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"Did you really kill the horses?"
The kid gawking at him wasn't more than five years old.
Standing on the left bank of the Medina River, Jake stuffed his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket, his stomach churning like the river below. Fifteen years later, the accusation was still alive.
"My gramma says you burned the barn and the horses died." The boy's eyes sparkled, his excitement over the idea chilling.
"Get back here, Peter." The middle-aged woman grabbed the boy's arm and yanked him to her side. "He'll get mad and then you'll be sorry."
The child made a face as he squeezed himself between the woman's big legs and clutched the fabric of her baggy pants in his fist.
She turned, then snatched up their fishing gear. "C'mon, Peter. We're not staying here any longer."
"But we didn't catch any fish yet."
Ignoring the boy's protests, the woman dragged him up the riverbank to the road, hustled him into her car and drove away.
A sharp winter gust whipped at Jake's hair, but it felt like a Santa Ana wind compared to the subzero look the woman had given him.
He'd heard the whispers behind his back from the moment he'd climbed off his Harley four weeks ago. He'd come back to River Bluff, Texas, for his uncle's funeral and, even then, even at the graveside service, he'd heard the low whispers.
Barn-burner. Bastard son of the town whore.
True or not, that's who Jake Chandler was to most of the self-righteous citizens in this town where people didn't forget. Ever.
He crouched to pick up a rock, rubbed his thumb over the river-smooth stone, then slung it out where the water was calm, counting as it skippedacross the mirrored surface leaving ripples in its wake.
Five skips. Not bad for a skinny-assed kid who can't do nothin'right. Well, ol'Uncle Verne wouldn't be bad-mouthing anyone ever again not from under six feet of Texas clay.
Verne's saving grace was that he'd moved in after Jake's mom had died. If he hadn't, Jake would've been shipped off to foster care somewhere.
In retrospect it might've been a better choice.
He hauled in a long breath. He'd thought he'd put all that behind him, but in four short weeks, it all came back in spades.
The crunch of tires on gravel made him turn.
He looked up and saw his buddy, Luke, waving from his pickup.
"I tried calling. You didn't answer."
"One last invitation to come for dinner tonight."
Jake squinted against the morning sun, then made a shield with his hand. Luke didn't give up easily. "Thanks. I appreciate it, butI've got other plans."
"Yeah?" Luke got out of the truck and headed toward Jake, Stetson shading his eyes. "What plans?" he said in a Texas drawl as long as his legs.
"Just plans." Jake would have liked to spend Christmas Day with Luke's family, but knowing his friend's mom, she'd invite half the town and, considering his reception so far, he didn't feel much like chatting up the neighbors. "Besides, it's family time."
"Dude, everyone is family to your mom."
Luke grinned. "That's true. But she thinks you're special."
Lucy Chisum was one of the few who hadn't condemned Jake for his mother's so-called sins or for his penchant for getting into trouble, and sometimes taking Luke along with him.
"Besides," Luke added, "we've got a lot of catching up to do. You've been gone a long time."
"Thanks. I'll take a rain check."
"I'm sure." Even after years apart, they were good enough friends that Luke knew when not to push it.
Reaching down, Luke grabbed a stone and sent it skipping across the water.
Jake picked one up and tossed it from hand to hand. "How much you got on it?"
"Same as always." Luke tugged the brim of his hat, then reached down for another stone.
The bet they'd had as kidswinner picked the pocket and won whatever money was in it.
"You're on." Jake dropped his rock and found another, making sure it was smooth and flat, then leaned sideways and squinted. He lifted a finger to test the wind, then let 'er rip. The stone skipped once, hovered for a fraction of a second and then sank. "Shit."
"Okay." Luke elbowed Jake. "Move aside and let the master take over." With one sure flick of the wrist, Luke's stone glided over the water, skipping at least six times. He crossed his arms. "Hot damn! I still have it."
"The hell you do. I'm just out of practice. Which one?"
Luke pointed to Jake's right front pocket, frowning as Jake pulled out an empty flap of fabric and shrugged.
"You knew that all along."
Luke got quiet and rubbed his chin. "So," he said. "You given any more thought to staying?"
That again. Cole Lawry, Brady Carrick and Luke had been nagging him to fix up the old Wild Card Saloon ever since he arrived. Even Blake Smith, a relative newcomer to the Wild Bunch had gotten on the wagon. Not one poker game in four weeks had passed without one of them bringing it up.
Fact was, he'd never thought about staying. The only thought he ever had about the town that spit him out was finding some way to get even. "Excuse me." Jake tugged on one ear, then the other. "Something must be wrong with my hearing because the words comin' out of your mouth are the same ones over and over, like a broken record."
"That's because it's a great idea."
"Maybe for someone else. I don't need another business. Especially one that" Jake stopped. His feelings about the Wild Card were his own. His friends only knew what he'd let them know.
"Especially when it would be a losing proposition. No one in this town is going to come to a bar I own."
Luke waved a hand, his enthusiasm with the idea unbridled. "Forget the townspeople. The Wild Card's history as an old poker palace could bring in a lot of tourists. More and more, the hill country is getting known as a great vacation spot. With a little promotion, you'd be raking in the dough."
"I don't need the dough." Tellmell.com, the Internet business he'd started ten years ago, had gone ballistic, affording him to do just about anything he wanted. And now that his junior partner had taken over the day-to-day management, Jake had the time, too. But renovating the Wild Card wasn't even on his radar.
Luke shifted his stance, a gleam in his eye.
"Okay. Then think about how renovating the place would torque the old attitudes."
Jake laughed outright. Luke knew all the right buttons to push. It would feel mighty good to take a jab at the high and mighty who still ran River Bluff, but his business decisions were based on logic and facts. Not emotion. "Tourists?" Jake glanced around. "They must be invisible."
"It's winter. They'll be here when it warms up."
Jake sucked air through his teeth and shook his head. "And that's the problem. I won't be."
Luke's mouth quirked up on one side. "If you get all the guys to help out, it's as good as done. Blake has connections with contractors in San Antonio, Cole's starting his own construction company and his carpentry skills would"
Jake held up his hands in a time-out signal, then checked his watch. "Don't you have family to get home to? A big turkey dinner to eat?"
Shrugging, Luke said, "Yep. Now that you mention it, I do." He started up the riverbank, then turned back to Jake again. "You've got friends. Remember that."
"I know. Thanks."
They stood for a moment in uncomfortable silence, before Luke finally said, "Okay then. If you get done early with whatever it is you're doing, c'mon by."
Jake gave him a military salute. "Don't forget poker. We're switching this week from Wednesday because of the holidays."
"Do we have enough players? Cole's still in Oregon with Tessa, y'know."
"We've got seven. That's enough." More was better, but being short a few guys wouldn't stop the diehards from playingand Jake was one of them. The Wild Bunch was the one thing he'd missed about River Bluff.
"Great." Luke gave Jake a thumbs-up. "I'll be there."
When Luke was gone, Jake glanced downstream to the Bald cypress in the wetlands at the river's edge. Past it, the Wild Card Saloon crouched on the bank where the water curved south like a fat, silver snake. Even though the Wild Bunch had helped fix one part of the roof and cleaned up the apartment in the back, the old honky-tonk bar showed years of neglect.
The Western facade on the front of the building facing the river, sloped down on one side making it look as if it were sinking into the earth. The bar section, shut down after his mom died, encompassed most of the first floor and had stood empty for years. Except for the Wild Bunch games in his absence, he was given to understand.
As he walked along the riverbank toward the dilapidated building, he came across the old bigtooth maple his mom had called "the wishing tree."
When he was very little, she'd told him that if he laid his hand on the tree, closed his eyes and made an unselfish wish, it would come true. He must've made a hundred wishes on the tree and, aside from his runaway dog returning, none ever did.
He reached out and traced the edges of the heart he'd carved in seventh grade, the bark rough against his fingertips. He'd been a dreamer back then. The initials he'd carved in the center of the heart were about as hopeful as any twelve-year-old kid could get. R.D. Rachel Diamonte had been out of his league.
The same year he'd carved the heart, he'd made a wish that his mother would get well.
Jake swallowed a lump in his throat.
Pulling up his collar against another sharp gust of wind, he continued walking through the weeds. Closer to the bar, he saw a black Lincoln Town Car parked on the road near the For Sale sign he'd put up. The windows on the vehicle were tinted dark, so he couldn't tell if there was anyone inside.
Jake turned. A middle-aged man in a navy-blue suit approached from the west side of the building. He'd apparently been looking over the place. No one he recognized.
"I'm looking for Jake Chandler."
"You got him. What can I do for you?" Stepping up onto the weathered boardwalk, Jake noticed the man's spit-shined shoes, the straight-from-the-cleaners starched shirt and the perfectly matched tie that looked as if it was choking the life out of him.
"I'm Mike Dempsey, with the Flannigan and Fitch Law Firm in San Antonio." He shook hands with Jake, then gestured to the sign. "A client of mine is interested in your property, and since I was in the area, I thought I'd take a chance you might be here."
Interest was good. He hadn't had any yet. Still, he wasn't going to get too excited. The building might not be worth much, but the five acres of land it sat on were prime.
"Who's your client?"