Sweet Kiss of Summer
By Gunn, Sophie
Forever Copyright © 2011 Gunn, Sophie
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780446562003
You don’t recognize this handwriting because a beautiful army nurse named Sally is writing this letter for me. I don’t think I’m going to make it, little sis. That’s okay. Hell, if I don’t pull through, I died fighting the good fight and I’m damned proud. So no moping around and getting sad. I could have died a million stupid ways when I was a kid. At least I got to go out doing something that matters.
But, Nins, you know I’m going to milk this dying-young crap.
There’s two things you’ve gotta do for me.
First, you gotta move on. Find a good guy. Start a family. And name your first son after me. Promise me that. Little Walt, NO MATTER HOW MUCH YOU HATE THE NAME. (Ha! See, I still get to be the boss even after I’m gone.) I want a little Walter growing up in Galton, giving the teachers hell, just like I used to. Remember, it was our promise to each other after Mom and Dad passed that we’d move on and not let anything stop us. Don’t stop now, little sis.
Second, I want to do something for a buddy. His name is Mick Rivers. Listen, I want him to have my house in Galton when he gets out of here. I know he’ll say I should go *#$% myself, but, Nins, can you make it happen?
Thanks, sis. I’ll see you on the other side. I miss you already.
Private First Class Walter Stokes, U.S. Army
Two years later
Nina Stokes was in her garden searching her tomato cages for the perfect beefsteak when a sporty red car roared halfway up her driveway and stopped. She spared it half a glance, then went back to her vegetables. It was reunion weekend at Galton University, the elite college that dominated the tiny town of Galton, New York. This was the third car she’d spotted this morning using her driveway as a turnaround. It could be annoying having the first driveway on the first road that was clearly marked as leading out of town.
Nina went back to her tomatoes, ripping out the hairy galinsoga that had crept into the cages. She felt bad that she hadn’t been taking as good care of her garden as she usually would have, but she was deep into the process of illustrating a cookbook, The Vegetable Virgin. It was demanding all of her attention. If she nailed it, hopefully she’d get the job for The Meat Menage. Then, if she was lucky, The Soup Slut. So finding the perfect plump tomato to nestle next to the green beans for the Italian Veggie Casserole illustration was essential. She moved down the row, carefully peering under leaves.
When she spared a second glance, the car was still there, idling in the middle of the long drive that wound up her hill. She ducked a little lower. She hated giving directions, as she never remembered the names of roads. She might say, Go right at Mrs. Gradon’s amazing cornflower blue hyacinth, surely drawing a blank stare from a person in a car that flashy.
She was inspecting the last tomato plant when the driver floored the gas. The car jumped forward, then braked hard, fishtailing up a cloud of dust mere feet from her tulip border.
The crazy-loud engine revved a few times, then cut.
She had ducked back into the garden in alarm, but now she dared a peek over the vegetation.
The front door of the car opened.
A man unfolded from the front seat, a flash from his aviator sunglasses momentarily blinding her. Her vision cleared in time to reveal him stretching his arms above his head, as if he’d just woken up from a truly excellent dream.
Nina put a hand on the nearest tomato cage to steady herself. Good thing she’d staked and caged the bushes for extra support. Talk about the perfect beefsteak.
The man pulled his T-shirt over his head in a swift, one-armed movement. She ducked low, tried to swallow, pulled the brim of her sun hat low to cover her blush and her ridiculous smile.
The most beautiful man I’ve ever laid eyes on is stripping in my driveway. God, I love this town.
She took a deep breath, the whiff of compost grounding her. I am a serious artist, a respected yoga teacher, and a sporadic, inattentive, but sincere gardener. I am an orphan, an optimist, a lover of quiet and peace. But I am in no position to be a woman who swoons over a good-looking man, even if he appears like a god in my driveway and seems determined to disrobe.
Still, she couldn’t tear her eyes away from his tanned, trim physique. She couldn’t quite get the beginning of a wicked smile off her lips. Be careful of things that look too good to be true.
The man turned to lean through the driver’s window of his car, and she tried again to shake off her response. Obviously, her boneheaded reaction was due to too little sleep and too much work.
And then everything changed.
She saw it.
Everything disappeared in a rush of tunnel vision. Gone were the tomatoes, the vague aroma of car exhaust, the fat robin keeping an eye trained on her from the maple tree. Only the tattoo on his shoulder was clear in the shining whiteness of her sudden dizziness: the downward-pointing bowie knife with a flowing white ribbon wrapped around it. She couldn’t read the words on the ribbon from this distance, but she knew them by heart. After all, they had been inked into her brother’s arm too.
Duty. Honor. Country.
Nina’s body went cold with dread.
He could be anyone from the unit.
He might not be Mick Rivers. Sure, she’d stared at the guy’s picture for two long years, wondering about him and his relationship to Walt. But military men all looked alike from a distance. The close-cropped haircuts, the square jaws, the wide chests that tapered to narrow waists. This guy could be any G.I. Joe Shmoe who had just happened to be passing through when he remembered this was Walt’s hometown. It had happened just five months before. A soldier named Bill had looked her up to drop off a few mementos of Walt he had saved.
Anyway, if this man was Mick Rivers, she had to keep a cool head and hold her ground. She had given him an entire year after Walt’s letter arrived to respond to her endless correspondence. She had promised herself that after the year had passed, the house was hers. Now that she was alone in the world, she wouldn’t put herself at the whims of others. Her first duty was to herself, and she was going to stand by it.
If Mick Rivers was here for his house, he was a year too late.
While she panicked in the garden, trying to hold firm to her resolve, the man had calmly walked around to his trunk, dug around a bit, then come up with another T-shirt.
He looked around the place, and she ducked lower. His eyes, thankfully, glazed right over the garden.
She sat down, butt in the dirt.
She loved her brother and respected his wishes, but she had to get this guy to leave. She’d just tell him that he was too late.
The house was all she had left.
Two thousand six hundred and forty-eight miles in five days in a wasted hunk of metal he had won on a dare, and Mick Rivers felt every one of those miles in his ass.
He looked up at the house in front of him and shuddered.
The garden gnome eyed him suspiciously.
Mick tried not to curse—but failed. He threw open the car door and sank into the white pleather passenger seat, rifled through the glove box for the address he’d scribbled on the back of an old phone bill envelope, then cursed again. He felt like a green recruit caught in his first firefight.
Rule number one: never assume anything.
He’d assumed he could stomach the ordeal of talking Walt’s sister out of her house. He’d driven across the country, then halfway up the drive before he’d realized his mistake with a sickening lurch that had stopped him in his tracks. No way he could do this, no matter how badly he needed this house.
Yes, I can. She is not my concern. Stay on mission. In and out. Get the job done.
Rule number two: assess the facts.
He knew that Walt’s sister still owned the place; he’d checked the public records before he’d set off. So the first question was, Who lived here now?
The house was lived in. By someone who liked vegetables. And flowers.
The only people Mick knew like that were female.
An ancient but well-cared-for green Subaru wagon sat in the drive. The bumper sticker read Galton Is Gorges. From the look of the hanging-off bumper, no man was involved, unless he was the kind of man who couldn’t fix a car. That is, the kind of man Mick was pretty sure he could dismiss as a concern.
He reconned the yard. The vast flower garden in front of the house vibrated with every color of flower and at least a hundred buzzing, happy bees. Hell, there were even frolicking butterflies. Frolicking. He didn’t like the word any more than he liked the insects, but there was no other word for it. All this place needed was a rainbow to complete the obvious message: if you want the house, you’re gonna have to go in and rip it out of a very happy person’s hands.
Could this place be more picture-perfect? Cat in window—check. Flowered welcome mat—check. Ridiculously lush garden that spilled over into a sloping yard of perfect green grass—double check. On one side, the grass led to woods that circled behind the house. On the other, to a meadow that disappeared down the hill. The meadow was dotted with every color of wildflower.
Flowers made him edgy. Tidy houses made a sheen of sweat break out on his brow. It was one of the thousands of reasons he loved the army. Barracks, tents, sleeping under the stars with guys who’d blow off a garden gnome’s head just for the fun of it. Everything in the army was what it was, didn’t pretend to be anything more. Not like trim, pretty houses, which could shelter any kind of unspoken horror.
He took the steps two at a time. Knocked. Rang the bell. No answer. He tried the knob. It turned. Unlocked.
“Hello?” he called into the foyer, taking a sneak peek around to assess what he was dealing with. The pin-neat foyer was empty save for a small, compact table holding a vase of red flowers. Pictures of flowers lined the happy-yellow walls. A red and yellow braided rug accented the shiny wood floor.
He slammed the door against the rush of déjà vu that assaulted him. Home is where the crazies are.
He went back to his car and back-kicked the door. This house was dead-on for the happy-looking little house he’d grown up in.
He turtled his head into his shoulders to shelter from the ghosts that were still raising goose bumps across his flesh.
He leaned against the hot metal of the car, letting the heat soak into his skin, into his tired muscles. Okay, think. If no one was home, it was a chance to take care of what he had thought would be the tough part of his mission but now saw might be a cakewalk next to getting the house.
He looked to the barnlike garage that was set off to the side, tucked behind the house. He could be in and out in three minutes. If the front door to the house was unlocked, the garage probably wasn’t locked either. Not that a lock would’ve stopped him.
He extracted the tattered letter from his back pocket and dropped the tiny key folded inside into his palm. He didn’t need to reread the letter. After two years, he knew it by heart:
You still alive? Good for you, buddy. If anyone gets out of this place alive, it’s gonna be you, man. Listen, I’m giving you my house in upstate New York. It’s not much of a place, but it’s something. Hell, you don’t have to live there or anything. Sell it if you want. I wrote my sister to let her know that you’ll come as soon as you get out of this hellhole. She’ll make it happen. She’s okay that way.
These keys are for the place. The first is for the front door. The second is for a box. It’s in the garage, on the top shelf by the back right corner. It’s small, like a shoe box, red rusted metal. There’s a couple of them, but you’ll know you’ve got the right one if the key fits.
Destroy it, Mick. I’m counting on you to make it go away. Never let my sister know about it or what’s inside. Can you do that for me, buddy? After all, you owe me one for Fallujah, right?
Take good care,
Your buddy, Walt
You owe me one…
For months, laid out in an army hospital in Germany, then another in Santa Monica, Mick had no way to do Walt’s bidding. Then, his body finally healed, he’d ignored Walt’s request and his sister’s letters, her calls, her messages, while he got his head back together. He couldn’t get his head around Walt’s letter, and frankly, he had enough to deal with without taking on a buddy’s mystery. Why him, after all? Why hadn’t Walt asked a buddy back home to take care of the box? Why hadn’t Walt asked another guy in the unit, one who actually liked him? What was in the box that was worth a house? Why did Walt think Mick owed him? Did he? Questions with answers buried in the muck of war and the haze of a memory that was blown to smithereens.
He really should have answered at least one of Walt’s sister’s letters. But he never thought he’d need to take Walt up on his offer.
Now here he was, fifty feet from solving at least part of the mystery. By doing this errand for Walt, he’d somehow earn the house.
His skin was clammy despite the intense, brutal sunshine.
What the hell was he going to find in that garage?
In the daylight, he’d picture a rusty, faded thing crammed with dirty money, or drugs, weapons, maybe even ammo. But in the pitch dark of three a.m., he’d imagine it grossly encrusted, as if it had spent time on the bottom of the ocean. Or worse, he’d see it in his mind’s eye marked by a bloody handprint. On bad days, he’d imagined it big enough for a human skull. On even worse days, small enough for a single, severed finger.
What had Walt done? Why was he responsible for protecting Walt’s sister from what Walt had done? Was Walt’s sister so delicate, she couldn’t handle Walt’s secrets? She had sounded delicate in her first letters. But as time passed, her words had toughened, her resolve set, until she finally told him to answer her now or go to hell.
Welcome to hell.
Mick hoped she didn’t live in the house. In a perfect world, she’d have rented it to a happy-flower-butterfly lady, who’d turn out to be eighty-seven, deaf, half blind, and ready to move on to the nursing home anyway.
No more procrastinating. He started toward the barn.
Something rustled in the vegetable garden, about thirty feet southwest.
He froze, the already-cold sweat on his skin icing over. There are no snipers in upstate Nowheresville. He knew better than to react with a combat response to a noncombat situation. He quickly tried to talk himself off that familiar ledge.
But it didn’t work. The hairs standing up on the back of his neck told him that was no bunny in the lettuce. Someone was watching him. Someone besides a clay-bearded statue in the daisies or an army of ghosts reminding him of the domestic horrors neat little houses could hold.
You know better than to sit out in the open, waiting for a bullet to the brain.
He took a deep breath. He’d spent a good year getting his head together after agonizing months of getting his body together. He knew what losing his shit felt like, and he knew how to hold it together. He was past this.
He strode across the lawn, toward the vegetable garden.
A ridiculous pink straw hat poked up, then disappeared.
He stopped at the edge of a row of green beans clinging to a web of string tied to poles. The beans hung like a modesty screen between him and a small woman crouching behind the tomatoes.
He cleared his throat. “Hello.”
“Oh! Hello.” The woman stood, nervously wiping her hands on her denim shorts as if she had just now noticed him. She took off her hat, and an explosion of red hair jolted him backward.
Mick was trying to play it cool, but he didn’t feel it.
He was face-to-face with Walt.
Not Walt. Walt is gone. But the redheaded woman looked just like Walt, if Walt had had the body of a knockout. She had the same glowing-ember-colored hair. She had the same button nose, buried in a sea of freckles. Just like Walt, her freckles matched the coppery brown of her eyes so exactly, it was as if hundreds of the things had slid off her tiny nose and flooded her irises.
“Are you lost? Need directions?” she asked, a little too eager to sound normal. Her voice cracked despite her effort. She held a green tomato in one hand and a basket lined with an orange bandana in the other.
Fact one: she was obviously Walt’s sister—maybe even his twin.
Fact two: she was picking the veggies, which meant she lived here.
Fact three: she must have been watching him for a while, which meant she was avoiding him.
Fact four: she was sexy as hell.
He ignored fact four. Not at all relevant. In and out. A surgical strike.
He took a deep breath.
“Hi.” He held out his hand. “I’m Mick Rivers. Sorry I’m late.”
She stared at him from behind her green-bean veil, struggling to keep a bewildering play of emotions off her face that kept circling back to mad. Where have you been all these years? Don’t you know how to pick up a phone?
Then—You’re finally here. I can get on with my life. I can learn the truth about what happened to Walt.
Then—But what kind of man ignores pleas for contact for an entire year, then shows up out of the blue on a beautiful summer day like it’s no big deal? Get rid of him. Quick!
She stepped out from behind the beans, not sure where to start. A rush of panic welled inside her, like the blinding whiteness of the day those two army guys in full dress uniform had rung her bell.
Everything is about to change.
She felt as if she might faint.
She had to get ahold of herself. She’d known that despite his two-year silence, this day might come.
She managed a choked, “Come inside,” accompanied by an indefinite hand wave that felt as foolish as she was sure it looked.
She had to sit down somewhere cool.
She moved in a haze toward her house—
Mick Rivers’ house.
Whose house was this? Where would she go if she gave it to this man?
No, she would not give it to him. It was her house now. First, because he’d missed his chance. Second, because even if she wanted to hand it over to him, which she didn’t, how would she ever know for sure if he was honest or if he was another con man who had written the letter himself? Or worse, how would she know if he had bullied Walt into writing it on his deathbed?
It hurt just to think about. But she had to think about it. She couldn’t let herself be conned again.
She should get rid of him fast. Except there was something she wanted from him first. What if he knew how Walt had died? He could be her last link to Walt, to knowing. She’d waited two years for the truth, and now she didn’t want to hear it on such a beautiful day, from such a beautiful man. Face-to-face with him she realized what she’d always known but had somehow ignored in order to keep her heart full of hope: she wanted answers, details, stories. But this man could lie about everything for his own gain and she’d never know.
Her mind was numb. Keep your head. She floated, somehow, into the house and down the hall, and she found herself in her kitchen. She sat down at the kitchen table. He came. Years of waiting, and he shows up today like it’s no big deal.
Her fingers tingled against the cool, smooth wood of the table.
She looked around her.
What was she doing in her kitchen?
She tried to fight the icy ball of doubt that was building inside her. Give the man the house. Walt wanted it that way—
No. Two years was too long for him to ignore her.
Walt was an impetuous, reckless fool sometimes. He’d left her a mess. He always left a mess behind.
Doesn’t matter. This is his last wish.
Unless the letter was a con put on by this beautiful man.
Lemonade. There was something to do as if this visit were normal. She’d serve him lemonade. Pitcher. Glasses. Ice. She went through the motions, determined to remain calm, to ignore the sweat forming on her brow. Tell me about Walt. I want to know. Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.
Reckless Walt, spontaneous Walt, unpredictable Walt.
Roe, the shy cat, jumped onto the kitchen table. Nina gave him a gentle stroke, but he felt her anxiety and leapt away from her trembling hands to a safer spot just out of her reach.
What was she going to do about this man?
She looked around her.
Where was this man?
She peered out the window to see him right where she’d left him, talking on his cell phone.
While Mick waited for Sandy to pick up his call, he scooped up the basket Nina had dropped in the grass on her dazed trip across the lawn. He put the lone tomato carefully inside.
Now what? He should follow her inside, but too much time in war-torn Islamic countries still made him edgy around an open invitation from a lone woman. Especially a lone distracted, obviously shaken woman. And it was clear that he’d shaken her. Badly.
Nice job, Rivers.
She had left the front door open behind her, and it swung back and forth ominously in the gentle wind.
Sandy finally picked up her phone. “Mick? Are you there? Do you have the house yet?”
He sucked on his cheek. “Can’t do it, Sandy,” he told his sister. “She’s here. And, Sandy, this house is just like our old place. I feel like Dad’s gonna jump out any minute with a belt and start whaling on me ’cause there’s a speck of dust on the couch. I feel like Mom’s gonna be upstairs, yelling for us to get ready ’cause he’s in the driveway.”
“Mick, grow up, would you? Bella is leaving the country tomorrow with Baily for her operation. We need the money. Stop being morbid and get the house.”
“Right. I know. I will. I just needed a kick in the butt.”
“Consider yourself kicked, Mick. Bella is going to die if we don’t get the money. That house is our last hope, baby.”
“Well, that sure makes me feel better. Good-bye, sweetness and light,” he said.
“Good-bye, Mick. Do it. We’re counting on you. Call me tomorrow. And, Mick—”
“What?” He looked to the picture-perfect house.
“Don’t you dare fall in love with her.”
“What? I won’t. Jesus, Sandy.”
“You might. So don’t. Your duty is to us, Mick. Don’t muck it up. You’re a soldier. Get in there and fight.”
Mick clicked his phone shut and looked up at the open door. He didn’t want to go inside, but she’d left him no choice.
Now he had to enter the heart of her territory.
He knew better than anyone that once you set foot on enemy terrain, you had better start watching where you stepped.
The instant he crossed the threshold, the oppressive perfection of the clean, dusted foyer pressed in on him. He winced as if his kid sisters were there, scrubbing, sweeping, steadily ignoring as best they could the calls of their mother upstairs, mired in bed, in cigarettes, in pills. Daddy’s coming. I hear the car. Why isn’t dinner on the table? Mick, hurry!
He had to get this place, sell it, and get out before it consumed him. Mick moved carefully into the living room, hoping for Walt-like chaos but finding more domestic perfection. He put the discarded basket on the wooden coffee table, then picked it up again.
Water ran in the kitchen, then stopped. Ice clinked. Footsteps down the hall.
“Mr. Rivers.” She carried a tray, but her hands were shaking so hard, the ice rattled in the glasses.
“Call me Mick.”
“I’m Nina. I’m Walt’s sister.” She put down the tray and handed him a glass that was as frosty as her tone. “The one who tried to contact you nonstop for over a year.”
“Right. Sorry about that. Unavoidable.”
She moved around the room carefully, the ice in her glass still clinking, her eyes on him. She set her glass on an artsy cork-and-wood coaster on the coffee table and slid a coaster toward him. Then she sat down on the couch, crossing her legs under her. Her posture was so upright and compact, her movements so economical and spare, he felt absurdly rubbery and enormous as he sank into the chair across from her. A sleek black cat jumped up behind her and settled on the back of the couch. A fluffy orange cat watched from the windowsill.
“So,” he began. Then ended. I’m here to make you homeless and steal a mysterious box from your garage. Thanks for the lemonade.
“So,” she said.
“Right,” he responded, unable to begin. Mint leaves nestled in the ice. Pulp floated on the surface. She’d hand-squeezed lemonade, and he’d never felt like a bigger asshole. This was why he’d never come for the house: he knew it was a fool’s errand to think he could take a house from Walt’s sister without hating himself forever.
She inhaled. “Mr. Rivers, two years ago I got a letter written by a stranger that might have been from Walt or might not. It arrived three weeks after he was killed. It said I should give you his house. I tried to find you. You didn’t answer any of my calls, my letters, my texts, my e-mails. You didn’t accept a single one of the certified affidavits from my lawyer.”
He was relieved that there wouldn’t be any small talk. He had to get out of this living room before the walls caved in around him. His nerves were shot. He’d gotten up at six this morning and driven almost straight from Ohio, stopping only for gas and the head. He was dying of thirst, but he felt like an intruder and he wanted to hold on to that feeling so that he wouldn’t let down his guard. He had to leave with what he came for—a mysterious box and enough cash from selling the house to get his sister the operation she needed. It didn’t matter how beautiful Nina was, how fragile and sad and confused she looked despite her best efforts to appear invincible. “Yeah, well, the letter was for real. Walt gave me the house. I’m sorry for ignoring you for so long, but now I need to have it.”
Her eyes flashed annoyance, for which he didn’t blame her one bit. “When you didn’t answer my letters, I got desperate to understand Walt’s request. It was his last wish, you know, and it was a mystery. I don’t like mysteries.”
“You’re not the only one. Believe me.”
Her voice rose. “No, Mr. Rivers, I don’t believe you. Why should I believe you?”
“You probably shouldn’t,” he admitted.
She looked ready to spring off the couch and wring his neck. “You ignored me,” she went on. “So I tried to find the nurse who transcribed the letter for Walt, so she could tell me what had happened. Maybe he’d said something to her that wasn’t in the letter, right? At least she could have told me that Walt had asked her to write the letter without duress. I hoped she could explain to me who you were and why you were ignoring me. I needed someone to help me figure out what was going on, what this was all about, since you felt no need to contact me or to return my contacts with even an e-mail.”
The nurse with the gray eyes. The one who had slipped him Walt’s letter with the keys and the address folded inside, his sole memory after the blast and before he woke up in a hospital bed in Germany. The image always surfaced accompanied by a slashing pain in his gut. He grasped to remember the nurse’s name. Susie? Sally? It was gone, like the rest of his memories. That was reason number six hundred and twelve why he shouldn’t have come here. He had to do this and get out as quickly as possible.
“The nurse was killed three weeks after Walt.” She paused. “Friendly fire.”
Her emphasis on the last two words sparked a flame of protest inside him that ignited his dry, tangled memories. She’s dead too. Poor kid. Poof, another one gone. He tamped down his thoughts, putting out the fire before it could rage.
Nina’s eyes were filled with hatred. He was grateful for her attack. Being adversaries was something he understood. If she’d been meek, he might have fled, consumed with guilt over the fuzzy justice of what he intended to do. But her anger made him bold. “Are you implying that I killed a nurse to get this house? That I’m a murderer?”
“I have no idea what you are, Mr. Rivers.”
He fixed her with a cold stare. “This place is nice, but it’s not that nice.”
“Mick. I intended to honor Walt’s last wish. But that was a year ago.”
“Yeah, well, I didn’t intend to come to ask for the place, but some important things have changed.”
“I’m not sure that’s your business,” he told her. He wasn’t about to play the sympathy card. He’d rather rob a bank.
“Good, because honestly, I’m not sure I care.”
At least they were on the same page there.
“Look, Mick, even if I intended to give you the house, I wouldn’t just hand it over unless you could prove that Walt’s letter was for real. Can you at least prove that? Not that it matters anymore. But is there anything you can offer me about Walt that will make me believe you’re for real?”
During his mad dash across the country, this sticking point, among a million others, had occurred to him. But he figured he’d deal with it, somehow, when he got here. He didn’t have any choice. He’d hoped she’d have worked it out by now.
Now here he was, face-to-face with her, and he could see as clear as day that there was no way to prove a thing. Sure, there was the letter in his back pocket, all the proof in the world of something. But it was off-limits if he was going to keep Walt’s secret about his mysterious goddamned box. And at the very least, he had to do that.
Duty. Honor. Country.
“So we have a problem,” he said.
“You can’t prove it,” she said. A light in her eye flicked off like a switch.
“Nope. Can’t prove a thing.”
“Then we’re done here,” she said.
“Okay. Nice to have met you.” It was a bluff, but it worked. She wasn’t much of a poker player. He could see the distress in her eyes. She wanted him to stay. So he rose. “It was an honor.” He held out a hand.
“Wait!” she cried. Then she took a deep breath. “At least have your lemonade. And while you do, tell me something to make this all make sense. You must have some insight into why Walt offered you the house.”
The letter in his back pocket might as well have been pulsing and blinking. Tell her the truth. What was the point of keeping a dead man’s secret? Especially since Mick didn’t have time to mess around. If Bella got on that plane tomorrow, then her initial treatments could start. And from that point, he had three months to get the money he needed to pay for the second installment. Could he even sell a house that fast if he started today? Maybe not, but at least he’d have collateral to borrow off of if he had the promise of the deed.
But he couldn’t betray Walt.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I have no idea why Walt wanted me to have this house. Believe me, I wish I knew.”
Nina let the shock of that statement settle, hoping her piercing disappointment didn’t show on her face. Late at night, so many nights, she had lain in her bed and imagined listening to the tear-inducing story about how Mick Rivers had saved Walt’s life, how they’d become bosom buddies, how they’d found the meaning of life from each other in desperate times of adversity, the only suitable payback being the gift of a place to call home.
Instead, she got this near-silent man who had nothing to give her but nice to have met you…
She tried to stay steely despite her encroaching dismay. She needed him to not just disappear. He was her last link to Walt, and she was growing angrier and angrier at him and his smug dismissal of their situation. “I’ve been living in limbo for two years. Can you imagine how that made me feel?” The cats’ ears flicked in alarm, unaccustomed to her sharp tone. Roe jumped down and slunk off into the shadows.
He shrugged. “Look, I’m sorry. I’m trying to be straight with you. Believe me, I wouldn’t be here if I could help it. I need the money.”
Money. Walt’s home was nothing to this man.
She stood and began to pace. “This is like waiting for Christmas, being good all year, then getting a stocking full of coal.” Tears threatened. Why this man, Walt? She hadn’t realized until just now how much she had expected from him. Meaning, warmth, connection, the last link to Walt—
She turned her back to him and looked out the window. Her beautiful yard, her gardens, her hopes, her dreams. She would never hand this over to an ungrateful stranger who needed cash. Her grief gathered, churned, formed into a cloud of anger. She spun back around. “There is only one person on this earth who knows the truth about Walt’s last, deathbed wish. Unfortunately, that person is you, Mr. Rivers. I’m very sorry that you don’t give a damn.”
“Unless I don’t know either,” he said, his voice so flat, so empty, it sounded like it came from deep within a terrible dream.
She sank back onto the couch, her anger raining down around her shoulders, forming puddles of grief and hopelessness. What should she do now? Just let him go? “If Walt weren’t already gone, I’d kill him,” she murmured, more to herself than to him.
Mick tried not to care that he was ripping out this woman’s heart with his bare hands and then stomping on it, but it wasn’t working.
Luckily, he still had enough of his soldier’s sense about him to regroup and replan, no matter how much he hated the mission. Obviously, she didn’t intend to give him the house. But she also didn’t want him to leave until he gave her some kind of answers about her brother.
So before this went any further, he had to extricate himself from this orderly living room and this bittersweet lemonade and this beautiful, abandoned woman. Then he had to sneak into her garage and get the mystery box. Hopefully, with that intelligence in hand, he could figure out the rest of his plan from there.
He’d been making deals with himself on his marathon drive from California. If it’s drugs in the box, I’ll flush them down the toilet but still fight for the house. If it’s evidence of a worse crime, one with a specific victim, I’ll forget the house and get the hell out of here and not look back…
He tried not to think about the horrors the box could contain. He couldn’t deal with Walt’s sister until he knew how devastating Walt’s secret was. Once he knew, maybe he’d have something to say to her, some kind of explanation he could share, some way to convince her to hand over the house.
Or maybe he’d discover he’d come on a fool’s errand and he could get out—fast.
The important thing was not to waste time. Bella was leaving for Israel tomorrow.
Time for a tactical retreat. “Look, this is a bad situation. You’re upset. I’m sorry I ambushed you like this.” He stood. “I shouldn’t have. I’ll give you some air. I’ll come back tomorrow.”
“That’s it? You’re leaving?”
“Yep.” He put the key to the front door on the coffee table. He considered the tomato basket he’d left on the floor and put it on the table too, in case she went looking for it back outside where she’d dropped it. He understood the panic that followed confused, dazed actions and didn’t want to upset her any more than he already had.
“Where’d you get that key?” she asked.
“Walt gave it to me.”
“Maybe that’s something—” She paused, her voice shaky. “Proof of—” She cleared her throat. “Something.”
“Or maybe I stole it from Walt’s gear after faking that letter and killing that nurse.”
Her face closed in on itself. “Right.”
“I’m sorry about your brother. Walt was a good guy. Is a good guy. I wish I understood him. I’ll give you some time, some space. I’ll come back tomorrow and we’ll talk then. Okay?”
He stood up, nodded to the remaining cat, then made for the door.
She watched him retreat, disbelief filling every atom of her being. The coward! Something wasn’t right, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. A man didn’t ignore a house for two years, finally show up out of the blue in a car with California plates, then back down to give her space.
She was tired of space.
She stared at the spot on the chair where he’d been. Space.
Anger at Mick swirled with anger at Walt for planning this gift to this man in such a random, impetuous, Walt-like fashion. Whom did she expect Walt would pick for his house? A prince? A knight in shining armor? A good guy who’d tell her everything and they’d fall in love and live happily ever after?
Oh God. She felt sick to her stomach. That was exactly what she’d been imagining.
She was such a fool. What everyone always said about her was true: she was a naïve fool when it came to life. She should let him go.
Mick was out of the room, into the foyer. Mick, who’d had the nerve to make her wait two years and now wanted her to wait even longer.
She heard the swish of metal against metal as the doorknob turned against the stem, then the grind of metal against wood as the latch slipped from its hole in the doorframe.
She exploded, emitting a sound something like a growl, nothing like any sound she had ever made before in her life.
Somehow, she was beside him, knocking his hand aside. Somehow, she had wedged herself between him and the door. Someone who sounded like her but couldn’t possibly have been her growled, “You’re not going anywhere, Mick Rivers!”
He let himself be pushed back, his hands up in mock surrender. Or maybe it was shock. She didn’t care. This wasn’t about him; it was about her. He’d waited too long to be worthy of her consideration. She punched her finger into his chest, backing him to the foyer wall, away from the door. “Two years I’ve waited for you to get your butt over here, Mick Rivers! Two years I’ve been paying taxes and repairs and snow removal and everything else that it takes to keep a house from falling down on itself. Do you have any idea what it takes to keep a house from falling down on itself? And not for one minute did I feel as if this house was really mine. Can you imagine how crappy that felt?”
She jabbed his chest to stop his answer, letting her frustration and righteous indignation flow like an unstoppable river. “And then you show up out of the blue and you say you’re sorry? Sorry! I’ll give you sorry. Why did Walt give you this house? If you don’t know, you better at least try to figure it out. Make something up, dammit. Because you aren’t leaving here until I know what Walt’s last wish was all about, Mr. Rivers. Not that I plan on granting it, mind you. But I still deserve to know.”
He tried to protest, but if she stopped now she might tangle into a snarl that could never come undone. “You’re all I have left of my brother, Mick. You’re the last stinking piece in an unfinished puzzle. You can’t walk away like it doesn’t matter.”
Her body was mere centimeters from his. Heat waves hummed between them. He started to say something a third time, but she held up a warning finger to stop him. She so wasn’t done with this man. She wanted to wring him out like a rag. She wanted to grab him and shake him and kiss him—
No. Not that. Well, maybe that. He had been in her fantasy for so long, she felt she deserved it. But she didn’t want to give him the satisfaction. She shoved him away to keep herself from clinging to him. “The nerve of you to treat me like a delicate flower, not worthy of a fight. Oh, I see you’re troubled. Excuse me, ma’am. Didn’t want to disturb you. Let me give you space!” It felt divine to rant after waiting so long to confront this man who had ignored her for two years. She was aware that she was flying off the handle. She was being completely irrational, and she didn’t care. She wanted him gone and she wanted him to stay. She wanted to hit him—and also to grab on to him and not let go. “I waited years to find out about Walt’s last days. I waited years to get out of this ambiguous living situation that Walt stuck me in. I’ve been taking care of a house that wasn’t fully mine, or maybe is, or who the hell knows?” She threw up her arms, and he took the opportunity to back away.
Oh no. He wasn’t getting away that easy.
She grabbed him by the collar of his shirt as if he wasn’t towering a good half a foot over her and pulled him close. She raised her face to his. “You owe me, Mick Rivers. So get your stuff out of your flashy car and I’ll throw some sheets on the bed in the spare room. You better plan on settling in for a few days. Because you’re not going anywhere. Not until you tell me what the hell is going on. I want the truth. And then once you give it to me, I don’t want to see your pretty, smug face ever again.”
Mick considered the very angry woman blocking his escape route. The heat of her was intense. He had enough sisters to know better than to mess with a woman on fire.
But she wanted him to talk.
A chill ran through him from head to toe.
She wanted to put sheets on a soft, comfy bed for him.
Another icy blast.
There were no Geneva Conventions against this particular kind of feminine torture. Still, he’d rather be shot in the leg than endure a few days of talking (lying, obscuring, whitewashing) with Walt’s sister, no matter how good she looked, no matter how badly he needed her house.
She was holding on to his shirt as if he might run if she let go.
And he might.
Except that he was right about her. The truth of their situation was simple. She wants me here. I’m her last link to Walt. My best weapon is making her think I’m prepared to walk away.
She’d shown her cards, and he still had his, possibly all aces, close to his chest.
It was time to bluff and bluff hard.
Damn, Walt. Making him use a beautiful, innocent woman. But he had no choice. Bella was sick. He had to exploit every advantage. This was war. War, he understood.
He drew himself to his full height, which next to hers was substantial.
She didn’t shrink back an inch.
“You done?” he asked, leaning in.
“Yes,” she said, still holding her ground.
Their faces were practically touching.
He considered her a few seconds too long, hoping, but failing, to make her squirm. Carefully and slowly he said, “First, no one bosses me around. No one. So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m hungry and I’m tired and I really, really need an ice-cold beer. I have a feeling I’m not going to get one here.”
“Nonalcoholic,” she threatened.
“You’re a cold woman.”
“Gluten free,” she added cruelly. “With a hint of raspberry.”
He groaned. “Which is why I’m leaving to find a dark bar that serves bloody burgers and real brew. Then I’m going to eat and drink until I feel human again. Which might be a good long while. Then I’m going to find a place to spend the night and I’m going to have my first good night’s sleep in a week. Then I’m getting myself a little breakfast. Maybe I’ll take a walk around this town. Sightsee. Pick up a few souvenirs. A Galton University sweatshirt, maybe.”
Her mouth twitched, as if she was ready to slap him across the face. Or, maybe, as if she was ready to kiss him.
He understood her dual impulses because he was fighting them himself. I don’t want to hurt you; I have to hurt you. I want to explain; I can’t explain. You’re beautiful; you’re too dangerous to touch.
He closed the distance between them another fraction of a centimeter. Her breath was warm on his face. He could practically taste her, and he wanted to, but he wasn’t going there. No way was he going there with so much at stake. He had to play this through to the end, to threaten to leave, no matter how lousy it felt to lie. She had to think he was ready to walk away. It was his only advantage until he found the box and could come up with a better plan.
“Then and only then, when I’m good and ready, I’ll check back here. If you still want to start this thing, tie that bandana from your tomato basket around the porch rail. I’m going to give you a nice long night to think about this. If I don’t see that bandana tied out front when I come back, I’m gonna turn around and you’ll never see me again.”
He knew she’d tie the bandana to the rail. She was stuck without him and she was tired of being stuck. Knowing all this made him feel so lousy, he almost gave in and told her everything.
Stay on mission, soldier.
“Go back to your tomatoes and your kitties, Nina,” he warned.
“I’m not afraid of you,” she whispered.
They were so close, he could feel her heart pounding. He could hear the blood rushing hot in her veins. His mouth was dry and his body dying to touch hers. I’m sorry I have to do this, but I have to. He put his lips to her ear and whispered all the truth he could spare her. “If you insist on starting this thing, I won’t back down. I’m a soldier. I fight. I don’t surrender. So think long and hard before you throw your hat in this ring. Because if I come back and see that you want to fight, I’m taking your house and I’m not giving you a damn thing that you want in return. I don’t tell fairy tales.”
“Good, because I’m not a child,” she hissed.
“No? You sure? Because I’ve seen your type before. You think you want truth. You think you want answers. But really, you want flowers and butterflies and rainbows and happy garden gnomes.” He touched her chin, not meaning to be gentle, not meaning anything, but feeling suddenly gentle toward her despite himself. She didn’t pull back, and he didn’t take his hand away. “I don’t have those things. There is no happy ending to this story, Nina.”
“My decision is already made.” She still hadn’t pulled away from his touch, as if they’d become fused.
They had, because he couldn’t pull away either.
Life sucks. War sucks. Losing a brother sucks and getting blown up so bad you can’t remember what happened sucks. Having a house or not having a house both sucked when the house reminded you of death and lies and loss and the impossibility of turning back time. Lying sucked for both of them, but that was life, and he was sorry but that was the way of the world. He needed cash—a lot of it, fast—and that was the way of the world too. He was giving her a choice, and that made him feel a little better because it was becoming unbearable to be this close to her without…
He closed the hairbreadth of distance between them and kissed her.
It wasn’t a passionate kiss. A touching of lips. But it was enough. Sadness passed from his lips to hers, from hers to his.
Then he turned his back on her, opened the door, and strode out and down the steps, not allowing himself to look back.
If he’d made her cry, he didn’t want to know.
Nina watched him back his ridiculous car down the long drive, going in reverse as quickly and freely as a sane person would drive forward. He disappeared down the hill. She could hear his tires protest as he spun the car into the street. His motor gunned in the distance, until it faded to nothing.
Birds chirped. The house was silent around her. Sylvie joined her at the window, rubbing against her hand with her head as if she understood.
Maybe it hadn’t really happened. Maybe she’d imagined his pale lips and his blue eyes and his close-cropped blond hair. But how could she have imagined the vibrating heat of him? And that kiss—what a kiss. She’d never been so close to a man who made her so furious, so agitated, so conflicted. He was like a cat, furious and hissing, pulling close, but then dashing away—
No, she was grasping at straws. There was nothing to him. She had imagined a good guy would show up, one who understood what a house meant, what this gift meant, what her brother meant. She was desperately trying to make him into a man he wasn’t. He’s a man who wants to make a quick buck on Walt’s death, and I’m not going to let him.
She stroked Sylvia, trying to slow her rapidly pounding heart.
When she could breathe normally again, she went to the phone, picked it up, and called the diner. Lizzie picked up on the first ring. “Last Chance diner, pickup or deliver?”
Nina couldn’t speak. All the emotion of the last twenty minutes caught in her throat. Walt was gone; he was never coming back; and no one could help her unravel the mystery he’d left behind but an impossible stranger with icy blue eyes who didn’t give a damn.
“Nins? I see you on the caller ID. You want the usual? Turkey club on wheat, no mayo, no turkey, no bacon?”
“I. Oh hell.” The dilemma crystallized. How did you know if someone was telling the truth if there was no proof? It wasn’t even he said/she said. It was he said/she listened. No—even worse than that. It was she asked/he refused to answer.
Lizzie’s voice softened. “You okay, hon? Did something happen?”
“Mick Rivers.” Nina barely managed to get the words out.
“Oh. My. God. Did he finally call?”
Lizzie inhaled sharply, letting out a little gasp. “Left? He’s in town! Did he come for your house?”
“No. Yes. I don’t know. It was very confusing.”
Lizzie inhaled again. “Hold on. Don’t move. I’m getting the Enemy Club together. Emergency meeting. Shit, I’m not off for three hours, and Judy and Emily both called in sick so I can’t leave Ally here alone. Can you wait? Seven o’clock. Can you hold on till then?”
Nina nodded. “No. Don’t come. I’m okay. I just wanted—”
“Shut up. We’re coming whether you like it or not. I’ll call everyone. Maybe Jill can get over there now. Whatever you do, don’t do anything until we get there! Don’t you dare give him that house!”
That shouldn’t be a problem. Because Nina finally understood the truth. For two years, she thought she’d been waiting for Mick Rivers to show up to try to claim what might be his. But that wasn’t the situation at all. She was the one waiting desperately for him to come so she could claim what she wanted more than anything in the world: the truth about her brother’s last days.
Officer Tommy Wynn stood on the sidewalk, looking up at the white wall on the side of Garcia’s Pharmacy. The first rays of the sunset cast a soft red glow over the paint, and on any other day the play of the light on the wall would have looked like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. But not today. Today the serenity was interrupted by the revolving red and blue lights of his squad car and by the scrawl of letters and two ugly black swastikas. The spray paint had dried, but not before it dripped grotesquely, adding to the frightening, gothic effect of what was written on the wall.
If fear was what the graffiti artist was after, the job was well-done. These graffiti guys might be petty criminals, but they weren’t half-bad artists.
Mr. Garcia stood behind Tommy, shaking his head. They’d discovered the graffiti first thing in the morning, but Mr. Garcia had been waiting all day for his son, Johnny, to get back from wherever he’d been so he could paint over the wall. Johnny was kneeling behind his father, stirring the white paint. Again.
Mr. Garcia kept up his ranting. “Do they think we’re Nazis? They didn’t even spell that right. Natzis! And anyway, we’re third-generation Mexican Americans, for Lord’s sake! I’ve never even been to Europe except when I was a little kid and my dad took me to France to show me where he fought against the goddamn Nazis!”
Tommy liked Mr. Garcia. He liked his huge concho-style pewter and turquoise belt buckles. He liked the red lizard-skin cowboy boots that he was never seen without. Tommy had been on the Galton police force for more years than he liked to remember, and he knew all the merchants by first name, knew their kids, and in the case of Mr. Garcia, even knew his two grandkids by his eldest daughter, Jessie. “I don’t think it was directed at you or your store, Mr. Garcia. I think it was just kids. I don’t think a swastika means a thing to them.” He thought of Noah Cohen, his partner, who had come this morning to take pictures for the police report. Noah was a man who knew what a swastika meant. But did it mean anything if it was made by bored kids trying to get a rise out of the town? Didn’t matter. This would be a big deal by tomorrow morning, all over the front page of the Galton Daily.
Mr. Garcia shook his head with the soul-splitting sadness only a man over sixty can muster as he watched his son lug the white paint to the wall. “I tell you. Tommy, if you could talk to Nina. She needs to get this memorial mural going. The white wall is just too much for the young ones. It’s like a giant space shouting, Come and desecrate me. Last month it was all that fraternity nonsense. And before that, the animal rights people. It’s like a white wall is too much to resist.”
Tommy agreed, but he knew there wasn’t much he could do. Nina did things her way and in her time. He’d known her since they were kids. She was three years younger than him, but his sister-in-law Lizzie and Nina were practically best friends. Maybe Lizzie could talk to her. He made a mental note to talk to her as soon as he got off duty.
“I’m thinking of hiring someone else to do the memorial,” Mr. Garcia said. “Maybe an art student from the college. I can’t keep having Johnny repainting this wall. And I want Matthew’s memorial up before Johnny joins up.” Matthew was Johnny’s older brother, the one who’d died in Afghanistan.
Johnny paused midstroke. “I don’t mind repainting it, Dad. But—”
Mr. Garcia cut him off. “Sure you do. You got better things to do than mess around here.”
Tommy said, “We’ll find out who did this. Meanwhile, I’ll talk to Nina. She’d be heartbroken if you take her off the job. I know it means a lot to her.”
“Well, then why doesn’t she do it?” Mr. Garcia asked. But then he recanted quickly. He held up his hands in surrender. “I know, I know. She’s had a hard life with being all alone up on that hill in Walt’s house, losing her brother.”
“He was her only family left.”
Mr. Garcia sighed. “And she’s an artist and they’re just, you know—temperamental. Heads-in-the-clouds types.” His voice was filled with scorn. “Gotta tell you, I’m glad my kids aren’t like that, but then, they’ve had a solid family to make sure they keep their feet on the ground.” He looked to Johnny, who didn’t look back, although it was obvious he was listening. “But we’ve been waiting a whole year. No one bothered the wall when it was just redbrick. I can’t unpaint the white.”
“I’ll talk to her. Give me a few days, okay?”
“Okay. For you, Tommy. But then I’m going to talk to Nina myself. And if she’s not going to be able to do this, I have to find someone else.” His cell phone chimed. He looked at it and sighed again. “It’s Maria. She’s texting that supper’s getting cold. Not that I have an appetite.” His shoulders slumped. “Hurry up, Johnny. It’s just a wall, for God’s sake. You don’t have to make it into the Sistine Chapel. Just slap on the paint and let’s get out of here.” Continues...
Excerpted from Sweet Kiss of Summer by Gunn, Sophie Copyright © 2011 by Gunn, Sophie. Excerpted by permission.
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