Justin paused at the sound of his name, his hand still on the door he’d just pushed open. As he moved into the bar and his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he saw the guy who’d greeted him before he’d even had a chance to clear the doorway.
Accepting that there was no way around it, Justin pulled out the barstool next to the man who’d known his family for decades. “Hey, Ray. How you been?”
“Eh, same old thing. Y’know how it is.” The older man, whose clothes reeked of cigarette smoke, hacked out a raspy cough before soothing it with a swallow of his beer.
“Yup.” Justin dipped his head, knowing one thing for certain—that Ray should stop smoking. He should probably stop drinking, too, if he wanted to see his grandkids grow up.
As for Ray’s statement about everything being the same old thing, Justin could definitely relate. That was exactly the problem in this town—things were always the same. The same people doing the same things in the same places.
In a community that small, there was no avoiding running into people he’d known for most of his life. Folks who knew him and his family’s past. Even when he wanted to get away from everyone for a little bit, especially when he needed to get away, it seemed he couldn’t.
All he’d wanted to do tonight was to be alone. His goal was to get shit-faced on some beer—or bourbon, if that’s what it took—and then sleep it off in the truck in peaceful oblivion for a few hours. He obviously needed to drive farther to find a watering hole where no one knew him. Possibly across state lines, and even that might not be far enough.
Justin raised one hand to get the bartender’s attention. “Bottle of light beer, please.”
His original plan to consume massive amounts of the hard stuff wasn’t going to play out, so he’d have a light one and then leave. One quick beer, a short good-bye, and then he’d get back in the truck and drive until he was so far away no one knew him.
“How’s your momma doing?” Ray’s tone was imbued with the same undercurrent of sympathy Justin had gotten used to hearing over the past two years.
“Good. Thanks.” Justin hated the question he seemed to be asked everywhere he went. What could he say to answer it?
Certainly not the truth—that his mother, a formerly vibrant woman, was now broken. A complete and utter mess.
His mother was as good as a woman who’d lost both her husband and her oldest son in the span of less than a decade could be.
Both men had been taken way too young, his father ten years ago by a massive coronary and his brother more recently by war.
Some days she didn’t get out of bed. Justin would come home from a full day of work at the Double L Ranch and find her in the same pajamas she’d been wearing when he’d left that morning. Still sitting in the same spot, either on the sofa in front of the television or, on really bad days, in her bed.
Other days, few and far between, she’d make a small attempt at normalcy. He’d come home and find her cleaning or cooking. But those days had become less and less frequent. More often than not, he’d be the one making dinner when he got home from the ranch at night.
As the man of the house—the only one left—Justin did his best to support his mother. He’d bring her food and coax her to eat when she didn’t want to. He’d give her space when she looked like she needed that or an ear to bend when that was what she needed most.
But some days, like today, Justin couldn’t deal with his own life, never mind his mother’s. Lord help him, because he felt like shit when he did it, but those were the days he’d disappear. Fire up the engine in his brother’s old truck and drive.
As the bartender delivered the beer Justin had ordered, the door swung open, letting the light of the afternoon inside the sanctuary like darkness of the bar.
Justin raised the bottle to his lips and drew in a long swallow of the icy-cold brew. It slid down his throat, washing away at least a little bit of his stress. If Ray remained quiet, and the bartender kept the cold ones coming, maybe he could stay and hang here for a bit.
“Hey, is that Jeremy’s truck I saw parked outside?” The newcomer’s statement was like nails on a chalkboard, erasing whatever calm Justin had managed to achieve.
“You driving Jeremy’s truck?” Ray asked Justin. Justin glanced from the guy who’d just entered—Rod, the old timer who owned the lumberyard—to Ray.
“I like to run it once in a while.” He downed another two gulps of beer, bringing the bottle closer to empty and the time nearer the moment he could leave.
Rod pulled out the barstool next to Justin. With him on one side and Ray on the other, Justin was penned in. Trapped in polite conversation when all he wanted was to be an antisocial bastard.
“If you’re ever looking to sell it, give me a call. I always did like that truck.” Ray’s offer was the last thing Justin could take.
Jaw clenched, Justin nodded. “I’ll keep that in mind.” Jeremy was dead. His truck was one of the last things left on Earth that had mattered to him. He’d loved that damned truck. Justin couldn’t sell it any more than he could bring himself to take it over and drive it as his, full-time.
Didn’t they understand that?
He said he drove it to keep the engine in shape, but the truth was, Justin got in it when he wanted to feel close to his brother. And, truth be told, sometimes when he wished he could chuck it all and join his brother, wherever that might be. Even after going to church his entire life, he wasn’t so convinced Heaven existed. At least not exactly in the way the preacher said it did.
One more gulp and the beer was empty. Justin stepped off the barstool and dug in his pocket for his wallet. “You going?” Ray asked.
“Put that beer on my tab.” Rod directed the statement to the bartender.
“Thanks, but I got it.” Justin threw a bill on the bar. “See y’all later.”
He didn’t wait for change from the bill he’d tossed down or good-byes from the two men. Instead he yanked the door open and stepped out into the evening air. Only then— outside and away from the oppressive presence of people—did he feel like he could breathe again.
Shit. He wasn’t fit to be around any other living thing today. Maybe he should pick up a six-pack, drive to a field somewhere, sit in the truck, and drink it.
It was coming up on two years since Jeremy had died. Justin knew he’d have to be there for his mother that day. Hell, for the whole month probably. But now, with over a month left to go before that grim anniversary, he’d give himself this time to wallow in his grief.
Justin would let himself get angry, too. At God for letting a good man die too damn young. At the bastards who’d planted that roadside bomb. Even at Jeremy for reenlisting when he could have been home safe instead of in Afghanistan.
He slid into the driver’s seat and stared down at the set of keys in his hand. The truck key. The house key. The key to the padlock on the toolshed in the backyard. Some mysterious key he didn’t recognize. He was starting to wonder if even Jeremy had known what it opened. . . .
Justin ran his thumb over the smooth metal of the ring. It was the same keyring Jeremy had carried in his pocket since the day he’d bought the truck. He’d carried it until the fake leather tag on it that read Chevy had worn and frayed around the edges. He’d carried it until he’d deployed that final time.
Knocking himself out of the daze he’d slipped into, Justin reached for the radio and hit the Power button. The same station that had been playing the last time Jeremy drove the truck before leaving blared to life.
He couldn’t bring himself to change the station, just like he couldn’t throw out the stack of fast-food napkins stuffed in the glove compartment or the two-year-old, half-empty tin of chew Jeremy had left in the console under the dash.
Justin turned the key in the ignition and the engine fired to life, rumbling beneath him. It would be better to run it more often than the half dozen or so times a year he did. That would keep the tires from getting flat spots, or worse, dry rot.
Page Count: 320 pages
Publisher: Zebra (February 23, 2016)
He needs to escape...
Justin Skaggs is on the road to anywhere—as long as it's far from home—when fate throws a kindred spirit across his path.
She needs to get to Oklahoma...
Phoenix Montagno can't believe her luck when she runs into the hottie from the bar. He's the key to her getting everything she's always wanted, but she can't tell him that. Luckily he's not interested in learning her story any more than he is in sharing his.
Both have secrets they don't want to share...
It's the perfect arrangement. No personal details. No talking at all. Just two strangers sharing the cab of a truck heading the direction they both need to go . . . until they decide to share a bed, too.
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