy’s moonshine, a little cow tipping (which is much harder and more dangerous than it sounds), and some snuggling in the back seat of a Jeep, Grady Parker finds himself stuck in Evie’s company. And he’s never been happier. Evie, on the other hand, is not the least bit happy to be stuck with Grady. She has turned hating him into an art form, and when she’s forced to spend time with him, she immediately remembers why she learned to hate him in the first place.
One night of law-breaking leads to them doing penance together at Lake Fisher, at the behest of an old man who may or may not have their best interests at heart. Being forced to work at Lake Fisher is something Evie can deal with. But being forced to spend time with Grady? She’s pretty sure that won’t work out. Or will it?
Sunday morning is usually a time for confessions. But while many people find themselves on a church pew singing about His glory, I find myself naked in Markie Allen’s azalea bushes. How am I sure I’m naked? Because Ms. Markie herself tells me.
“You’re naked,” she says as she nudges my foot. I crack one eye open and look up at her. She stares down at me, her white hair limned by the sun like she’s wearing a halo.
I lift my head and look south. “Well, I’ll be damned… I am naked.” I start to nod my head, but that hurts like a son of a bitch so I stop that nonsense real quick.
“And you ain’t got no clothes on, neither,” she says unnecessarily. She leans forward, getting closer to me, her brown eyes squinting. “That’s a nice tattoo you got right there beside your junk.”
I reach down and cover said junk with my palm. “Now, Ms. Markie,” I say to her, “you know it’s not nice to talk about a man’s junk in public.”
“Well, I reckon if a man is indecent enough to wave his junk about in public, I can be indecent enough to talk about it.” Ms. Markie unties her apron from around her hips and passes it to me. “Cover all that up. The neighbors are looking out their windows. Nosy bastards.”
Ms. Markie tilts her head and stares at me. She has a way of getting to the truth, and she typically does it quickly. Just one glance from her, when her eyes narrow at you, and you want to bare your soul about why you’ve bared your ass.
I rush to explain. “It’s not what you think.”
She holds up a hand to shush me. “You got no idea what I think.”
I imagine I’m probably thinking damn near the same thing she is. I’m thinking that I’m an idiot. “Yes, ma’am,” I say instead. I stand up, with Ms. Markie’s wadded up apron over my man parts. She glances down once and rolls her eyes, so I shake it out and tie it around my waist.
“Now, you feel like telling me how you ended up in my azalea bushes?” she asks. She motions for me to follow her.
I scratch my head. I cautiously pick my way across her driveway on my bare feet, but something is poking at my tender, bare left foot. I stop and lift it so I can look at the bottom, and I tug a huge thorn from the sole of my foot. I gingerly place my foot back on the ground and test it by putting my weight on it. “I don’t rightly know, Ms. Markie.” I’m pretty sure my nakedness had something to do with a Mason jar full of moonshine—and my poor, misguided, aching heart.
She turns to face me as she swings open the screen door, holding it wide with her body. “What’s the last thing you remember?”
I scratch my head again. “I remember Junior Adams passing me a jar of moonshine. I remember it burned like fire going down.” I stop and think. “I don’t remember much after that.”
“Junior Adams’s grandpappy makes some strong shine,” she allows. “I got some in the cabinet. You know, for when I get down with the cough.”
“Mm-hmm,” I hum. Everybody in Macon Hills knows Ms. Markie tips back some ’shine, and she doesn’t require a sore throat or cough to give her a reason. But it’s her lie; she can tell it any way she wants.
“So, Junior gave you some ’shine. Then what happened?” She opens a kitchen cabinet and takes out a bottle of pain relievers, and if I didn’t feel like I might hurl my guts up any second, I might have to kiss her. Instead, I take the tablets when she presses them into my hand, and I turn around to the sink, turn on the faucet, and stick my face under the water, getting a mouthful of water from the running stream, washing the pills down.
There are two problems with turning around and drinking from Ms. Markie’s sink. Firstly, Ms. Markie is a fan of people using glasses to drink from. And secondly, Ms. Markie now has a perfect view of my backside. And as my backside is currently still naked, it stings like a son of a gun when she whacks me with her fly swatter.
I jump and spin around. “What did you do that for?” I say, rubbing the offended area. “That hurt!”
“Use a glass,” she says.
She sits down at the kitchen table. She kicks a chair out across from her and tosses a folded piece of newspaper into it. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t want me to read it, so I sit my naked ass down on it. I tug the ends of the apron lower, knowing Ms. Markie had seen me in all my glory just moments ago but still wanting to maintain the shred of dignity I have left. Oh, hell, who am I kidding? My dignity up and left me lying in the azalea bushes.
“I should probably go put some clothes on, Ms. Markie,” I say.
“Probably should,” she responds as she looks over the edge of her reading glasses at me, and then glances back down at the crossword puzzle she’s working. “Give me a six-letter word for ridiculous.”
I search the recesses of my brain and spit out a word. “Absurd.”
Ms. Markie smiles at me. “Thank you. Been looking for that one all week.”
When I was here earlier this week cutting Ms. Markie’s grass, she’d been looking for a different one.
“Finished that puzzle already,” she says.
“Stop reading my mind,” I mutter. I reach for a biscuit. There’s a heaping plate of them in the center of Ms. Markie’s kitchen table. She slaps my hand. I jerk my offended fingers back.
“Don’t touch my biscuits until you’ve washed your hands. I know where they’ve been.” She glares at me again over her glasses.
“Where have they been?” I wish someone would tell me because I still have no idea how I ended up in Ms. Markie’s azalea bushes.
“They’ve been all over my granddaughter,” she snaps, and she takes her glasses off so she can glare cleanly at me.
I choke into my fist. “What?” I sputter when I can finally breathe. Everybody knows that Ms. Markie’s granddaughter, Evie, is in town. She arrived two days ago. “Evie’s here,” I whisper.
And suddenly, the whole night floods back to me in one great big rush.
I reach down and run my fingertips over the sore spot on the front side of my hip. “I was with Evie all night.”
Ms. Markie grins at me. “Yep.”
“I was with your granddaughter.”
“Yep.” She grins so big I fear her teeth will fall out. The last time that happened, they skidded under the fridge and I had to move the whole damn kitchen around to get them back.
“I got matching tattoos with Evie.”
“What?” The whispered word comes from the doorway. I look up and find Evie standing there. Her dark hair is a twisted mess, like she’s been riding in my Jeep with the top off.
“You rode in my Jeep with the top off,” I tell her.
“What?” she whispers again. She clears her throat. “I have never ridden in a Jeep in my life. And I surely wouldn’t have gotten in one with someone like you.” Her gaze drags from my naked chest to my naked thighs, her cheeks growing rosy. “Why are you wearing Grandma’s apron?” She covers her eyes. “Oh, God! And nothing else!”
I scratch my head again. “I’m still trying to figure that out.”
Ms. Markie lumbers to her feet. “Here’s the gist of it, kids.” She points at me. “You went out with Junior Adams and his lovely wife last night, and they got you stinking drunk on Junior’s grandpappy’s moonshine. Then you happened to run into Evie at the bar, where she stopped because she had a flat tire. You helped her change it, and then she took a few sips of the moonshine, and apparently the girl can’t hold her liquor because she suddenly decided you looked real handsome. You all piled into your Jeep. Don’t worry—Junior drove.”
“Junior drove my Jeep?” I ask.
“He wasn’t drinking. And that, my boy, is the least of your problems,” she replies.
“Okay.” I scrub a hand down my face.
“The two of you”—wagging a finger to indicate Evie and me—“got all snuggly in the backseat and you thought it might be fun if you both got matching tattoos. Junior and Barbara-Claire tried to talk you out of it, but you wouldn’t listen. I always did love that Junior. Originally, you two wanted to find a chapel so you could tie the knot, but you need a license to get married in this state, so you decided to do something else just as permanent.” She points toward my junk. “You got matching tattoos.” Then she reaches back and peels the edge of Evie’s sweat pants down her belly.
Evie’s eyes grow big as saucers when she sees her tattoo. I cover my mouth and try to hold back my snort, but it’s damn near impossible. Because written right there on Evie Allen’s hip are the words I belong to Grady Parker.
“Yours is just as bad,” Ms. Markie says to me.
I stand up and pull the apron down a little. And sure enough, written right there on my hip are the words I belong to Evie Allen.
“Whoa,” I breathe.
I look up at Evie. She stares at me. Then she says, “Aww hell naw,” and she walks in the other direction as fast as her bare feet will carry her.
“So how did I end up in the bushes?” I ask as I wash my hands at Ms. Markie’s sink.
“I think that was an attack of conscience.”
She waves a hand toward the apron. “Do you think you could put on some clothes now? I’ve seen your bare bottom a few hundred times since you were a baby, but I’ve about had my fill of it today.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I say. “Can I have a biscuit, first?” She picks up the plate and holds it out to me. I take one off the top, and then another since I have two hands and there’s a whole plate of biscuits. Not to even mention that Ms. Markie makes the best biscuits in Macon Hills. I snatch one more and then I ask, “Do you know where my clothes are?”
I’m careful not to let crumbs spew out of my mouth, because it would be a travesty to waste even a small piece of Ms. Markie’s biscuits.
She jerks a thumb toward where Evie went. I walk in that direction. I take my time, because I suddenly feel like I’m walking toward my execution.
If there’s one thing I know to be true, it’s that Evie Allen hates my guts.
She always has, and I’m pretty sure that whatever happened last night hasn’t changed her opinion of me.
I stand outside Evie’s bedroom door, trying to collect myself enough that I can knock and call out to her without forgetting my own name. Evie always has had a way of making me forget who I am.
I knock on the door and she opens it up so fast that I nearly fall into the room. I brace myself on the doorjamb with my hands and stare at her. “What do you want?” she asks. Then she points her finger in my face, almost bumping my nose with it, and says, “If you call me Clifford, even one time, I’m going to kick you square in the nuts. You’ll never father a child in your entire life, Grady Parker, if I have anything to do with it.”
I cover my package with my palm and take a step back. I had almost forgotten to use my favorite name for her. I’ve called her Clifford since forever, since we were young. She had gotten a big red stuffed dog for her birthday, mainly because she loved the books, and she carried that Clifford dog around with her everywhere she went.
“You don’t have to be quite so vicious,” I tell her.
“You don’t have to be quite so obnoxious,” she replies. She covers her nose with her hand. “And you stink. You smell like moonshine and…” She leans toward me and sniffs, her nose scrunching up. “Is that cow shit?”
I sniff hard, pointing my nose down toward my chest. “I do not smell like cow shit,” I say. I do smell quite vile, but I can’t quite tell what that smell is either. I smell so bad I’m offending myself. I lean toward her. “Whatever it is, you smell like it too,” I inform her.
She jerks like I just slapped her. “You take that back, Grady Parker.”
“Make me, Clifford.”
She sucks in a quick breath, and then she lifts her foot to make good on her promise. I block her foot with my hand. “I hate you so much,” she says. She says it like “the flowers smell nice” or “the yard needs mowing.” She says it like something she has said so many times that it no longer comes out as an insult. It’s just there.
“The feeling is mutual,” I assure her.
“Why are you even here?”
“Ms. Markie said you might have my clothes.” I look around her room, but I don’t see them.
“I have no idea where your clothes are.”
Suddenly, a fireman’s-style knock from the front door jerks us both out of glaring at one another.
“What’s that?” she asks, trying to lean out so she can look around me.
She shoves me to the side so she can walk out of the bedroom door.
“Oh, shut it,” she says. She walks toward the kitchen, where Ms. Markie is standing with Little Robbie Gentry, who is holding an official-looking piece of paper in his hand. He’s wearing his state trooper’s uniform and the biggest smile I’ve ever seen him wear.
“Robbie,” I say, as he tips his head in my direction.
He looks down at the apron, which is still my only clothing, and his eyebrows shoot up. “Grady,” he replies.
“What are you doing here, Robbie?” Evie asks.
Robbie scratches his head. “I’m here to pick you two up,” he says, refusing to look at either one of us.
I hitch my hip against the counter. “Why?”
“Well, it appears as though somebody drove out to Mr. Jacobson’s place at Lake Fisher last night, and whoever it was vandalized the big old building that sits next to the road.”
“The one that gets tagged by graffiti all the time?”
“Yes, that’s the one.”
“What’s that got to do with us?” Evie asks. She looks at me like she’s waiting for me to give her some great big revelation.
Robbie scratches his head again. “Well, the last time Mr. Jacobson’s building got tagged, him and Jake decided to put up some surveillance cameras in case somebody had the audacity to do it again.”
“That’s actually a really good idea,” I say. Kids were always tagging that building. It had become a rite of passage to put your initials—at the very least—on the side of it. In great big letters easily seen from the road. Then Jake had to go and cover it all up the next day with fresh paint.
“Well, you’ll never believe who his cameras caught last night.”
I watch as Evie goes and pours herself a glass of sweet tea. I would ask her for one, but she’d probably sooner pour it over my head as look at me.
“Who got caught on camera?” I ask, although I pretty much already know.
Robbie grins. “You two,” he says, then he snorts out a laugh.
Evie lets her glass thud onto the countertop. “That’s not funny,” she says, as her cheeks turn as red as her hair.
“No, ma’am, it’s not,” Robbie says. He tries to look like he doesn’t think this is funny at all, but he does a shit job at it. “It’s tragic. Mr. Jacobson wants to press charges this time.”
I press my hand against my chest. “Against us?”
“Yep.” Little Robbie is all-out grinning now.
“But we didn’t…” We really didn’t do anything that bad. Everybody tags that building. I see Evie look down at her hands, which are streaked with red and black paint. On the back of my left hand, I have a similar mark. “Oh, fuck,” I say. Guilt is painted all over me.
Ms. Markie picks up her fly swatter and slaps my naked shoulder with it. “Watch your language,” she warns. She shakes that fly swatter while she glares at me.
“Yes, ma’am,” I say quietly, as I rub the sting out of my arm. “Sorry,” I add for good measure.
“I have to take you both in,” Robbie says.
“In where?” Evie asks. She looks from Robbie to me and back.
“To the station,” he says. He stands up a little taller and tries to look intimidating, but no matter the uniform, or the gun he’s resting his hand on, he will always be Little Robbie Gentry when I look at him. “So, let’s go.” He motions toward the door.
“You have got to be kidding,” Evie says, disbelief all over her face.
“Wish I was,” he replies with a sigh.
With a huff, Evie walks past him toward the door. She points her finger at me. “I’m going to kill you.”
“Did you hear that?” I ask Robbie. “She just threatened my life.”
“I didn’t hear a thing,” Robbie replies. He winks at Evie. “Sorry about this, Evie,” he says quietly. “Proper procedure and all that.”
“It’s not your fault, Robbie,” she says. She glares at me. “It’s his.”
I follow them to the car. I still have no idea where my clothes are, so Robbie has me get in wearing the apron. “This is undignified,” I complain.
Robbie grins. “It rather is,” he agrees.
He pushes my head down as he puts me in the car. I settle in the back seat, and Evie glares at me from her side. “If you so much as touch me—” She stops and lets the words hang there in the air.
“Clifford,” I say, “I wouldn’t touch you if you were the last woman on earth.”
“I hate you.” She sits there next to me, seething. I can almost see the steam coming from her ears. “I hope they lock you up and throw away the key.”
“I’d rather be locked up in a cell for the rest of my life than be stuck here with you,” I grumble and adjust the apron demurely around my thighs. When she catches me doing that, she rolls her eyes.
“I hate you so much,” she says as she stares out the window on her side.
I am well aware of how much she hates me. She has informed me of that very fact every time she has been in my presence for the past twenty-five years. And the fact that we now have matching tattoos does nothing whatsoever to change her feelings.
“They’re here,” Pop mutters from across the kitchen table at me. He stares out the kitchen window toward the cabins, where I see a huge cloud of dust settling around two great big tour busses. Following the busses are two passenger vans with rental agency stickers on the back.
I turn to look out the window. “Already?” The Reeds weren’t supposed to be here for another half hour or so.
“Their plane landed a few minutes early.” He stares out the window. “When you fly private, you get out of the airport a whole lot quicker than a normal flyer does,” Pop reminds me.
“They flew private?” I ask. “How do you know all this?”
I stare at Pop as I reach over and wipe the applesauce off Poppy Jane’s chin. She’s our youngest, and she’s the only one who can’t feed herself yet. She grins at me as she smacks her hand down in a blob of strained carrots. A dollop of it hits Pop right in the eye. He squints, stares at me for a minute, and reaches into his pocket for a handkerchief to wipe his face.
“Paul called to tell me they’d arrived.”
“Wait,” Katie says. “Paul Reed – The Paul Reed – has your cell phone number and he used it to call you?” Her eyes are big and round, and she looks like she’s going to pass out.
“He’s called me a few times,” Pop says. “How do you think we set all this up?” He tosses his handkerchief at my face, and I bat it down as he stands up. “Setting up all their shit was a lot of work.”
“Where are you going?” I ask.
“To welcome them, dipshit,” he replies. “Where do you think?”
“Well, hold your horses for a minute and I’ll go with you.” I hand the spoon I’d been using to feed Poppy Jane to Katie, who sputters out a mild complaint. She pushes the spoon away.
“No way,” she says. “I’m going with Pop.” She leans toward me and whispers vehemently. “You are aware that the Reed Brothers, all their wives, all their children, and all their friends are in our driveway, right? You understand that the Reed Brothers are staying in our cabins for Christmas, in the middle of December when we’re usually closed.” Her eyes are open so wide she’s scaring me. “It’s the Reed Brothers, Jake,” she whispers fiercely.
I narrow my eyes at her. Katie has spent more time in the bathroom drying her hair and putting on makeup today than she has in the past year, and now I realize why. She’s completely and totally starstruck.
The Reed Brothers are the stars of a reality TV show based in New York City, and they became famous initially because of their tattoo shop, but they really gained fame because of all the good deeds they do. They are famous in their community, mainly because they care for the homeless, feed the hungry, and kindness oozes from their pores. They’re also ridiculously handsome – Katie’s words, not mine – and they get a lot of attention, being five blond men who are heavily tattooed, very fit, and startlingly kind.
“It’s not like you haven’t met them before. All five of them were in the shop the night I got my tattoo,” I remind her. “Hell, you went into labor in their tattoo parlor.”
Katie gets a dreamy look in her eye. “Best night of my life,” she says, her tone lilting and light.
Pop snorts out a laugh. “I think she has a crush.”
“Oh, I totally do,” Katie admits, not even trying to hide it. “I have a crush on every last one of them.” She grabs my forearm and gives it a squeeze. “I even started following Edward’s car shop on social media. Did you know that he gives cars to people who need them? And he hires people no one else will hire, just so he can give them a chance? And the Zeroes… oh, my God, they’re famous. They’re like goddesses of rock and roll.”
And they are all here. I look out the window again and see them as they start to get off the two huge busses that brought them here from the airport.
“Well, one of us needs to go and greet them,” I say. “So, if you’re done drooling, you might want to wipe the spit off your chin so we can go and do it.”
“Fine,” Katie snaps as she sits back down. “You two go. I’ll see them later, I’m sure.” She huffs out a breath.
“Gabby, do you want to go?” I ask. She’s our oldest, Katie’s oldest daughter from her first marriage. She’s typically not here, since she’s attending college in New York City, but she’s home for the holidays. “You know Seth from school, right?” I ask.
She frowns. “I’ve seen him around. I treated him when he had an injury, once.” She shrugs. “I wasn’t all that impressed, to be honest.” She takes the spoon from Katie and nudges her mom, so she’ll get out of her chair. Then she takes her place feeding the baby. Our other two little ones are in highchairs and booster seats, and Alex and Trixie are waiting to go with me. “Take Mom with you, before she combusts and melts into a pile of longing right there where she stands.”
Katie sticks her tongue out at Gabby, and Gabby laughs.
“If you’re done pissing around,” Pop prompts. “Can we go now?” He doesn’t wait, though. He grabs his clipboard and a ring full of keys, walks out the door, hops on his little red golf cart, and takes off toward the cabins, leaving me and Katie to follow him on foot.
“You look like you’re walking toward your execution,” I tease as I take Katie’s hand.
“They’re the Reed Brothers,” she hisses at me.
“I’ve known those guys since they were kids,” I say with a shrug. I knew them long before they became famous. I knew them when they were getting food from the local food pantry, just so they could eat. I knew them when Emily used to busk in the subway for spare change. I knew them when Pete was in prison. I knew them long before their reality TV show took off and they became famous. “They’re just men who want a quiet week with their families.”
“Tell me again who’s who,” Katie prompts. “I never can remember all the names of their friends.”
I start to tick them off on my fingers. “Paul is the oldest. He’s married to Friday, the pin-up-model-looking one. Then there’s Matt, who married Sky. Matt was the one who had cancer. He’s the only one with long hair. Then Logan, who is married to Emily. Logan is the real artist in the family. Then there’s Pete and Reagan. Pete went to prison for a couple of years. And then there’s Sam and Peck. Sam’s a chef and he used to play football for the New York Skyscrapers.”
“And Peck is the drummer from Fallen from Zero,” she adds. “And the Zeroes are Peck, Star, Lark, Wren, and Finny.” She squeezes my hand. “They have a new single out, and it’s amazing. It’s totally sex-worthy.”
“Sex-worthy?” I ask.
“Yeah, like music you would play when you have sex, to set the mood.” She looks at me like I’ve lost my mind. “What?” she asks.
“Do we need music to set the mood?” I ask. I jerk her toward me and kiss her quickly.
“I’ll let you listen to the song and decide for yourself.” She walks quietly for a moment. “There are more, right?”
“The Zeroes’ husbands — Josh, Tag, Mick, and Ryan — and their children. And Edward and Avery. And Gonzo and Susan. Oh, and Henry. I first met Henry when I was in my twenties. He’s a hell of a man. Kind of reminds me of Pop, but he’s nice.”
“And then there are all the kids…” Katie’s voice trails off. “Holy shit, look at all the kids,” she says, as she sees kids milling about as they all file off the bus and start to unload.
“The Reeds breed like rabbits,” I admit.
“Well, when you look like that,” she starts, getting that dreamy look in her eye again.
“Katie!” I call out, and she jerks back to attention.
I let out a laugh. “You are being ridiculous about all this. We’ve had large groups here before.”
“Not in the middle of winter, Jake. And not famous groups.”
“Right now, they don’t want to be famous groups. They just want to take a family vacation.”
Normally, our complex is closed during the winter. We have the occasional family show up, mainly people who own cabins here, but for the most part, the complex is empty through the winter. But when Paul Reed called Pop to ask about renting the place out, Pop agreed. We had to make a few adjustments to make some of the cabins handicap friendly, but it was really something we should have done years ago. We added wheelchair ramps, changed out showers, and made sure doors were wide enough for wheelchairs to go through. Then we added a walkway to the water and other necessities for the wheelchair users.
“Oh, there they are,” Katie breathes.
“You need mouth to mouth?” I ask.
“I might,” she says, her voice all breathy and wild. “Look at them. They’re so pretty,” she whispers. She lifts her knuckles to her mouth and pretends to chew on them.
I look over and find Pop standing in a circle with some of the Reed Brothers. He’s chatting and shaking hands.
“Jake, get your ass over here!” Pop calls.
I tug Katie to bring her with me. “No!” she hisses. “I’m going to watch from here.”
I let out a laugh. “Chicken,” I taunt.
“I’ll just stand here and watch,” she says.
“Breathe, Katie, because I won’t be here to catch you if you pass out.”
“I’ll try.” She lifts her hand to her mouth and starts to chew on her fingernails.
“If you pass out, I’ll never let you live it down.”
She grins at me. “I hope whoever is closest to me gives me mouth to mouth, and I kind of hope it’s not you.” She smiles so big I can see every tooth in her head. “I love you, though,” she adds at the last minute.
“It feels like rain,” my grandmother says as she sits on the glider on the porch, staring up at the star-speckled sky. The sky is clear, and a gentle wind lifts my hair. Gran hugs her arms around her skinny body and shivers, like someone just walked over her grave. The temperature is eighty degrees outside. A storm isn’t in the forecast. It seems like a gentle fall night.
“I don’t think so,” I say. “The weatherman said to expect clear skies today and tomorrow.”
Gran makes a rude noise in her throat, the kind she would slap me for if I did it. Then she gets up and goes inside the house. I stand up and follow her, the screen door clanging loudly behind me as it slams shut.
“Take an umbrella when you leave,” Gran says, and then she kisses me on the forehead and goes to sit on the couch. She turns on the TV and finds “her stories” that had been recorded during the day.
“I thought I might spend the night tonight,” I call to her as I clean the kitchen.
She makes another absurd noise. It’s a cross between a grunt and a snort. “I don’t need a babysitter,” she says. “Take yourself home to that husband of yours.” She nearly spits the words that husband at me. She doesn’t like Charles. She hates him, in fact. Some days I do too. The rest, I just don’t care.
“I told Charles I was staying over.” I wash the last of the dishes and go to sit with her.
“And what did Charles have to say to that?” she asks. She doesn’t look away from the TV.
He looked relieved, honestly. “Nothing.”
Gran grunts. “A wife’s place is at home,” she says. She clicks the TV off, pulls an afghan from the back of the couch, and covers herself with it. “Go home, Abigail. I’ll be fine.”
“I don’t like leaving you,” I say. Gran is getting older and it shows. And I enjoy spending time with her.
“Go home, Abigail,” she says more firmly. Then she rolls over and pulls the afghan close under her chin.
“You should go to bed,” I tell her.
“I’ll go to bed when I’m ready,” she says quietly. “Go on home, now.” She snuggles deeper into her cocoon. “Take the umbrella by the back door,” she murmurs.
“I’ll see you tomorrow.” I lay my hand on her arm and give it a squeeze. She smiles softly and I get up to leave.
I look up at the clear night sky as I walk out the back door. The gentle wind still blows, but I don’t need the umbrella. It’s not going to rain.
I drive across town to the house I share with my husband and I let myself in the back door. The scent of Italian food meets my nose and I inhale deeply. Then I see the take-out bags on the kitchen counter. Charles has gotten us take-out when he knew I wasn’t coming home? Maybe he forgot. I toss my keys onto the counter and stop when I see the candles flickering in the dark dining room, the room we never use. There are two places set at the table, and Charles has used our best china. The plates are empty. The food rests in the bags on the kitchen counter, if the smell emanating from them is any indication.
My heart lurches. Have I forgotten an important date? Our anniversary isn’t until January. I run through our history in my mind. I can’t think of anything we would have been celebrating.
I hear a noise from the bedroom. “Charles,” I call out. “Are you here?” I walk in that direction.
The bedroom door slams shut in my face, the whoosh of air halting my stride, and I brace myself in the doorframe to keep from walking straight into the door.
“Charles,” I call out. I listen at the crack in the door and jiggle the knob. It’s locked.
“I thought you said you were staying at your grandmother’s tonight,” Charles calls back, his voice overly loud.
“Gran said she didn’t need me.” I press my ear to the door again. “Charles,” I say, “what’s going on?”
“Um… Nothing, Abby, just hang on.”
I jiggle the doorknob a little harder. “Charles,” I say again, and trepidation floods me.
“Oh, God, Abby,” Charles calls back, his voice frantic. “You weren’t supposed to be here tonight.”
“I know, but Gran…” I suddenly stop. “Is someone in there with you?”
“Abby.” He heaves out a sigh. “It’s not what it looks like.”
“It looks like you have me locked out of our bedroom.” I jiggle the knob again. “Open the door.”
Charles opens the door and stands in the threshold, blocking my view. “It’s not what it looks like,” he says again.
I look beyond him and find my friend and coworker Sandra standing there, as she bends over to pull on her high heels. She looks up, but her eyes won’t meet mine.
“Sandra?” I say. Then it hits me, like one of those waves at the beach that knocks you off your feet, and then it spins you around and you get sand in the butt of your swimsuit and grit in your eyes. “Oh, God.” I take a step back.
“I should go,” Sandra says, her voice small. She walks toward us, still not able to look me in the eye. We’ve been friends for two years. She got me the job I have at the hospital where I work.
“Sandra,” I say, and I follow her to the front door. She stops and presses herself against the door, hugging it tightly as she clutches the knob.
“Why did you have to come home tonight?” she says, I suspect more to herself than to me.
Because I live here. “Did you…sleep with…my husband?” I jerk my thumb toward the bedroom.
“I didn’t—” she starts. But then she stops and shakes her head. “Charles should tell you. Not me.” She opens the door and steps out into the night, closing it softly behind her.
I turn around to find Charles standing in a pair of running shorts and nothing else. He drags a hand through his hair, which is standing on end. “I didn’t want you to find out like this,” he says on a heavy breath.
I suck in some air. “So, you did…?” I leave the question floating in the air, like a grenade with the pin pulled.
He winces and nods.
I suddenly can’t breathe.
“How long?” I choke out.
“Not long,” he replies. “Abby.” He walks to me and tries to touch me, but I shrink away. “Abs,” he says, shortening my name in the way I’ve always hated.
“You should pack your things,” I tell him. I pour myself a glass of water from the fridge.
He stares at me. “Where am I going to go?”
I tip my glass up and take a long swallow. “I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe you could ask Sandra.” I set my empty glass in the sink and go to my bedroom. But my bedroom smells like Sandra’s perfume and sex. “I want you out by tomorrow,” I say.
I turn and leave. As I walk out onto the front porch, a clap of thunder breaks the silence of the night and a flash of lightning lights up the sky. The heavens open up and the rain comes down. I stand there and let it pound on me.
I probably look like an idiot, but I stand there while the storm rages all around me, and then finally, when the wind slows, and the rain becomes steady, I get in my car and drive to Gran’s house.
I let myself in. She sits at the kitchen table playing a game of solitaire, the old-fashioned kind with actual cards. She doesn’t look up when I let myself in.
My name is Aaron Thompson and, while I might be an important part of this story, this story isn’t mine. It’s my best friend Bess’s story, and I was just lucky enough to be part of it. Bess met her husband Eli when we were still kids, they fell in love, they got married, and then their marriage fell apart. They hate one another now, and they can barely be in the same room together for more than five minutes without Bess wanting to scratch Eli’s eyes out. Before they can finalize the divorce, however, they have to clean out the old cabin at Lake Fisher, so they can sell it.
You see, this is where I come into the story, mainly because the safety and care of three precious little beings rests on whether or not they can find their way back together. I won’t ask them to pretend like they’re in love; it’s obvious how much disdain they have for one another. All I ask is that they give me one more summer.
I do have my own reasons for wanting to help them, which I will explain in more detail. But right now, just know that Bess and Eli’s story is an important one, and that I was honored to play a part in it.
Sometimes life kicks you in the teeth. The rest of the time it goes for the balls. In my case it went for everything.
“Are we there yet?” Kerry-Anne scrubs her eyes as she looks out the side window of the van. She stares into the darkness, and I am pretty sure she can’t see anything beyond the road that is illuminated by my headlights.
“You’ve asked that no less than fifty times in the past hour,” Sam grouses from the other side of the van. I watch in the rearview mirror as she scrubs her face into the pillow that rests against the window and settles back down with a scowl on her face.
“Are we there yet, Daddy?” Kerry-Anne asks again quietly, her voice soft as a kitten’s purr in the back seat.
Kerry-Anne isn’t the baby of the family. At six years of age, she is squarely in the middle of the other two. Yet Kerry-Anne has the softest soul of anyone I’ve ever met. She’s gentle and kind and…well, the opposite of Sam. Sam is abrasive and rude and combative. She’s pretty much everything that makes those big spiders you see on nature shows want to eat their young. She has just turned twelve, and next week she’ll be twenty-one. Or so it feels.
Just then, I see the sign for Lake Fisher, and I take the exit, one step closer to the only place I want to be right now. “Just a few more miles, Kerr Bear,” I say. “We’re almost there.”
“Yay,” Sam says, her voice droll and lifeless.
“Sam,” I scold. “Cut it out.”
“Yes, sir,” she snarks back at me.
Sam hadn’t wanted to leave home. She doesn’t want anything to change. But change is inevitable. It comes for you, even when you try to keep it away. I don’t want change, either. But it’s coming, and there is nothing I can do to stop it.
I see the sign for the campground first. Lake Fisher. Home of the biggest bass and the clearest lake water you ever will find. It’s also home to my childhood, or at least the summers. Every year from the time I can remember, my parents brought me here to spend the summer.
One side of the complex houses a campground, and you will see anything from the smallest of tents and pop-up campers to great big pull-behind monstrosities of decadence with satellite TVs and hot tubs on top. Right now, it’s early June, so the campground is populated with little tents and pop-up campers. The camper lots that aren’t occupied, since it’s a weekday, show their emptiness with the power poles and septic hookups exposed in my headlights.
The road we drive in on is not much more than a path, and I have to take it slow and straddle the ruts in the road at times. Kerry-Anne giggles as she jostles from side to side, and Sam kicks the back of my seat.
“Sam,” I warn, my voice harsh.
A grunt is her only response.
We’ve been driving for eight hours and I am just as ready to be done as she is.
After we pass the campground, my heart eases a little when I see the tiny cottages all neatly lined up in rows. They are the original tiny houses, but without the glam that you see on TV. They’re made of wood with aluminum roofs, and when I see them standing there like sentries on a battlefield, I feel like I’ve come home. Finally. I am home. And I have the most important people in my life with me. I have Sam. I have Kerry-Anne. And I have Miles. Miles is tucked into his car seat, still sleeping, which means he will be up all night. But I don’t care. I am here. I am back at Lake Fisher, at the only place I want to be.
I turn at the fourth row of houses and drive to number eighty-two. It’s a tiny little cottage with two bedrooms and a kitchen that isn’t more than a sink and a stove. But it’s mine. It had belonged to my parents before me. And now it’s mine. I haven’t been here in years, and it shows. No one has been here. The paint is peeling, and the porch looks a little crooked. The wood is warped, and it isn’t the vibrant redwood color I remember. But like everything in life, it can all be fixed.
Well, almost everything can be fixed. Except me. That’s one thing that can’t be fixed.
“Can I get out?” Kerry-Anne asks, her voice full of excitement.
“Yeah, just don’t go far. It’s dark. And we need to unload.”
I cut the engine and the porch goes dark. The little cottage glares at me, limned by the light of the moon behind it. I take a deep breath and get out.
Sam sits there, her face still stuffed against her pillow.
“Let’s go, Sam,” I say.
She lifts her head, glares at me, and then bundles her pillow in her arms and throws the door open. “So, this is it?” she asks, looking toward the little cottage with a snarl to her lip.
“This is it,” I reply.
I reach in and lift the handle of Miles’s car seat. He still sleeps soundly. I hope he might sleep long enough for me to finish unloading. I lift his seat from the car and start for the front door.
The crunch of gravel behind me forces me to turn and look toward the little path I’d just rode in on. I smile when I see the red golf cart, another relic of my youth, which is just as well known to me as the man who sits on it.
“Welcome to Lake Fisher,” Mr. Jacobson says as he cuts the motor on the golf cart, then switches off the headlights.
I walk over and stick out my hand, my other hand clutching tightly to the handle of Miles’s car seat. When I was a young boy, this man scared the shit out of me. He was surly and nasty, and he had a way of making you like him anyway. Several times, he’d caught me doing things I shouldn’t have done and he’d made me clean the bathhouses. With my toothbrush. Yet I still have the utmost respect for the man, and I suspect I always will.
“It’s good to be here, Mr. Jacobson,” I say, as I take his weathered old hand in mine. He gives me a squeeze and lets my hand go.
“What do you have there?” he asks, pointing toward the car seat.
I shrug my shoulders. “It’s a kid. There are two more around here somewhere.”
He chuckles. “Set it right here so I can have a good look. My eyes aren’t what they used to be.” He motions to the seat next to him.
Mr. Jacobson has been saying that since I was a boy. His eyes are sharp as tacks. They always have been. I set the seat on the bench next to him and he looks down into Miles’s sleeping face. “They’re cute when they’re asleep,” he says.
They can be cute when they are awake, too, but not all the time. Sam is proof of that.
I feel Kerry-Anne’s little hand slide into mine and I look down at her. “Who’s that, Daddy?” she asks, standing behind my leg a little.
I brush her bangs back with my fingertips and she leans against me hard. “Kerry-Anne, this is Mr. Jacobson. He runs this place.”
“Oh, is that what he told you?” a voice booms out from behind us. Kerry-Anne leans harder against me, so I pull her closer.
“Jake,” I say loudly. He comes forward and sticks out his hand, but I bypass it and pull him in for a hug. “God, it’s good to see you.”
Jake and I had spent summers together from the time I could remember until I went off to college and real life started. He has gotten a little thicker in the middle but nothing else has changed about his smiling face. Almost every childhood memory I have involves Jake and some shenanigans that were determined to get me in trouble. And they normally did.
“Glad you’re here,” Jake says. He sobers at little. “I’m sorry the circumstances are what they are, Aaron. I really am.” He says the last part quietly, almost a whisper. But I still hear him. I’m sorry too, but there isn’t much I can do about it. He looks toward the car seat. “Did Pop already steal your baby?” he asks. “He’s good at that.”
“Looks like it.”
“Speaking of which,” Mr. Jacobson says, “I’m going to run up to the big house. I’ll be back in a minute.” He starts up the golf cart, turns on the headlights, and hits the gas. I reach for the car seat, but old man Jacobson just wraps one arm around it and takes off toward the big house, which is where the Jacobsons live. It’s a monstrosity of a house on the other side of the complex.
“He took my baby,” I say lamely as I watch the cart bounce away in the other direction.
Jake chuckles. “He’ll bring him back when he either makes noise or takes a poop. I promise.” He claps his hands together. “Need some help unloading?”
I can’t turn down an offer of help. “I’d love some.”
“Katie came down this morning and cleaned up for you. She changed the sheets and dusted. Opened some windows to air things out. Set up the portable crib.”
My heart twists in my chest. “Tell her thank you for me, will you?”
“You can tell her yourself tomorrow,” he says. “She wants you guys to come for dinner.”
“We don’t want to be any trouble.”
Jake shakes his head. “No trouble. Pop’s grilling.”
“Oh, well, in that case.” I wouldn’t miss that for the world. The old man grills better than anyone on the planet. Every Saturday night during the summer, he used to feed the whole campground.
“She’ll be glad to see you. And Gabby will be home from college tomorrow. She’s looking forward to babysitting your kids so you can do what you need to do.”
He doesn’t bring up the word. Chemo. I need to go to chemo. “I appreciate it.”
“Let’s get you unloaded so you can get some rest.” Jake stares at me a beat too long, just long enough to make me uncomfortable. Then he gets to work.
We unload suitcases and bring in boxes of toys the kids can’t do without. But we’ve traveled pretty light, considering why we’re here. I brought enough food to keep them alive, so we take that inside too.
Jake comes over and reaches out his hand again. I take it, holding it tightly. “I’m glad you’re here, A,” he says, shortening my name to the one he’s always called me. Just that makes me feel like I’ve come home.
“Me too,” I say, swallowing past the lump in my throat. I need to be here. In more ways than one.
I hear the crunch of gravel at the same time I see the headlights.
“Told you he’d bring him back,” Jake says, and I can hear Miles screaming over the rumble of the wheels. Jake snickers.
This time, old man Jacobson has a little girl hanging off the back of the cart. She leaps to the ground right in front of us, just as I reach in to take Miles and his seat.
“I’m Trixie,” she says.
Jake reaches out and touches the top of her head, pawing it like a big old bear. She looks up at him and grins. She has a tiny smear of what looks like chocolate on the corner of her mouth. “This is my daughter,” Jake says, his voice full of pride.
I pull Kerry-Anne from behind my leg. “This one is mine.” I jerk a thumb toward Sam, who still sulks on the steps. “And that one.”
Trixie ignores Sam and asks Kerry-Anne, “Do you want to play tomorrow?”
Kerry-Anne looks up at me. “Can I, Daddy?”
I shrug my shoulders. “I don’t see why not.”
Suddenly, a dog bounds up. The thing is huge and hairy and at least a hundred and fifty pounds. I shove Kerry-Anne behind me. The big dog sits down next to Trixie, his tail swishing from side to side. Trixie jerks a thumb toward the dog. “This is Sally,” she says. “He’s my best friend.”
Mr. Jacobson says, “We need to get home, Trixie-Lou. Or else your mama’s going to come looking for us.” She hops up next to him and scoots as close as she can get. Then she pats the seat next to her and Sally jumps up too. He dangles there on the seat with his butt on the cushion as he stands on his front legs.
“See you tomorrow!” Trixie calls out as they head off, Jake following.
Kerry-Anne pulls on the hem of my shorts. “Daddy,” she says quietly.
I brush her hair back from her face. “What, baby?”
“Was that dog wearing a tutu?”
“I think so.” But I have no idea why. I laugh and usher her, Miles, and Sam inside.
When I close the door of the little cottage, I leave everything outside that isn’t important. I leave my fears about the future. I leave my anger at what is going to happen. And I bring all my love inside with me and close the door. I know the fear and the anger will still be there tomorrow, but today, I can shut them away for just a little longer.
Onlookers stood around the yellow tape, their phones at the ready, trying to catch a glimpse of the dead man. There wasn’t much to see. He had a hole right in the middle of his forehead. It was a clean shot, a shot any marksman could be proud of.
“What do you think?” the detective on duty asked.
I stood up to my full height and covered the dead body that lay exposed on the cold hard ground with a crisp white sheet. He deserved some dignity, even if he was a piece of shit wrapped in skin.
Then there was also the fact that this particular victim was a victimizer. It made my job even harder, particularly when I was glad he was dead. He’d killed his wife four years prior, and had gotten away with it because someone forgot to read him his Miranda rights. He’d been walking the streets, using his dead wife’s money to buy hookers and cocaine, for four years.
Now he was gone. I’d say good riddance if this had only happened to him, but I had no less than twelve cases just like this sitting on my desk. Dead men—not to mention a few women—who deserved to be dead. Only they weren’t dying of natural causes. They were dying because someone was taking justice into his or her own hands.
I also had cases of missing criminals that were suddenly solved. One had been found just last week tied up on the front steps of the courthouse. The security footage from that time frame had somehow been wiped; it couldn’t even be found in the cloud. Yet there the shithole sat, a rag stuffed in his mouth as he waited for the sun to come up. Then another the previous month, where a mother who had traded all her children for heroin was found tied to the fountain in the city’s busiest park. Again, no security footage could be found, even though there were cameras all over the place.
Whoever was doing this was really good at covering his tracks.
The detective cleared his throat. “Officer Clark?”
“Just Clark,” I said quietly. I wasn’t with the police department anymore, although they still contacted me when a case needed some special attention. I’d been told I had a knack for finding people who didn’t want to be found. I’d given up my badge, though. I had enough people to take care of in my private life. I didn’t need any more.
The detective looked decidedly uncomfortable. “What do you think, Clark?”
“I think he’s dead.” I popped a piece of gum into my mouth and started to chew. Even though I’d quit smoking ten years ago, I still wanted one in times of stress. My fingers got twitchy and I started patting my pockets. Gum took off some of the edge, but not all of it.
“Well, no shit,” the detective barked.
“The bullet hole in his forehead should have clued you in.” I sent him a sideways grin.
The muscle in the man’s jaw ticked as he clenched his teeth.
“Can’t say I’m sad about it. Whoever took him out did me a favor.” I’d been tracking him for months, trying to catch him doing something wrong, but I hadn’t had any luck.
“You’re going to consult on this one, right?” the detective asked.
“Don’t know why I would.” I lifted the yellow tape that cordoned off the area and ducked beneath it.
I had almost made it to my car when a blue sedan pulled up next to me. “William Clark,” a voice called. I grinned. I knew that voice. It belonged to my former boss, my mentor, my reason for still freelancing for the police department. John Spanner was my connection to my old life. A life where I wore a gun and a badge. A life where I took care of others. Now it was all I could do most days to take care of myself.
“Boss,” I replied. I rested my elbows on the top of his car and leaned toward his open window. I knew he wasn’t my boss anymore. He knew it too, but he’d always hold that place in my life. He was my conscience when I really didn’t have one. “What’s up?”
“Dead body?” He nodded toward the crime scene.
“Anyone we know?”
“Danny the dick.”
His eyebrows rose. “Danny the dick is dead?”
“Ding dong,” I sang back at him.
He whistled slowly. “Can’t say I’m sorry to hear he’s gone.”
“Whoever did it deserves a medal.”
“Any idea who that might be?”
“Danny had more enemies than friends. Could have been anyone.” I turned my head away and blew my gum out of my mouth. It had lost all its flavor.
He nodded. “Get in. I’ll buy you lunch.”
I shook my head. “Can’t. Got to go watch somebody dunk a baby.”
“What?” His brow furrowed.
“Baptism. Friend. I’m going.”
“Someone invited you out in public?”
Okay, so I was a little rough around the edges and I really didn’t give a shit what anyone thought of me, but that one did sting a little. “Some people like me.”
“Let me guess. A former client?”
I grinned. “Solve a case for someone and you become his best friend.” I patted my stomach. “I’m hoping there’s free food.”
A few months back, I’d done some surveillance work for a man named Mason Peterson when his wife Lynn was missing. It was a complicated case, and we’d eventually found her, but not without some problems along the way. They’d just had a baby boy and invited me to his christening. I’d accepted. I might be a cold, hard bastard, but I liked a happy ending. I’d never get one of my own, but I did take pleasure in other people’s.
“You’re looking good, Clark. Better than the last time I saw you.”
I nodded and stood up tall, looking into the distance, suddenly wishing this conversation could be over. “I’m going to be late.”
He nodded and pulled into a parking space. I rushed to get in my car, still thinking about the dead guy. He had been one of my cases, and now he was dead. He wasn’t the first. There had been more like him in the past few months. We had a vigilante killer on our hands. Someone was killing people who were weaker than him—or her. We also had a vigilante fixer. I’d bet ten to one that they were the same person, but I had no proof. There was no profile yet. But there would be soon. I’d keep an eye out.
Lynn was going to kill me. I was late. I couldn’t possibly be late for my nephew’s christening, but I was. I loved that kid desperately, and my sister had asked me to be his godmother. It didn’t matter that everyone else thought I was crazy. Lynn loved me. She accepted me and she had enough faith in me that she was entrusting me with the care of her child, should anything ever happen to her and Mason. At best, she was trusting me to love him and care for him. At worst, she trusted me to guide him through life.
The thought of her trusting me with something so precious made it difficult to swallow, and every time I thought about it, I got that same lump in my throat. Someone trusted me with something. Lynn trusted me. She’d never trusted me, despite all I’d done for her throughout the years. Not until now.
Lynn and I were twins, though we’d never lived together after the age of six, aside from the odd summer or weekend when they let us be together. Our parents had sent me to live with our grandmother. Lynn had stayed with our parents. Lynn had suffered unimaginable terror, and there were repercussions from her having stayed with people who didn’t value her life at all.
Finally, though, Lynn had the life she’d always wanted. At the age of thirty-seven, she was finally the woman she wanted to be. She liked running ten miles every morning, she could often be found with black nail polish adorning her slim fingers, and she liked to tinker with cars. But most of all, she loved that husband of hers. And together, they’d made a baby, a new life. They’d created something miraculous and wonderful and, since I knew I’d never have one of my own, I doted on that little guy like he was everything to me.
His name was Jason and he was named after Mason’s father. Today, Mason and Lynn would dedicate him to God, and even though I didn’t believe in such a deity that could be in charge of my life, they did, and they wanted to impart that knowledge and belief to their son. I would support them in that. I would stand in front of a group of people and promise to lead him in the ways of the church. I’d treat the church like a temple, even if it wasn’t mine. Hell, I’d become a nun if that was what it took to be in his life. Truth be told, I was always in awe of God’s power. Luckily, today, all Lynn needed was for me to stand beside her and agree with the person leading the service.
But first, I needed my good dress. I stopped really quickly at the drycleaner to pick up my favorite dress, one that Lynn gave me on my last birthday. It was a classic tan color with a flared skirt. It could have been a brown paper sack and I’d still have loved it, if Lynn gave it to me. She’d also given me the one I was wearing now, and I loved it just as much.
What most people didn’t understand was that I needed Lynn like I needed air. Without her, my lungs didn’t work, my heart stopped beating, and my brain malfunctioned. Everyone thought I was crazy, but I was only crazy where Lynn was concerned.
Well, where Lynn was concerned and when it came to those who hurt children or other people who couldn’t protect themselves. That drove me a little nuts. Not like homicidal nuts. Just like kick-your-ass kind of nuts. Only one person made me homicidal-nuts, and I’d gotten rid of him quite some time ago.
Now that I didn’t have to worry about Lynn as much, I could focus a little more on me. I dashed into the drycleaner’s and slapped my palm against the top of the tiny bell on the counter. A man came from the back of the building, his eyes dragging slowly up and down my body as he stalked toward me. I had an instant and almost insatiable urge to kick him in the balls. But now I had to be respectable. I had a nephew I was obligated to guide in life. I had to set a good example. I would try to refrain from kicking this guy in the nuts. But I wasn’t above punching him in the throat.
I passed him the claim ticket for the dress, and he dawdled around the front of the shop, letting his grubby fingers linger against mine as he took my credit card and ran it.
“How much longer will it be?” I asked, drumming my fingers on the countertop.
He laid his upper body on the counter, so he could lean closer to me. “Are you in a hurry?”
I didn’t answer. Where I was going was none of his business. “Did you ask someone to go and get my dress?”
“Mm-hmm,” he hummed, licking his lips. His eyes did that slow slide down my body again.
“My dress?” I said, a little less kindly.
He lifted one side of the hinged counter and motioned for me to walk through. “Come on. You can help me get it.”
“Thank you, but I’ll wait here.” I began to tap my foot on the floor.
“Scared?” he teased.
“No, but you should be.” I leaned toward him. “Go get my fucking dress.”
His eyes lost the teasing glint that had been present. “I was just trying to get to know you,” he said, his eyes darkening. It was almost imperceptible, but I knew dark. And I also knew he hadn’t seen dark yet.
“I’m not interested in getting to know you,” I replied. “I am interested in picking up my dress, so if you’d go and get it, I’d really appreciate it.” I bit back the filthy retort that had momentarily rested on the edge of my tongue. Keeping it to myself was tough, but I did it.
He dropped the edge of the counter and closed the divide. “Be right back.”
I kept an eye on my watch. When five minutes had passed, I slapped the bell on the counter again. When no one appeared, I looked at my watch again. I was going to be late. I lifted the countertop so I could walk through, toward the back of the shop. When I rounded the corner, I saw him sitting on a chair, playing a game with popping bubbles on his phone.
“My dress,” I said loudly. He looked up for just a moment, and then back down at his game.
“Just a minute,” he muttered.
I walked over and plucked his phone from his hand.
He looked up at me, his mouth falling open. He reached for the phone, but I stepped back. “Your phone for the dress,” I said.
He reached to grab me, and I slammed my fist into his throat. He dropped like a stone, gasping for breath. I looked down at him. “You should have just gotten my fucking dress, asshole.”
I stepped over him and started searching the racks. They were labeled by date, so I went to the most recent group. I found my dress, laid it over my arm, and walked back across the room. He was still trying to take a deep breath. He’d be fine. I stepped over him again and walked out. I’d already paid, so I wasn’t worried about that. On a normal day, I would have left a tip for him, but this wasn’t a normal day and he wasn’t a normal man. He was one of them. One of those people I despised.
He had better be glad I let him live.
I drove as fast as I could to the church, and then I went in the backdoor. I knew there were some rooms back here where brides changed into their wedding gowns, so I ducked into one and hung my dress on a peg. I really had to pee, so I ran across the hall and skidded into the bathroom stall. As soon as I arrived, I realized I really didn’t have time for a bathroom break after all, and I opened the door to leave, but my dress got hung on the sliding bolt on the door.
I froze, and then very gently tried to pry it free, but it was stuck. The dress I needed was in the other room. Maybe if I got out of this one, I could dash across the hall and get it, but first I had to get out of this one. I unbuttoned it and bent so I could slip it over my head. I stood there for a second, doubting the wisdom of my plan, but Lynn and Mason and their child, they were all waiting. My phone buzzed from the pocket of the dress I no longer wore. I pulled it out. It was Lynn wanting to know where I was.
I took a deep breath, opened the bathroom door, and stuck my head out. No one was in the hallway. I was around the corner from the sanctuary, so no one could possibly see me. Could they? I took a deep breath, stepped out, and then I froze, because he was there. Damn it. Couldn’t a girl have a weak moment once in a while without witnesses? The very day I decided not to wear a bra, I had to streak nearly naked through a church, and he had to be the one to bump into me.
I didn’t really bump into him, because that would mean skin-on-skin contact, and all we had right now was eye contact. That is, until his eyes started that slide down my body. My face heated and my pulse hammered. He looked away almost as quickly as he’d looked down, and his eyes looked everywhere but at me, which was good, I guessed. He could have been a letch. He obviously wasn’t.
He was a good guy, I knew that much. I knew because he’d helped my sister last year. And me, too, for that matter. Had I ever thanked him? I probably should do that.
I pressed my fingertips over my nipples and said the only thing I could think to say. “Why are you back here, Clark?”
For most people, going back home never seems as exciting as leaving. I’m not most people. For me, going home means going back to New York City. It means reconnecting with long lost friends and people who had, once upon a time, saved my life.
Sometimes when I say that to myself, even within the recesses of my mind, it seems trite. It seems impossible, yet it’s not. The Reeds and their families saved my life, not to mention that of my sister, Penny. I look over at her in the passenger seat of the car and marvel at the young lady she’s becoming. She’s turned into someone wonderful, in spite of me. In spite of the fact that we lost our parents when we were young, and in spite of the really bad choices I had to make at one point, she has turned into a smart, kind young girl, and the very sight of her makes my heart clench.
Sometimes she makes my fists clench too, but that’s what happens when you raise children, or so I hear. You can go quickly from loving them to wondering why you chose to have children in the first place. Only I never chose to have Penny. My parents did. Then they died. They left us alone in a city that was as ruthless as it was impractical.
With no family and no money, we had no one to lean on, until we met a family called the Reeds. They own a famous tattoo shop downtown, and almost everyone has heard of them. There are five brothers, all blond, tatted up, and amazing. Then there are their wives, who are just as fabulous. Add to them all their fabulous friends, and you have the group of people who set me on my path.
And now, my path has led me back to New York, back to the only people I’ve had on my team in a really long time, and back to the only place where I have ever felt such immense shame.
Going home hurts almost as much as leaving it.
The radio in our car quit working last year, and I’m almost surprised the car has made the trip home without breaking down. Penny lies slumped in her seat like a rag doll. She has been asleep for the past fifty miles or so. I should probably wake her up, but I’ve been enjoying the quiet.
When Penny is awake, she never stops talking. She prattles on about nothing and everything. It’s almost like she’s afraid that if she doesn’t use all the words, she’ll lose them. So she does. She uses all the words. All the time. She never stops.
It’s been me and Penny against the world for a very long time. I can barely remember the way my parents looked or the sounds of their voices. I try not to think about them because thinking about them hurts.
My family lived in a small apartment in an old building, but we were happy. Both my mom and dad worked, and I spent a lot of my time with Penny. Then after they died, I spent all my time with Penny. I was still a child, but I was suddenly raising one. Social Services came to get us, to put us in foster care, but we left before they could separate us, with the clothes on our backs and a bag with a few extra items of clothing. I took Penny out of potential harm’s way and threw her directly into its path.
Then we met the Reeds one Christmas Eve. They gave us an apartment for three months, helped me become emancipated and get custody of Penny, and helped me get my GED and get into college. I’m pretty sure they paid for my education, too, because huge scholarships don’t just fall out of the sky. But the college said that I got “some rare scholarships” and that I should feel very lucky.
I do. I feel extremely lucky. Penny and I have been living paycheck to paycheck, but we have been doing it all on our own, aside from the “scholarships.” I haven’t done anything immoral or illegal in a really long time. Yet at times the past still wakes me from my sleep, my body slicked with a cold sweat, terror in my heart and a lack of warmth deep down in my soul.
I hold tightly to the wheel and stare out over the highway. Coming home has never seemed so sweet, even if I don’t really have a home to come to. It feels like home, and that’s all that matters. I have my sister, I have a college degree, and I have a future to look forward to. I’d like to begin it with the people who’d made it possible.
Suddenly, my car swerves to the right. I grab the wheel with both hands and guide the car over to the side of the road.
“What happened?” Penny mutters with the innocence of a child who knows her world will keep turning, because it always has.
“I don’t know,” I reply. “I think we have a flat tire.”
Penny sits up and grabs for the door handle after the car comes to a stop.
“Stay in the car,” I bark.
Penny mutters something under her breath and settles heavily in the seat.
I get out and see that the back tire is slack around the rim. A complete blow out. Great. Just what I need. I get back in and slam the door.
Penny rolls her eyes dramatically and makes a show of picking up my phone, and dials a number that has been programmed there but almost never used. She hands the phone to me, one brow arching with her almost-ten-years-old wisdom.
“Fine,” I grunt, taking the phone from her.
“Hello?” a voice says.
“And Penny,” Penny yells out. I cover my ear with my palm to block her out.
“And Penny,” I add.
“Avery and Penny?” She must turn away from the phone because I hear her say a little more loudly, “Logan, it’s Avery and Penny!”
Logan and Emily are the ones who plucked me and Penny from the streets and gave us a home.
“Hey, Avery and Penny!” I hear Logan yell from the background toward the phone.
“How are you guys?” Emily asks. “How was graduation?”
“It was great. Glad to be done. I got the flowers you sent. Thank you for them. They were lovely.” I’d invited them to come to my graduation, but one of their children was sick with an ear infection and they were unable to travel.
“It’s the least we could do. We really wanted to be there.” She pauses and I know she’s being honest. They did want to be there. “So what are you up to now?” Emily asks. When I talk to Emily, I feel like I get all her attention. While I was away at school, I tried not to bug her too often. She has a job and a husband and two kids. But it’s really good to hear her voice.
“We’re on our way back, actually. We’re about a hundred miles from where you are.”
“Well, hurry up and get here! We can’t wait to see you.”
“That’s just it,” I rush to explain. “We have a flat tire.”
“Oh,” Emily says. She speaks to Logan again. “They have a flat tire.” I hear them mutter to one another for a moment, and then Emily says, “Tell me where you are and I’ll send someone.”
“We’re still a long way away,” I say, feeling ridiculous and totally unworthy.
“You’re almost home, dummy.”
That warm feeling settles inside me when she says the words, the words that always make me feel like I belong. “I’m almost home,” I whisper back, emotion clogging my throat and making it tough to swallow.
“Tell me where you are,” she prompts again. I tell her the closest mile marker and she says, “Hang tight. Logan is sending someone to pick you up. Lock the doors and keep the windows rolled up, okay?”
“Yes, Mom,” I say with a laugh. But deep down inside, it’s nice to know that someone has my back. “I don’t have any money,” I suddenly blurt out.
“Oh, pish,” Emily scoffs. “Do you want me to stay on the phone with you until help arrives?”
“Oh, no, I’m sure you have things to do.”
“Nothing is more important than catching up with you,” Emily says softly.
So that’s what we do. I talk to Emily, telling her everything about everything, until I hear the beep of the tow truck as it backs up in front of me.
“They’re here,” I tell Emily.
“Oh, good,” she says. “I’m so glad.”
“I had better go.”
“Avery,” she says, her voice urgent.
“I want you to come here. I won’t take no for an answer, so I expect to see you tonight.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I whisper. I clear my throat. “We’ll be there.”
“I don’t care what time it is or what happens. I want you to come home. Here. Do you understand?” Her voice is firm and unyielding.
“Yes,” I reply, but I can barely get the words out. “I’m on the way.”
“I’m glad you’re coming home, Avery,” she says, and then the line goes dead.
The sharp rap of knuckles striking my window gets my attention. I roll it down to find the one person who I am sure never wanted to see me again, ever. My breath stalls in my throat, and I look out the front window, avoiding his gaze.
“Avery,” he says. His tone is brusque. He has never been a man of many words. He passes them out like good behavior tokens. But that one word—my own name—falls on my ears like the strike of a hammer.
“Edward,” I reply. I continue to stare straight out in front of me because I’m afraid to look at him.
“Edward!” Penny suddenly yells when she recognizes him. She climbs over me to get to him, elbowing me in the side of my head and poking me in the thigh with her knobby knee, trying to hug him through the window. He grabs her and pulls her right out and into his arms.
“What’s up, Nickel?” he asks as he spins Penny around, her feet flying out behind her as he hugs her tightly.
What’s bad is that I want to react the same way Penny is, but I’m pretty sure he won’t be so happy if I hug him. In fact, I’m pretty sure that if Penny wasn’t with me, he’d already be gone.
He sets Penny down.
“My name is Penny,” she corrects him. He has always called her Nickel just to tease her. He tousles her hair and she beams up at him.
“What are you guys doing here?” he asks her.
“We’re going home. To stay.” Penny smiles up at him, her hand still threaded with his.
His eyes finally meet mine. “Is that so?” he says quietly, more to himself than to either of us.
Edward is tall and lean, with green eyes and a slender face. He has a light shadow of beard stubble on his chin, and he reaches up to scratch it. He pulls a New York Skyscrapers ball cap from his back pocket and puts it on, making it even harder to read his expression.
“Go climb in the cab of the truck,” he says, giving Penny a nudge. She scampers away, and I finally get out of the car.
“Thank you for coming to get us,” I say quietly as I move to stand beside him.
He nods and says, “I’m guessing you don’t have a spare.”
“No.” If I did, I would have already changed the tire myself.
He gets to work hooking the car up and pulling it up on the flat bed. He says nothing else to me, not a word the whole time he works on loading the car.
When he’s done, he dusts his hands together and looks at me. “Is it going to kill you to ride with me?” he asks carefully.
“I’ll be fine,” I toss back, squaring my shoulders and lifting my chin. I don’t cower for anyone. Not anymore.
“You always are,” he says softly. Then he opens the driver’s side door and ushers me into the truck. I slide across the bench until I’m next to Penny. It’s a tight fit, and I have to sit with my legs on each side of the gear shift.
I flinch as he reaches across my lap to slip the truck into first gear.
His gaze jerks up to meet mine.
“What?” I ask.
“Habit,” I reply.
I broke every speed limit law trying to get to her. And now…now all I can think about is how I can make this ride last a little longer so I can keep her for a few more minutes.
I could call her “the girl who got away,” but I’d be lying to myself. Avery is the girl who ran as far and as fast from me as she could. She went to a different state, for fuck’s sake, just to get away from me. Well, college was also waiting for her, but at the root of all of it was her desire to put a few states between me and her that sent her packing. All because of a few poorly chosen words. They’re words I still regret.
The words I said in anger are the reason why she sits, her back straight as a board, next to me. She flinches and jerks her leg away every time her knee brushes mine. When I reach over to change the gears, she holds her breath until I take my hand away.
It’s my fault, all of it. I just hope that while she’s in town she’ll give me an opportunity to tell her how sorry I am. Words have the power to heal, but they also have the power to hurt, and the words I said to her dredged up a past she wanted to forget. They also judged her for it. It was wrong, and I’m sorry.
Penny has talked nonstop ever since we got in the truck. I swear, the kid has barely taken a breath since I closed the door.
“Where’s Susan?” Penny suddenly asks. Susan is my younger sister and Penny met her before they moved away.
“She had better be at home waiting for me,” I say quietly. If not, I’m going to kill her.
“She lives with you now?”
I nod and shift the gears as I come to a stop light. Avery heaves in a breath and doesn’t let it go until I move my arm away. “She came to live with me about a year ago,” I explain.
Susan was in foster care for a while, and I had some legal issues I had to straighten out before I could even think about seeking custody of her. Susan is older than Penny. She aged out of the foster care system before I could petition for custody. Now she’s a Junior at NYU, a college that’s close to where we live. Susan lives at home with me and attends classes. She also has a part-time job and a boyfriend, so I don’t see her quite as often as I’d like.
I make a mental note to check in with her and see how she’s doing. I try to do that as often as I can. I try to make dates to check with my sister about her life; otherwise, I fall out of the loop and don’t know what’s going on with her. And that simply cannot happen. I let it happen before, and I’ll never let it happen again.
“Is she still dating Gonzo?” Penny wants to know.
Thinking of him makes me smile. “Yes. They’ve been together for a while now.”
Penny nods her head. “He’s cool.”
He really is. One of my favorite kids of all time. Technically, he’s not a kid anymore. I met him at a camp for kids with disabilities many years ago, the same camp where I met Pete Reed. I can’t help but think I’d like Gonzo better, though, if he wasn’t sleeping with my little sister. They try to keep it a secret, but sometimes a man can see the look in another man’s eyes and just know.
I try to stay out of their love life, but it’s hard.
Gonzo is good for Susan, though. He accepts everything about her, and she does the same for him. They’re good for one another. Gonzo is in a wheelchair and has some serious medical issues that necessitate him having a tracheostomy tube. He uses a special machine to talk, or sign language when he’s with us.
Avery clears her throat. “I’m glad Susan came to live with you,” she says, her voice as soft as a whisper. “I know it was important to you.”
“Thanks. It was.”
I pull over and find a parking space when I see Logan’s building. Parking a tow truck isn’t easy, and I can’t take it into the underground garage, so I take up two spots on the street and turn on my lights.
“Sit still,” I say. “It’s a big jump down.”
I get out, slam my door, and run around to the other side. I open the door and Penny jumps right out into my arms. She does it with blind trust, knowing somewhere inside herself that I’m going to catch her. Hell, I’d fall onto the ground and let her land on me if I couldn’t catch her. I’d do anything to break her fall.
I spin her around and set her down. Then I look up to find Avery staring at me, her eyes watchful and worried. She turns herself around and starts to climb down using the foot holds. I reach out to steady her, but then realize she probably doesn’t want my hands anywhere on her, and I just hover there over her back in case she slips. She doesn’t, though, and she lands safely on the sidewalk.
“Thanks for coming to get us,” Avery says. “How much do I owe you?” She worries her lower lip with her teeth.
“I’ll send you a bill,” I say casually. I’m not going to do anything of the sort, of course.
“Are you going to unload the car here?” she asks, her brows drawing together.
“I’m going to take it with me,” I inform her.
She jerks to face me. “When will I get it back?”
“Oh.” She scuffs the sidewalk with the toe of her shoe, looking everywhere but at me. “Well, thanks,” she says.
“C’mon, Avery!” Penny says. “I want to go see Emily and Logan.” Penny tugs on the hem of Avery’s shirt, and Avery brushes her hands away, only to take one of them firmly. With her free hand, she reaches into her pocket and pulls her keys out. She holds them out to me.
“You might need these,” she says.
“Do you need any of your luggage?” I ask. Her backseat is packed full of boxes and bags.
“There’s a backpack in the front seat that has what we’ll need for one night,” she says. She appraises the truck like she’s trying to figure out how to climb up the side.
“I’ll get it,” I say. I climb up and get the bag, lowering it down to her. “Do you need anything else?”
“Not tonight,” she says.
I lock her doors and climb back down. “I’ll try to get it back to you tomorrow.”
“Thanks again for coming to our rescue.”
I’d do just about anything for you. “You’re welcome.”
“Be sure and send me a bill. I can’t pay it immediately, but…well…soon, okay?” Even in the dark, I can see the way her cheeks turn pink.
“I know how to find you.” I smile at her, suddenly worried that sounded a little pervy.
“We’ll be staying with Emily and Logan.”
I nod. “It’s good to see that you’re doing so well.”
Finally, she smiles at me, although it’s definitely a cautious smile. “You too. ’Night.” She turns Penny with a hand on her shoulder and they go into the building.
I pull out my phone and text Logan.
Me: All her stuff is in her car. Where do you want me to put it?
Logan: She’s going to stay in the empty apartment on your floor. 4D. Hang on and I’ll come help you.
I climb back up and start to unload her car, putting all her things gingerly on the platform of the truck so Logan can reach them with me when he comes down.
But it’s not just Logan who comes down. It’s Logan, Paul, Pete, Sam, and Matt, all at once. And right behind them rolls up their friend Josh.
“She didn’t bring much, did she?” Paul says as he starts to hand out the boxes and bags. They all grab a few.
“I don’t think she had much to bring,” Logan says as he loads Josh’s lap with a couple of unwieldy boxes.
I notice that one of the boxes says “Mom and Dad” on the side. It’s written in black magic marker. I carry that one myself.
In one trip, we get it all upstairs and leave it for her to unpack.
Everyone leaves to go back to their apartments, but Logan lingers. “Something on your mind?” he asks me.
“No, nothing.” I shake my head and let myself out of her apartment. It just happens to be the apartment right next to mine. I can’t decide if I should be happy or sad about that.
I take her car to the shop, drop it off, and then drive my car back to the apartment building. I let myself in my front door and find Susan sleeping on the couch, her mouth open wide, her books spread across her lap.
She stirs when she hears the door click shut behind me. “You’re home,” she mutters.
“How was your day?” She closes her books, gets up, and pads into the kitchen on her bare feet.
She grins. “So I heard the craziest thing tonight.”
“Oh yeah?” I get a bottle of water from the fridge. “What did you hear?”
Her grin grows even wider as she props her elbow on the counter and holds her chin up with the heel of her upturned hand. “I heard Avery and Penny are here.”
I nod and glug down the whole bottle of water. I toss it into the recycling bin. “They are.”
She raps her fingertips on the countertop like she’s a drummer waiting for someone to thwack a cymbal. “And?” she prompts. “How long is she staying? Have you seen her?”
“I don’t know. And yes. I just saw her.”
She leans back, stunned a little. “And how did that go?”
It hurt like a motherfucker. “Fine.”
“Fine,” she repeats, glaring at me. “Just fine?”
“Yes. Just fine.” I walk over and give her a quick kiss on the forehead. “Go to bed.”
She heaves out a sigh. “You suck.”
I turn back before walking into the living room. “Do you want to have dinner with me tomorrow?”
Her gaze softens and she smiles. “I’d love to.”
She nods, and then she takes a bag of chips off the counter and goes back to the couch. “’Night!” she calls out.
I wave a hand in her direction and head for my bedroom.
I hear the door next door close, and I know that Avery and Penny are on the other side of the wall, probably checking out the apartment. I press my ear to the wall and hear the faint whine of a complaining voice. Then I hear Avery’s firm voice, and Penny’s voice goes quiet. Apartment walls can be pretty thin.
A few minutes later, my phone chimes and I look down to find a text from Emily.
Emily: She’s all settled in the apartment next to yours.
Me: That’s good.
Emily: Thanks for taking care of her. Will you send me the bill for the tow?
Me: It’s already taken care of. Tire too. I’ll give her car a once-over tomorrow too, just to be sure it’s safe enough.
Emily: Send me the bill for that, okay?
I don’t respond, because she knows I could never send her a bill. Not any of them. Not for any reason.
Emily: Should I assume that’s taken care of too?
Me: That would be wise.
Emily: Good night, Edward. We love you.
Me: Love you too. Good night.
I hear a sudden thump next door, and then it happens again. In my head, I can see Penny jumping on the bed, and it makes me smile.
Everything about them makes me smile. I just wish it didn’t. It would be easier to keep my distance if I didn’t still love Avery so fucking much.