release date: January 12, 2019
The thought of a dead body underneath a crisp white sheet conjured a different image than the reality of the one before me. Perhaps it had been romanticized in a morbid way, skewed by the fictional world of movies and drama series. Neat and tidy, a tag tied with care around the big toe to declare who the body once was and what he can never be again.
There is no tag and there’s nothing neat and tidy in the stark, sterile room frigid in both temperature and mood.
Standing on trembling legs that refuse to move closer than about a yard away, my eyes scan the slight form hidden underneath the sheet. It barely makes peaks on the landscape of postmortem. A few faint stains along the edge of the white cloth underscore the situation. It’s dire. It’s devastating.
“That can’t be him.” The statement squeaks out over a whisper, very little conviction behind it. I wipe the sheen of sweat collecting on my brow and then slide my palm down the side of my jeans. He was larger in life than this small, misshapen image of death.
The medical examiner moves his gloved hand to peel back the not-so crisp white sheet. Instinct screams for me to grasp some self-preservation and look away, but my eyes are glued to the stainless-steel gurney. An end to a part of me. I’m not prepared to face it quite yet.
Can one ever be ready for such a thing?
No. Definitely not.
The sheet shifts to reveal the weight of my new, unwanted reality. Then the room shifts abruptly with it. Auburn curls slowly come into view. They no longer glisten with golden accents, but are now left matted and dull from tragedy. I suck in a breath and am unable to swallow the sob as the sheet unfolds more, exposing truths I don’t want to believe. If it wasn’t for the bloat and discoloration of his skin and the odd concaved shape on the left side of his forehead, I could almost pretend he’s just sleeping. If only he was snoring that whistling tune of his. How many times had I teased him about that? I’d give anything to have that noise back and keeping me awake at night.
Surrounded by the sharp tinges of chemicals and regret, the white-tiled room around me sways severely and blurs.
“I’m going to throw—”
The declaration doesn’t beat his reaction to the finish line. The medical examiner has exceptionally quick reflexes, because a stainless-steel bowl catches all of the vile hurt spewing from me. When the retching stops producing anything more than dry heaves, he leads me to a chair. The cool metal on my overheated back reminds me I dashed out of the door without covering the tank top I wore to bed. What I would give for one of Beau’s sweatshirts at the moment.
My thoughts rewind to the reason I was wearing the tank top in the first place. Beau’s sweet phone call earlier, insinuating that it was time to get to work extending our world with a baby. After three years of marriage, with life growing sweeter by the day, we were ready. We’d already discussed name options and had a few wistful conversations about what characteristics we hoped we passed to the baby. Beau’s wish list included his green eyes and my black hair. Mine focused on his red curls and my curious gold eyes.
I told Beau I’d wait up for him, but he insisted I go on to bed, preferably wearing a tank top and a pair of boyshorts. We both laughed, because the outfit equaled the finest silk negligee in his opinion. After hanging up, I’d chosen the polka-dot boyshorts, knowing that man would love me in a tater sack.
I almost smile at that thought until an icy shiver skirts along my exposed shoulders. At least I took the time to pull on some jeans before I followed the police officer to the morgue. There’s a small hole at the knee. I touch a shaky fingertip to the exposed skin, looking anywhere but at the lifeless body across the room from me. The hanging scale sways in my periphery where I think I knocked into it before getting sick, but I dare not look over for confirmation.
“Is there someone I can call for you?” the older gentleman asks over the pounding in my eardrums.
Heaving a few staggered breathes that burn my throat, I somehow find my voice and rasp, “My husband, please.”
The medical examiner sets the bowl down somewhere and returns to kneel beside me. He clears his throat. “Mrs. McCoy…”
We both know what he wants to clarify. The fact that my husband will never answer a phone again. A long stretch of time slips by before I pass my phone to him and then rub a palm to my chest while I watch him look at me expectantly.
“Chase McCoy, my brother-in-law,” I explain after snapping out of the daze. “He’s the closest family I have in Tennessee.” My shock keeps me from fully grasping the impact this is going to have on Chase’s life as well. Losing his baby brother and only sibling.
A few minutes wobble along, marked by a wall clock ticking somewhere in the room, before he speaks. “Yes, Mr. McCoy, I have your sister-in-law Bellamy with me…”
I tune the rest of it out, not wanting to hear the replay. How Beau was on his way home from a youth evangelism conference up in Nashville. How a drunk driver took what he had no right to take. My husband’s life. Our life. Our dreams.
Two years later…
Absolute darkness holds me for longer than necessary. I fight against it, but it keeps slipping back over me like a sticky film. When I blink, a few stray stars come into focus. I stare at them until the moon and a piercing pain catch my attention. It’s coming at me from all different directions, so it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the damage is. The film slips back into place before I can make heads or tails of it.
Angry beats from a heavy metal song scream from the speakers of my bike, bringing me back to the side of the road where I’m sprawled out. If I could move my arm, I’d pat myself on the back. I’m boss when it comes to building a sick bike. This one that just got up to 180 mph is no exception. Good thing I let off the throttle before that last switchback…
I try to take a deep breath, but a pinch in my side halts it just as I get a whiff of smoke in the air. Between the smoke and the rushing sound of a waterfall somewhere nearby, something registers in my jumbled brain and reminds me of a camping trip I went on with my old man and Tommy before my little brother became too sick. I’d call Pop and we’d reminisce about the good ole days before our home life went to crap, if I could find my phone. He wouldn’t answer anyway.
I make the mistake of trying to move again, sending bolts of fire slicing down my left side. I freeze in place and try to suck in a careful breath. The pressure behind my eyes has them dragging shut, so I know this time I messed up big time.
When they reopen, the music is gone and my helmet has disappeared. Through a thick fog, I notice the smashed guardrail, red and blue lights glancing off the metal. I try to get up, but there’s a crushing weight holding me down against the ground.
Heavy boots crunch against the rocky pavement and broken glass. “Are you ever gonna learn your lesson?” He lets out a long sigh. “Seriously, Lee? You really did it up this time. What were you thinking?”
“I think I need another drink. You see my bottle of Jack anywhere, Officer Declan?” If I’m hurting this bad, then I’m not drunk enough. I lick my parched lips and try again to sit up, but my left side ain’t cooperating. “I’m mighty thirsty, man.”
“See here, Lee, I’m gonna let the ambulance take you to the hospital, but before that happens… you have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney— “
I manage a snort, because we both know I have more money than this entire backwater county. Something tells me I’m not going to be allowed to buy my way out of the mess I made this time. Even though I was raised in this Tennessee town and have added greatly to the local revenue since relocating my business here from California four years ago, they’ve not shared any of their southern hospitality with me.
Declan glares at me from underneath his hat, fat drops of rain dotting the wide brim. “…one will be appointed for you.”
Two EMTs start strapping a neck brace on me and lifting whatever is left of my body onto a stretcher, and I catch a glimpse of the mangled remains of my bike dangling several yards down on the side of the guardrail.
Man… That’s not going to be an easy fix.
I stifle a grunt as they lift me, thinking I’m not going to be an easy fix either.
After four days of staring at beige walls and medical equipment, this shake-up of scenery should be a nice change, but it isn’t. Not even a little. Surrounded by dark wood walls, wood tables and chairs, I can’t help but wonder why courtrooms are always dressed in so much wood…
“You may be seated,” the bailiff states. The occupants of the packed-out room sit all at once like a bunch of puppets strung together.
I don’t look back to acknowledge all the nosey snoops sitting behind me and keep a blank stare in place, swearing I’ll give them no more fuel to add to the tabloid gossip’s fire. Let it get out that a celebrity has screwed up and the public flocks to the scene like it’s a spectator sport.
Celebrity.Why I’ve gotten grouped in the category of celebrity is beyond me. I hate that word. It sounds too close to pampered debutante to me. I’ve worked too hard for everything and more than earned my way. There’s been nothing pampered about it.
Lance nudges my knee and draws my attention to the judge, perched on his law throne like he’s king of this mountain town. Bushy eyebrows push past the edge of his bifocals, and unkempt white hair makes him appear to be old as Methuselah. The dude’s façade alone could demand the room’s respect if it weren’t for the green chunk of broccoli wedged between his front teeth.
I’m a detail expert. Some call it a gift. At times, I call it a curse. It’s a talent that makes bank when I create a new motorcycle, but it can be daunting as well. I notice everything, like the bailiff’s tie is crooked. The court reporter’s left earring is caught in her curly blonde hair. Both imperfections make my skin itch from needing to correct them. Or maybe the itch is the aftereffect of the wreck. Or the need for a drink.
“Son, did you hear me?”
I look back toward Judge Pruitt. “Sir?”
“I asked if you’re mended enough to be here today?” Those bushy eyebrows rise over his glasses.
I think about it for a moment, not sure which is more irritating—this stranger calling me son or my bruised left side and broken arm. I try to ignore the irritation, along with the constant burn in my right palm. I rub it down the side of the coarse trousers my assistant dropped off at the hospital for this court appearance. I told the dude to bring the Tom Ford suit, but Lance advised him to bring a cheaper one. Whatever. It doesn’t matter how I’m dressed, everyone in this room knows the empire I’ve built with my own two hands affords me only the top quality of everything. Forbes Magazine even thought it was their right to share the bottom line of my net worth, going as far as putting the eight figures in bold print.
Clearing my throat, I lie, “Yes, sir.” The aches and bruises and constant dull pounding at my temples call me out on the lie, but the blank stare stays in place. It’s been four days since the crash. The longest stretch of time without a drink in years. Keeping myself in check is a painful struggle.
“Good to hear.” Judge Pruitt shuffles through a thick stack of papers. One of the sheets is bent, and it annoys me that he doesn’t take the time to smooth it. “Let’s address these charges.” He goes over the DUI and other charges my aching brain doesn’t take in, then gives the floor over to Lance.
“Your Honor, I’ve spoken with my client. Mr. Sutton knows the severity of his recklessness and is willing to do outpatient care rehab as well as paying a hefty fine.”
I cut my eyes at Lance, knowing I pay him too much for that joke of an offer. Before the judge opens his mouth, I know that scenario’s not happening. The old man snorts and I don’t even blame him.
“This is Mr. Sutton’s second DUI, and there are also a slew of misdemeanors.” Judge Pruitt lifts the thick folder. The file should be cringe-worthy, but the ink stains on the side of his hand bother me more.
It might be the gnawing pain taking over my body or the all-consuming need for a drink, but I’m close to begging them to put my sorry behind in a prison cell already. Or any scenario that lets me close my eyes to this situation.
The judge sets the folder down with a hefty thump. “We have an interesting situation here. I had a private meeting this morning with a close friend about you and we both agree jail time won’t do you any good, Mr. Sutton. You’re too sharp for a stint in rehab, and a fine won’t teach you anything.”
“I completely agree, your Honor,” Lance pipes in. Some of the tension relaxes in my shoulders.
“So, after much consideration, you’ll be sentenced to ten months house arrest and 1,200 community service hours.”
I relax a little more. There’s a garage behind my place. It’s equipped just as nicely as my facility in town. And I’m used to having my hands dirty, so community service won’t be bothersome.
“You’ll be released into the custody of Pastor Chase McCoy and will spend your ten months in an apartment behind Valley Church.”
The blank stare I’ve been holding onto like a lifeline flounders as I backhand Lance’s upper arm.
“Your Honor, a church? Surely you’re not serious.” Lance keeps his voice in a respectable tone, so I fight the urge to scream that the whole lot of them have lost their ever-loving minds.
“Dead serious.” Judge Pruitt locks eyes with me.
“This can’t be legal,” Lance tries again, while I’m realizing it’s time to find a new lawyer. He’s worthless.
“I assure you it is.” The judge glares at me, earning my glare in return. “It’s only by the grace of God you’re not dead, Mr. Sutton. Or even worse, you could have killed someone else with your recklessness.” He has enough nerve to point an arthritic finger at me. “This is your second and final chance to get your act together.”
Lance must sense I’m about to lose it, because he places a hand on my forearm. “Can’t we discuss this?”
The judge shakes his head, firm with no give. “We’ve already discussed this a few prior times. Talking isn’t getting through to your client.” Pruitt turns his beady eyes back to me. “Your community service hours will be served out at the church at the pastor and his assistant’s discretion. Whatever they request you do, you do it.”
“So that includes animal sacrifices and other stupid religious rituals?” I rub my burning palm down the side of these uncomfortable pants. “Ain’t that against my rights?” Why hasn’t my stupid lawyer thought of that?
He straightens his crooked posture. “Don’t get smart with me, son. I’ve already discussed this with Pastor McCoy. He understands that you’re not required to attend services, but you will perform any task he needs done.”
“What’s that sh…?” I rethink my choice of words, thinking Lance should be paying me. “What’s that even mean?”
“I’ve reviewed the list and nothing on it is against your rights. Basically, you will work off your service hours doing maintenance work. Any more questions?” Judge Pruitt directs that last bit to my incompetent lawyer.
A handyman? It’s the most bogus sentence I’ve ever heard. “Who helped to decide all this crap?”
“We have a mutual friend who is concerned about your wellbeing.” He points somewhere just behind me. “A hero in my book and I take her opinion seriously. You, son, owe her a thank you.”
I glance over my shoulder just long enough to catch a glimpse of wild, light-brown hair. Neena Cameron or whatever her last name is now that’s she gone and gotten married. Disgusted, I turn back to the judge. “And what if I refuse?”
Pruitt huffs and pins me with a look of pure disdain, showing we feel the same way about this mess. “Then I’d say you’re a fool and will sentence you to jail.”
I nod. “Ok—”
The judge holds his hand up. “You better think that through first.”
Lance nudges me and whispers for me to shut up. “Your Honor, house arrest means my client would still be allowed to manage his company? Meaning business meetings on the church premises, phone and computer access, and he’ll be allowed to work on projects?”
“Yes to all of that. Just as long as Mr. Sutton stays on the church property.”
The judge wraps things up, but I tune him out, my mind already turning over ideas on how to get some work done from the confines of the church property. I have a crew who handles most of the bike builds and remodels, and another team of sales reps and all that, but I’m a hands-on boss and have already been out of commission for the better part of a week.
As we shuffle out of the courtroom, I give Neena a nasty look, one that I know has made grown men cower. But Neena is tougher than anyone I’ve ever met. She, in return, gives me a silly grin like we just won the freaking lottery with this sentence. I pass her and notice the man with thinning red hair sitting beside her. I’ve only attended one service at Valley Church, but the knot that man and his words from the pulpit wove in my chest that day won’t let me forget him. Chase McCoy, my guardian for the next ten long months. He offers a kind smile, one I know I don’t deserve. It’s not a secret that I’m a certifiable jerk. Just like that, my chest is burning right along with the other aches in my body. Who is this punk? Some supernatural being?
I glare at him, too, for good measure, and follow my sorry lawyer out the door. Within an hour, my parole officer places an ankle monitor on my right leg and gives instructions on how the device works. It’s clunky, and I already hate it.
Officer Abrams offers a deep scowl along with his threat. “If that little light flashes red from you wandering out of the property limits, you can guarantee I’ll be on my way within seconds to cart your sorry tail off to jail. And I promise it’ll be a lot longer than ten months.”
He gets the blank stare, not even worth an ounce of my emotions. When I remain mute, he releases me into Chase McCoy’s custody.
“Is this really happening?” I ask Lance in the hall. He promises to get to work on an appeal. He’d better.
The sunshades Lance hands me just before we breach the doorway of the courthouse help to hide my wince as I take in the sight before me. Every inch of me hurts like a toothache, and the burning in my palm is reaching an entire new level of torture. Cameras flash and questions are yelled in my direction from rubberneckers showing up to witness my walk of shame, but I’m a pro at ignoring them and handle it like a boss until I’m tucked inside McCoy’s beat-up station wagon. To make matters worse, it’s foreign.
He slowly drives us out of the chaos and down the road splitting the town between the mountain valleys. Sweat is running down the back of my collar and my mouth is like cotton, both of which are making it impossible to ignore the pounding headache.
“Neena said she has a meeting, but she’ll be by to check on you in a day or two.”
I manage to find the lever and shove the seat back so my legs aren’t so cramped. “You might want to tell her to leave me the…” I catch the swear before it slips out. Proof, that even though I’m reeling in pain, I do know how to use some manners. “Just tell her it’s best she leaves me alone for a while.”
The pastor turns on his blinker light and makes a right. There’s a slight whine in the steering, but it’s doubtful he even notices. Of course, I notice and now the itch to fix it is driving me nuts. I take a breath and rub my temples.
“Surely you’re grateful Neena got you out of going to jail?”
“Jail. Church. Same difference.” I shrug my right shoulder, the one not beat and bruised and stitched, but I doubt he sees. He doesn’t even acknowledge my comment.
“You must be famished. I can swing in somewhere. Whatcha in the mood for?” Pastor Chase seems to sense my headache situation and turns the radio off.
“An ice-cold beer to start.” I can barely swallow with the need for it.
He laughs like I made joke. “Any fast food place? Tacos? Burgers? A bucket of chicken?”
“Whatever is fine. Don’t care,” I mutter, resting my head against the passenger window.
Tasteless burgers ain’t fine, but that’s what I get for saying whatever. We arrive at the red-brick church within minutes of choking down the joke of a meal, still slurping on the syrupy sweet soda. He drives around back and parks at a two-story garage dressed in cheap white siding. The windows are planked by just-as-cheap black shutters. The opposite of my sprawling nothing-cheap-about-it log cabin.
“This will be home for the next ten months. My assistant has done a nice job of fixing up the apartment over the garage. The church uses it as a guesthouse for visiting speakers and such, but…”
The pastor grabs a duffle bag out of his trunk, the same bag the guard confiscated when I had it dropped off at the hospital. He leads the way up a narrow set of steps inside the cluttered garage. If I’m stuck here for the unforeseeable future, that’s the first thing that needs to be fixed. I don’t do clutter and disorder.
“I’m allowed to use this space, Pastor?”
He glances over his shoulder, eyeing the lopsided mountain of boxes, scattered Christmas decorations, and other junk. “Just call me Chase, and yes. You’re welcome to use the space.” He opens the door to the top floor.
Lemony furniture polish and some kind of fake floral scent hit me first, followed by the sight of the bland room. I scan the wood-panel walls until landing on the scented plugin that’s responsible for kicking this nasty headache up several notches. I yank the stinking thing out of the plug and hand it over to Chase.
He eyes it before cramming it into his pants pocket. “I’ll let you settle in today and we’ll go over your duties tomorrow. The first few weeks will be light tasks, so you can heal. The doctor went over your injuries with me earlier. Broken arm, two cracked ribs, and a deeply bruised hip. Some stitches on your shoulder. He said it would be helpful in your healing if you remain active, but please let me know if something is too much.”
I refrain from snorting, surprised Dr. Henson didn’t order me to start chopping wood and walk-mowing acres of land. It’s no secret that one of my misdemeanor charges includes the good ole doc, sometime after he caught his wife behind the desk in my office, doing a little more than just writing a check for his custom bike. How he was allowed to treat me is beyond my understanding, but I suspect Henson is the reason I didn’t get any decent pain meds.
“I’m allowed to get someone to bring me more clothes and necessities, right?” I ask, looking through the meager bag. I grab the bottle of Ibuprofen from underneath a stack of T-shirts and wash three pills down with what’s left of the cup of soda. I toss the cup into a trashcan near the window unit and take a second to fiddle with the dial to set it to a cooler temperature.
“Yes… Just no alcohol and drugs. Oh, and no overnight guests.” The guy gives me a look that clears up what he means by guests. No women.
“Gotcha, man.” I eye the full-sized bed, knowing it won’t accommodate my 6’3” frame. “How about furniture? Am I allowed to bring some in?” I motion toward the tiny bed with my casted arm, trying to twist my wrist slightly to ease some of the itch concealed underneath.
“I don’t suppose that’s against the rules.” Chase points out the dorm-sized fridge and microwave, both a joke. “My assistant is out shopping for some food supplies. She should be by in just a little while. Do you need anything until then?”
“Nah.” I pull my phone and the charger out and plug it up behind the small corner table. With its two plastic chairs, the set looks more fitting for a patio. This place certainly ain’t for long stays, but there are no water leaks on the ceiling. No rat traps in the corners. It gives off a nice enough vibe, but also whispers for you not to linger too long. Ten minutes is too long, let alone ten months.
Chase goes over a few more things before leaving me to it. I sit at the small table and inspect the black contraption around my ankle. It’s bulky and no way will my regular motorcycle boots work with it. I pick up the phone and fire off a list of things needed to my assistant.
Yo. Need low-rise boots. Size 12. If not, black Chucks will do. King-sized bedframe and extra soft mattress set. Sheets and all that too. Black-out curtains. My laptop. An updated bike build schedule. And a flat-screen smart TV. ASAP.
Drew texts back—On it, boss.
He better be on it for what I pay him. I text—You have two hours to make it happen.
Drew sends a thumbs-up, and he’s true to his word. Within two hours he’s hanging up my new curtains as I sit on the end of the bed eating a proper meat-and-potatoes meal from the best restaurant in town, Charlie Mike. The bed takes up almost the entire room and makes for a tight walk to get to the small bathroom on the right of it, but who cares.
“Anything else?” Drew twirls the screwdriver in the air before tucking it into his back pocket and then pulls out a sour apple Dum Dum sucker, unwraps it, and pops it in his mouth. He’s only twenty-two but has managed to grow a long enough beard he could pass as a ZZ Top offspring.
“I’m good for now. You’re free to go.” I hand him the empty plate and the punk has enough nerve to laugh.
“Yeah, that only makes one of us.” Drew’s laughter cuts off when he notices I don’t find the stupid joke amusing in the least. He’s quick to dash out the door.
I’m about to lie back and try to forget this day when a dark-haired angel with legs for miles walks in.
“Sweet. I thought my assistant forgot dessert.” I lick my lips and ease to my feet, trying to cover up the fact that my entire body is screaming in pain. I’m still wearing the cheap navy suit, but I’ve lost the tie and unfastened several of the shirt buttons. Call it vain, but I know even in this beaten state I still look good. From the way this babe is taking me in, she agrees.
“Just too fine for words.”
This gorgeous woman is a cross between Pocahontas and an Amazonian princess. Tall and sturdy, and suddenly my new favorite fantasy. She makes her plain outfit of jeans and a top look anything but plain.
She points over my shoulder and takes a step out of reach. “Where’s the other bed?”
“Mine ate it for a snack. This one’s memory foam. Top quality. You wanna take off your clothes and test it out with me?”
Her golden eyes widen. Man, those jewels are wicked. I’m talking liquid gold.
“What? No!” She waves her hand in the air. “How dare you talk to a woman wearing a wedding ring like that!”
I don’t bother to look at the ring, knowing the piece of jewelry is meaningless. “Sweetheart, your husband obviously ain’t taking care of you if you’re up here in my room panting like this.” I motion toward her rapidly rising chest and the next thing I know the left side of my face is on fire.
Even though being slapped is enough to make me cuss, I hold it in and yell, “I think I’m in love,” hoping she hears me as she stomps down the stairs. I want her to storm back in here and spar with me, but the side door slams on that idea.
I notice several bags of groceries by the door and almost feel bad for how I treated her. It looks like she may be the maid or something, and it’s never wise to tick off the help.