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Tyler O'Neill was welcomed back to Bonne Terre the same way he'd been kicked out of it.
With a mouthful of dirt from outside St. Pat's Church.
"I never did like you," Lou Brandt whispered in Tyler's ear while Tyler spit out gravel. "Or your family."
Tyler rolled over and grinned, wincing slightly when his lip split and hot copper blood flooded his mouth. "I've always liked you, Lou," he wheezed. "And your wife."
Lou reared back, his steel-toed work boot poised for another introduction to Tyler's rib cage, but Gaetan Bourd-age got a thick arm around Lou's barrel chest. "Come on, now, Lou," he said. Lou strained against Gaetan's arm, his big fat head turning red and purple.
"You're trash," Lou snarled. "You think winning all that money changes things?"
"No, actually," Tyler said, checking to make sure he still had his back teeth. "It just makes me rich trash."
"You're a cheat!" Lou cried.
"Oh, shut up," Tyler moaned. "You're a crappy card player, Lou. You always were and the ten years I've been gone, you've just gotten worse."
Lou strained against Gaetan's arm with renewed fury. "Someone should have shut your mouth for you years ago."
"They tried," Tyler muttered.
"Go on inside," Gaetan said, his Cajun accent thick as the swamp air. "This boy just ain't worth it." If Tyler didn't know Gaetan, he might just be hurt.
Instead he searched for his cap, finding it trampled in the dust behind him.
"You're right," Lou said, finally easing off. He spit and the thick glob landed in the dirt near Tyler's hand, causing his own temper to flare.
He reared up off the ground, but Gaetan's gaze nailed him to the dirt.
Stay put, his eyes said. I can only save your sorry ass so many times.
Lou wandered back to the church and the Sunday night poker game that had been going on in the basement ever since the church had been built, and Tyler hung his pounding head between his knees.
"Welcome home," he muttered.
"Whatchu doing back here, Ty?" Gaetan asked. The old man crouched, his thick silver mustache trembling with anger.
"A guy can't—"
"No," Gaetan said, "if that guy is you, then no. Boy!" Gaetan pulled Tyler up, and even though Tyler towered over the old swamp rat, he was cowed slightly. Coming home had been a bad idea, but coming to the St. Pat's poker game was just stupid.
But then Tyler had a thing for stupid.
"Whatever made you come back, I hope it was worth getting your face beat in." Gaetan pulled a red handkerchief out of his pocket and handed it over. Tyler pressed it to his lip.
Beat in was a stretch, but Tyler wasn't about to get into it with the Cajun.
"I don't know, Gates," Tyler said, instead. "The look on everyone's face when I walked in there was pretty priceless."
"Priceless? " Gaetan snorted. "Every man in there thinks you cheated."
Tyler bit his tongue and jammed his cap back on his head, trying hard to swallow down the urge that he'd spent the past ten years destroying. Of course, one night back in Bonne Terre and the need to defend himself came crawling back, like a kicked dog.
"I didn't cheat," Tyler said, ready to go back into that church and fight anyone who said otherwise. "Not tonight, not when I was a kid. I never cheated."
"I know that," Gaetan said, scowling, his bushy eyebrows colliding to create a mutant caterpillar. "But you took a lot of their money when you were a boy and they haven't forgotten that."
The satisfaction of taking the money off those men who looked down their noses at his family, called his grandmother names behind her back and watched him out of the corner of their eyes, was still so sweet.
He couldn't help but smile.
Gaetan cuffed him upside the head.
"You took their money ten years ago and now you come back a rich man to take more?" Gaetan shook his head.
"It's a poker game," Tyler said. "The point is to take each other's money."
"You—" Gaetan curled a hand in Tyler's shirt, pulled him down close to the old man's height until Tyler could smell the whiskey and peppermint on his breath. "You have always taken too much. Always. Even as a boy you could never be happy with what you had. You needed what everyone else had, too. And everyone in this town remembers that about you. You shouldn't have come back here."
It was no big secret. No news flash. He'd been telling himself the same damn thing the whole drive from Vegas to Bonne Terre, but hearing it from Gaetan, a man he'd always considered a friend, stung.
"I know," he said.
"Then why come back?" Gaetan asked. "You're a rich man. A celebrity. You've got that girlfriend—"
"Fine," Gaetan said. "No girlfriend. But why are you back?"
Tyler shrugged. "I have to have a reason?"
"This isn't about your mother snooping around these parts, is it?"
Tyler wished he could tell the old man, but he didn't want to implicate his friend, should it come to that. Instead, he said nothing and Gates sighed.
"You best not drive," Gaetan said, pointing at Tyler's head and Tyler gingerly touched the swelling around his eye.
Lou was a crap card player, but the guy could throw a punch.
Tyler glanced back at his beloved 1972 Porsche, its black paint melting into the shadows. "She'll be okay here?" he asked, and Gaetan snorted.
"Last car stolen in Bonne Terre was the one you stole when you left."
"I doubt that," he said, reluctant to leave Suzy alone and vulnerable outside a place as unwelcoming as St. Pat's.
"Merde, Ty, it's just a car."
"Don't tell that to Suzy."
"Lord, Ty, you don't change. I'll watch her myself."
"Thank you. In that case, I might as well take in some night air," he said, remembering the path through town past the police station and Rousseau Square down to The Manor as if it had been yesterday.
He glanced back in the shadows at his dusty Suzy. He'd get her back in the morning.
"Okay then," Gaetan said. "You come by for dinner or Maude will have your head."
"Will do," Tyler agreed with a grin that split his lip. "Hey, Gates?" The old man stopped, his bowed legs turning him around. "You really mayor?" Tyler asked.
Gaetan nodded. "Sure am, boy, so you best watch yourself."
He winked and walked back into the church, through the lit doorway that led down to the basement. With one last damning look over his shoulder, Gaetan jerked the door shut.
There was a slam and lights out.
Two janitors. The high school wrestling coach. Gaetan and Father Michaels. Suddenly, all too good to play with him.
The reigning World Series of Poker champion.
Which only continued to prove what he'd known down in his gut all along—the world changed but Bonne Terre stayed the same.
Tyler sighed, pushed his A's cap down farther on his head and made his way back home.
The September night was thick and dark, the suffocating blanket he remembered and hated. Two steps and he had that dirty, clammy sweat that made him ache for the white tile shower in his suite, the cool hum of forced air.
Christ, his eye was beginning to pound.
Coming back here had been a dumb idea. He'd been fine, years had gone by without him caring, the memories fading bit by bit, but one word that his mother might be back in town and here he was, choking on the dirt outside St. Pat's.
No doubt the kitchen in The Manor would be empty. None of Margot's sugar pies to welcome him home.
He crossed Jackson and headed for the square, thinking he'd cut through the magnolias in the park and save himself some time, when a dark car slid around the corner, crawling along the curb.
His alley-cat instincts, honed on this very street, woke up and he stepped into the shadows of the trees.
Stupid of him to cross Jackson under the streetlights— anyone looking knew his path home.
The wrought-iron fence was cold against his back. It would be just like Lou to follow him, or call one of his softball buddies to come out here for a little middle-of-the-night batting practice.
The car eased past him, got to the corner and stopped under the streetlamp.
It stopped and waited, exhaust filling the golden pool of light with gray smoke.
Well, crap, Tyler did not like that. At all.
He circled around the other side of the fence, hugging the shadows, between the leaves and the light. If it was Lou's buddies, they wouldn't be expecting him to approach from the side. His foot caught on a branch and he grabbed it from the ground and tested its heft.
Pretty weak, but with some surprise on his side he might do some damage before they took care of what was left of his face.
As he cleared the side of the blue car, blood pumping, smile easing nice and slowly across his face, he saw that there weren't a bunch of men in it. In fact, sitting in the driver's side, staring him right in the eye with ten hard years of hate, was the most beautiful woman he'd ever known.
"Juliette," he breathed. For a second his life stopped and all he saw were those hazel eyes and lips so pink and perfect. And sweet. The sweetest.
"What the hell are you doing here, Tyler?"
Juliette was not, repeat, not going to touch Tyler O'Neill. Not with her fingers. Not with a ten-foot pole. Perhaps later, when given a chance, she'd touch him good with her fists, but at the moment, there was going to be no touching. Too bad, since it was the only way she was ever going to convince herself the man standing in front of her, as rumpled and bloody and heart-stoppingly handsome as he'd been at seventeen—was real.
And not a figment of all of her furious revenge fantasies.
"Just out for a stroll," he said, tossing the branch he'd been holding onto the dirt.
"Sure you are. What are you doing back in Bonne Terre?" she asked.
"Savannah said The Manor is sitting empty," Tyler said and shrugged, as if his arrival out of the blue after ten years was perfectly natural. "Seems like someone should be watching over it."
"You?" she asked, laughing at the very notion of Tyler being down here for any unselfish reason. "Please."
He stared at her for a second and then smiled.
Her heart fluttered against her chest, a small mechanical bird powered by that smile.
He glanced out at the buildings lining the square, the hardware store and Jillian's Jewelry Shop. The café and the bank. He watched those buildings as if they were watching him back. A threat to be monitored.
"You're right," he said, but that was all he said.
Juliette bit her lip against the other questions screaming to be heard.
Why did you go?
Why didn't you write? Call?
What did I do?
But what would be the point? Ten years of silence were all the answer she really needed.
"Who's been working on your face?" she asked.
"Old friends," he said, touching his eye with careful fingers and wincing anyway.
Something dark and vicious inside of her really liked that he was in pain.
And she hated that she liked it since she'd sworn off feeling anything about this man years ago. But he was here, standing so close she could shoot him, and these feelings—all the old anger and hurt and rage—resurfaced as though they'd just been waiting for the chance.
She'd call him tomorrow, fill him in on what was happening out at The Manor over the phone. Then she'd hang up and never waste another minute thinking about Tyler O'Neill.
She put the car in gear. "Have a good night, Tyler," she said, liking all the cool "go screw yourself" she managed to fit into those words.
"Wait." His hand touched the open window of her car and she pressed her foot back on the brake.
"I got an e-mail from Savannah. This guy she's with—"
"Right, is he—"
Juliette laughed. "You going to stand there and pretend to care, Tyler?"
"She's my sister," he snapped. "Of course I care."
"Then you should show up once in a while."
Tyler's grin was gone and he was looking at her with cold blue eyes that, without a word, damned her straight to hell. Silent, he turned and walked away.
Juliette watched him go, the same long legs, the wide shoulders and narrow hips that looked so damn good in faded and torn blue jeans it made her want to bite something.
Ten years. Ten damn years and he comes back here as if nothing ever happened.
She rested her head against the steering wheel. Maybe nothing had happened. Maybe in the grand scheme of things, a broken heart didn't mean anything. She'd been nineteen, after all, a couple of years of college under her belt, law school at Oklahoma State glimmering in the future—she should have known better than to get tangled with Tyler O'Neill. A high school drop-out who made his living winning Sunday-night poker games and playing piano out at Remy's. He was so opposite from her, he was like a different animal, a force of nature she couldn't ignore. At eighteen he'd been the only thing that could have distracted her from her plan. And he had. He totally derailed her plan.
And now he was back and Savannah was her best friend and things were strange around The Manor these days.
And it was her freaking job to deal with it.
She took her foot off the brake and rolled up next to him.
"Do you want a ride?" she asked, not looking at him. "You've still got another mile to go."
"I know how far it is."
"Then climb in and I'll drive you."
He stopped, sighed, and looked up at the stars as though he might feel a little of the garbage she felt. After a moment he circled the front of the car, stepping through her headlights, the low beams catching the bright red of his blood on his pale face. Gold-blond hair under his cap and those eyes. Oh, man, those eyes.
And then he was in the car with her and she could smell him, toothpaste and cigars and him. Tyler.
A million memories of hot days and cool nights flooded her. His hands under her skirt, those eyes memorizing every detail of her face, those lips telling her a hundred lies—it all exploded in her head, nearly blinding her.
"Thanks," Tyler said as subdued as she'd heard him. "How have you—"
She cut him off. There would be no "how have you been's?" She knew how he'd been, rich and dating a hot French model whose popularity had them all over every magazine in the grocery store. All month long she couldn't buy a carrot without looking at Tyler holding hands with some stick-thin blonde.
"You should know a few things about what's happening at The Manor," she said, turning left around the square, past the Bonne Terre Inn and toward the road out of town.
"Savannah and Margot are both gone," Tyler said. "And Mom was around a month ago. Savannah told me."