New Year’s Eve had come and gone and every day Travis thought of Ethan and the way he’d left. His parents had been heartbroken at the news, thinking that maybe Ethan had been the one for their son. Travis eventually confided that he had thought so too, even though it had all started as a ruse. Aracely Murphy had not been happy to hear that her son had conspired to fool her, but had cried along with him when he’d admitted his growing feelings for the jerk of a detective.
These days, as February approached and thoughts of spring began to bloom, he hated himself more for allowing himself to fall more than he hated Ethan for leaving. Try as he might, he couldn’t forget those green eyes that haunted his dreams. On the bright side, the heartache had kicked his muse in the ass and he’d finished another entire novel in the days since Ethan had departed. It was a record he wasn’t sure he ever wanted to repeat.
Ethan dragged his weary body through the grocery store, knowing that if he didn’t do it now, it’d be at least another week before he had a chance. As if in response, his stomach growled, reminding him he didn’t have that option. It was shop or starve and honestly, he liked eating. So, he shopped.
Passing by the magazine rack, a splash of color caught his eye. He backtracked and stopped, eyes landing on the smallish paperback display residing beside the massive amounts of magazines. The white cover was innocent enough, but the name emblazoned in royal blue across the top had been what caught his attention.
He reached out for the book, quickly drawing his hand back as if it had been too hot to touch. Swallowing the lump growing in his throat, Ethan plucked the book off the shelf and held it in his hand. He ran his thumb across the raised lettering of Travis’ name, a vision of the boy’s brilliant smile forming in his memory. That annoying lump that had taken up residence in his throat dislodged and landed solidly in his stomach. Ethan sighed, the emptiness in his chest aching to be filled. The book was an inch from being returned to its spot when he changed his mind, tossing it into the basket with his Ramen and assorted other bachelor food.
He might have left Travis, but he’d be damned if Travis had left him.
It took approximately a day and a half for him to finish the paperback. After he’d thrown it against the wall in frustration – Travis was now fixed firmly in his brain it seemed – he’d retrieved it from the floor, smoothed the cover, and left it sitting on his dresser. Like an idiot, he’d put it in a place he’d see often and, like the masochist he was, he refused to move it. Mostly he thought he deserved a reminder of what he’d stupidly left behind. Other times, he felt he deserved the pain that came hard on the heels of such a reminder.
He wondered what Travis was doing at that moment. Had he made his deadline? He’d never bothered to even ask because he’d been so caught up in his own exciting news. Ethan smacked a fist against the dresser, inches from the book that had started it all. Why hadn’t he taken five minutes to actually talk to Travis before assuming he knew what the other would want?
Ethan slipped a hand into his pocket. His fingers were wrapped around the length of hard plastic encasing it before he realized it. “Damnit,” he muttered, disgusted with himself. It wasn’t the first time he’d thought to reach out to Travis, it was closer to the ninetieth. No matter how many times he tried, he hadn’t yet been able to make that call.
He needed to.
He needed nothing more than to tell Travis he was sorry because he’d been wrong. He wasn’t happy here, he was more lonely than he’d been before. Or maybe he hadn’t noticed before because he hadn’t met Travis yet. Hadn’t known what it was like to have something other than work to look forward to.
To have someone care.
“Good lord, McDowell, get a grip,” he scolded himself. “You’d be lucky if he even took your call, you damn fool.”
“Excuse me, sir,” Ethan interrupted, hoping to hell he’d misheard what the captain had just said. “Where did you say this witness lived again?”
“White Pine, McDowell. It’s a stop sign on the blacktop about an hour south of here. But you already know that.” The captain looked at the case file again before handing it over to Ethan and Corey Mason – his new partner. “If you get started now, you should be able to get there, interview him, and get back before dark.”
Turning back to his work, the boys found themselves dismissed. Ethan’s head was spinning. When the captain had mentioned the witness by name – Jorge Alvarez – he had thought it sounded familiar. Now he knew why. Jorge, or George as everyone in town had called him, was the bartender at the bar and grille on Main Street. Ethan thought he might be sick.
“This White Pine,” he heard Mason saying, “is a dump. Nowhere town with nothing to see and nothing to do. What a crappy assignment to pull.”
Ethan glared at his partner, watching him climb into the passenger seat of his car. Damn thing was still unreliable as hell, but ran much better since Paco had worked his magic on it all that time ago. “Have you ever been there, Mason? It’s not that bad.”
“I have been,” he groused, waiting on McDowell to start the car so they could get on with it. “And it really is that bad. Trust me.”
Ethan gave him a half smile, not wanting to feed the rage he could feel building in the other man. White Pine was a hole in the wall as far as towns go, but it wasn’t awful by any means. It was the cleanest town he’d ever been in, that was certain. The people were friendly and helpful and the surrounding area was gorgeous. Good fishing and better hunting if that was your thing.
He started the car, pulled out of the station’s parking lot, and got on the freeway. His thoughts – and his heart – approximately eighty-seven miles due south.
Travis stood inside the post office, chatting with the postmaster, when he saw a familiar car drive down Main Street and pull in at the police station across the street. He rubbed his eyes thinking his heartache was playing with his mind. But no, it was still there. The late-model silver sedan was still sitting in the lot. His heart leaped just as his stomach plummeted. Conflicted didn’t even begin to cover what he was feeling at the moment.
“Hey Joe,” Travis said, turning back to face his longtime friend, “I’ll catch ya later, okay? Gotta run.”
“Of course, Travis, not like you won’t be back tomorrow, right?” Joe gave him a friendly wink before wandering off behind the postal counter again.
He stood by the front window for a moment longer, gathering his nerve, waiting to make sure this was the same piece of crap car with the unreliable battery that he thought it was. When that head of distinctive reddish-brown hair popped out of the driver’s side door, he knew what he had to do.
Ethan looked up at the sound of his name being called from across the street. He’d been reading a text message from their tech gal back at the station when he’d heard it. “Yo, McDowell, ya got your ears on, city boy?”
Mason’s gaze fixed on Ethan, appraising him before moving on to the source of the commotion. “Care to explain how this hick knows you?”
He looked from what he’d dreaded the most – Travis – to his partner and back again. “I lived here for a little over six months. I needed out of the city and this seemed the best option at the time. Besides, they gave me a job and didn’t give a damn about what I’d been accused of up there.”
Corey snorted. “That’s because the most action they see here is someone shorting a waitress her tip at the local diner. No real excitement ever happens in places like this.”
McDowell observed the tall drink of water hoofing it across the street and thought about how wrong Mason was. Something exciting had happened here. It wasn’t only exciting but passionate and life changing, too. And Ethan had fucked it all up, royally. “Mason, you might be surprised what kind of excitement places like this might hold. You just have to look a little harder is all.” He stepped away from his car and approached Travis, meeting him at the sidewalk.
“Well, I’ll be,” Travis exclaimed in a very affected southern drawl. “As I live and breathe, it’s Ethan McDowell.”
“You’d better believe it, Scarlet.” He didn’t understand why they had fallen back into that easy banter they’d always shared so readily, but there it was, just like it had been on the day they’d met. “It’s been awhile.”
Travis wasn’t quick enough to conceal the hurt on his face and Ethan caught a glimpse of it before he locked it away behind a mask of indifference. “You could say that. What brings you back to our little dinky town?”
He sighed, allowing his shoulders to slump a bit. “I can’t really say why, but we’re here to talk to Jorge.”
“George,” Travis said, his voice holding more accusation than Ethan liked to hear. “You can’t possibly think he’s done anything wrong. He’s like a million years old.”
Travis’ penchant for exaggeration tickled Ethan’s long dormant funny bone. He chuckled and corrected his one-time lover. “Not quite that old, Murph, but no, he’s not a suspect. At least, not yet, although I don’t really expect him to be either.”
“However, he might be a witness,” Mason said, butting into the conversation like he belonged there, between them.
Travis looked the interloper up and down noticeably. “And who is this handsome thing, Ethan? Hmmm?”
A smile quirked up the corner of Ethan’s mouth, even as jealousy raged within him. “This is my new partner, Corey Mason. Mason, this is my friend, Travis Murphy.” He could see Travis flinch at the use of the word ‘friend’ but he wasn’t sure what word he should have used. Ex-lover? That seemed even more harsh and judgmental than ‘friend’ ever could be.
“It’s a pleasure, Detective Mason,” Travis was saying, shaking the man’s hand.
“Pleasure’s mine, Mr. Murphy,” Mason replied. “What do you do around here? Anything that might help us shed some light on this situation?”
Travis shrugged. “I’m a shut-in, mostly.”
Ethan snorted at that. “He’s a writer and he likes his solitude is what he means. However, he’s also like the town crier when he feels the need. If there’s gossip to be had, Travis is your man.”
“Hey,” Travis protested, “I resemble that remark. But how did you know? I tried to keep my gossiping tendency to myself.”
The grin on Travis’ face could light the entire town, he thought. “Your mom ratted you out. She warned me to never tell you anything I didn’t want the entire town knowing.”
“Ahhh, I knew I shouldn’t have left you two alone at Christmas dinner. Lesson learned.” Travis smiled at Mason and nodded at Ethan, taking a deep breath. “Gotta jet, hot story in progress at home. Just stopped by to pick up the fruits of my labor.” He held up an envelope and grinned, turning to walk back to his truck.
“Royalty check,” Ethan guessed, smiling back. “Nice work, Travis. Oh, and by the way, I stumbled across something of yours in the grocery store last week.”
He stopped walking, looking back at the two detectives. “Oh? And what would that be?”
“A Murder Most Convenient,” Ethan replied, eager to see his reaction to this news.
Travis visibly cringed. “Good lord, please tell me you didn’t read that drivel!”
“I did and I liked it. So much, in fact, it took me half a weekend to finish it.” He was proud of this fact, even if Travis was making another face. “What?”
“That was like my first published novel. It’s wretched.” He scrunched up his nose as if he smelled something nasty.
“Hold on,” Mason interrupted again. “You’re that Travis Murphy? I’ve read all of our Alex Jordan novels.”
A blissful smile crossed Travis’ face. He reached to shake hands with the detective, shooting a look over his shoulder at Ethan as he did so. “That would be me, Detective. Always thrilled to meet another fan.”
“Okay, okay,” Ethan barged in, breaking up their little tête-à-tête before it could get started. “I hate to interrupt your mutual admiration society here, but Mason and I have a job to do. And didn’t you say you had a novel to finish?”
Travis gave Corey a wink, slowly allowing the detective’s hand to slip from his. “Yeah, sure do. Gotta keep those bestsellers coming, right?”
That last part had been directed at Mason and it infuriated Ethan in a way he couldn’t explain. He had no right and yet, being ignored by Travis made him want to hurt someone. “Right. Back to your laptop, your coffee, and your thesaurus. Mush.”
The writer gave the two detectives a toothy grin and a wave before disappearing into his dilapidated old truck. Ethan watched silently as he drove off, picturing him arriving home alone, and getting back to work, his favorite mug near to hand for the next caffeine emergency.
“Aren’t we the jealous one,” Mason teased, drawing Ethan’s attention back to the present.
“What?” Ethan managed a look of feigned surprise at the accusation. “Not me. Come, I know where the witness is this time of day, follow me.”
He knew one other thing, too: he knew he needed to get the hell out of Dodge before it was too late.
Interviewing Jorge had been a bust. The poor old fellow hadn’t any recollection of the night in question, although they both discovered he made one hell of a mean margarita. By the time they’d left the bar that afternoon, snow had begun to fall again.
“I hate to break it to you pal,” Mason began, looking at the drifts piling up around them, “but I don’t think your poor car will make the trip back to Minden Lake.”
Ethan looked around him, assessing the situation. Realizing that Mason was right, he sighed heavily. “Yeah, if it’s coming down like this here, it’ll only get worse outside of town.”
“And then we’d really be screwed,” Corey added, unnecessarily. “Any place to stay in this place?”
“There’s an inn down at the end of Main Street. Should have plenty of vacancies,” he recited from memory. “Nice place, clean, good food.”
“Let’s head that way while we can,” he suggested. Ethan agreed.
He looked at the bottle of tequila he’d found in his trunk, figuring he’d missed bringing it inside the last time he’d bought groceries. It was currently sitting at half-empty, kind of like his stomach. The fact that he hadn’t handled seeing Travis half as well as he thought he had was rapidly becoming apparent. Ethan looked at his phone and thought about calling, then reconsidered. Tapping out a quick – and hopefully coherent – text, he relaxed back into the one chair provided by the inn’s owner.
Travis’ focus left his computer screen. Normally he would ignore his phone at a time like this, but that hadn’t been the ordinary chime he’d set to announce any incoming text messages. No, it had been the sound of sleigh bells – the alert he’d picked to celebrate his dinner date with Ethan on Christmas. Reluctant, but unable to resist a possible reconciliation, he grabbed his phone and anxiously read the text.
I miss you, it said.
He smiled, thinking something more was at play here.
And you’re drunk, too. Aren’t you, Detective?
The response came back quicker than he’d anticipated.
Why would you say that?
Because you haven’t reached out to me in all the time you’ve been away. Seeing me pushed you over the edge, he returned, only half kidding.
It took longer for the response to come this time, but it did finally arrive.
Okay, so maybe you’re right. I was just going to come knock on your door, but now I’m thinking that’s not such a good idea.
No, it’s not, Travis texted back. Stay put, I’ll come to you.
You’d do that for me? Ethan replied. Even after everything I’ve done?
He stared at the phone for a long moment, carefully thinking how he should respond. Throwing caution to the wind, he decided to just be honest.
Of course, he texted back. I love you, you fool.
Travis didn’t wait for a response. He simply grabbed his coat and headed into town, the snow be damned.