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Gunnery Sergeant Liam Reinhardt, former United States Marines sharpshooter, veered his motorcycle to the left, avoiding another pothole in the pockmarked gravel road. It wasn't much better than the goat trails leading from one remote Afghani village to the next. Except, this wasn't Afghanistan and he wasn't tracking some insurgent leader through dusty mountains.
Nope, he was back in the U.S. of A. Afghanistan, Iraq and some places he couldn't divulge were his past. As was his ex-wife and an honorable discharge based on some faulty heart valve that had shown up when he was being patched up from that last mission. That assignment had been the pinnacle of his career. It was right up there with the SEALs taking out bin Laden back in 2011, only Liam's mission had had a lower profile.
Growing up, hunting in the woods of Minnesota and Wisconsin, he'd known early on he wanted to be a sharpshooter. The irony wasn't lost on him that while he'd been fully prepared that enemy fire might take him out at any time, he'd never expected to lose his life, as he knew it, due to a personal plumbing defect.
Neither had he planned on Natalie bailing on their marriage two years ago because she couldn't handle his deployments. What the hell? She'd known his career path when she married him. Now it was time to regroup because all of that was history. At thirty-one, he was starting all over. Starting what? Doing what? He'd be damned if he knew.
Rolling to a stop, he pushed up his helmet's bug-spattered visor and surveyed his immediate future. Good Riddance, Alaska, spread before him. A single road cut through the collection of buildings flanked at the rear by evergreens.
Over the throb of his bike, he heard the drone of a plane. Bush plane. It was a far cry from the sound of F-15s and recon drones or the fractured chop-chop-chop of a Chinook. Sure enough, a bush plane, coming in low, touched down on the landing strip to the right of the town.
A breeze carried the scent of spruce and the odor of bear. While the trees were everywhere, bears would remain scarce. For the most part, they avoided people. He knew the feeling. He wanted to be left the hell alone.
Back home in Minnesota, that had been damn near impossible with his mom hovering over him. He and she operated on different planes, and after his dad died, their differences had seemed more marked than ever.
Liam craved the solitude he remembered from when he'd visited Good Riddance as a teenager. And his uncle, Bull Swenson, a tough-as-nails vet who'd spent some time in a Vietcong hellhole back in 'Nam, had found a new start and a new life here. Liam had followed in Bull's footsteps joining the military. He figured he might as well follow Bull's lead afterward, as well. Good Riddance seemed like an all-around good decisionor at least a decent enough option to make it worth checking out.
Flipping his visor back into place, Liam rolled out once again. Within minutes and a mile or so, the piece of crap road had widened. It was certainly no mystery as to why the bush pilots had plenty of business.
On the outskirts of town, a group of kids played baseball in a clearing. Not the Little League stuff his ex-wife's nephews had played with tricked-out uniforms, brow-knitted coaches and overbearing, yelling parents. There hadn't been a thing fun about it for the kids as far as he could tell the couple of times Natalie had dragged him along to watch. Nah. He grinned. This was good old "sandlot" ball.
He caught a couple of curious glances as he parked his bike in front of the long log building on the edge of town that was both the air center, bed-and-breakfast and the only joint that sold a hot meal and a cold drink. Chances were Bull was in either the restaurant or the airstrip office instead of his hardware company.
Liam stood, feeling the stretch in his legs and back, although maintaining one position for hours was old hat to him. It was what he'd trained for and had done for a long time.
He pulled off his helmet and hung it on the handlebars, the breeze feeling good against his head. Two kids, a boy and a girl, both blond and freckled, with a sled dog at their side, sans sled, stopped on the sidewalk and eyed Liam's motorcycle with a mix of admiration and envy.
"That's a sweet ride," the boy said. Liam figured they were about seven or eight.
Liam smiled at the kid's terminology. That was one thing he'd learnedboys were boys and they liked boy toys whether it was the Middle East or suburban Minnesota or the Alaskan bush. Boss Black, as he called his Benelli, was damn sweet with an 1131 cc engine, matte black paint and plenty of chrome. "Thanks. I like it."
The girl piped up. "I like your helmet."
The boy rolled his eyes. "Girls."
"Shut up." She landed an elbow to his side.
Liam smiled. "Let me guessbrother and sister?"
The girl spoke up. "Twins." She shot her brother a triumphant smirk. "I'm the oldest."
That pulled a laugh out of Liam. "Me, too. I beat my brother out by five minutes." And much like this kid, he never let Lars forget it.
She looked slightly crestfallen. "Oh, I was only four minutes," she perked up, "but I was still first."
"That's because they were saving the best for last," the boy said. Obviously they'd run through this spiel a number of times before.
"Our grandparents run the dry goods store," the boy said, ignoring his sister's disdainful snort. "We're spending the summer with them. They can hook you up if you need stuff. The beef jerky's really good. Mr. Curl makes it himself."
"Thanks, I'll keep that in mind."
A whoop came from the baseball game down the way. "I'm playing first base."
They exchanged a look Liam recognized from swapping the same look with his twin brother, Lars, innumerable timesnot if I get there first.
"See ya," they yelled in unison as they took off running, the dog loping down the sidewalk behind them.
The town had definitely grown since the last time he was here, which would've been sixteen or so years ago when he was sixteen and still wet behind the ears. But it still had a good feel to it. He opened the door and walked into the bed-and-breakfast/airfield office.
It was pretty much the way he remembered it. Lace-trimmed flannel curtains still hung at the windows. A couple of tables were in "the front room." The far side wall definitely held more framed photographs but the potbellied stove was still flanked by a couple of rocking chairs with a chess and checkers table between two of them.
In the far corner, a flat-screened television had replaced the older boxy model that had been there. The armchair and love seat also had a newer look than he remembered. But it still felt and smelled the samewelcoming.
Merilee Danville Weatherspoon turned from her desk to the right of the back door leading to the airstrip. "Hi there, Merilee."
Within seconds recognition dawned in her blue eyes and a broad welcoming smile lit her face. "Liam!"
She pushed up from her desk and crossed the room, her arms already extended to embrace him. She enfolded him in a welcoming hug, giving him a squeeze. "It's so good to see you! We knew you were coming, but we didn't know when."
"That makes two of us. I took my time getting here."
"Does Bull know you're here?"
He shook his head. "I figured he was either here or next door and I knew for sure coffee was here so "
Merilee smiled as she turned and headed for the coffee stand. Within seconds she'd poured him a cup. She was damn near as fast with that coffeepot as he was with his Glock. "Straight up?"
"Always." He grinned as he took the cup from her. That's how he preferred any situationstraight up.
"That's right. I remember you don't have a sweet tooth at all. You're looking good."
He laughed. "I need a shave and a haircut, but thanks." She was a classy lady and it was a nice thing to say. "You're looking good yourself."
"Well, thank you. That's because I'm happy. Bull and I got married."
"Congratulations! That's cool."
"It has been very cool," she said. She practically glowed.
The cynical side of him was impressed. Merilee and Bull had been an item for a damn long time. It was pretty mind-blowing she could still look like that, all soft and sweet, when she talked about his uncle. He wouldn't rain on her happy parade but her talk of marriage inevitably led him to think of his own marriage and subsequent divorce.
Liam supposed, in retrospect, he'd never felt that way about Natalie and obviously she sure as hell hadn't felt that way about him. He'd liked being married but the truth was he hadn't missed Natalie as much per se as he'd missed having someone to come home to. And it had been a long time since he'd had a woman. Since his divorce, a few had come on to him and he'd even briefly considered an uncomplicated exchange of sex for money when a hooker had propositioned him, but he'd passed on all of it. He'd been beyond that mindless physical engagement back in his early twenties.
"How long have you guys been married?" he said.
"It'll be two years in December. We tied the knot on Christmas Day. I'll let Bull tell you the story." She grinned. "I just wanted to tell you the news."
He liked Merilee even more now than he had when he was a teenager. Although, he'd thought she was pretty damn cool then, too. She'd left her old man, driven an RV out to nowhere and founded a damn town. Now that was a woman with a pioneer spirit. Back in the day, she'd been the town mayor. He'd bet a buck she still was.
"You still the mayor?"
She nodded. "I can't find anyone to run against me. At this point it feels more like dictator-for-life." She rolled her eyes. "I've thought about stepping down so I could just relax and Bull and I could travel, but it hasn't worked out that way."
"Not your style. You're a born leader."
She grinned. "Bull says I like to have my own way. He just stepped next door to Gus's if you want to drop in over there. I imagine you're ready for a hot meal."
"I could eat a bite or two." He could get by on field rations but he enjoyed a home-cooked meal as much as the next man. Well, maybe a little more. His last real meal had been when he pulled out of Anchorage a couple of days ago. "Whatever's cooking next door smells good."
"Caribou potpie. Lucky, the guy who owns it now, does a good job."
It smelled damn good, that was for sure. "I'll go check it out and catch up with Bull." He smiled and turned to head for the restaurant that adjoined the airstrip center.
Merilee spoke, halting him. "Liam " He turned. Smiling, she said, "Welcome to Good Riddance, where you get to leave behind what ails you."
"Thanks." Unfortunately, it wasn't that simple and he wasn't sure that was why he was here.