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Midtown Atlanta, Georgia
Eight years later
"YOUR DADDY WOULDN'T call you himself, Neal, but
somethin's not right." Buford Richmond's slow Southern drawl blended into the phone's staticky connection like a bad omen. "I'd bet money the man's sick."
Since Buford had laid down good money on the Birmingham races every Saturday for the past twenty years, the man not betting might have been more cause for concern. Still, Neal gave up pretending to work.
Your daddy wouldn't call you himself....
That was the God's honest truth.
There'd been no contact between him and his father for ages. Not since their last fight a year into his eight-year sentence. He'd refused, again, to file for early parole, still naively determined to do right by Bobby. As if pissing away his own life would bring his friend back, or give the boy's family a speck of peace. Exactly his father's point. But Neal hadn't been ready to hear reason then, and his father had shouted that he wouldn't be returning.
Not for the next month's visitation. Not ever. If Neal wanted to give up, if he thought rotting in prison would somehow make up for Bobby's death, that didn't mean his father had to watch.
You're a selfish sonovabitch, Nathan had railed. Thinking of the man as Dad hadn't been possible after that day. You don't know how to do anything but quit. And you don't care who you're hurting by giving up. Well, I've hurt enough. I can't do this anymore.
And neither could Neal.
Nathan giving up had been the right thing for both of them. A fitting end, leaving all ties neatly severed.
So why had Neal's heart slammed into his throat atthe suggestion that the man might be sick?
He shoved aside the papers on his desk. Focus on the here and now -- that's what he'd promised himself after that final argument. Let go of Nathan. Let go of Bobby. Let go of the past.
Never look back.
That's what had gotten him through the remainder of his sentence. Nothing much had changed three years after his early release -- parole garnered by model behavior, instead of his father's legendary briefs. Briefs Neal studied religiously now, to learn everything he could.
He wasn't a lawyer like his father. He never would be. But kicking legal ass consumed his time all the same, the way studying law books had those endless days and nights in his cell. Giving back, making up, it was a decent enough life. It made forgetting possible. At least it had until Buford's call.
His father's ex-law partner, Neal's only remaining contact to Rivermist, touched base from time to time to discuss financial matters. Rarely by phone. A registered letter from prison was all it had taken to give Buford temporary power of attorney over Neal's mother's sizable trust, set up for Neal after her death when he'd been only five. Ever since, they'd had an understanding. If Neal wanted to talk about his father, he'd ask. And he never had.
"My father's a very wealthy man." Neal rocked back in his secondhand desk chair, in the shabby office that was more a home than the tiny apartment he rented. Rubbed at the tension throbbing at the base of his neck. It was late in the afternoon. He'd cast off his suit coat and rolled up the starched sleeves of his dress shirt hours ago. And a long, solitary night of work stretched ahead -- exactly the way he liked it. "If Nathan's sick, he'll find himself a doctor and get it taken care of."
"How much do you know about your daddy's situation?"
"I know he's alive. That he wants me out of his way. He has the means to take care of himself. There's no reason for me to be involved."
"I'm not sure Nathan wants to take care of himself -- hang all that money he has in the bank." Buford, a litigator skilled at finessing juries into believing whatever version of the truth he represented, sounded a bit like a man feeling his way barefoot through shattered glass. "I wouldn't have called you if I thought he was doing okay, or that he'd listen to anyone else."
"Have you even talked with him since he dissolved your law partnership?"
"I tried." Buford chuckled. "The bastard actually challenged me to a fistfight the one time I stopped by the house."
One of Buford's first letters to Neal had explained the breakup of his and Nathan's friendship, as well as their law practice. He'd asked if it made a difference in Neal's feelings about Buford handling his money. Since Neal had stopped feeling anything by then, he'd assured Buford it hadn't mattered a bit.
The more distance, the better. "So why involve yourself in his life now?" he demanded, needing every bit of that distance back.
"Nathan's and my history isn't the point, son. When your daddy lost you, he did some terrible things out of grief. I forgave him for that years ago. That man introduced me to my wife. He's godfather to my two girls. There's nothing I wouldn't do for him, even if he is too stubborn to ask for help. He's lived alone all this time, and I was happy to leave him be. But that don't mean I think he's been taking very good care of himself. And now -- "
"Buford, I..." Damn it, looking the other way hadn't hurt this much in years. Nothing had. "I can't get involved."
His chance to make amends with Nathan...with anyone else...was long gone. Cutting the people who loved him out of his life had been a conscious choice. The horror of prison would have been unbearable if he hadn't moved on.And afterward, inflicting himself on the people he'd left behind, would have been cruel.
Some mistakes shouldn't be fixed. Opening a door to the past now, just a crack, meant unraveling everything. Every rotting memory he'd buried, worming its way back to the surface.
And for what? "I know you're busy." Buford's tone inched perilously close to wheedling. "And the work you're doing there is important. But, if you could just see how bad the man looks, what little Nathan comes to town anymore -- "
"I can't." An image of his father's devastated expression as he'd walked away that last time escaped the pit Neal had banished it to. Fast on its heels came the echo of Jennifer Gardner's sobbing on the witness stand, the heartbreaking picture she'd made as she'd listened to him finish destroying what they might have had together.
He no longer felt anything for her most of all. "There's nothing I can say to change your mind?" the lawyer asked.
"You knew the answer to that before you called." Neal squeezed his eyes shut.
"Yeah. Guess I did." The pause that followed conjured up a picture of Buford kicking back in his own beaten-up chair. "Don't hold it against an old man for trying. Can't help it if I think it would do both you and your daddy some good if you made your peace before it's too late."
Before it's too late...
Warning bells stopped tickling and began clamoring at the back of Neal's mind. He was being played by a crafty attorney, but it didn't seem to matter.
"I'd better let you get back to it." The master manipulator sighed. "I hear you're busting judicial balls in Atlanta. If your daddy only knew what you've been up to with your mama's money, he'd bust a gut -- "
"Buford," Neal said through clenched teeth, biting down hard on a curse. He never cursed. He never lost his cool. To the world he now ruled, he was buttoned-down, spiffed-up professionalism at its best -- with just enough of the hardness he hid deep edging through, to keep people conveniently off balance at work, and happy to leave him to his privacy everywhere else.
"Yeah?" The lawyer's faceless reply was hope at its gotcha best.
Neal stared at the folders sprawled across his desk. Paperwork representing the lives of people he barely knew who'd turned to him for help because they'd exhausted all other possibilities. He was their last hope. Atlanta's prince of saving lost causes. All of them but his own.
Damn it! "Give me the name of my father's doctor," he heard himself say.
"Doc Harden's the only one your daddy would ever go to." Neal could hear the sly smile that warmed each Southern-tinged word. "But even if Doc knows something, I'm not sure he'd talk it over with you. He certainly wouldn't with me, the closed-mouth son of a gun. Whatever's going on, someone's pretty much going to have to bust your daddy's door down to get to the bottom of it."
"I'll make a few calls, that's it," Neal said. The phone slamming into its cradle cut off Buford's next sentence.
Just a few calls, that was all. One to the doctor, one to his father. Simple enough, and he'd be done. Except contacting his old man would result in the kind of backlash no one wanted, him least of all.
He'd had his reasons for shutting down. Shutting the world out. Damn good ones. And his old man had bailed, too. If Nathan was lonely now, it was by choice, same as Neal.And alone suited Neal just fine.
The arguments were solid. Logical. Best for everyone.
So why did he suddenly feel like a class-A bastard for allowing the silence between him and his old man to drag on for seven years?
Whatever it takes, that had been his mantra in prison. He'd been a vulnerable kid who hadn't a clue what he'd set himself up for. A pretty boy, and everything his father had feared would happen had come at him like a demented welcome party as soon as he'd been placed in general population. He'd learned fast to do and say and fight however he'd had to, until the filthy predators with filthy hands, and the memories screaming how much he had lost, finally let him be.
In a matter of months, the pretty boy had died and the man he was never meant to be had taken the kid's place.
A man rumored to have no emotions, no fear. Only here he was, turning chicken-shit at the thought of making a couple of phone calls to check on the father he supposedly hadn't cared about for years.