Friday, December 6
Tobias Richardson couldn’t help noticing the petite blonde sitting at the old-fashioned counter of the diner—and not just because she was pretty. He was sure he’d never seen her before. With a population of seven thousand, Silver Springs wasn’t small enough that he’d recognize everybody, especially because he’d only been living here for five months. The town seemed to have gotten a lot smaller since the weather turned, though. It didn’t snow in this part of California, but it was the rainy season and the region was experiencing colder than normal temperatures. Tourists weren’t interested in visiting when it was chill and damp, and the same went for the many residents of LA, ninety minutes to the southeast, who had vacation homes here. This month, and probably for the next two or three, he guessed Silver Springs would be limited to the locals.
He blew on his hands, trying to warm them while waiting for the coffee he’d ordered when he first sat down. He’d managed to squeeze in a hike after work. He didn’t care that it was dark and wet by the time he was on his way back. He had a headlight to guide him to the trailhead and was willing to put up with the rain. But he was chilled to the bone. After such an arduous hike, he was starving, too, and craving a hot shower.
Again, he glanced toward the counter. He didn’t want the woman to catch him staring, but something about her—besides her looks—drew his attention.
She didn’t seem happy…
“Here you go.” Willow Sanhurst, the barely eighteen-year-old girl who worked evenings at the Eatery, stepped between him and the woman who intrigued him, smiled broadly and put his cup on the table with a flourish. “Warming up yet?”
“I can’t believe you’ve been out hiking. It’s December!”
“Little bit of rain never hurt anybody.”
He’d traded out his muddy hiking books for a pair of clean shoes before coming into the restaurant. Other than that, he was only a little damp, so he wasn’t sure why she was making such a big deal of it.
“You must really like the outdoors.”
“I do,” he said.
“So do I.”
He got the impression he was supposed to follow that up with an invitation to go hiking with him sometime, but he didn’t.
Even though they’d already discussed his hike when he’d sat down and she’d brought him water, and the diner was full of people waiting for a chance to order, she didn’t move away as most waitresses would.
Before bringing the coffee to his lips, he looked up to see if there was something she needed.
As soon as their eyes met, she blushed a deep red, wiped her hands on her ruffled white apron and mumbled some remark about being careful not to burn himself—that the coffee was hot—before hurrying away.
Damn it. She had a crush on him. She’d clearly wanted to say something but hadn’t been able to gather the nerve, and that made him distinctly uncomfortable. After being released from prison in July he was committed to making better choices, to building a productive life. He couldn’t have some high school girl staring at him with the longing he saw shining in her eyes. If she started seriously pursuing him, he was afraid he’d end up in a bad situation just because he was so damn lonely.
With a sigh, he took a tentative sip of his coffee. This was his favorite place to eat—the comfort food and Norman Rockwell vibe reminded him of the wholesome existence he’d always secretly admired. But he’d have to quit coming here. He wouldn’t allow himself to be tempted. His brother, Maddox, said over and over that his first year out of prison would be the hardest, and although Tobias acted as though he was doing fine, that he had his life under control, his journey was not as sure-footed as he let on. Sometimes, especially late at night, he felt as though he’d been cast adrift on a vast ocean and might never find safe harbor. And that sense of being so small and insignificant made him crave the substances that had gotten him into trouble in the first place.
Willow kept looking over at him, obviously hoping to catch his eye. While he poured a dash of cream into his coffee, he considered canceling his meal. He could eat somewhere else—grab something to go and head home to shower. But just as he was about to slide out of the booth, his phone dinged with a text from Maddox, asking if he’d like to come over for dinner.
Already ate. Enjoy your night. See you at work tomorrow, he wrote back.
He knew his brother worried about him, was trying to help him adjust to life outside prison and didn’t want him to backslide and become like their mother. But Maddox had recently married the girl he’d loved since high school. He deserved to be alone with Jada, his new wife, who was now pregnant, and Maya, their daughter. The last thing Tobias wanted to do was get in the way of their relationship—again. It was because of him they hadn’t gotten together the first time around, and that had cost Maddox the first twelve years of Maya’s life.
As he slid his phone in his coat pocket, he saw that it was too late to cancel his food. Willow was once again coming toward him, this time carrying a plate.
“You texting your girlfriend?” she asked, flirting with him as she put down his meat loaf and mashed potatoes.
He allowed himself another glance at the blonde sitting at the counter. Her meal had come, too, and yet she held her fork, turning it over and over in one hand, staring at her food without taking a bite.
“Did you hear me?” Willow asked.
Putting his napkin in his lap, he picked up his fork. “I’m sorry. What’d you say?”
She looked over her shoulder in the direction he’d been looking and lowered her voice. “I see you’ve noticed Harper.”
“Harper?” he repeated.
“Yeah, Harper Devlin—Axel Devlin’s wife. She’s been in here before.”
“Who’s Axel Devlin?”
“Are you kidding me? He’s the lead singer of Pulse. They’re, like…the biggest band on the planet!”
He’d heard of Pulse, was familiar with their music and liked it. He’d also heard the name of the band’s lead singer many times. He’d just never dreamed Willow could be referring to that Axel Devlin—although there was no good reason why she couldn’t be. A lot of celebrities came to artsy, spiritually focused Silver Springs. Quite a few, especially movie people, retired here. And he often interacted with Hudson King, a professional football player, at New Horizons Boys Ranch, where he worked doing grounds and building maintenance. Hudson did a lot to help the troubled teens who attended the boarding school—both the boys’ side and the recently built girls’ school on the same property. He’d donated the money to buy an ice-skating rink both sides could use. “Do they live in the area?”
“No. She and her two kids are staying with her sister for the holidays. I overheard her talking to the owner.”
“She looks a little…” When he let his words trail off, Willow jumped in to finish the sentence.
“I was going to say ‘lost.’”
“Probably is. I watched an interview with Axel a few months ago. He said they were splitting up. Maybe that’s why.”
It was none of his business, but Tobias couldn’t help asking, “Did he give a reason?”
She seemed to like that they’d found something to talk about that wasn’t so strained and awkward for her. “Blamed it on the travel. He has to be gone too much. Yada, yada. What else is he going to say? That he’s cheating with a different girl every night?” she added with a laugh.
Tobias felt bad for Harper. It couldn’t be easy to be married to a rock star. She wasn’t that old, likely hadn’t been prepared for that kind of life. If Tobias remembered correctly, Axel was from a small town in Idaho, and he and his band had become famous almost overnight. Now he was sitting on top of the world.
But where did that leave her?
“You said they have kids?” he asked.
“Yeah. Two little girls. I don’t remember their ages—maybe eight and six? Something like that.”
So Harper had married Axel before he’d become a big success, and they’d started a family. That indicated she’d married for love. “Where are the kids?”
“With her sister, I guess.” Willow lowered her voice. “It would suck to be her, right? I mean, she has to see his name and his face everywhere, can’t escape the constant reminder.”
Now that he wasn’t paying as much attention to Willow’s hopeful smiles and nervousness when she was around him, Tobias could see others in the restaurant nudging their companions and pointing to Harper. Apparently a lot of people knew who she was—or word was spreading fast.
Poor thing. He understood what it was like to be the talk of the town. He’d been only seventeen when he’d been prosecuted as an adult and jailed for thirteen years. Returning to Silver Springs after his release this past summer had been like being put under a microscope. Suffering privately was one thing. Suffering publicly was something else entirely. That took what she was going through to a whole new level.
“Shouldn’t be too hard for her to find someone else.” He said it as though he wasn’t particularly invested, but Harper had caught his eye, hadn’t she?
“Are you kidding me?” Willow responded again. “How will anyone else ever compare?”
She had a point. It would be tough for a regular guy to match Axel, financially and otherwise. “True.”
“You’re not interested in her, are you?” Willow looked slightly crestfallen.
Apparently he hadn’t been as careful to hide his feelings as he’d thought. But he was an ex-con, making a modest wage working for a correctional school. He’d never known his father, and his mother was a meth addict, constantly in and out of rehab. He knew when he was out of his league. “No.”
“Good.” A relieved smile curved her lips. “Because I’ve been watching you for a while and…well…I hope there’s someone else in this restaurant you might be interested in.” She finished in a rush, couldn’t quite look at him and then hurried away—only to return with a slip of paper that had her number on it when she brought the check.
* * * * *
Harper shoved her garlic mashed potatoes from one side of her plate to the other as she listened to the hum of voices in the diner. Although surrounded by people, she’d never felt so alone.
“I’ve got a number five,” the cook barked out for the waitresses.
Harper checked the menu, which she’d left open at her elbow so she’d have something to look at. It was difficult to go out in public right now. After the documentary she did with Axel last year, trying to remove the stigma of depression and using a therapist when necessary, people often recognized her, so she had little privacy.
A number five was a chicken breast with lemon-dill sauce, steamed vegetables and a gluten-free corn muffin. She’d ordered a number seven—peppercorn steak, garlic mashed potatoes and green beans, which had sounded good at first, but the only thing she’d been able to make herself eat was part of the dinner roll. She doubted it was gluten-free. Axel had made a big deal about staying away from gluten, but he was allergic to it, not her. And although she thought it was probably wise to avoid it, she didn’t care about her diet right now. She didn’t care about much of anything since her marriage had unraveled. It’d been all she could do just to hold herself together for the sake of her kids, and now Christmas would be here in only three weeks. It would be her and the girls’ first Christmas without Axel. He was touring Europe and wouldn’t be back until after the first of the year, since his last big concert was scheduled for New Year’s Eve.
Now that everything had changed between them, they wouldn’t have spent the holidays as they had in the past, anyway.
He might’ve asked to take the girls, however.
She could only imagine how lonely she would have felt with them gone, and yet…she sort of wished he had taken them. She didn’t feel capable of holding up her end, of putting on a brave face and telling their children that everything was going to be okay when it felt as though the ground had given way beneath her feet. She had no interest in decorating, putting up a tree or buying presents, which was why her sister had insisted she come for an extended visit, even if it meant having the girls transfer schools for a couple of months. Piper and Everly were at a church Christmas party tonight with their cousins—twin girls who were older than Everly by four years. But Harper needed to be ready to face them with a smile when they came home.
Her phone vibrated in her pocket, but she didn’t bother to get it out. No doubt it was her sister. They’d had an argument before Harper stormed out of the house. Karoline had grown angry when Harper told her how little she was getting for child support. According to her sister, she was letting Axel off far too easy.
He was making a fortune, but Harper didn’t want to fight. She was still in love with him. As soon as he’d made it clear that he didn’t want to be married to her anymore, that he was no longer willing to try to work through their differences, she’d settled for the first figure his lawyer had thrown out. Otherwise, she was afraid the media would start to claim they were going through a “bitter” divorce. As she’d told Karoline, she’d make it on her own somehow, even though she hadn’t worked in an official capacity since the first three years of her marriage, when Axel was trying so hard to get a start in show business and he’d needed her to cover their basic living expenses.
Maybe she was a fool to be so accommodating. But she couldn’t imagine Axel would consider keeping the family together if she turned into a bitch. Besides, she didn’t even know who he was anymore, he’d changed so much. She couldn’t decide what she had a right to demand. Had she let Axel down? Or had he let her down? He’d always suffered from anxiety and depression. Maybe she hadn’t done enough to help him—
“Is everything okay?”
She forced herself to look up. The waitress working the counter had paused in front of her, obviously wondering if there was something wrong with the food.
“Fine,” Harper mumbled. She hadn’t really come to eat. She just needed some time alone, couldn’t face going back to her sister’s quite yet. As nice as it was of Karoline to provide a refuge during this difficult month, being with her only sibling wasn’t much easier than being alone, because now she had to constantly explain and justify her actions. And with her emotions zinging all over the place, she wasn’t being consistent, couldn’t be consistent. Most of the time, she wasn’t even making a whole lot of sense.
Elvis’s “Blue Christmas” came on the sound system as the waitress moved on to her other customers.
Harper took a sip of her coffee and braved a quick glance around. Although she liked this restaurant, she didn’t feel she belonged in Silver Springs. Why wasn’t she in Denver, where she and Axel had lived after their college days at Boise State?
Because as much as she and Axel had once believed that they’d be the exception to the rule, that nothing could come between them, they’d been wrong. Slowly but surely, Axel had lost all perspective and started caring more about his work than he did his family. Fame had destroyed their relationship like so many celebrities’ before them.
With a sigh, she took the bill the waitress had put near her plate and paid at the register. She owed her sister more respect than to make her worry. She had to go back and face Karoline whether she wanted to or not.
Harper hadn’t put on makeup for weeks, hadn’t done anything with her hair, either, other than to pile it in a messy bun on her head, so it didn’t bother her that it was raining. She was cold, though; couldn’t seem to get warm. Tightening her oversize coat—a castoff of Axel’s from the good old days when they were first married—she pushed out of the warm café into the bad weather.
Putting her head down, she stared at her feet, bracing against the gusts of wind that whipped at her hair and clothes while stepping over two or three puddles to reach the Range Rover Axel had let her keep when they split. If she got desperate, she supposed she could sell it. It had cost a pretty penny.
She was opening the driver’s door when she noticed a tall, lanky man with longish dark hair crossing the lot toward her.
“Don’t be frightened,” he said, lifting one hand in a gesture intended to show he wasn’t being aggressive. “I just… I saw you inside and…”
Prepared to rebuff him, she set her jaw. She was not in the mood to be hit on. But when she met his eyes, something about his expression told her that wasn’t what this was about. Taking a long-stemmed white rose from inside his coat, he stepped forward to give it to her.
“Hang in there. It’ll get easier,” he said. Then he walked off before she could even ask for his name.
“Thought I heard the garage door,” Karoline said, coming into the kitchen.
Harper glanced over her shoulder at her older sister, who was wearing jeans, sheepskin-lined slippers and a maroon V-neck sweater with pearl earrings. Karoline was always well put together. Her house was immaculate. Her kids were well behaved. And her husband was a podiatrist who was not only intelligent and well-spoken but kind. Karoline managed life better than anyone Harper had ever met, which was intimidating, especially now that her life was in shambles. “Sorry about what happened earlier,” she mumbled.
Her sister sat on a bar stool at the island. “It’s okay. I’m sorry, too. After you left, Terrance told me I should’ve let it go.”
“He overheard us?” Harper’s brother-in-law had been watching TV in the other room and hadn’t participated in the argument. He didn’t care for large displays of emotion, so she could see why he’d stay out of it.
“Yeah. He thinks I’m right. I know I’m right. But he also thinks you’re not ready to hear it.”
“Then he’s right, too.”
Karoline propped her chin up with one fist. “Look, I understand that you’re going through hell, and I don’t mean to make it worse. I just don’t want to see Axel get the best of you. He has you on the ropes right now and yet you’re still trying to play nice. Since I don’t love him the way you do, I have a different perspective, and I was trying to use that perspective to put you in a better position.”
“I know. You’ve done a lot for me, and I’m grateful.” She reached into the cupboard above her sister’s double ovens, retrieving a small vase.
“Where did you get that?” Karoline asked when Harper filled the vase with water and put the rose she’d been given inside it.
“Some man gave it to me.”
“I don’t know. He didn’t tell me his name.”
Karoline scowled, obviously suspicious. “Where did you meet him?”
“I didn’t meet him. Not really. He came up to me in the parking lot as I was leaving the Eatery and handed me this.”
“Was he selling them? Or looking for some type of donation?”
Harper balked at telling her sister what the stranger had said. She was embarrassed to admit she’d been so transparent, and she didn’t want to cheapen the gesture by having Karoline claim he must’ve had some ulterior motive, as she’d first assumed. “No.”
“Roses aren’t exactly in bloom this time of year. Where’d he get it?”
“You can buy a rose anytime.”
“So he bought it.”
“Yes. From the grocery store across the street.”
“How do you know?”
“I saw the price tag, okay? It was still wrapped around the stem.”
“He spent money to buy you a rose and he doesn’t even know you?”
“It was only seven dollars, Karol. Relax. He was just being nice.”
When her sister didn’t respond right away, Harper used the opportunity to change the subject. “What time will the girls be ready to come home?”
“Terrance left to pick them up right before you arrived.”
“Oh. I could’ve done it. You should’ve called me.”
Harper winced at her tone. “I couldn’t really talk in the restaurant,” she said. She could’ve texted Karoline but, fortunately, her sister didn’t point that out.
Harper set the rose in the middle of the granite-topped island. Her sister had done a lot of decorating, but none of it could top the natural beauty of that one perfect flower. It reminded her that she needed to return to the basics and keep life simple, which, for her, meant continuing to put one foot in front of the other no matter how painful the situation.
It’ll get easier…
“Why would you ever wear that?” Karoline asked, grimacing at Harper’s coat as Harper took it off.
Her sister rolled her eyes. “I don’t care how warm it is. Get rid of it. Get rid of everything of his.”
“Don’t say that.”
“He’s not coming back, Harper. The divorce will be final this week. If he regrets what he did, he would’ve said so by now, would’ve tried to save his family.”
“He’s been pretty distracted.”
“Yeah—by sleeping with other women.”
Harper bristled. “We don’t know he’s been sleeping with other women.”
“He’s a thirty-two-year-old rock star who hasn’t had time for his wife in ages. I think it’s safe to assume.”
“If he has, it’s because so many women, beautiful women, throw themselves at him. How would you or I deal with the same kind of attention? The same kind of worship? It’s possible we wouldn’t do any better.”
Her sister shook her head. “You’re too understanding, Harper. One of a kind.”
“If that’s true, what happened to my marriage?”
“Axel happened. But he’s stupid to throw you away. He’s going to wind up with nothing in the end.”
“He won’t wind up with nothing. Even if his career suddenly tanks, he’ll have what he’s already achieved. Besides, he’s always been charismatic. He could easily find someone else even if he wasn’t famous.” That was one of her biggest issues with the divorce. These days, she felt so inherently replaceable, as if there was nothing special about her, nothing worth hanging on to—ironic, given that in the beginning he’d made her feel as though she was the only person who could ever fulfill him.
Be careful what you wish for. She remembered her mother telling her that while Harper was working so hard to help Axel make it in the music biz.
She should’ve listened. Her mother, a superior court judge in Idaho, where the family had been raised, was always right. Her father, who was in commercial real estate, agreed that it was never wise to disregard her advice.
“You mean we won’t have the pleasure of even that much revenge?” Karoline asked.
“Probably not,” Harper admitted.
The door opened and the girls spilled into the house, laughing and talking about the party and how the Santa who’d shown up was someone they’d recognized, under that red suit, as one of their teachers from school. As she’d been doing for almost eight months, Harper pretended to be interested in regular life and tried to contribute to the conversation, but she was infinitely relieved when the kids were in bed and she could once again lay down the burden of putting on a good show.
The night wasn’t over, though. Once Harper was finally alone, Karoline knocked and poked her head into the room. “You okay?”
Harper forced one more smile. “Yeah, of course.”
“About that man who gave you the rose…”
Piper and Everly hadn’t noticed the flower on the island. At least, they hadn’t mentioned it. Maybe they assumed Terrance had given it to Karoline. It wasn’t elaborate enough to have come from their father, who used to send her vast arrays of flowers to try to placate her whenever he broke another promise. “What about him?”
“How old was he?”
“Around my age.”
“What’d he look like?”
She rolled her eyes. “He was just some guy, Karoline.”
“You don’t know what he looked like?”
“Of course I do, but…” Reining in her irritation, she let her breath go. “Okay, he was maybe six foot three with dark hair and really unusual, light-colored eyes.”
“I don’t know!” She’d been pretty defensive at the time, hadn’t been evaluating his looks.
“It was tough to see in the parking lot! The lights there aren’t very bright, but his eyes seemed to be a…a pale green, I guess. With thick eyelashes,” she added.
“So he was handsome.”
She remembered his bold jaw and the dark stubble covering it, the high cheekbones, the shape of his mouth, which was quite sensual even from a strictly objective point of view. “Yeah. Why?”
“I’m wondering if I know him…”
“You’re making a big deal out of nothing. It was just a sweet gesture, one that cheered me up when I needed it. It’s not as though anything will ever come of it.”
“I wish something would come of it,” Karoline grumbled. “That’s exactly what you need—and what Axel deserves.”
“Being angry with Axel isn’t going to change anything.”
“It helps. Trust me. You should try it.”
The door closed and Harper slumped back on the bed. But after the house had gone quiet and she knew everyone was asleep, she couldn’t resist pulling out her laptop to watch the YouTube video of her soon-to-be ex-husband’s latest concert.
He looked amazing.
His performance was amazing.
He didn’t seem to be hurting at all.
* * *
When Tobias arrived at the sixteen-acre tangerine orchard where he lived, there was a strange car in the driveway. He tried to pull around it to his usual spot near the small house he was renting behind the 1920s farmhouse closer to the road. But the old beat-up Chevy Impala was parked such that there wasn’t enough room on either side.
With a sigh, he shoved his gearshift into Park. He’d have to go to the door and ask the driver to move it. He couldn’t leave his truck out on the road. Someone coming around the bend might not see it, especially in the rain. And it wouldn’t do any good to leave it where it was, tucked behind the Impala. The driver would just have to knock on his door and ask him to move it later.
On the other hand, it had been a big step for his landlord to start dating again. Uriah had been married for fifty years before he lost his wife, and the old guy still wasn’t comfortable with moving on. So Tobias didn’t want to interrupt if he could avoid it…
He checked his watch. Uriah’s lady friends typically didn’t come over, except to bring him a meal or a piece of pie or something. If one ever did, she didn’t stay long. Uriah was nothing if not old-fashioned. He picked up whomever he asked out, took her on an official date and then drove her home.
Besides, he’d been a farmer all his life. He was in bed by ten and up at the crack of dawn, and it was almost ten now.
If Tobias just waited for a few minutes, whoever it was would probably leave.
But then, she might not. And he was dying to get in the shower.
“Better get it over with,” he muttered and climbed out, ducking his head against the wind and the rain.
Before he even reached the stoop, he could hear voices coming from inside the house. Uriah was getting on in years and losing his hearing, so he spoke loudly. Tobias spent a lot of time with him eating dinner, playing chess, restoring an old Buick in the detached garage or helping out with chores around the property, so he was used to the volume of his voice. But it was surprising to him that both voices were male.
Apparently, whoever was driving the Impala wasn’t one of the women Uriah was dating.
Tobias turned to take a closer look at the car blocking his way. The license plate was so dirty and the weather so bad that he hadn’t noticed when he first drove up, but it had Maryland plates.
Who did Uriah know from Maryland?
And then it hit him. This wasn’t Carl, was it?
Tobias had never met Uriah’s only child, but he’d heard enough about him to be leery. The two had been estranged for years. Uriah rarely mentioned him, but from what Tobias had heard from Aiyana Turner, who owned the school where Tobias worked and knew just about everyone in Silver Springs, Carl hadn’t even come to his mother’s funeral fifteen months ago.
What was he doing here now?
Tobias took the porch steps in one leap and banged on the door. He expected Uriah to answer. But the door opened almost immediately and the face looking out at him was much younger—around forty.
The resemblance between father and son was striking, eradicating any doubt Tobias had left as to the identity of Uriah’s guest. While Uriah was tall and thin and wore his salt-and-pepper hair in a military-style flattop, Carl wore his long, and it didn’t look as though he’d washed it recently. He didn’t resemble his father in stature or bearing, but the narrow bridge of his nose, the long shape of his face and the flat slash of a mouth were very similar to Uriah’s, although those features were somehow more attractive in the older man.
“Who are you?” Carl asked.
Before Tobias could answer, Uriah managed to get out of the recliner, which gave him a bit more trouble than usual since he was trying to do it in a hurry, and came to the door himself. “Carl! Is that any way to greet a person?”
“What?” Carl said, instantly defensive. “Did I say something wrong? Do I owe this guy something?”
Uriah scowled. “That’s enough.”
Tobias had met a lot of men in prison. Those who acted like Carl were seldom good news. They often tried to pick on everyone else, but Tobias wasn’t the type of person to let them get away with it. Carl was Uriah’s son, however, and Tobias respected his landlord—who had become his friend—so he maintained a pleasant expression. “Sorry to bother you,” he said. “I was just hoping you could move your car.”
Carl’s eyebrows jerked together. “What for?”
“So he can get through,” Uriah explained. “He lives in the back house. I was about to tell you I rented it out.”
“This guy lives on the property? In my house?”
Tobias felt his back and shoulder muscles tense. It’d been a long time since he’d taken such an instant dislike to someone. But Uriah seemed determined to defuse the situation, although Tobias could tell he was embarrassed by his son’s behavior.
“Carl, this is Tobias Richardson,” he said, speaking with almost exaggerated calm. “He’s lived here for four or five months. Helps out around the place, in addition to working at New Horizons. I’ve come to rely on him a great deal.”
Even Tobias could feel Uriah’s desire for Carl to behave, but he was willing to bet that if Carl did behave, it wouldn’t be for long.
“Why’s he wearing tights?” Carl asked, looking him up and down.
Tobias gritted his teeth. “They’re not tights. They’re for hiking or jogging.”
Carl ignored him. “So this is the son you never had?” he said to his father.
“I didn’t say that,” Uriah protested.
From what I’ve heard, it wouldn’t take much to be a better son than you. Those words rose to the tip of Tobias’s tongue. But he held back. “I’m just the renter,” he said as though he and Uriah weren’t as close as they’d become. “And if you’re not going anywhere, I’ll leave my truck where it is.” He started to walk away. He didn’t want any part of Carl. If Uriah was excited to have his son home, if he thought they might be able to patch things up, Tobias wasn’t going to get in the way. He understood how much that relationship had to mean to the old guy. The fact that Uriah never talked about Carl served as the biggest indicator. His inability to get along with his own son had created a deep wound, one he tried to keep hidden. But, other than Maddox, Uriah was the best man Tobias had ever known. As far as Tobias was concerned, Carl didn’t deserve a father like him.
“Wait,” Carl said. “I don’t want to be blocked in.”
Keeping his fingers outstretched so they didn’t automatically curl into fists, Tobias waited while Carl went in search of his keys.
Uriah stood at the door with him, but he didn’t say anything. Tobias could only imagine what he had to be feeling. Hope? The desire to make everything all right, at last, mixed with the knowledge that, even now, he probably couldn’t? Aiyana had told Tobias that Carl was moody at best. Through the years, he’d often lost his temper and started kicking the furniture or throwing things. Uriah had tried to help him a number of times. It wasn’t until Uriah came home one day to find Carl so enraged he was choking his mother that he made his son leave and told him never to come back.
Now that Shirley was gone and her safety wasn’t a concern, Tobias couldn’t see Uriah turning Carl away even if he crossed the line, and that worried Tobias.
But maybe he was jumping to conclusions. Maybe Carl was only home for the holidays.
He pulled up the collar of his coat to cut the wind as Carl strode past him and, after exchanging a look with Uriah, followed a complaining Carl down the steps. “It’s cold out here!” he muttered as though Tobias was purposely putting him out.
Once Carl moved his Impala to the side, he waved Tobias past, obviously impatient to get back into the warmth of the house.
Tobias stared at him for a few seconds and knew in that moment they would never be friends.
When Carl simply glared back at him, he drove past the Impala to park in his customary spot.
Behind him, Carl didn’t say anything as he got out and trudged inside, so Tobias didn’t say anything, either. “Prick,” he muttered and went into his own house, where he turned on the TV and tried to forget about Axel Devlin’s wife, who’d looked so sad in the diner, and the fact that vulnerable, seventy-six-year-old Uriah had someone who was potentially dangerous staying with him.
Tobias was still having difficulty relaxing an hour later when he received a text from his ex-girlfriend. Tonya Sparks, the sister of his last cellmate, had managed to give him enough hope to be able to endure his final year in prison, but things had fallen apart between them almost as soon as he was released.
I’m having a Christmas party on the 21st at 7:00 p.m. here at my place. I was hoping you’d come.
They spent some time together here and there, but Tobias knew they weren’t good for each other. Tonya partied a lot and didn’t have any direction in her life. She reminded him too much of his mother. He was better off staying away from her.
He’d been trying to, but it wasn’t easy since Maddox had gotten married. Tobias hadn’t been out of prison long enough to have made many friends. Sometimes he hung out with two of Aiyana’s sons—Elijah and Gavin, who also worked at the school—but they were married with kids and couldn’t do a whole lot after hours. If he wasn’t out hiking or mountain biking, he usually spent his evenings with Uriah. But until Carl went back to Maryland, if he even planned to, Tobias had a feeling that was about to change.
What the hell. He had to steer clear of his mother. She was using again, and he couldn’t risk getting caught up in that. He had to stay away from the eighteen-year-old at the diner who’d given him her number. He had to avoid being a nuisance to Maddox so that Maddox could enjoy his new wife and the daughter he never knew he had until last summer. And now he had to give Uriah some space so that he could potentially rebuild his relationship with his troubled son.
But a man had to have some friends, didn’t he?
Yeah. I’ll be there, he wrote.