“Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.”
― George Burns
“Someone want to tell me what’s going on?”
I gave my youngest brother’s hand a pat where it rested on the covers of his hospital bed, checking the watch on my wrist. Jethro was late.
“All will be revealed, Roscoe. All will be revealed,” I assured, assuredly. Poor kid, they’d made him shave his beard. The youngest of us seven kids, his chronological age was twenty-six, but he looked like a ten-year-old.
He should’ve let me shave a design in his stubble, it would’ve impressed the nurses. Next time. While he’s asleep.
“It better be revealed, Cletus.” This threat came from Duane, one-half of our twin brothers and number six in our family. Beau, the other twin, had been born first, which made him number five. Duane was the grumpy one, that was his role. “I have a plane to catch. Jessica’s due date is tomorrow.”
“We’re all aware of your progeny’s ETA, Duane.” I gentled my voice despite his terse tone. “Once everyone gets here, we’ll get started.”
I shared a quick glance with Beau, who was no help. He seemed to find his twin brother’s anxiety endlessly entertaining. Beau was the only other person who knew why I’d called the meeting. I’d filled him in on the particulars last week, needing an accomplice. It might be a shock, but my family didn’t always recognize the superiority of my stratagems, and you know something is a winner if it’s made up of the words “strata” and “gems.”
Plus, everyone liked Beau. He was the obvious choice for coconspirator.
That said, Duane’s present surly nervousness was for good reason. His partner in travels, life, and in matrimony, Ms. Jessica James-Winston, was forty weeks pregnant with their first child. Now, if she’d been an elephant, she’d have another fifty-five weeks to go. But she was not an elephant.
She was the local sheriff’s daughter and a sweet girl, although she could be a real sassy-britches from time to time. Duane was only here with us on account of Roscoe almost dying a few weeks ago (Don’t panic! He’s out of the woods now.)
Meanwhile, Jessica was living out her last pregnant days in Tuscany (Italy) with her parents, waiting for the arrival of Duane Jr., or Jessica Jr., or whatever they were planning to call the baby.
Speaking of which, “Hey, Duane.”
“What’re you naming that baby?”
Our sister, number four and the only girl in our brood, made a soft sound; I interpreted it to be of the reprimanding kind. “Cletus Byron Winston, stop asking Duane what they’re going to name the baby. Let him have his secrets.”
I lifted an eyebrow at my sister’s pretty face and she in turn lifted an eyebrow at me. We were close in age, Ashley and I, since she was the next to be born after I graced the world with my magnanimous presence. This made me lucky number three in the family. That’s right, the number three is lucky. It’s a well-established fact of the universe. Everyone knows it.
Like synchronized swimmers pivoting in unison, we all lifted our heads and attention to the door, watching as Jethro made his entrance.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said, out of breath, his brown beard and hair a fright. “I had to change my clothes. Andy had diarrhea, and—”
I lifted a hand, stopping our oldest brother—number one—from continuing with his tale of number two (where the “number two” is poop).
“Jethro, I think we’ll all live a complete life never knowing why your son having diarrhea has any bearing on your tardiness.”
Jethro sighed, crossing his arms and giving me what he probably thought was an irritated look. It was not. I suspected my oldest brother’s face wasn’t actually capable of arranging itself into a frown.
“Wait. What about Billy?” Duane asked about the only Winston sibling missing from our assemblage. “Where’s Billy?” The grumpy twin scratched his neatly trimmed red beard, glancing between me and Jethro.
Well, here goes nothing.
I stepped forward. Everyone turned their eyes to me. Even though I was the shortest of my brothers—at a mere six feet—I had the biggest presence when I so chose.
“I’m glad you asked, Duane. Jethro.” I motioned to the door my oldest brother had just run through. “Will you shut that, please? I’ll be touching on sensitive information, and I’d prefer if these earth-shattering revelations didn’t leave this room.”
Ashley’s blue eyes narrowed, and she crossed to stand next to Roscoe, threading her fingers into the dark hair at his temples. “Hold on now. Earth-shattering? This isn’t going to agitate Roscoe, is it?”
“No, Ash. It’s not that kind of earth-shattering,” I said, but then my eyes moved up and to the right. “Well, I don’t think it’s that kind of earth-shattering.”
“Cletus,” Beau said, right on cue. A small smile hovered on his lips and twinkled behind his eyes, which is to say he was looking at me with his normal expression. “Do you want to me start?”
Now everyone was splitting their attention between Beau and me, and I took a level of satisfaction in their confused visages. I’ve always enjoyed a good twist—both the dance and the plot variety.
“Go right ahead, Beau.” I took a step back, lifting my hand in a the floor is yours gesture.
When we’d rehearsed earlier, we decided it would be best for Beau to cut in and for me to cede to him. Like I mentioned earlier, everyone liked Beau. Whereas, for some reason, my siblings weren’t as automatically accepting of my motivations as pristine. Obviously, they all had unfounded trust issues.
Beau stepped away from the wall, his smile growing both wider and yet more thoughtful. “Cletus and I asked y’all here because of Billy. I know we touched on it last week, just before the Paytons stopped by, but I think we all need to come together and decide on a plan.”
“What kind of plan?” This question came from Roscoe.
“Well, we’re mighty worried about him,” Beau said, then paused, waited, gave our family a chance to ask why we were worried about Billy. But, as I suspected, no one appeared to be confused regarding the origins of our concern. Ever since we discovered Billy was donating his bone marrow to our despicable father, we’d all been in various states and stages of shock and dismay.
Ashley brought her fingers to her forehead. “I can’t believe Billy is doing this. I can’t believe he’s putting himself through this. The first time was more than enough, but twice?”
The this to which Ashley referred was bone marrow donation. Our second oldest brother had volunteered to donate his bone marrow to our despicable father, Darrell Winston. Billy had already gone through with the procedure once and was now scheduled for a second round. Our father would die without it.
“You know why Billy is doing it.” Roscoe turned his hand palm up, nudged Ashley’s leg, drawing her eyes to his.
A small laugh escaped her. “Actually, no. I don’t understand. I don’t get it. Hasn’t Billy been through enough?”
“But if Darrell is dead, he can’t testify against Razor Dennings. And if Darrell doesn’t testify against Razor Dennings, then the only charges that bastard will face are the attempted murders of Roscoe and Simone,” Jethro said, sounding nearly as frustrated as I felt about the whole situation.
“I get it.” Duane pushed himself away from the wall. “I hate it, but I get why Billy is doing it. Razor killed twenty-four people. That’s twenty-four families who won’t get justice if Darrell dies of cancer.”
Ashley rained down upon Duane and Jethro a thunderous frown that would’ve frightened birds, had there been any in Roscoe’s hospital room.
Clearly mad as hell, she crossed her arms. “When does it end, though? Hmm? When will Billy stop being the sacrificial lamb for this family? For this town? He’s not well! He’s sick, and worn down, and dammit, he’s given up more than any of us—time and time again. We can’t keep expecting him to shoulder every single burden.”
“I agree,” Roscoe said quietly, closing his eyes.
“Are you agitated, Roscoe?” I was quick to ask, examining him carefully. “Is this too much for you? Should we stop?”
“No. I’m fine.” He gave his head a small shake, but he didn’t open his eyes. “I’m glad we’re talking about this, and I agree with Ash. Billy deserves better.”
“He shouldn’t have to donate bone marrow to the man who put him in the hospital when he was only twelve, who nearly killed him and beat our momma,” Ashley ranted, jabbing her finger through the air at some invisible foe; impressively, her volume never raised above hospital-appropriate yet communicated the full weight of her ire. “He kept us safe. He looked after us. Billy deserves happiness. He deserves more than this.”
“Well said, Ash.” I stepped forward, because now it was my turn. “Well said. And that’s an excellent segue to the real reason we’ve assembled y’all. It’s time we discussed Claire.”
“This isn’t about Billy?” Jethro looked to Beau.
“This is about Billy,” Beau confirmed, took a deep breath while holding Jethro’s gaze, and then added gently, “But it’s about Claire too.”
Jethro seemed to stand straighter, his eyes widening. “What?”
“Yes. Claire.” I lifted my voice, wanting his undivided attention. “And you aren’t going to like it.”
Jethro—and everyone else for that matter save Roscoe, because his eyes were still closed—shifted their gaze to me, then to Beau, then back to me.
“And here’s where the earth-shattering part comes in, Jet.” I paused, drawing out the moment, not sure if I was stalling or savoring.
Our brothers, Billy and Jethro, hadn’t been on the best of terms for over two decades. The last few years had brought a fragile cease-fire—at first for our momma’s sake, and for the sake of Roscoe, the twins, Ashley, and me—but they’d never reached a true peace, with themselves, with each other. I didn’t know if it was possible to repair a relationship as broken as theirs, or if they’d just keep on coexisting. Time would ultimately tell.
But back to now and my half-stalling, half-savoring dramatic pause. On the one hand, I felt remorse at having to be the one to break it to Jethro that his (heroic and dead) best friend’s widow had always been in love with our brother Billy. On the other hand, I relished getting to be the one to inform Jethro that his (idiotic and dead) best friend’s widow had always been in love with our brother Billy.
Don’t get me wrong, Ben McClure had been a fine man, but he’d also been as clueless as a pirate wearing two eye patches. I don’t think the man had a purposefully mean bone in his body, but he had several ignorant, arrogant, and pretentious ones, that’s for sure.
Sitting in my fine stew of remorse and relish, I soldiered on. “Thing is, Claire—before we knew about Beau and Duane’s biological momma being Christine and Claire being the twins’ half sister, before Claire’s illustrious singing career, before Ben died, before she and Ben returned to town, before they got married, before she changed her name from Scarlet to Claire, before she fled Green Valley, before all of that—Claire and Billy were secretly in love.”
A collective shock rippled through the room. Even Roscoe gasped, his eyes flying open. That is, each inhabitant in the room save Beau and I gasped. He’d gasped last week when I’d told him the truth, but he was pleased about it now.
Jethro’s shock was short-lived, however, and soon morphed into irritation. “What the—”
“Now wait, Jethro, wait. I know it’ll be hard for you to accept that Ben and Claire weren’t the model of matrimonial perfection, seeing as how you’ve placed him on that pedestal for the last ten years and she has too, but I have proof. If you need it. It’s true as I am standing here. Billy and Claire have been pining for each other for going on eighteen years now, I reckon.”
You know how I said earlier that Jethro never really frowned? Well, I’m big enough of a person to admit when I’ve made an error, however rarely it occurs. Jethro was most certainly frowning now.
“This is ridiculous, Cletus. Scarlet—I mean, Claire—she was with Ben. She was always with Ben. She was never with Billy.”
“You are incorrect, and like I said, I have proof. But rest assured, the-country-music-star-formerly-known-as-Scarlet was very much with Billy, and they are still very much in love with each other.”
Jethro shook his head, his hands coming to his waist. “Why are you doing this? Billy and I, we’ve gotten to a place where we don’t fight every time we’re in the same room. If what you’re saying is true, you’re telling me Claire loved Billy—wanted to be with Billy—while she was married to Ben? She wouldn’t do that, and Ben never would’ve married her if she’d wanted someone else. Her happiness was all that mattered to him.”
I opened my mouth, prepared to lay out the truth carpet about Ben McClure, which was that the man was too dense to notice what made Claire happy and too self-absorbed to comprehend that his happiness did not automatically equate to her happiness.
But before I could speak, Beau stepped forward, placing his hand on Jethro’s shoulder and giving our brother a kind smile. “The dead can never be viewed as they truly were, as full-fledged, thinking, three-dimensional people, Jethro. With both flaws and strengths. In retrospect, they’re either saints or sinners. I get that. To you, Ben was a saint.”
Jethro’s throat seemed to work, and he turned back to me. “You’re wrong about Claire. She loved Ben. I was there when she found out he died; she was devastated.”
I slid my hands into my overall pockets, nodding somberly. “She might’ve loved the man, in a way, but I am right about Claire. She loved Billy before Ben, she loved Billy when Ben died, she loves Billy now. And you should just accept I’m right because I’m always right. But this isn’t about my truth-batting percentage.”
Gritting his teeth, my oldest brother kept shaking his head, huffing a harsh sounding laugh.
We didn’t have all the time in the world to convince Jethro, so I decided to get to the point. “Believe it or not, this isn’t about Ben. Ben was an adequate human, and I know you still miss your friend, but Billy is alive and he’s your brother. Billy deserves happiness, as does Claire. But these two idiots, they’re too stubborn and noble to climb over the messy mountain of regret and secrets they’ve built between each other. So, as folks who love them both, it falls on us—all of us—to make the magic happen.”
Jethro bit the inside of his lip, inspecting me, his gaze shuttered. Clearly, he still didn’t believe me.
Without looking away from Jet, I sighed and called to Mr. Grumpypants, “Duane. Tell us about that cabin you and Billy built, on that high, flat stretch of land in the woods.”
Jethro blinked, rearing back a little as his eyebrows ticked up.
“Well, uh, only Billy and I were supposed to know about it. We built it a few summers before Momma died. It used to be a campsite of some sort, I think.”
“And please enlighten the assemblage, Duane, what did Billy tell you about it?” I asked, all the while watching my oldest brother.
“Billy said it was a sacred space for him. Something about, uh, a place he went when he wanted to remember a time and a person he loved and missed.”
I knew for a fact Jethro was acquainted with this particular high, flat stretch of land in the woods. I knew he’d been the one to show it to a fourteen-year-old Scarlet (aka Claire) as a safe place she could stay, away from Razor, Scarlet’s father, and Christine, her neglectful and hateful mother.
But what Jethro didn’t know was that Billy had found Scarlet in the woods behind our house in that very spot. Or rather, they’d found each other.
My oldest brother was no longer frowning. A crack had formed in his granite exterior, confusion sliding over his features. Jet had stepped in to help Scarlet almost twenty years ago, and in doing so he’d unintentionally been the one to bring she and Billy together.
I took advantage of him being off-kilter to drop another truth bomb. “Did you ever question the timing of Billy’s injuries? That the Iron Wraiths put him in the hospital the very night Scarlet ran away with Ben? And did it ever occur to you as strange that Razor Dennings let his daughter leave Green Valley without any retribution? Even when she returned, engaged to Ben at eighteen, neither Razor nor Darrell nor any of their motorcycle club brothers came after her. Why do you think that is?”
Jethro’s gaze sharpened, his lips parting. “Are you—but, wait. It wasn’t because of Ben? I thought the Wraiths steered clear of Scarlet because she was with Ben, that’s what he always told me. Are you saying it was—”
“Yes,” I confirmed, breaking my promise to keep a secret I’d held sacred for eighteen years. I’d kept it because Billy had asked, but I was through keeping this secret. The time had come. “Billy took Scarlet’s punishment. That’s why the Iron Wraiths beat him senseless when he was sixteen. Ben had nothing to do with Scarlet being safe other than his aunt and uncle giving her a home. But she could’ve gone to California instead and been just fine. She did not need him.”
Jethro seemed to sway, absorbing this information, his eyes falling to the ground.
Meanwhile, Ashley had covered her mouth, and Roscoe said, “Y’all told me Billy was in a car accident. You never told me the Wraiths beat the hell out of him.”
“That’s what we were told too,” Duane grumbled, sending me his special brand of stink eye.
“Don’t give me that look, Duane Faulkner. They killed my dog when they took Billy; remember Lea? Momma made the decision not to tell you, Ashley, Beau, or Roscoe, and I wasn’t in a state of mind to contradict. Plus, Momma never knew why the Wraiths beat up Billy. Only Billy, Ben, and I knew, no one else.”
“Wait. Ben knew?” Jethro’s voice cracked and he took a step forward, visibly distressed. “Ben knew Billy took Scarlet’s punishment? He knew the whole time?”
I nodded but didn’t elaborate; we needed to stay on topic. “Since Sheriff James couldn’t get Billy to talk or tell him who the guilty parties were, his office neither confirmed nor denied the rumors about it being a car accident. And so here we are.”
“I’m so sorry about your dog, Cletus. Lea was such a sweet girl.” Ashley’s soft voice drew my attention. Her blue eyes shone with unshed tears. “And I knew it wasn’t a car accident, because where was the car? I figured it was our father’s motorcycle club brothers, mostly on account of how much Billy hated them after. He’d never really hated the Iron Wraiths until he came back from the rehab center, just sorta tolerated them. But I didn’t know they beat on him because of Claire.”
“Does she know?” Jethro asked, no longer looking irritated, but now enormously remorseful.
I grunted, irritated. The point of this hadn’t been to make Jethro feel guilty all over again. Jethro didn’t have anything to do with Billy landing in the hospital at sixteen, but he’d been an Iron Wraiths recruit at the time, and I’m sure he was feeling renewed shame due to past association.
I recognized how hard it had been for Jethro to turn his life around, to turn his back on the motorcycle club and our father and return to our family as the prodigal son. Being right and doing right and staying the narrow course means never knowing the fragile line between humility and humiliation, never knowing how difficult it is to ask for forgiveness, never understanding the pain of forgiveness withheld.
But admitting wrong and working every day of your life to make up for it takes bravery, persistence, and a rare strength of character. I loved Jethro, I loved Billy, and I respected the hell out of them both: Billy for always staying the narrow course; Jethro for straying but clawing and fighting to find his way back.
“Cletus?” Jethro prompted again. “Does Claire know what Billy did for her?”
I shook my head. “No. She doesn’t. He didn’t want her to know.”
“Why not?” Duane thundered. “What the hell is wrong with him? He should’ve told her first thing, as soon as he could. He lost his chance at playing college ball, he lost his chance to go to college, he lost everything.”
“He didn’t lose everything. He still has all his teeth, doesn’t he? Don’t underestimate the value of teeth. And never mind why he didn’t tell her, though I have my suspicions,” I said, lifting my hands to the straps of my overalls and hooking my thumbs around them. “She’s gunna know soon, ’cause I’m telling her. But first, we need to talk strategy.”
“Strategy?” Roscoe asked, drawing my attention, and I smiled at the mischievous look in my little brother’s eyes. “You want our help with strategy?”
“More like,” Beau cut in, “he wants our help putting his plan into motion.”
“I see.” Ashley lifted her chin, inspecting me but looking more interested than wary. A good sign. “Well, out with it. What’s the plan?”
“Before I tell y’all, I need to know everyone is on board.” I sent Jethro a pointed look. “I can’t do this, it’s not going to work, if everyone isn’t fully committed. You all have a part to play, your significant others do too. It’ll be a family effort.”
Jethro met my gaze squarely, showing me his palms. “Believe it or not, I just want them to be happy. Both of them. They’re the best people I know, and if being with each other means they’re happy. . .” I watched as he gathered a slow, deep breath, shrugging and saying on the exhale, “Count me in.”
“Good. That’s settled.” Duane took another step toward the center of the room. “So what’s the plan?” he asked, sounding curious instead of surly.
I smiled just slightly, unable to help myself, and said, “You know the old saying, You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink? Well, it’s true. You can’t force it, unless you feed it salt, or . . .” My slight smile grew. “Unless you drown the horse.”
“You’ll never be able to find yourself if you’re lost in someone else.”
― Colleen Hoover, November 9
The early bird is never a friend to the night owl. At present, I was both.
Yawning behind my hand, I strained my ears, trying to figure out who owned the murmuring voices just outside my door. I then reached for my phone on the night table and squinted at the clock. Just shy of 5:00 AM.
Early bird indeed.
Adjusting to the time change between Nashville and Chianti had been slow going, this being my second week in Italy. Though it could’ve been my third. I’d lost track of the days recently as I’d been up and down in the middle of the night trying to help my half brother Duane and his wife/my good friend Jessica with their brand-new baby.
Plus, you know, I was in Tuscany. Who needs to sleep in Tuscany? The correct answer to this question is virtually nobody. If one finds oneself lucky enough to be in Tuscany, one ought never to waste time sleeping.
A person’s time in Tuscany should be spent largely on three pursuits: wine drinking, food eating, and appreciating all the gorgeousness—including the art, views, and Italians. Unless the person in question was a new baby. Obviously, new babies shouldn’t be wine drinking.
You might as well get up and help take care of the world’s cutest infant.
Besides, it would give me some time to work on my early bird joke. Everyone’s heard, The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese, right? Well, I felt like the word wormhole—associated with space travel and whatnot—was a missed opportunity for an early bird joke. Something like, Why’d the early bird end up in Alpha Centauri? Because he took a wrong turn at the wormhole.
. . . Blah. Needs work, Scarlet.
Stretching my arms over my head as I sat up, I didn’t bother to remind myself that my name hadn’t been Scarlet for the last sixteen years. For better or for worse, I usually still thought of myself as Scarlet, not Claire McClure. This was especially true when I was doing, or thinking, or had just said something foolish. Good thing no one could hear my internal thoughts other than me; I probably sounded like a loon.
The voices outside my door persisted, not growing louder, but not fading away either. Jess’s parents were here, Sheriff and Mrs. James, but I doubted either of them were up this early. Except, actually, maybe the Sheriff?
Jessica’s daddy arose early some mornings and held the baby after the 5:30 AM feeding. Claiming the little tyke, he watched the sunrise, and then made us all breakfast while holding baby Liam in a sling. Thank goodness for Sheriff and Mrs. James. They were the only ones here who had any experience with babies.
Soon, my long-time friend Jethro Winston and his awesome wife, Sienna Diaz, were scheduled to arrive in a week or so, maybe more, sometime in mid-June. In my present groggy state, I couldn’t remember.
At thirty-six, Jethro was the oldest brother in the Winston family. He and Sienna had been married some years—four maybe?—and they had two adorable little boys. I was both looking forward to and dreading all the youthful energy. On the one hand, those kids were hilarious and lethal levels of cute, having inherited an insane amount of charisma and good looks from both their momma and their daddy.
On the other hand, I hadn’t been sleeping much, and I didn’t know if I had the energy to be jet-lagged, a night nurse for baby William Beauford Winston (but they call him Liam), and run around with Jethro’s mischievous children all day. But truth be told? I was looking forward to finding out.
In my opinion, there was no such thing as too much family, especially when you grew up with none fit to speak of.
“He hasn’t eaten anything? Nothing at all?” Duane’s hushed questions carried into my room, palpable worry pitching his voice higher.
The worry had me ignoring the bathrobe lying on the bench at the foot of my bed and quick-walking to my door. Baby Liam ain’t eating? Does he have a fever? He seemed fine—absolutely perfect—when I left him at midnight with Jess.
“How about before he went to sleep? He didn’t eat anything?” Duane pressed, obviously agitated.
I’d just placed my hand on the door latch when I heard a whispered voice respond, “Not anything,” and I stopped short because I’d know that voice anywhere.
Sienna was here? Already?!
Wait, how long have I been in Italy?
I’d known Jethro and Sienna were flying over, but I could’ve sworn they weren’t due for another week. Closing my eyes, I reminded myself not to be a complete goofball around the movie star.
I don’t mean to brag, but I know the Oscar-winning movie star, writer, comedian, and brilliant woman, Sienna Diaz. We have a relationship. We tweet at each other. I’d even feel comfortable saying we’re friends. We’re also sorta family, though it’s not technically true. But that’s a long story of tangled secrets and hillbilly history. Better not get into that now.
As Duane’s adopted momma and Jethro’s biological momma, Bethany Winston, used to say, Best to leave farts and the past behind you. She might not have been my biggest fan when she died, but I still remembered her fondly.
Moving on. Shaking myself of pointless nerves, I squared my shoulders and opened the door. To my surprise, the hall was empty.
But then I heard Duane grumble, “He needs to eat,” his words coming from somewhere around the corner.
I marched toward his voice, though marching on the ceramic tile was silent ’cause my feet were bare. Also, I was tiptoeing more than marching. But I planned to clear my throat and alert them all to my presence just as soon as I could do so gracefully. The trio were walking slowly down the hall—Duane, Sienna, and Jethro—huddled together. My half brother’s red head, his hair the exact color as mine, was bowed, his arms were crossed, and his shoulders were slumped. His beard unkempt and bushy, Duane had been looking exhausted for a while now.
“Yes, but he just went to sleep.” Sienna—gorgeous as always in Converse, black yoga pants, and a purple sweater with a wide neck falling off one shoulder—tossed her long, dark brown hair over her shoulder and lifted her hand toward the door at the far end of the hall.
It was one of the two huge guest suites on this level, mine being the other one. The room was already prepped and waiting for more family to arrive. So, not the nursery and not the room Jess, Duane, and baby Liam had been sharing since coming home from the hospital.
“Let him sleep first,” Sienna continued, turning as though to block the way, her brown eyes moving between Jethro and Duane as all three of them came to a stop.
Jethro shoved his hands in the back pockets of his jeans. “I agree with Duane. He needs food more than he needs sleep. He slept the whole way on the plane. Ashley said she couldn’t get him to eat before he left. He’s not well, he didn’t say two words to anyone.”
Sienna gave her husband a sympathetic smile. “Jet, my love, we can’t judge your brother’s mental or physical state based on how much or little he speaks. Billy doesn’t say two words to you on a good day.”
My feet stalled, and I stopped like I’d hit an invisible wall. A massive burst of adrenaline made everything inside me go haywire.
. . . Billy!?
I gasped, or my breath caught, or I must’ve made some sort of sound, because all three pairs of eyes swung toward me.
“Claire!” Sienna loud-whispered. “Sorry. We didn’t mean to wake you.”
“I—” I couldn’t think.
Everything was garbled. Billy is here? But—but he wasn’t supposed to come! I was told he wasn’t coming. He was too busy, didn’t want to leave his youngest brother still recovering in the hospital, couldn’t take the time off. I’d been told he wouldn’t be here and now he was here, and I didn’t know if I was ecstatic or terrified, and Jethro and Sienna were in front of me, pulling me into hugs.
“It’s so good to see you,” Jethro said. I registered he held me by the arms and gave me a wide smile.
“Sorry again if we woke you.” Sienna tossed her thumb over her shoulder. “The boys are downstairs already in bed. They were asleep when we arrived, so we’re going to let them rest until noon. I brought Maya, my sister—I don’t think you’ve met her? Maybe at the wedding?—well, I brought her along to help out with watching the boys. As soon as they see you’re here, they’ll want to play.”
I heard my friend’s words, peripherally comprehended them, but my mind was stuck in the quicksand realization that Billy Winston was here.
In this house.
In fact, he was probably behind the door to which Sienna had just casually gestured. So close.
And I was not prepared.
I’m never prepared for Billy Winston.
The last time we’d seen each other was Christmas, and before that it had been four years of no contact at all. I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about him since Christmas and—Who am I kidding? Since I was fourteen, Billy Winston had never been far from my mind.
Things were different. I was different. Over the last six months, I’d started working through my issues, working on myself, talking to a psychiatrist about the danger of shame and how I’d allowed it to make so many decisions for me. For the first time in ten years, I’d considered reaching out, calling Billy, talking through things.
I hadn’t reached out, partly because I wasn’t ready, and partly because—after leaving him standing in the snow—I wasn’t sure he’d want to hear from me. And even if he did, so many years of history, hurt feelings, angry words, and secrets stood between us. I didn’t know how to disarm the minefield.
But now he was here, and so was I.
“Maybe Claire can help.” Duane moseyed forward and I met my brother’s gaze.
“Help?” I squawked.
“With Billy?” Jethro glanced between me and Duane, his forehead wrinkling.
“That’s a good idea,” Sienna said around a yawn and my eyes darted to hers. If she noticed my inner turmoil, she made no sign of it. “He might eat if Claire asks. She’s difficult to refuse.”
“What? Help? Difficult?” I tried crossing my arms, but that felt weird. So I grabbed the hem of my white cotton nightgown at my thighs instead. “Uh, help with what?”
“Billy won’t eat,” Duane said plainly. “And he don’t look right, green and pale. And thin.”
“He’s real thin, right?” Jethro shifted his weight back and forth, like Billy’s thinness made him restless. “I mean, thin for Billy. And he’s got dark circles under his eyes. He looks almost as bad as he did when he was in that rehab center, in high school.”
I didn’t know much about Billy’s time in the rehabilitation facility during high school, I was long gone from our hometown by then. Folks said he’d broken his legs and a few other bones in some car accident and was in the hospital for months.
Concern for Billy’s present well-being focused my mind, cut through any anxiety and stomach flutters I had about coming face-to-face with my . . .
Well, my . . .
“Does he have a fever? A cough? Have you called Ashley?” I asked rapid-fire. Ashley was the only Winston sister, a nurse, sweet as pie, and sharp as a whip.
“No. No fever. Nothing like that.” Sienna’s expression turned thoughtful. “Ashley was there at the airport along with Cletus, seeing us off. She was the one who told us to make sure Billy ate something on the plane.”
“Shoot.” Jethro snapped his fingers, making a sound of tired frustration, and pulled his phone out of his back pocket as he turned away. “Cletus made me promise to call when we arrived, report on Billy. I forgot. Let me call him real fast. Claire, can I use your room?”
I nodded dumbly, addressing my question to both Duane and Sienna, “I—I don’t understand. Ashley put Bil—her brother on a plane when she knew he was sick?”
Duane and Sienna shared a look, and then Duane sighed and rubbed his face. “He needed to get out of town.”
Now I was well and truly perplexed. “He needed to get out of town? Why? Is he okay? I thought he wasn’t coming, on account of—uh—” I huffed, feeling awkward talking about Billy at all “—on account of what happened to Roscoe and Simone Payton and his duties at Payton Mills and him being a congressman, er, person and—”
“Claire.” Sienna placed her hand on my upper arm, ending my word waterfall. “It’s a long story.” She held my gaze, a patient smile curving her lips. “We’ll tell you everything we can once we all get some sleep, but the critical question here—right now—is whether or not to let Billy sleep, or wake him up and try to get him to eat something.”
I nodded. “Yes. Of course. Sorry. You’re right.”
Her smile both flattened and widened, her hand falling away as she shifted her attention back to Duane.
“Well?” he prompted. “What do you think?”
Even though Duane addressed Sienna, and she opened her mouth to respond—probably with something thoughtful and intelligent—I blurted before she could speak, “You should wake him and force food into him. And if he won’t eat, don’t let him sleep or give him peace until he does eat.”
And then I rolled my lips between my teeth as they both turned perplexed expressions in my direction. I tried to smile pleasantly, likely failing. But, goodness, if Billy wasn’t eating, I felt like the answer was obvious. Someone needed to take charge.
One of Duane’s eyebrows lifted, and he shook his head. “Claire, you don’t know Billy real well, but no one forces my brother to do anything he doesn’t want to do.”
I twisted my lips to the side, saying nothing, because I knew Billy Winston. I knew Billy Winston real well. In some ways, I knew him better than his family ever would.
. . . And he knows you.
I fought a shiver at the incredibly true and complex nature of that thought.
“Agreed.” Sienna nodded. “He can’t be forced. Which is why I say we let him sleep. Then, tomorrow, we’ll make his favorite food.”
Duane’s gaze flickered over Sienna. “What’s his favorite food?”
She reared back. “You don’t know what your brother’s favorite food is?”
I inhaled deeply rather than revealing the answer, but I made a mental list of ingredients to pick up from Coop—the grocery store down in Figline—this morning after I dressed.
“Is it steak?” Sienna tried, shrugging. “Or maybe fish? Does he like fish?”
Duane also shrugged. “Jethro loves spicy food and donuts. Cletus’s favorite is blueberry anything and sausage pie. Ashley loves sweet pies, all sorts, but mostly lemon meringue and pecan. Beau’s favorites are strawberry milkshakes and hamburgers. Roscoe loves omelets—or anything French and fancy—but I have no clue what Billy’s favorite food is.”
Jethro reappeared at my elbow, a phone pressed to his ear. “Right. Right. Got it,” he said, nodding, his eyes sliding to mine. “Yep. She’s right here.” And then he held the phone out, whispering, “Cletus wants to talk to you.”
“Yep.” Jethro grabbed my hand, placed the phone in my palm, and turned to face his wife and brother. “Cletus agrees with Sienna. Let him sleep for now. It might just be the anesthesia.”
Duane released a disgruntled huff and I could tell he was going to protest, but I didn’t stay for it. I turned and walked back to my room, lifting the phone to my ear.
“Scarlet,” came Cletus’s dry tone. His tone was always dry these days. I didn’t remind him to call me Claire. My old friend seemed to have an aversion to using my legal name whenever it was just the two of us. “Your assistance is required.”
“What’s up, Cletus?” I asked, but the jumble of foreboding and anticipation in my belly told me I already knew what was up. He wants me to help with—
I sighed deeply, rubbing my forehead. Only five people knew anything about my history with Billy, and two of them had passed away years ago, which left: me, Billy, and Cletus.
“I don’t know if he wants to—”
“Scarlet, I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t serious. I am familiar with how much you enjoy your hobby of pretending Billy doesn’t exist.”
I bristled at that, responding through clenched teeth, “I do not like to pretend your brother doesn’t exist.”
First of all, it was impossible. And secondly, there’d been reasons. Were they all healthy and logical reasons? No. Nevertheless, hormones and grief often make folks do nutty things, and the reasons had existed and persisted.
Cletus knew some of our history. He knew the basics of what happened when Billy and I initially fell for each other as teenagers, but he didn’t know about my unhealthy choices when I’d been nineteen. Therefore, he didn’t understand why I’d believed for so long that Billy Winston and Claire McClure were much better off not speaking or interacting with each other.
“Events have transpired—both recently and in the past—events you don’t know about, and Billy . . .” Cletus heaved a sigh. It sounded so sad, fretful, and that had me pausing. I’d never known Cletus to be outwardly sad or fretful.
“What? What’s happened?” I pressed the phone to my ear, my heart kicking up a beat. “Is this about Roscoe?”
Their youngest Winston brother and his girlfriend had been attacked last month and almost died. There’s more to the story—more secrets involving my evil father, more twisted hillbilly history—but that’s the gist of it. Roscoe and Simone were okay now, getting better every day, but it had been a close call.
“No, not Roscoe. It’s our father. It’s Darrell.”
I stood straighter, a spike of alarm racing down my spine. “What about Darrell?”
“Darrell has cancer. It’s real bad.”
The alarm became vengeful relief and I said, “Good,” before I could catch the word, a grim sense of righteousness settling over me.
My slip of the tongue didn’t much matter, none of the Winstons cherished their father, nor should they. The man was terrible. He’d beaten their mother, knocked them around plenty, and sent Billy to the hospital when he was just twelve. After Bethany Winston, their momma, died almost six years ago—the sweetest, kindest, loveliest lady on the planet—Darrell tried to kidnap Ashley at the funeral!
Can you imagine? The man was a monster. As far as I was concerned, cancer was better than he deserved.
“No. Not good, Scarlet.” Cletus overpronounced the “t” at the end of my name and grumbled something I couldn’t hear, and then said, “Listen, it’s late here and I’m tired. We’re flying out in a week or two—depending on a few things—so I need you to make sure Billy eats something. Today, tomorrow, the next day, okay? Make him feel good.”
“You want me to what?” I placed my hand on my hip, drawing myself up taller. What was Cletus asking? Make him feel good? What did that mean? I didn’t know how to make folks feel good. I’d never made anyone feel good, except with food and jokes. I could do food and jokes, no problem.
But I didn’t think Cletus’s meaning was limited to food and jokes.
“I want you—the artist formerly known as Scarlet—to feed, look after, and be sweet to my brother—the man you’ve been in love with for going on twenty years—William Shakespeare Winston, aka Billy Winston, aka Congressman Winston.”
I exhaled loudly, ignoring the ache in my chest, and whispering, “It hasn’t been twenty years.”
“Fine, seventeen going on eighteen, eighteen going on nineteen, or something like that. Point is, he needs to eat good food, and lots of it, and gentleness and care. Specifically, from you.”
I didn’t have a problem making Billy good food, but I did have a problem being bullied into it by Cletus Winston. “Cletus, I’m not saying no, but there are plenty of good cooks in this gigantic villa. Jethro is here, Sienna, the Sheriff, Mrs. James, Duane. There are plenty of folks who can make Billy food other than me.”
“Nope. It has to be you.”
“Because you know all his favorites.”
“What is really going on?” I threw my hand in the air. “This is ridiculous. Sienna, Duane, even Jethro are huddled together, strategizing how to get him to eat. And what does this have to do with Darrell having—having . . .” A flutter of nagging worry quickly transformed into a tornado of worst-case-scenario terror. I flinched, my eyes stinging as though I’d just been slapped. “Wait, wait a minute.” Licking my lips, my mouth suddenly dry, the room tilted to one side.
Oh God. Oh God. Oh God.
“Wait, are you saying—does Billy have can—” Rejecting the very thought, I firmed my voice. “Cletus Byron Winston, are you telling me Billy also has cancer?”
“What if he did? Would you do as I ask and be nice to him then? If he’s dying, will you actually give him the time of day? Is that what it’s going to take?”
“Stop being a bully and answer the damn question.”
“No, woman. He doesn’t have the cancer.”
I breathed out on a whoosh.
But then Cletus, his voice low and unmistakably angry, added, “Billy donated his bone marrow to Darrell.”
The room tilted again, and my mouth fell open. I couldn’t believe my ears, and so I screeched, “He what?!”
“Shh! Don’t yell, you’ll wake baby Liam.”
Closing my eyes briefly, I attempted to gather my thoughts and feelings and temper, speaking slowly and carefully so as not to raise my voice. “You’re telling me your brother donated bone marrow to Darrell Winston?”
“Billy saved Darrell’s life.”
I choked on disbelief and confusion, my fingers coming to my forehead again, this time I suspected to keep my brains from falling out of my head. What the hell? What. The. Hell.
Why would Billy do that? What would’ve possessed him? Billy hated Darrell. Hated him. Why would he do that to himself. WHAT THE HECK WAS GOING ON?!
“It’s a long story, Claire,” Cletus said, giving me the sense he recognized the noises of squeaking nonsense tumbling from my mouth for what they were: complete lack of coherence.
Though, the fact that he’d finally called me Claire did not escape my notice.
“I solemnly promise, the very moment Jenn and I arrive, I shall divulge the unabridged version of events, start to finish. Hell, I’ll even tell you all the stuff Billy should’ve told you years ago but didn’t ’cause he was too busy vying for the world championship title of Most Honorable Martyr—which, given his most recent ridiculous act of selflessness, he’s earned in perpetuity, forever and ever, amen. I realize that’s a disappointment since you were also hoping for the title.”
My mouth snapped shut and I frowned. “What does that—”
“But right now? Right this minute? I am asking you, my dearest, oldest friend, to traverse the tenuous Tuscan terrain. Embrace your quest! And get thee to where them I-talians sell the foodstuffs and the wines and the whatnot. I need you, the pied piper of preparing meals, to make my brother the biggest plate of fettuccini alfredo ever seen in all the land. Put bacon in it, and chicken, and shrimp, and some greens, carrots, broccoli, peas. Put love into it too. Feed him. Feed his body and feed his soul. Make sure he eats, gets sunshine, give him a hug or two or a hundred, tell him his eyes are pretty. I am begging you.”
Cletus’s dramatics notwithstanding, I would most definitely make all his favorite dishes, no problem. But cooking wasn’t really what Cletus was asking me to do.
“Can you do that?” he pressed. “Will you do this? Here, I’ll even say please. Please, Scarlet. Please. Please.”
Crossing my free arm over my aching heart, I gave my head a small shake. What Cletus wanted—which was a miraculous reconciliation between his brother and me—was impossible for so many reasons. If anything happened between us, and that was a gigantic if, it was going to take time, a lot of time. In the past, we’d brought out the worst in each other. I’d never do anything to lead him on, not when I was still so uncertain of my own feelings about a possible reconciliation.
However, Billy was sick. Given how worried Jethro, Sienna, and Duane seemed to be, I suspected it was more than just needing to recover physically from a bone marrow donation. I could help, so I would help. But I wasn’t giving the man hugs or telling him his eyes were pretty just because Cletus demanded it, no matter how much I craved being in Billy’s arms or how truly magnificent his eyes were.
Gathering a deep breath, I decided to offer a compromise. “I will tr—”
“Great. Thanks. Bye,” Cletus said.
And then he hung up.
“If you ask me, something sinister lurks in men who avoid wine, games, the company of lovely women, and dinnertime conversation. Such people are either gravely ill or secretly detest everyone around them.”
― Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita
“What do I smell? Cinnamon buns?”
Turning over my shoulder, I gave my brother an affectionate smile. I wasn’t so lost in my own nervousness that the bags under Duane’s eyes escaped my notice. Holding his sleeping infant son in the crook of his arm, he rubbed one eye, fought a yawn, and claimed a seat around the huge, oblong table in the middle of the kitchen. The piece of furniture was seriously gigantic, but every table in this house was. It fit fourteen chairs comfortably and you could add up to another six in a pinch.
“Yes. Those are cinnamon buns. I also made dinner rolls with the dough; those’ll be coming out soon.”
“Parker House rolls, right? Like Momma made?”
“That’s right. And I got chicken soup on the stove. Do you want a bun? With some butter?” I moved from stove to oven to counter, and then back to the stove, an undercurrent of frantic energy in every step.
I felt frantic, maybe I looked frantic, but thankfully I didn’t sound frantic.
Wiping my hands on the towel sticking out of my jeans pocket, I returned to where I’d set the buns. No muffin tins could be found in this huge villa, so I’d baked the buns smooshed together in several round cake pans. To my consternation, the cinnamon bun in the center of each cake pan hadn’t risen, emerging from the oven sad and flat and half-baked.
“Yes, please to both bun and butter,” he said, yawning again. “I’m so hungry. I don’t know why I’m so hungry. All I do is change diapers, hold Liam, try to sleep—usually unsuccessfully—and tell Jess how awesome she is.”
“Lack of sleep can make you hungry,” I said absentmindedly, tearing a bun off for my brother and bringing it to him along with two big pads of butter.
“Sorry we woke you up this morning.” He accepted the plate, licking his lips. “Janet and the Sheriff left a little while ago to check out some ruins or a church or something.” Janet was Mrs. James, Jess’s momma. “I think everyone else is still asleep. Did you get a chance to go back to sleep? Or have you been cooking all morning? What time is it anyway?”
“I think it’s almost one thirty. I went to the store, picked up a few things, no big deal.” There was no way I would’ve been able to go back to sleep this morning, not when I knew there was a Billy Winston right down the hall.
My hands were shaking. I gripped the back of a chair until they stopped. “I picked up more diapers and put them in the nursery,” I added.
“Ah, thanks for that.” The infant in his arms stirred, drawing Duane’s attention.
I watched as my brother gazed at his son, a soft smile claiming his features. He leaned down and kissed the tiny cheek while making a soft shushing sound. Goodness, even if he hadn’t been my brother, it was a sight that would’ve melted any heart.
But I wondered if the image was more precious to me because Duane and Liam were my kin, and because none of us—not Duane, nor his twin Beau, nor I—had known we were related until just a few years ago. More precious because, if the secret of Duane and Beau’s maternity had been kept indefinitely, maybe I wouldn’t have been here to experience this moment.
But Billy had known about it, and he never said a word to anyone.
This thought dampened some of the simmering anticipation in my belly. Even now, all these years later, I still couldn’t make up my mind what to think about seeing Billy Winston. He’d never told me Duane and Beau were my brothers, though he’d had plenty of opportunity. It made me wonder what else he’d been keeping secret.
And wasn’t that just shit on a shoe? Here I was still longing for a man who’d lied to me about my brothers. For years. Years!
“Why do babies smell so good?” Duane asked, pulling me from my darkening thoughts.
“Um.” I shook myself, sidestepping away from my brother and closer to the tray I’d placed on the table. I picked up a large bowl, moved to the stove, and ladled two generous servings of soup while I spoke. “I’m sure there’s a scientific reason, probably something about hormones and the like. I don’t honestly know. But I agree, babies smell like heaven.”
“What’s the tray for? And all that stuff you put on it. Is that for Jess? She’s asleep, finally.”
Another rush of nerves had me releasing the ladle into the pot with a clatter, and I internally rolled my eyes at myself.
I was not this person. I was not a nervous, jumpy person. Not anymore. Growing up, being wary and watchful had been a requirement for survival. But all that was a long time ago, a different life, a different time, a different person. I was an adult now, a working singer-songwriter, a professional musician. I was not a jumpy, sweaty, anxiety-riddled teenager. Just because Billy Winston was under this roof didn’t mean I had to let him under my skin.
Determined to quit being so anxious, I turned to Duane and worked to keep my voice light. “Oh, this? This is for your brother.”
“Uh, the second one.”
“The second one?” Duane lifted an eyebrow. “You mean Billy?”
“Yeah. When I talked to Cletus this morning on the phone, he asked that I make sure your brother eats some good food.” I set the bowl back on the tray, arranging the napkin and spoon just so, and then shifting the small bud vase with two vibrant, red wild poppies back and to the side.
“Cletus asked you?”
For some reason, his question made me feel guilty, like I’d been caught in a lie even though I was telling the truth. “Yeah, well, you and Jess got enough to deal with, and Jet and Sienna just got in, plus they have the boys to look after. Janet and the Sheriff want to sightsee, and that makes sense. But I’m just here kinda in an extra capacity, if you think about it, only having myself to look after for the most part. And so, it makes sense that I be the one to feed, uh, B-Billy . . . uh, food . . . and, uh, such. . .”
Duane’s gaze sharpened (or dulled, depending on how you look at it) and morphed into a stare. Holding still except for the twisting of my fingers, I knew I was behaving strangely, but I’d never been good at wrestling my guilt. Even if it was baseless, the guilt always won, but I was working on it. I’d been working to forgive myself.
So, you know what, Mr. Guilt? Go take a long rollercoaster ride on an unfinished track.
I started. “Duane.”
“You nervous about something?”
I shook my head, tearing my eyes away. “No. Not at all.” My voice was so high, it was almost falsetto.
“’Cause you’re acting nervous.”
Now I forced my voice deeper, asking, “Am I?” and cringing when it came out baritone this time. Curse my vocal range!
The timer went off for the rolls and I lunged, flipping it off, spinning to the oven, opening the door, reaching for the dinner rolls, and then snatching my hands back when I realized I wasn’t wearing oven mitts.
“You might want to use some oven mitts,” came Duane’s flat voice from behind me.
“Yes. Obviously,” I said, frowning at my surly brother.
Loving Duane had been easy, but his grumpiness definitely took some getting used to. He didn’t mean anything by it, it was just how he was. But whenever Beau, Duane, and me were together, Beau and I shared a fair number of commiserating glances.
Seizing the oven mitts, I pulled out the rolls, pleased at the color of their browned tops. Basting them with butter before and during the baking process had made a difference, and I took note.
“Man, those smell good,” Duane said around a bite of his cinnamon bun, swallowing before asking, “Can I have one of those too? And some chicken soup?”
I nodded, whipping off the mitts and grabbing two hot rolls for the tray. “Yep. But you can either serve yourself or wait ’til I get back from taking this up to your brother. I shouldn’t be long.” God willing.
He pushed back in his seat, bent to give Liam another snuggly kiss, and rounded the table. “No problem, I can get it. I just wanted to make sure it was allowed.”
“Allowed?” Putting the finishing touches on Billy’s tray—a stick of butter, a linen napkin, a butter knife, blackberry jam—I gave Duane a look. “Why wouldn’t it be allowed?”
He rolled his eyes. “Cletus.”
I laughed. He didn’t have to say anything else.
Gathering a deep breath for courage, I picked up the tray and walked mindfully out of the kitchen, refusing to think about the next ten minutes. No use speculating on a future I couldn’t see, but I did have a plan.
I’d worked it all out over the course of the morning: I’d walk up the stairs very carefully, my mind and attention on the stairs so I wouldn’t trip; then I’d place the tray on the table just outside Billy’s door; then I’d knock, pick the tray back up, and wait for him to answer. When he did answer, I’d hand him the tray—saying something like, Here you go, Billy, or Eat this, please.
It was a good plan, solid, normal. My mind behaved while I climbed the two flights of stone steps, and even though I was a little out of breath when I reached the top landing, I was certain it was due to exercise and not nerves. I was fine. It was fine. Everything was fine.
Setting down the tray, I wiped my hands on the towel still stuck in my pocket, gathered another deep breath, lifted my fist, and knocked on the door. My heart chose that moment to jump up my esophagus. I ignored it. I was an adult and I didn’t have time for jumping hearts anymore. Jumping hearts were firmly in my past along with unfounded guilt, making excuses for folks being a-holes, trying to live my life for a dead person, and serially apologizing for things that didn’t need to be apologized for, like saying hi. Or bumping into someone. Or ordering dinner at a restaurant.
No. More. Apologizing.
I picked up the tray. I turned back to the door. I waited, bracing for the impact of his voice. I figured he’d say something like, Yeah? or Who’s there? But he didn’t. He didn’t make a sound. One full minute ticked by and my ears encountered nothing but silence.
Setting the tray down again, I took another deep breath, knocked again but this time louder, and picked up the tray. I waited.
Frowning, I stared at the door, my heart jumping with a new kind of anxiety as Cletus’s words from earlier returned to me, I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t serious.
Setting the tray down a third time, I lifted my hand to knock but stopped. Duane had been right. There was no forcing Billy to do something he didn’t want to do, not without offering him something in return, something he wanted.
Sensitive pinpricks of awareness were chased by a crest of heat, racing over my skin. I was breathing hard again, staring forward, the door blurring as I worked to ignore the sensations turning me hot and cold and making my insides freeze and boil.
. . . I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t serious.
“Dammit,” I grumbled, raising my fist and pounding on the door. “Billy Winston, open this door.”
Then, a bed squeaked. It squeaked again. It squeaked a third time followed by more silence. A whole damn ocean of it.
Obviously, he was inside. Obviously, he hadn’t eaten. Obviously, he knew his family was in a tizzy, worried about him. Obviously, he wasn’t too sick to move around on his bed.
Not obvious? Whether he was too sick to stand or speak.
I glared at the latch, allowing myself to get worked up. I was going to need to be worked up if I was going to open the door.
You can do this. He’s just a man. Just like any other man. Except, not the boogeyman. He’s not the boogeyman. He’s just like all ordinary, regular men. He is a normal, run of the mill, average man.
Even as I was thinking these thoughts, I shook my head at myself because they were nonsense. Billy Winston wasn’t just a man, and he’d never been just a man to me. When we were teenagers, he’d been my enemy, and then my friend, my love, and ultimately a traitor. He’d betrayed me, he’d abandoned me.
When I returned to our hometown at eighteen, secretly married to my husband but engaged as far as anyone else was concerned, Billy had been my dream, my fantasy, my solace and comfort, and ultimately my enemy once again.
That’s where we’d been for ten years. I didn’t know if that’s where we were now. I didn’t want to be standing at two opposing sides of the battlefield, unable to resolve our differences or coexist within each other’s orbit. But, Lord help me, even if we were, I still loved my enemy. The thought of Billy in there, suffering, unable to stand or speak, needing my help, was agonizing.
Similarly, the thought of him in there, not suffering but ignoring me after I’d been cooking all day for him, making rolls and buns and chicken soup and homemade pasta and picking damn poppies, was infuriating.
Gripping the latch, I tugged it, half expecting the door to be locked. The door swung open, revealing two steep stone steps and darkness. Evidently, he’d drawn the blackout curtains; a moment was required for my eyes to adjust and my heart to stop ping-ponging around my rib cage.
But when I could see, I spotted a king-size bed in the center of the large room and a figure lying on top of it. Not under the covers, on top of the covers. His back was to me, and a chill raced down my spine, a stark sensation that had me leaving the tray on the table outside the door and taking those two steep steps into the room on autopilot.
He didn’t move. My stomach sunk, concern choking me, and my breath came even faster.
I crossed to the bed and reached for his shoulder, but before my hand could make contact, his deep, grumbly voice said, “Leave.”
I flinched, yanking my hand back, my breath catching in my throat at the command. “I, uh—“
“Please. Leave,” he said, quieter this time.
I stared at his back, his broad shoulders, the dark hair on the back of his head. He was wearing a long-sleeved shirt—black or dark blue or dark green, I couldn’t tell which—jeans, and black boots. He hadn’t even taken off his shoes. From the way he was lying, I could see he had his arms crossed over his chest and his face mostly pressed against the pillow. Caught between my confusion, worry, and irritation, I wasn’t surprised when the worry won.
“Cletus told me what happened,” I said softly.
“Did he,” he said, sounding distant, cold, disinterested. I was familiar with this version of Billy, and as much as it saddened me, disinterest from him was—in some ways—easier to handle than interest. Billy Winston’s interest was basically a stun gun to my good sense.
“I brought you food, chicken soup and—” Twisting my fingers, I frowned at his unmoving form. Jethro had been right this morning, Billy looked smaller, thinner. The worry bloomed, filling my chest, stomach. “You need to eat, keep up your strength.”
I scrunched my face. Leaving straightaway had been my plan before I’d seen him. But now, oddly, I wasn’t ready to leave.
“I have everything on a tray just outside here,” I said, loitering, not sure why I was loitering. Instinct told me to get him talking. “I brought blackberry jam,” I said inanely, “but we also have strawberry if you’d prefer that instead. But not grape.”
All the silence.
Taking a deep breath, I glanced around the room and spotted a dark wood rocking chair. I walked to it, keeping an eye on Billy’s back, the worry now eclipsing every other good instinct.
Uncertain what I should do—leave or stay—I asked, “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Do—do you want—”
“Claire,” he said, his tone even, emotionless, and I recoiled.
The single word effectively drove all the air from my lungs. Like Cletus, Billy wasn’t partial to calling me Claire when we were alone. In fact, this was the first time he’d ever done it.
“I’d like to sleep,” he continued, carefully, slowly, like he hadn’t just called me Claire, like we were friendly acquaintances, like he was being polite. “Will you leave, please?”
Sliding my jaw to one side, my front teeth scraping together as a long dormant spark ignited within me, I said, “No.”
Then I sat my ass down in that rocking chair and I rocked. It squeaked every time it moved forward and clicked every time I rocked back. Squeak, click, squeak, click, squeak, click. Honestly, the noise was irritating as hell. Good.
Billy didn’t respond at first, lying perfectly still for several long seconds while I aggressively rocked in the chair, that dormant spark burning brighter the longer I stared at his unmoving back in the dim quiet, punctuated with squeak, click, squeak, click, squeak, click.
Then he moved.
I gripped the curving arms of the rocker, holding my breath as Billy rolled slowly to his back—like the movement cost him, like it was painful—and then turned just his head to glare at me. I’d braced for the force of his stare and the ruthlessness of his handsome features, expecting one of Billy Winston’s signature intense looks that stunned and scattered all at once.
What I got was much worse.
He wasn’t happy, no surprise there, so his irritation barely registered.
Also not a surprise, Billy was still undeniably and brutally handsome. Strong, angular jaw covered in a thick, black beard, high forehead, Roman nose, glacial blue eyes. From last Christmas, I recalled he had the faintest bit of gray at his temples and the first crease of wrinkles around his eyes and on his forehead. Both only served to make him look more distinguished and unattainable.
What made my heart seize wasn’t his irritated glaring or his attractiveness, but the sallowness of his skin, the sunken darkness around his eyes, and the distinct lack of brilliance behind his gaze.
Thus, I was surprised. A short puff of air escaped my lungs, and I stopped rocking as I took another moment to study him. His typically glacial irises were hollow, lifeless, hopeless, defeated. This man who had never been average was diminished in every sense of the word. Seeing him this way physically hurt, ripples of disquiet just under my skin. The sensation was not unlike listening to an out of tune piano or a fork scraping against a ceramic plate. He was truly ill. And yet, as I inspected him, I felt certain that the root of what ailed him was more than physical.
Something about my face must’ve annoyed Billy, because he clenched his jaw tight, his eyes narrowing. “Leave.”
Realizing I’d been gawking—and maybe also cringing—I worked to school my expression and pushed the chair to resume forward and backward momentum. Squeak, click, squeak, click, squeak, click.
“No,” I said.
“No.” He drawled the word, like he was tasting it, or spitting it.
“No.” I shook my head quickly, my pulse racing for several reasons but mostly because Cletus hadn’t been exaggerating, and I didn’t know how to wrestle these feelings of mine into a semblance of order. “But you can sleep,” I said, mostly just to say something. “I’ll, uh, sit in this rocking chair.”
What are you doing, Scarlet? What has gotten into you? Don’t poke the Billy-bear!
I told my internal thoughts to hush up and let me be. Maybe I didn’t know what I was doing or why I was doing it, but instinct had taken over, and sometimes there was no arguing with instinct.
“Why?” he asked impatiently, his chest rising and falling quickly. “Why won’t you leave?”
“Because I like this rocking chair.” I lifted my chin. “It’s comfortable.” Squeak, click, squeak, click, squeak, click.
His gaze flickered to where my hand gripped the armrest. “No other comfortable chairs in the house?”
“Not as comfortable as this one.” Squeak, click, squeak, click, squeak, click.
Billy continued to stare at me with his dull expression. “I could move it into your room.”
“No. You’re too tired. You just said so. Go to sleep. I’ll be here.” Squeak, click, squeak, click, squeak, click.
His jaw worked. “I don’t want you here.”
“Good to know.” Squeak, click, squeak, click, squeak, click.
His chest rose and fell again, but there was no heat behind his eyes, no ice either. Just . . . nothing. It made me want to cry. Instead, instinct told me to glare right back and keep on rocking.
Squeak, click, squeak, click, squeak, click, squeak, click, squeak, click, squeak, click, squeak, click, squeak, click, squeak, click, squeak, click, squeak, click, squeak, click, squeak, click, squeak, click, squeak, click, squeak, click, squeak, click—
“Fine,” he ground out, closing his eyes.
“Fine?” I stopped rocking but leaned forward, perching myself at the edge, ready to . . . do something.
“Bring in the food. I’ll eat it.” Not looking at me, Billy pushed himself up to a sitting position, a flash of pain distorting his face for the barest of seconds, making my heart squeeze anew.
I wanted to go to him. I wanted to help him sit up. And then I wanted to wrap him in my arms and give him kisses all over his face and cuddle him and tell him everything would be just fine.
Reminding myself that there was a lot more distance than just five feet between me and cuddling Billy Winston, I stood and walked up the steep stone steps; I grabbed the tray of food, descended the stairs, and crossed to the big bed. Setting the tray on the night table, I picked up the bowl and—in my mindlessness—was about to scoop a spoonful of soup and feed him when Billy reached for the bowl and took it out of my grip.
Startled by his gruffness and my weird instinct to literally spoon-feed him, I stepped back to the end of the bed, sat, and folded my hands in my lap while I watched him. Billy ate for a bit, three, four, five bites of chicken soup, his eyes half-mast and seemingly staring at nothing in particular. This, too, struck me as concerning.
Even so, I took advantage of the rare, quiet moment, sharing space with this man I so often dreamed of, studying his movements, the lines of his face.
Years ago, I hated that I dreamed about Billy with any frequency. I’d wake up feeling guilty and ashamed of my subconscious, considering the unbidden thoughts further proof of my despicable nature. I’d been married to one man and dreaming about another. Even while I slept, I was unfaithful.
So. Much. Guilt.
But at some point over the last ten years since Ben’s death, and especially in the last six months since I’d started seeing my therapist, I looked forward to my Billy dreams. Maybe because Ben was gone and we weren’t married anymore. Maybe because the dreams were always so nice and we got along so well—us singing, us talking, us walking through the woods, laughing, lying together, touching with sweetness.
Or maybe because I’d grown old and wise enough to understand the difference between thoughts and actions. I thought about Billy often. I thought about what it would be like to be with him often. But my thoughts didn’t feel like a trap anymore, like an inescapable snare. I didn’t have to act on my wishes and desires. They just were, and I had the power to decide if they were separate from me.
“You can go now,” he said, setting the bowl back on the tray and still not looking at me.
“Hmm.” I stood and peeked at it. The bowl was empty, but the plate with the rolls hadn’t been touched.
Picking up the first roll, which was still warm, I split it in half and buttered both sides liberally. Then I added the blackberry jam, returned the roll to the plate, and placed it in front of his face. Billy stared forward and through the roll I held in his line of sight, the muscle at his jaw ticking.
“I know you like blackberry jam,” I said, wiggling the plate. “And I know you love these rolls. It’s still warm, I just made them this morning.”
Billy closed his eyes, his chin lowering to his chest. I withdrew the plate as he brought his hand to his forehead, shoving his fingers into his hair.
“God, Claire. Please. Please just leave me alone.”
I tensed against a distinct and sharp spike just beneath my rib cage. He’d called me Claire. Again.
But I wouldn’t think about that now. He was sick, in need, and whether or not Billy still cared one stitch about me was irrelevant.
“Eat the roll,” I said mulishly, tapping into the fourteen-year-old version of myself who used to give him sass and smiles in equal measure.
I watched as Billy gathered a deep inhale, his eyes eventually opening and lifting to mine, and I stiffened. This. This is what I’d been expecting earlier, this was the look. The heated, piercing, ferocious collision of his gaze.
For a second I lost my breath, dazzled, my neck growing hot. But then, as we stared at each other, I detected a fracture in his signature steeliness. An off-note, as though it were a mask he’d put on rather than truly him.
I tilted my head to the side, studying this face I knew so well. “Ah-ah. I know what that look means.”
“What look?” he asked, his voice barely above a whisper, the tone sending a wave of goose bumps over and up my arms.
“You’re thinking you’ll intimidate me out of here, right?” I crossed my arms even while I held the plate. “Turn on the caveman charm? Maybe make me blush, something like that?”
“You have such a pretty blush.” His heated gaze traveled down to my breasts. “I’ve always wondered, do you blush everywhere?”
I did blush at that, but I also smiled and chuckled. He wasn’t shocking me or bullying me, not today. “Go on, William. Say something to embarrass me.” I snapped my fingers. “You could tell me how you bet I taste like strawberries,” I said, making sure I sounded bored.
His eyes darted back to mine, the forced heated licentiousness replaced with that disconcerting dullness. For once, I mourned the loss of that blasted stare; I wished it back, but only if it was really him and not him pretending.
Holding out the plate, I wiggled it again. “Eat it now, please.”
He sighed softly. Lifting his hand like the action exhausted him, he plucked the roll off the plate and ate it in two bites. Then, still chewing, he sluggishly slid lower in the bed, rolling again to his side and giving me his back. I returned the plate to the tray reluctantly and decided not to push him about eating the other roll. Not yet. Maybe later. Along with that fettuccine alfredo Cletus had suggested.
Picking up the tray, I climbed the steps and placed it on the table outside the door. And then I walked back into the room, felt around the dark closet for a spare blanket, and covered him with it. But I left his shoes uncovered so I could untie the laces, which I proceeded to do.
“What are you doing?” Billy lifted his head slightly as soon as I touched his boot, and I could hear the frown in his voice.
“I’m taking off your shoes, you’ll sleep better.”
Finished unlacing the ties, I pulled off the right boot, then the left, setting both just underneath the bed. After covering his feet with the blanket, I returned to the rocking chair—again, allowing instinct to guide my movements—and sat. This time I didn’t rock, that squeak-click noise would make a manatee go rabid.
As soon as I was settled, I glanced at Billy and found him watching me over his shoulder.
“Are you going to sleep?” I asked softly, equally at ease and on edge. “I thought you were tired.”
He gave his head a subtle shake. “Why won’t you go?”
Before I could think better of the words, I said, “Because I want to stay and make sure no monsters come while you’re sleeping.”
Crap. I’d let my hopes get ahead of me. Here he was sick, and here I was bringing up controversial moments from our past before we’d had a proper talk. But something behind his gaze shifted, a spark of interest, of recollection, and my heart gave an answering flutter.
“What will you do . . .” He frowned, it looked thoughtful, like he was remembering something. He started again, “What will you do to the monsters, if they come?”
“You don’t want to know.” I quoted his words from those controversial stolen moments, so many years ago. “Sweet dreams.”
Billy’s eyes moved over me, still dull, and yet somehow not as detached as before. Eventually, he turned completely, his head falling to the pillow.
I breathed out relief and breathed in trepidation, needing to relax my hands and unbunch my shoulders. I hadn’t realized I was so tense, but I supposed it made sense. Every time we were alone, we would either fight or kiss; I regretted both the fighting and the kissing for so long. I didn’t want to fight anymore.
For better or for worse, his disinterest in me had disarmed my apprehension and kindled my protective instincts. I could no more stand up and leave this room than I could fly like a bird, and that was that.
A few moments passed and I settled into the rocking chair. It was comfortable enough, as far as chairs go, but nowhere near the most comfortable chair in the house.
I watched Billy’s broad shoulders rise and fall in a steady rhythm, hoped that meant he was sleeping, and nearly relaxed myself when Billy’s voice—rough and quiet with sleep—said, “You’re confusing me, Scarlet.”
Holding perfectly still, waiting, I worried he’d say more. I didn’t want this to turn into one of our arguments, our epic shouting matches followed by his cold shoulder. I wanted Billy to be nice, to let me take care of him, to let things be. Just this once. Please. Just let me do this.
He didn’t say anything else. He slept. I watched him sleep, determined to keep the monsters away.
“He shrank from hearing Margaret’s very name mentioned; he, while he blamed her – while he was jealous of her – while he renounced her – he loved her sorely, in spite of himself.”
― Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South
The sun had set and risen since her visit. Now it was morning, or maybe afternoon, I wasn’t certain. I couldn’t read the light coming through the edges of the drapes, it was different here.
Mildly curious, I stood with effort and limped to the sliding glass door; walking up those stairs yesterday had cost me. My body stiff and protesting, I pulled open the curtains and squinted, turning my face away from the sudden flood of brightness. Stepping back, I blinked, waiting for my sore eyes to adjust.
The repeated buzz-buzz-buzz of my phone from somewhere in the room had me turning from the blinding view and searching. Tired as I’d been yesterday, it had taken me a while to fall asleep with her in the room. When I did, I dreamed of nothing. And when I awoke at some point in the dark, the irritating rocking chair had been empty.
At the time, I’d worked to ignore the pang of senseless disappointment and set about a few necessary motions: using the bathroom, brushing my teeth, charging my phone to check if Roscoe called and so I’d know the time, changing into more comfortable clothes. My hip and back hurt; I took something to dull it; I went back to bed but couldn’t sleep.
Now I was limping around the room, trying to remember where I’d set my phone. Eventually, I found it on top of the dresser where I’d plugged it in last night. Frowning at the screen, my hovering thumb ready to reject the call, I straightened, surprised by the identity of the caller. Accepting the call, I brought the phone to my ear.
Before I could say hello, she said, “Billy.”
“Your phone has been going to voicemail for two days.”
I glanced around the room, not noticing the surroundings in my search for a seat. “My phone was off. It was, uh, dead. Sorry.”
“It’s okay. I called Cletus, he said you made it to Italy and were with Jethro, so I knew you were okay.”
Ignoring the rocking chair, I walked to the bed, sat on the edge of it. “Were you worried about me?”
I’d asked the question mockingly, so my initial reaction to her admission was surprise. Daniella—Dani—Payton wasn’t a worrier. She was a bulldozer, and I admired the hell out of her for it. Since the initiation of our mutually beneficial engagement, she’d never reached out to express worry for me or concern about my well-being.
“You’re surprised?” she asked, not sounding offended, more like curious. “I’m not trying to nag you.”
“I know you’re not trying to nag me.” I would never accuse her of nagging. She didn’t call. Ever. I was always the one reaching out to her to discuss planning and logistics, make requests for her attendance at this function or that benefit, not the other way around. “I should’ve called and checked in. I am sorry.”
“Stop apologizing. We don’t do that with each other. Hey, did you eat something?”
Oh. That’s why she’s calling.
“Did Cletus tell you to ask me that?” I grumbled, shaking my head. I loved my brother, but he was definitely a nag.
“Yes, he did. He wanted to make sure you are eating, because he said the day before you left you didn’t eat anything, and then when you arrived, Jethro told Cletus—”
“I can’t believe them.”
“My siblings. They’ve created a phone tree to discuss my eating habits.”
“I guess they did.” Dani laughed. She had a great laugh, but it always sounded reluctant, like she didn’t really want to share that part of herself with anyone. Or maybe she didn’t want to share that part of herself with me. “But can you blame them? They’re worried.”
“They shouldn’t be,” I said, thinking, I’ve been through worse.
“That’s a silly thing to say. Your family loves you, of course they’re going to worry.”
“Lack of appetite is a known side effect of the anesthesia they used for the procedure. Happened the last time too.”
“So, did you eat?”
“What did you eat?”
I glared at nothing. “Chicken soup and, uh, Parker House rolls.”
“Oh. Your favorite.”
“Yeah. My favorite,” I responded softly.
“Why do you sound like that?”
“You’re using your Scarlet voice.”
Crap. “Am I?”
“You are. She’s there, isn’t she?”
I rubbed my face with an open hand, suddenly tired of talking. Falling asleep was always difficult, even without the corporeal her in the room. Usually, if I wasn’t exhausted to the point of passing out, night was when memories of Scarlet were sharpest, which was why I always made sure to wear myself out during a typical day. Some folks work out, work hard, and work long hours due to ambition. My reasons were much less commendable.
“Are you still there?” Dani’s voice in my ear brought me back to the present. “Billy?”
“Yes, I’m here,” I said, working to banish thoughts of Scarlet. Again.
Life beyond this room had continued since I discovered the vacant rocking chair. Life moved forward while I’d struggled to think about anything else. But I did. Last night, I’d pushed her to the margins of my mind, filling the spaces she sought to invade with ordered lists and tasks. If there was one skill I’d practiced more than any other over the last decade, it was forcing myself to concentrate on matters other than Scarlet St. Claire.
“So, she’s there. Right?”
“Did Cletus tell you that too?” I didn’t try to disguise my dislike of the subject.
“Actually, yes. He made a point of telling me you were there with Scarlet.” She sounded amused, like she found Cletus hilarious. “It was really cute.”
“Yeah, well, he knows you and I called off the engagement, but he doesn’t know it was fake.”
“Oh, I think Cletus probably knows it was fake. In fact, I’m pretty sure he knew the whole time it was fake.”
“You think so?” I didn’t know if I agreed with her, given how Cletus had loudly fretted about the engagement.
“Your brother is an evidence-based person. We never went on dates or spent any time together except to be seen in public. But it doesn’t matter now, because you called it off.”
“Are you still irritated?” I asked.
“No. Of course not. From the beginning, we agreed to do it as long as it benefited both of us. And I wasn’t irritated with you when you ended it, just the situation. I was hoping we’d have a few more months. I have a few irons in the fire, deals I need to see through that would’ve been easier if I was engaged to Congressman—soon to be Senator—Winston.”
“You should’ve said so. We can continue for a few months more, if it helps.”
“No, I don’t think that’s necessary since you’re presently in Italy with Scarlet.”
I ignored that. “Dani. It’s no big deal.”
“Billy, it’s fine. But thanks for letting me be the one to make it public. I might wait another week and then send out the official statement.”
“Take all the time you need.”
Dani paused, maybe thinking, maybe uncertain how to proceed, but eventually asking, “Are you staying off your feet?”
“I’ve done nothing but lie here since I arrived.”
“Good. The doctor made a point to call me and remind me to make sure you stay off your feet this time. You didn’t take care of yourself with the last donation, this time you really need to stay off that hip. No walking. Take it easy.”
She paused again, perhaps working through how to broach a topic. Content with silence, I stared forward unseeingly, neither enjoying nor disliking the cold void of thought and feeling within me.
I’d been in this numb limbo before. The first time when I was twelve, just after I woke up in the hospital after my father had almost killed me. The second time when I was sixteen, just after I woke up in the hospital after taking Scarlet’s punishment as my own and my father’s men had almost killed me.
This time, the numbness had descended just after discovering my little brother Roscoe in that diner with a stab wound in his back. Since then, I’d been going through the motions, doing what needed to be done. The void had only intensified when I decided to make the first bone marrow donation for Darrell, an act that would save the life of the man who’d almost taken mine twice.
Dani sighed—sounding impatient—and said, “Okay, real talk, Billy. How are you? And I don’t mean your hip. Have you seen her?”
A suggestion of something, of pain and frustration, throbbed once behind my eyes. I closed them, blocking it out.
“Yes,” I said.
“Well?” she asked.
“She’s the one who force-fed me,” I said.
“Really?” she asked.
“Mm-hmm,” I said.
“You should do a continuous hunger strike while you’re there.” Dani’s tone was desert dry. “Then maybe she’ll give you the time of day.”
“I’m not doing that.” I tested my jaw, moving it back and forth. I’d been grinding my teeth at night, or so my dentist had told me when I’d complained of headaches.
“Why not? Play patient for a little bit, let her play nurse, see where that goes.”
“No.” I shook my head and opened my eyes. “My days of trying to manipulate Scarlet into wanting me are over, they have been for a long time.”
“You mean Claire.”
“Yeah.” Once more, my gaze lost focus and I welcomed the blank void. “I guess I do mean Claire.”
I heard Dani shift, her seat creak. “You know, from one tragic love story survivor to another, may I suggest that . . . you know what? Forget it. You two never even sealed the deal and you sound just as miserable as I do. So, I don’t have any good advice. Do what you can to protect yourself as much as possible. Have realistic expectations of her, and then set them even lower. That’s all you can do.”
I felt my lips curve. “Can’t argue with that.”
“How was it seeing her?” An uncharacteristic hint of worry entered her voice. “Did she talk to you this time? Or did she do the usual running away thing?”
“She did talk to me, actually.”
“Shocking. I am shocked. Shocked.”
I sighed tiredly, finally giving my mind permission to drift and think about Scarlet’s short visit. She’d confused me. It wasn’t the food that confused me, or her harassing me into eating by rocking in that damn chair. Both actions were very Scarlet-like, so were the hovering and stubbornness.
What confused me was why she’d stayed after I’d eaten, why she’d taken off my boots and covered me with a blanket, why she’d said what she did about the monsters. Why had she done it? I hated that she’d done it. I hated how hope flared at the memory, even though I knew—with her—hoping for anything was lunacy. So, yeah, I was confused. I didn’t understand her.
You don’t need to understand Scarlet. You need to let her go.
“Well? What did she say?” Dani pushed, again bringing me back to the present.
“Nothing of consequence.” The lie slipped out before I could catch it, but I let it be.
I want to stay and make sure no monsters come while you’re sleeping.
What will you do to the monsters, if they come?
You don’t want to know. Sweet dreams.
“If it’s nothing of consequence,” Dani kept on pushing, as she was prone to do, “then you should have no problem telling me.”
“Fine.” I decided to relate just the facts. “She wouldn’t leave until I ate.”
“Why didn’t you just ignore her?”
“Because she sat in this rocking chair in my room that makes incredibly annoying noises whenever it’s rocked, and she wouldn’t stop rocking until I ate her chicken soup.”
Dani sputtered a laugh. “Are you serious? That’s hilarious.”
I said nothing.
“Then what happened?” Dani pressed after I’d been quiet for a stretch.
“I ate, then she stayed and—” a bleak laugh tumbled out of me “—she watched me sleep.” I didn’t tell Dani the importance of this, or what Scarlet had said about monsters, that wasn’t for sharing. That was for us, Scarlet and me.
Vaguely, unbidden, I wondered if Scarlet still had nightmares. The thought penetrated enough of my present numbness to send a sharp ache through the center of my chest. I closed my eyes again.
Don’t think about it. Don’t think about her.
Dani was likewise quiet for a while, like this time she was truly shocked, saying when she finally recovered, “She stayed and watched you sleep?”
“Well then. I did not expect that. Yet you don’t sound too happy about this development. I mean, I thought you’d be elated. This is the woman you’ve been pining for basically your entire life.”
As usual, it was at this point I regretted confiding in Daniella Payton all those years ago, the night of Jethro’s wedding. I didn’t usually regret that evening—us swapping our sad stories, drunk in the library of my family’s house—just whenever she asked too many questions or used words like pining.
“Anyway,” I said. Time to change the subject for good. “How are you?”
“Oh, no. I’m not finished. Why aren’t you happier about this? When she came for Christmas last year, you had all these high hopes and plans, you were going to show her that you’d grown, you were going to let her come to you.”
“And that worked so well,” I said stonily.
“Your only mistake was—”
“Noooo.” I couldn’t see Dani, but I knew she was shaking her head. “Your only mistake was—and is—still resenting her. You were—are—still mad, that she chose Ben over—”
“She chose guilt! Not Ben.” My eyes flew open and a subdued rush of fury roughened my voice. “Her great love is guilt, not Ben McClure. He was just the peddler of it, the one who got her addicted, with all his bullshit ‘saintly sacrifices.’ Scarlet is addicted to her guilt and shame and fucking self-righteous—”
“Yeeeeah. You don’t sound angry at all.”
I breathed out, my forehead falling to my palm. Damn. Dammit! Dani was right. I sounded pissed. I was pissed. I was still so damn angry with her.
“I’ve been telling you for years, you need to let that shit go.”
I rubbed my eye with a fist. “If I could, don’t you think I would’ve by now?”
“Maybe if you got laid, you’d chill out. Being celibate all of your adult life is unhealthy.”
“We’re not talking about this.”
“Okay, think of it this way: Which is worse? Scarlet being addicted to her guilt or you—Billy Winston—being addicted to your bitterness?”
“You think I’m addicted to resenting her?”
“I know so. If you wanted Scarlet more than your anger, you would’ve told her what you did for her when she left at fourteen.”
I shook my head. This was an old, tired argument. We’d had this same conversation several times, usually after we’d drunk too much scotch and she cried about Curtis Hickson, aka Catfish, Iron Wraiths captain and criminal. The woman looked like that actress Gabrielle Union and was a financial genius. I still didn’t understand why someone like Daniella Payton—brilliant in every conceivable way, good and charismatic and gorgeous—had a weakness for an asshole like him.
“Yes! You could’ve closed the distance between the two of you a long, long time ago by just telling Scarlet the truth. If she knew you took her punishment, you almost died, you lost your chance to play ball in college, you—”
“If she knew,” I spoke through gritted teeth, “then she’d feel obligated to me, like she did with Ben. She doesn’t need more guilt, more people making demands, and I don’t want her to choose me out of a sense of duty. That’s no choice at all. He ruined her. He wrecked her spirit.”
Dani made a sound of impatience and I reckoned she’d just rolled her eyes. “She is not ruined, she’s fabulous. Have you heard her latest album? I don’t even like country music and her voice gives me chills.”
I ignored the question and the content of her statement, focusing on the real issue. “I’d rather never have Scarlet at all than be with her like that. I don’t want her to repay a debt, I don’t want her guilt, I just want her.”
“Then use this opportunity! She’s there, in Italy, right now, with you. Let go of being angry, stop hating her, and just love the woman, Billy. Just. Love. Her.”
“I don’t want to talk about this.” Another stab of pain in the center of my chest pushed the words from my mouth.
“Fine. Let’s talk about the bone marrow transplant.”
“I don’t want to talk about that either.”
Dani chuckled. “Fine. Whatever. There’s lots of things you don’t ever want to talk about. So, let me say this one thing. On behalf of my entire family, thank you. Thank you for being there that night to help my sister. Thank you for donating the bone marrow. You’re doing the right thing.”
I stopped myself from hanging up on her. I definitely didn’t want her gratitude for donating my marrow to Darrell. I hadn’t done it for her, or her family, or even my family. I’d done it for revenge.
Dani kept on talking. “All those people that Razor killed, they and their families are going to get justice. He’s going to jail for the rest of his life, or he’s going to get the death penalty—one or the other—and that’s because of you. Your father would’ve died if not for you. Yeah, Razor would’ve been charged in the attempted murder of your brother and my sister—a federal officer—but that’s not, I mean, he could’ve been paroled in twenty years.”
“Maybe he would’ve died in prison,” I said quietly, “before he was paroled, now that he can’t use his hands.”
“Hmm. Maybe. But think about all those families who wouldn’t have gotten justice.”
Shrugging, I glanced out the window. “I guess that’s true.”
We passed the next few seconds in silence, each with our own thoughts. I watched a wasp tap itself against the sliding glass door of my room, looking for a way in. Of their own accord, my eyes focused beyond the wasp to the landscape beyond. If I’d been in a mood or mind to notice such things, I would’ve said the view was beautiful. Green hills, the chaos of forest patched intermittently with tidy vineyards, gray stone red-roofed villas, and—every so often—a white church steeple pointing to a cloudless blue heaven.
The Smokies were yellow and green, hot in the summer; blue and brown, cold in the winter; every shade of the rainbow during spring and fall. But my old mountains were never this dreamy combination of orange and purple and warmth. I’d been right. The light here was different.
I heard Dani’s chair creak again, bringing me back to the room. I heard her breathe out, and then breathe in like she was preparing to say something. Clearly, she was teetering on uncharacteristic indecision. I sensed it through the phone and the thousands of miles between us.
So, curious, I asked, “You have something to say?”
“I do, actually.” Once more, her chair creaked. I heard papers shuffle, or something like it. “I have to talk to you about something other than just checking on you. But . . . I don’t know how to put this.”
She eventually said, “I got a visit from the FBI—oh man, it was awkward. They showed up at my office on Wall Street unannounced, a gang of them in cheap black suits and white shirts and badges. They said FBI so many times. So many, like I was going to forget in the ten seconds they last said it. Anyway, um, it was about you.”
“Yes. They wanted to know if you’d talked to me about or discussed the events of the night Razor tried to kill your brother and Simone.”
“Precisely. But they wanted to know if we had because Razor is apparently claiming that after you knocked him out, you assaulted him.”
“Assaulted.” She couldn’t see me, so she couldn’t see the small, satisfied twist to my lips. “Is that what he said?”
“He’s saying you knocked him out, and then you cut his hands with his own knife, sliced right through his tendons.”
“If I knocked him out, how could he possibly know what I did after?” The cold, calm mantle of detachment settled firmly around me, a cocoon of soothing starkness.
“Well, that’s the thing,” Dani said just before I heard a door clicking shut on her end. “No one else was there except Simone and Roscoe, and they were both passed out. But that also means no one else was there to cut his hands, right?”
“I can’t say whether anyone else was there, I was kinda busy trying to keep Simone and Roscoe from dying.”
“True, true.” Her voice wavered, like she fought a shiver. “Anyway, I told them I didn’t know anything because I simply don’t know anything. You haven’t told me anything, so how could I know anything?”
“And they seemed to think that was strange, since we’re engaged and all.”
“But then I told them you’d called off the engagement and that seemed to make them feel better about my lack of knowledge.”
“And I asked them what difference it made whether or not you cut his hands—again, reiterating I had no idea one way or the other—because you would’ve been acting in self-defense. But the agents said it did make a difference because you weren’t acting in self-defense.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes. They said since Razor was unconscious, if it’s discovered that you did, indeed, cut his hands then you could face jail time for that.”
“Hmm,” was all I said. But what I wanted to say was, I don’t care. If that’s my punishment, so be it. It was worth it.
“I told them I actually thought it was pretty shitty. Here you are, donating bone marrow to their number one witness, and then here they are, conducting an investigation, trying to put you in jail. That’s stupid. Again, I don’t know anything, except for how asinine it would be to put you in jail for stopping a mass murderer. Other than that, I know nothing.”
That drew a little bit of a laugh from me, one with humor. “You know nothing. That would be a first.”
“Ha-ha. Anyway, they also asked when you were planning to be back in the country. They said when you come back to the States, they need to bring you in and talk to you about it. But that they understood you are recovering from your second bone marrow donation and would leave you be until you returned. There you go, that’s what I wanted to tell you.”
“Thanks for the heads up,” I said evenly, meaning it. I’d have to figure out what to do about this later. Maybe I’d turn myself in, maybe I’d say nothing at all, I hadn’t decided yet. But I wouldn’t lie. If it’s not true, don’t say it.
I did my best to live this every day, the only exception over the course of my life had been Scarlet. The woman was my only secret, the only person I’d lied about, or for, or to, and always as a means of protecting her.
“Anything you want to tell me Billy? About what happened that night?” Dani’s voice dropped to a whisper.
I didn’t hesitate. “Nope.”
“Then I’m just going to ask, did you cut his hands?”
“Bye, Dani.” I was tired of talking; I needed a shower; I needed to stretch.
She made a soft grunting sound of displeasure. “You’re an interesting and complicated person, Billy Winston.”
Working to stand, I kept the strain out of my voice, saying, “Coming from you, Dani Payton, I’ll take that as the highest of compliments.”
“You know, I think in an alternate universe, I could’ve fallen in love with you . . . if I hadn’t fallen for Curtis first.”
That pulled a small smile from me. “Same.”
“You fell in love with Curtis?”
I smiled despite myself and she laughed, it still sounded reluctant. I wondered if there’d ever been a time when Daniella Payton laughed with abandon, before life and love had broken her trust.
“Why are we like this?” she asked, right on cue. Dani and I didn’t talk like this often, maybe once a year, maybe twice. But whenever we did, she always ended up asking, “Why can’t we just let them go?”
“I still don’t have an answer.” I glanced at the glass door again; a wasp—maybe even the same one as before—was tapping against it again, trying to find a way inside. “Maybe we’re stupid.”
“No. That’s not it,” she said dismissively, then added with a note of distraction, “Maybe we’re too smart.”
“How you figure?”
“We are atypically successful in all facets of our lives to an extreme degree, save this one. You’re the youngest state congressman in Tennessee’s history, and you’ll be one of the youngest federal senators ever.”
“If I’m elected.”
“Oh, you’ll get elected. You are beloved, not just in Tennessee, but by everyone. My grandfather has already written in support of your candidacy. Senator Parker from California has already said she’ll endorse you—she’d make a great vice presidential running mate by the way, when the time comes. You’re smart and gorgeous and way too charming when you decide to be. You have no skeletons in the closet because your closet is empty. Plus, the accepted spin on the whole Razor Dennings thing is that you single-handedly caught a serial killer and are responsible for saving the FBI’s case. You. William Winston saved his brother’s life and ended the June reign of terrors. The press is in love with you, Twitter is in love with you—the memes, Billy! My secretary showed me the Twitter account, what’s it called? Congressional Beard?”
I continued to track the wasp while Dani spoke, certain now it was the same one as before, hurling itself against an invisible, impenetrable barrier with the idiocy of either an insect or a man.
“Where, I guess, they tweet about how your beard basically seduces men, women, and children with its gloriousness? Something like that. Anyway, it’s epic. I laughed so hard.”
I hadn’t seen the account; I’d never been on Twitter, or Facebook for that matter. Staff members wrote all my tweets, I wasn’t a fan of the platform. Any website encouraging people to consume misleading headlines over facts seemed counterproductive to the survival of the human species. It was like folks had become willing, voracious consumers of propaganda. Bizarre.
Plus, Cletus was always asking me to live-tweet stuff, like going to the grocery store during blueberry season or getting my beard trimmed at the barber shop.
“Your point?” I asked, unable to look away from the persistent and foolish wasp. Tap-tap-tap. Why doesn’t it leave? Why doesn’t it give up?
“My point, Gruffy McGrufferton, is just this: if you want that senate seat next year, it’s yours. You know that. And maybe that’s our problem. If we want something, we work and work and work and push and push and push until it happens, and then it always happens. But with Curtis . . .”
I listened as Dani gathered a deep inhale, the sound overlaid by the tap-tap-tap of the insect. Her melancholy sigh the melody of futility; that imbecilic wasp provided the percussion; my silence was the accompaniment.
“Pushing gets me nowhere with her,” I stated stoically. “I know that already.”
“And yet,” she said with a hint of sadness, “you can’t help yourself, can you? You still push.”
** END SNEAK PEEK **