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The Letters

By Ella Drayton All Rights Reserved ©

Thriller / Mystery

One Point for WASP-y Satan

There are good days, bad days, and days where you want to take a crowbar to everything in your house that has glass to shatter. This was one of the latter. When I woke up this morning I was fully prepared to sit around in my sweatpants and a t-shirt with my hair pulled up, lying on my couch eating mint Oreos, drinking copious amounts of Dr. Pepper, and binge-watching all of my favorite shows on Netflix. Little did I know that my best friend was going to pick today to not only let me know that he was getting married but he was also going to set me up plotting with his mother to get me and my ex-boyfriend back together. 

I wanted peace and quiet while my daughter was at her grandparents’ house and I had an actual day off of work.After a delicious breakfast of cold leftover pizza from last night’s dinner, I arranged all of the drinks and snacks I thought I would need for the day and flopped down on the couch. Some reality housewives show was playing on my TV while I was scrolling through my news feed on my phone. I had apparently gotten comfortable on the couch because I fell quickly back asleep. It seemed like only a few minutes had gone by before I had found myself dreaming about being snowed in at a cabin in the mountains with a young Frank Sinatra serenading me while I licked chocolate chips off of his stomach. Right before I reached his lips, my phone rang and woke me up.

“If you’re not dead or on fire, stop calling me!”

“Dreaming of Old Blue Eyes in the mountains again, hmm? You’re so sexy when you’re being a bitch.”

“First of all, don’t judge my affair with Frankie. Second of all, Walker, no matter how much you sweet-talk me, sugar, I’m still not going to let you see me naked.”

“That phone takes pictures. I don’t even have to be in the room. Just a little pink never hurt anyone.”

“You’re disgusting.”

“Yet highly appealing to so many women.”

“What do you want?”

 “Feel like company?”

“No.”

“Too bad. I’m at your front door.”

“Go away.”

“I’m using the key.”

“Shove that key up your ass.”

I heard the phone go dead and then my front door opening. Walker had been my best friend since junior high. I had given him that key after my husband, Grayson, had been kidnapped and killed by a man who had been stalking me. His body was found on our fifth wedding anniversary.I decided since Walker was already in my house and there was no chance of going back to sleep, I might as well get up off the couch. I walked into the bathroom and flipped the switch nearly burning my eyes with the fluorescent light that flooded the room. As I was about to brush my teeth, he appeared behind me in the mirror. 

Walker, who was a chubby kid in high school, had become a muscular gym rat. He traded in his shaggy brown hair for a bald head, stopped fighting the beard that kept trying to grow (he kept it very closely shaved, however), and wore most of his designer clothes so tight that you didn’t have to imagine what that muscular body might look like without them. At nine forty-five in the morning, he looked like an Abercrombie model in his light pink button down shirt and faded jeans with the holes strategically placed down the legs. I looked like shit.

“You’re really rocking that whole t-shirt and sweatpants look. Nice bun, too, grandma.”

“Who left your cage open?”

“I was just wondering how you comb your hair so the horns don’t show.”

“Gee, you’re hilarious. Have you ever thought about doing stand-up? What do you want? This is supposed to be my off day. As in, I’m off from everything. I do not exist to the rest of the world. It’s just supposed to be a ménage trios between me, the couch, and my TV.”

“A ménage, huh? I didn’t know you were into such kink. I could make that a lot more fun for you, you know?"

“Oh, Walker,” I said between strokes of my toothbrush. “I’m not your type, sugar. I’m not inflatable.”

“I wish there were words to describe how much of an ass you are.”

“There are. They just aren’t covered in ‘Run, Spot, Run’ so you’re not familiar with them.”

“Ha Ha. Wash your face and let’s get something to eat. My treat?”

My eyebrows shot up and I stopped wiping my mouth on my towel. Walker was apparently up to no good. He never offered to pay for anything unless he was trying to talk me into something or sweeten the blow of something he’d done. He’d purchased my senior prom dress and brought it to my house in the hopes that I wouldn’t be pissed at him for breaking my date’s nose two days before the prom. I can also remember two separate occasions that he paid for a weekend vacation at the beach to make up for backing into my car and for setting my custom built shooting house on fire. The stories of how these two instances actually came about were still kind of vague. Needless to say, Walker was an accident waiting to happen and believed that money could smooth anything over.

“Your treat means something is up.”

“You always were a smart one. Hurry up.”

He grinned at me in the mirror and popped me on the ass as he walked out. I quickly washed my face, brushed my unruly hair, grabbed a pair of BKE jeans, a black tank left over from my days at Old Navy, and pair of mismatched socks ( one green and one pink) and my high-top Chuck Taylor’s. I really need to do some laundry. Walker was in the living room playing with Roscoe, the black and white Great Dane I had rescued from a drug dealer last year. Roscoe, who knows he isn’t supposed to be on the couch, jumped up and ran into the kitchen with his tail between his legs as soon as I walked in the living room.

“Let’s get this over with.”

“Brodie, I understand you’re a tough guy but do you own any clothes that don’t make you look like a butch?”

“Do you own any clothes that didn’t come from Baby Gap?”

He shot me a go-to-hell look as I put Roscoe in the backyard. After I made sure all the lights were off and doors were locked, we got into his obnoxious yellow Hummer and made our way into town. Although I worked in Birmingham, I still lived thirty minutes away in Woodstock, where I had grown up. loved my job and the people I worked with but I hated city life. It was too cramped and crowded. Living out in the country with miles between me and my neighbors was bliss for me. Especially when I could walk right off my back porch and go fishing or hunting depending on the season.

 We made our way out of the dense woods my little log haven was settled in and I closed my eyes hoping to go back to sleep.

“We’re going to eat with my mom, by the way.”

“What?”

“And Chelsea.”

“What? Stop this car right now! What the hell is your problem?”

“Brodie! Come on, what’s wrong?”

I shot up in my seat and turned, staring at him in disbelief. His mother, Audrey Sawyer, was the most pretentious bitch I had ever met in my life. She thought not only did her shit not stink but that it was also sweet enough to eat as well. She also thought that I was secretly in love with Walker and did everything she could to try to embarrass me or make me uncomfortable. Chelsea Harper was Walker’s current “love-of-his-life”. She just turned twenty-one last year. He and I met her the night of her birthday. We were having drinks at Wilhagan’s in Tuscaloosa, near the University of Alabama, when she and her drunken sorority sisters came in looking for a few good men to have a good time. Walker was immediately smitten. The rest is history. 

“What’s wrong? Gee, I don’t know. Maybe you should have mentioned that before we left my house.”

“If I had, you wouldn’t have come.”

“Exactly!”

“Ugh! Chill out! They’re not that bad!”

“Says you, spawn of WASP-y Satan who is in love with smaller WASP-y Satan.”

“Brodie -”

He stopped and busted out laughing. I sat there watching him as he kept laughing. Four different ways to kill and dispose of him crossed my mind by the time he finally stopped.

“Brodie, please just go and be cool. For me? Bestest buddy?”

“Fine. But I hate you and I hope your dick falls off. Where are you meeting them?”

“Uh….”

“Walker?”

“Mom picked the place.”

“Okay?”

“Because she thought it would do you some good to —”

“Oh, no. We’re going to Manhattan, aren’t we?”

“Yep.”

I punched him in his arm and turned to stare out the window. We were almost to Hoover, where my ex-boyfriend’s restaurant, Manhattan, was located. Keaton and I had met while Grayson was still alive. He had hired Grayson’s construction company to build a mini high-rise to house the restaurant. Grayson had played basketball his entire life and was always inviting men to come and play with his friends. After finding out that six-foot-four Keaton had played basketball for Duke University, Grayson couldn’t help himself and challenged Keaton to a game. Keaton mopped the floor with him and they had been friends ever since.When Grayson died, Keaton was one of the first of his friends to show up at the house to help me make arrangements and take care of my precious daughter, Braelynn. She was only five years old at the time and didn’t really understand what was happening. A year later we were dating. A year after that he moved in. A year after that he asked me to marry him. I said no, realizing that I was with him more out of convenience than love. We hadn’t really spoken since. That was almost two years ago.

“Your mom thought it would do me some good to see Keaton. How thoughtful.”

“We’re here. Be nice.”

“If I had a dick I’d whip it out and slap you across the face with it.”

“See, sweet as honey. Now stop it and really be nice. This is important to me.”

The inside of Manhattan was a lot of black and white and silver. The waitresses donned black cocktail dresses and the waiters wore black button down shirts with silver ties and black slacks. The floor was black marble and the walls had silver brocade wallpaper. The bar in the center of the restaurant was made out of the same black marble as the floors with white cushioned, backless stools placed in front. Behind the bar was a wall of mirrors with shelves filled with top-shelf alcohol. You would not find a cheap drink here. It was a very classy place and I clashed in my casual tank and worn out jeans.Walker spotted his mom and Chelsea at a corner table near the front of the restaurant and shoved me in their direction. They were both frail, petite women with perfect tans and perfect blond hair. Both were wearing similar peach sun-dresses. The only differences between the two was that Audrey’s diamonds that dangled from her old wrinkled ear lobes and wrapped around her long, slender, paper bag fingers. Chelsea skipped the diamonds and wore a simple strand of white pearls. I could have thrown up.The table was dressed with a silver table cloth, black napkins, and an arrangement of white roses in a black vase in the middle. I carefully waited for Walker to choose a seat before I lowered myself down onto one of the black leather, high-backed, armless chairs. He dutifully sat next to mommy dearest putting me between him and Chelsea.

“Mom, you’re looking beautiful as always. Chelsea, dear, how has your day been?”

“Oh, fabulous, your mom took me to this fabulous dress shop downtown and then we —”

“Brodie, darling —”

Oh, shit. She was starting already. This women made me pray for hemorrhoids. I looked down at my menu, pretending to be engrossed in the appetizer section. Buffalo wings? Maybe this day hasn’t gone to shit after all.

“Yes, Audrey?” 

I said, never looking up from my menu.

“You couldn’t find something better to wear? How are you ever going to find a man dressed like that?”

“You’re slipping, Audrey. Usually, when we meet you already have men lined up for me.”

“It’s so tiring trying to make you happy, dear. Just clean up a little bit. It wouldn’t hurt you to wear a dress, you know.”

“I think I do just fine the way I am but thank you for being so concerned about my happiness.”

Before she could say anything else a handsome young man in his early twenties approached the table. His skin was the color of my favorite brown suede jacket home and looked just as smooth. He had bright, grass green eyes and long slender, manicured fingers that were playing with the order book he was holding. His mega-watt smile was so distracting that I couldn’t even remember what I wanted to order. I wondered if he was single. I could entertain the thought of being a cougar if someone as gorgeous as him was my prey.

“Good afternoon. My name is Channing and I’ll be your server. Can I start you all off with our signature Manhattan Sky Line?”

“Channing? What a charming name! This doll and I will have the Manhattan. He will have a diet coke. Brodie?”

“Channing, darling, I’ll have a Coors Light. In a bottle, please.” 

I flashed him my most flirtatious smile and winked before turning my gaze on Audrey. I thought Audrey was going to hit the floor. I slouched down in my chair and stuck my hands in my pocket. One point for me. She was shooting daggers at me over her menu. As long as I had known her she had been the president of the Junior League a consultant for Mrs. Eady’s Charm School downtown. She was the epitome of southern gentility. Her disdain for me and my bad manners was as easy to see as mud on a pig.

“Oh, and Channing, be a sweetheart and send Keaton out, please?”

She purred like a fat cat after it just emptied the fish bowl. I was just waiting for her to lick her paw in satisfaction. One point for WASP-y Satan. Walker and Chelsea wisely chose to remain silent, both busying themselves with their phones. More than likely they were texting each other. Audrey proudly watched as the kitchen doors opened and Keaton Maddox stepped out.I felt my breath catch in my chest and knew instantly that I had been wrong to let him go. The shoulder length brown hair he’d had when we were together was now short and spikey. The new haircut brought more attention to his honey brown eyes and his razor-sharp cheekbones. Staying true to the theme, he was wearing the exact same thing the waiters wore. And wing-tipped shoes. He had never looked more gorgeous.

“Audrey, Chelsea, I believe the Manhattan’s are yours.”

“The diet coke is mine, Key.”

“I know. I had no doubt who belonged to the Coors. Brodie, it’s nice to see you.”

“The place looks great. I love the new uniforms.”

“Audrey’s idea actually, but thank you. Would you guys like to place your order now?”

I focused my attention on the menu to keep from staring at Keaton. I wasn’t really hungry but I pretended like I was starving and couldn’t make up my mind just so I could stare at the menu a little longer to avoid making eye contact with him. I was such a coward.

“Brodie?”

“Hmm?”

“Buffalo wings? Ranch dressing? Celery sticks?”

“Sounds good. How did you know?”

“Brodie, you’re predictable, if nothing else.”

“Okay, Keaton. If you say so.”

“Can we talk?”

“Aren’t we?”

“Alone, Brodie.”

“Don’t do this, Keaton. Not here, please.”

Our audience pretended to exchange small talk so that we wouldn’t think they were eavesdropping. He stared at me with lost puppy dog eyes and I wanted to disappear into the black marble floor. Keaton finally collected the menus and walked back towards the silver doors that lead to the kitchen. He stopped to place the menus behind the bar, looked back at our table, and disappeared into the kitchen.I looked out the window and watched cars going up and down the highway. I was being a coward now just like I had been almost two years ago. He wanted to talk but I was scared to know what he had to say. Keaton wanted to get married but I didn’t want to lose someone else so I didn’t want to get any closer. The night Keaton proposed we were in St. Louis, Missouri. He had flown me out there to see a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game. The Cardinals had been my favorite team since I was a kid. After the game was over, we went back to the hotel room to pack our bags so that we could catch our flight home. Keaton wanted to stay another night. I wanted to go home to Braelynn.It sparked the most ridiculous argument and we actually went to the airport in separate cabs. We didn’t see each other again until we were seated next to each other on the plane. At that point I was so mad that I refused to talk to him and had already put on my head phones and closed my eyes to go to sleep. Right before the plane was about to take off, a stewardess tapped me on the shoulder asking me if I had dropped a small box which she was holding in her hand. Before I could answer her Keaton started checking his pockets and began cursing. I took the box from her, asking him what was wrong, and when I opened the box a large diamond ring was staring back at me. He grabbed my hand, kissed it, and said ‘Marry me?’. I cried all the way to Alabama because I knew I was going to say no. He moved out the next day and we hadn’t spoken since. I told myself that I had done the right thing and that in time he would believe it too. I was beginning to think I was wrong.

"Walker, honey, do you want to tell Brodie why you invited her to lunch with us?”

Chelsea’s voice brought me back to reality as Keaton and Charming Channing were placing our plates in front of us. He was avoiding any eye contact with me as he made his way around the table. I could smell his cologne as he walked by me and I felt my throat closing up. The tears welling up in my eyes were threatening to betray me and roll down my face.

“Well, Brodie, you’re my best friend.”

“Walker, just cut the shit. What is it?”

“Chelsea and I are getting married.”

I nearly dropped my beer as I heard Keaton mutter something about someone make a commitment. I turned back to Walker and Chelsea who were holding hands across the table. I always thought I would laugh at this moment but Walker was serious. And seriously happy.

“Am I supposed to be surprised? Congratulations to you for finding a wonderful woman who will actually put up with you. And to you, Chelsea, congrats on turning Walker into a one-woman man. Many have tried and failed.”

“Thank you, Brodie. I love him more than anything. I was a little worried at first when I found out that you were his best friend but after meeting you I know I have nothing to worry about. That being said, I, well, Walker and I, would like you to be in the wedding.”

“Yeah,” Walker smirked. “You can be the flower girl!”

“And you can eat a di —”

“Brodie Barrett! You are in public! I understand that you do not live your life like a lady, but at least pretend to be one when in a place such as this.”

“Audrey, as far as I’m concerned , you can eat it, too. Walker, Chelsea, I appreciate the gesture, but I know that you don’t really want me in the wedding, nor do I want to be in it. I think I’ve had enough fun for the day. Chelsea, so nice to see you. Audrey, always a pleasure. Walker, I’ll see you later.”

Throwing down my napkin, I excused myself from the table. On my way to the front door I realized that I had ridden with Walker and had no way home. Just as I was about to walk out the door I saw Keaton out of the corner of my eye standing at the bar watching me. I could ask him to take me home if I had the balls to talk with him. It can’t be that bad. Nothing he had to say could possibly be that bad. I turned around and headed towards the long black and silver bar. He pretended to be busy washing glasses as I approached the bar.

“Keaton?”

“Yes? Another beer?”

“No. Take me home?”

“What? I thought you were eating with Walker? Something wrong with the food?”

“No. Something is wrong with the company. Please take me home. I rode with Walker so I have no way home unless I go back to that table and let Audrey beat me into the ground until lunch is over. Besides, you want to talk to me. One hour of your time, please?”

He set the glass he had been scrubbing down on the bar and tossed the black dish towel hanging on his shoulder into a bin behind the bar. I watched Keaton in the mirror as he talked with a tall brunette cocktail waitress. She was easily six foot tall and had boobs as big as my head. The black dress she was wearing cut low in the front and high on the left side above her leg. The dress stopped just a few inches below her butt. She put her hand on his arm, shaking her head at him. Whatever he had said to her had not made her happy.I watched as Keaton pulled away from her and she turned to watch him walk towards me. He grabbed his keys, grabbed me by the arm, and walked me out of the floor. He continued to drag me through the parking lot to his dark blue Jeep.

“Is there a reason you’re man-handling me? I would have walked willingly. I’m the one who asked for a ride.” 

“Just get in.”

The ride out of town was weighed down with awkward silence. I fidgeted with the door handle, my fingernails, anything within reach. Keaton kept clearing his throat like he was going to say something but then he would get quiet.

“You going to talk to me or not?”

“I’m not sure what to say.”

“What do you mean? You said you wanted to talk to me, so talk.”

“I still love you.”

“Does your girlfriend know that?”

“How did you know I had a girlfriend?” 

He whipped his around to look at me with wide eyes.

“I’m not stupid. The pissed off girl at the bar? She looks like your type.”

“Whatever. It doesn’t matter. Brodie, I love you.”

“Keaton, --"

“Brodie, just stop. I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to make a whole shit load of excuses why we can’t be together and why I don’t really love you. And you’re more full of shit now than you were on that fucking plane. You’re going to find every excuse in the world to run away.”

I sat there in silence, staring at him. I was so mad I could have screamed. But the only person I was really mad at was myself. He was right. As soon as he said he loved me I started making excuses. I was running. If I kept running I couldn’t get hurt. While I was trying to think of something to say I looked out the window in time to see the horse pasture on the corner of the street I lived on. After the neighbor’s house there was nothing but woods on both sides of the gravel road for five miles. My house was on the left, set back from the road, and surrounded by huge oak and pine trees. I continued to stare out the window, feeling my anger and hurt bubbling up into my chest. It wouldn’t take much for me to explode.Keaton pulled into my driveway and parked in front of the garage. He turned off the ignition and threw his keys on the dash. I still hadn’t come up with something to say to him. Everything I could think of seemed wrong.

“Brodie, I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I asked you to marry me. I’m sorry that I wanted to stay in St. Louis one more night. I’m sorry that I moved out. I’m sorry that the only reason I got a chance to be with you was because some sick fuck killed Grayson. I’m sorry for everything. I’m sorry. I can’t change anything. If I could, I would. I would change a lot of things but I wouldn’t change the fact that I love you.”

“Okay, Keaton, you love me. What’s the purpose of telling me that?”

“Kailee wants to get married.”

“Kailee. Are you going to marry her?”

“She’s pregnant.”

“Oh. Wow.”

“Yeah. So, yeah, I’m probably going to marry her.”

“Excited? About the kid, I mean?”

“No. I don’t love her. I’m not even sure the kid is mine. We haven’t been dating that long. "

“Don’t marry her. If you aren’t sure the kid is yours and you don’t love her, then don’t marry her.”

“Why not?”

“Why not? Are you kidding me? You want to marry a girl you don’t love and take care of a child that you’re not even sure is yours?”

“I like her a lot. And so what if the kid isn’t mine? I’m just going to leave her? Pregnant?”

“Well, I hope you’re at least going to make her sign a pre-nup.”

“A pre-nup? Are you crazy?”

I jerked my head back and looked at him like he’d sprouted five more heads. My nails were digging into the door handle and the console from gripping them so hard. I was scared if I didn’t hold onto something I might hit him. Here he was professing his love for me and then telling me that he was going to marry another woman just because she might be pregnant by him. He didn’t even know if she was really pregnant or if the kid was really his, why wouldn’t I think that was a stupid idea?

“No. I’m not an idiot like you. She’s a pregnant cocktail waitress who saw you with money falling out of your pockets and seized the opportunity. She’ll get you for everything you’ve got when you divorce.”

“What makes you so sure we will get a divorce? How do you know I won’t fall in love with her and have a happy life with her?”

“I don’t.”

I crossed my arms across my chest and turned away to stare out the passenger window, watching a fox stalking a bird in my front yard. I didn’t want him to see the tears welling up in my eyes. I did love him but I had spent so much time convincing myself I would eventually lose him that I pushed him away. I watched him out of the corner of my eye as he reached a tan hand up to grab his keys off the dash. He fidgeted with the keys, trying to watch me without me noticing.

“You gonna get out? We’re here. Home sweet home.”

“Keaton, I—"

“Just don’t, Brodie. Everything out of your mouth is horse shit and excuses. I don’t even know why I told you or why I acted like your opinion matters. It doesn’t. Tell Braelynn I miss her and I love her.”

“I’m trying to talk to you. You wanted to talk so that’s what I’m trying to do.” 

I was yelling now. I never yelled. Usually, if I got to the point that I thought I was going to yell, I walked off. I hate confrontation and did everything I could to avoid it and now here I was yelling at this beautiful man. I was so afraid that if he left now that we’d never speak again. I didn’t want him to leave but I was so scared for him to stay.He put the keys in the ignition and cranked the truck. He placed one hand on the steering wheel, leaned across me, and opened my door. The scent of his Cool Water cologne assaulted my nose again and I closed my eyes trying to will myself not to break down and cry in front of him. I missed that smell permeating through my house, scenting my sheets, burned into my brain.

“Just save it, Brodie. Belittle someone else. I have to go back to work.”

I turned to get out of the truck and suddenly changed my mind. I had some things I needed to get off my chest. I was beginning to wish I had walked my ass home. Keaton was typing away on his phone when I turned the motor off, snatched the keys, and threw them into the front yard. I had officially snapped. He wanted to talk and he’s said his piece but wouldn’t let me get a word in. He wouldn’t even listen to me and I’d have enough. I was going to do whatever I could to make him stay and listen. Even if that meant tossing his keys across my yard. I watched as they landed fifty feet from us, near my rose garden.

“Have you lost your damn mind?”

“I lose it anytime I’m around you! You make me nuts! You make me so crazy, Keaton. That’s why I avoid seeing you. I feel like I’m losing my mind anytime I’m around you. See, I just repeated myself! Why in the hell would you marry that girl if you don’t love her?”

“This really bothers you doesn’t it?”

“You’re supposed to marry someone you love.”

“I tried to. You said no.” 

The icy stare he gave me made my heart skip a beat. If looks could kill, I’d have died right there in that seat. And then the anger welled back up, pushing the hurt back down.

“And then you just walked out, so you’re no better. You’ve made me feel like shit about this for two years and have never once thought about the fact that I didn’t give up on our relationship. You did. You walked out on me because I said no. You looked me in my eyes, told me you couldn’t live without me and loved me so much but as soon as I said no you walked out! And what do you know?! You’re still breathing! And doing better than ever, unfortunately! And if you want Braelynn to know that you miss her and love her why don’t you try telling her your damn self! Do you know how hard it was to explain to that little girl why you left after she just lost her father? You didn’t just walk out on me, you asshole. You walked out on her too and you never even looked back. You just kept on trucking, you selfish bastard. WE LOVED YOU! We still love you, you bastard. Yeah, okay, I fucked up because I said no to your proposal but did you ever once stop to think about why I said no? Did you ever stop and put yourself in my place and maybe see where the thought of marrying someone else might scare the hell out of me? I was scared to lose you. It might sound stupid but I was scared. And instead of even having any kind of discussion about it when we got home and things calmed down, you just packed your shit and left. Adios. Goodbye, Brodie! Hello, Kailee, with the stripper name and the fake tits! Meanwhile, I’m still trying to pick up the pieces and answer questions Braelynn has every single damn day about when we’re going to stop being mad at each other and get back together. The person you really ought to be talking to is her. ”

Keaton just sat there staring at me like I’d slapped him. I felt tears rolling down my cheek and I knew I couldn’t sit there anymore. I got out of the Jeep, shut the door, and walked up the driveway. I opened the screen door of the back porch and Roscoe met me with a dead squirrel hanging out of his mouth.

“Roscoe! Not on the porch, baby!”

He hung his head down and skulked off the porch, dropping the squirrel in the yard, and then coming back up to lay in front of the chaise lounge I had slung myself across. Roscoe laid his big black and white head next to my hand and started nudging it as his way of telling me to pet him. I rubbed his head as I gazed off the porch. I had just built my own rock barbecue pit and grill in the middle of the yard. 

A rock trail cut through the yard to Braelynn’s playhouse, which was a miniature version of our house, and branched off to the right to the lake and boat house. Grayson had built the boathouse the summer before he died. We had planned on buying a boat to go in it. I hadn’t even gone near it since he died.

Grayson Barrett had been twenty-seven when we met. I was only sixteen. He was still a traffic cop for the town of West Blocton and had pulled me over on my way to the high school one morning. He had flirted with me and I took that as a chance to get out of a ticket. After that, anytime he saw me and my friends out around town he’d nod and smile but that was it. We didn’t speak again until my graduation night. One of the football players threw a party at his dad’s house and the neighbors called the cops. When Grayson showed up with another officer I was out in the driveway letting my boyfriend at the time have it for me catching him kissing another girl. I was so drunk I was slurring my words and swaying like a twig in a hurricane. He quickly guided me into the back of his patrol car and drove me home.When I woke up the next morning I had two text messages from him on my phone checking to make sure I was okay. I didn’t even remember giving him my number. After that he would send me texts every now and then if there was a wreck causing traffic in town or if they were doing a road block to catch drunk drivers. There was never any flirting or anything inappropriate in his texts. The night I turned 18, my girlfriends had taken me out and gotten me drunk. During the night his name came up in conversation and one of my friends ratted me out to the rest of the girls that he’d been texting me. They had dared me to text him and flirt with him and me being drunk happily obliged. I didn’t think he would actually text me back but once I had told him I was celebrating my birthday, he immediately asked to take me out to dinner. Two nights later he took me to The Bright Star in Bessemer and we ate $28 steaks and he made me feel like I was the most important woman in the room. 

From that night on we were practically inseparable. He had been the love of my life and someone had taken him from me. And now I had fallen in love with someone else and instead of someone else taking him from me, I’d managed to push him away all on my own.I heard my screen door open and I looked up to see Keaton standing in front of me. The look on his face reminded me of the night on the plane. That same pained look of frustration, anger, and confusion. It was so hard to look at him and not pull him into my arms. If I had done that the night that I said no and just simply explained that I wasn’t ready, none of this may have happened. Of course, he didn’t really give me a chance either. Before I had gotten the word ‘no’ completely out of my mouth, he was already mentally packing his shit. He was as much of a coward as I was and I wasn’t going to let him get away with making me feel like the only monster in all of this. Poor Braelynn had been devastated. She didn’t completely understand Grayson’s death so seeing me dating Keaton and then him moving in was a huge adjustment for her. She loved Keaton very much though and had come to be his little sidekick whenever he was at home. He loved her just as much. It made my heart so happy to see the two of them together. And we, as idiot adults, had broken her poor little heart. Neither one of us had stopped to think about what our actions would do to her. We were just being selfish, pig-headed idiots who were trying to save face and come out smelling like a rose.

“I didn’t mean to start a fight. Honest. I just. Hell, Brodie, I don’t even know what I meant to do. I just needed you to know that I still love you. And Braelynn. And that Kailee is pregnant and that baby could be mine. And that complicates the fuck out of things. I think about you all the time. And I ask Walker about you all the time. He never tells me anything, by the way. He’s as loyal to you as an old coon dog. He just tells me you’re alright and if I want to know how you’re really doing, I’ll ask you instead of him. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t face you. You’re right. I’m a bastard. And a coward. And I walked out on you and Braelynn. And for that, I’m the biggest asshole in the world. And I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“Tell me why you left before you let me explain why I said no.”

“I was scared, too. Here I was 30,000 feet in the air, trying to recover from a botched wedding proposal to the woman I love more than anything on this earth and she said no. Just no. She wouldn’t even put the ring on her finger. I’ve never felt more unwanted in my life, Brodie. I couldn’t handle it. I thought you were done with me. I couldn’t understand why you would say no and I didn’t stop to think about it. I just knew how bad it hurt and the way you looked at me when you said no, I just knew we were done. In my head, you wanted me to go. I’m a coward. I mean, shit, I walked out on the two most important women in my life and then because I was too scared to face them I just didn’t even come around. I can’t even begin to apologize for breaking Braelynn’s heart. And you’re right, I should be telling her this. And I will. I will make it up to her. Even if we never go any further than this conversation on this porch, I will never not be in her life again. Not seeing you both the past two years, other than quick passes in town, has been pure hell. I miss my family. I miss my life. I miss being happy. I miss you. And as shitty as this is going to sound, I guess the impending doom of being the father of a baby with some girl I don’t really even care that much about has made me realize all of this. "

“Braelynn is spending the week at her grandparents’ house. She comes home next Tuesday. You can talk to her then. She will be thrilled to see you."

Keaton dropped to his knees beside the chaise lounge and held my right hand in between his. It had been so long since I had felt his soft hands on mine that it brought tears to my eyes again. I used to love feeling of those hands gliding over my body, caressing my back, and petting my hair. I had so much love for this man that I had managed to bottle up inside me and stuff it down deep somewhere to keep me from getting hurt. I had broken my own heart by being too scared to love someone with everything in me. I had broken my daughter’s heart too. A realization that made me sick to my stomach.

“What about us, Brodie?”

“What about us, Keaton? You’re talking about marrying this girl.”

“Oh, hell, Brodie. I ain’t gonna marry that damn girl. I said that shit to make you mad. I knew if I didn’t get you pissed off I was never going to get you to talk to me and tell me how you really felt. Getting you to talk about how you feel is like trying to nail jello to a tree.”

“You’re really winning some points here by insulting me.”

“Shit, Brodie. I’m not trying to insult you. You know it’s true, though. In all the time we’ve been together you’ve never let me fully in. You’ve just let me peak over them walls. Yeah, that baby might be mine. There was one time where I was too drunk to remember whether I put a rubber on or not but that baby also might not be mine. I’m not as stupid as you insinuated earlier, thank you. I ain’t marrying that girl. Hell, she thinks she can boss me around and is always trying to spend my money. You know for Christmas she went out and bought herself a car with my credit card? I nearly shit enough bricks to build a whole two-story house.”

“Why the hell are you still with this nut? And why did you let her keep the car?”

“I didn’t. I took it right back the next day and bought her a $50 tennis bracelet. She sure was sad to see that Mercedes go but I didn’t give a damn. I don’t know why I’m still with her. I guess convenience as shitty as it is to say. Loneliness. And don’t give me that look. I know all about you dating ole Adam Wisenhutt."

“If you know so much, asshole, then you know it didn’t last too long.”

“Good. Let me come home.”

“Are you crazy? You really think you can just come over here all cute and holding my hand and I’m just going to say ‘okay, you can move back in?’. No. I need to know you’re serious. And I need to know that you’re not just going to up and walk out on me again if things get hard. Or if I get hard to deal with. "

“Okay, so how can I prove to you that I am serious that I want nothing more in this world than to come home to my sweetheart and my girlfriend?”

 He kissed the top of my hand and smiled at me. My heart wanted to tell him to come home but my brain knew that it wasn’t that easy. He had a girlfriend. He had a pregnant girlfriend. I knew that this was not going to be an easy situation and I wasn’t completely sure that I even wanted to go down that road.

“You’ll have to stop seeing Kailee. And you’re going to have to apologize to Braelynn. And really be in her life. Not just seeing her when you come to see me. You need to make it up to her, first.”

“Done. I thought you were going to make me jump through hoops of fire.”

“I might. Don’t tempt me,” I smiled as I pulled his arm around my waist. He scooted closer to me and laid his head in my lap. I ran my hand through his hair as I looked back out at the boat house. I was going to have to let Grayson go in order to really be able to love Keaton and let him love me. I couldn’t keep holding onto this dream in the back of my head that he was going to suddenly reappear one day. Grayson was gone and was never coming back. Keaton was here now and wanted to love me and Braelynn and be a part of our lives. He wanted to be our family and I wanted that too.

“So, what are you going to tell Kailee?”

“The truth. I love you and I miss you and I belong here with my family. Once the baby gets here we’ll take a paternity test and go from there. You know I will support and love that child if it’s mine. But can you handle that? Will you be okay with me having a child with someone else?”

“I can’t lie to you, Keaton. I’m sure it will be hard at times but I’m not going to keep you away from your child if it’s yours. Besides, Braelynn has always wanted a little brother or sister. I love you and I will love your child, too. If it’s yours.”

He kissed me gently at first and then with more passion; forcing me back against the chaise lounge. I felt like my head was going to explode. It had been so long since he had kissed me that I had forgotten how good it felt. He climbed on to the lounge with me, sliding his hands behind my back, and re-positioned me so that I was underneath him. I was having trouble breathing. I was absolutely sure all of the oxygen had been cut off from my brain due to all of my blood running south. He was wrapping my legs around his waist and I was about to pass out and die. At least I would die happy. Just when I thought my world was about to go black I heard Roscoe whining. Keaton and I both stopped long enough to turn and see my goofy dog covering his eyes with his paws.

“I forgot how much of a prude he was,” Keaton said as he started kissing my neck.

“Well, he was raised by a devout Catholic family. His little heart can’t handle it.”

We both laughed as Keaton sat up. He leaned down and rubbed Roscoe between his eyes. That was Roscoe’s sweet spot. He thumped his tail on the porch and scooted himself across the floor until his head was lying on top of Keaton’s feet. The dog even loved him. Keaton slid closer to me and put his arms around me. He kissed the top of my head and then laid his head on my shoulder.

“You know,” he said as he started nuzzling my neck, “we could always go inside, away from innocent eyes.”

Oh shit! My whole body felt like it was melting. I wanted so badly to take him in my bedroom and catch up on two years of missed opportunities but I knew I couldn’t. Not while knowing he still had a girlfriend. Whether he loved her or not.

“Nice try, Mr. Maddox. You are currently unavailable for the kind of activities you’ve got running through my head. You still have a girlfriend. Besides, I think jumping right into bed while we’re trying to work things out is probably not one of the best ideas.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” he sighed as he pulled the neck of my shirt down and kissed the space between my breasts. 

"It’s probably not the smartest idea,” he mumbled as he nibbled on my collar bone.

“Stop it!” I giggled as I pushed him off of me. 

“I’m serious.” 

“I know. I was just playing. You’re right. And I want to do this the right way because I want to be embarrassing Roscoe on this same porch when I’m eighty. This is where I want to be. I don’t want to mess it up again.”

Right after that Keaton got a phone call from Kailee saying there was an emergency at the restaurant and they really needed him to get back soon as possible. 

After he left I went in the house and started cleaning. Cleaning was a stress reliever for me. Even if the rest of my life was a mess, at least my house was clean. I started in my living room. My living room was a large open space with an A-frame ceiling and cathedral windows above the front door. The ceiling, walls, and floor were all polished knotted cedar. I had a rock fire place on the wall by the back door. A large Elk head hung over the fire place. I had shot that elk on a hunting trip with Grayson the Christmas before Braelynn was born. Several of Grayson’s other hunting trophies were still hanging on the other walls. There was a deer head on each side of the flat screen TV hanging on the wall by the stairs. I dusted all of the woodland creatures and then grabbed the glass cleaner to clean the salt water tank that divided the living room and the kitchen. 

Grayson had built the tank himself as a birthday present to himself the year we were married. Braelynn loved that stupid fish tank.Just as I was about to start mopping the floors in the kitchen my phone rang. I figured it would be Walker ready to chew my ass out about walking out on lunch. I knew I would eventually have to apologize to him for how I acted but his mother just drove me crazy. It was amazing how much that woman could get under my skin. I really was happy for him that he was getting married but I definitely did not want to be a part of that wedding. I was more than happy to be a spectator, though.

“Hello?”

“Detective Barrett, this is Captain Stephens.”

“Hello, Captain. What’s up?”

“You received a letter here at the precinct. There was no name on the envelope so I opened it but the letter is addressed to you. I need you to come down here so we can talk about it.”

“I’ll be in the office tomorrow, Cap’n.”

“No, Barrett. Now. I need you to come in now. This isn’t a social call. Either this is someone’s messed up idea of a prank or there’s a body somewhere that we need to find.”

“A body? What the hell are you talking about, Captain?”

“Just come in. Now.”

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