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Copyright © 2017 by Erin Wright
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be constructed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales or organizations is entirely coincidental.
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To Jasmine the WritingCat:
Thanks for all the snuggles. This book literally wouldn’t have been the same withoutyou…
This is the unedited preorder manuscript. This is not the finished file of Bundle of Love book. If you are seeing this message, please contact the eBookstore where you purchased this book to receive the complete version. You can also contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thankyou!
Wyatt Miller wandered down the snack aisle of the Mr. Petrol’s at 11:30 at night. Nothing like trying to find dinner in the aisles of a convenience store. Did onion rings and beef jerky count as a balanced diet? He could consider the onion rings to be his vegetables, and the beef jerky to be his protein.
He grimaced. Some days, living in a small town really sucked, where the grocery store prided themselves on being “open late” – all the way until nine at night.
He pulled Lay’s Salt & Vinegar off the display.
Look, more vegetables.
He wasn’t sure a dietician would approve, but then again, there was almost nothing in this convenience store that a dietician would approve of. He really should just drive to Franklin and go grocery shopping there, but that was 30 minutes away and he just didn’t feel like it. When he died, his headstone was going to read, “Too lazy to drive to Franklin; died of a heart attack from eating junk food from Mr. Petrol’s.”
Just then, a vehicle pulled up outside. Well, “pulled up” made it sound like the driver was in control of their actions, but as Wyatt watched, his bag of chips forgotten in his hands, he saw the Jeep stop just in time to keep from crashing through the front windows of the convenience store.
He knew that Jeep. There was only one orange camo Jeep in the valley.
The driver’s side door swung open and out swaggered Richard. Wyatt couldn’t tell if Richard was swaggering because he was so arrogant and full of himself – always a possibility – or because he was drunk – definitely another possibility.
Wyatt reminded himself to breathe in, and then out. And then repeat it all over again. He couldn’t react the way he wanted to – a punch to the face – so he needed to just stay calm. That’s what everyone would tell him, anyway.
He knew that. It was a matter of remembering that. And doingthat.
No matter how good a punch to Richard’s face wouldfeel.
Richard stumbled into the store and from two aisles over, Wyatt could smell the fumes rolling offhim.
Richard managed to make his way over to the beer case without taking out an end-cap display, nothing short of a miracle really, and snagged a 24-pack of Budweiser.
A 24-pack? Really? When you’re already this wasted?
Wyatt was having a hard time breathing again and he realized that he’d smashed the bag of chips in his hands into a tiny ball, chips spilling onto the floor from the busted seams of the bag. Richard didn’t seem to notice the noise, though, swinging the 24-pack up onto the counter and swiping his debit card moments later.
Breathe in, breatheout.
Wyatt was hoping that at any moment, the cashier would stop him. Surely, he’d realize that giving Richard more beer at this point was a truly awfulidea.
Richard took his beer and began stumbling towards thedoor.
The cashier wasn’t going to stop him. Wyatt could feel the rage begin to boil up inside ofhim.
“Why did you sell him that beer?!” The words burst out of Wyatt like gunfire. He couldn’t stop himself from asking any more than he could stop himself from breathing.
“Dude, do you know who that is?” the cashier responded with a shrug.
“Of course I know who that is,” Wyatt groundout.
“Well, my probation is almost up. Just a month more and I’m out of the system. I’m not pissing off the judge’sson.”
That was it. Wyatt threw the mangled bag of chips to the floor and sprinted for the door. He wasn’t about to stand by and let Richard take someone’s life because he happened to share genetic material with the only judge in town. Oh hellno.
He burst out the front door of Mr. Petrol’s. Richard had finally managed to get his key into the ignition and turn it. Wyatt grabbed the door handle and yanked itopen.
“Whaddya want, killer?” Richard slurred, blearily focusing his eyes on Wyatt.
“Hello, brother. Nice to see you again.” Wyatt pulled back his fist and planted it squarely in the middle of Dick’snose.
“Good morning, Daddy,” Abby said in a sing-song voice as she walked into the sheriff’s office.
So, she may or may not have known exactly what he was going to say in response before he even opened his mouth. She’d opened with the “Daddy” greeting because the mood in the office told her that he was in a particularly foul mood, and, well, sometimes it was a little fun to screw with her father’shead.
“You know the rules,” he scolded her. “When either one of us is in uniform, we have to be Sheriff and Deputy. I get enough raised eyebrows for hiring my own daughter. Don’t make that worse, especially today of alldays.”
“Oh yeah? What’s going on?” She sat down in front of his gigantic desk, intrigued. Usually, her dad didn’t let stuff get to him, but the way he was pacing back and forth in front of the only window in the room, she was starting to think something bigger than dispatch showing up late, as always, was goingon.
“You might as well hear it from me because it’s about to become your problem,” the sheriffsaid.
“Hold on. You’re the guy in charge. Aren’t problems your department?”
“Actually, my job is deciding who problems belong to and making assignments accordingly,” he retorted.
She stifled the urge to roll her eyes. Some days, being the daughter of the sheriff could be more than a little annoying.
“So, what’s causing such stress in the squadroom?”
“You’ll never believe who’s in theback.”
“You’re right, I have no clue. I actually turned my radio off last night and since no one called, I assumed everything wasfine.”
“Wyatt Miller,” hesaid.
“Wow,” Abby said, just as shocked as he’d thought she’d be. She stared at him for a moment, trying to process what he’d just said. She suddenly felt awful for being bratty when she first came in. As his daughter, she needed to be more supportive, a little less sarcastic. “Are youokay?”
“You’ll never believe why he’s in here,” he said, ignoring her question.
“Did he tear up O’Malley’s over a game of pool again?”
“No, he beat up Richard Schmidt in the parking lot of Mr. Petrol’s.”
“He what?!” she exploded. “How in the hell could he do something likethat?!”
Dad just stared at her and that’s when Abby got past the shock of Wyatt beating Richard up – although really, that was going to take a while, if she was being honest with herself – to how hard it must be on her dad to be dealing with this. This was like a maelstrom of every shitty possible circumstance, thrown together.
“Oh my God, Dad, are you okay?” She jumped out of her chair and went to give him ahug.
“Abby…” He held up his hands defensively, warding off her hug, something that stung her more than she would’ve guessed it would. She changed directions and headed for the open office door instead.
“Don’t give me that,” she said, shutting the door and turning back to him with a sympathetic look. “There are times that you’re still my father, no matter how many badges you stack between us, and this is one of those times.”
“Okay, fine.” He took a deep breath and looked her in the eye. “To be honest, I’m not doing that well. That’s why I want you to be the one who handles this. I kept it together for the most part when I talked with his brothers. However, I could feel my restraint slipping,” he said, rubbing his forehead. “This seems very cut and dry. I should want him to get what's fair, but given everything that's happened, I can’t stop feeling like he should get more than what's strictly speaking ‘fair.’ That’s the problem. If I can’t control my personal feelings and I screw this up, he won’t even get what he rightly deserves.”
“So…you want me to take this on?” At his nod, she asked him, a bit sarcastically, “What makes you think I can control my temper better than youcan?”
“You’re a better person than I am,” he said simply.
“That’s not true and you knowit.”
“Well, everyone will have to deal with him at some point, but I’m trying to remove myself from the situation as much as possible. I don’t want my personal feelings to get in the way. I’m hoping that because you have some distance and you’re the shift commander, you’ll be more effective than I would be in making sure nothing goes wrong.”
“Are you okay?” She knew she sounded like a broken record but she couldn’t help worrying as she studied her father. His blood pressure could get too highand—
“Yeah, I’m great,” he said, trying and failing to act happy and normal, and then he slammed his fist down on the desk. “No, I’m pissed as hell right now. I cannot believe that it was that asshole who beat up the judge’s son. That’s Wyatt Miller for you – he thinks he can solve all the world’s problems with his fists, and he never stops to think about whether or not he should be involved, and especially whether or not his fists should be involved. Next, he’ll be down at the bar, telling yet another round of people that he knows how to run their farms better than they do. I’ve never met such an arrogant, know-it-all piece of shit in all mylife.”
He stopped and stared at Abby, breathing heavily.
“I’m pretty sure it’s clear that I shouldn’t be involved with the day-to-day of keeping Wyatt here,” he said, and Abby thought she could hear just the barest hint of sarcasm in his voice when he saidthat.
She just bit her lip and nodded. Even though Wyatt’s comment to the whole town about how her dad didn’t know how to run a farm and he could show him how to do it had happened what felt like eons ago, it was obvious her dad still hadn’t gotten over it. She wasn’t sure if he ever would. At least her dad realized that he needed to keep that space betweenthem.
“All right, Sheriff, what do you need me todo?”
“Just do your job as shift commander and jail supervisor. Treat him like any other detainee, but if you have any problems, just take care of it. And for hell’s sakes, don’t give his lawyer any wiggle room. You have my full authority to just act as you see fit, as long as you leave me out ofit.”
“So can I ask the obvious question?”
“Why not just declare this to be a conflict of interest and ship him over to Ada County?”
“The last thing that I need is that jackass proving that I can’t run my ownjail.”
“Right,” Abby said. She really didn’t have anything else to add to the conversation, a new one forher.
“What I need you to do, and I do realize that I’m laying a lot on you, is keep this all together and keep me out of trouble at the same time. Just take this on and act as you feel is appropriate. I’ll back you in whatever youdo.”
“From afar,” he added.
She left him sitting there and headed for her problem in theback.
Good hell, I feel horrible.
He was sick and felt like he’d lost a fight with a grizzly bear, and to top it all off, he was dreaming about his brother Stetson yelling at him to wake up. If there was one way to ruin a day from the start, it was to deal with his sniveling little brother in his dreams. The snotty little bastard couldn’t even leave him alone when he was trying to sleep.
Finally, his brain made the connection that Stetson wasn’t in his dream, but actually was yelling for him to wakeup.
His eyes finally opened and dear God, it was bright. His head roared in protest. What the hell had he done to himself?
He didn’t recognize the room. He could hear Declan and Stetson arguing about something and he didn’t care what it was about. All he cared about was getting them to shutup.
“This isn’t the time for your petty bull, so knock it off,” he heard Declan saying.
“Whatever, Mom,” Wyatt managed to say but it didn’t sound quite right when it came out. “Where the hell amI?”
“You’re in jail,” Declan said, in that patronizing voice he used when he was trying to calm his older brotherdown.
Wyatt hated that voice so damn much, but he let his brother get away with it for some reason he couldn’t recall at the moment. It’d come to him later.
He swung his legs over the edge of the bed he was laying on and tried to stand up. The whole world shifted to the right and Wyatt decided to sit back down instead. Just for a minute.
“Why the hell am I in jail?” he finally gotout.
“You decided to be a one-man vigilante justice squad and beat the hell out of Richard Schmidt,” Stetson said, glaring at him, arms crossed across his chest.
He remembered thatnow.
He was pretty sure that admitting this to a counselor or a judge would just prolong the time spent behind bars, but on the other hand, smashing his fist into Dick’s nose was the best Wyatt had felt in a longtime.
“He was drunk. I tried to talk him out of driving and he would have none of it.” Wyatt shrugged, which sent more pain surging through him. The world had gone red with that first punch, and looking back on it, he wasn’t quite sure what’d happened. It was all just a haze of anger and retribution. Maybe “tried to talk him out of driving” wasn’t exactly true, unless one considered “punching with fists” to be talking, in which case he did a lot of talking.
Asshole called me Killer. He deserved every punch he got, and thensome.
“Listen, I know after what happened, you two aren’t exactly bosom buddies,” Stetson said sarcastically. “But that doesn’t mean that you get to punch him when you get a hankering for it. Perhaps a phone call to the police would’ve done the trick.”
“Why? So he could get thrown in jail for the night and then walk away scot-free, like he alwaysdoes?”
Declan pushed himself between the two of them. “Wyatt, we’ve talked about it and we think that maybe just having you hang out here for a day or two might be useful.”
Wyatt swung his gaze back towards Declan. Out of all of the people in the world he thought would be on his side, Declan topped that list. Declan wasthatlist.
He never thought Declan would betray him likethis.
At the look on Wyatt’s face, Declan put his hands up defensively. “Wyatt, you put him in the hospital. He has three broken ribs and they’re probably going to have to do plastic surgery on his face to put the bones back where they’re supposed to go. I know you think that you were justified, but you can’t just let loose and wail on people likethat.”
“No one died and made you the king of the world,” Stetson said flatly. “You have to figure out that you can’t punch your way throughlife.”
“Yeah, whatever. Leave me the hell alone,” Wyatt said. “You two just want me to fail and are using this as a chance to make that happen. God, even my own family is turning against me. Without me, you two would be nothing. I am the one who thinks about all the stupid shit you don’t even know about. Go ahead, leave me in here. You’ll be back in a day, begging me to save your sorry asses.”
He turned his back on them and waited for them to leave.
“I’ll watch your farm. Jorge is taking care of most of the work, so I’ll just make sure he gets the help he needs,” Declan offered. “You can get the help you need inhere.”
“Yeah, don’t do me any favors,” Wyatt said sarcastically and then changed his mind. “Actually, do me one favor. Keep Stetson off my place. I don’t need to clean up his messes when I get out ofhere.”
Neither of them said a word. He waited for Stetson to have something smart to say, but he stayed silent. Finally, Wyatt couldn’t handle it anymore.
“Just leave. You two are pissing meoff.”
He listened to the clicking of their cowboy boots on the concrete floor fade away and for the heavy clunk of a door shutting before he laid back on the cot and closed hiseyes.
Why do people always pull this shit onme?
Abby walked down the jail block to Wyatt’s cell. It was his big day, and she was the lucky officer who got to take him down to the courtroom. He’d spent the last week split between snarling at her every time she walked by, and reading western novels. She figured that this hearing was going to go as well as could be expected, which was to say horrifically awful.
She wasn’t about to tell Wyatt this (or her father, for that matter), but she felt bad for Wyatt. Her dad would have a heart attack if he heard her say this, but since that first morning in his office, she’d discovered that her father’s recounting of why Wyatt had landed in jail was…missing a few pieces. A few important pieces. Wyatt hadn’t just blindly punched Richard for the hell of it ‘cause the sky was blue and the wind was blowing in from thewest.
Okay, sure, Richard didn’t deserve to end up in the hospital but she was beginning to see that when it came to Wyatt Miller, her dad wasn’t acting rational either.
“Ready?” she asked, stopping at his cell door and holding up her keys and handcuffs. He grunted at her, swung his legs over the side of his cot, and tossed the Louis L’Amour paperback into the corner of his bunk. He slid his hands through the opening in the door so she could cuff him, and then after she unlocked the door, he began silently walking towards the front, as she followed along behindhim.
With such a winning personality, it’s hard to see why everyone just doesn’t love and adore him. She tried not to roll her eyes as they went. If Wyatt had half the likability that his looks had, he would have a lot more fans in the world.
It was a short docket today – just Wyatt’s case and a couple of speeding tickets. Of course, Judge Schmidt put Wyatt last because if given even a small chance to be an ass to Wyatt, he was going to takeit.
Finally, it was Wyatt’sturn.
“The State of Idaho Vs Wyatt Miller,” the court reporter called out. Wyatt shuffled forward, his lawyer by his side. Abby leaned against the wall of the courtroom, holding her breath. This could go okay, or it could be a trainwreck. Considering that it was Judge Schmidt and Wyatt, though, she was pretty sure that a betting man would count on the latter.
“So you’re here on charges of assault and battery, huh?” the judge said, leaning down and staring at Wyatt over the top of his spectacles. “I always knew this day would come. Of course, I never thought that you’d lose it on myson—”
“Judge Schmidt, we’d like to ask for a change of venue,” Wyatt’s lawyer interrupted. Interrupting the judge was almost never a good idea, but then again, this whole situation was just a circus and a half. There were no rules any longer. She wouldn’t be surprised to see the judge pole-vault over his bench and land some punches of his own. “I think it’s clear that there’s a conflict of interest here. We would like to get the venue moved to Ada County.”
The judge sat back in his chair, smirking. “Fine by me. But I hear their dockets are pretty full this time of year, what with the holidays and all. You’ll probably be waiting a while for your hearing.”
“Which is why we’d like to ask for bail for Mr. Miller,” the lawyer smoothly interjected. “It’s late fall and thus a farmer like Mr. Miller is still wrapping up hisharv—”
“But with such a high-flight risk,” the judge said with a twist of his lips, “I can’t let him out. Who knows where he’d go if let out of jail until his hearing in Boise.”
“Your honor,” the lawyer said pleadingly, “Mr. Miller has only ever lived in Long Valley. He owns a farm here. His family is here. He’s the very definition—”
“—of a high-flight risk,” the judge said, cutting him off. “I know Mr. Miller’s background quite well and don’t need to be reminded of it. If he wants to move his hearing to Ada County, so be it. But I won’t have him escaping justice under my watch. This case is hereby moved to Ada County; Mr. Miller is to be kept in the Valley County Jail until his case can be heard in Boise. Dismissed.” He rapped his gavel on the wood in front ofhim.
Abby stared at the judge for a moment, horrified. She’d worried that the judge would take advantage of being able to preside over Wyatt’s hearing, but even she hadn’t expected him to pull this. If Wyatt couldn’t finish harvesting his sugar beets, then they’d rot in the fields and he wouldn’t be able to make his yearly payment to the bank. His brother Stetson hadn’t made his payment to the bank the previous fall, which, through a lucky twist of fate, was how he’d met his wife Jennifer, but somehow, Abby didn’t think that Wyatt would be half as lucky. This could ruin Wyatt financially, and the judge knew it. His dryland wheat had already been harvested, but he made most of his money from his beets, and the judge was well aware of thatfact.
Goddamn asshole piece of shit, screwing around with Wyatt like this. He knows exactly what he’s doing. The only way Wyatt escapes this mess is if his brothers step in and help him, and they have their own farms to run. Plus, I heard them that morning they stopped by the jail after Wyatt was arrested; I don’t know if they’re going to be inclined to do his farming for him. This judge is using his power to mess with his former son-in-law and there’s not a damn thing I can do about—
She heard someone clear their throat right behind her, and then a touch on her elbow. She whirled around, finally breaking her stare from the retreating judge, to find Wyatt’s lawyer standing next to her. “I think my client is in need of your services,” the lawyer said softly.
Right. She was supposed to walk him back to his jail cell. She shot a bland smile at the lawyer before putting the handcuffs back on Wyatt, trying – and most likely failing – to hide her inner turmoil. As she snapped the cuffs around his wrists, she couldn’t help noticing his muscular arms, tanned from a summer under the sun, and how his hair curled around his nape, just a little too long for convention but perfect for running her fingers through.
She cleared her throat as she shook her head, making herself focus on herjob.
It was going to be a long few weeks.
He sat in his jail cell, waiting impatiently for the counselor to show up. That wasn’t something he ever thought he’d be doing – waiting for a counseling appointment wasn’t exactly something he did all the time, let alone found himself looking forward to it – but here in jail, he was beginning to look forward to any changes to be had in his suddenly monotonouslife.
The truth was, he was bored out of his skull. This was the longest he’d ever gone without working since he’d turned eight and had started regularly helping his dad out in the fields. Even during the winter, he was able to go for rides on the horses or work on tractors out in thebarn.
So day in, day out of nothing but reading Louis L’Amour, eating food from Betty’s Diner, and walking out in the courtyard for 30 minutes at a time was, quite simply, slowly driving him insane.
Well, that and watching Abby walk past on her rounds. And walking to his cell with his dinner tray. And then spending time bantering with her over whether or not tomatoes were really edible (which of course, he was right and she was wrong and tomatoes just weren’t edible, no matter how much people protested otherwise).
But other than Abby and all Abby-related activities, jail was sheer boredom. He laid back on his bunk and stacked his hands underneath his head, staring up at the water-stained ceiling. Talking to a counselor…he hadn’t done that since high school, and that was a career counselor, not a help-you-with-your-emotional-shit counselor.
This counselor was 100% his lawyer’s idea, arguing that telling the judge in Boise that he’d been trying to get help while awaiting his hearing could only help his case. Wyatt didn’t think the judge would give a rat’s ass – his former father-in-law here in Long Valley sure as shit didn’t – but…
He was bored.
Bored out of his ever-lovin’ mind.
Bored enough that talking to a counselor sounded like a fineidea.
Which had to be the very definition of boredom.
He heard the door open at the end of the cell block, and Abby’s voice floated down towards him as she walked beside who he guessed was the long-awaited counselor. “He’s back here – we have conference rooms you can meet in if you’dlike.”
Just hearing Abby’s voice was…nice. Wyatt swung his legs over the side of the bed and watched as she walked towards him, hips swaying as she did so. He’d always appreciated a little meat on a woman’s bones – whoever thought that sleeping with a bag of bones was sexy was just this side of completely insane – and Abby managed to have curves in all the right places.
Not that he was looking at the sheriff’s daughter in thatway.
“Yes, that would be appreciated.” The counselor’s voice, cultured but friendly, finally had him turning towards his new distraction from insanity. She was a little older, maybe late 50s, with short brown hair peppered with gray, and square-rimmed glasses that gave her a bookish appearance. He’d never met a counselor in real life, and he wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but now seeingher…
She looked just like what he imagined a counselor would look like. If he’d ever bothered to imagine a counselor, which he hadn’t, of course.
He stood up from the bed and moved towards the cell door. He put his hands through the door’s opening so he could be handcuffed, when the counselor put her hand up to stop Abby. “I prefer that my clients not be handcuffed while talking to me. It makes it hard to relax if you’re in metal bracelets. I believe that I can trust Mr. Miller to be a perfect gentleman while we talk?” She looked straight at him, her gray eyes assessing him as she spoke.
He nodded without breaking eye contact. “I give you my word,” he said solemnly. Not that he’d ever attack a woman, but considering his history of beating people up who didn’t agree with his viewpoint of the world, he understood her desire for assurances.
“Good enough forme.”
Abby shrugged and hooked her cuffs back on her belt. “Then I’ll just lead you two to the conference room,” she said, unlocking and swinging the cell door open for him. He brushed past her and unconsciously inhaled as he passed. Lemons. How was it that she always smelled like lemons? It was the damndest thing, in the most awfully perfect way. It was his favorite scent – clean and pure without being cloying – and if he didn’t know any better, he’d think that Abby picked it on purpose to drive him crazy.
Which obviously she hadn’t, considering that she didn’t know it was his favorite scent.
Which made the whole thing even more maddening.
She walked behind them as they made their way to the front and to the right. After they got settled at the conference table, she pulled the door shut behind them, telling the counselor, “Just come get the officer on duty when you’re done,” and then disappeared behind the woodendoor.
Wyatt felt a sense of loss at her disappearance that he didn’t want to begin to explain to himself. Or anyone else for that matter.
The counselor smiled at him, a friendly yet professional smile that told him that she would be a confidant, but not a friend. He respectedthat.
“Mr. Miller, may I call you Wyatt?”
“Yes, ma’am, that’d befine.”
“You may call me Rhonda.”
He nodded once. “Rhonda.”
“Wyatt, I understand that you have some history with the man you beat up, a Richard Schmidt. Is that true? Or did you simply get a hankering for a good ol’ time, and begin swinging at him because you hadn’t punched someone lately?”
He couldn’t help the small smile that grew around the edges of his lips. “I’m sure it depends on who you asked,” he said blandly. “I’m sure there are people in this town who’d believe that’s exactly why I was punchingDick.”
“Dick? I thought he preferred to go by Richard.” She arched a perfectly manicured eyebrow at him. He grinned boyishly ather.
“Oh, he does. Which is exactly why I call him Dick. It’s just a lot more appropriate for his personality.”
She cracked a smile of her own at that. “Well, why don’t you tell me about your relationship with Richard. We can start there.”
Wyatt settled back in his chair. “How long do we have?” he asked sarcastically.
“As long as we need,” she responded without missing a beat. “Normally, I schedule my clients in one-hour increments but I don’t have anyone else in Long Valley to see today, so I can spend the afternoon chatting with you if that’s what you’dlike.”
She was purposefully pushing back at him; she knew he wouldn’t want to spend all afternoon talking to a counselor any more than he’d want to spend all afternoon taking ballroom dancing lessons.
She had a spine. He likedthat.
“I married Dick’s sister, Shelly, seven years ago. I got along with Dick and his father, Mr. Schmidt, fine in the beginning but it quickly became apparent that they didn’t think I was good enough for her. Which I probably wasn’t, but truth be told, what husband is good enough for theirwife?”
“So your father-in-law is Judge Schmidt?” she asked.
“Ex-father-in-law,” he corrected.
“You got a divorce?”
“No.” He heaved a sigh, and shifted in his seat uncomfortably. This was the hard part. This was the awful part. It was the one good thing about living here in Long Valley – everyone knew his story. He didn’t have to tell it over and over again. He didn’t have to face these facts that made up his shattered life. “She died. Car wreck. One year ago. My daughter was in the car with her. They both died at the scene.”
She just stared at him assessingly, nodding once to indicate she’d heard him, so he continued. “My father-in-law and brother-in-law blamed me forit.”
“Were you driving?” she asked.
“No. I was athome.”
“Then why did they blameyou?”
“Because I’d asked her to go get the milk that night. I’d just gotten home – it had been a long day – and Shelly told me we were out of milk. Normally I’d go and get the milk because you don’t want to buckle in a five year old to drive to Franklin just to buy milk but I was tired and didn’t want to make the drive. I was being selfish.” He stared at the far wall, a nondescript print of a seashore hanging there, and felt his throat tighten with frustration and tears.
No, not tears. He didn’tcry.
“What time was it?” the counselor asked softly.
“Time? Evening. Maybe around nine orso.”
The counselor let the silence fill the small room, expanding, pushing down on him, but he didn’t say anything and so she finally, blessedly, continued. “So when you saw your brother-in-law—”
“Your ex-brother-in-law at the convenience store, you decided that it was time to discuss this…with your fists?”
He nodded. It may not be politically correct to admit it, but yeah, that was exactly how it wentdown.
“Did he do anything to provoke this…discussion?”
“Yes!” He stopped, realizing that his voice was overwhelmingly loud for the tiny room they were in. He breathed in, trying to reign in the feelings washing over him, but the injustice of it all had been gnawing at him for weeks now. It was time for someone other than his lawyer to hear his side of things, dammit.
“He was driving drunk. He almost took out the front side of Mr. Petrol’s. He was there to buy more beer, and the cashier let him. Told me that he wasn’t about to piss off the judge’s son, not when his probation was almost up. Dick was already in his ugly-ass orange camo Jeep when I came outside to stop him from driving away. Things got out of hand pretty quickly.”
“Why didn’t you call the cops instead?”
“That’s what everyone says I should’ve done, but I say bullshit. The cops would’ve come, arrested him, and he would’ve been out by morning. His dad would’ve made sure that he got off scot-free from it. That would’ve been the end. Dick Schmidt would’ve gotten away with it. Again. I couldn’t stand the thought. This whole valley…it’s like that everywhere, for everyone. Special treatment if you know the right people, can pull the right strings.”
“Have you thought about moving away fromhere?”
“Away?” he echoed dumbly. “And go where? My farm ishere.”
“I’m pretty sure that there are farms elsewhere,” she said with a quirk of herlips.
“But my family is here. I’ve never lived anywhere else. I couldn’t leave Long Valley.” He felt panic welling up inside of him at the idea, and he was surprised by the strength of it. He’d spent most of his life hating Long Valley, hating the good ol’ boys club that was so prevalent in the area, but when faced with the idea of leaving it, he was terrified. This was his home. His great-great-grandparents helped settle the area. He couldn’t leaveit.
“Okay, so if you don’t want to sell and move elsewhere, what can you do to make your time here in Long Valley more pleasant? If you won’t change your circumstances, how will you change your outlook on those circumstances?”
That stopped him in his tracks. “Change his outlook”? That too had never occurred tohim.
He was beginning to realize that there were many things that hadn’t occurred to him, and he wasn’t particularly sure he appreciated that insight.
Chloe stirred her coffee and looked at Abby over the rim of it as she took a sip. “So, what’s been happening in your world? Anything exciting?”
“I wouldn’t call it exciting,” Abby said with a grumpy sigh, “but Wyatt Miller has been happening.”
“Oh, I heard about that! Is it true that he beat up Richard Schmidt in the parking lot of Mr. Petrol’s?”
“Yes.” Abby knew she wasn’t strictly supposed to gossip about the jail inmates, but she couldn’t help herself. She had to talk to someone about it, and the other choice was her dad, and that so wasn’t happening. Chloe was her closest friend, and thus by default, was immune from the rules about what she was and wasn’t allowed to be told. The best friend version of “spousal privilege.”
“Soooo…how has he been as an inmate?” Chloe asked inquisitively. “He’s never been the most outgoing of guys the few times that he’s come into the restaurant.” Chloe worked as a waitress at Betty’s Diner, the breakfast and lunch diner across the street from the courthouse. She’d worked there since she moved to Sawyer eight years earlier.
“Oh man, I’m sure he was downright joyful when he came to the restaurant compared to now. He’s…not the most cheerful ofmen.”
Which really was too bad. All of the Miller boys were handsome, but there was something…something undefinable about Wyatt that made her heart go into overdrive every time she was aroundhim.
Which she’d admit out loud about the same time that she set her hair onfire.
She looked down and fiddled with her napkin. Was there no way to control her damn hormones? She was a grown adult, not a lovestruck teenager. She knew that Wyatt was a good idea, just like shooting herself in the foot was a goodidea.
Now she just needed to tell the butterflies in her stomachthat.
“Oh my God, you like him.” Chloe stared at her, wide-eyed with shock. “You like Wyatt Miller!” she hissed, leaning across the wobbly table.
“I do not!” Abby hissed back in true seventh-grader fashion, but she couldn’t help herself. It would not exactly be a bonus to her career if this rumor were to get out. Sawyer was a small town, and it didn’t take much to start a rumor. Usually nothing more than a glance that lasted two seconds too long and people were suddenly getting married.
Or least the gossip made it sound likethat.
“Okay, so Ms. I Don’t Like Wyatt Miller, what color are hiseyes?”