Home the Hard Way
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Dare Buckley has come home—or at least, he’s come back to Palladian, the small town he left as a teenager. After a major lapse in judgment forced him to resign from the Seattle PD, Palladian is the only place that’ll hire him. There’s one benefit to hitting rock bottom, though: the chance to investigate the mystery of his father’s suicide.
Dare also gets to reacquaint himself with Finn Fowler, whose childhood hero worship ended in uncomfortable silence when Dare moved away. But Finn isn’t the same little kid Dare once protected. He’s grown into an attractive, enigmatic stranger who neither wants nor needs what Dare has to offer.
In fact, Dare soon realizes that Finn’s keeping secrets—his own and the town’s. And he doesn’t seem to care that Dare needs answers. The atmosphere in Palladian, like its namesake river, appears placid, but dark currents churn underneath. When danger closes in, Dare must pit his ingenuity against his heart, and find his way home the hard way.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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The night Dare Buckley arrived back in town, Finn saw his SUV pass Lyddie’s house not once, but twice. From his place on the porch swing next to his sleeping aunt, Finn tried to read how the years had fallen on Dare. Did he still have his twin blessings—movie-star looks and athletic ability—or had his recent failure knocked him off-balance enough to make his killer confidence slip? Finn couldn’t tell. The light on Lyddie’s street was bad, and Dare didn’t slow down anyway.
Bill Fraser had been the first to pass along the gossip making the rounds at the police station. Dare had fucked up spectacularly on the job in Seattle and come back to Palladian, where it had taken family friendships and old ties to get him hired on.
That was going to go down poorly. Hiring anyone—especially a detective—from outside rubbed everyone raw. No one had more to say about it than Officer Bill Fraser, who’d expected to move up through the ranks on merit and seniority and instead had found himself competing with his childhood nemesis.
A few days later, Finn pulled into the lot at the Safeway just in time to watch Dare stroll out with a cartload of frozen dinners and beer. Seeing Dare’s face—at last—set off a depth charge of bittersweet memory and unwanted longing.
“Not today,” he muttered as he maneuvered his piece-of-shit car into one of the remotest spaces in the lot. In his rearview mirror, he watched Dare put his cart away in the designated return.
God. What a Boy Scout. How does a guy like Dare fuck up badly enough to get fired from a job he was born to do?
Finn’s heart gave an inconvenient, mawkish little leap when he saw Dare scan the parking lot with what Finn thought of as professional detachment. For a minute, his gaze landed on Finn’s car, and Finn could swear he saw Dare’s altogether too memorable blue eyes narrow. The sunlight caught Dare full in the face just then, so that strands of glittering gold winked among the many colors in Dare’s hair and late-afternoon stubble.
Dare raised his hand to shade his eyes, almost as if he knew Finn was watching, almost as if he knew Finn was there. Without really thinking it through, Finn drove through the empty space in front of him and out of the lot, heading toward the convenience store three blocks further down the road, his heart thudding as though he’d run the whole way.
Fifteen years was a long time.
Finn got the few things he needed from the store and then made his way home through streets he knew as well as he knew his times tables. When he pulled up in front of the house, Lyddie sat on the porch swing waiting for him. He spent a minute pretending a preoccupation with his cell phone, as if he were checking nonexistent messages or replying to friends he didn’t have. That gave him time to put on the perfectly amiable mask he wore around his aunt and her friends.
Behind the house, the river gurgled along its sluggish course. The dank smell of it assailed him the minute he opened his car door. It wouldn’t be long before they had rain and when they did, the river would churn past, carrying off whatever debris made it smell like garbage.
Most probably it was actual garbage.
Lyddie watched him walk up the path, an enigmatic half smile on her lips—as though she knew he was only putting one foot in front of the other for her sake. As though she worried what he’d do when it wasn’t necessary anymore.
“Finn Fowler. When were you going to tell me Dare Buckley is back in town?”
“Didn’t I mention that?” He didn’t meet her shrewd gaze as he settled himself beside her.
“You most certainly did not.”
“Yeah. Well, I guess he got a job with the Palladian PD.”
Finn swung them both with a lazy push of his foot. His long legs reached the wooden porch, while her dainty feet dangled in fluffy, yellow nonskid socks. Her eyes were closed against the setting sun, but Finn knew she was awake and aware of every sound, every movement around them. Bees hummed. Birds chirped. The slightest of breezes blew warm and humid against his skin, ruffling his hair.
“Happiness doesn’t just come up to you and call out, Finn. You have to be prepared sometimes to just grab it as it goes by.”
Finn knew. God, he knew.
“I may be an old woman, but know what I’m talking about. Love makes your heart soar.”
“Why on earth would anyone want a sore heart?”
“Soar, baby. S-O-A-R.” She gave his thigh a light slap. “It feels like your heart has wings or it’s on fire or something. Sometimes you fly so high it hurts, even when it’s good. You ever feel that for one of your young men?”
“Can’t say I have.”
She gripped his hand, her thin fingers so cool and delicate in his. Everything about her felt fragile. “Happiness comes down to intention. You have to know what you want and ask for it. Kate says she saw a whole movie about that on Netflix. It’s how Oprah got where she is. Intent is key.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Intention, sure. He knew how powerful that could be.
He’d tried so hard to win his mother’s love, it’d burned his heart to ash. After she died, he’d hoped to belong to a family like Dare’s, even if it was only pretend. He’d set his heart—his intent—on what he’d wanted and grabbed for it like every molecule in his body depended on it to live. Twice he’d reached for love he’d thought was just within his grasp and ruined everything.
Twice was enough.
One of Palladian’s patrol cars came around the corner fairly fast. It swung toward the curb where Finn was sitting and pulled over to a rocking stop not three feet away. Already upset by the death in his aunt’s salon, he stood on shaking legs, arms folded in front of him, and waited.
There was probably no good way to handle finding a corpse under a hair dryer.
The driver’s door opened and Bill Fraser’s head rose above the roof of the panda car. As usual, he squinted at Finn like he smelled something bad. “Mr. Fowler.”
“Officer Fraser.” Finn nodded, giving Bill the same chilly smile he’d worn around him since the second grade when Bill had swished Finn’s brand-new Batman pencil box around in the toilet.
“I understand you have a dead body in your beauty parlor?”
“Yes.” Finn ignored Bill’s derisive tone. “She’s back here.”
The dryer hood was keeping Candy upright. Her magazine had fallen to the floor. Bill eyed her. “Well, there’s something you don’t see every day.”
As Finn expected, the bleach had oozed from the foil and expanded like some B-movie, fast-growing alien bacteria, and it hurt Finn’s heart to have to leave it there, inching down Candy’s face.
“You didn’t touch anything?” Bill asked.
“No.” He’d wanted to close Candy’s eyes but hadn’t.
Bill started forward to lift the dryer lid, but a sharp voice behind them said, “Don’t touch that dryer. That’s a possible crime scene. Where did you learn to do your job, Fraser?”
Bill shifted the focus of his disdain to the newcomer. “I’ve got this, Buckley.”
Finn had no time to prepare for the shock of seeing Dare Buckley up close and personal. More gorgeous than ever, he wore an expensive suit, a silk tie, and the kind of casual arrogance that was bound to make him unpopular. Somehow Finn kept from swallowing his tongue as his heart tried to explode in his chest.
Finn’s childhood memories came in two distinct categories: before Dare Buckley moved away from Palladian and after. The first, those halcyon days when Dare had taken him under his wing and protected him like a younger brother, when they’d shared a bond of love and loyalty Finn had thought could never be broken, made his heart contract with joy when he saw Dare’s face. His more recent memories held nothing but crushing loneliness. Letters Dare had never answered and phone calls he’d never returned. Now Finn’s heart iced over with new pain.
The temperature in the room dropped ten degrees as Bill and Dare eyed each other.
“Chief said I should come by and oversee the scene,” Dare said.
“Like hell he did.” Fraser’s bulldog face reddened.
“Call him and ask if you need to. Chief wants this treated like a suspicious death. I need to secure the scene while we wait for the M.E.”
“Secure the— You’ve got to be kidding me.” Fraser blocked Dare’s access to Candy.
“Could you excuse us, please?” Dare asked politely. “If you’re looking for something useful to do, you could go outside and find out if anyone saw anything of interest. Ask if Ms. Shepherd was acting in any way out of the ordinary.”
Finn started toward the door, but a warm hand encircled his wrist in a firm, yet gentle, grip.
“Not you, Mr. Fowler. I was talking to Officer Fraser.”
Fraser rolled his head on his neck like he was trying to get control. His chest expanded. “I don’t know who the hell you think you are—”
“I think I’m the most qualified person to oversee this scene.” Dare stepped around him. “Now, I need to ask my witness some questions. Or do you want to waste more time?”
Fraser stomped outside. He slammed the door so hard, the cowbell got caught on the jamb and the door bounced open again. Dare turned back to Finn, who realized he’d been holding his breath from the moment Dare had touched him. Dare hadn’t let go yet. Finn made an effort to breathe without gasping.
“So tell me what happened here.” Dare took his hand off Finn’s arm to pull on gloves.
Finn found his voice. “I can’t believe you’re back home.”
“I’m not back home.” Dare’s gaze shifted away. “I’m just back.”
Despite his brusque demeanor, Dare’s hand had felt damned good on Finn’s skin. It hadn’t been there for fifteen years, but it was as familiar as his own. Warm skin, strong fingers. Dare’s nails were no longer ragged, but neatly trimmed and square, like the fingertips and the hand they came from.
Funny. Years had passed, and Dare still pulled him along like a pet on a leash.
“What happened?” Despite the heat, Dare looked cool and unruffled—as out of place as Candy did just then.
“She— I don’t know. Tiffany foiled her up and put her under the dryer, and I got her some coffee, but then the salon got busy. I was working on the books in the office, so Tiff asked me to take Candy back to the sinks for her to open up the dryer for another client, but when I went to get her, she was dead.”
“I see. Can you be more specific about times?”
Finn answered the rest of his questions patiently. While Dare looked around, Finn studied him and found more subtle changes. Haunted shadows around his blue eyes. Lines formed by pain rather than laughter.
The man before him was no longer the invincible boy Finn had known.
That’s a damn shame. “So. What happens next?”
“In a case like this, we just need to make a report.” Dare led him to one of the stylist’s chairs and turned it so Finn could sit while he took out a paper pad and pen. “Candy’s death here was probably simply an unfortunate coincidence. Natural causes. Sad, but nothing criminal. The M.E. has to look over the scene, and we gather evidence just in case.”
Finn absently rubbed his wrist where Dare’s fingers had been. “Who’s going to tell her husband, Jack?”
“I’ll find a uniformed patrol officer to talk to him once I can get an address.”
“He might not understand. He lives in the high-rise now.”
“He lives in the high-rise?”
Finn assumed Dare remembered the building—and the irony attached to the name. A whopping three stories tall, it housed a long-term care facility. “He’s quite a bit older than Candy and suffers from some memory problems. He’s been there since last year. Candy’s mother still lives where she always has.”
“I understand. We’ll do whatever’s necessary, and we’ll get in touch with the rest of the family as we need to.”
“He has kids from a first marriage.” Finn didn’t know why Dare would care about that, but it seemed like someone should know.
“We’ll call them.”
Finn nodded. “Okay.”
“Did you see her exhibit any symptoms while she was here? Did she complain of pain or shortness of breath?”
“Anything odd that you did notice?”
“Do you have any reason to believe this might not be a natural death?”
Finn shook his head. “Of course not. I just wish—”
“There’s probably nothing you could have done,” Dare offered. “Sometimes people just die.”
“I know that.” They both knew. Death brought things with it you never expected and changes you didn’t plan on. “So you’re back?”
“For now.” Dare’s tone was clipped, and he turned away to survey the room. “We’ll take pictures and gather up anything that might be needed later, and then someone from the M.E.’s office will come to oversee the removal of the body. After that, I guess you can go back to work.”
Finn’s stomach lurched. The people waiting outside were half-finished, but there was no way the stylists would be able to go back to business as usual. “I don’t think so. I need to make some calls.”
“That’s fine. I’ll go get Fraser.”
Finn went to the desk and took a look at the appointment book. There was a chance that everyone he planned to call had already heard about Candy’s death through the small-town grapevine, but he started making calls, telling the owners of other salons what had happened and asking if he could send clients there. When they said yes, he was able to go out and reroute some of the people waiting.
Yes, it was inconvenient, and yes, they could leave as they were, salons were standing by to triage them as best they could. Yes, he was sorry for the inconvenience. Yes, the stylists could go home. He would make everything up to everyone later.
Most patted his cheek and said he was a good boy. They were longtime friends of his Aunt Lyddie, and to them, he’d always be a good boy.
He’d managed to empty the parking lot before the medical examiner drove up in a marked SUV followed by another truck with a camper-type shell.
Finn picked up the appointment book and faded back into Lyddie’s office. There, he could call people and not have to watch as the doctor and Dare removed Candy’s body.
He’d only made it a quarter of the way down his list when someone knocked. Finn put his hand over the mouthpiece and said, “Yeah?”
Dare opened the door a crack—just wide enough to stick his head through. “We’re trying to find the victim’s coffee cup.”
Finn mouthed, What?
“You said Candy was drinking coffee, but there’s no cup out here. Did you throw it away?”
“Just a sec, Andrew.” Finn put his hand over the mouthpiece of the phone. “No. I didn’t. It’s always possible someone else did. The stylists told everyone they had to leave the building, and some of the women took their coffee with them. I suppose in the confusion, anything could have happened.”
“It would probably be best if we could find it.”
“Look for a styrofoam cup with a big orange-lipstick print. Candy favored very bright autumn colors. That’s—it was—a bit of a running gag.”
“It’s not necessarily important. I’m covering all the bases so that if we have further questions we can look for answers.”
“She was only forty-two years old.”
Dare favored him with a sympathetic half smile. “I know.”
It took Finn a minute to realize he’d left Andrew hanging on the phone line. How annoying. Dare could derail his train of thought completely. Get a grip, Finn. He’s not back home, he’s just back.
“Andrew? I’ll need to reschedule your appointment with Tiffany to another day. We’ve got a fucking nightmare over here.” Finn reached over and closed the door between him and Dare. “Don’t come here. The cops are all over the place.”
“Shit, I know.” Andrew snorted. “Everyone’s talking about it. You’ve got Palladian’s whole cop shop in your parking lot. Both of them.”
“Ha, ha. Do you think you could still meet me though? How about in front of the KFC?”
“You gonna buy me some chicken since I’m not getting my hair cut?”
“Yes.” Finn smiled at the thought. “Whatever you want.”
“Then no worries. What time?”
“I’ll text you,” Finn told him and hung up before Dare could come in again.
Every so often, Dare eyed the door between him and Finn Fowler.
He had definitely barged his way into Fraser’s crime scene. Most of what he was doing was bullshit, but he’d done it because he couldn’t stay away. Of course, he was the right guy to take a DB. No one in Palladian had a tenth of the experience he had with homicide. He’d been at his desk and heard talk that there was a DB at Lydia’s Salon, and instinct so old and rusty he didn’t even know what it was at first made him head to his car—toward Finn—with the certain knowledge that if Bill Fraser took the call, he’d use the excuse to make Finn his bitch again.
Some things you could count on like the weather in hell.
“That’s about it,” Dr. Lawton said as she pulled off her latex gloves with a snap. “I’ve got what we need from here.”
They had an approximate time of death from witness accounts and the cause would require an autopsy. He’d known that. It wasn’t like Candy’d been sitting on some instantly lethal snake.
Dare hadn’t known Candy that well, but he’d known her mother, Charlotte Boyer. She’d given out the good kind of Halloween treats and could always be counted on by the neighborhood kids, whether she was needed for a charity car wash or Girl Scout cookies or can drives.
She’d been generous and kind, and a peculiar sorrow blanketed him as he watched the M.E. wheel her daughter away in a body bag.
Finn returned from Lydia’s office, pale and stoic, carrying a towel and some sort of spray cleaner. He’d grown into a tall, lean man with a mop of dark messy hair. He had a runner’s build. Enormous eyes in a pale face. He still had a hold on Dare like no one ever.
Dare catalogued the changes in Finn, and they were . . . kind of awesome, actually. He still wore the delicate physical beauty he’d had as a child, yet he’d taken on the keen edge of someone cooler and more distant than the boy Dare had known. Finn seemed bright and a little cold, like moonlight in winter. Being near him caught Dare like it always had—like the pull of a strong magnet.
“If you’re done, I’ll just get the dryer area cleaned—”
“I can help you with that after I finish up here,” Dare offered.
Finn shrugged. “It’s not like I’ve never seen a dead body before.”
Dare officially flinched. “God. Finn.”
“I don’t mean your dad.” Dare’s arm warmed where Finn touched him carelessly. “Lyddie used to work part-time at Childe Family for extra cash. Sometimes I helped out.”
Ah. Right. The mortuary. Beautifying the dead. “I didn’t know.”
“No reason you should. I’m not licensed or anything. I just kept things clean while the ladies work.” He looked at Dare. “I don’t suppose I have to tell you I’m grateful you were here.”
Maybe someday Finn’s face wouldn’t twist Dare’s gut like someone had stuck a hand in there and clenched his vital organs in a fist.
Dare cleared his throat. “It’s just my job.”
A smile ghosted over Finn’s lips. He knew. Finn had to have known Dare would come. Dare had always been there for him.
Except when he wasn’t.
Dare left to finish labeling the evidence he’d put into the trunk of his car. He came back to find Finn on his knees scrubbing the dryer chair Candy had been using. Whatever cleaner he was using added the odor of strong disinfectant and oranges to the already toxic-smelling air.
“Any chance I can get you to make a list of the people who were here this morning?”
“Anyone who was in the salon today.”
Finn frowned. “You really think this is—”
“Honestly? I don’t think anything. I’m just doing what I’m supposed to do in a situation like this.”
“I have a hand scanner I use to keep files of the appointment book pages for my records. I’ll send you a copy if you leave your email address.”
“That would be great.” Dare pulled out his wallet and fished around for his card. “Call me if you think of anything else.”
“Fine, thank you.” Finn tucked Dare’s card in his pocket and went back to cleaning.
Dare couldn’t let it go at that. “Are you going to be all right?”
But Finn wouldn’t look at him, a sure sign he wasn’t feeling fine or he was holding a grudge. Or both. Probably both, because yeah. He was Finn Fowler and he had the right to hold a grudge.
Fifteen years was a long time.
After arriving in Palladian a couple of weeks before, he hadn’t done anything to let old acquaintances know he was back in town. After all, he wasn’t exactly returning in triumph. The Palladian PD had given him a chance, which was more than any other police department he’d contacted in the Pacific Northwest would agree to do, given his record. And he’d contacted an awful lot of them. Palladian PD was giving him this opportunity out of loyalty to his father—not because he’d done anything to earn their trust.
He’d slunk back into town in the middle of the night, transferred his few belongings from his truck to his fixer-upper house, and then started work the following day. Since then, he’d done little more than put in his hours and work on his place.
Dare had always had some instinct where Finn was concerned, and Finn was damn near impossible to miss. He’d seen Finn jogging, getting groceries at the store, pulling in carts at the Costco, and working in his Aunt Lyddie’s hair salon.
Finn never gave any indication he knew Dare was there, standing just outside his field of vision, watching him like some stalker.
Sure, that sounded creepy, but Finn was a little weird too.
Why was it that some people never seemed to change?
Sometimes they didn’t even grow.
Finn’s height had topped out at about five-nine. As a child, he’d been a pale-skinned bundle of nerves, remarkable for having two different-colored irises. Back in the day, that odd-colored gaze had never left the ground. Now Dare couldn’t get a read on him at all. If eyes were the windows of the soul, Finn’s had turned into tinted glass, remarkable only for their unusual mismatch and the fact they gave away nothing of Finn’s thoughts.
As a scrawny five-and-a-half-year-old kid, Finn had been a late-enrollment kindergartner in their tiny elementary school. He’d provoked all kinds of interest—even from upper-grade kids like him and Bill Fraser. It had been those eyes—so arresting in Finn’s frightened-child face—that had first caught Dare’s attention when Finn arrived at Palladian’s K-8. After two weeks, curiosity about Finn had erupted into a playground confrontation.
“Are not,” Finn had shouted angrily when Bill jeered at him.
“Are too. You are a freak. If you’ve got two different colored eyes, that means you have two different dads.” Bill Fraser, the oversized and outspoken second grader, had crossed his arms. He was clearly pleased with himself, believing he knew something about the new kid that no one else did. “My mom says your mom doesn’t even know who your dads are because she’s a prostitute.”
“Is not.” Finn’s eyes, one light brown eye and one an unusual, almost iridescent shade of green—like sea glass—glittered with unshed tears.
“You shut your mouth, Bill Fraser.” At the advanced age of ten, Dare knew what the word prostitute meant. He wondered if Finn knew or if he was just reacting to the way Bill said it. Whatever the reason, it bothered Dare to see a little kid get bullied. He’d asked his dad how you got more than one color eye, and they’d looked it up at the library. “It’s not because you have two dads.”
“Is too,” Bill insisted. Finn turned away and tried to walk away, but Bill grabbed his arm and wouldn’t let him go. “Is too. So, hey, Finneas. My dad says if he’d had a kid with two different eye colors, he’d have drownded it.”
Dare tore Bill’s hand off Finn’s wrist and gave him a hearty shove. “Someone should have drowned you.” He was half-sick to see the marks Bill left on Finn’s skin. “Leave him alone, or I’ll show you how I hit grounders, using your head for a ball.”
Dare had then taken Finn’s small hand in his own and walked him to the little-kid swings to play. He’d stayed behind to push Finn, even though he was in fifth grade and was supposed to play in a different area. Finn’s teacher let him, probably because it was the first time anyone had seen Finn smile.
That day, Finn had tucked his hand into Dare’s like it belonged there—as if Dare was Finn’s guardian angel. When Finn glanced up at him and smiled, Dare felt like he’d won something precious.
Like Finn was his, and it was his job to take care of him.
Finn probably didn’t need him after all these years, but as soon as he’d seen the mean dog look on Bill Fraser’s face, those old instincts kicked right in.
Old habits died hard, and protecting Finn Fowler was his.
Finn slipped off his button-down and sank onto the porch swing next to his Aunt Lyddie wearing only his T-shirt. The sun wouldn’t set for hours yet, but it was his aunt’s habit to spend time on the porch in one of those blankets-with-arms, enjoying the late-afternoon warmth. It was Indian summer, still hot enough to bake bread, but that never stopped Lyddie from shivering. There was no meat on her nearly skeletal frame. If the sun so much as disappeared behind a cloud, she got chill bumps and quivered with cold. Anyone who loved her learned to strip down as much as they decently could and just endure the heat.
“God almighty, what a day.” Finn let his head fall back against the overstuffed pad and pushed back with his foot, initiating the creak-groan of metal springs that formed the soundtrack of their evenings together. “I suppose you heard about Candy?”
“I did. What a shame.” Lyddie drew her brightly colored sleeve-blanket—vibrant pink this time—around her. Her silver hair was only a quarter of an inch long, but the style suited her. She had great, strong bones in a beautiful face. Expressive green, nearly lashless eyes. “Candy was a nice girl. Does anyone have any idea how she died?”
“They haven’t done the autopsy yet, but the deputy medical examiner thinks it must have been her heart. She called and asked me if Candy had been unusually upset or acting odd.”
Lyddie digested this. “How are you supposed to define ‘acting odd’ in the case of Candy Shepherd?”
“I told Dr. Lawton she didn’t seem out of the ordinary to me. She often came in late, talking nonstop, and switching subjects so fast we couldn’t keep up. A little manic, you know? This time I thought she was tired, or that maybe she’d had a couple glasses of wine at lunch or something. Tiffany says she’s come in like that before—either amped up and talking a mile a minute or drunk off her ass.”
“So . . .”
“Yeah . . .” Finn pushed again, sending the swing backward. “Maybe if I’d been paying more attention . . .”
“Nah, honey. There was probably nothing you could have done.”
“She wasn’t a bad person, and now everyone’s whispering about her.” Finn sighed. “Bill Fraser was there.”
“Bill Fraser was the responding officer?”
“Yeah, but Dare Buckley came and took over the scene. You should have seen Bill’s face. That took me right back to elementary school.”
“You saw Dare?” Lyddie’s hand went to her chest. It reminded Finn of the old days when she wore pink fluffy sweater sets and fake pearls, and it made him smile. “How’d he look?”
“I’d have thought Palladian would have nothing but bad memories for that boy.” She pursed her lips. “Do you suppose he’s here to open up old wounds?”
“I hope not.” The idea was unsettling. “I don’t know why he came back.”
“Suppose he looks into his father’s death?”
“What if he does?”
“Even if he does poke around—” she met Finn’s gaze “—there’s hardly anyone who knows the whole truth, and only two people have nothing to lose by coming forward. That number’s about to be reduced by one.”
“Lyddie.” Finn winced. “Why do you have to be so . . . so matter-of-fact?”
She took his hand. “Because it is a matter of fact, honey. Try as we might, we can’t change facts. Maybe you should tell Dare what you saw. Maybe he deserves that. It can’t hurt his family any more than they’ve already been hurt.”
“I can’t tell Dare now. What will I say when he asks why I never told him the truth before?”
“Say you were young. Say you didn’t understand. Stop second-guessing yourself. You were a child.”
Finn pulled his hand from hers. “The time for telling the truth is long past.”
Lyddie sighed. “All right then . . . Let it go, honey.”
“But what if he starts digging around? What if he starts asking me direct questions? This is so going to come back on me.”
“You’ll have to answer his questions. What’s that saying from the Bible? The truth will out.”
Finn shook his head. “That’s Shakespeare, and the actual saying is ‘murder cannot be hid long . . . something . . . something, but in the end, truth will out.’”
“Okay, now you’re giving me shivers.”
“You’re just cold because you’re showing off your assets there.” Finn adjusted Lyddie’s Slanket, which had slipped from her shoulder. “Have you been drinking your water?”
“Yes.” Lyddie lifted a sports-type bottle from a low table on the other side of the swing and shook it a little, showing that it was more than two-thirds gone.
“Can I get you something to eat? I stopped at the store for some different kinds of soup.”
“I don’t know that I could keep anything down.”
Finn pulled an old-fashioned cigarette case out of his pocket and opened it, offering the contents to Lyddie. “Andrew came through even though Tiff couldn’t do his hair.”
“How sweet of him. That boy has the greenest thumb. His mother would be so proud if she knew. Well. Maybe not proud, exactly.” Lyddie gave a sheepish grin before choosing a fat blunt from Finn’s case. She pulled a lighter from her pocket to spark it up. “Thank him for me next time you see him.”
“Sure.” Springs protested when Finn rose. “I’ll heat some soup for both of us. Maybe you’ll feel like eating a spoonful or two when it’s right in front of you.”
“You should have some of this. You need to relax more.” Lyddie exhaled a great, noxious cloud of smoke. “This stuff makes my toes feel fat.”
“That’s your brain cells dying off.”
“I’ve got news for you, Mr. Smarty-pants. That’s not such a bad thing. You should try it every now and again. They say we have more brain cells than we need anyway.”
“I want to work some. Kate said she’d let me add my leather jewelry to her booth at Saturday’s barbecue cook-off. Besides, I like my short-term memory.”
Lyddie’s eyes sparkled. “I used to have that . . . the thing you said.”
She looked like a snake basking in the sunshine. When the drugs hit her tightly wound body, all her muscles relaxed, and she unfurled, languid and content because the ravages of her disease and its treatment had lessened for the moment.
It was good to see Lyddie smile. Marijuana definitely helped. Even a couple hits could make a huge difference.
Pain was a fact of life, as were pain pills. But marijuana relaxed her and acted as a levee, holding back the floods of nausea so she could at least eat a few swallows of food.
They both knew time wasn’t in great supply, but for a while—as long as they could—they had their little suppers together on the warm summer evenings and pretended things weren’t about to change forever.
Finn asked, “Tomato or chicken noodle?”
“Surprise me.” Lyddie took another drag. “Amaze me.”
Finn headed inside.
First things first, he opened some windows. No amount of air freshener could disguise the fact that a terminally ill person lived there. Add in the smells of dye and leather that emanated from the basement where he kept his workshop, and the house became insufferable.
Fresh air was always in order.
Maybe he was simply sensitive to smells. The salon had its odors of perm solution, hair color, a thousand different treatments, shampoos, and conditioners. His job at Costco smelled like Big Box Store: cardboard and disinfectant floor cleaner and the dozens of different foods they auditioned for customers daily. Hospitals, clinics, doctor’s offices exuded the aroma of antiseptic and bleach. Rain started out cleansing and sweet but ended in mold.
Finn carried every aroma with him, in his clothes, in his hair. All the odors of every place he’d ever been seemed to wrap around him, clinging and thick like dew. It was no wonder he never felt clean.
Lyddie said he led with his nose, and it was true. He did tend to gravitate toward anything that smelled good to him. Wild things were best, even if the world didn’t consider them pleasant scents: fine leather, cut grass, livestock, fire, and the bleached-out after-smell of lightning.
And Dare. He’d smelled . . . wonderful. Familiar and at the same time better than ever. Like strong man and latex paint and hope.
Finn thought he’d gotten over hope long ago, yet here Dare Buckley came, and with him, hope came sniffing around Finn’s ankles like a pesky dog.
In the kitchen, Finn emptied the contents of two cans of tomato soup into a microwavable plastic pot. While he nuked that, he quickly made two grilled cheese sandwiches. The fragrance of browned butter and melting cheese was magnificent. It cancelled out a lot of other odors, every time. Once the soup was hot, he poured it into two big mugs. He cut the sandwiches in quarters and stacked them on a plate.
When Finn returned with his tray of food, Lyddie was loose-limbed and giggling, but she was no longer sitting alone. Dare stood up when Finn stepped out on the porch, causing the big old swing to jerk backward with a creak and a waggle.
Lyddie gave a surprised shriek. “Whee! That was fun.”
Dare smiled. “Hello, Finn.”
“Hello, Dare.” Finn looked at the plate in his hand rather than Dare’s face, which he could see with his eyes closed anyway. “Would you like some soup or a sandwich?”
“I’ve eaten. I came by to say hello, finally. To see how you’re doing.”
“I was just telling Aunt Lyddie that you’ve come back to town.”
Lyddie nodded. “Kate told me Dare bought Penny Larson’s old place and is fixing it up. What do you think of that? That place was a cesspit while she owned it.”
Dare flashed a smile full of wide, white teeth. “I don’t remember it being a cesspit when I bought it. It still needs plenty of work, though.”
“Sorry.” Finn gave Dare the tray and hurried to take away Lyddie’s cigarette. He stubbed it out on a crystal ashtray and put it under the swing, out of sight.
“Cheese it, the fuzz.” Lyddie slapped her hand over her mouth and snorted through her nose. “Shit. It was more fun when this was illegal.”
Dare laughed with her.
“Just have a bite to eat now.” Finn sat and thanked Dare when he handed over the tray. Lyddie picked up one of the sandwich quarters and took a ladylike bite. When Finn handed her some soup, she didn’t hesitate to dunk the crusts.
“That looks good.” Dare leaned back against the porch rails and watched them eat for a minute. “Place looks good too. Fresh paint?”
“Yeah.” Finn could participate in the awkward, head-bobbing ritual of manly small talk. “I wire-brushed the hell out of the trim and gave it a new coat last spring when we had some dry weather.”
Dare nodded. “Yeah?”
Finn held the plate out and Lyddie took another sandwich quarter.
“Do we have any potato chips?”
“No, Aunt Lyddie. I’m sorry. I’ll get some at work tomorrow.”
“Too bad. I could eat a whole bag. And Hostess CupCakes. Man. Why don’t we ever get Hostess CupCakes anymore?”
“Hostess went out of business, someone else is making them, now.”
“God, times change, don’t they? Used to be impossible to get grass. Now I can get all the weed I want, and I can’t get Hostess CupCakes.” She let her head drop back onto the swing. “The world has gone mad.”
Finn shrugged at Dare, who grinned back. He could feel Dare studying him. Assessing. Detecting. Dare was probably noting every detail of their lives and making assumptions he had no right to make.
Finn overreacted. “Was there something you needed? Or did you just come to stare?”
“Finn.” Lyddie looked at him sharply.
Dare straightened away from the porch rail. “Can I talk to you in private for a few minutes?”
“If it’s okay with Aunt Lyddie.” Dare glanced at Lyddie, who nodded.
“Fine with me. You could take a walk.” Lyddie made a shooing motion, picking up her mug. “Go on. I’ll be okay here for a while.”
“I’ll be back in a few minutes, all right? Don’t gobble up my sandwich.” It was a silly thing to say and they both knew it. Even with the munchies, Lyddie wouldn’t be able to manage more than a half sandwich and some sips of soup.
“Just see that you don’t take forever or all bets are off, mister.” Lyddie mimed eating. “Gobble, gobble.”
Dare clasped his hands behind his back and led Finn down the porch steps. Once they were on the street, he headed for nearby Mill Park with Finn ambling along at his side. He noticed Finn had a slightly odd, off-tempo stride. It could have been a limp, but Finn hadn’t had it as a kid. It was more likely the result of muscle pain or a sprain from work.
Dare debated asking about it, but didn’t want to sound like he was dissecting Finn, like he was scrutinizing every move Finn made, measuring each detail against the boy Finn had been—even if that was exactly what he was doing.
Once upon a time, Dare had made friends easily and held them lightly, considered them disposable. Then he’d had to watch them flee as soon as trouble found him.
As soon as he’d gotten himself into trouble.
Since then, he’d grown more discerning and less likely to undervalue people he considered real friends. But where to put Finn . . .
Finn had never been his friend, exactly. He hadn’t been old enough to be anyone’s true friend. He’d been more like a kid brother or a pet or . . .
Finn had just been there, his big, odd eyes filled with acceptance.
Now Dare had few friends left, and Finn’s strange eyes—and what those eyes had once seen in Dare that’d made them companions if not friends—called to him.
It felt good to walk along the quiet street with Finn again. It felt familiar and comfortable.
The park adjacent to Lyddie’s place would be nearly empty this time of the evening. A half a block further, the open green belt came into view. Dare took the path leading to the bridge spanning the Palladian—a sluggish, muddy wash. Vegetation clogged the banks where tall grass grew beneath clouds of mosquitoes and unpleasant smells.
“I guess I wanted to come by and say a formal hello,” Dare said at last. “I didn’t expect this to be so awkward. I want to apologize. I should have kept in touch. I should have—”
“Ancient history,” Finn stopped him. “Already forgotten.”
Dare peered at Finn and willed his words to be true, but he wasn’t sure he believed. “I’m shocked by Lyddie. I didn’t imagine she’d be . . . like that.”
“Old?” Finn supplied. “Or sick?”
“So frail. Some people seem like they’re tougher than anything. You never believe you’ll see them like that.”
Finn picked up a pop can that someone had abandoned and tossed it into a nearby trash container. “It didn’t come on all at once.”
“What is it?” Dare watched a huge grasshopper leap onto Finn’s foot. Finn leaned down to study it, unperturbed. He waited until it hopped away on its own.
“Cancer. It spread like wildfire before we even knew it was there. She doesn’t have much time.” Finn glanced back the way they came. “She’s in an awful lot of pain.”
Dare hid his smile. “Not right now she’s not. Did you see her giggling? I’ve busted high school girls who could keep their shit together better than your aunt.”
“Look, her doctor gave her a card. You’re not going to give us trouble about it—”
“It’s only a misdemeanor anyway, or didn’t you know?”
“Oh, I know. But she doesn’t go through—” he made air quotes “—channels necessarily. Bill Fraser keeps trying to get me to tell him who supplies us.”
One side of Dare’s mouth lifted wryly. “Officer Fraser can spot a real troublemaker like your aunt a mile off.”
“Lyddie’s old school. She just wants a little homegrown every now and again. Not that strong commercial shit. I’m pretty sure Captain Borkowski couldn’t care less. He used to be a friend of—” Finn closed his mouth.
Dare nodded anyway. The captain had been a friend of Finn’s notorious mother. That was probably best left unsaid. “Bill Fraser is a prick, and I’d be happy to knock some sense into him if it still needs doing.”
“Same old Dare.” Finn’s face held an emotion Dare couldn’t decipher. “Bill and I have known each other a long time. He only likes to hate on me for show.”
Dare stopped when he reached the foot of the bridge. Instead of walking across, he headed down the slope and onto the low, marshy bank. He picked his way carefully around the clumps of knee-high grass and, like always, Finn followed. “So Fraser still has a bug up his ass about you?”
Finn stepped around muddy pools and dense clumps of vegetation. “Maybe.”
“If he’s harassing you, you should make a complaint.”
“He’s not harassing me. Watch your step there, or you’ll get your nice clothes all dirty.”
“I think I know where I can walk and where I—” Dare stepped in the wrong place and slid. He caught himself before going down, but not before his shiny lace-up oxford shoes and the bottom of both pants legs were covered in mud. “Shit.”
Finn didn’t laugh at him, but Dare could tell he wanted to. “Why are we standing in a swarm of biting insects, getting mud all over ourselves?”
“We used to come down here all the time.” Dare had counted on an uncomfortable reunion, and Mill Park had seemed like a good place to start over. Their friendship had rusted, like parts in the engine of a car that hadn’t been started in years. They had to turn the key a few times to make it buck and cough to life. They had to grind through the corrosion that had settled between them so they could move forward. “We used to catch frogs here, remember?”
“I can honestly say that right now, I don’t need a frog.” Finn’s amused gaze rose to meet Dare’s. “Why’d you come back here, Dare?”
Dare looked away, downstream.
“I fucked up,” he admitted. He’d started this conversation in his head so many times he should have it memorized. “Career-killing, massively fucked up. I was lucky to get a second chance here, and I’ll be paying for it too. Everyone hates the guy who doesn’t come up through the ranks from the inside.”
“I shouldn’t have waited to come see you, Finn. I should have come as soon as—”
“We’re friends, though. Right?” He peered at Finn, trying to read those unreadable eyes. “Still friends?”
“Sure we’re friends.”
Dare studied Finn’s expression. Maybe Finn was remembering letters Dare never answered or calls he’d never returned. Maybe he was thinking he could do better than be friends with a guy who’d come back to town not because he’d wanted to, but because he had nowhere else to go. One thing Dare knew: if Finn said they were still friends, he meant it. Finn never lied.
“In that case, let’s get the hell out of this swamp. Did we really spend our time down here?”
“Yes, we did.” Finn stepped lightly back to the path, and Dare followed. “As I recall, you were going to build a raft and float someplace you could join the Navy.”
“I wanted to get away like nothing ever,” Dare recalled. “But looking back, living here wasn’t that bad. Not then, anyway.”
“We all thought this was the dumbest little hick town in the world.”
“That’s why I’m surprised to find you’re still here. How come you never left?”
“I left for a while.”
“I got my degree. I was going to go for my teaching credential, but Lyddie got sick. I’m here as long as she needs me. It’s home, anyway.”
“Of course.” God, I’m an idiot. Of course Finn couldn’t leave while Lyddie was sick. “What do you do these days?”
“I work at the Costco and manage Lyddie’s salon.” Finn stopped and turned to face him. Dare was surprised to find Finn’s expression wasn’t as impassive as he’d thought. Pride and something else—something wild and hot—flared and then suffocated, leaving him to wonder if he’d imagined it. “I take care of Lyddie.”
“But who takes care of you?”
Finn stiffened. Frowned. “I take care of myself.”
“Sorry.” Dare wiped his hands on his thighs. Old habits. “I don’t know why I said that. Of course you can take care of yourself.”
“I—” Finn paused. “It’s been a tough day.”
“I’m sorry about Candy.”
“Just my luck it happened at Lyddie’s.”
“It has to be hard. You knew her better than I did.”
“We weren’t friends, but I’m sorry she went out that way.”
They backtracked until they came to the foot of the bridge again. This time, Dare started across the battered wooden planks but stopped in the middle so he could watch the water rippling below. Finn dropped a leaf off one side, then turned to the other to watch it float lazily downstream.
Dare threw a second leaf in after it. “We never did find Candy’s cup.”
“I went through every bit of trash from the salon. Half that shit was so toxic I could have used a gas mask. We never did find a cup with lipstick that matched your description of hers.”
“Is that a problem?”
“Not by itself, no. She might have wiped it off, changed colors, gotten the kind that doesn’t transfer.”
“Or someone took it by mistake.”
“Yeah. That’s probably it.” Dare leaned over the railing. His reflection rippled on the surface of the murky water, but he couldn’t see the riverbed beneath.
“But it’s going to bother you, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Dare admitted. “Little things keep me awake at night.”
“You should try big things for a change,” Finn said quietly. “You should try brutal things.”
Dare was sitting in his truck at one of the few stoplights in town, waiting for a bunch of kids to cross the street, when he saw Finn jog by. It was early morning, and the sky was still dark. A light rain spattered the street intermittently. Finn’s wet hair clung to his head as his feet cast droplets of water with each thud on the slick gray pavement.
Dare found a place to park and followed Finn into Peg’s Bakery. He noticed Finn’s odd, almost slightly strained, gait again.
There it is. Finn has a limp.
Was that permanent, then? Dare wished he knew. Once inside the bakery, a blast of nostalgia nearly knocked him over. Peg’s had changed little in the years since he’d been gone. White tile still covered the floor and the walls still featured a bright-yellow paint and striped blue-and-white wallpaper. The coffee drinks were fancier these days, but the cases still held trays of brilliantly colored cupcakes, pastries, and breads. Little fruit tarts gleamed like multicolored gems.
Peg’s smelled delicious, like dark roasted coffee, vanilla, and almonds.
Dare recognized some of the patrons, as well, although they didn’t seem to recognize him. If they did, they weren’t showing it. He watched a few of them eye Finn, snubbing him in a vaguely familiar way.
Finn turned with his coffee in hand, carrying a small white parchment bag. He stopped when he saw Dare. At one time, Finn might have greeted him with a happy smile. Now all he saw on Finn’s sharp face was wariness.
“I saw you jogging.”
Finn nodded. “I jog most days unless the weather’s really foul.”
“But you limp. When did you—”
“I hurt my leg in high school.” Finn glanced at the leg in question. “It doesn’t slow me down.”
“You broke it?”
“Does it bother you?”
Finn flushed. “Does it bother you?”
“I didn’t mean it that way, Finn.”
Finn shrugged. “Sometimes when it’s cold or I’m tired, I feel it. Otherwise, it is what it is.”
“I noticed it the other day, but I thought maybe it was the uneven ground.”
“It’s nothing.” Finn made to leave.
“Wait a minute.” He caught Finn’s arm. “It’s my day off.”
“I’d guessed.” Finn’s gaze went to Dare’s clothes.
Dare looked down, trying to see himself as Finn might see him. Jeans and a Huskies jacket over a rock-band T-shirt. Work boots. His typical day-off clothes. He rubbed his hand over Billie Joe Armstrong’s face and stood there, trying to think of something to say. “I’m painting today.”
“I got a call from the M.E.’s office. They’re doing the autopsy on Candace Shepherd this morning.”
Just then, a short, stout woman wearing jeans and a plaid flannel shirt brushed past them without bothering to say excuse me.
“Hey.” Dare failed to pull Finn out of the way of her meaty shoulder in time. “Watch it.”
Drops of coffee spilled off Finn’s hand. “Morning, Mrs. Pelham.”
Marjorie Pelham didn’t respond. As she stalked off, Dare glanced between them. “What the hell is her problem?”
“It’s possible my mother used to frequent her husband’s garage after hours. Rumor has it Mom never paid for repairs on that beater she used to drive.”
“That was ages ago.”
“People have long memories in this town.” Finn brushed a damp strand of hair off his forehead. “They hold grudges, or they develop new things to hate you for. Take your pick.”
“I guess people don’t think too much of me around here either.”
“Why would you say that?”
Dare toed a spot of coffee on the floor. “Gossip travels fast.”
Finn gave a shake of his head. “I think you’ll find most people will be happy to see you.”
“I don’t care what people think. Except . . .” Dare spoke for Finn’s ears only. “Were you happy to see me?”
“Yes, I was.” Finn’s Adam’s apple bobbed. “But I’d rather you’d have come around for something other than a dead body in my aunt Lyddie’s hair shop.”
“As reunions go, that wouldn’t have been my first choice.” On impulse he asked, “How about we get a beer and catch up? I’m free Friday night.”
Finn took a step back. “I don’t think so. It’s been pretty busy lately, and Lyddie—”
“You could tell me the best places to eat and who drinks where. I need to know who has the lowest gasoline prices and where to go for car trouble. Not Pelham’s.”
Finn glanced around. “I guess—”
“And you need to fill me in on all the local gossip so I don’t step in shit with anyone important.”
“Please?” Dare wasn’t about to give Finn a chance to decline. “You’d be helping me out. I’m not considered one of the guys on the force here yet, you know? It’s been kind of a cold reception. I need you, Finn.”
“All right.” Finn pursed his lips unhappily, but Dare knew he’d won. “If Lyddie’s friend Kate is free to come over and keep her company, I can go out for a while.”
“I have to close up the shop and then clean for a few minutes, and after that I’ll need to change. Is nine thirty too late?”
“It should be fine. Should I meet you at your place?”
“Yeah. Okay. I’ll see you at nine thirty.”
“All right then, we can eat and after, go get a beer at the Barn.”
“The Barn’s still the local cop bar. All the off-duty cops and firefighters hang out there.”
“I’m a cop.”
“I’ll see you Friday.” Dare opened the door for Finn and watched him take off toward Church Street at a brisk walk.
Although nothing would make up for the fact that as a teenager, Dare had been disinclined to spend time writing to a much younger friend, maybe a drink or two would thaw things out between them. Maybe he’d stopped answering those carefully written, childish notes because they’d been filled with Finn’s particular brand of hero worship, or possibly some weird kind of kid crush, to which Dare had felt incapable of responding in kind.
Eventually Finn’s letters had stopped coming altogether. At the time, Dare had been relieved.
Later, he’d imagined Finn Fowler free of Palladian—far enough away that his past, or more precisely his mother’s brief and troubled life, wouldn’t follow him like a toxic cloud. But because of Lyddie, Finn had stayed right here. The toll Palladian could take on someone like Finn—or at least, the toll exacted by those few ass-backward, dirty-minded people still holding Finn accountable for his mother’s sins—must be huge.
He’d abandoned Finn, but he remembered the way Finn used to look up to him. There had been no injury he couldn’t make better, no bully he couldn’t drive away, no monster he couldn’t vanquish.
At the time, Finn’s hero worship had been both complimentary and wildly uncomfortable. There were even times he’d believed the hype, if only because Finn did. But even worse was that now, now when he didn’t feel young and invincible anymore, he wished he could have that feeling back.
On Friday, after the stylists had gone home, Finn hurled the last of the evening’s trash into the dumpster and prepared to lock up for the night. Given Saturday’s normal early start, it always paid to get things clean and make sure there were enough supplies and towels on hand for the busiest day of the week.
Since Candy’s death, a makeshift memorial had appeared next to the front door. Devotional candles burned beside the cards, flowers, and teddy bears that littered the walkway. Finn had let them gather, even added flowers of his own. His heart felt heavier every time he saw it. Every time he had to ask himself if he could have maybe done something different and changed the outcome of that awful day.
He’d just turned the key in the lock when a car door opened and closed behind him. He heard light footfalls in the parking lot and turned to find the sturdy, comfortable figure of Charlotte Boyer standing behind him, gazing at her daughter’s car, still parked where she’d left it the day she’d died.
“Mrs. Boyer,” Finn said with some surprise.
“Candy’s car is still here?”
“It’s leased to her husband. I guess his kids will pick it up when they come down. That’s what I heard, anyway. They’re supposed to be here tomorrow because they couldn’t get away during the week. I’m very sorry for your loss.”
“I waited until you were closing up because I wanted to talk to you alone.” She pushed both hands through her short white hair, then wiped them on her jeans. As she glanced over the tribute to her daughter, she seemed slightly dazed. “This is nice. Do you think I could ask you some questions?”
“Sure. Let me get the door.” Finn reopened the door he’d just locked and ushered her inside.
“I’m sorry. I should have called first.”
“No, it’s fine.” He didn’t have to switch on the lights because the late-setting midsummer sun illuminated the reception desk and the waiting area chairs. “I just finished cleaning up for the night. Can I get you something? I could make coffee.”
“No. I won’t be here that long. I—I keep thinking of how Candy died here. I guess I just felt like I had to see.”‘
Finn invited her to sit.
She nodded. “I talked to Jack over at the high-rise. I’m not sure he even knows what’s going on. The nurse tells me his daughters are trying to have him moved to a place in Portland. They’re selling the house. They gave me a week to clear out Candy’s things.”
“I’m sorry,” Finn repeated.
“They act like it’s a godsend. They’re so relieved.”
“It must be a terrible shock for you, though.”
“You never expect to outlive your kids.” She gripped her purse tighter, wrenching the leather between her hands.
“No. I don’t suppose you do.”
“Candy wasn’t a bad person. She was silly. She was pretty, and she liked fine things.”
Finn tried a sympathetic nod. It was always difficult for him when people shared deeply personal information. Someone once called him a walking confessional. People liked to unburden themselves to him. Maybe because of his size or his odd coloring. Maybe because he didn’t have anyone to tell, so he seemed safe.
They never stopped to think how awkward it was for him.
They never wondered what he did with all that information, with all the tragedy and the lurid secrets that built up inside him.
Mrs. Boyer’s embroidered fall sweater had little rhinestones on it that sparkled when she moved. The leather of her Birkenstock sandals was coming away from the cork near her big toe, and like most of the women in town—like Lyddie—she wore them with thick winter socks. “. . . so then he laughed at me and said he hadn’t married Candy because he wanted a family.”
“Wait,” Finn stopped her, confused. “Who said that?”
“Jack. When I told him I thought he and Candy made a nice couple, and they should try to start a family together. I know he thought I was meddling. I guess he just wanted a woman all his friends would envy.”
“I see. That was probably—”
“So she made that her job, see?” For whatever reason, Mrs. Boyer really wanted him to know Candy’s life story. God, he wanted her to leave. But as soon as he thought it, he regretted the selfish impulse. The woman’s daughter had died, for God’s sake, and all she needed was a little closure.
On the other hand, he actually had something to do for the first time in forever.
“Her life became all about expensive clothes, Botox injections. Living the good life. She said they had a bargain and Jack didn’t dare break it.”
“Or what?” Finn asked.
“You said they had some kind of bargain?”
“I don’t know what it was, exactly.”
Finn didn’t like to speak ill of the dead, but Candy hadn’t exactly been the trophy she once was. In fact, her looks had faded years ago in the face of hard drinking. By the time she’d died, she’d become a cartoon of herself. “How long were they together?”
“Eleven years. They were still married when she died.”
Finn didn’t know what he was expected to say. “That seems like a lasting marriage.”
“I heard Dare Buckley thinks Candy was murdered.”
“Wait. What?” Finn drew back. “Where did you hear that?”
“Shelley Cantrell said he took all the trash to the police laboratory for tests? But of course that’s crazy. Who would want my daughter dead?”
Finn only nodded. Dare had only been going through the motions to appear thorough, and now the salon would have to deal with gawkers and armchair mystery buffs.
Mrs. Boyer stood abruptly and headed back toward the dryers. Finn followed to turn on the light, because the shadows thrown by the wood partition stretched back to that area of the shop. She was silent for a long time while she looked at the sad row of dryer chairs.
“I can’t tell you how sorry I am for your loss.” Finn put his arm around her until she seemed ready to leave, and then he walked her out.
“Thank you. You’re a good boy, Finn.”
Finn closed the door behind them and watched her drive away.
Through the peephole, Finn saw Dare smooth his hair and straighten his tie as if he was a little nervous. A smile twitched onto Finn’s lips. He smothered it by taking a deep breath as he opened the door.
Dare jammed his hands into his pockets and rocked back and forth on his heels. “Hi.”
His lopsided grin was as familiar as Lyddie’s worn porch.
“Hi.” Finn glanced back down the hallway toward the living room, where Lyddie sat with her good friend Kate. He had no doubt they’d spark up a joint and cry through a Lifetime movie or two. Kate would watch over Lyddie and make sure she got to bed okay. Feed her if she’d eat.
If Lyddie needed anything else, Kate would call to let him know.
“Have a good time, honey,” Kate called after them. “Drive safely.”
Freedom brought an unfamiliar lightness to Finn’s heart as he retrieved his leather jacket from a hook by the door. “Night, Lyddie, I’ll see you later. Goodnight, Kate.”
Lyddie sang out, “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” before Finn closed the door with a decisive snap.
He pulled his worn jacket on over his simple, pale-blue cotton T-shirt and jeans. His work boots made him just tall enough to stare directly at the tiny scar on Dare’s upper lip. He’d been there the day Dare got that scar playing soccer. He’d ridden along when Dare’s dad took him to get stitches.
They stepped down the porch stairs together, and Finn sighed into the darkness. Stars winked in an indigo-blue, endless sky. The bright midsummer moon—a fat, pockmarked lantern—hung overhead, nearly full.
“It’s a beautiful night.” Dare stood with his head tilted back, looking up.
“It is.” Finn stretched his arms high and worked the kinks from his neck. “I feel light as air. That sounds awful, doesn’t it?”
“Why should that sound awful?”
“I’ve been working a lot of hours. Not to mention . . . Well. You know. Lyddie’s sick. I’m under a shitload of pressure right now and shaking it off like this makes me feel almost giddy.”
“Everyone deserves to let off a little steam.”
“But at the same time, this feels so wrong. Like . . . I should be working or studying or spending time with my aunt because there’s not much left.”
Dare didn’t look his way when he asked, “Have you changed your mind about going?”
“It’s okay to take a little time out for yourself. To eat or get a beer with a friend.” Dare glanced back at the house. “You aren’t leaving Lyddie by herself.”
“She likes it when I go out. I just don’t. Very much. It’s a nice night. Do you want to walk?”
They strolled in silence for a while, at least until they got to the strip mall where Lyddie’s shop was located. The candles still burning at the makeshift memorial reminded him of his visitor. “Charlotte Boyer came by the shop while I was closing up tonight.”
Dare studied the many offerings left by people mourning Candy’s death. “She did? How was that?”
Finn shrugged. “She’s looking for explanations. Apparently your attention to detail at the crime scene has led people to believe you suspect something sinister.”
“Really? But I don’t. Not really.”
“The sooner you can let her know there’s not going to be a full investigation, the better.”
“All right.” Dare leaned over to read a note attached to a white teddy bear. “I will.”
“All I could think about while we talked was this. Going out. Pretty selfish, huh?”
“That’s probably a very natural emotion under the circumstances.” Dare touched Finn’s arm. They started down the tree-lined street again. “I’m sure it’s hard being someone’s caregiver.”
Finn’s footsteps slowed. “It’s not that I don’t love Lyddie—”
“Of course it’s not. No one would ever think that.” Dare put his hands in his jacket pockets and continued on.
Finn followed. “It’s just the idea of getting out. The idea of putting all my responsibilities down for a bit and eating in a restaurant instead of microwaving a can of chili makes me want to skip down the street.”
“I’m glad I asked you, then. I did wonder if you’d be too busy. Maybe you have a”—Dare avoided his gaze—“special person.”
Finn choked on a laugh. “Sure I do. In my rich and vibrant imagination. I barely have a social life, Dare. I don’t have time for one. What’s it been like for you? Being back in Palladian?”
“It feels like . . . I don’t know. Failure.”
Dare’s words took a huge bite out of Finn’s good mood. “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t know why I even considered coming here. I mean, I do. They hired me. But I could have looked harder. Gone back east or—”
“Folks around here remember your family. I’m sure they’re glad to have you here. It should feel like coming home.”
“I mean it, Dare. People were sorry your mother didn’t stay after—after your dad died. Everyone wanted to help.”
“Sure they did. They were still curious.” Dare kicked a fallen seedpod into the gutter. “They wanted the answer to the burning question, Why?”
Finn’s heart lurched. “I’m sure you’re mistaken.”
“Am I? Tell me the gossips in this town haven’t been speculating about my old man for years.” Dare’s gaze dissected Finn. “You can’t, can you? Because you know—and now I know—everyone’s looking for the real reason my father killed himself.”
Dare immediately regretted mentioning his father’s suicide. “I shouldn’t have brought that up. I’m sorry.”
“There’s nothing to apologize for.” Finn’s Adam’s apple bobbed. “It happened. It’s always going to be there between us like . . . I don’t know what. A monster under the bed.”
Dare nodded. Clasped his hands behind his back. “Whenever I meet someone who knew us back then I can’t help but think—”
“I know.” A passing car illuminated them. Finn looked tired.
“I didn’t want to come back here. Every time I drive by my old house, I think about my folks. I remember my mom coming through the door with groceries. I see my dad in the kitchen, drinking a beer. I see that last day—” Too late, Dare pictured Finn’s face when the two of them found his father’s body sprawled in his big leather office chair with half his head blown off.
“Since I’m back here anyway, I figure I’ll be able to look into the investigation. It might even be possible to figure out what happened.”
Finn slowed. “What do you mean?”
“To my dad.” Dare thought that would be obvious. “There has to be a reason he did what he did. It’s buried somewhere in his old papers. In city records or—”
“What difference does it make now?”
“What difference?” Irritation made his words sharp. “I was fourteen when my father died, so my life is divided in half. It’s as if I have two fathers, two families, two entirely different childhoods. I have two pasts, the one I experienced and the one that was I was apparently oblivious to. I don’t know how to describe it. My life is two halves of a puzzle I can’t fit together.”
In the face of his anger, Finn’s face grew pale. “What if you can’t get answers?”
“I have to. It’s not just any mystery. It ruined my family. It ruined everything. If I can’t make sense of the pieces, I’ll never be whole.”
Finn nodded. “I see.”
“Do you remember anything? When you look back, can you think of anything that might have set my dad off?”
“I was nine, Dare. It was an awful time. I don’t like to think about it, since there’s nothing I can do to change what happened.”
Dare studied Finn’s anguished face. It had been an awful time. Ivy Fowler had drowned, and they were just recovering from the shock of that. Then his dad . . . was gone. The funeral had been stultifying, and afterward, he’d had to tell Finn he was moving. He’d chosen to tell him in the most brusque, matter-of-fact way he could find, like tearing off a scab.
Finn had gazed back at him, as blank as he’d been the day they’d met, and Dare had felt like he’d buried Finn that day too. He’d left Finn to drown in the contempt the good folks of Palladian had always heaped on him, so he had no right now to whine about the tepid reception he was getting. And if he had to work to get back into Finn’s good graces, he had only himself to blame.
“Those days feel like a blur, sometimes.” Dare pushed his hands deeper into his pockets and continued walking. They turned on Church Street, where they passed First United Methodist and another, smaller nondenominational chapel with a sign that read, God, help me be the person my dog thinks I am. “No one ever really came up with anything useful, then? Not even the gossips?”
Finn was silent so long, Dare thought he hadn’t heard. He glanced over and saw lines of pain and tension around Finn’s mouth. Finally, Finn said again, “What difference could it make now?”
A cat darted over the uneven sidewalk. Dare leaped back to avoid it. God, he was jumping at shadows. “I’m making a mess of our evening. I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right.” Finn clasped his hands behind his back. “It’s only natural for you to think about—”
“No, it’s not all right. Here you were talking about feeling lighter. You don’t need my garbage weighing you down.”
Finn looked back the way they’d come. “Maybe we ought to forget tonight. Chalk it up to the passage of time, and—”
“We’re going out. We’re getting a drink and some hot wings or something. You could use a few pounds.” Dare looped an arm around Finn’s neck and pulled him in for a rough hug.
“All right. But—”
“But nothing. We’ll put some meat on your bones and then get piss drunk. That’s as good a plan for a Friday night as I’ve had in months.” Dare crossed the street to size up a Chinese restaurant he’d seen but hadn’t tried yet. It looked okay. It had splashy color pictures of food in the window alongside a smiling Buddha face on a Yes, we’re open sign. “Is this place good?”
Finn nodded. “I like it.”
Dare opened the heavy red wooden door and ushered Finn in. While they waited to be seated, Dare nudged him. “We should talk about something else. What do you do for fun?”
Finn grimaced. “If you’re depending on me for fun, this is going to be the shortest evening out in history.”
“You have friends from school, don’t you? Don’t college kids still do Jell-O shots or get high and hang out by the river anymore?” Dare acknowledged the hostess when she came. He held up two fingers, and she seated them at a small, candlelit table by the window.
“I think you’ll find,” Finn replied coolly while he seated himself, “that I haven’t had much time for the things that ordinary kids do.”
“I’m sorry. I know you’re not—” Dare took a menu from their hostess. “It’s hard not to think of you as a kid.”
“It’s hard to imagine you as—a what? A homicide detective?”
“This is going to take some getting used to for both of us. Maybe some old friendships are better left in the past.”
“Nah. Not ours. Maybe we should start over?” Dare held out his hand. “Dare Buckley. Pleased to meet you.”
Finn took Dare’s hand and shook it. “I’m very pleased meet you, Officer Dare. Wait . . . I just realized how that sounds. Do you ever get teased for being Officer Dare?”
“Not really. I never worked the D.A.R.E. school program when I was in uniform, and of course now I’m officially Detective Buckley.”
“Detective Buckley. Very professional.”
Dare probably held on to Finn’s hand too long. It felt friendly and natural to touch Finn, just as it always had. But the eyes that looked back at him—that startling two-tone gaze—assessed him in a whole new way. Enigmatic. Challenging. When Dare let go, his fingers were tingling.
Dare rubbed his hand on his trousers, and Finn saw him do it. Finn’s frown caused Dare to ask, “What?”
Finn’s eyebrows lifted. “What, what?”
“Why are you looking at me like that?”
“I guess—” Finn tapped his fingers on the informative Asian horoscope placemat. “I guess I’m wondering what we’re doing here.”
“What we’re doing here?” Dare echoed blankly.
“Yeah. I’m waiting for a cue from you. Something that will let me know how I’m supposed to behave tonight.”
“How you’re supposed to behave?” With each passing second, Dare became more confused. Finn’s expression went from curious to amused to downright knowing.
Then suddenly the penny dropped. Was Finn asking him if . . .?
Were they on a date?
A furious blush burned Dare’s cheeks.
Christ. They were on a date . . .
Dare hadn’t given Finn’s sexuality a thought when he’d asked him out.
Why hadn’t he?
Because whatever Finn was, Finn was his.
“Are you gay, Finn? Did you think—”
“I’m entirely, unrepentantly gay.” A faint pink rode his cheekbones. “And yes, I’m wondering if we’re on a date.”
Dare found men sexually attractive, and he’d been bold enough to act on it—in school, in sports, and even when he’d become a patrol officer. Always on the sly, always with that what happens in the locker room, stays in the locker room mentality of closeted horndogs and guys who had no balls. He’d had plenty of women too, but he didn’t mind anyone knowing about that. In fact, he might have played that up a little, just for show with the men at work.
Work had been bad enough without anyone getting wise to his AC/DC dick.
He liked sex. All kinds of sex. But he sought men out when he needed sex and only sex. Good sex. Rough sex.
But . . . sex with Finn?
Oh. Hell no.
With men, he wanted a ruthless exchange of spit and sinew and bodily fluids. He wanted things rash and unpredictable. Dangerous and exciting. Whatever Finn was, he was not that. Finn was younger. He needed someone to look out for him. Not some guy who—
Dare glanced at Finn.
Finn wasn’t helping at all. Gone was the waif who needed Dare’s protection and in his place . . .? Dare didn’t know what. Someone smart. Someone self-possessed and utterly alien. Someone alarming and unarguably attractive.
When the fuck had that happened?
Suddenly, Dare wanted to kill Finn and any man who’d had him.
“Do you need more time?” Their waitress interrupted his thoughts, bringing a welcome distraction along with a couple of glasses of water.
“Yes, Dare. Do you need more time?” Finn teased before Dare could say anything.
Dare hadn’t even opened his menu. “Two minutes,” he told her.
Finn fiddled with his napkin and waited until she left. “The mu-shu pork here is good.”
“I really didn’t think this through very well.”
Or at all.
Finn put down his menu. “If my being gay makes it awkward for you to have dinner with me, you can retreat from the field graciously, and I’ll—”
“Stop.” Maybe they needed to keep things light? “I think I finally caught up, is all. Let me get a grip on the fact that whatever I intended, it’s been my good fortune to land a great-looking date for the night.”
That sounded sophisticated, didn’t it? In Seattle, people farted rainbows, for fuck’s sake. He didn’t glance over at Finn to see how his “date” comment landed. Instead, he let his gaze roam over the à la carte items, paying particular attention to the ones with the chili peppers next to them.
“I’m going to need to wrap my mind around what an awkward damn idiot I’ve become. Maybe one of those big Polynesian drinks will help.”
“You need a drink to take me to dinner?” Finn asked that with some asperity.
“I just need a drink. This is Palladian. What else is there to do?” Dare gave in to a weak grin. Tension hung in the air, reverberating between them while they adjusted to expectation and reality.
“My being gay doesn’t change things for you?” Finn asked.
Dare shook his head. This, he knew. “It doesn’t change how I feel about you.”
Finn stilled for a minute and then . . . he smiled warmly. Ah God, Finn’s face was—
Maybe it did change things, damn it.
They sat in silence for a while. Eventually, Finn spoke again. “What did you do to get sent back to Palladian in disgrace anyway?”
Dare didn’t have to answer because their waitress came to the table. Dare held up the menu and pointed to one of their lethal blue fishbowl drinks. “One of these, please. What are you having?”
“Vodka rocks, please. Grey Goose if you have it.”
The waitress smiled and left to get their drinks. Dare snorted. “Look at you, all vodka rocks . . . Why aren’t you in kindergarten anymore so I know how to deal with you?”
“We all have to grow up sometime.” Finn picked up his menu. “You like spicy or safe?”
“Spicy, definitely.” At that, Finn lifted one eyebrow. Dare played with his napkin and silver setup. “You order. Just get what you like, and I’ll try it.”
“Anything you hate?”
I hate the way my heart slams into my ribs when you look at me.
I hate the way my pulse thrums in my ears when your lips quirk into that half smile.
Dare shook his head to clear it. “I hate those little game birds that look like headless pigeons.”
Finn’s laughter did something to Dare’s spine, playing it like a xylophone, sending an odd, thrilling tingle of awareness straight to his dick. “I think you’re safe from those here.”
Good to know I’m safe from something, anyway.
This was an absolute gem! Way more than a romance story!! ...so tightly written that the mystery kept me guessing until the very end...twists and turns galore...
I really fell in love with this town and some of the supporting characters...this was a great story of love, loyalty and forgiveness.
It's surprising and entertaining and complex. I loved it!
...ZA Maxfield does it again. ...From the first page to the last, I was captivated by this story. ...Just when the author has you wondering what’s going to happen next, another layer is peeled back and the answer is revealed. The mystery element to this story was genius. ...I highly recommend Home the Hard Way to those who love a good mystery with a nontraditional love story and a little BDSM on the side.
I found Home the Hard Way to be an excellent story . . . It is a tale of roads diverging and reconnecting, but never in the way anyone expects they will . . . Sometimes suspenseful and dark, sometimes sweet . . . a fantastic story, and I know it’s one I’ll read again and again.