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Why in hell did I come back here? Kurt thought with disgust. I hated this damn town when I lived here.
In ten years the town hadn't changed muchstill only one main street with one stoplight and one service station. The steeple of the Catholic church was still the tallest structure in town, and the courthouse with its portico and creaking rocking chairs looked like it could use a coat of fresh paint.
Kurt glanced at the grain store as he drove past it. The sign now read Cletis Tyler, Owner. So old man Tyler must have either died or retired, and his piss-ass sonand fellow classmatehad taken over.
Jake's Tap was still the only tavern in town, the Dew Drop Inn the only motel. The post office was in the same spot, and the bank had a new brick facade. From what he could see, the only thing new was a two-story department store in the strip mall, boasting everything from safety pins to television sets. A woman's beauty salon called Curl Up with Shirley was a new addition also, and a pharmacy now occupied the space where Elsa's Bakery had been.
He used to love going to that bakery when he was a kid. It always smelled of freshly baked bread. Elsa Guttman, the kind old lady who owned it, would always slip him a sugar cookie. Maybe he had a few good memories of the town after all.
He was surprised at the sight of a tearoom and bookstore standing next to the old Rivoli Theatre. Now closed and boarded up, the letters on the theatre's once brightly lit canopy spelled out Building for Sale or Lease.
The balcony of the old theatre offered some fond teenage memories for Kurt as well
If he kept it up, pretty soon he'd be blowing his nose and wiping the tears out of his eyes.
Kurt parked in front of Rosie's Diner. Twenty-five years ago Rosie Callahan had been the town hooker and earned her money the hard wayon her back. Much to the chagrin of half the guys in town, five years later she'd saved up enough money to open the only diner in town. By the time Kurt left town Rosie had just been elected mayor and was back to her old tricks in order to pay off campaign promises.
He popped seventy-five cents into a newspaper box and grabbed the Vandergriff Sentinel. A quick glance revealed that Carson Meadows was still the editor in chief, reporter and chief cook and bottle washer for that matter. Nothing changed except the price. It had gone up twenty-five cents in the past ten years.
Upon entering the diner Kurt perused the place from habitthe same eight stools at the counter, two connecting rows of six booths each, and six tables in the front near the window. The only change in the place was the color of the walls, and a large poster of Brad Pitt with sword in hand now hung where an earlier one of John Wayne with rifle in hand had reigned for the eighteen years he'd lived in the town.
The changing of the guard.
The place smelled of boiled cabbage, so he didn't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out the daily special. Kurt had beaten the dinner rush by about a half hour and the place was almost empty except for a couple and their kids in one of the booths and an old guy sitting at the counter.
The blond waitress who'd been talking to the old man glanced up when he entered. He'd have recognized Gertie Karpinski anywhere. She may have lost her youthful teenage glow, but there was no mistaking "Bare It and Share It" Karpinski. While most girls carried around lipstick, Gertie carried condoms. And in their four years of high school Gertie had lived up to her motto and bedded every guy in the graduating classeven that uptight jerk Cletis Tyler.
He headed for a booth, and could feel Gertie's eyes on him as he walked over, sat down and reached for the menu.
Surprise! Corned beef and cabbage was the special.
Gertie sauntered over to the booth and put down a glass of ice water, then pulled a pad and pencil out of her pocket.
"So what's it gonna be, good looking?"
He closed the menu. "How're you doing, Gertie?"
She did a double take. "Kurt Bolen! I don't believe it! Where have you been for the past ten years? Hope it wasn't in the slammer."
"No. I've been seeing the world, compliments of the U.S. Navy." It was a half-truth. He didn't mention the CIA. That was one job you didn't advertise.
"You back to stay?"
"Just passing through. What have you been up to? I never figured you'd hang around Vandergriff after graduation."
"I've been married and divorced a couple times."
"What about children?"
"Hell, honey, you know I'm too smart to let that happen. Besides, I'd be the mother from hell. What about you? Don't see no ring on your finger."
"Same as you, Gertie. I tried marriage, but it didn't work out. Fortunately there were no kids to get hurt by it."
Gertie patted his hand. "Guess we're just not the marrying types. But you sure don't look any worse the wear for it. Matter of fact, you look great. " She reached out and squeezed his bicep. "Wow! I don't remember all that muscle."
Same old Gertie. Totally shameless. But he couldn't help liking her. He always had. She had a good sense of humor, and in school she'd never put on airs or tried to be anything other than honest about herself.
"So what's it gonna be, honey?"
For an instant he weighed whether she meant sex or food. He settled for the safer choice.
"Burger with the works and some fries, Gertie."
"Same old Kurt. I see your taste in food hasn't changed." She giggled throatily and leaned over. Her uniform was cut low enough to whet his appetite. "What about women?"
This time her message came through loud and clear. If the cleavage was the appetizer, his groin had begun to ratchet up for the main course.
He dragged his gaze away from her breasts and looked up and grinned. "Women all taste good to me, Gertie."
By the time Kurt finished reading the newspaper his food arrived. His training kicked in and he automatically checked out whoever came in as the diner began to fill up.
He was finishing up the burger when a young woman entered. The male in himmore than the CIA agent assessed her as she approached a booth by the window where an older woman and young boy were seated.
She sure was hot. Damn hot! Late twenties with a hundred fifteen or twenty pounds curved lusciously on about five feet seven inches. Soft curls of auburn hair feathered her forehead and nape. His mom used to call it a feather cut, but there was probably some fancy French name for it now. Whateverhis fingers itched to dig into it.
But what really grabbed his attention were her green eyes. They were slightly slantedthat Ava Gardner look that turned a man on with a single glance.
She looked vaguely familiar to him and he figured they'd probably been schoolmates. But the only redhead he remembered from school was Joey Bennett's sister, Mandy or Mattie, or something like that. And she'd been lanky, wore geeky glasses, and had long kinky red hair.
"Hey, Maddie, you're not going to believe this," Gertie yelled out to the new arrival. "Kurt Bolen's back in town."
The woman jerked her head around and looked at him. Maddie Bennett. So she was Joey's sister. Boy, had she changed!
Those jade eyes were wide with shock and she was looking at him as if she'd seen a ghost.
Kurt was too flabbergasted to speak. He smiled and waved. Maddie nodded slightly and then turned her head away.
He ordered a slice of pie and coffee, and as he ate, he couldn't keep his mind off Maddie Bennett. He'd never rally paid too much attention to Joey's sister, but still he couldn't believe the change in her. Some past memory flitted on the edge of his brain, but he couldn't nail it. What in hell difference did it make? He was out of there.
Kurt polished off the rest of his coffee, threw some bills on the table, and got up to leave. His curiosity got the better of him and he stopped at her booth on his way out.
"How have you been, Maddie?"
"Fine," she said. Despite her attempt at casualness he could tell she was uptight. "What about you?"
"No complaints. How's Joey? Is he still living in Vander-griff?"
"Joey's dead. He joined the marines after graduation and was killed in Afghanistan."
"I'm sorry to hear that. We had some good times together."
The older woman extended her hand. "I'm Elizabeth Bennett, Maddie's Aunt Beth. I don't believe we've met."
"Kurt Bolen," he said, shaking her hand.
Elizabeth Bennett smiled warmly. He was struck by the beauty of the gray-haired woman. Unlike her niecewho at the moment appeared to be so tense she looked ready to pop Elizabeth Bennett had a serenity that enhanced her loveliness. But regardless, both women were knockouts. The family must have one hell of a gene pool!
"Kurt graduated with Joey and me, Aunt Beth," Maddie said.
Elizabeth Bennett frowned in concentration. "Bolen? Of course! Was your father Charles Bolen?"
"Yes he was. Did you know him?"
Here it comes: Kurt Bolen, the no good kid from Stoneville, whose father was the town drunk.
"I'm a retired nurse, Kurt. I was on duty the night they brought your father into the hospital," she said sadly. "Such a tragic accident."
Changing the subject quickly, she smiled and slipped her arm around the young boy's shoulders. "And this handsome lad is Maddie's son Scotty."
He reached out a hand. "Hi, pal."
The boy hesitated momentarily, as if he didn't know what to do. Then, as if pleased with the manly gesture, the boy grinned and shook his hand.
Kurt glanced at Maddie: Uptight and Gorgeous looked like she was holding her breath. And he discovered Elizabeth Bennett was studying him intently. What was with these two women? He had to fight the urge to reach down and check if his fly was open.
"After all these years what brought you back to Vandergriff, Kurt?" Elizabeth Bennett asked.
"Just passing through. I'm being treated at the Vet hospital in Milwaukee and I thought I'd drive out and see the old hometown."
"Oh, I hope it's not anything too serious." Elizabeth's concern seemed genuine.
"I blew a kneecap, but at least I'm off the crutches now."
Elizabeth's face creased with sympathy. "Oh my. I'm sorry to hear about that. It must be painful. So you're in Milwaukee, you say?"
"I expect to leave there tomorrow and go home."
"Where is your home?"
"In D.C." Kurt started to back away. "Well, I better get going. Nice meeting you, Ms. Bennett."
"Yes, and I hope your leg heals swiftly. Take care of yourself, dear boy."
"Thank you. Nice seeing you again, Maddie."
"Yes, take care of yourself," Maddie echoed.
Her face didn't crack a smile. Ava Gardner eyes or not, she was one edgy female. But come to think of it, she'd been that way ten years ago, too.
Since she wasn't wearing a wedding ring, she was either widowed or divorced, and he couldn't help wondering how long it'd been since she'd been laid. With her looks
Oh, hell, grow up, Bolen!
He winked at the boy and departed. Once he was in his car, Kurt realized he'd been so distracted by Maddie that he hadn't said goodbye to Gertie. Well, tomorrow morning he'd stop in for breakfast and say it thenfor the sake of the good old times.
Elizabeth Bennett watched Kurt Bolen walk to his car. A slight limp was perceptible, but he appeared to be coping remarkably well with it. "My goodness, he certainly appears to be a fine young man, doesn't he?"
"He's okay," Maddie said.
Beth eyed her niece warily. "Just okay? Honey, you're too young for that kind of reaction. He's gorgeous."
"And you, Aunt Beth, are too old for yours."
"I liked him," Scotty declared.
"What was he like ten years ago?" Beth asked. "He's too good-looking for you not to have noticed."
"For goodness' sake, Aunt Beth, what difference does it make? He's been gone for ten years. We rarely spoke. I don't think he even remembered my name. He and Joey hung around together, so that was always trouble looking for a place to happen. Kurt left town right after graduation, and that's the last I saw or heard of him until a couple minutes ago."
Maddie reached across the table and squeezed Scotty's hand. "So have you decided what you're having to eat, sweetheart?"
"I'll have a hamburger and French fries."
"Scotty, that's all you ever order when we eat out."
"Hamburger and French fries are my favorite meal."
Maddie chuckled and tousled his thick growth of dark hair. "How will you ever know until you try something different?"
Beth only half listened to the exchange between mother and son as she watched Kurt pull away in a red Charger. Despite Maddie's attempt to be casual, Beth could see her niece was still very upset over this chance meeting with Kurt Bolen. This piqued her curiosity. Something here didn't quite add up
Beth choked back a gasp when she suddenly realized what it might be, and her mouth curved in a pleased smile. Yes, Kurt Bolen, take good care of yourself. I have great plans for you.
Kurt pumped up the pillow for the dozenth time and leaned back on the bed. The old Laurel and Hardy movie ended and he grabbed the remote and started to channel hop. Television sucked. It bored him royally unless it was a football or basketball game.
Besides, in the six months since his injury, he'd watched enough television to last him a lifetime. He loathed sitcoms, they were an unrealistic picture of family lifeat least the family life he remembered. The multitude of crime and horror shows did nothing but demonstrate ghoulish ways to torture and murder. And as for all the alien and paranormal characters, there was no worse monster on this earth than a terrorist with an UZI or a Rocket Propelled Grenade launcher in his hands.
Kurt turned off the tube and tossed aside the remote in disgust. He got out of bed and walked to the window. It was Saturday night and only a little past nine o'clock; the town had rolled up its streets already. Hot time in the old town tonight!
Well he was too edgy to stay cooped up in the motel room. He pulled on his jeans, shirt and shoes and went out. He should have taken up Gertie's offer at the diner. Instead he'd gotten diverted by Maddie Bennett. Boy that woman was hot! But why in hell did she disturb him so much? There was something about her he couldn't remember, but it would come to him.