“It’s hotter than Hades out here.” Marcus Black stood on the ramp of the plane and wiped the sweat off his brow with the back of his free hand. The other hand held his ten-year-old canvas bag, the same one he was issued on his first day of boot camp when he was eighteen years old. He hadn’t changed it out, mostly for sentimental reasons. Some of his reasons were superstitious ones as well, but he didn’t talk about that, especially to his teammates. They had enough reasons to poke fun at him without adding to that.
“It’s Texas,” Grant Patrick, his best friend and fellow ex-Navy SEAL said, stating the obvious. “It could be worse. It could be Afghanistan.”
“Thanks for that astute observation,” Marcus told him with a chuckle. “I need a cold beer.”
Grant sniffed the air and said, “You also need a shower.”
“Again, an astute observation. How do you do it?” Marcus’ voice dripped with sarcasm. Grant wasn’t fazed.
“I don’t miss a thing. It’s why Cade lets me carry the big guns when we’re out and about.”
Marcus smiled and shook his head at his friend and continued down the ramp, advancing further into the Texas heat. As much as he hated the heat and humidity, he loved Texas. It had been his home for his entire twenty-eight years of life, except for those eight years when he was in the Navy. During that time, he was all over the world. But not once did he wish to go anywhere else but Texas when he got out.
Grant was originally from Boston, but he had spent time with Marcus in the cabin in the foothills where he lived and he’d fallen in love with the simple serenity of the place. His parents were both gone and he didn’t have any siblings, so when he got out of the navy, relocating had been easy for him. He’d bought his own cabin about ten miles from Marcus and now that they were both retired and working for Cade Travers Security, the new neighbors saw a lot of each other.
They were just back from a two-week long job following some rich, supposedly famous rocker chick around Lake Tahoe. She was rude and impulsive and her sixty-something year old boyfriend looked like he’d had so many Botox treatments that it was hard to tell if he was smiling or scowling at them most of the time. Marcus, Grant, and another guy named Billy Joe who had already rushed off the plane and into the waiting arms of his most recent girlfriend, had spent two weeks following the Diva on her morning hikes, watching her do yoga on top of a rock formation from afar, and sleeping in a tent in the woods. She had a stalker that the police hadn’t been able to catch in L.A., so Cade suggested to her old man that they publicize her “retreat” to Tahoe and then wait him out. The main problem had been convincing the old man that the stalker wasn’t going to show up as long as he hovered around her. Since Grant was the smoothest talker of the three of them, he’d finally convinced the old plastic guy to go stay at one of the casinos in town.
The stalker finally showed up about a week later. The rock diva had gone to town at the time, having dinner and drinks with her old man and fawning for her adoring public. They caught the guy breaking into her cabin through a window in the back while she was gone. Turns out he was an old flame that the music business and the diva hadn’t been kind to. He was armed with a gaggle of knives and ninja tools when they caught him, and was ranting about how badly “the bitch” needed to die. God only knows what he’d had planned for her. Marcus hadn’t liked her much, but he was glad they caught the crazy guy before he had a chance to hurt her. The old rich boyfriend was so grateful to them that he’d given Cade a huge bonus of which Cade kept none. He split it three ways and suddenly the guys had more money burning a hole in their pockets than any of them had in years. Marcus planned on spending at least some of his that very night on cold beer and the thickest steak he could find.
He was tired and stiff all over from long nights taking watch propped up against a tree and sleeping on the hard floor of the tent the rest of the time. He had to admit that Navy Seal or not, he actually had a hard time keeping up with the skinny diva on her hikes. She took her exercise seriously…too seriously if you asked him. He liked his women a little thicker and curvier. He at least wanted something to hold onto besides a bag of bones. As a matter of fact, he’d love nothing more than that after his shower tonight…in his own cabin and in his own bed.
“If I take a shower will you meet me at Benny’s in a couple hours?” Marcus had been seeing a woman pretty regularly up until about six months ago when she decided things just weren’t working out for them like she hoped. He wasn’t in love with her, so his heart wasn’t broken over it, but he was starting to get pretty lonely. The pool of women to choose from in their hometown was more like a pond or a creek. Of course, there was only one woman in the pool he really wanted but more often than not, that seemed like it would never happen.
“Yep,” Grant said. “I’m going home to do the same. You might want to trim some of that hair on your face too if you’re looking for a woman.”
“Who says I’m looking for a woman?”
Grant laughed that deep, rough laugh he’d gotten probably from years of living in the city and breathing in the thick smog. “How long has it been now since Anna left town?”
“You don’t know my life. Maybe I’ve had ten women since Anna left.”
Grant laughed again. “Yeah right. You’re too lazy for all that. Shower, shave, throw on some aftershave and a clean shirt, and maybe you can finally convince Sadie to go home with you, or at least work up the nerve to at least ask her.”
Marcus walked faster so Grant couldn’t see his face. Even though his Puerto Rican heritage on his mother’s side had left him with dark olive skin, he knew his face still turned bright red when he was embarrassed or ashamed. When it came to Sadie Bradshaw, he was both. Sadie was the only woman Marcus had ever loved. But they had a history that neither of them was anxious to revisit or repeat. She was that one woman in the pool…he continuously denied to his friends that he still felt anything for her but he’d been cursed with a face that gave away too much.
Marcus reached his old pickup and tossed his bag in the back. Grant did the same. Marcus finally looked at him over the top of the pickup and said, “If you don’t want to walk home, you’ll drop that subject.”
Grant chuckled and said, “Okay, but for the record I know you only invite me to Benny’s with you to help you pick up women.”
Marcus rolled his eyes. “Right…more like to help me sort through all of the girls throwing themselves at my feet.”
Grant threw his head back and laughed again. “Since there’re usually only about five women at Benny’s and they’re all women you’ve known your entire life, that’s not really much to brag about. You gotta let me take you out in Boston one of these days. We’ll go clubbing and you’ll have so many choices you’ll have one hell of a time picking just one.”
“That’s why you moved all the way out here, right? You got tired of all the women?” Grant rarely talked about his past. He’d told Marcus that his parents died in a car accident two days before his eighteenth birthday, and he’d joined the navy right after. But that was about all Marcus knew about his friend’s life before he met him almost ten years ago. He suspected that Grant had bigger reasons for moving all the way out to the middle of nowhere in Texas than that he found it peaceful, but he figured Grant would tell him about that when and if he ever was ready to.
“Sick to death of it,” Grant said with another chuckle.
Marcus shook his head as he put the truck in gear and started off for Grant’s house.
Two hours later when he picked Grant back up to head out to Benny’s, he had to shake his head again.
“You do know that you’re in the Texas hill country and not Boston, right?”
Grant was wearing a pair of black skinny jeans, a long-sleeved black and white striped, collared shirt and black boots. He’d shaved and styled his brown hair in a pompadour-like style with what looked to Marcus like a lot of product. His own dark brown hair was left tousled at the top in what he called a manageable mess.
“Don’t matter where I am, I can’t help looking fine,” Grant responded easily, stretching his arms out across the headrest with a grin. His brown eyes twinkled with mirth. Marcus laughed out loud. He drove down the hill toward the tiny little town of Blossom Hill where a man he’d known most of his life, Mickey, owned a bar called Benny’s. Mickey also happened to be Sadie’s father and when she wasn’t helping out Wanda at the bed and breakfast in town, she was working at the bar. Marcus didn’t like to admit even to himself that was why he hung out there so much, but there were some things a man couldn’t deny, at least to himself. As Marcus drove, Grant looked him over. “Is that a clean shirt or did you just pull it out of the hamper and smell it?”
“Shut the hell up, it’s clean.”
“You should use bleach or not wear white.”
“Jesus, you’re such a woman sometimes.”
“Nope, but I am trying to help you get a woman and in that dingy white shirt, I think the chances are probably slim. And I thought you were going to shave! What’s that bush still doing there?”
“You told me to shave, I didn’t agree to it,” Marcus corrected him.
“What’s your connection to all that hair? The girls won’t even be able to see your face.”
“You said it yourself, they all know me anyway. They all know what I look like.” Grant was exaggerating anyway. Marcus’ usual five o’clock shadow had just grown out a bit over the past few days. It could use a little trim, but it wasn’t that out of control, at least not to the point where he looked live a caveman or anything. Marcus had actually thought about cleaning it up a little bit, but he was too tired. He’d probably just have a couple of beers and something to eat and then go home and collapse down in his own bed. Besides, his white t-shirt, jeans, and scuffed up cowboy boots were fine, at least for Blossom Hill. Grant was the one that was over-dressed.
“You’re hopeless. At this rate the only woman we’re going to find for you is gonna be one of those Treager girls.”
Marcus laughed. “Don’t think I haven’t been hit on by every one of those girls at least once over the years, and Molly more times than I can count.”
“It’s the beard.”
Still laughing, Marcus said, “The first time Molly Treager hit on me, we were in fourth grade, I was smooth.” The “Treager girls” were from an almost legendary family in the hills. Their father, Lane Treager, was a mountain of a man who built a cabin as far up into the hills as he could get away from people and then set about making a living as a hunter, trapper, and fur-trader. Rumor in town was that his wife was a mail order. Whatever it was, though, it had worked out. They’d been married for over thirty years and had five children, all girls. Treager only came down the mountain once a month to sell his skins, furs, and woodcarvings that he made in his spare time. For years Treager refused to bring the girls down for school. Marcus remembered the day the sheriff went up the mountain and threatened to arrest Lane Treager if he didn’t send his girls to school. The whole town was holding their breath, waiting to see what happened. There was supposedly a standoff, but no one really ever confirmed that. Ultimately, the sheriff came back to town with five dirty and shabbily dressed little girls. It seemed he and Treager had reached some kind of understanding where one of the deputies would go up every day and bring the girls down for school and then take them back up when they were finished in the afternoon. Only in Blossom Hill, Marcus thought.
There were two sets of twins, Bobbie and Becky, who were fourteen at that time, and then Libby and Hannah, who were twelve. Then there was Molly, the baby of the family. She was only ten years old but she stood over a foot taller than everyone else in the class, even the boys. All five of the girls had gotten their father’s height and most of them his bulk as well. Marcus remembered even then thinking that Molly had the muscle mass of a pro-wrestler. His Mama told him that it wasn’t Molly’s fault and that it was probably from working with her father on their land and a little bit of genetics. Her hair was white blonde and might have been pretty if she ever washed it, and she had giant brown eyes that both fascinated and frightened him a little bit. If her intimidating looks didn’t scare people away, her personality did. She was bossy and abrasive and had no social skills to speak of whatsoever. She wasn’t unattractive, but she was scary, there was no denying it.
“I shouldn’t poke fun at them,” Grant said, with a slightly guilty edge to his voice. “All I really know about them is what I’ve heard since I’ve been in town. That night I met Molly at the bar, she seemed okay. Big and kinda scary, but okay.”
Marcus laughed. Molly had just kept growing and by the time they graduated high school she was six-foot-three and solid muscle from head to toe. She kept her blonde hair clean now and with makeup on and those giant eyes of hers, she wasn’t all that bad to look at. But Grant was right, she was still scary.
“I’m pretty sure most of the stories you’ve heard are true,” Marcus said. “They are quite the colorful family. But she’s okay, they really all are. They’re just different, but who isn’t?”
Grant let his friend’s question go. They both knew Marcus was talking about himself. He was “different” from most and didn’t really have a right to throw any stones. “Well, if worse comes to worst, I got the feeling the night I met Molly, she was still harboring feelings for you.”
Marcus pulled the truck into the little dusty parking lot of Benny’s. “I’m sure,” he said absently, taking in the scene in the lot. “What the hell are all these cars doing here?”
Grant looked around. The parking lot was packed, and not with the type of cars one usually saw in and around Blossom Hill, Texas. These cars were shiny, late model sports cars or luxury sedans. They were the kind of cars one might see if they went down to Dallas or up to Houston. They were the kind of cars people drove in the city, not out here where the roads had a pothole every five feet.
“Is there something going on in the bar tonight?” Occasionally Mickey hired a band or local singer as entertainment, but it usually didn’t attract out-of-towners.
“Hell if I know. I can’t remember anything ever going on that attracted this many people. I mean, other than the annual rodeo, and then the lot’s filled with pickups and horse trailers.”
Marcus finally parked the truck along the side of the lot, making his own space. The two men made their way up to the front of the bar. Before they made it to the door, it opened and Sadie came out. For a split second, every time Marcus saw Sadie, he had to remind himself to breathe. Nothing or no one in his life had ever affected him the way she did. She was like a drug that he couldn’t get enough of and sometimes he had to just breathe her in to get his fix. “Sadie, hi.”
She looked up at Marcus and then at Grant and smiled. Her auburn hair was falling out of the side braid she kept it in and she had a spot of ketchup or something staining the front of her white, button-down shirt. She wasn’t wearing a stitch of makeup, but she usually didn’t and her green eyes didn’t need anything, anyway. Marcus could vividly remember the last time he saw her wear makeup. It was the night he took her to their senior prom and ruined things between them forever.
“Hi Marcus, Grant. I didn’t know y’all were back in town.”
“Just got back today,” Marcus said. “What’s with all the cars?”
She curled her lip. “Wait until you get inside. You won’t believe it. Guess who’s staying in Blossom Hill for the next couple of months?”
“Peter Dailey.” Marcus was still looking at her, waiting for her to tell him who that was. Grant must have read that on his face because he spoke up.
“Damn, boy, we have to get you out more—or at least a TV or internet or something. Peter Dailey is an actor. He was in that movie ‘Rock Steady’ that came out last year. He played a professional fighter with addiction issues. Ring any bells?”
Marcus shook his head. Sadie giggled.
“I should have known you wouldn’t know who he was,” she said. Marcus wasn’t sure if she thought that was cute or if she was making fun of him. “Mickey is sitting in the booth in the far corner taking his break. Go on in and sit with him. I’ll be back inside in a minute and I’ll get you your beers. Y’all want anything to eat?”
“Steak?” Marcus asked her. Even though Mickey was her father, she’s always called him by his first name. Besides Wanda at the bed and breakfast, he was the best cook in Blossom Hill.
“You got it,” Sadie winked at him, smiled at Grant, and headed over to her car to get whatever it was she’d come out for. Marcus was still watching her when he felt Grant nudge him in the back, pushing him through the double doors and into the bar. The place was so packed with bodies that they couldn’t even see the back table.
“Hey, what’s Peter Dailey doing in town?” Grant asked the first person he saw, an old cowboy that worked one of the dude ranches just outside of town. His name was Chuck but he went by Buck.
The old guy raised a bushy gray eyebrow and said, “Making a movie. He showed up with a damned entourage saying they’re lookin’ for extras and of course half the town had to come out and try and get an autograph. A man can’t even get his belly up to the bar for a drink.”
Grant slapped the old-timer on the back and said, “Relax, Buck, maybe you can get a part in the movie.”
The old guy rolled his eyes and said, “Chances of me wanting to do that are about as slim as the chances of your friend here getting into Sadie’s drawers.” Grant and Buck were still laughing as Marcus walked away. He loved his home, but he hated that everyone in this little town knew his history and secrets. Some days, Grant’s offers to take him to Boston didn’t look all that bad. Maybe he’d go one of these days and just start over. One thing was for sure, though—sitting in that cabin in the mountains wasn’t ever going to get him the family he’d so dearly love to have someday.