WIP-it..Work-in-Progess

Forever Wanted Part Two excerpt: Subject to final edit.

Forever Wanted Part 2

Prologue

“Your Nanna is the best.” Freddie links his fingers through mine, his arm heavy around my waist. He’s spooning me as I’m half spooning Tiny. It’s getting late, and he sounds sleepy. The loft of the garage has a low roof that butts the window, and it’s perfect for watching the sunset, wrapped in a blanket and the arms of my boyfriends.

“She is, but why do you think so?” I shuffle around so I’m nestled in the crook of Tiny’s massive muscular arm, and Freddie slides down my body so his head now rests with his ear flat to my tummy.

“She lets us hang here.”

“I thought Pops was gonna shoot us, when they found out.” Tiny chuckles, making us all jiggle with the strength of the vibrations.

“He still might, if you end up breaking my heart,” I warn. Looking up into his soft brown eyes, I can see the sincerity of his intentions before he utters the words.

“Never gonna happen.” Freddie is the mouthpiece for them both in this instance; Tiny simply nods. I stretch up to kiss him. He has the softest lips, so tender for such a giant.

“Nope. Never. We know what we have with you Max.” Freddie kisses the bare skin where my t-shirt has risen from the stretch. There’s nothing sexual in his kiss; it’s filled with so much more. I’m not naïve. He’s a seventeen-year-old boy; there’s pretty much always something sexual with them, but this is more, so much more.

“I’m a lucky girl.”

“We’re the lucky ones. Will you marry me?” Freddie fires the question like a bullet out of the darkness and just as shocking. He pitches up on to his hands, then jumps into a impromptu one-knee proposal position. He takes my hand, and Tiny leans forward to slap it away.

“Hey, you can’t ask her that.”

“Why not?” Freddie wrinkles his nose playfully, steals a quick kiss from my gaping mouth, and sits back to hold his position. He looks so earnest; it’s almost comical.

“Because I wanted to.”

“And I called shotgun, Tiny. Snooze, you loose.” He reaches for my hand again, and I raise a warning brow. I know they are only playing, but I won’t encourage anything that might cause a division.

“You can’t call shotgun on a marriage proposal, asshole.”

“Can and did. So Max, will you?” Freddie grins like a Cheshire cat. His inky dark eyes glint with mischief. I’m tight lipped now and surprised that there’s an unexpected surge of tension in the air. Tiny shifts and is now facing me. They both look expectant and nervous. The power goes to my head and I hold it for a few delightful seconds before I put them out of their misery.

I exhale my definitive answer. “No.”

“No?” Freddie slaps his hand on his chest, his face the picture of a wounded soul.

“Ha! Told you she loved me more.” Tiny punches the top of his arm and Freddie is about to wrestle him back playfully, when I manage to wedge myself between them.

“I don’t. I love you both the same.” I place my hands over each of their chests. I can feel their strong heartbeats under my fingers. They match my own. Silence falls like an anvil, and it takes a good few seconds for my brain to register what I’ve said. The boys are staring at me and then at each other.

“You just said the ‘L’ word, Max. Are you all right?” Freddie is first to break, his tone only partly teasing. He exchanges a knowing glance with Tiny.

“Well, you mentioned the ‘M’ word so I thought—” I fluster, folding my arms around my waist at their sudden intense scrutiny.

“You’ve never said it before.” Tiny pulls my arms free and they each take a hand, closing their bodies in around me in the world’s most perfect human security blanket.

“I know. Can we not make a big deal about it? It’s not like you don’t know I do. Love is more than a word. “

“Oh, it is, absolutely. It’s just…wow.” Tiny kisses the back of my head, and Freddie does the same on my forehead. I feel like the most precious treasure when I’m in their arms. How did I get so damn lucky?

I make sure to face them and hold their gaze when I speak. “Well, I’ve said it now. I love you, and I love you, equally and endlessly. I will never choose between you. You have me, and I have you, but I won’t ever marry.”

“I love you too.” Tiny’s lips brush mine, and his face stays close when Freddie strokes my cheek, encouraging me to look his way. He kisses me softly and whispers, “I love you more.”

“Really, Freddie? Is everything a competition to you?” Tiny groans and we all laugh. The seriousness of the topic lightens when Freddie winks.

“It really is, and in this instance, we are both winners.” He high-fives Tiny and then me. We’re all winners.

“Besides, I don’t believe in marriage,” I continue.

“Really? You’re not just saying that because it would force you to pick one of us?” Freddie asks.

“Anything that forces me to make that type of choice is bad in my book. Since God doesn’t exactly approve of our union, why should I give a shit about a piece of paper He deems necessary for me to get into heaven? I’d rather be in hell with you degenerates.” Poking the rock solid muscles on each of them in turn, I squeal when Tiny captures my finger and pulls me roughly against him. We all fall back onto the blanket, a tangled mess of limbs and laughter.

“Yeah, you would.” Freddie agrees.

We settle back into a comfortable cuddle and an easy silence descends over us. The stars start to pierce through the velvety sky one by one until billions of tiny dots spectacularly illuminate the nighttime. It almost rivals the daytime for brightness.

“This sort of thing doesn’t happen every day, and it might not be traditional, but my feelings are as old school as they come. I love you.” I relish the way their bodies react with my words, closing in around me, just a little tighter, just a little more love.

“Us against the world, baby,” Tiny says.

“We are all we need,” Freddie agrees and elaborates. “We’ve got just one more year and we can get out of this narrow-minded town, together.”

“Amen,” Tiny and I say in unison. There’s a low rumble of someone’s stomach.

“Who’s for pizza?” Freddie rubs his midriff, solving that momentary quandary. Tiny nods enthusiastically.

“I could eat, but I’m too comfy to move.” Snuggling between them I writhe until the blanket at our feet has worked it’s way up to our waists.

“I’ve had too many beers to drive.” Freddie grimaces and offers an apologetic shrug.

“I’m not going on my own, Freddie. I’ll drive you, and you can get the pizza. That way, I won’t have to park miles away. Saves time.”

“Okay.”

Tiny eases his body from beneath me and puts his sneakers on. Freddie slips on his jacket and leans down to give me a kiss. I get a chill from the loss of their body heat. Sitting up and rubbing my bare shoulders I can’t seem to generate any warmth. I shiver and get the telltale swirl of sickness in the pit of my stomach.

“Hurry back, but don’t rush. Drive carefully. Maybe I should come?” Tiny drops to his haunches, cups my cheeks, and a tender, understanding smile fills his handsome face.

“You worry too much. It’s a quick ride into town, this isn’t about your dad, Max; it’s pizza.” He holds my gaze until he’s happy I’m happy. I give an imperceptible nod. He’s right. It might be justified, but still, I do worry too much.

“Besides, we’re like Swartzenegger, we’ll be back.” Freddie ruffles my hair and slap Tiny’s shoulder to get him to move. “We’ll be two shakes of that little lamb’s tail.”

“Two shakes.” I repeat.

Chapter One

Max

Twelve hundred miles on the road, pretty much non-stop, and I catch a first glimpse of my hometown. I love my nomadic lifestyle, but there is still something uniquely heartwarming about coming back to the place you grew up. The feeling is fleeting, however, and it’s only because I know it would kill my folks if I didn’t that I ever visit home. It just hurts so…being loved, and enduring so much pain you can’t ever let it go or move on. The ghosts of my past hitch a ride the second I cross the town line, setting the refresh button on my devastating loss, tearing open fresh wounds over the scars that never really healed.

I crawl through the sleepy, one-horse town with it’s deserted streets and empty shops, half expecting to see some tumbleweed roll on down the high street. The liquor store is the only establishment with enough trade to stay open this late, that and Murphy’s Bar on the edge of the town. The only thing that changes here is the price of gas.

The twenty-first century took one look at this place and decided to drive right on through. Meadow Falls, Colorado, is imperfectly frozen in time, not helped in the least by a slow moving economy and a backward moving population. It’s not surprising anyone with half a dream leaves this place. As much as I love my folks, after the accident, I couldn’t wait to get out. I turned eighteen and, using every penny I’d saved, doing any shitty job going, I bought my first car and hit the road.

Murphy’s Bar has a full parking lot, and I recognize some of the license plates, people I went to high school with. I don’t bother to slow down. I didn’t like them back then, and I doubt I’d like them any better now. Growing up might soften the edges of the judgmental assholes, but it doesn’t make me forget. As far as I was concerned, high school was just another hell I had to endure, and growing up was only just bearable because of Freddie and Tiny. I didn’t give a fuck that everyone thought we were deviants or downright sick; you can’t help who you fall in love with. I have regrets but I don’t regret a single moment with them, not one single thing we did together.

I roll my truck to park it under the canopy overhanging the side of the old barn that butts up against Pops’ garage. Shifting into park, I ease myself from the high cab, feeling the burn in my thighs and weakness in my knees at the sudden weight bearing jolt when I hit the ground. I steady myself and arch my back out until it pops with some deeply satisfying cracks. Walking around to the passenger window, I peek in at the heartrending sight of my best friend begging; his large chocolate eyes bore into me, and the steady thump-thump of his tail is almost enough for me to risk it, almost. Still, I know better.

“You have to stay. Don’t look at me like that. You know it’s not up to Pops. He loves you, but Nanna is not a fan. It’s your own fault. If you hadn’t eaten the Thanksgiving turkey right off the damn table last year, she’d still have you in the house.”

Clifford drops his large head on the edge of the open window and couldn’t look more sorry for himself. Rhodesian Ridgebacks are big dogs, and Clifford must have gotten all of the giant genes swimming in his parents’ pool. He’s huge. He is also adorable, and all the things a single woman needs when she has no fixed abode and travels the length and breadth of the country from farm to farm, looking for work.

He groans an appreciative sound when I stroke his head, rubbing just behind his ears the way he likes. I kiss the top of his head and reach down into the footwell in front of him and grab my satchel strap. “I won’t be long,” I assure him and don’t bother to lock the truck. There’s no one in a ten-mile radius, and besides, I’d like to see the person that tries. They’d have to have balls the size of Jupiter to get past Max. He’s as possessive over my things as he is over me, and he has very big teeth.

Pops’ garage workshop has three cars in varying states of decay, and I swear they are the same vehicles from when I was here last time, which has to be pushing six months now. Weaving my way through to the back of the building to the cottage where I grew up and where Pops and Nanna live, I notice something new.

“It’s finished!” The instant smile is so darn wide it hurts my face. As if on cue, Pops appears from beneath the front of the immaculate and lovingly restored Matador Red convertible 1954 Buick Skylark.

“She is.” Pops beams with unabashed pride. He wraps the soft leather cloth around his gnarled knuckles and snaps the rag rapidly over the gleaming paintwork. So much chrome the shine hurts my eyes, from the window rims to the Kelsey Hayes chrome wire wheels. The power seats in red leather look so soft and feel like silk to touch. It’s showroom condition down to the pristine cream rimmed tires, every one of the hundreds of hours he’s dedicated to this project has paid off big time. It’s perfect. “What do you think of her?”

“You missed a bit.” I tease, stepping around the car to get right up next to him. I scrunch the cuff of my long sleeve t-shirt and polish an imaginary smudge from the chrome wing mirror. He slaps my hand away from his precious car and cusses under his breath. The faint curve of a smile on his wrinkled face belies his general air of world-weary curmudgeon. I throw my arms around his neck, unbelievably pleased to see him and so happy he’s finally finished his self-confessed second favorite labor of love. “I missed you.”

“All right, all right, enough of that.” He coughs and grumbles, and his back stiffens the instant my arms reach up to hug him. His spine might be twisted with age, however he’s easily still six feet tall, with the shadow of a rock solid college quarterback still clinging to the muscles in his chest and arms. He attempts to brush off my overt affection, and I bite back on the smile exploding on my face at the joy I feel when he slyly returns my embrace. It’s brief, but it’s there, and it’s filled with love.

“She’s perfect,” I whisper, kissing his cheek before releasing my hold.

“She is.” His expression is elated with barely contained pride and joy. Falling silent, we both take a moment to appreciate the majesty of this magnificent car, the countless hours and dedication needed and lovingly given to restore it from the wreck it was to it’s bygone glory days. He’s done it. I’m so damn proud.

“So what now? Are you going to sell her?” I offer and the scowl he levels on me would make a grown man cower. It’s lucky I know he loves me.

“Would you sell Clifford?”

“Hardly the same thing, Pops, and if he was worth two hundred grand, I might.” Nudging him with my elbow he doesn’t budge an inch at my joke.

“Liar. You’d sell your soul before you’d sell that dog.” His astute retort is spot on.

“True. Still it’s a lot of money, Pops.”

“And what would I do with a stack of cash? I’ve got everything I need right here.” His arm rests heavy and strangely comforting across my shoulder, jerking me firmly to his side. My gaze follows the sweep of his other hand from left to right and all around the homestead and his castle.

“You could travel. It’s a beautiful country. You should see it before—” My voice chokes, the darkness of the end of that sentence strikes me hard and shocks me silent. Where did those words even come from? An ill shiver races across my skin. I can’t shake the image; it’s in my head and now, unfortunately, it’s out of my mouth.

“Young lady, if you say ‘before it’s too late’, you can take that skinny ass back to your truck and clear out.”

“I wasn’t going to say that.” The lie hurts more because the truth scares the shit out of me. He promised me they’d always be here. It’s the only reason I feel so secure traveling like I do, like a proper vagabond. I know it’s odd, only I’ve always felt with them here, no matter where I am in the world, I’m tethered somehow, that I’m always home. I swallow the lump clogging my throat and blink back the tears threatening behind my lids, offering up a light shrug in an effort to lift the inky dark cloud so obviously settling above me. “Pops, it’s just there’s a whole world outside of Meadow Falls, and you’re not getting any younger.”

“And you assume, since Violet and I have not traveled this great country like you, that we’ve missed out on some great adventure?” Stern and with the distinct tone of a reprimand, he faces me, piercing icy blue eyes fixing me to the spot. His silver grey hair falls in strands over his forehead and bushy eyebrows, as thick today as it was when he was a much younger man. His arm has slipped from my shoulder, and I brace for what, I’m not sure, but I’m holding my breath all the same. “I’m going to tell you a secret Max-in-a-million, and I swear I’ll deny it if you ever tell.”

Softly exhaling at the sweetness of hearing the nickname he gave me when I was a little girl, I fight the enormous grin busting to break free. It’s a wise choice, especially when he remains stoically serious. I nod, eager to hear this gem. “I’m all ears,” I urge.

He draws in a painfully slow breath, and I wonder if there are any words of wisdom or he’s just yanking my chain. Hard features soften and his face seems to light up with a lifetime of wonderful memories only he is able to access. “I’ve had the greatest adventure. I’ve spent my whole life with the woman I love in a place I call home.”

“Pops.” Sighing, I place my hand over my heart feeling it swell to the point of threatening to burst from my rib cage. I’m waiting for the eye roll when he takes my hand and fixes me with a look I’ve never seen before. His crystal clear blue eyes search my face, and when he blinks, I find myself holding my breath once more. What’s wrong?

“If I have one regret, it’s that I’m not your father. Being your grandfather makes part of what you’re saying true; I’m not getting any younger.” He ruffles my hair, his tone shifting to his version of humor. “I might just up and die before I get to see you have your own adventure.”

It’s still a little too close to the bone for me. My voice waivers. “Your not going to die, Pops. You promised. Remember?” I rush him, wrapping my arms as tight as I can around his waist, my head buried in his soft flannel shirt, filling my nostrils with the scent of engine oil, Old Spice, and him.

He kisses my head and waits for me to look up. “I remember. And trust me, I have no intention of checking out any time soon.” I believe him; he never lies.

“You’ve still got those three cars to finish, for a start.” Sniffing back the emotions messing up my head, I wipe my nose with the back of my sleeve. He lets go with a hearty laugh at my comment. “That I do, that I do. Come on, Max, let’s go and find your Nanna. She’s been baking all morning. Don’t ask me how, but I swear she knew you were coming. A sixth sense, ESP or something.”

“More like USPS. I wrote to her last week to tell her I was dropping by.” I snicker.

“Oh, right. That might be it then.” He winks and nods for us to both go inside, casting one last look at his pride and joy. Wiping his hands on his overalls, he kicks off his boots on the veranda by the back door of their small cottage. I do the same with my shoes. Violet keeps a very clean house and she’d be pleased as punch to know her tidy ways have rubbed off on me. My truck is an exception. It’s for work and has Clifford’s hair everywhere. Still, my Airstream trailer is my home, and it’s always immaculate.

“Baby girl, guess who’s here?” Pops calls out toward the kitchen out the back of the house, and I melt. Violet is a year younger than him at sixty-eight. They have been together since they were fourteen, childhood sweethearts, and he still calls her his baby girl.

“Maxime, sweetheart, look at you!” Nanna’s head pops from around the kitchen door closely followed by the rest of her. So pleased to see me she can’t contain herself, gushing with a wide smile puffing up her rosy cheeks, she rushes toward me, untying her apron as she goes. A waft of warm, fresh baked cookies seems to billow down the narrow hallway, as if the aroma is racing her slight frame to see which reaches me first. I’m engulfed in the sweet smell of her cooking and her tight embrace at the same time.

“Nanna, how have you been?”

She holds me at arm’s length and takes her sweet time to check every part of me. She’s a worrier, and despite my regular letters back, she’s never truly satisfied that I’m fine until she’s seen me with her own eyes.

“Never mind me, how are you? You know, living like you do is no life for a young lady, wandering all over like a little lost soul,” she tuts, affection coating every word of judgment.

I offer up one of J R R Tolkien’s finest quotes much to Nanna’s irritation. “ ‘Not all those who wander are lost.’

“Vi, let the girl set her ass down before you start raging on her.”

“I’m not raging; I’m concerned is all.”

“I’m fine. Clifford is well. I’m happy, Nanna.” My reassurance falls on deaf ears as she ushers me and Pops into the heart of the house. Pops is about to take his seat at the head of the table in the kitchen when Nanna raises her brow and he wanders over to join me at the sink to wash his hands. They have an easy way with each other, sharing cues, body language and silent shortcuts. Perfect symmetry from a long life lived together. I may not be like them, but I can appreciate what they have is special and rare.

“On your own, traveling all over the country. It’s not right.” She hands me a towel to dry my hands and I notice Pops smirk beside me at the sink. Nudging my side, he winks and we share a look.

“I’m not on my own.” Kissing her cheek I hop up onto the counter beside the stove and pick a cookie from the tray warming on the hot plate. Humming with utter bliss as the chocolatey goodness melts in my mouth. “Oh my lord, Nanna, these are soooo good! There’s a party in my mouth and everyone’s invited,” I blurt and instantly regret the accidental innuendo. It’s not my fault. I’m mostly surrounded by foul-mouthed farmers and filthy minded cowboys on a daily basis, and it rubs off. Thankfully, it’s the only thing that does. Nevertheless, it doesn’t go down well, and I mouth an apology around another bite of cookie and the stodgy goo filling my mouth.

“That dog of yours doesn’t count, and you know it.”

“Can he come in?”

“Has he stopped stealing food out of the trash and making a mess of my kitchen?” She drops her hip, and from the sass in her voice, I’m pretty sure the question is supposed to be rhetorical.

I answer all the same, and Pops chuckles. “Um, I’m going to go with a big no on that.”

“Then you have your answer.” Nanna folds her arms and curtly nods, putting a big fat full stop on that topic.

“Is he in your truck?” Pops asks.

“For now, but I’m making no promises he’s gonna stay put when he gets the scent of your cooking, Nanna.” I’m only partly teasing, the front window is wide open, and he does love food, whether it’s his or not.

Nanna’s eyes widen and she shakes Pops’ shoulder urging him to move. “Pops go and lock the door.”

Soft golden light burnishes the edge of the veranda as the sun gives up it’s time on the day and begins to sink into the horizon. Pops and Nanna are on the swing, and I’m in the rocker with Clifford curled up at my feet. Nanna relented, although he’s still not allowed in the house. Pops and I have a cold beer and Nanna is sipping her tea. I love and hate it here. This isn’t my life, not anymore, and when I’m away, I rarely think of home. I write my letters and I couldn’t love Pops and Nanna any more than I do, but I never really miss them. It’s strange that I only seem to feel it when I’m back. It hurts like a motherfucker, and if I’m honest with myself, it’s probably the reason I don’t visit as often as I should.

The memories.

“That was so good, Nanna.” I rub the swell of my stomach still taut from the best roast dinner and peach pie this side of a Gordon Ramsey restaurant.

“I’m glad you liked it.” Nanna beams with justified pride.

“How long are you staying with us this time, Max?”

“What kind of question is that, Pops?” Nanna slaps his knee, and he flattens her hand with his own and rolls his eyes.

“It’s a question is all.”

Nanna is mortified. “You make it sound like we’re wanting her to leave already.”

“I never did, did I?” Pops looks affronted.

“No, you didn’t. It’s fine. Honestly, I’m not sure. I have the Jackson’s farm in Montana that always needs help, and I have an open invitation to work there anytime I want, but I quite fancied heading south. Have I had any enquiries?”

“You know they have these new fangled things where you can take calls on the road. I think they call them cell phones,” Pops quips, his lips quirking around the neck of his beer bottle.

“That’s cute, coming from someone that’s only just gotten a computer.”

“Which is one more than you, Missy.” He tips his bottle my way, and I clink mine to his.

“Very true.” We both drink to my toast. “What do I need a computer for? And I’m not paying for a phone service I’m never going to use. I’ve never worked a ranch that had a decent signal. It’s just as easy to use the walkie-talkies when I’m out on the land, or there’s usually a landline on the yard for emergencies. There’s no point me having one. Besides I kinda like being off the grid.”

“Even if it makes your Nanna worry like she does.” The guilt-laden comment is moot.

“I write every week, and trust me, Nanna would worry just as much if not more, if every call kept going to voicemail because I have no reception.”

“That’s true, she’d worry if you lived behind the garage.” He pulls Nanna into a sideways hug and lightly kisses the top of her head. She looks up as he looks down, accepting his observation with an agreeing smile.

“So, has anyone called?”

“Let me get the messages.” Nanna shuffles her feet to the floor and into her slippers. She takes my empty beer bottle as she passes.

“Oooh messages, that sounds hopeful.” Rubbing my hands together; however, my excitement is short-lived.

“Sorry, I meant message. There is only one.” She returns with the pad she keeps by the phone and hands it to me.

“Oh, okay. Thank you.” I flip back a few pages to one that has my name on the top and scan the sparse notes. “Hmm, when did you get this?”

“Last week, maybe five days ago.” She looks over to Pops who shrugs, none the wiser. There’s no date.

“There’s no number. Just the address?”

“I should’ve asked. I’m sorry dear.”

“No, no problem. I can get the number from the address. Did they give any information other than help wanted?”

“Um, let me think.” She settles back on the swing, Pops takes her hand in his as she searches her memory—with the aid of divine intervention, judging from the direction her eyes are pointing. Satisfied, she drops her head and looks at me. “The man said he knew you, and he recommended you to the owner. He works on a stud farm called Elemental just outside of San Diego. He said he was mostly retired and only helps out from time to time. He sounded a bit desperate. Apparently, the owner was going to be away and he didn’t know for how long. He said he’s”—she air quotes—“too old to run the place by himself, and the others don’t know their ass from their elbows. His words. He wants someone to take charge and run the yard.”

“I do like it when I’m in charge.”

“Why is that not a surprise?” Nanna teases.

Tapping my fingers on my lips, I begin to run the logistics through my head. “It’s the right area, Southern California, and after the cattle ranch, it would be nice to get back working with horses.”

“So you’ll take it?” Pop asks.

Half nodding, I mull over the plan forming in my head and explain all the commitment I’m willing to offer at this stage. “I’ll head that way and see when I get there. I don’t like to say yes until I get a feel for the place. If Clifford and I are going to be living somewhere for a while, it needs to feel right. Another reason living like a nomad is the best life. No ties to unpleasant places or asshole people. If I don’t like it, I can just hit the road.”

“And is there anyone special we need to know about?”

In all honesty, this question has taken a little longer than normal to emerge, and I have my stock response at the ready.

“Clifford is the only ‘one’ I need.”

“Maxime, he’s a dog. A very lovely dog, but you have to give yourself a chance to find someone, someones if you have to, I just don’t want you to be alone.” Her cheeks pink right up, and I have to bite back the urge to giggle. She’s being sincere, and I know she has my best interests at heart. Still, I can’t resist making her blush a little deeper.

“Someones. Nanna, listen to you. You nearly had a heart attack when you found out that Freddie and Tiny and me had been together in the biblical sense.”

“And I’ll admit it.” She gives me a curt nod. Pride straightens her tiny frame, and she feigns nonchalance, picking imaginary lint from her skirt. “I’m from a different generation, and there’s only ever been Pops for me, so yes, I was shocked, but I was wrong. I said as much back then…after I calmed down. It’s been ten years Max. You were happy then and that’s all I want; that’s all we both want, isn’t that, right Pops?”

“Listen to your Nanna. She’s very progressive these days.” Pops winks at me, takes Nanna’s hand, and kisses the back like the true gentleman he is.

“I can see that, if she’s encouraging me to take on another two guys. Honestly, I have not found one guy that holds a candle to either Freddie or Tiny. It’s not like I only want two men in my life or it’s nothing. I don’t want any men, man, whatever. I’m not looking to settle. I’m not looking. Period.”

“Life’s too short to settle. I don’t dispute that; however, it’s also too short to not settle down.” Pops offers up his words of wisdom just as the sun finally gives up and darkness drops it’s thick cloak all around us.

“Amen,” Nanna says, and I smile. I’m not ready to commit to that ideal either.

I sleep in my trailer, even though Nanna always keeps my room made up and ready. Like everything else in Meadow Falls, it hasn’t changed since the day I left home at eighteen. I did take the opportunity of a nice long bath before bed, but Clifford would howl all night if I slept inside without him, and I we have an early start in the morning.

Despite the smell of fresh coffee, I still creep into the house. I’m not going to leave without saying goodbye to at least one of them, and Pops has always been the early riser. It’s dark, dawn is still a good hour away, and I doubt Nanna is up. I’m wrong, they are both in the kitchen, having a sneaky hug when I catch them.

“Good morning sweetheart.” Nanna breaks the hug and opens her arms to me.

“Morning, Nanna, Pops.” Hugging her and kissing both of them, I happily take the mug of steaming coffee Pops offers.

“Are you sure you can’t stay a few more nights?”

“I can’t get hold of anyone, and you said he sounded desperate,” I explain, and my gut clenches when her shoulders sink. “If it’s a no, how about I come straight back? I could spare a week, I guess.”

“Oh, we’d love that, wouldn’t we Pops?”

“We would, but don’t go making promises you can’t keep.” He warns with a sly misgiving tone.

“Never,” My retort is adamant. I point to the center of his chest when I add, “And I get that from you.”

“Would you like me to cook you up some breakfast?”

“Thank you, but it’s too early for food, and I really should make the most of the quiet roads. Trailering is slow enough as it is.”

“I understand. Well, here you go.” She hands me a packed cool bag, bursting at the seams. Her voice wobbles, and she fails to catch the tears before they fall. I can feel myself welling.

“What’s this?”

“Something for the road, and there’s something for Clifford in there too.” She pats the top of the bag.

“You’re the best. I love you.” Needing one more hug, I fall into her open arms and hold her just as tight as I can.

She exhales and releases me. “Just don’t leave it too long until the next visit.’

“I promise.”

“Here, I’ll carry that out for you.” Pops takes the cool bag, groaning dramatically from the weight. He whispers in his loudest inside voice as he passes me and heads toward the front door. “I think she’s packed enough food to feed an army.”

I snicker and follow him outside to my truck. He puts the bag on the back seat and strokes Clifford who is sitting in the front with his head hanging out of the window.

“Hey, boy, you take care of our girl, ya hear me?” Clifford is straining at the door to get closer, his tail furiously beating on the seat. Pops strokes his head, ruffles his coat roughly, and faces me.

“He does.” I’m not lying. Clifford is the best guard dog a girl could have. The breed is known for taking down lions in their native Africa, and this particular hound is known for scaring the shit out of those foolish enough to direct some unwanted attention my way, right here in the USA.

“Good.” He pats Clifford’s head one last time, and I rush to wrap my arms around his big strong chest, just to listen to the sturdy thumping sound of his big heart beneath my ears.

“And thank you.”

“Hey, hey, what are you thanking me for?”

I look up, reluctant to relinquish my hold. I can feel emotion welling alongside the tears in my eyes. “Everything.”

He draws in a deep breath and lets out a heavy sigh. “We wouldn’t have had it any other way, Max. You know that.”

“But you could’ve, and I wasn’t exactly an easy teenager, so I will always be thankful.” My lips quirk in a strange smile, awkward that the enormity of their sacrifice is never something either of them seem to want to acknowledge. And that’s the end of it.

“Call us when you get there. You know your Nanna is going to be glued to the news until she hears from you.” He says.

“I promise.”

“Good girl, now off you go.”

He kisses the top of my head, and I hug him a little tighter. Tipping on my toes to kiss his cheek when I’m at the driver side, I pause with my door half open and face him.

“Pops, you know I didn’t mean anything by what I said yesterday. I’m in awe of what you and Nanna have. I just don’t want to go there, it hurt too much. Honestly, the idea of falling in love again just terrifies me.”

“I know Max, I know.”

 

 

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