What Comes After Dessert is a standalone contemporary romance about young love lost and an unexpected opportunity to prove nothing is sweeter than a second chance at first love.

If you have specific trigger concerns, feel free to email me (mail@renbenton.com), and I’ll be happy to provide whatever details you need to make a safe decision for yourself.


What Comes After Dessert

© 2015 Ren Benton

92,000 words / 304 pages in paperback

Genre: Contemporary Romance

Potential Catnip: Small town, second chance, childhood sweethearts

Trigger Warning: Protagonist with history of physical/emotional abuse and lingering effects thereof that are not cured by love, frank discussion of poverty


Twelve years ago, Ben Fielder’s childhood sweetheart ran out on him, and his broken heart hasn’t held another woman since. During his annual visit to his hometown, he finds something sweeter than cookies behind the counter at the bakery — Tally’s back in town, and his response to her makes it clear the only flaw in his heart is that it’s still full of her.

Tally Castle knew twelve years ago she wasn’t good enough for Westard’s golden boy. While Ben made a success of himself out in the real world, she made an even bigger mess of her life. The one good part of limping home was that he hadn’t been around to witness her walk of shame. Now the only man she’s ever wanted is back, assaulting her brittle defenses with goofy smiles and serious kisses.

To protect her heart, Tally must remind herself his presence is temporary. To heal both their hearts, Ben must convince her this is only the beginning of their second chance.

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1

Acker’s Serv-N-Go began holding down the corner of Main and Magnolia in 1958. Since opening day, a seventeen-foot cowboy by the name of Howdy Hank had welcomed arrivals to Westard and waved off the departing after they’d stocked up on sufficient gasoline, Cheetos, and Mountain Dew to get far, far away.

Now, an expanse of cracked concrete landscaped with knee-high thistle greeted arrivals with You should have stopped for gas back in Sterling, buckaroo.

Because every kid who grew up in Westard knew nothing ever changed in Westard, Ben had zoomed through Sterling without glancing at its lone service station, and the needle on the rented Buick’s gas gauge was getting to second base with E.

Because the Serv-N-Go had Servd-N-Gone, it looked like the happy couple would be going all the way before the night was over.

He was standing in Howdy Hank’s abandoned footsteps when a police cruiser stopped nose to nose with the rental.

The door of the cruiser opened, and a booted foot landed on the pavement. “Put your hands in the air.”

Rural cops spent much of their time interacting with rural folk who felt a strong attachment to their guns. Rural cops consequently possessed a reasonable distrust of poorly visualized hands.

Ben raised his to prove he was harmless.

The lawman stepped out of his car. The last of the sun’s rays glinted off his mirrored shades and his high forehead. “Now wave ’em like you just don’t care.”

Ben’s hands dropped to his sides. “Fuck you, Officer Beaver.”

Shane smacked him on the shoulder, a broad grin splitting his face. “I’m flattered, Fielder, but I can do better than you.”

Ben had run into Shane five or six times in the past dozen years. Every time, they had slipped into the rhythm of friends who’d known each other since their diaper days, as if he’d never left town. “I almost didn’t recognize you. Did you do something new with your hair?”

Shane ran a hand over his buzz cut and a lot of scalp that no longer required shearing. “This is what real men look like.”

“Real old men.”

“Jude Law has this hairline.”

“Jude Law works out.”

Shane hitched his belt up over the beginning of a paunch. “He’s obviously insecure in his masculinity and compensating for having a little dick.”

When they were young and immature, Ben would have commended Shane for accepting his own diminutive penis. Shane would have responded by dropping his pants, challenging his accuser to a duel, and declaring himself the victor when the invitation to do a head-to-head dick comparison was declined.

The fact that they were having this conversation — again — suggested the ensuing years hadn’t come bundled with maturity, and neither of them had invested in the upgrade.

That was their rhythm.

To protect himself from exposure to Beaver junk, which the girls of South Marion High had avoided like it was radioactive, Ben sacrificed the perfect comeback in favor of being the bigger man, so to speak.

He inclined his head to indicate the razed lot. “What happened here?”

“Same thing that’s happening all over. Bunch of bankers got in trouble for their gambling problem, and people who never had any money to gamble with had to pick up the tab so the world didn’t end, or some bullshit to that effect. How long has it been since you’ve been back?”

Ben missed his last annual visit due to a previous engagement with a judge, a couple of lawyers, and his now-ex-wife. The year before that, he’d convinced his mother to let him take her on a real vacation to get acquainted with his then-new wife. “About three years.”

“You’re in for a shock, then. How close to empty are you?”

“Too close to get back to Sterling.” Funny he should ask. “Does this happen a lot?”

“Often enough the station in Sterling ought to put up a sign. Bitching about how nothing ever changes is the official sport of Westard and everyone’s all-pro, so it’s a kick in the nuts every time you come home and something else is missing.”

In the days after Ellen moved out, Ben came home from work at night and played a few rounds of What Did She Take While I Was Out? He’d expected her to keep nibbling away at his property until he came home to an empty lot like this one, but on the fifth day, she took the last thing she wanted from their life together and left her key in the mailbox. No note.

Coming home to find his net worth further diminished had been a hand job compared to coming home to find he had nothing else worth taking.

He had recovered enough to quip about it now, to the kind of friend he saw five or six times every dozen years. “Sounds like my divorce.”

The twinge in his gut when he spoke of that failure had downgraded from the twisting, red-hot poker it was a few months ago.

“Mine, too. My dog is living with the Prius-driving asshole who’s banging my ex.”

Shane’s overt disgust distracted Ben from the remnant of his ulcer. “Which part are you more broken up about?”

“That dog deserves a man with a truck. You staying at your mom’s?”

If she would let him in. If not, the Back Seat Inn had a vacancy and required no reservation. “That’s the plan, such as it is.”

“I’ll bring by a gallon in the morning. Lock your car so it doesn’t wander off, and I’ll give you the guided tour.”

“Aren’t you on duty?”

“I could flip a coin, stroll to the other side of town, and be back here before it hits the ground. You’re the worst thing likely to happen in the meantime.”

Except, apparently, grand theft auto. Ben pressed the lock button on the key fob like a good city boy and followed his tour guide. Anything to postpone the reunion with his mother.

Westard proper consisted of four streets and four avenues. With the exception of Main Street, all were residential. Night life on the strip had never been wild, but there were always men jawing in front of the hardware store and women dragging cranky kids into the market on a quest for the fastest food available in a town lacking a drive-through.

Ben had never seen Main Street deserted. With no cars angled into the parking slots on either side of the street, the gray stripe through the center of town looked as wide as the highway that brought him here from the airport.

He used to do odd jobs for Jed Bartlett around the hardware store: sweeping, running to the post office, washing the big plate glass windows. Judging by the grime concentrated in the corners and fanning across the glass like brown frost, the dark, empty space beyond the windows wasn’t a recent development. The cramped aisles, limited selection of inventory, and waiting two weeks for an off-stock part to be special ordered made that forty-mile trip to the nearest Home Depot seem like a day at the amusement park. Sentiment couldn’t compete with bulk pricing and a garden center.

Shane caught the direction of his gaze and nodded toward the adjacent building. “The clinic, too.”

Ben’s first nineteen years of cuts, breaks, burns, and coughs had been treated in that office. “I’m not surprised. Grady was nine million years old.”

“He would have gone on for another nine million if he could afford the staff to handle all the insurance crap. He tried to get a replacement in here before he retired, but the medical needs of this whole town don’t generate enough revenue to make it a ‘viable business opportunity.'”

The natives of this cable-forsaken region hadn’t been brainwashed by nonstop commercials to believe every sniffle, ache, and bad mood required a prescription. They prided themselves on being hardy and resisted going to a doctor unless bones were poking through the skin.

Now that the nearest doctor was an hour’s drive away, they’d put a Band-Aid on that wound, too.

Ben’s mother believed complaining was for weaklings. If anything ailed her, she needed a doctor who would bump into her outside of the appointment she would never schedule and knew her well enough to ask the right questions to unearth the diagnosis. In the absence of such a relationship, Ben would be happier if she lived less than an hour away from the nearest emergency room.

How many other services had she been doing without? “Is Sheila still doing hair in her kitchen?”

“Sure is.” Shane smoothed a hand over his coif. “But she sold her house to Julie Acker and her new husband and moved in with Norma after Doug died, so her kitchen is across the street now, should you decide to get a manly haircut while you’re in town.”

“Nah, I’m good.” Ben was overdue for a trim, as usual, but he preferred a style that didn’t begin with buzz or bowl, the only two manly haircuts he’d ever seen emerge from Sheila’s salon.

The sidewalk dipped in front of the market, the better to ease the passage of shopping carts and skateboards. His feet took root at the sight of those windows covered with plywood. How many times had he been one of the cranky kids dragged through that door three minutes before closing time because his mom had to work late and choose between feeding him dinner from a box and keeping him up until midnight cooking a dinner grandma would approve of?

He’d always hated those trips to the store, but now that the option was missing, he saw what a blessing it had been to not have to go all the way to Sterling to get milk for his Cocoa Puffs. “Jesus, is anything left?”

“The bar is still open. Doing such a booming business, they expanded into the firehouse.”

“Tell me you mean you can report a fire and get wings and beer delivered with the same phone call.” The negative jerk of Shane’s head restored some heat to Ben’s twinge. “How the hell do you close a volunteer fire department?”

“The town owned the building and the truck and needed some cash. For what it’s worth, the volunteers will still come and point a garden hose at your fire.”

Worth about as much as pissing on it. No doctor, no food, no fire rescue. The town hadn’t been upwardly mobile from the day its foundering father misjudged where the railroad would be coming through by twenty miles and broke ground in the wrong spot, but its current state was tumbling toward third-world conditions. “I’m surprised we still have a cop.”

“I’ll be the next to go.”

Shane’s only career had been as the law in Westard, and he’d called dibs on the job in fourth grade. “That’s shit. What will you do?”

“Go to the troopers and try to get Westard on my beat so these folks don’t have a stranger pulling in the driveway to separate them from their booze and guns.”

A responding officer who could reminisce about eating meatloaf at the kitchen table, playing ball with a son, or dating a sister had a chance of talking through a conflict, but no one discussed family business with outsiders. An outsider with a badge and a bunch of questions had a better chance of getting a tragic reception. “No wonder the bar’s still open. I’ve only been in town ten minutes, and getting wasted seems like the natural solution.”

“That goes around like a virus, but it’s not all bad.”

Bad enough. Throughout his childhood, like every other kid in Westard, Ben dreamed of escaping, but the town had been paradise then compared to this cluster of abandoned buildings in the middle of nowhere.

The only bright side was that his mother couldn’t possibly look him in the eye and claim there was anything to keep her here now.

The streetlight overhead buzzed to life in response to the darkening sky. Only half its counterparts did likewise, casting cones of jaundiced light that staggered from one side of the street to the other in a testament to municipal penny pinching.

The only well-illuminated establishment currently open for business was the bar.

Shane checked his watch. “If we’re lucky, we can get some free cookies.”

Ben perked up at the first good news he’d heard since discovering Howdy Hank had gone AWOL. “The bakery’s still open?”

“Don’t ask me how, but yeah.”

Ben didn’t need to ask. Stella Hood wasn’t a Westard institution because of her pretty face. The woman was a wizard in the kitchen. “Stella always gave me free cookies.”

Shane snorted as they crossed the intersection where Oak fell across Main like a bridge leading to one of the shady parts of the street. “Rumor has it almost every female in town gave you free cookies.”

“Almost?”

In a town with a population of just over two hundred, every female of their approximate age amounted to ten. Any boy who hadn’t made the complete circuit had been blacklisted after being a shit to one of them. The girl friend pool was every bit as shallow as the girlfriend pool, and those girls kept no secrets from each other.

“Nobody ever got their hands in Tally Castle’s cookie jar.”

The twinge grew spurs and twisted.

Ben hadn’t thought about Tally since the last time he came to town, where memories of her were embedded everywhere he looked. The front steps of the school, where he’d laid eyes on her for the first time. The lightning-split tree in the woods between their houses, where he’d carved their initials in the dead wood and, years later, kissed her for the second time. The boathouse at the lodge, where he’d asked her to marry him and she’d said no.

He went back to Seattle after that trip down memory lane and bought a ring for Ellen. She said yes.

But Shane didn’t know any of that. Only two people knew, and the other one had left and never looked back at what she’d left in her dust. He’d never had to endure sympathy from all sides for that failure. He kept it private and close to his heart, as he’d done with his love.

Shane pushed open the bakery door, releasing a whirlwind of yeasty perfume that made Ben’s mouth water. Stella would have her own kind of Band-Aid for that twelve-year-old wound.

The buzzer over the door stuck, competing with the greeting Shane called out.

A voice that was not Stella’s smoker’s rasp answered from the depths of the kitchen. “Swat that buzzer, will you?”

Shane said, “Sure thing.”

Ben, standing just inside the door, stretched an arm overhead and smacked the buzzer into silence. Which sucker had the old slave driver gotten to work the late shift so she could go home early and watch the game?

The sucker stepped through the doorway separating the storefront from the kitchen. A loose braid of dark hair dangled over her shoulder, ending in a curl that rested high on her chest. An oversized flannel shirt committed the crime of concealing what Ben knew to be a body wet dreams were made of.

Scents from memories wiped out eau de bakery. Her flowery shampoo. Cherry lip gloss. All the warm, sweet, hidden places of her skin.

Or almost all of them.

Wide hazel eyes, at the moment dominated by mossy green, stared at him.

He returned the favor, searching for imperfections to use as armor against her. Short, fine hairs formed sweaty curlicues against her temples. A gray smudge angled across a forehead crimped with tension. Violet shadows, stark against the paleness of her skin, punctuated the delicate space between her nose and the inner corners of her eyes like outward-facing parentheses. A red spot marked her lower lip where she bit it when she worried, which had to be kissed extra gently because it was always tender.

Dammit, she was still perfect, and he was still defenseless against her.

That was their rhythm.

Tally Castle wasn’t the first or the last girl he’d been a fool for, but she was the only one who made it happen by burning up all the oxygen so he couldn’t breathe around her, leaving him lightheaded and incapable of intelligent speech or action.

He made his lungs inflate with the empty air, deflate, repeat in a facsimile of respiration that kept his affliction private and close to his heart.

Why did his weakness to The Fortress have to be the one thing immune to change?

2

Stella left behind an iPod containing the assortment of country and American classic rock one would expect to find in the possession of a woman of her generation in Westard — as well as an eyebrow-raising collection of Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, and Lil Wayne. Either Stella had a secret life moonlighting as a DJ at a strip club, or pole dancers weren’t the only workforce to whom Weezy signified time to get that ass to work.

Tally couldn’t tolerate a soundtrack of grinding music for an entire shift, but when her energy was gone at the end of the day, the beat prodded her to go through the motions, just like old times.

She kept the volume low so the thump of bass was the only distinct sound emitting from the speakers. Instead of scraping up the last sweaty dollar bills from a tapped-out audience, she scraped the day’s accumulation of flour from the seams where the floor met the walls and base cabinets. Every day for two years, she’d thought if she was tidier, every surface in the bakery wouldn’t be coated with flour at the end of the day. Every day for two years, no matter how tidy she tried to be, every surface in the bakery was coated with flour at the end of the day. Every night before she left, she cleaned from top to bottom, waging a futile battle against the inevitable.

Stella’s cleaning instructions were to keep the counters clean and wet-mop the floor once a week. She said flour flew and Tally should be worried about how much of it she’d sucked into her lungs rather than how much settled into cracks in the linoleum.

Tally couldn’t care less about the condition of her lungs. No one was judging the cleanliness of her alveoli.

Most of the town thought she had taken advantage of a sick old lady on her way to a nursing home. There was no rational explanation for Stella to entrust a professional screwup with her business, her money, and her reputation.

Tally couldn’t argue with her detractors. Even if she had a talent for defending herself, the truth was against her. She hadn’t lied about her qualifications or lack thereof, but she also hadn’t protested against the obviously poor judgment on Stella’s part. Competition was stiff for uneducated, unskilled labor. Every other employer within a fifty-mile radius had the sense to laugh her off the premises, and she desperately needed the income for big-city luxuries to which she had become accustomed during her decade away from Westard.

Luxuries such as food and toilet paper.

If they gave up the former, they could do without the latter, but when she pitched the idea to her dad, he used the receipts from her mother’s funeral to bat it down. In the short term, at least, living was marginally more frugal than starving to death.

Starvation remained an option, however, if Stella came to her senses and fired her. The books were perpetually in the red. Most of the customers looked at her as if they’d rather lick the bottom of a garbage can than eat food she had prepared if she wasn’t selling it at a loss.

Stella cackled at the weekly progress reports. Someday, her doctors would adjust her meds, she’d be less entertained by the ruin of her life’s work, and Tally would be out on her ass.

She scrubbed harder. Nothing was as motivating as a reminder that no matter how shitty things were at any given moment, they could always get worse. When rock bottom arrived and the whole town was atwitter about how she’d finally gotten what she deserved, at least nobody would be able to say she was a slob.

She’s a disgraceful excuse for a human being, but you could feed your baby off that floor between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m.

She wadded the pyramid of grungy paper towels into a ball and sank it into the bag slouched by the back door. The only dirt that hadn’t made it into the garbage was on her clothes, in her hair, and glued to her skin. When she took out the trash, the place would be spotless until she returned in the morning and started spewing flour again.

The door buzzer alerted her in its customary fashion to the arrival of business up front, sticking as if annoyance had ever enhanced the provision of customer service. The buzzer had been on her list of things to fix for two years, but something else always took priority. She could live with a noisy nuisance, but a leaky pipe under the sink or a broken belt in the mixer stopped production and had to be addressed right away. The crisis-free day when the buzzer rose to the top of the list had yet to occur.

She arched her back and squeezed the ache there down to her knees, which expressed their thanks with audible pops as she stood. Coming back to her hometown with her tail tucked between her legs had prompted her body to begin aging in dog years.

If only Howdy Hank had been there to give her the heads-up. Welcome home, pardner! Saddle up for premature joint degeneration and frown lines! Yee-haw!

Skedaddling hadn’t been an option, but she could have eased into decrepitude with dignity instead of throwing a tantrum when the cowboy’s prophecy came to pass.

She glimpsed a uniform-beige shoulder through the doorway and nudged at the frown lines with the back of her hand. She was too tired and grubby to endure being flirted with by Westard’s only semi-eligible bachelor under the age of seventy, but Shane deserved a reasonable facsimile of a smile. He got points for being one of a select few who had made no rude comments to her face since her inglorious return.

The back of her hand sported a dark smudge, either picked up from or transferred to her forehead. She gave her hands a quick soap at the sink and swiped her face with the paper towel she used to dry them. It wasn’t worth finding a reflective surface to check her work when Shane wouldn’t notice if she had chocolate chips stuck to her cheeks. Like most men, his gaze seldom ventured above her clavicle.

Her clenched teeth forced her lower jaw forward, which didn’t improve the quality of the smile she was trying to fake. She needed five more seconds to rehearse. “Swat that buzzer, will you?”

“Sure thing.”

She worked her mouth back and forth to loosen her bite, and the pop of her TMJ was masked by a businesslike smack, followed by blessed quiet.

Another point for Shane — what little she asked him to do, he came through.

Her molded smile softened to something a little more genuine by the time she stepped through the doorway. “Thanks.”

“Any time.” Shane jerked his thumb toward another body she hadn’t seen from the kitchen — the body standing underneath the buzzer. “Remember this guy?”

She seized like mistreated chocolate, becoming stiff, dry, crumbling. Someone would have to chisel her away, throw her out, and start over from scratch because she’d be no good for anything now.

He had aged, too, but in the good way, filling out that rangy adolescent torso to better suit the height he’d shot up to in tenth grade, picking up a couple of laugh lines around eyes that remained the same hot summer sky blue. The pecan-colored hair was as adorably shaggy as ever and messy, as though fingers had recently used it as reins to steer him into a kiss. The panty-incinerating smile that provoked such attentions hadn’t cooled by even one degree.

Yeah, she remembered Ben Fielder.

Dammit, she remembered his taste.

For twelve years, she strove to transcend embarrassment through immersion therapy, putting herself in one situation after another that allowed her to advance through every phase of humiliation and shame. For the past two of those years, she’d had overwhelming community support in the form of daily dirty looks, snide remarks, and crude witticisms written in the dirt on her truck. She had achieved a level of low at which, thirty seconds previously, she had no fucks to give about being seen even knowing she had grime on her face.

Had she thought she was the master of her degradation? Such hubris.

To prove she hadn’t yet succeeded in digging her way to bedrock, life brought in a backhoe to excavate new depths.

She should have washed her face instead of baseboards no one ever studied as if there would be a test on the flaws. And her hair. Put on some lip gloss. And a clean shirt she hadn’t borrowed from her dad’s closet because she hadn’t made time in the last week to launder her own meager wardrobe.

The silence grew too long and sharp edged to pretend she didn’t recognize him, so she did what she’d done every time Ben Fielder sucker punched her: she put on the stage smile cultivated to make the audience believe she was having a great time, wanted to be nowhere else, and wasn’t miserable at all. “Who doesn’t remember Ben? Everybody who gets out of Westard is legendary.”

For one brief, brilliant moment, she allowed herself to hope he wouldn’t remember her. She was far from the only girl in town who’d had her tongue on him, and she hadn’t practiced on anyone else before fumbling her way around him — even then, she’d been the uneducated, unskilled labor.

If she had any money, she’d bet it all she was the only girl in town pleading to be unmemorable.

The backhoe roared back to life and excavated a grave in which to bury that hope. “You left long before I did, Tally.”

Not long before. He’d been destined for training camp soon after graduation. She left the day before so she didn’t spoil her streak of missing every school event since kindergarten.

But if he could forget historical details, she could pretend to do the same. “Did I?”

She was a legend, as well, but the stories told about her were cautionary tales to frighten children into respectable behavior: Learn a trade or get some scholarships, or you’ll end up naked on a stage like that Castle girl, and don’t think I’ll let you move back to this house when your tits start to sag.

She cranked up the corners of her smile until it threatened to crack her face. “What can I get for you gentlemen this evening?”

Shane ogled the triple rows of cookies displayed in the case. “Got any cookies left?”

She bent her head to inspect the inventory she knew was there as an excuse to move her face out of the scorching twin beams of Ben’s regard. “All of them, in fact. I shouldn’t have bothered.”

“Slow day?”

Someone had been away long enough to forget the days in Westard had only one speed. “Same traffic as usual, but just about everybody’s on the same pay cycle. This far from last payday, bread is the responsible thing to buy. And eggs. Lots of people wanted eggs today.”

The menu for the rest of the week would have to be adjusted to account for the egg shortage, but she would figure that out on the drive home.

God forbid she ever got to use those five minutes to relax.

Ben scanned the paltry selection of produce that had taken over one of the display cases. “This is the market now.”

“She’ll even deliver you a pizza if it’s on her way home.”

The hot spot on her face let her know she had Ben’s attention again. She ignored him while she made sandwiches out of pairs of cookies with fat marshmallows in the middle and popped them in the microwave for ten seconds. Sorry, pardner! Casa Fielder is a good four hundred yards off my route. Buy a tomato and a loaf of bread and use your imagination.

The microwave beeped. She pressed a hand down on each cookie sandwich so the softened marshmallow squished to the edges, wrapped each in a parchment diaper, and placed them on the counter. “Knock yourselves out.”

Shane grabbed one and retreated to his corner. The cookie vanished in two bites, accompanied by vague, appreciative noises.

That’s what the sex would be like. One, two, grunt, done.

Pressure built behind her sternum, a giggle or whine or perhaps a scream trying to escape over the wall. She had considered the possibility, if Shane’s divorce was ever final and if he asked and if she had enough heart left at that point to try, that they might get together, but she had never given any thought to what that would actually be like.

Until now, when he was in range for a side-by-side comparison with Ben.

The standard against which all men would forever be judged stepped up to the counter. She backed away until the metal storage rack behind her dug into her thighs. If she’d thought this through, she would have thrown the damn cookie at him. Her arm was shit, but it would have been a short pass with no interference. He’d been an all-state wide receiver and punt returner with a spot on the good-hands team. If he could catch an onside kick, he could grab a cookie out of the air without getting anywhere near her.

But she hadn’t thought quickly enough, so there he was, and he didn’t retreat, so she had a close-up view when he ran his thumb around the edge of the cookies to line them up, sucked a bit of marshmallow goo off his thumb, and took a slow, precise bite, perfect white upper teeth sinking into the warm, pillowy treat as if he didn’t want to bruise it.

His eyes narrowed. His focus homed in on her.

A chill rippled through her from top to bottom, leaving the territory marked by its passing uncomfortably warm by comparison. She knew that look, had seen it many times in response to less-PG pleasures. That look let her know she’d done something good, but not quite good enough to make him close his eyes and forget where he was and with whom. Not good enough that he’d fail to notice her next, inevitable mistake.

That degree of good required more spit, tongue, suction, and hand action than she was comfortable deploying in the presence of a witness, so she remained as trapped by his stare as the scream — yup, definitely a scream — in her chest.

Grains of sugar glittered on his upper lip. He ought to lick them off before she did something catastrophic to get rid of them.

Like lick them off.

He’d always had the most beautiful mouth. So pretty it made her stupid, and that had been before she knew how soft his lips felt against her skin. So stupid her thighs clenched together because of a few grains of sugar on his lip, as if lousy table manners were a turn-on.

Just lick it, already!

He grinned as if he knew precisely how bothered she was and why. “These aren’t Stella’s gingersnaps.”

Stella’s were tasty but thin and crisp, as the name implied. Tally modified the recipe to maintain the molasses-and-spice flavor in a puffy, chewy form. In the great marketing tradition of sexing up everything, she renamed them Ginger Unsnaps, though she hadn’t shared the new handle with the fine people of Westard lest the whole town be overcome by a mass fit of the vapors. “Stella isn’t here.”

“Then she won’t be jealous when I ask you to run away with me.”

That cavalier remark lopped the legs off the imprisoned scream, forcing it to subside into a compact ball behind her heart. Her yearning to run away, to be with him anywhere he’d let her, had always been just a silly, childish dream that could never be.

At least this time the wake-up call hadn’t included a proposal. The current offer wasn’t such an agony to refuse. “I can get a better deal for my coconut-pecan brownies.”

Shane snorted. “You can’t get anybody to take you up on an offer today, can you, Ben?”

“At least I have my hair to console me.”

Of course she wouldn’t be the first one he’d made an offer to today, either. She never had been. He always saved her for dead last. “How many other women have you propositioned since you got back to town?”

“Just Shania here, and I swear she means nothing to me.”

“That’s not what you said when you were trying to get in my pants.” Shane swiped the back of his hand across his mouth, although Tally hadn’t noticed anything clinging to his lips. Then again, she hadn’t really noticed that he had lips. “Thanks for the cookie. Time to get back to defending upstanding citizens from unsavories.”

Ben waved the remaining half of his cookie. “Thanks for the tour.”

Shane headed for the door alone.

Ben stayed planted on the other side of the counter, not more than four feet away from her. Blue eyes watching her. Sugar clinging to his lip. Unbudging.

Her voice came out high-pitched and strangled. “Don’t you have to arrest him for something?”

“Not yet. Probably by morning.” Shane opened the door. The buzzer issued one muted bleat. “See you then with that gas, Fielder.”

He walked out the door, and her heart accelerated as if he’d left her alone with a known serial killer.

3

Alone at last.

Ben had spent nearly half the years of his life competing for Tally’s attention. The vast majority of the trouble he got into from kindergarten through his senior year of high school was the direct result of attempts to get Tally Castle to look at him, smile at him, talk to him, even if it was to scold.

When it worked, detention was a small price to pay. Especially on smile days. He was the grinningest delinquent detention had ever seen on smile days.

It wasn’t belching the national anthem or walking down two flights of stairs on his hands or an equivalent feat of daring or idiocy that got her to kiss him, though. Not the first time, when they were seven and he’d sprung one on her, but the second time, ten years later, when she’d sprung one on him. He had vivid sensory recall of that first warm, soft press of her lips against his chin, then his lips. The dizzy rush as if he’d never been kissed before. The way she didn’t close those big, multicolored eyes, watching her target, gauging his reaction — which had been shaking like a hypothermic Chihuahua when the tip of her tongue touched the corner of his mouth.

He remembered everything about that kiss except what he’d said or done to earn the privilege and those that followed. Either the heat exploding through his veins had incinerated the memory, or there had been no reason behind her change in temperature other than whim. He hadn’t questioned his good fortune much. As long as he’d known her, she turned slippery when questioned, and once she was in his arms, he wanted her to stay put.

And so he allowed her to dissect, diagram, and catalog him like a science project, while she remained the shadowy figure bent over him with a scalpel and unfathomable motivations.

Twelve subsequent years of experience with women hadn’t made reading this one any easier. She was staring at the door as if her last hope of salvation had just walked out through it, and he didn’t have the first clue why. Unless…

No. There was nothing going on between Tally and Officer Beaver. If a man even aspired to a woman like her, he didn’t direct lustful eyes toward her non-metaphorical cookies and let another man tap her buzzer, metaphorical or otherwise.

Then again, the man did have a pulse, so how could he not aspire? Maybe he just sucked at courtship. Maybe they’d been together long enough he didn’t think he had to court her anymore. Maybe he took for granted getting pizza delivered on her way home.

Maybe the desperation in her eyes sprang from neglect.

Maybe Ben was filling the uncomfortable silence with a lot of maybes because he couldn’t decide which of the million things he wanted to say to her to start with.

He went with one of the million things he didn’t want to say, the need to know outweighing not wanting to hear half the possible responses. “I think Shane’s sweet on you.”

Her fingers clenched the edge of the shelf she was practically sitting on.

He took another bite of spicy marshmallow comfort — to hell with eggs and responsible bread, anybody who passed up these cookies was living a shallow and joyless existence — and gave her time to calculate her reply.

Tally wasn’t a blurter. Sometimes she took so long to respond, he gave up on getting any words out of her and filled the conversational hole himself. Nothing he wanted to know had ever been worth pressuring her into squirming away.

He made it easy for her to be stingy with herself, and in the end, she’d left him empty-handed.

He couldn’t help her out with the silence this time. His mama raised him not to talk with his mouth full.

That fucking stage smile clicked back into place, and doll-blank eyes blinked at him. “Who isn’t? I’m exotic, the only woman in a twenty-mile radius who doesn’t have a perm or a mullet.”

“Or both.”

“Hey, it takes a real woman to pull off a permullet. You’re just bitter because you weren’t man enough to get one of the Wilkins twins.”

As quickly as the saucy left eyebrow raised in challenge, a bully of a scowl pushed it back down. Reminiscing about old times with him must have been high on her not-to-do list.

You’re the one who left me, Fortress.

If he was bitter about anything, it wasn’t the ninety-seven-year-old Wilkins sisters.

Twelve years was a long time. He’d been left by other women in the interim, including one fairly recent divorce, fresher wounds that ought to sting more.

I stayed here six months, waiting for you to call.

She didn’t want to talk to him now, either? He leaned a hip against the counter and settled in for a good, long gab session. “Did Babs and Gabs ever invest in a second set of dentures?”

“Waste of money.”

They finished the familiar story in unison. “They don’t need to chew at the same time.”

He once told a woman about the Wilkins twins during the show-me-your-roots phase of a relationship. She told him to call adult protective services. He told her the twins were sharper than razor blades and somebody would get a briefcase shoved up his ass sideways if he set foot on their homestead to offer them “protection.” She told him he was a heartless, right-wing redneck asshole.

They didn’t go out again, and he spent some time sifting through his roots to find the blandest, most palatable to share rather than try to justify the talk-show craziness of a hometown too small to contain all its idiosyncrasies without the pot occasionally boiling over.

He didn’t have to explain anything to Tally because she knew. She’d been there for the Great Fourth of July Brawl of ’97, when half the adult population of Westard threw punches over a dispute about seeded hamburger buns and had to be broken up with a squirt from the fire truck. They shared a look across a corner of the town square, at the fringe of stupid, beer-fueled violence, and cracked up, conspirators in mortification.

She’d been there when Emmett Ware’s cows escaped from their pasture, walked eight miles into town, and gathered in the square during a thunderstorm, packed like sardines, all facing the same direction. She stood beside him at a window in the second-floor corridor of the school, looking down at the eerie scene, and said so quietly only he received the gift of her humor, “I hope the moo-ther ship lands before Howdy Hank comes to round them up.”

She’d been there for everything. They had a bond he’d never developed with anyone else, mutual history, wordless understanding.

Maybe that was why the wound she’d given him remained raw after all this time while others healed overnight. “How long have you been back?”

She scratched at a spot on the shelf, which looked immaculate to his eye, and inspected the work of her close-cropped fingernail. “A while.”

The lack of eye contact and enigmatic monosyllables signaled intrusion into the realm of Too Personal. He knew the terrain well from countless prior trespasses. Everyone had things they’d rather not talk about. Tally had more than most, but damned if he knew why she’d be secretive about that piece of information when he could walk out of the bakery, ask the first person he ran into, and get the date, time, mode of transportation, and weather conditions upon her return.

He called her The Fortress for good reason. He spent nearly half his life trying to breach her walls. She’d refortified since his last onslaught, but he got through once before, at least a little bit. He would be in town a week, at most, but the urge to spend it in siege was strong.

There certainly wasn’t anything else to do in Westard.

He stepped over that landmine and marched onward. “You ran out of here like you were on fire. Why did you come back?”

The last remnant of the sham smile flaked away. She locked her eyes on him, lining up crosshairs on his face.

He put the last piece of cookie in his mouth and let it melt on his tongue while he waited for her shot.

“Shouldn’t you be leaving before your mom has to get out of bed to let you in?”

“It’s barely after seven.”

“She has to be at school by six.”

He’d lived with the woman for nineteen years. He knew her habits better than anyone. She went to bed at nine sharp, which gave him plenty of time to get there.

His conscience stirred, prodded awake by the point of Tally’s glare. A guest showing up unannounced would throw off his mom’s routine. She’d insist on doing a load of laundry so he could sleep on fresh sheets. Given that her washer and dryer had been state of the art in the era when high efficiency meant slightly faster than beating your clothes on a rock, she’d be up until midnight. Not only would she be exhausted in the morning, but with him road weary and her up past her bedtime, they were guaranteed to end up fighting if they spent that much time together tonight.

Particularly when he was already in a sieging mood.

Since his conscience was up anyway, it gave him a slap on Tally’s behalf. She looked pale, harassed, clinging to that shelf like she’d been on her feet for a fourteen-hour shift and would fall over from exhaustion if the oblivious asshole in her bakery didn’t get out soon so she could lock up and go home.

Siege. Christ. He’d have gotten a warmer reception if he offered her a foot rub and eight hours of sleep.

Maybe tomorrow, when they were both less stale and he wasn’t overwhelmed at the surprise punch in the guts of seeing her again, he could get more out of talking to her than a plastic smile, a pile of unanswered questions, and a hollowed-out pain in the center of his chest.

4

While looking anywhere but at Ben, Tally spied a truck crawling past the window for the third time. Trucks were far from newsworthy — few denizens of Westard had never cussed at a lock before realizing they’d selected the wrong dusty, late-model pickup from the lineup — but this one’s speed made it suspicious. Motorists on Main Street either parked or pretended they hadn’t seen the 25 MPH limit painted on the asphalt every day of their lives. They crept only for parades and funerals, neither of which was scheduled for this evening and neither of which called for three trips around the block.

Either someone had gotten hopelessly lost in a town with four streets and four avenues, or someone was awaiting more favorable conditions to get up to no good.

“How much for the rest of those cookies?”

She’d gladly trade an armed robbery for Ben’s brand of no good, but it was more likely someone too proud to beg for leftovers with an audience.

Stella’s orders were to sell all inventory at cost around closing or give it away if Tally knew the customer was particularly hurting for cash.

She gave away a lot of food, to the detriment of the bakery’s bottom line.

Ben lacked the familiar hungry look of the working poor. Though she’d swear she hadn’t spent more than ten seconds looking directly at him, a sixth of a minute was sufficient to observe that a down payment on a new truck ticked away the time on his wrist. How much could a well-heeled outsider afford to spend on two dozen cookies? “Twenty dollars.”

The corners of his gorgeous mouth tilted upward. “You think highly of those cookies, huh?”

The markup was exorbitant, but like hell she’d back down after he practically made out with the one he got gratis. “Price includes the marshmallows.”

“Sold.”

Assembling the box gave her something to do other than watch him suck sugar off his fingertips but wasn’t cognitively demanding enough to prevent her from thinking about it, which led to thinking about parts of her he’d sucked on, which led to a wash of heat reminiscent of opening a four hundred degree oven too close to her face.

She hiked up one shoulder to catch the bead of sweat slithering around her ear. She’d been in the middle of sex without thinking this much about a man touching her body, which didn’t say much for the men she’d had sex with, damn them and damn him.

And said even less for her. If her aspirations hadn’t been as far out of reach as the stars, she would have been content with what she got instead.

One especially tender cookie split along a fracture in its sugar coating when handled. She set the fragments aside in the display case. Even unwelcome customers didn’t get damaged goods.

“The price I was quoted included all of those.”

Considering the price he was quoted should have gotten him twice as many cookies, she couldn’t criticize him for being a cheapskate. “I’ll give you change. Stella doesn’t sell defective merchandise.”

“The broken ones are my favorite. Stella used to save them for me.”

She probably broke them on purpose to make sure she had his favorite in stock whenever he drifted into the shop. Ben Fielder had modest aspirations, and everyone in Westard tripped over themselves to make sure he got more and better than he expected from life.

The customer was always right when paying double retail, so he got what he wanted this time, too. Tally boxed each cookie with care to ensure they arrived at their destination without further casualties so he could eat every crumb, get fat, lose all his teeth to cavities, and erupt in acne.

She couldn’t have erotic fantasies about him being obese, toothless, and covered in zits.

Her plan to ruin him put a smile on her face while she tucked what remained of the bag of marshmallows into the vacant corner of the box.

She turned to find him holding a twenty-dollar bill clamped between his index and middle fingers in the universal sign for come over here and earn this money, sugar.

The smile withered and left her mouth prickly. “What, you want to tuck that in my underwear?”

Blue eyes widened. “Is that an option? You should put up a sign. This place would be packed, even at these prices.”

She banged the box down on the counter. No advertising necessary. Not a day passed that someone didn’t ask what she sold other than food.

And he’d come in here with those big, guileless eyes, asking questions like he didn’t know a thing about what she’d done with herself during the past twelve years. His mother no doubt updated him on every sordid detail as it happened, but there was no substitute for hearing the confession straight from the stripper’s mouth.

It had been a while since being treated like a whore prompted any feeling other than weariness. She had become so accustomed to the insult, she looked forward to the rare occasions on which someone came up with new material.

Ben managed to make condemnation hurt like an open-handed slap that bounced her brain off her skull but was too well distributed to leave a mark — a specialty of her mother’s, the breathtaking impact of which never diminished with overuse.

On the bright side, she couldn’t have erotic fantasies about a judgmental asshole, either.

She snatched the bill out of his hand and gave the cash register one of its few rings of the day. She unclenched her teeth just enough to grit out, “Thank you for your business. Have a nice day.”

By which she meant, Get out. Go to hell. Never come back.

“It’s good to see you, Tal.”

“I bet.” Some people were a joy to gawk at, even when badly dressed, sweaty, and dirty-faced.

Especially then.

His head tipped a little, as if suddenly too weighty for his neck to support. “See you soon.”

Please, no. She would have whined it out loud, on her knees, if it meant she never had to see him again, but her experience with begging had a lousy rate of return.

She remained on her feet, said nothing, and pretended to have some dignity left.

He picked up his overpriced cookies and walked out of the bakery.

The buzzer stuck again, bemoaning his departure.

Tally grabbed a spatula from the kitchen and swatted the buzzer. If anything, it got louder. She hit it again, and again and again, and kept hitting it until it fell silent and then a couple more whacks to make sure it understood she’d had enough shit for one day.

The sleeve she swiped under her burning eyes came away black with mascara. She should have stopped wearing the stupid stuff long ago. She looked like a raccoon by the time she got home every night. If she didn’t have so many samples from the days she’d devoted enough of her income to her face to earn big-spender perks like infinite tiny tubes of mascara from Sephora, she’d have run out ages ago and gone au naturel for lack of money to waste on luxurious lashes. She ought to purge what remained in her makeup bag and quit performing the last surviving ritual from another life that hadn’t been appreciably happier than the current one.

A wave of failures had deposited her back where she started. Her mother wasn’t around to gloat that the quest for fame and fortune had yielded only infamy and a lifetime supply of mascara samples, but Ben’s reappearance more than made up for her absence. If she ever wanted him to know what a mess she’d made of her life, she would have called him a week after she left Westard and begged him to fix it for her.

He would have tried — and missed football camp and lost his scholarship — and the time he wasted on her would have ruined the bright future he was destined for. The fabulous life he had now was made possible because she hadn’t dragged him from the path he was meant to be on.

Fourteen-hour workdays, broken buzzers, and a bottomless well of scorn were her path. Success for her consisted of making it to the end of the day without crying. She’d been losing the battle less frequently now that calluses had formed over her sore spots. She hardly felt the jabs anymore.

Burning eyes didn’t count, as long as they didn’t leak. She could still win today.

She washed the spatula and put it away, transferred the thirty-odd dollars in the cash register to the safe, and found enough polishing to kill another twenty minutes. When no one in a slow-moving pickup truck took the opportunity to hold her up or ask for a handout, she slung her backpack over her shoulder, turned out the lights, and took herself out with the trash.

5

The door opened before Ben’s knuckles touched the wood, as if the woman on the other side was standing with her hand on the knob in anticipation of his arrival.

The grapevine had lost none of its efficiency during the past twelve years.

It certainly wasn’t the first time Janine Fielder’s reproving scowl confronted her son on the stoop. “What are you doing here?”

Who would have thought he’d miss the days when she greeted him with You were supposed to be home two hours ago, as if she wanted him to return?

He lifted the bakery box into her line of glare. “Somebody had to deliver these cookies, but everyone is afraid of the grumpy witch who lives here, so I was elected to be the sacrifice.”

She rolled her eyes skyward and stepped back from the door. “Why am I not surprised your first stop was sniffing around her?”

He crossed the threshold and closed the door, pushing his shoulder against the warped spot so the deadbolt would slide home. His mother hadn’t gotten it fixed in the past twenty years because no one in Westard locked a door on a regular basis — one of a thousand issues they could turn into a fight if either of them was so inclined.

In the name of a few more minutes of peace, he didn’t mention the door. “I was surprised. You never told me Tally was back in town.”

“I don’t alert you every time I use the toilet, either.”

“While I appreciate your restraint in that regard, I fail to see how the two are related.”

She sniffed by way of explanation and cut through the living room en route to the kitchen, slippered feet silent on the wood floor.

Those ugly slippers were the only gift he’d ever given her that wasn’t gathering dust in a closet. In the name of a few more minutes of peace, he didn’t mention that, either.

He followed a few steps behind and set the box on the counter between the microwave and coffee maker, tracing a finger over the newest scratches in the Formica. She had refused his offer to renovate her kitchen, too.

She raised her voice to compete with the washing machine’s spin cycle rattling in the next room. “You should have warned me you were coming.”

He tried making plans with her in the summer, when the school didn’t require her services, but she claimed her schedule was too full to entertain him. “I warned you in June. You never got back to me with a better time. I thought I should check on you to make sure you’re not hiding a hoarding problem or a meth lab or my new daddy from me.”

“Nobody can hide anything in this town. If anything that gossip-worthy was going on, someone would have called you.”

You wouldn’t have.

What he’d seen of the house looked both tidy and devoid of massive quantities of cold medicine. In the dish drainer, the customary one plate, one glass, and one fork she used for every meal awaited her solitary breakfast.

She hadn’t been hiding anything other than not wanting him to visit.

In the name of a few more minutes of peace, he didn’t burden her with his bruised feelings. “Hi, Mom. I missed you, too. Work is good. Thanks for asking. Will and Liz send their regards. Have a cookie and catch me up with you.”

She stood her ground in the center of the room, arms crossed over her chest. “You’re just trying to soften me up.”

“I know better.”

The woman was a rock — a wonderful quality when a boy needed one stable thing in his life to cling to, not so much when she formed a wall of resistance. She could be eroded by minute increments with the application of continuous abrasion over a period of years, but she never softened.

“I’m not here to fight with you.” He took a plate from the cupboard and wiped off the dust with a dish towel. He covered the plate with cookies, topped each with a marshmallow, put a cookie lid on each one, and let the microwave work its magic. “I’m sure we’ll get around to it eventually, but until then, take a load off and eat a damn cookie.”

She pinched the warm confection he gave her between her thumb and forefinger and wrinkled her nose as if she objected to the fragrance of cinnamon and cloves. “These aren’t Stella’s cookies.”

Because his mama raised him with manners, he refrained from stuffing a stack of four in his mouth whole. Because he wasn’t trying to prolong his exposure to Tally this time, he didn’t drag out the devouring for more than two bites. If anything, they were more eyes-rolling-back divine in the absence of competition from the girl of his dreams. “Stella wasn’t there, and if the coconut-pecan brownies live up to their reputation, she’s going to lose her position as my sweet tooth’s one true love. Why is she allowing a mere mortal in her kitchen this time?”

“They botched her colon surgery. She’s in an assisted-living place over in Marion.”

Ben couldn’t imagine Stella Hood needing assistance to live. She was… a rock.

A thought of his mother weakened and dependent on strangers struggled to form, but he shoved it back into the abyss from whence it came. He would never let that happen to her, whether she wanted his help or not. “How’s she doing?”

“Not dire anymore.” She dropped her untasted cookie in the trash. “She got a fat settlement, but she’ll be crapping in a bag the rest of her life.”

Loss of appetite seemed like the appropriate response to that revelation, but she hadn’t supplied graphic enough details to justify wasting the last cookie on the plate. “I’m surprised she didn’t close the bakery. By the looks of downtown, that’s the hot trend.”

“She says people have to eat.” The washer stopped, and she stepped into the mud room to transfer — he peeked around the door jamb to confirm his suspicion — sheets to the dryer. “And I suppose they do, if they’re not picky who handles their food.”

That was the third time she’d approached the subject of Tally with a tone he’d call bitchy, if not for the sake of peace. “Tally seems to have everything under control.”

The door of the dryer clanged shut. “I wouldn’t put anything she’s touched in my mouth, but she attracts a certain clientele that doesn’t care if they catch a disease from her food or between her legs.”

The insult shocked Ben’s jaw slack. Fuck the peace. “What the hell has gotten into you? You know Tally’s not that kind of girl.”

Which was a ridiculously old-fashioned, Richie-Cunningham thing to say, but it didn’t take long to get sucked into the time warp of Westard. He’d guarantee he wasn’t the only man who looked at Tally and got sex on the brain, but she had never courted that kind of attention. She always covered herself from neck to ankle, usually in clothes several sizes too large for her, as if she didn’t want to be looked at — understandable, considering the lecherous looks she attracted even when doing her best to be invisible. She barely spoke, never to flirt. She’d been so terrified of getting knocked up before she could escape from Westard, she never even let Ben get a hand down her pants.

The things she’d done to him with her hands made her a sweet, merciful angel.

They’d never discussed her experience with other guys, but Tally Castle gives hand jobs was the sort of news that would have burned up the gossip circuit like a brush fire in August. The locker room buzz about her ran more toward Those tits are wasted on that frigid bitch — as if she deserved further disrespect for not being romantically inclined toward guys who collectively started calling her Titsy in eighth grade and infected everyone they came in contact with through high school with the same obnoxious habit.

Tally was the warehouse for the town’s entire supply of grace and dignity, like a princess exiled to live among the uncouth peasants. She warmed up only if you climbed to her level and treated her with the respect and courtesy befitting her station, an impossibility for those who considered her to be nothing but an exceptional pair of breasts.

She’d been an old-fashioned good girl, if for no other reason than being surrounded by unworthy pigs, and the man-pig epidemic wasn’t quarantined in Westard. Unless she had changed completely — and the plain braid, bare face, flannel tent, and closed mouth had given him the opposite impression — she was still too damn good for this town.

His mother’s smirk suggested she knew something he didn’t. “Things have changed.”

6

Tally pressed harder on the gas pedal as she drove past Dogwood Road. The Fielder house pulsed on the periphery of her mind, a ping on her radar a quarter mile distant. That house had never before been an object of such heightened awareness. Tonight, with Ben harbored there, it lit up like an enemy warship.

The Castle home, by contrast, was lit by the steady, comforting glow of a porch light left on by a father who refused to let his little girl come up the steps in the dark. No matter how many times she told him she could find her way from the bakery to the front door blindfolded at this point, reminded him electricity cost money they didn’t have, or removed the lightbulb, she came home every night to a well-illuminated porch.

Every night, the first thing she did upon coming through the door was turn off the porch light. Tonight, she multitasked, flipping the switch with one hand and prying a shoe off one achy foot with the other.

Four guys in fancy ties recapped the day in football on the TV. At the moment, they had nothing to say about the only game of interest in the Castle household.

An arrhythmic step-clunk-tap heralded her father’s approach from the hallway connecting the bedrooms to the living room and cued the dropping of her stomach.

“Hi, princess.” His lips grazed her temple. “How was your day?”

“The usual.” She eyed the cane gripped in his right hand but refrained from asking the obvious question. “How was the game?”

“What we ought to do is get one of those young, dynamic quarterbacks who gets the first down even if it means diving headfirst into the defensive line.”

One of those young, dynamic quarterbacks he referred to as reckless showoffs any other day. “How badly did we lose?”

“Twenty-one to twenty.”

She peeled off her other shoe and added it to the collection of discarded footwear by the door. “You’re ready to trade in our QB for a newer model over one point? Didn’t any of the other players show up?”

“He’s in charge. Winning is his responsibility.”

“Tough job when he’s only allowed on the field half the time. What we ought to do is hire a guy to kick extra points and field goals and a bunch of guys to keep the other team out of our end zone.”

His glower followed her to the kitchen. “You’re spoiling my post-defeat wallow.”

“Sorry. Sulk away.”

Step-clunk-tap. “At least none of our guys got hurt.”

She hid her smile behind a cabinet door. He sounded like he’d pulled a groin muscle grasping at a bright side. “Maybe if they hadn’t played like they were scared to break a nail, they could have put a couple more points on the board and won.”

“Make up your mind, girl.”

She made up her mind she’d starve to death waiting for toast and smeared peanut butter on a slice of three-day-old bread she’d sold herself at cost from the bakery. She remembered eating more substantial meals, but hunger had a way of making feasts of meager fare. “I stand by my team when they’re down while acknowledging that losing always sucks.”

“Maybe if you were here to cheer them on, they’d win more.”

Wayne Castle didn’t believe in superstitious nonsense until the playoffs. He spoke in the code they had tapped out through the cell wall between them so her mother wouldn’t understand. They’d made no effort to break the habit since her death. They understood each other just fine.

He was really saying, I miss watching games together.

“There’s a prime-time game in a couple weeks. I’ll be home for kickoff.” I miss games with you, too.

“And passed out before halftime. I can’t yell at the TV when you’re asleep on the couch.” You work too hard. I worry about you.

The bakery needed full-time-and-then-some management, and they needed the money. Her paycheck and his disability income barely covered survival expenses.

Tally had spent her entire life keeping one wolf or another from getting further than the door. The tone of the howls changed once in a while, but there had never been a moment of peace. She no longer believed there ever would be.

Her dad didn’t need it explained to him. He lived with the same racket.

Mouth full of bread and peanut butter, she opened the fridge, then scanned the counter for what she didn’t see inside. She swallowed the sticky lump. “Where’s the milk?”

“I drank the last of it.”

There had been more than half a gallon when she bolted down a bowl of cereal that morning. She grabbed the bottle of ibuprofen on the counter. A couple of pills rattled around the bottom. That had also been half full within the past couple of days.

On bad pain days, he relied on his cane and over-the-counter painkillers, since he refused to take the narcotics that might actually put a dent in his pain. He drank the milk to keep the pills from tearing up his stomach, and the milk made him queasy. “Did you eat anything today?”

“I drank my shakes, so I got better nutrition than you did.” I can lecture right back at you, Miss Peanut Butter Bread for Dinner.

She couldn’t tell him how to handle his pain or his upset stomach or his aversion to addictive substances any more than she could tell him how to walk on his prosthetic leg, and she couldn’t take any of his burden on herself, no matter how willingly she would have done so.

She couldn’t help him. They told each other she had come back to take care of him. They meant the timing coincided with her running out of money and options and having nowhere else to go.

He was the one taking care of her.

His bad days came in pairs. He’d need more milk and pills to get through tomorrow. She could make herself useful one way, at least. “I’ll run to the store.”

If the clock on the microwave told the truth, she had enough time to drive to Sterling. As long as she got a foot in the door before nine, they wouldn’t throw her out before taking her money.

“It’s late. I’ll go in the morning.”

Her mother’s car had crumpled like a beer can in the wreck, so they had only one vehicle between them. If he needed the truck, he had to get up at four to drive Tally to work and pick her up at the end of the day because walking a mile to and from town in the dark was out of the question, as far as her dad was concerned. They made do when he had appointments, but a gallon of milk wasn’t a good enough reason for him to take a road trip while sleep deprived and hurting. “I’ll get it. A drive will help me unwind.”

His pain-dulled gaze sharpened on her. “Something wrong?”

I’ll be lucky if I don’t have nightmares tonight. “Not really. The bakery is short on eggs and Ben Fielder is in town, though.”

His expression went neutral as the paint in a rental apartment. “Is that right?”

“It’s funny.” She made him wait for the punch line while she grabbed cold packs from the freezer to protect the milk for its voyage. “The last time you mentioned seeing him, you said he was bald and fat.”

“Did I say that?”

She dragged the cooler from the pantry and stuffed it with cold packs. “He must have gotten some hair plugs and liposuction since then.”

“Men are so vain nowadays, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was wearing makeup, too.”

She lugged the cooler to the door. If she put the cold packs on her feet for twenty minutes, she might be able to stuff them back into her shoes. Time being of the essence, she’d have to white-trash it and wear flip-flops out in public. She slipped her toes under the straps. “What matters is on the inside.”

“Inside, he’s a punk.”

“Dad.”

“A fat, bald punk. If that boy bothers you, you tell him your daddy has a gun.”

Her daddy had a .22 he fired at a steel trash can lid to scare vermin out of the garden. It might raise a welt on Ben Fielder’s perfect ass.

“I doubt I’ll see much of him.” Since I plan on avoiding him like a hornet’s nest covered in Ebola. “Do you need anything else to get you through grocery day?”

He opened the door in deference to her loaded hands. “Couple of porterhouse steaks.”

“Okay.” She hooked her keys with one finger and headed out. “I’ll be gone a while, since I have to knock over a liquor store first.”

“Don’t get caught. We don’t have bail money.”

The porch light came on before she reached the steps.

7

From the time Ben was tall enough to reach the dials on the washer and dryer, he was expected to deal with his own linens. He offered to take the sheets out of the dryer and make up his own bed so his mother could go to sleep at a reasonable hour, but she had become territorial since having the house to herself and no longer trusted him with her appliances.

His aspiration for this reunion had been not getting in a fight the first night, and he’d nearly blown it charging to Tally’s defense. He had to remind himself his mom woke at 5 a.m. even on weekends and stayed on her feet the whole day like she was allergic to sitting. Being tired made her irritable. She’d feel terrible in the morning for speaking ill about that sweet little thing down the road she’d always wished her son would use as a role model for manners, studying, hygiene, and all other aspects of refinement.

Banishing himself to the living room created a much-needed buffer. The furniture remained arranged around the ancient television, which hadn’t budged since the days Ben watched Saturday-morning cartoons on it — not because the lady of the house was in love with the layout but because the thing weighed four hundred pounds and was too ungainly for two people get a solid grip on in order to wrestle it to a new location.

Two men and two half men in fancy ties recapped the day in football on the TV. His team’s score fell off the edge of the visible portion of the banner at the bottom of the picture, but their opponent’s was tinted the color of victory. Damn. As much as he’d like to believe the success of a professional football franchise didn’t hinge on his contribution to team spirit, they always lost when he didn’t watch the game. “Are you paying full price for satellite?”

“Of course,” his mother answered from the kitchen.

“You should ask for a discount since you can only see half the picture on this old square screen.”

“That old square screen keeps me from blowing your inheritance on the home shopping channel, since I can’t see the item numbers.”

He’d prefer home-shopping addiction to an inheritance built on his mother’s self-deprivation. “You have my blessing to blow your money on anything you want, including a new TV.” The Smithsonian would probably take the old relic off her hands. “You can shop online, you know.”

“Not having the Internet keeps me from blowing your inheritance, too.”

Some information was too unthinkable to take the bearer’s word for it. He checked his phone. No Wi-Fi. No bars.

He was trapped in the first ten minutes of a horror movie. “Do you get your news on stone tablets?”

“I don’t need to see the smiling people in widescreen to hear them repeat every day that the world is in the crapper.”

The grapevine could be relied upon to keep her updated on any bad news at the local level, of which there seemed to have been more than the usual share in recent years. Tally had picked a hell of a time to come back.

Every thought was going to boomerang back to her, just like old times.

Restless feet carried him into his old bedroom. From the altitude of adulthood, the twin bed looked as short and narrow as the back seat of a car.

Through the only window, the lightning-stricken tree jutted above the surrounding woods, gleaming white like two skeletal fingers. He’d lost a lot of sleep imagining those fingers coming to life, beckoning him into the forest, grabbing him — the natural product of an active imagination, his fascination with scary movies, and consumption of too many greasy pizza rolls before bedtime.

The siren song that lured him through the woods countless times in the daylight came not from the dead tree but from that sweet little thing down the road, who dwelled just on the other side of the forest.

The top dresser drawer yielded a ring of keys left behind twelve years ago. He had no idea what most of them opened, but one ought to work in the front door.

He pocketed the keys and stuck his head in the kitchen to share his plans. “I’m going to see how far I have to walk to make a phone call.”

His mother didn’t look up from the pillowcase yielding to the heat of her iron. “Take a key. I’m not waiting up for you to hike to Marion and back.”

He jingled the keys to prove he hadn’t expected her to.

He stumbled across one sickly bar a mere quarter mile away, in the middle of the three-way intersection at Dogwood and Chestnut. More than ten feet to the east or west, he lost it. He considered himself fortunate to get that much of a signal this far from civilization and didn’t climb the fence to the north on a quest for two bars, lest he be smote with poison ivy as punishment for his greed.

The Castle house was visible from the intersection. The front window glowed with light. A truck hunkered in the driveway.

Tally wouldn’t be living there, and Ben wouldn’t be strolling over to ask her father where to find her, either. Now that the massive size discrepancy that existed during his youth had diminished, he wasn’t sure he could resist the urge to punch the bastard and show him what it felt like.

He paced the length of the phone’s leash while it rang on the other end.

Will answered with his typical distracted mumble.

“I was hoping Liz would pick up. You make it really difficult to have phone sex with your wife.”

“She said the same thing last time I called her from the road. Who would have thought I’m sexier in the flesh?”

“No one.” In the flesh, Will resembled a giant spider — all long, spindly, hairy arms and legs. The thought of him and sex in the same sentence was fifty shades of Silent Hill. “In fact, my brain is recoiling from the thought as we speak.”

“Saving it for later, when you need inspiration.”

“For nightmares and therapy.”

“My work here is done. I take it you arrived safely in the ancestral homeland.”

“What’s left of it. The place is a ghost town.” The only things sadder than the spirits who didn’t know they were dead were the ones who did, like Shane, going through the motions until he was released to the next life.

“How’s Janine?”

“The same. Still digging in her heels.” Another turn brought Casa Castle back into view. “This might take longer than I expected.”

“What’s her name?”

“Uh… Janine?”

“Not your mom, dumbass. The girl making it longer than expected.”

He’d spent twenty minutes in the same room with Tally without getting an erection. That had to be some kind of record. After all these years, he’d finally earned a certificate of maturity. “She’s not a girl anymore.”

“Holy shit.” A woman’s voice chimed in the background. “Liz says hi and wants to know what you’re wearing. Is this the one you were brokenhearted about when I met you?”

For all anyone other than Ben knew, his heart was made of Teflon and women slid off without a trace when they burned. The patch job on the crack down the middle was undetectable to the naked eye. “I was dating someone when you met me.”

He couldn’t remember who, but there had definitely been someone. With the exceptions of the immediate post-Tally and post-divorce eras, there had always been someone.

“You were dating that she-demon because you were brokenhearted. Liz theorizes your entire pathetic relationship history is self-inflicted punishment for the one who got away.”

Ben kicked a pebble into the moat of weeds separating the road from the fence. How much time did they spend discussing his love life when he wasn’t around? The verdict had to be pretty damn bad if his closest friend wouldn’t mock him about it to his face.

He didn’t want Tally sentenced to hang alongside him, though. “We were kids. Kids grow up and move on.”

Certificate? He deserved a trophy — Academy Award for Best Man-Child in a Mature Role.

“Circle-of-life shit is harder to get over than losing because you fucked up. You can’t blame anybody. You can’t learn anything. You can only take the kick in the balls and limp away.” Will was an authority on the brutality of circle-of-life shit. He steered the conversation back toward Ben’s comparatively petty hurt before they trudged down that path again. “Which childhood flame is it?”

Ben caught himself staring at her house and spun on his heel. “I never told you about her.”

“Why?”

“Same reason you didn’t tell me about Liz.”

“Ah.”

Liz had been The Mystery Woman for the first six months she dated Will. All his friends knew he was seeing someone, but he wouldn’t even give up her name. Some women were special, worthy of protection from prying eyes and stupid jokes — at least until their love was strong enough to withstand the reality of friends and family — and a man knew when he found one.

Even if he was a boy when he found her.

“No wonder you’re still limping. Don’t forget you’re due back in the office in a week.”

As if there was any chance of Ben staying one minute longer than necessary in Mayberry. By tomorrow, he’d have the shakes from tech withdrawal, and loss of color vision wouldn’t be far behind. “I have time to be neighborly.”

“Sure. Take her a casserole.”

“It would be rude to do otherwise.” He made a mean tuna-noodle covered with cheddar cracker crumbs. Maybe her stomach was the way to other organs.

Down, boy. He shouldn’t be interested in any of Tally Castle’s organs. He was bitter, and she hadn’t been exactly delighted to see him. No amount of soup-based potluck fare would make that combination less disastrous.

Did he want a disaster, an alternate ending where he slow-walked away from the explosion looking cool this time? That might be more satisfying than the version where he hovered over the phone for six months waiting for her to call, but even the dumbest action movies had more plausible outcomes. He had always cared more than she did. He’d be the only one hurt by the destruction the second time around, too.

If bitterness was supposed to harden his heart, he’d gotten a defective batch. He couldn’t plot revenge while worried the object of it wasn’t getting enough sleep and should put her feet up while he made her a mug of cocoa — the real stuff, not instant.

He happened to have marshmallows for it.

No. If he got anywhere near Tally Castle and her organs, he’d acquire a new wound that would never heal. Better to avoid her entirely, even in his thoughts.

He turned his back on her childhood home. “Anything urgent happen at the office?”

“Smooth change of subject. I sold the company as soon as you were out the door, so don’t worry about a thing.”

“How much did you get for it?”

“A whole handful of magic beans.”

“Sweet.”

“They were. I ate yours. Liz sent you a picture.”

“Of you eating my magic beans or farting a rainbow after?”

“Unrelated.”

“Is it a dirty picture?”

“Only if you’re a pervert, and considering you went there immediately, you qualify. Maybe somebody at the telegraph office can make an etching of it for you.”

“It’s not that primitive. I’m sure somebody in this town has dial-up and AOL.”

“Maybe a neighbor has a cup of Internet you can borrow.”

In the after-dark stillness of outer Westard, the soft click of a closing door carried clearly from a hundred yards down the road. Someone had emerged from the Castle house. The porch light came on a moment later, illuminating a silhouette Ben would recognize anywhere.

Adrenaline dumped into his bloodstream, making his heart pound. “Gotta go.”

“What’s the rush?”

“I’m eager to be neighborly.”

8

Popping gravel alerted Tally to the approach of an intruder walking up the drive in the dark. She stopped in front of the truck, keeping a wall of solid American steel between her and the uninvited caller.

People in Westard tended to be trusting, secure in the belief bad things happened elsewhere, not in small, quiet towns.

Having grown up in a small, quiet town under the same roof as her mother, Tally had always known bad things happened where they damn well pleased, and they thrived in quiet. The only defense was to expect bad things to happen all the time and stay braced for impact.

The gait identified Ben before he stepped far enough into the light spilling from the porch to reveal any details of his appearance. Easy, relaxed, no need to posture or hurry because golden boys were immune to bad things no matter where they wandered. Someone was always looking out for them, protecting them from ruin.

The fear for her physical safety evaporated.

The urge to run back to the house and barricade the door increased exponentially.

Only her footwear had changed since their last meeting, so she blamed her bare toes for making her feel as defenseless as her first time on stage naked.

She hid one foot behind the other to present a smaller target and clutched the cooler against her stomach like a shield. “A little late for a stroll, Fielder.”

One shoulder hitched upward as he cleared the back bumper. “My internal clock is set to a different time zone.”

He’d probably be making himself prettier for a night on the town back in his natural habitat. “If you’re looking for the club scene, you took a wrong turn.”

His head swiveled in the direction of downtown. “Just one?”

“There’s a rave in the church basement on Wednesdays.”

The porch light had been biding its time, waiting for an opportunity to exact revenge for all Tally’s efforts to stifle its glow. As Ben stepped even with the driver’s door, the light cut through the windshield and singled out his smile, gilding it, making simple amusement look luxurious and decadent.

Good thing she had learned her lesson about grasping at brass rings and golden smiles and all other shiny curved things that were out of her reach. From here on out, only the most modest of aspirations for her.

Like milk.

“I was looking for some Internet, actually. Got any to spare?”

A huff of laughter snuck past the tight band constricting her throat. “I could maybe scrounge up an old inner tube and a can of Aquanet from the garage if you want to make a slingshot and send a message across the yard.”

“I might have to take you up on that if the carrier pigeon gets disoriented by the smoke signals.”

She’d gone through the same adjustment, coming back here after experiencing a more technologically advanced civilization. Buying stamps and paying bills through the mail still blew her mind — and periodically gave her blood pressure a workout when she miscalculated travel time, Sundays, holidays, and manual processing delays and a check she put in the box ten days before the due date posted late anyway.

Fortunately for both of them, he wouldn’t be around long enough to adapt to the primitive culture of their ancestors. “If it can wait until tomorrow, somebody at the school will probably let you jump on, as long as you’re not looking at porn.”

His eyes widened. “Is there pornography on the Internet?”

“I’ve heard.” Other than facilitation of the movement of phantom money and masturbation aids, the majority of bandwidth was devoted to treating somebody like shit — and there was no shortage of overlap amongst the three. Except for the six weeks of withdrawal symptoms and a rare late-payment fee, she hadn’t missed being deprived of unlimited access to the endless deluge of garbage. “If you want Wi-Fi, you’ll have to go to Marion.”

“Well.” He tapped a finger against the hood, only a corner of engine and a headlight away from her. “I don’t want to hold you up if you’re headed home.”

Her brows pinched together. “I am home.”

He mimicked her frown but aimed his at the house.

“I have to run to the store.” The clock was ticking. Good thing he didn’t want to hold her up any longer than he already had — not that she needed another reason to be relieved to see the last of him. Avoiding the nest wouldn’t do her any good if the damn hornet wouldn’t stay in it. “‘Run’ being the operative word.”

“Can I tag along?”

The question drove her back a step. She clutched the cooler tighter to her guts. “Why?”

“I didn’t know about the Serv-N-Go. I’m stranded here unless I get some gas.”

Dammit, why didn’t the station in Sterling put up a sign?

Absolutely, positively, under no circumstances did she want to be trapped in a rolling box the size of a coffin with Ben Fielder for any amount of time.

Absolutely, positively, under no circumstances did she want him to be trapped a quarter mile from where she slept for one second longer than necessary. That pinging radar wouldn’t give her a moment’s peace until he was back in his own time zone.

It wouldn’t be the first time she endured torture for a good cause, and no cause had ever been better than getting Ben out of Westard. “I’ll get the can.”

She set the cooler on the hood and hustled away from him to unlock the garage — or so she thought until he appeared at her side to muscle up the heavy old door, his shirt riding up to expose a wedge of skin above the low-slung waistband of his jeans.

No. It was dark. She saw nothing.

Voice parched, she warned, “It won’t stay up on its own.”

“I’ve got it.” He stood with both arms raised above his head, belly exposed to the caress of the sultry night air.

She’d caressed that belly with her tongue.

What belly? She… saw… nothing.

She turned her back on him before she gave herself eyestrain. What were the chances the gas can would be full and she could get rid of him that easily?

She grabbed the can from the corner by the lawn mower. Not so much as a drop sloshing around the bottom. Of course. When had getting her hopes up not resulted in disappointment?

On the bright side, there was no combustible fluid to explode in proximity to her flaming face. She blew out a long breath that did nothing to alleviate the heat. Not a problem. It was dark. He also saw nothing.

She edged out of the garage, scraping her back against the metal track that grabbed the door’s rollers in the process of giving him as wide a berth as possible.

He muscled the door down and snapped the padlock shut. “I’ll carry that.”

She was already walking at a brisk pace toward the truck and not about to prolong this nightmare playing pass the can. “Just get in.”

She unlocked the passenger door and left him to do as he was told while she tied the gas can and the cooler in the truck bed. She spent five extra seconds knotting the rope twice rather than risk losing the can and making her sacrifice in vain.

She got behind the wheel, slammed the door, and couldn’t draw a breath. He didn’t stink, wasn’t oozing cologne, but his presence filled the cab like quicksand, pressing on her from all sides, smothering her.

She cranked down the window. She couldn’t suffocate with a whole world of Ben-free air blasting in her face.

If she kept telling herself the problem was in the air, maybe she could trick her lungs into believing the ventilation solved her respiratory problem.

She backed out of the driveway, pointed the nose of the truck eastward, and stomped on the gas pedal.

“Why do I get the feeling you don’t want my company?”

It was probably the first time in his life a female hadn’t found some excuse to lick his belly button by this point in an encounter.

Said belly button was teardrop shaped and ticklish. If she didn’t want him to howl and squirm away, she had to bear down hard on his hip and…

And never mind. “Unaccustomed to that feeling?”

“Only with women who know me very, very well.”

Her eyes cut to the right to confirm the wry tilt of his lips matched his tone. His steady gaze accused her of being the cause.

She fixed her attention on the road, where it would remain for the rest of the journey. Safety was crucial when exceeding the speed limit as if the devil was chasing her. “Your mom kicked you out already?”

“She most certainly did not. I decided of my own free will it would be prudent to take a hike before she told me to.”

Until shortly prior to leaving Westard, Tally hadn’t understood Janine Fielder’s relationship with her son. He openly adored her and would do anything for her, but she only seemed to criticize and push him away.

She thought now that was his mother’s own secret code. Do better in school and don’t break your neck doing stupid stunts so you can live long enough to fly this nest, which isn’t good enough for you, golden boy.

When she left Westard, Tally understood that need for him to be free all too well.

“Mom and I have been butting heads for thirty years. Why do you want me to fuck off?”

Even in the dark, he still saw too damn much.

The right answer would satisfy him, leave no room for followup questions, and put an end to the conversation. If she denied her unease, he would expect some other explanation for her lack of welcome and dig and dig and dig until he unearthed truths she never wanted exposed to him. It was too late for a polite lie, but a partial truth had successfully redirected him in the past.

If that failed, blowjobs were a universally effective diversion. “I run out of charm by seven o’clock and don’t want to be around anyone. Nothing personal.”

A smile to soften it would stink of bullshit, so she didn’t bother. Besides, she had no energy left to put on that much of a performance.

His stare bored into the side of her face, threatening to drill the truth out of her. From his angle, he probably wouldn’t notice how the pressure of his gaze forced her to bow toward the door.

The odometer ticked off a mile before he said, “Okay.”

In a fluke of good fortune unprecedented in the absence of dick sucking, he actually left it at that.

9

She had always been a lousy liar, but Ben knew from experience that calling her out wouldn’t get him any closer to the truth. When challenged, she withdrew somewhere deep inside with no bars and no Wi-Fi, where the only message that would get through to her and reactivate her good graces was a promise to never mention the subject again.

He wanted to know why she shied away from him like he was a chainsaw killer slightly less than he wanted to not walk home in the dark from the middle of nowhere, so he skipped right to the changing of the subject. He knew the correct words to say about one topic, at least. “I’m sorry about your mom.”

“I’m not.”

The open window produced a steady roar that distorted those muttered words so he misheard. “Sorry, I missed that.”

Her fists tightened on the steering wheel. “She was a drunk and a bully and almost killed my father. If not mourning her makes me a worse person, I’ll take all the condemnation you’ve got and eat it like candy.”

Those two venomous sentences were the most he’d heard her say about her mother at one time. The story he’d made up to fill in the blanks had to be rewritten in a rush. “Your mother was the one driving that night.”

She might have been made of stone except for the flare of her nostrils.

He was going to end up on the side of the road, and he’d be lucky if she slowed down to shove him out, but he wanted to know this enough to risk it. “Your mother was the one who hit you.”

“You knew that.”

Not for the first time, he wondered if he knew anything about her. “How would I know? You blamed every bruise on dance practice.”

She backed away so swiftly from what she’d revealed, he felt the draft. “So how did you arrive at the conclusion someone was hitting me?”

Because you lie like you’re daring me to call you a liar and give you an excuse to leave. Her terms were to accept whatever she told him or lose his place in her life. Because it was easier for her if he remained at a safe distance, she didn’t bother to lie convincingly.

He always knew when she was lying. He never called her a liar because he wanted to be close to her, and acceptance was a price he was willing to pay. She couldn’t expect him to believe the ridiculous stories she offered in place of the truth, though.

“If dance class banged up my kid like that, I’d put her in something less hazardous, like the NFL.” He’d played football from pee-wee through college, and not even when the other team was trying to dismember him to settle a grudge did he go home as black and blue as Tally. “No one would let somebody else do that to their kid. You had to be getting it at home.”

“And you thought it was my dad?” Judging by her inflection, he’d ascended to heretofore unexplored heights of absurdity.

Wayne Castle was a six-and-a-half-foot slab of muscle. He’d played football, too — as the guy who sent the other team home happy to lose the game and escape with their lives. Neighborly disputes magically resolved when he stepped into them because no one in Westard wanted to be on the wrong side of him. The prison paid him to keep convicts in line.

Or used to, before he lost a leg.

None of which proved he beat his daughter, but the alternative never crossed Ben’s mind. Bonnie Castle had been diminutive even in comparison to Tally after about the seventh grade, and she’d given every appearance of being devoted to her daughter and her dance career. Nothing about her screamed child abuser.

Maybe he was biased because the thing he remembered most about his father was him knocking his mom around before he did them both a favor and took off for the last time.

But how was he supposed to come up with the right answer when all he had to work with was bullshit? “You could stop me from jumping to the wrong conclusions by telling me the truth.”

One moment, the air between them throbbed with tension; the next, it was gone. She removed herself from the discussion like a turtle retreating into its shell when the threats outside proved too tough to scare away with a glare. Her fists unclenched. Her expression neutralized. She willed the conversation out of existence. “Ancient history. Doesn’t matter.”

It mattered she had never trusted him enough to confide. It mattered he hadn’t had truth to act on, to protect her, to make her life better. It mattered he’d thought of her old man as a villain for no reason.

Dammit, fifteen minutes ago, he’d wanted to punch an amputee.

He massaged the tight cord on the back of his neck, wishing he had her talent for ignoring feelings she didn’t want to face. “How’s he doing?”

“Some days are harder than others.”

She didn’t elaborate, but he hadn’t expected her to be even that forthcoming. “Is there anything you are willing to talk about?”

“If you can’t handle the quiet, turn on the radio.”

He supposed the assortment of knobs on the dashboard passed for a radio thirty years ago. He doubted speakers of that bygone era had the might to defeat the road noise.

He’d come back to Westard to collect his mother, but since stepping into the bakery, every thought had gone to Tally like she was their home. They mutinied against the idea of staying away from her the instant that traitor tried to establish command.

His memories were good. Not even the frustrating, painful ones took the joy out of seeing her again after years of believing he never would.

She had been there to make all those good memories, so why was she acting like he was history she’d rather forget?

She broke his heart, not the other way around.

10

Tally parked the truck in the grocery store lot and left Ben to unbind the can and find his way to the gas station across the street.

The lone cashier on duty scowled when she walked through the door. “We’re closing in three minutes.”

Tally didn’t hold the surliness against her, since she had the same reaction when customers came into the bakery. “That’s all I need.”

She grabbed the smallest bottle of generic ibuprofen tablets. As long as she was in the neighborhood, she moved down the aisle and picked up a replacement for the flattened tube of toothpaste on the edge of the bathroom sink. She swung by the dairy case and made it to the checkout lane with a minute to spare.

A guy in a managerial tie waited by the door, keys in hand.

The cashier had been rooting against her. Her expression should have curdled the milk. “That’ll be eleven thirty-seven.”

Tally swiped her debit card and tucked it back in her pocket while the transaction processed.

The cash register booped.

The cashier’s face brightened. “I’m so sorry,” she said with more glee than sympathy. “Your card has been rejected for insufficient funds.”

Tally stared at the SELECT FORM OF PAYMENT command on the screen. She obsessed about not overdrawing the account because they couldn’t afford a thirty-five-dollar bank fee if she made a mistake, but sometimes between deposits, the balance dipped dangerously low. She’d thought there was plenty to cover twelve dollars and change. Had her dad used the debit card instead of the gas card again? What was gas going for this week? How many gallons had he put in? Worst-case scenario, a full tank would leave how much in the bank, eleven dollars? Ten?

Not enough.

The heat leached from her extremities and surged up to her face. If she put the toothpaste back, the total would be under ten dollars. She dug numb fingers into the pocket of her jeans, past her license and the useless debit card, and touched one crumpled bill. Please, let it be a ten.

She held it by her hip, shielded from the cashier’s sight, and smoothed it out with her thumb.

Abraham Lincoln looked almost apologetic.

Her white-trash toes curled under, hiding in shame.

A year ago, when the last of their savings dried up and there was no denying the money coming into the house wouldn’t stretch far enough to cover the money going out, her dad choked down his pride to sit in a government office for six hours, in pain the whole time, only to be told that between her income from the bakery and his disability check, the household was “too wealthy” to qualify for food assistance.

So wealthy, she had to choose between milk, medicine, and oral hygiene.

She exhaled slowly, inaudibly, so as not to fan the flames of the spectators’ judgment. Her dad had the prescription drugs, whether he liked them or not, and they could brush with baking soda if they couldn’t scrape enough paste out of the tube to get them through the week. They would make do. They always did.

She extended the bill toward the cashier without meeting her gaze. “Just the milk.”

The cashier sighed as if burdened with a task of biblically unreasonable proportions. “Hey, Jimmy! Come put this stuff back on the shelf. She only wants the milk.”

A teenager in a store apron shuffled over to join the fun. “Why’d she get it if she didn’t want it?”

Just to make more work for you, buckaroo.

The cashier voided the toothpaste and pills, named the new total, and took the proffered money, holding it up to the light before tucking it into the cash drawer. With saccharine sweetness, she singsonged, “Don’t forget your change.”

Tally stuffed the coins in her pocket, snatched the milk off the counter, and scurried out of the store as if the three pairs of eyes jabbing at her back were the spears of angry merchants driving a beggar from their bazaar.

She could never return to this store. Even if she had to drive an hour to shop in Marion, she could never set foot in this store again.

Don’t blink, and you won’t cry.

It wasn’t like she lived extravagantly. She hadn’t been smart with every dollar when she had a few more than she needed, but she’d been on full austerity measures for two years. No more department-store moisturizer. No restaurants. No movies. She gave up her Diet Pepsi habit. The eating disorder enforced by her mother throughout her childhood made it easy to go back to eating next to nothing. She bought the cheapest shampoo and conditioner on the shelf, only when it was on sale, and learned how to braid the straw it turned her hair into. Unless shopping in her dad’s closet counted, she hadn’t bought one piece of clothing since her return to Westard. There was nothing left to cut.

Except toothpaste.

Don’t blink.

A hand on her arm apprehended her a step before she walked blindly into the street. “Tally.”

She curled her shoulders forward, wishing she could fold herself smaller and smaller until she disappeared. Why this, of all nights, did he have to come back?

Ben turned her like a rusty wheel. His hands stroked up to her shoulders, then down to her wrists. “Hey, now. What happened?”

Don’t.

She blinked. The haze blinding her cleared and poured down her cheeks. “I’m going to be a toothless, wrinkled, frizzy-haired, flannel-wearing hag.”

His thumbs pressed into her palms. His chest hitched. Then the laugh burst through his restraint.

Being sneered at by strangers was humiliating, but she’d developed calluses to deflect deep cuts from those assaults. Being laughed at by the boy she used to love stabbed right through them, traumatizing every nerve. A hard, noisy sob exploded from her mouth.

His arms wrapped around her and drew her against his chest. He made hushing sounds into her frizzy hair. “Your skin is beautiful, your hair is beautiful, and flannel is our cultural heritage. Wear it with pride.”

He couldn’t have picked a worse omission. “What about my teeth?”

“Toothless is the new sexy. Ask the Wilkins twins.”

She sniffle-laughed against his shoulder. No matter how bleak she felt, he had always been able to drag a smile out of her, to make whatever pain she was in go away, at least for a few seconds.

He smeared a wet streak across her cheek with the backs of his fingers. “What happened, Tal?”

His voice, his touch, everything about him was gentle, the question an invitation, not a demand. If she wanted to stay put and quietly absorb his warmth, he wouldn’t insist on payment in answers.

She would feel like she owed him, though, and she lived in dread of debt of all kinds. Creditors came to collect at the damnedest times, and she had no more to give.

She stepped back, and his arms fell away from her. The numbing cold returned to her limbs, and the milk she’d forgotten dragged on her arm like a hundred-pound dumbbell. “The latest in a series of humiliations.”

There. A little restitution for the little kindness she’d stolen from him.

“Want to talk about it?”

She hadn’t stolen that much. “The best part of my day is that you didn’t witness that. Let’s not spoil it.”

“Is the worst part that I witnessed this?” His thumb rubbed a residual tear from her other cheek.

“Second place, but don’t feel bad. The competition was ferocious.” She’d gotten mauled in the battle for supremacy. “Did you get your gas?”

“Strapped in the truck.”

“Then let’s get out of here.” She headed back to the truck she’d walked past in her haze.

“Want me to drive?”

A couple of minutes ago, that would have been the safe call, but the hysterics had abated. She felt battered down to her bones, but her head had cleared. “I have to be doing something.”

Something other than sitting in the passenger seat with time to think about what had been and what would never be, making it even harder to get out of bed in the morning to deal with what was.

Her hands stalled in the act of tucking the milk into the cooler. Had her mother thought she was clear-headed before crashing into a bridge abutment at eighty miles an hour? She’d fought her passenger for the keys and almost thrown his life away along with hers.

The keys clinked together in the trembling hand she thrust toward Ben. “If you would feel better behind the wheel, take them.”

He folded her fingers closed around the keys, his hand warm and steady around hers. “I’m worried about you, not your driving. If you would feel better behind the wheel, keep them and be doing something.”


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