Three failed relationships, a miscarriage, a failed suicide attempt, losing my dream job, losing my house… oh yeah, and my cat ran away.
Ten years and that was all I had to say for myself.
Ten years of failures and misfortunes and fuckery.
This was where I’d wound up, driving back to Mom and Dad’s in Gatwick County, home to some of the largest haystacks, smallest minds, and religious homemakers in all of West Texas.
Ten years since I had sworn to myself I would never come back, and yet here I was.
I’d just hit twenty-eight, and life was looking anywhere but up.
Evan, the last guy that I’d been unfortunate enough to cross paths with, had managed to emotionally maim my life.
He fit under the failed relationship category—number three. He seemed like a nice guy at first, way nicer than I typically went for, and we even got engaged a year in.
But eventually, the frequent texts turned possessive, I couldn’t leave the house without his approval, and the yelling matches turned to blows that finally landed me in the hospital.
I let him buy me out of the house we’d purchased together for nearly nothing just so I could leave. Doctors said the stress on my body and mind was what led to the miscarriage and I shortly downed a bottle of painkillers for one final check-out.
And of course, I failed at that, too.
Then there was Nadia. Oh, vindictive and batshit-crazy Nadia.
Not only had she chosen to destroy a decade-long friendship, she had been my boss and fired my ass after I confided in her that her douche of a husband propositioned me.
As if that weren’t enough, she chose to destroy my career.
So now? No publishing company would touch me with a ten-foot pole, and I couldn’t find an editing gig to save my life.
Even the cat realized what a loser I was and beat it.
Finally, I pulled up to my parents’ country home a couple of miles south of town.
“My baby’s here!!!” Christine Bradbury, my mother, cried out as I stepped through the door.
She was the epitome of “country wife.”
She and my father had married young, straight out of high school. She never said it was because she was pregnant, but after six and a half months, I came along.
“Hey, Mom,” I said flatly, far from enthusiastic.
“Baby, I can hear that tone. You best remove that attitude before your father hears it.” I’d been here five fucking seconds and I was already in trouble.
“I just drove for thirteen hours and you’re already on my case?”
I loved my mother, I truly did, but we had always had a somewhat undernourished relationship.
My dad, however, he and I used to see eye to eye on everything…
Keywords: used to.
We would get back to that later.
The place hadn’t changed. The same antique plates stacked on their stands in the china hutch, hardwood floors, and the plush antique furniture. No one ever actually entered the ironically titled “living room.”
“In his office. Drop those bags off in your room before you say hi, okay?”
And with that, she headed back to the kitchen in her pretty white knee-length dress and floral apron.
I trudged upstairs, my heart beating out of my chest.
The last time I saw my father, the words “I will never be back here again” had graced my lips, and ten years later, look where I was.
As I shrugged off my jacket and deposited my bags into my childhood bedroom, I took in the remnants of my former self.
The room was exactly as I had left it. Posters, old CDs, and mocking me from the vanity was the crown I’d been given at homecoming.
“Face it, Paxton,” a little voice in my head muttered. “You peaked.”
Finally, too sick to my stomach to stay in that room a moment longer, I knocked on my father’s home office door.
“Come in,” I heard his gruff voice say.
The room smelled the same. Of cigar smoke and repression.
“Hey, Dad,” I said, popping my head in, hoping to find a quick exit.
“I said come in, Paxton-Rose.”
I rolled my eyes. Eyes that were the exact same blueish gray as his.
He sat in a leather chair in front of his mahogany desk, his hands folded in front of him, his salt and pepper beard nicely trimmed, and his eyes—my eyes—staring at me, full of judgment.
He gazed over my bare arms, covered in full sleeve tattoos, disapprovingly and leaned forward.
“I distinctly remember the last time we saw each other you were set on never stepping foot in this town again.”
“Dad, I came to visit. Is that so wrong?”
So I left out the part about my life collapsing upon itself, so what? He didn’t need to know that. Not now. His expression softened a bit, and I was reminded of the man I used to love.
“I’m sorry. It’s just a surprise is all.”
“You’re telling me,” I said. “Anyway, I’ll see you later.”
“Not too late, all right?”
“Yes, Dad.” I cringed as the words come out.
Hurrying down the stairs, I saw my mother busying herself, and all I could ask myself was: How could she stay with him? After everything he had done? She was a fool then and a fool now, I guess.
I’d just gotten here and already felt claustrophobic. I needed to get the hell out of the house.
Without giving it a second thought, I stepped back outside, got into my car, and started driving. Nowhere in particular because in a small town such as this there really wasn’t a place to go.
I drove aimlessly past a small one-story building that used to be my old elementary school, where grades kindergarten through fifth grade were all in one classroom.
Made my way past the cemetery where my me-maw and pa-pa were buried.
Then finally, while sitting at the town’s one stoplight, I saw the neon beer signs of Ollie’s, a local watering hole.
It was like a beacon calling to me.
After waiting five more minutes for the red light to change, I parked and walked through the door.
Yep, nothing like a drink to wash down the taste of ten wasted years and an unhappy reunion.
It wasn’t every day you see a girl that fine in Ollie’s. I was sitting with my MC number two, Patch, and his old lady, Trixie, taking a break from our Red Riders duties. Never mind that we had perfectly good booze back at the clubhouse. Trixie had wanted to go out.
Patch was your typical biker—leathers, tattoos, and one hell of a tough man in the ring, though, when it came to Trixie, he was an obedient puppy dog.
But from the moment I saw her walk back up to the bar for another drink, I was glad Trixie had dragged us out.
Black heels, ripped skinny jeans that cupped her tight ass, a flowy top that looked like it could be torn off with nothing but a pinky, and dozens of tats covering her bare arms.
She downed and ordered drinks like she was on a mission. Within five minutes, she was already on her third shot.
Clearly someone with baggage.
To say I was turned on would be putting it fucking lightly.
“Well, look who it is. Paxton-Rose Bradbury!” Ollie, the hick bartender, said in his West Texas accent, which was stronger than most. While most seemed to find his twang endearing, I found it annoying as fuck.
Regardless, the mystery girl now had a name.
“Hey, Ollie.” She nodded, disinterested.
“What brings the sheriff's daughter back to Gatwick County?”
The sheriff's kid? It would be just like that asshole to have a smoking-hot daughter. The bastard had been watching my every move since I got out of lockup ten months ago.
Yes, I knew I’d fucked up my life big time, but, hey, everyone deserved a chance at redemption, right?
And who better to keep me on the righteous path than a tasty morsel like this Paxton-Rose Bradbury?
“C’mon, Ollie,” she said. “Can’t a girl visit her parents once in a while?”
She grabbed a bottle from behind the bar and filled her glass to the brim a fourth time. Ollie didn’t protest.
“Darlin’,” Ollie said, “a girl like you doesn’t return to a place like this unless shit’s gone sideways. So. Who was he?”
She lifted an eyebrow, surprised, downing the drink in one gulp.
“Let’s just say...he isn’t worth wasting this nice little buzz I got going on.”
She was starting to slur. I couldn’t believe any man would let this fine piece of ass go. What was the dumbass thinking?
She was the right kind of confident. I mean you had to be to show up here and drink on your own.
And she was the right kind of vulnerable.
“So, what ya doing here instead of at home with the folks?” Ollie asked.
Good question, Ollie. Ten points, son. You’re not as dumb as you look.
“Oh, you know, every family’s gotta have the resident alcoholic…figured it might as well be me!”
“Now that’s a non-answer if I’ve ever heard one. When’s the last time ya saw ’em?”
“If fingers were years, I’d say this many,” she said, holding up both hands.
“Ten years?” Ollie said, surprised. “Whoa! Not that it’s any of my business…”
“But shouldn’t ya be spendin’ time with ’em? Seeing as how ya haven’t seen ’em in such a long time?”
She shrugged. “What’s the point? I don’t even know them anymore. And I don’t plan on sticking around here long enough to find out.” Her voice started getting louder as she began gesturing more with her arms.
“Everyone thinks my father is this wonderful man…” she said, trying to tap the end of her nose twice but missing. She was well past tipsy. “But if only they knew the truth, his pristine fucking reputation will be blown to smithereens.”
Daddy issues. I can work with that. I said to myself while putting out my cigar. Law says we’re not supposed to smoke in public, but Ollie knew better than to say anything.
“Hate to break it to ya, darlin', but ain’t a parent out there who’s 100 percent,” Ollie replied.
“Yeah.” She waved him off. “But anyway, what about you? Besides the bar, what else have you done? Wife? Kids? Husband?” She threw back a fifth shot.
Why the hell isn’t he cutting her off?
Ollie let out a laugh. “No, darlin’. I was waitin’ on ya to roll back into town, and look at that, my patience has been rewarded. You and me can start that relationship I always wanted.”
The fucker was after my woman. Okay, I knew she wasn’t my woman, but she was going to be. And this asshole needed to stay away.
“Con… you got this round?” Patch interrupted my recon mission.
“Yeah, in a minute.” I continued to observe the two.
“Ollie, as flattering as that is”—Paxton stood up and wobbled slightly—“I should get back before I drink you out of business.”
“All right, I’ll let you go this time.” Ollie grinned. “But just so you know, I’ll just keep comin’ until ya give this man a chance.”
“Goodnight, Oleander MacDermot,” Paxton said, swaying her tight body and sauntering out.
But not alone.
No, I was gonna make sure she got home safe. She was way too far-gone to be driving.
“Patch, grab the bikes and follow me,” I ordered. “You ride mine. Trixie, take Patch’s.”
Stepping outside, I approached the girl they called Paxton-Rose Bradbury as she was trying to open her car door.
“Hey, honey,” I said. “Why don’t you give me the keys and I’ll take you home?”
She turned and looked at me. And for the first time, I saw her eyes up close.
Gray, blue—fuck, I didn’t know what they were. All I knew was they were mesmerizing.
She considered me, then my two friends, and frowned.
“I don’t even...even know you guys,” she slurred.
“Well, let’s fix that,” I said, smiling. “My name is Connor, Connor Steel. And you are?”
I knew her name, of course, but I wanted to give her the chance to introduce herself. Instead, she just smiled with those pink pouty lips and inched closer to me.
“Connor Steel,” she said. The sound of my name on her mouth was enough to drive any man nuts. But she was drunk, and I wasn’t about to take advantage.
“I’m Paxton, Connor Steel. And I can assure you that I am...quite fun—fine, I mean, to drive.”
Fun and fine, I had to agree, but I snatched the keys out of her hands.
“You’ll thank me later. C’mon. I’ll take you home.”
And with that, I walked to the driver’s side. Paxton gave me a curious look just then.
“Who are you, Connor Steel?”