Excerpt: The Christmas He Loved Her
Book Two: Bad Boys of Crystal Lake
The cemetery where his brother rested was a desolate place in late November. It sat upon a drab green hill surrounded by a forest of pine and birch. In the distance, Crystal Lake shimmered through skeletal tree limbs like wisps of blue silk as a cold wind drew whitecaps on the water.
Jake Edwards pulled his Jeep over to the shoulder, cut the engine, and slowly exhaled. His fingers gripped the steering wheel so tightly they cramped, and though he stretched them out and tried to relax, it was no use. He was wound tighter than a junkie in rehab, and he drummed a methodical beat along the dashboard as he gazed out the window.
This particular cemetery was the oldest in town, and many of Crystal Lake’s founding families were buried within its borders. Grand mausoleums and tombstones rose against the dull gray sky, painted dark like a macabre city skyline. He stared at them for several long moments, eyes hard, mouth tight, as a light rain began to fall. It was nothing more than a drizzle, really, and created a mist that hung over the cemetery, though he only had eyes for the row just beyond the large oak tree.
Row number thirty-six. Jesse’s row.
The darkness in him stirred, leaving the taste of bitterness on his tongue. He let it settle. He let it burn. Hell, these days it was the only thing that told him he was still alive-even if he did feel half-dead most of the time.
A crow flew lazily in the sky, slicing through the haze until it swooped low and settled on top of a large stone angel not far from him. It cocked its head, then turned and stared at Jake-its small beady eyes steady as it slowly blinked.
Jake held its gaze for several more seconds and then jerked his chin up as if to say Fuck you. The crow cawed, rotated its head, and flew off once more, out over the lake.
Abruptly, he turned the key and put his Jeep in gear. He continued down Lakeshore Road because he sure as hell wasn’t ready to deal with the cemetery yet.
His parents were expecting him, but first he had one more stop-a certain someone he needed to see. A certain someone he was damn sure had no desire to see him, and he didn’t blame her one bit. Not after the way he’d left things.
Jake had screwed up, and now it was time to set things right.
Five minutes later he stepped out of his Jeep and slung a worn leather bag over his shoulder as he glanced up at a small cottage set back a few hundred feet from the road. At one time it had been a carriage house and was a solid structure built entirely of large blocks of gray, weathered limestone. A simple white-spindled porch ran the length of it, with empty baskets hung at each corner, their usual treasure of deep-red geraniums long dead.
An old, rickety rocking chair moved gently on its own there, the legs squeaking as it moved back and forth, pushed either by the crisp breeze that rolled in off the lake or the ghost of Josiah Edwards, an ancestor said to haunt the woods.
Jake pulled the collar of his leather jacket up to his chin and shuddered as a strong gust of wind whipped across the still-green lawn, carrying with it the remains of dead, rotted leaves and anything else it managed to shake free.
He took a step forward, eyes narrowed, as his gaze took in an expensive Mercedes parked near the house next to a rusting and faded yellow Volkswagen. He wasn’t sure who owned the Mercedes, but the rust bucket he knew well. The ancient Beetle had been a broken-down mess when she had first bought it.
The car belonged to his sister-in-law, Raine, and in a world gone to shit, at least the car hadn’t changed.
Jake slowly perused the property. He spied a weather-beaten bench near the tree line and knew that if he took the path that led through the woods to his right, he’d end up at his parents’ home-eventually. It was still a hike, several miles to be exact, but this parcel of land, boasting an acre and a half of prime waterfront along with the stone cottage, had been severed years ago from his parents’ property. It had been a wedding present to his brother Jesse and his then-new bride, Raine.
A familiar ache crept across his chest, and for a moment he faltered, his eyes squeezed shut. He pictured the three of them, Jake, Jesse, and Raine, decked out in their wedding finery. It had rained that day, a good omen, according to some, and Raine’s dress was tattered along the hem from dancing outdoors in the mud, while his brother’s tuxedo had remained crisp and clean. Jake’s tux, however, was as ruined as the bride’s dress. They’d posed for a picture, the three of them, there by the bench beneath the ancient oak.
Jake sighed and opened his eyes, resting them once more on the empty bench. It needed a fresh coat of paint. He shook the melancholy from his mind and strode toward the house.
It had been a year and a half since he left Crystal Lake. And even though he was pretty sure Raine Edwards wanted nothing to do with him, he was going to try his best to make amends. It was the least he could do. For Raine. For Jesse.
And maybe, for himself.
He stepped up onto the porch, his eyes settling on the newly painted white trim that encased the door-a door that was no longer the green he remembered, but a deep, dark red. He heard voices inside and his gut rolled nervously. She had company. Maybe now wasn’t a good time.
His dark eyes drifted toward his Jeep. Ten seconds and he could be out of here before anyone knew better. He took a step backward, weighing his options, his jaw clenched tightly as the all-too-familiar wave of guilt, anger, and loathing washed through him. Coward.
Jake ran his fingers through the thick mess of hair atop his head and tried to ease the tension that settled along his shoulders. He hadn’t seen Raine since the Fourth of July, well over a year ago, and they hadn’t parted on good terms. They’d both said some things…hurtful things…but he’d made everything worse by taking off for what he meant to be only a few weeks to clear his head. The few weeks had turned into months, and those months had bled into nearly a year and a half.
It had been much too long, and he still wasn’t sure he was ready to face the ghosts of his past. Yet here he stood.
Jake blew out a hot breath and reached for the door, when it was suddenly wrenched open and a bundle of gold streaked past his feet and barked madly as it did so. It was a ball of fur that ran crazily down the steps, with a chubby frame that was barely able to manage them. He stepped back, and then the puppy was forgotten as he stared down into the face that had haunted him his entire life, it seemed.
Huge round eyes the color of Crystal Lake on a stormy day widened, while the small bow mouth fell open in shock. Her skin was pale, the kiss of summer long faded, and the angles of her face were sharper, more defined. She looked fragile. And beautiful. And delicate. And…
“You cut your hair,” was all he managed to say-barely.
Her fingers twisted in the uneven, ebony ends that fell a few inches past her jaw but didn’t quite touch her shoulders. It was a reflex action, and damn if it didn’t tug on the cold strings still attached to his heart. She pulled on a long, curling piece, tucked it behind her ear, and settled her hand, tightened into a fist, against her chest.
She wore a pink T-shirt, Salem’s Lot etched across her breasts in a bold, black font. The old, worn jeans that hugged her hips looked tattered and done for, the ends rolled up past delicate ankles, leaving her feet bare, her toenails painted in chipped blue polish.
For a moment there was nothing but silence, and then she moistened her lips and exhaled slowly. “Your hair is longer than it’s ever been.”
The sound of her voice was like a returning memory, one that filled the emptiness inside and stretched thin over his heart.
He nodded, not quite knowing what to say. He’d officially left the military six months ago, and hair had been the last thing on his mind. The closely cropped style he’d sported his entire adult life was no more. Now it curled past his ears.
“It’s been…a long time.” Her words were halting, as if she wasn’t sure she wanted to speak.
He held her gaze for a moment and then glanced away. The old wicker chair still rocked gently in the breeze, and the golden bundle of fur that had shot out of Raine’s house was sniffing the ground near his Jeep.
“Yeah,” was all Jake managed, and even that was hard.
“Nice that you made time for your father.” A touch of frost was in her voice now, and he glanced back sharply.
Awkward silence fell between the two of them as he stared down into eyes that were hard. Had he expected anything less?
“He’s been sick for a while now.” Her chin jutted out. “You know that, right?” Accusation rang in her words.
A spark of anger lit inside him. So this was how it was going to be. “Yeah, Raine. I know.”
Her mouth thinned and a flush crept into her pale cheeks. “Well, why the hell did you wait so long to come home to us?”
“I couldn’t get away,” he said flatly.
She arched an eyebrow and shivered. “Couldn’t? Or wouldn’t?”
He took a step closer and reiterated. “Couldn’t.”
He knew part of it was bullshit. If he’d really wanted to come home earlier, he could have. The guys would have understood. But he’d never admit that it was only his father’s health taking a wrong turn that had finally brought him back. Because that would mean admitting the reason he’d stayed away for so long was right in front of him.
All five feet four inches of her.
Her toe tapped against the shiny wooden planks at her feet, and her eyes narrowed into a glare that told him everything. Raine Edwards was pissed.
She cleared her throat and raised her chin.
She was more than pissed.
Jake squared his shoulders. This was good. He’d rather she was mad as hell than weepy and soft. Mad he could handle. Soft and needy, not so much. Not from her, anyway.
“You going to invite me in, or are we going to have it out, here on the porch?” Jake arched an eyebrow and waited. Nothing was ever “easy” and “gentle” between him and Raine. There had always been that friction.
She and his brother, Jesse, had been like yin and yang, while Jake and Raine were like oil and water. They didn’t exactly mix and rarely saw eye to eye.
From the time they were kids… How many nights had Jesse given up and gone to bed long after the two of them argued over every last detail of whatever the hell it was they happened to be discussing? From Scrabble to politics to music and everything in between.
Raine’s mouth thinned and she stepped past him, clapped her hands, and yelled “Gibson” as she did so. The puppy’s head shot up, its round body quivering as it answered her call. The dog ran toward the house, chasing a leaf, weaving an intricate path until it climbed the stairs and barked at her feet.
She scooped the puppy into her arms and laughed as it struggled to lick her face. Something inside him thawed in that moment. Something that he’d encased in a wall of ice. It was painful, and the dread in his gut doubled. He’d known this was a bad idea, but it was a bad idea he needed to see through. He owed it to Jesse, even if he was a year and a half late.
And he owed it to Raine, after the way he’d left things.
She stepped back and cleared her throat. “You planning on spending the night?”
“Excuse me?” Jake answered carefully, not understanding her angle.
Raine licked her lips, the heightened color in her cheeks a healthy pink in an otherwise pale face. She pointed toward his bag. “Did you pack extra boxers and your toothbrush?”
“No.” Jake shook his head. “This is just…”
She turned before he could finish and indicated that he follow her inside as she strolled down the hall with the puppy still in her arms, her hips swaying gently. He couldn’t help himself. His eyes roved her figure hungrily, taking in every inch, from the top of her head to the bottom of her bare feet. His mouth tightened, a frown settling across his brow because he sure as hell didn’t like what he saw. She was too thin. Too pale.
Too much like the ghosts he’d seen wandering the base at Fort Hood-war widows and widowers, distraught families, friends. All of them had that look. Christ, he saw it every day he looked in the mirror, but Raine…damn, he wanted more for her.
Then maybe I should have done something about it. He winced at the thought, mostly because it was the truth.
The house was brightly lit, the sun that shone in through the windows creating warmth against the rich oak floors. For a second, Jake faltered as the heaviness of the moment slipped over him. So many memories he’d tried to forget. He’d helped his brother restore the entire main floor the last time they were home on leave nearly two years ago. It was the last time all three of them had been together.
Voices echoed in his head, echoes from a past that would haunt him forever, and he forced himself to move, noting that the kitchen sported a complete redo-gleaming antique-cream-colored granite, dark chocolate cabinets, and shiny stainless-steel appliances. No doubt a gift from his parents, because the last he knew, working at the youth center in the neighboring city didn’t pay much. Not that it mattered. Aside from the sizable life-insurance settlement Raine had been entitled to, the Edwards family looked after their own.
She would never want for anything.
Raine had been a part of their lives from the time they were kids. Raised for the most part by her Aunt Jeanine, she’d been on her own since the age of sixteen, when her aunt died. Her mother, Gloria, traveled extensively, doing missionary work for the church. It was mighty charitable of her, though Jake had never understood the need some people had to help others when it meant neglecting their own.
His face heated when he realized that was exactly what he’d done for the last year and a half. He was no better than her mother-worse, even-because Raine had always counted on him and he’d let her down when it mattered most.
She’d become an extra member of the Edwards family, the third wheel in a lot of the Edwards boys’ shenanigans, and it had come as no surprise to anyone when she’d married one. The serious one, Jesse.
A male voice interrupted his train of thought, and for a moment the hot flush of something fierce washed through him. He jerked his head, hackles up, and stared at her in silence, hands fisted tightly at his sides.
Raine paused in the doorway that led to the living room/dining area and glanced over her shoulder-eyes still questioning, mouth still tight.
“Look what I found on the porch,” she announced and walked into the living room. Jake took a moment and then followed suit, halting just inside the room.
“Son of a bitch!” Mackenzie Draper, one of his oldest buddies, set his beer onto the low-slung table in front of the sofa and rose, a smile splitting his face wide open. “You didn’t say anything about coming home for the holidays.”
Jake grinned. “It wasn’t in the plans last time I saw you.”
“Wait a minute,” Raine interrupted. “When did you see Jake?” Her gaze focused on Mac, who shifted uncomfortably.
“I had business in Texas a few months back, and we got together for a drink.”
“Texas,” Raine muttered. “Right.”
She turned stormy eyes his way, and Jake flinched at the hurt and accusation that colored them a darker hue. He felt even more like a shit.
“Nice that you have time for some of your friends, Jake.”
“It wasn’t planned, really,” Mackenzie began. “I had a couple of extra days and we got together.”
Raine set the puppy down. “That’s a hell of a lot more than I ever got.” She didn’t bother to hide the bitterness in her words.
Jake ignored the taunt and remained silent, his eyes locked on to Mackenzie’s. His friend was dressed in an expensive suit tailored to fit his tall frame, the charcoal gray a nice choice against the plum shirt. Though his collar was loose and a thin black tie lay on the table in front of him, Mac always looked GQ ready. With his thick dirty-blond hair and vibrant green eyes, he’d been labeled a pretty boy his entire life.
Mackenzie, Cain Black, Jake, and his brother Jesse had been the best of friends from the time they were five years old and Mackenzie had come to school with his front teeth missing and a shiner the color of rotted grapes. It had impressed the hell out of the Edwards twins, though they were too young to appreciate the darkness and violence it represented.
It was good to see him. “You home for the holidays too?” Jake asked.
Mackenzie shook his head. “Nah, I don’t think Ben would appreciate it if I crashed his long weekend. I had business in Detroit and thought I’d squeeze in a visit with my mother, but…”
“But?” Jake prodded.
Mac shrugged. “Same old same old. I called ahead and it’s not gonna work. Ben’s already home and liquored up. I guess his long weekend has an extra few days tacked on to it. Mom snuck away and we had coffee.” Mackenzie’s mouth tightened. “She’ll never change. There’s always some reason for the bruises on her arms or the soreness in her side. He beats the crap out of her and she stays.”
“She’ll wake up one day, Mac,” Raine said carefully.
Mackenzie turned to her, with a bitter smile. “I doubt it. In spite of everything, she loves him. How fucked-up is that?” He glanced at his watch. “Anyway, I gotta hit the road. It’s a good ten hours until I hit New York.”
“You sure you don’t want to stay for Thanksgiving? I’ve got-” She halted and cleared her throat. “Well, the spare room isn’t usable right now, but the sofa is yours.” Raine prodded gently, “Maybe Ben will…I don’t know…”
“Do us a favor and kick the bucket?” Mackenzie shook his head. “That son of a bitch will outlive us all.” He enveloped Raine into a bear hug and kissed her on the cheek. “Thanks, but I’d be crap company anyway.”
Mackenzie paused a few inches away, his eyes intense as he studied Jake in silence. “You look like shit, soldier.”
“I’m not a soldier anymore.”
“No, I suppose you’re not.” The two men stared at each other for several moments, and then Mackenzie lowered his voice. “I miss him too.”
The band of pain that sat around Jake’s chest tightened and he nodded, a lump in his throat. “Yeah,” he muttered.
They shook hands, but when Jake would have pulled away, Mackenzie held on for a quick hug. “Don’t be such a douche bag, and stay in touch.” Mackenzie stepped back and cocked his head to the side. “Give your dad my best. He’s a tough son of a bitch, so I wouldn’t worry too much.”
Jake nodded. “Will do.”
“It’s good you’re back.”
Jake nodded but remained silent.
Mackenzie smiled a million watts at Raine, his green eyes crinkled with warmth. “Take care, gorgeous, and I’ll think about Christmas.”
The door closed behind Mackenzie, leaving silence in his wake and the oppressive weight of two ice-blue eyes shooting daggers at Jake. Now that Mac was gone, she didn’t make any effort to hide her anger.
Jake turned to her, set his leather bag onto the coffee table, and waited for the hammer to fall.
“I should kick your ass all over Crystal Lake, you know that, right?” She blew out a strand of hair that caught at the corner of her mouth. “And maybe I will, but first I’d like to hear all about your yearlong vacation.”
Okay, so now anger burned beneath his leather collar. Fort Hood was no fucking vacation. The nightmares in his head were no fucking vacation. The guilt and pain that lived with him every single day were no fucking vacation.
“Are you serious?” He asked so softly, he knew she barely heard him, or else she might have taken the hint and backed off. “You think the last year has been a vacation?”
Instead, Raine took two steps forward and thumped him in the chest with the palm of her hand. “Yes, I do,” she spat. “You took a vacation from life for the last year and a half while the rest of us slugged it out in the trenches.” Her eyes shimmered with unshed tears, and she’d never looked more fierce. Never looked more delicate and frail or so damn lovely it made his stomach ache. “It’s time to come clean, Edwards. Why have you stayed away so long?”
The hammer, it seemed, was heavy, and it didn’t take long to strike.