Trouble in Sudden Falls

Read the Excerpt

Home sweet hell.” Maddie O’Callaghan’s voice echoed in the sudden quiet as she turned off her car. She looked wearily into her rearview mirror at the boxes and suitcases stacked precariously in her back seat and wanted to do nothing more than crawl into the house and go to bed. But at least she’d made it out of D.C.

Her focus swung to the basketball hoop hanging crookedly above the garage door. A thousand memories descended on her, of summer nights playing H-O-R-S-E with her older brother until long after the sun set. She shook her head. She wasn’t going to go there. Not now. He’d died half her lifetime ago. That it was the turning point that had led to every craptastic decision she’d ever made, and every crummy thing that had ever happened to her, didn’t mean she had to dwell on it now that she was trying to make a fresh start.

Maddie turned to the passenger seat to snag her purse by the handle as the driver’s side door opened. Adrenaline flooded her body as a startled yelp flew from her throat.

Only after she recognized Eli Redmond’s blue-eyed, friendly face did she breathe a sigh of relief, which she quickly followed by indulging in a moment of sheer mortification. She pressed a hand to her sternum, willing her heart rate to slow.

“Eli.” She’d seen him once in the last three years—when she and Darren had come home after her aunt died and her father had his stroke. And they’d barely spoken—which Maddie recognized was entirely on her. But three years was practically a lifetime, given that they’d lived next door to one another and been besties from birth.

He’d aged a bit. His strawberry blonde hair was cut shorter than it used to be and it didn’t quite cover the gray creeping in near his temples. In spite of the crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes, the mischievous expression on his face made him look younger than thirty-five.

“It’s been a long time since I smelled beautiful.”

What a cheeseball. “Did you think that would stump me? We’ve probably watched that movie a dozen times.” Their long standing game of Who-Said-It-In-What-Movie was as good a way to break the ice as any. And thank heavens he wanted to break the ice. After their last parting, she hadn’t been so sure.

 “Vin Diesel as Riddick in The Chronicles of Riddick.

He offered his hand to help her from the car and she took it. She let herself be pulled into his embrace, wrapping her arms around his familiar, broad shoulders to steady herself as he lifted her off her feet.

Maddie tucked her chin into the curve of his neck and let the comfort of his hug start to soothe all of the woes of the last year, since her marriage fell off the rails.

Or the last year and half since her aunt died and her father had his stroke.

Or maybe the last three years, since she and Eli had their falling out.

Or the last eighteen years, since her brother died, and she made an enemy of the entire town.

Yeah. No hug could possibly cure all of that. But it definitely felt nice. Too nice. She shook her head and released him, sliding back to the ground and blinking rapidly before forcing a smile to her face.

“You should have called.” He tapped her nose with the end of a long, leather-gloved finger. “I’d have at least checked to see the heat was up and the fridge was stocked.”

It hadn’t really occurred to her to call. Which was sad. It used to be that a week couldn’t pass where they didn’t speak at least twice.

“How long are you staying?”

She hesitated, considering for a moment that this was the sort of decision she’d normally have hashed and re-hashed with him before making. But that was before. “I’m re-opening Aunt Millie’s antique store.”

Working at Aunt Millie’s in high school was the last time she’d been truly happy. She wanted to find a way to recapture before. Before she realized Andy wouldn’t pull through. Before she realized that her mother’s love was conditional. Before she’d pulled a stupid prank which earned her the vitriol of an entire town. Before Eli rejected her. Before she’d married the wrong man. Before her father fell ill the same week Aunt Millie died. And before she caught her husband in flagrante delicto with the chubby tart and divorced his lying cheating ass. Before her parents moved to Florida.

Maybe, if she found a way to go back to before, she could be happy again.

“You’ve come back permanently?” His eyes widened in shock.

“At least for six months. My mom has given me until August to get the books in the black. If I can’t, it’s going back on the market as well as the house and I’ll be out of a home and a job.” And a life. Frankly, she’d be exactly where she was right now.

“Really… Only six months?” His eyes narrowed as he evaluated her more carefully and Maddie felt herself squirm under his regard. “Why the short time frame?”

She shrugged. “She’s probably trying to motivate me.” Either that or Mom really didn’t think she could do it, which was probably a bit more realistic.

Chin up. Positive thoughts. Six whole months with no rent due and a store’s worth of inventory was more of a break than most people got.

“Huh. Once upon a time, I would have heard about these things from my parents. How things have changed…”

Maddie nodded in agreement, remembering a when Eli’s parents and hers had been the best of friends. But that, once again, was before.

“So why the change?” Eli asked.

She paused and he waited for her to continue. Because he’d been her best friend since, well, the cradle, he knew it was an effective way of getting her to spill the beans. Maddie shrugged, knowing it was useless to fight it. “Things were going downhill in D.C., so I decided to come back home instead.” It wasn’t a lie, per se. It wasn’t full disclosure either, but it’d have to do for now. She didn’t have the energy to go into the details.

“There’s more to that story.” He could still read her too well.

“Not at the moment.” Which was also how she planned to handle the rest of their situation.

“Eli,” called a distinctly unhappy and breathy feminine voice from Eli’s yard.

Maddie swiveled around to view what must be the latest in Eli’s ever-revolving line of girlfriends. Tall, leggy and curvy, she fit the mold that was cast in high school with Eli’s first “serious” girlfriend. Not that there hadn’t been plenty of girls following him around before that. This one wore a low-cut fuzzy winter-white sweater, a short brown leather skirt with matching knee-length leather boots, and a pouty look which highlighted her distaste at being ignored.

Maddie rolled her eyes. Typical. “Better go deal with her.” She pressed her palms into Eli’s chest and pushed him away so she had room to turn around and dig her belongings out of the car.

Also to regroup. She didn’t really need to be reminded of the kind of woman that Eli would pursue. That is, anyone but Maddie.

“Give me one second. Veronica was leaving when you pulled up.” He trotted off toward his driveway.

It wasn’t like Veronica should make Maddie jealous. Or at least, Maddie should be used to it. As far she knew, Eli hadn’t gone more than a month without a girlfriend since the fifth grade.

He jogged back moments later as the Miata peeled out of the driveway in a cloud of exhaust.

Maddie avoided comment as she reached into the car and grabbed a suitcase.

“What can I do?” he asked.

“Help me carry my stuff in?”

He hadn’t even agreed before she handed him the suitcase from the front seat as she got out. He tilted his head to the car. “Your brother’s car giving you any trouble?”

Maddie ran a finger across the smooth racing stripes over the back of the car and felt a pang. Her brother, Andy, had been gone since her senior year in high school. And yet this was still his car. It would always be. Just like the basketball hoop over the garage.

“No.” She gave him a slow look. “And to answer your next question, no, I will not let you open the hood.” She dusted a bit of snow off the trunk for good measure. “Nowhere in Andy’s will did it say anything about you getting to tinker.”

But at least Andy had been aware enough of his situation to write a will. Her parents, who’d been non compos mentis for so long during his illness, wouldn’t have even considered that the car would be something she’d want. Maddie’s wants and needs during those four long years had been way down on their priority list, which is why she’d had to more-or-less raise herself through her high school years.

Not that she’d done a very good job of it.

Eli smiled. “It was worth a shot. Is this everything?” He gestured to a couple of boxes she’d dropped on the sidewalk and the suitcases in her hands.

“Sadly, yes. I’ve decided to try on “minimalist” for a change.” Which had everything to do with the fact that her ex-husband had taken the house, the furniture and their friends in the divorce. “According to my mom, she’s doing the same at her new condo in Florida.”

“Have you been down to visit them yet?” He juggled a suitcase and one of the boxes before following Maddie up the sidewalk.

“No.” The one time she’d planned to go, her apartment had been broken into and ransacked and she spent the week dealing with the police, a home security company and her insurance. Her mother still hadn’t forgiven her for that one. Was it any wonder that she stayed away?

“How’s your dad?”

Another conversation she didn’t want to have. “About the same. He doesn’t speak and doesn’t seem to remember anyone.” His stroke, a year and a half ago had finished off their once happy little family. “What about your folks?”

“They really like it in Albuquerque.”

Well, good for them. And Eli was undoubtedly welcomed with open arms whenever he felt like visiting.

She should get over it. He’d lucked out in the parental department and she hadn’t. How odd that their parents had been best friends forever.

Eli and Maddie made their way up to the front door. Maddie transferred a box from one arm to another to get the key into the lock.

Opening the door, she let the apple-cider and cinnamon smell of her parents’ home wash over her. Breathing deeply, she pushed through to the kitchen, blinking back tears. It smelled homey, even if the memories weren’t.

Of course, Eli noticed right away. “You okay there, Babe?”

His expression told her that the sharp jerk of her chin wasn’t enough of a response. “It was a long drive.”

“That it?”

She shrugged. No. But she didn’t want to face any of the rest of it. At least, not tonight. She needed to get her stuff in, have a hot bath and sleep until the world made sense again.

She figured that would happen sometime before her AARP card arrived.

“Anything you want to talk about?”

“Not really.”

“Maybe later?”

She shrugged again. There were so many things she couldn’t face at the moment. Her reaction to walking into her parents’ house was only one of them.

Eli set his packages down, then straightened to drop a brotherly kiss on the top of Maddie’s head. “You know where to find me when you change your mind.”

“Thanks.” Her voice was a whisper as she patted his arm through his leather coat. Don’t hold your breath.

“Don’t make plans for tomorrow night.” Eli pulled back and winked which effectively broke the tension before tears could well out of her eyes. “Gray and Chloe are coming over for dinner and movies. My sister and Jay should be here too. You have to join us.”

Oh, swell. She wondered if Chloe still hated her. Not that she could completely blame her. “Won’t my being there upset your girlfriend?” Any excuse to get out of it.

“Veronica’s not a big fan of the old gang.”

Well, Veronica’s days were numbered. No surprise there. His girlfriends always had an expiration date. She could almost tick them off on her fingers. Erin Anderson, high school cheerleader, tall, cute and perky, with lots of rah and no staying power. Expiration date: two months. Janet Mulready: perky Poli Sci major with brains and bounce to spare. Expiration date: three weeks. All the way up through Maddie O’Callahan: Desperate bestie making a last ditch effort to save herself. Expiration date: negative three seconds.

And that was exactly the reminder she’d needed. The last thing she should do was get another crush on her childhood buddy. Because as soon as Veronica disappeared, Bunny, Barbie or Bambi would take her place. They always did.

Yes. Another crush would be bad. Not that anything—besides the most embarrassing moment of her life—had ever come of any of the previous times she’d lost her mind. Not that anything ever would.

Thank God. She’d purged herself of one womanizer. To fall for Eli again would be stupid in the extreme.

***—–

The next morning, armed with a caddy full of cleaning supplies and a slightly better outlook on life, Maddie made her way up the front walk to Aunt Millie’s Antiques.

Her keys slipped unnoticed from her fingers to hit the oak planks of the porch as she noticed the sign on the front of the store. How she had missed it, she didn’t know. The sign was roughly the size of a billboard and bright red. It read “CONDEMNED” in four-inch high letters.

She tried to remember her view of the store front the previous evening as she’d driven past. This sign definitely hadn’t been there. Glancing down at the ground, she noticed fresh wood shavings. Undoubtedly from the installation of the padlock. A groan of frustration left her throat as she set her cleaning supplies on the porch and backed away from the building far enough that she could take a full inventory.

The store appeared to be in good order. A fresh coat of pale peach paint made the clapboard gleam in the weak winter sun. The Victorian’s gingerbread trim, shaded in a deeper melon and a bright teal-blue had never failed to lift her spirits—at least until now. The windows could use a good scrubbing, but they were intact. The porch had sturdy rails and stairs and the planks of the porch floor felt solid under her feet. The roof had been replaced about a year before Aunt Millie passed away and there didn’t appear to be anything wrong with it. Why would someone condemn the building?

And who would do it?

She ran through a list of people she could call to ask about her options. Unfortunately, she’d only come home for brief-but-stilted holidays with her family since high school and hadn’t kept in touch with anyone but Eli.

Could anyone blame her?

She thought about calling Eli, but rejected that idea immediately. First, re-opening the store was about standing on her own two feet for once in her life. Second, she didn’t want to bother him at work. Besides, all the city business happened at the courthouse, so she didn’t have far to go to fix the situation and she certainly didn’t need him for that.

Sitting down on the top step, Maddie dropped her head into her hands. She was pretty sure she wasn’t ready to face the town on her second day back. But it didn’t look like she had a choice.

She prayed for courage. Maybe this town had forgiven her—or at least forgotten its vendetta against her.

And maybe pink monkeys would fly out of her butt before she got there.

She sighed and picked up her keys and cleaning supplies so she could head home to change.

Thirty minutes later she’d armored herself in a long navy skirt, a white blouse and sensible pumps. It was an outfit she’d worn maybe three times, all to business functions of her husband’s. Make that ex-husband’s.

It was the only such outfit she’d kept, figuring it would work for church—assuming lightning didn’t strike if she entered the hallowed halls of the First Lutheran Church of Sudden Falls—or occasions when she needed to go to the bank or, in this case, the courthouse.

She sat down in her father’s old office. She had to believe that the store’s maintenance records—if they existed outside of the store’s office—would be in the filing cabinet. If she had any idea where the key to the filing cabinet was, she’d be home free. Unfortunately, cursory searches of the drawers in the desk hadn’t yielded the key. She felt her spine collapse as she stared at the phone like it might reach out and bite her. This was going to take a call to her mother.

Picking up the handset, Maddie dialed. She got to the sixth digit before slamming it down again. Her mother wasn’t the most… supportive person on the planet.

On the other hand, it was hard to excel when those who were supposed to be there for you kept expecting you to fail.

She took a deep breath, picked up the phone and dialed again, this time, steeling herself not to hang up.

“O’Callaghan residence.” Her mother’s voice was brisk and business-like.

“Hi, Mom. It’s me.”

“Maddie. It’s nice to hear from you. Shouldn’t you be at the store?”

Maddie resisted the urge to growl. She closed her eyes and tried to go to her happy place. Unfortunately, the train to Happyville wasn’t running today. “That’s what I’m calling about, actually. The store’s been condemned.”

“What? You’ve been in town less than two days. How’s that possible?”

The implication that it was somehow Maddie’s fault was as clear as it was typical.

The bite of tears stung her eyes. In some alternate universe, she had a father who was still himself and a mother who didn’t immediately jump to the worst possible conclusion. “I don’t know. I went over this morning to start cleaning and there was a padlock on the door. Do you know where I can find the maintenance records for the store?”

“I brought all of Millie’s records home and put them in a filing cabinet in your father’s office. Millie wasn’t much of a record keeper, but I seem to recall that she kept records of the remodeling for tax purposes.”

“I was hoping that was the case. Do you know where the key to the cabinet is?”

Mom mumbled to herself as she tried to remember which drawer the keys located in. “The third drawer down? No. I think the fourth.”

Maddie leaned over and rifled through the drawers. “Thanks. I found them.”

“You need to get that condemnation order lifted, Maddie.” Her mom’s tone was completely appropriate for talking to a child that wasn’t very bright. “You’ll need every day of the next six months to make that store profitable. Heaven knows, Millie was barely able to do so.”

Maddie bit her tongue to avoid commenting. Anything she might say at that point wouldn’t be productive. “I know. Thanks for the help.”

She got off the phone as quickly as she could and went back to perusing the cabinet.

Her mother had filled the bottom drawer with everything Maddie could possibly need. Millie’s entire building had been overhauled less than a year before her death. It didn’t take long to gather up the well-marked folders and head for the town square. The building had been updated down to the wiring and plumbing, which begged the question, why the condemnation order?

The courthouse felt haunted by ghosts of high school past. Most of them, it seemed, weren’t happy to hear that she’d landed back on their doorsteps, if the whispers were any indication. Straightening her spine, she located the receptionist, a woman in her early sixties who, from her narrowed eyes and disapproving glance, was clearly not part of the Sudden Falls welcoming committee. She did, however, ostensibly point Maddie toward the office where one could appeal a condemnation order.

Skeptically, she headed for the County Recorder’s office. Maddie was able to get through the first two sentences of her explanation before she was directed to the Department of Housing, who forwarded her on to Building Regulations. For a town with less than fifteen thousand people, it was amazing how many different departments dealing with housing, buildings and development there were.

She also suspected she was getting the runaround on purpose. Maddie began to doubt her decision to come back to town.

The clerk of Building Regulations sat on a stool behind the counter, perusing a magazine. It took a full fifteen seconds for Maddie to recognize her and she nearly turned and left.

Lisbet Roarke had been two parts best friend—outside of Eli, at any rate—and one part arch-nemesis from elementary school until their senior year of high school. That’s when Lisbet pursued Eli, even though she knew how Maddie felt about him, and Maddie took her revenge too far. She felt completely sick about it even now.

Maddie schooled herself to remember that in this small town, a little smile would go a long way. And maybe Lisbet had forgiven her.

She took one look at Lisbet’s face and knew that was too much to hope for. Maddie took a deep breath to find her friendliness which had pretty much dried up after her encounter with the clerk in the Department of Housing. “Hi, Lisbet.” Even now, Maddie wished she could time travel back to the summer after her senior year and save seventeen-year-old Lisbet from seventeen-year-old Maddie’s poor judgement.

“Maddie.” The word came from between tightly gritted teeth. It was all Maddie could do not to wince. “What are you doing in town?”

“Is this the department where I appeal a building condemnation order?” She decided to keep it business-like and not acknowledge their prior friendship or its spectacular end.

Lisbet’s eyes narrowed on Maddie. She paused for an interminably long moment before finally answering. “Yes.” The s at the end of the word was a hiss of anger as she pulled a sheaf of forms out of a drawer.

“I think there’s been a mistake. The store needs nothing more than a bit of cleaning and dusting inside. I have the records of everything that was done to the store during a remodel a couple of years ago.” Maddie noted that her words sped up and her tone began to sound more frantic as she went on, but there was nothing to do about it, so she continued. “There was a complete overhaul. New plumbing. New wiring. New roof. New furnace—”

“Was there an inspection?” Lisbet managed to appear superior, pissed off and bored at the same time.

Maddie tried to remember if she’d seen any inspection paperwork. “I would assume so.” She dug through the old briefcase of her dad’s that she’d thrown the folders in, but found nothing that looked like an official inspection.

“I don’t have a record of it. Can I schedule an inspection? I’d planned to open the store next week.”

“You have to take that up with the town council. You can’t schedule an inspection once a condemnation order goes up.”

Maddie barely avoided gritting her teeth. “And how do I do that?”

“The council meets the second and fourth Thursdays of the month.”

“Do I need to do something to get on the schedule?” Maddie asked, not exactly overwhelmed with Lisbet’s helpfulness.

“I think the next meeting is already booked.”

Maddie felt her cool slipping. That would throw her scheduled opening off by more than two weeks.

Lisbet plunked down about four trees worth of paperwork with a scowl on her face. “Fill these out. You’ll need to take them down to the mayor’s office to get on the council’s agenda.”

“Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it.” It seemed almost friendly and Maddie’s eyes lifted to Lisbet’s with a flicker of hope. The hatred she saw boiling there doused that flicker without so much as a puff of smoke. “Seriously. Don’t mention it. Don’t come back. Don’t speak to me. Get the hell out of town.”

Maddie gasped at Lisbet’s vitriol. She knew there was nothing she could do or say to atone for the treacherous things her high school self had done—which didn’t stop her from wishing there could be.

***

Feeling a bit like a peeping Tom, Eli peered out his kitchen window and watched Maddie walk a bag of trash to the pile accumulating at the curb.

When she’d pulled up yesterday, it seemed like the answer to a question he hadn’t realized he’d been asking. For months now, everything had seemed so… pointless, but he couldn’t figure out why. For a guy who lived exactly like he wanted to, mid-life ennui seemed a little lame.

Secure Solutions, Inc., his network security company was doing extremely well, he had plenty of close friends, he got along well with his family and his personal life was whatever he wanted it to be.

In direct contrast, Maddie’s mother was toxic, her brother was dead, her father might as well be, her ex-husband was a scumbag, and the town still hated her for an admittedly crummy prank which she’d committed half a lifetime ago. And while what she’d done to Lisbet Roarke had been horrible, she’d paid for it. Again and again.

As Maddie tossed the garbage bag from her hand into the bin, Eli gave her the kind of once over he hadn’t bestowed on anyone in months.

Maddie was a Woman with a capital “W”. Sure, she would need to lose twenty pounds if she ever wanted to look like Hollywood’s ideal, but since Eli had always preferred his women not to look like twelve-year-old boys, he hoped she never considered it. Not that it was likely that Maddie ever would be his woman. But it didn’t stop the fact that he liked hips and breasts and softness and Maddie had that in spades.

Today, she wore her dark curly hair pulled back in a ponytail but a couple of curls had escaped the confines of the band at the base of her neck and were springing near the side of her face. Blue jeans snuggled her full hips and a gray sweatshirt with the crewneck edging ripped away played peek-a-boo with her collarbones.

She turned around and caught him staring. Great. Very suave, Redmond. He waggled his fingers at her through the window before crossing the kitchen to open the side door.

“Hello, Gorgeous.”

She rolled her eyes, but he was gratified to see the corner of her mouth turn up. “Barbra Streisand. Funny Girl.

He had seen her once in the past three years when her aunt passed away and her father had his stroke. He’d seen the tension between her and her husband. But of course, she’d refused talk to him about it. After The Incident, she didn’t talk to him about much of anything. It made him almost wish he hadn’t had a singular moment of gentlemanliness three years ago and turned down her pass. A moment for which he still alternately congratulated himself and wanted to kick his own ass.

If she had any idea how much willpower it had taken to turn away from the pleading look in her eyes and her unbuttoned blouse, she’d likely have nominated him for a medal. Or had him knighted. Or sainted. Or… what was better than being sainted? Something.

It was the hardest thing he’d ever had to do. Frankly, the thing in his life he’d least wanted to do. He’d wanted to sleep with Maddie O’Callaghan since about the time he hit puberty. He would never let himself, however.

There wouldn’t be any way to do it and preserve their friendship. He was self-aware enough that he knew had a bad habit of sabotaging relationships with women, and he never wanted to sabotage Maddie—she’d been annihilated on too many other fronts.

And if he’d taken her up on her offer—and he’d been so much more than tempted—she would have hated herself. That week, three years ago, she’d come to the decision to leave the bastard who later became her husband. Evidently, the threat to leave was enough to turn Darren around long enough to get married.

Eli knew it had been a moment of weakness and loneliness that had fueled her seduction attempt. Then and now he understood where she’d been coming from. It was definitely a moment out of character for her and as much as he wanted to, he hadn’t been willing to take advantage of her.

Even if he still had both waking and sleeping fantasies about what would have happened had he not been overwhelmed with noble intentions one late night in December three years before.

Eli opened his mouth to ask how her first day at the store had gone when an early-nineties VW, whose chief colors were primer and rust, slowed, passed the house, stopped, shifted into reverse then pulled into the driveway.

Maddie faced the car for a moment and then turned back to Eli who’d moved to the front part of the porch. “Oh, wow. Isn’t that Becca Lafayette?” she asked.

Eli squinted against the brilliance of the sun hitting the snow. “Can’t be. She left town our senior year. Abandoned me three days before the prom, if you’ll remember.”

“You managed to recover in time, as I recall.” There was a bite to her tone and with a bit of embarrassment, he began to remember—or maybe even realize for the first time—his own responsibility for her insecurities back then. And now that night three years ago stood between them like an impenetrable wall. They had to sit down and have a discussion about that night. And about everything else.

He sighed as he stepped off the porch to look over at the woman sitting behind the steering wheel of the VW. She was arguing with a passenger he couldn’t see through the glare on the windshield. It definitely looked like Becca, albeit a Becca who was twice the age she’d been the last time he’d seen her.

And the years hadn’t been especially kind, he noted when she stepped from the car. She had a tired, worn look around her eyes that no amount of makeup would ever cover. Silver strands dulled the frizzy blond hair at her temples. Without greeting Eli, Becca crossed in front of the car, opened the passenger door and dragged a very unwilling juvenile delinquent from the seat.

The boy was dressed entirely in black. Eli found himself unable to speak or think as his eyes traced the youth’s multi-buckled leather boots to his ratty and torn black jeans. A black leather coat covered a black T-shirt which read in upside down lettering, “If you can read this, one of us is in trouble” stretched over a skinny torso that slouched in a manner that could be read both as “Wanna make something of it?” and “Leave me alone”. Around his neck, a metal studded black leather collar matched the belt at his waist, and his hair was the dull shade of black shoe polish with bright neon-blue highlights. His lip and eyebrow were pierced with small silver loops and the kid had more metal in his ears than Eli—or Sudden Falls, Ohio—had ever seen.

Clearly, the Anti-Christ had arrived on his doorstep. Why? was the question.

He suspected Maddie caught on a few moments before he did, if her gasp was any indication. He wanted to ask her to tell him the punch line, but he feared he already knew it.

“Hey, Eli.” Becca’s voice sounded casual as she came to stand in front of Eli as if more than seventeen years hadn’t separated this meeting from their last.

“Hello.” He found himself reeling from the possibilities of what might have brought her, none of them appealing to him in any way.

 “This is your kid.” She grabbed the kid in question by the collar of his jacket and dragged his resisting form forward a few inches. “I’ve done all I can with him. He needs a man’s influence.”

“Ohmygod.” Maddie’s whisper echoed the words trying to form in his own head.

He felt the blood drain out of his face as he looked the kid over.

It didn’t occur to him to deny the boy’s paternity. Closer inspection revealed the same strawberry blonde roots as grew on his head and his own freckly complexion on the boy’s pale face. While blue eyes were a dime a dozen, the only time he’d seen that exact shade of cobalt was when he looked at a family member or in the mirror.

Why the hell had Becca kept this from him for so many years? Something in him ached at the anger in the boy’s tight features, and the defeated tilt of his head.

He clenched his jaw, unable to assemble the information he’d been given. “I-I-” he stammered, realizing how much he’d raised his voice as he heard an odd noise coming from the direction of the car. He looked beyond Becca to stare into the rust colored eyes of the biggest dog he’d ever seen. He guessed a fair amount of Newfoundland and Rotweiller had gone in to the beast’s genetic makeup… Not to mention Clydesdale. The sound, it occurred to him, was the beast growling.

All thoughts of arguing with Becca left in the face of the dog, whose monstrous head lowered as the short hairs on the back of its neck stood on end.

“Fluffy.” The boy sighed. “Sit.”

Fluffy? Oo-kay. At least the dog sat obediently on his haunches and let its huge tongue loll out.

“Rogan, meet your father.”

The whole moment felt surreal in the extreme. They each spent a moment sizing the other up. “Nice to meet you, Rogan.” What do you say when the son you’ve never met lands on your door step?

The kid shrugged as the breath left him. “Right. Whatever, dude.”

Apparently, not that.

“I don’t know what you think gives you the right to talk to your father that way…” Becca began.

Rogan directed his response to Eli. “If I show up at your door, chances are you did something to bring me there.”

Eli looked over at Maddie feeling the panic creep in. “John Cusack, Grosse Point Blank,” they said in unison.

Maddie’s eyes took up her entire face. “No doubt about it. He’s your kid.”

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