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JESSE FILMORE lifted his fingers from the bar, signaling for another drink.
"Liquid lunch, huh?" the bartender asked with a nervous laugh as he poured Jesse another cup of coffee. Black.
"What time is it?" Jesse's voice sounded like something that had been dragged behind a horse. His whole body felt that way—sore and beat up.
"Twelve-thirty." The bartender leaned against the polished wood bar. "We don't get a lot of coffee drinkers in here. You want a beer or a sandwich or something? We've got—"
"What's your name?" Jesse asked. He didn't lift his head, just stared at the bartender from under his eyebrows. His neck was killing him. Moving it would send an electric shock through his body.
"My name? Billy. This is my—"
"Billy? I'd like to drink in quiet."
Billy looked stunned, no doubt used to a friendlier sort of drinker in this crappy sports bar. "Yeah, ah, sure. I'll be down here if you need me." Billy backed toward the other end of the bar where two guys shared a pitcher of beer and a plate of nachos while they watched yesterday's sports recap on the screen in the corner.
When Jesse was a kid, this bar used to be a serious drinking place. No music. No darts. No pool tables. No damn ESPN. It had been a bar where men swaggered in after work and stumbled home at midnight, then fell into bed and slept without dreams.
Jesse wasn't doing any drinking. The pain meds the docs had him on were bad enough, he didn't need to let go of any more reality.
But a little peace and quiet wasn't too much to ask for. He'd come here to get out of the sun, stall for time before going to see what was left of the old house.
He'd come in here because he was a little bit scared. He blocked out the noise of the television and the buzzing neon lights and drained half of his coffee mug before setting it down precisely on the damp circle that stained the napkin.
"Holy shit. Jesse Filmore!"
Jesse turned his head as much as he comfortably could and saw Patrick Sanderson barreling down on him. In high school, Patrick had tried, briefly, to keep up with Jesse and his best friend, Mitch Adams. But the kind of trouble Jesse and Mitch had gotten into wasn't for the faint of heart and Patrick had definitely been faint of heart.
It was probably for the best. Jesse recalled the night that Patrick had gone out with them. We got arrested for stealing that car. "How have you been, man?" Patrick slapped a clammy hand on Jesse's back. Jesse fought the urge to shake it off. It wasn't Patrick so much—though he had never liked the guy—as it was anyone and everyone getting too close. Even alone in a room he felt crowded. Too many ghosts.
Jesse shrugged and the gesture apparently satisfied Patrick. "We haven't seen you in town since...?"
"My mother's funeral," Jesse said carefully, his throat a solid throb of pain.
"God, right, three years ago. I thought you were still over in Iraq." Patrick slid onto the stool next to Jesse.
"I heard about Mitch. Terrible news. Just terrible." Patrick's belly strained against his yellow golf shirt. He ran his hand over his thinning hair. "Agnes and Ron are all messed up over it."
Jesse didn't smile, didn't in any way encourage this intrusion, but Patrick didn't seem to need encouragement.
"I'd steer clear of that house if I was you. She'd probably skin you alive if she saw you." He laughed, as though what he was saying wasn't the heartbreaking reality of Jesse's life. Luckily, Jesse had grown a thick skin, from years of letting the casually hurtful and completely stupid things people said roll off him.
Billy sauntered over and threw a cardboard coaster on the bar in front of Patrick.
"What can I get you, Pat?"
"Draft and whatever Jesse here is drinking—"
"No thanks," Jesse declined. "I'm good."
Billy shot Patrick a look indicating what he thought of Jesse's manners, before walking away to get the beer.
"So are you on leave or something?" Patrick asked, turning back to Jesse.
"Something." Jesse took a big gulp of his coffee, eager to get out of this place.
"I tell you, that war..." Patrick shook his head. "Lots of good boys dying over there. Mitch Adams, I still can't believe it. He always seemed to have a horseshoe up his ass or something—luckiest damn guy. Did you ever see that girl he married?" Patrick whistled through his teeth and Jesse had the sudden and powerful urge to smash in those teeth.
"I heard she was gorgeous," Patrick continued. Time to leave.
Jesse shifted, digging into his back pocket for his wallet.
"Guess old Mitch's luck ran out." Patrick's well of insight was seemingly bottomless. "The whole town thought it was nuts when he went into the military after you. He could have done anything, football scholarship, anything. His mother..." Patrick wrapped his fat fingers around the pint Billy slid over.
"Will never forgive me. I know." Her name was at the top of a long list of such people.
I shouldn't have come in here.
Jesse threw a few bucks on the bar, drained his mug then made an attempt to stand. But his bum knee buckled. Too many hours in the car.
"Whoa there." Patrick laughed, putting up a hand to brace Jesse. "What'd you have in that mug?"
Jesse's arm jerked instinctually. He stood frozen, knowing exactly how he could kill Patrick with an elbow to the windpipe or the heel of his hand to the nose.
Jesse didn't do it, of course, but he was capable of it and that was somehow worse.
"Hey, man, sorry if talking about Mitch—" Patrick looked nervous but there was something else in his small eyes, a certain morbid curiosity. The rumors had made it home. "Terrible accident."
If Jesse stood here long enough, maybe Patrick would just come right out and ask what he clearly wanted confirmed. But Jesse didn't have time to pussy-foot, he had a house to get rid of and a life to get on with, so he took pity on Patrick.
"I killed him." Jesse said. "I killed Artie McKinley and Dave Mancio. I put Caleb Gomez in the hospital. And I watched Mitch Adams burn up in his helicopter." He patted Patrick on the back, like the good friend Patrick had always wished him to be, and limped away.
Mitch ghost dogged Jesse out the door.
The bright sunshine blinded him. Jesse blinked and gave himself a second to adjust before tackling the steps down to the asphalt parking lot.
A hot wind blew down from the mountains, carrying the smell of tar and sun-warmed grass. The scent of the southern California desert reminded him all too much of being a boy.
He'd grown up in this town on the edge of nowhere, and if it weren't for the damn house his mother left to him in her will, he would never have returned. The war had kept him occupied for three years, but now, thanks to the discharge papers, he could no longer ignore this little obligation.
All he had to do was get rid of the house and he could leave. Chris Barnhardt, a buddy from before the war, waited for him in San Diego with more construction work than he could handle and an interesting proposition that included the word partner.
If Jesse were a smart man, something he'd never claimed to be—he'd be halfway down Highway 101 on his way to the rest of his life. A life he could taste like clean, cold water after years choking on dust in the desert.
Instead he was in New Springs. Just him, more dust, the dumb dog he couldn't get rid of and the ghosts.
The bright spot of reflection bounced off his Jeep's windshield sitting the corner of the parking lot. A small woman stood next to the vehicle. Her brown hair blew out behind her like a flag. Like a warning.
He lurched to a stop.
Not this, Jesse thought, panic kick-starting his heart. Not her.
She pushed away from the Jeep and Jesse forced one foot in front of the other, inching his way toward his sister.
She had a lot of nerve. A lot of goddamned nerve tracking him down this way, ambushing him when he hadn't been in town long enough to get his bearings.
"Hello, Jesse." Rachel took a few steps closer. He tried not to notice the chin she thrust out as though she were ready for whatever he might throw at her.
It was exactly the way he remembered her. Even at thirty-four, she still looked like that eighteen-year-old girl who'd been so damn fired up to take on the world.
"How'd you know I was here?"
"You know small-town gossip. Mac and I got word the second you drove into town." She tried to laugh, but it came out all wrong. Broken in all the important places.
She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and he was struck by how short she was. How fragile she appeared. He almost laughed as he thought it. Fragile? Rachel? As a boy he'd believed she was the biggest, tallest, strongest thing on earth.
But now she didn't even come up to his shoulder and he could easily snap her in two.
He never figured his perspective would change. He opened the driver door only to have Rachel slam it out of his hand. She slid along the side of the vehicle until she was right in his face. "You're not going to run from me like you did at Mom's funeral."
"Get out of the way, Rachel," he growled, not necessarily on purpose, but the effect was good.
"No." She crossed her arms over her chest. "Please just listen to what I have to say."
He didn't care what Rachel had to say, so he turned and started walking back to the bar. He'd take Patrick and his barely veiled insinuations over his sister any day.
She darted around him and Jesse stopped, attracted and repelled by his sister's magnetic force. "Why didn't she leave you the damn house?" he demanded.
"Jesse," she whispered. He kept his eyes locked on the y in the Billy's Final Score sign over the door of the bar rather than succumb to Rachel's plan. Her voice was thick with emotion and he was not going to stand here and watch her fight tears. "Before Mom died I wrote you letters, Jesse. Didn't you get the letters I sent?"
"I got them."
She had written almost every week since the day she'd left after her high school graduation. Once he turned eighteen and joined the army, he'd finally written her back and told her to stop. And for a year, she respected his request. Then the letters had started arriving again—with a vengeance. He now knew that was about the time she and Mac Edwards had finally gotten together.
There had been cards from Mac, boxes of cookies from Rachel and funny pictures from Amanda—Jesse's new niece thanks to Rachel's marriage to Mac.
He'd opened all letters that weren't addressed in Rachel's handwriting. The rest he sent back or burned. Except the cookies—a man could only be so mad.
But he'd never responded to Mac's letters, and only once to Amanda's. There was never a reason for them to continue sending him stuff. But they had.
The whole family was just so stubborn. "We're hoping you might come up to the farm. Amanda is dying to see you again and Mac can't wait." She smiled again, all the hope in the world rolling off her.
"I didn't read your letters, Rachel."
"Jesse." She reached out to him as though to touch his arm, and he stepped out of the way. His eyes met hers and he saw what his rejection did to her, the light that it killed in her eyes.
Let it go, Rachel, he urged silently. You keep coming at me like this and you're only going to get hurt.
Her hand curled into a fist and fell to her side. "I know you're mad. But I tried—"
"Stop it." Jesse struggled to find that cold dark center of himself, that place where simplicity reigned. "I was a kid when you left. You don't know me and I don't want to know you. Just leave it alone." He watched all that hope crumple in her, like wadded-up paper.
Good. Now, stay away.
He moved past her to his beat-up Jeep and she didn't try to stop him.
"Where are you going?" she asked.
"San Diego," he told her. He winced as he swung his aching leg into the vehicle. Damn bum knee. "After I take care of Mom's house."