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Authors: BA Tortuga

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BOOK: The Terms of Release
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He shook his head and sighed, shooing the gnats and moving his bundle of shingles and tar paper to the edge of the barn. “Daddy? You down there? I’m fixin’ to drop the shingles.”

“Yep. I’m out of the way, Son.”

“Good deal.” The bundle went down, and then he gathered the tools and nails and shimmied down the ladder, his knees screaming.

“All patched up. Looks good up there.” Better than he’d feared, honestly.

“Good deal. Come on and have a sandwich.”

“Pimento cheese or ham?” Momma only made two kinds.

“Ham. Though she makes me turkey now. Says it’s better for my cholesterol.”

“Ah. Well….” What was he supposed to say about that, exactly?

“Yep. Now you’re here, I might get me a pimento cheese.”

“I bet you do.” They shared a conspiratorial little grin. Momma did love feeding people. All he’d have to do was ask once, and Momma would make a shit-ton of pimento cheese.

“Tell her to ease off on the pepper this time, Son? Last time my tongue damn near burned off.”

“Well, if it’s been that long since you had it.” He winked, unwrapping his sandwich and his chips.

“I think she’s bored. Not enough people to cook for. She applied for a job at the diner. Your momma, working in that place.” Daddy spit on the ground. “I won’t have it. I’ll provide for her.”

“You will. She’ll see.” He’d get profit back into this place if it killed him.

“She will.” Daddy nodded and leaned back against the barn, his hands shaking.

Sage bit back the instinctive “are you all right” that wanted to come out. Daddy didn’t need him pointing things out. Getting old sucked, and Parkinson’s sucked harder. It was what it was.

The crunch of boots on the track made them both look up, but it was only Momma, smiling, carrying a little covered dish. “I decided you two needed cobbler.”

“Apple?” he asked.

“Peach?” That was Daddy.

“Blackberry. June brought me a huge load.”

June was Momma’s best friend—a weird, hippy-dippy old woman with about a dozen cats, a huge garden, and an art studio where she sold scary dolls to witchy people in Austin and Houston.

Sage had always been a little in awe of June, but she was good to his Momma.

“Did you give her all that wood I picked up for her?”

Momma shook her head. “No, sir. She looked like she’d been beat. The MS crawls all up in her. I thought Sage could drop it off on his way to the feedstore.”

He fought the immediate urge to say no. He didn’t want to leave the ranch, not yet. He bit back the no. He needed to cowboy up. They needed him strong.

“Sure, Momma. Whatever you need.”

“Tomorrow. Today, you’re Daddy’s. I’m cooking chicken and dumplings for supper.”

“That sounds good, honey,” Daddy said, smiling.

Momma beamed, then headed off, all the dogs following her—pit bulls and hounds, collies and mutts wagging like she was magic.

“Lord have mercy. Look at that.”

Daddy hooted. “Them beasts love her.”

“They do.” He chuckled. “She’s the crazy dog lady.”

“That’s it. Woman will send us all to the poor house, feeding them.” Daddy watched her walk, all the way back to the house. “Did she threaten you to make you come back here?”

“No.” No, and his reasons were his own. He hoped Daddy took the flat response for what it was.

“Good. Let’s get the stalls cleaned up. I want to introduce you to all the new girls.”

Sage asked the question he didn’t want to. “Did you sell Sugarbaby?”

He hadn’t seen hide nor hair of the mare. Daddy’d given her to Sage for his fourteenth birthday, and she’d just been getting to her prime when he’d gone.

“Nope. She’s out in the pasture with the rest of ’em. She dropped her fourth foal this spring. I hadn’t worked her for a while.”

“She still bite before she decides to be nice?” He was glad she was still there. He’d missed that silly horse.

“Yep. She throws a pretty foal, though.”

“She’s a good girl.” They ate, working through the cobbler and a couple-three Cokes. He patted his belly. Damn. He was going to gain fifty pounds in a month.

“I know, but you’ll work it off. Come on.” Daddy gave his hand a pointed look before he grabbed a pitchfork. “Let’s get on it.”

“Yes, sir.” Sage started gathering up shingles and nails, knowing he had to get it all up or the animals would end up with injuries.

“Maybe this afternoon we’ll take the four wheelers down and look at the horses.”

He grinned, looking forward to that. “I’d like that a lot.”

Daddy nodded, and that was that. “Then we’d best get to work.”

He could breathe, really breathe, and the hot, humid air tasted damn good in his throat. Sage got back to work, his muscles aching because he was doing real labor instead of slinging weights in the exercise yard or chunking boxes. Good work.

Something in him still waited for the bells to ring, for the sounds of steel doors clanging together. For the random acts of violence. He still spent most of his time waiting to duck. His shoulders spent most of their time up around his damned ears.

Still, worried and out here with the horses was better than in. Any day. The dark place inside him might only be about 10 percent filled with sunlight and home, but that was better than it had been.

Whatever he got, Sage thought he’d better take it. A man never knew when his life was gonna change.

C
HAPTER
F
IVE

 

 

“C
HRIST
, I
need a day off.” Win’s neck felt like someone had frozen it with that liquid nitrogen stuff. The whole fucking county had lost their minds in the last few days, and if it wasn’t for the dog food he needed to pick up for Mrs. Simpson and that old mean basset mix she’d rescued, he’d be home letting his new showerhead work out the kinks.

“Me too.” Grace winked. “Don’t forget you need dog food for Lucy Simpson, and lightbulbs.”

“Lightbulbs. Right.” He’d stop by the feedstore. They had a little section of hardware.

“You’re not on the schedule tomorrow. I’d keep your phone off, if I was you.”

“Thanks, lady.” He could so do that. Or at least he could pretend to keep it off unless Grace or one of the other ladies sent a real distress signal.

He wandered out to his truck, whistling tunelessly, sighing at the weather. Fucking September. Fucking heat.

Everyone all over the country was going on about fall. Not in Texas. No, it was hot as the hinges of Hell.

He slipped into his truck and turned on the AC and the radio in damn near the same motion. The cab was so hot his skin prickled up with goose bumps, a cold sweat breaking out on his upper lip.

Okay. Okay, what the fuck had he been heading out to do? Feedstore. Dog food. They were expensive beasts, neighbors.

He pulled out onto the frontage road, whistling along to Alan Jackson, wishing he’d brought a bottle of water from the station fridge. At least when he looked in the rearview, his lips were coming back from that blue tone they’d taken on. Thank heavens for air conditioning.

He pulled into the feedstore lot and parked beside Carrie Walter’s little pink pickup. Lord, that woman’s husband was something else. She was a harpy when she drank, but she was hilarious on coffee and doughnuts.

The place was busy but weirdly quiet, with a little group up by the counter all huddled and whispering.

He had to fight the urge to sneak up on them and yell, “Boo!”

“Win. Evening.” Johnny Barnette nodded to him. “How you doing?”

“Just fine. How are y’all?”

Carrie looked at him and whispered, “Is that Sage Redding in the back? The one that murdered Angel? Why’s he back in town?”

Win glanced around, wondering why everyone was talking about that now. “Well now, Miss Carrie, I do hear Sage Redding is back. I would be careful calling him a murderer, though.”

“It’s what he is. A goddamn convict.” Bill Waters spit on the floor. “Why didn’t they keep him in California?”

God, there were times small towns were vicious. “I need some dog food, Johnny.”

“Surely. You picking up the Simpson bag?”

“Yep. There was something else.” Damn it, something hardware? Shit.

A little pocket cowboy came up to the counter, a bottle of Vetericyn wound spray, a currycomb, and a dog collar in his hand. Win gave the man a sideways once-over, and the guy looked familiar, but not so much that Win could say hi.

Everyone stared at the man, no one saying a word. Finally, he sighed softly and placed the items on the counter. “I need two hundred pounds of sweet feed, fifty pounds of whatever dog food Ellen Redding uses, please, along with these things.”

“How you gonna pay for it, son?” Johnny’s lip actually curled.

“My daddy, Sam Redding, called you earlier today, Mr. Barnette, and told you to put it on his account. He also paid his account down, so there is room to charge it.” The words were soft, gentle.

“Well, your daddy’s money is fine here, but I ain’t sure you’re welcome.”

Lord. Win shook his head. “Johnny.”

“What? I don’t have to serve him, I don’t want to. That’s in the law. I don’t serve convicts. Murderers.”

“Your prerogative.” The items were left there in a little pile as Redding turned and walked out.

Win raised a brow at Johnny. “You gonna make his old man come get the order? You know how it is with him, John. You gonna make Mrs. Redding do it?”

“I… I don’t want his type in here, Win. It ain’t safe.”

“He’s done his duty to society, Johnny.” Win believed that. After seeing Sage in person, he believed it even more.

“You tell that to your Uncle Teddy.” Carrie Walter’s voice was low, hurt. “There’s never been a man that came out of prison better than he went in.”

“I’ve told that to my uncle, both of them—Teddy and Jim—but then, I don’t think Sage Redding was all that bad when he went to prison in the first place.” He snapped his hat against his thigh, so damned frustrated he could stomp a bit. God, he was sick of the whole Angel was a saint bullshit, even after all these years.

“Win!” His name snapped out so fast he couldn’t quite tell which one got it out first. They all stared at him, and he shook his head and sighed.

“I need Mrs. Simpson’s dog food, y’all.”

Johnny tried to stare him down, but Win was used to dealing with way worse, and he tried to be patient. Finally Johnny grunted and gathered up the dog food and the lightbulbs when Win remembered that was what he was there for.

He headed out about the time Ellen Redding came slamming through the door like a short round redheaded avenging angel.

“John Barnette, you lousy motherfucker! I covered your ass when you were shitfaced and drove your truck into my fence, I went to the doctor with SueAnn when Billy Cooper knocked her up, and I have never once bad-mouthed you, and you refuse to serve my son?”

Carrie opened her mouth, and Ellen pointed a finger at her. “Don’t you say a word, you sanctimonious whore. You think I won’t go to Brother Howard’s wife and tell her that you’re the feet sticking out from underneath the pulpit, you got another thing coming. You stuck-up pieces of shit, so scared of the goddamn sheriff and his brother that you treat a decent man like a pariah?”

Then she turned on Win. “And you!”

He held up his hands. “Hey. I defended him. Ask them. They’d be happy to rat me out.”

“Give me my goddamn order, and I’ll be going into Greenville for my business from now on.” She looked at each and every one of them in turn, staring them down. “And you’d best pray I don’t decide to start singing your secrets to everyone who’ll listen. This is a tiny town, and my family’s had its skeletons pranced around this place like prize ponies. Y’all so much as breathe hard on my son and there will be hell to pay, you mark my words.”

Johnny stood there like he was frozen, but his cashier, Dan, started loading up the order, never saying a word. Only Win knew that Dan had a couple of misdemeanor drug charges on his record. Maybe Dan knew how Sage felt.

She handed over a credit card and paid the bill. “I have my truck. Are any of you assholes going to help me load three hundred pounds of feed, or are you going to sit there with your teeth in your mouths?”

“Just let me put these lightbulbs in my truck, ma’am. I’ll help out.” Win thought Sage’s momma was something else.

“Fine. I’ll be outside.” She turned on her heel and headed out, leaving a bunch of gasping people behind her.

Win ducked his head, hiding his grin. “Dan, if you get it outside, I’ll help load.”

“I got it.” Dan started moving the bags on the dolly, whistling as he went.

Ellen stood by her truck, lips tight, arms crossed.

“Mrs. Redding. I’m sorry about this.” Not that Win had done it, but it was only right to let her know he felt bad.

“I am too. He’s a good man and we’re good customers.”

“They only know what they’re told. My uncles….” Win trailed off. Why state the obvious?

“Have their heads so far up their asses they fart and think it’s flowers?”

Damn, she was good at that. He grinned a little. “Yes, ma’am. That’s exactly what I was thinking.”

“Thank you for your help.”

“Mrs. Redding?” Dan put the dog food in her truck. “If you need an order, you can call me direct and I’ll take care of getting it to you.”

“I’m not sure, Danny. I don’t know if I want to spend my money with John.” She reached out and touched Dan’s shoulder. “I won’t put you out of a job, though, don’t worry.”

“Thank you, ma’am. You be careful going home.”

“I will.” Ellen glanced back at Win. “You’re nicer than your family.”

He snorted, the sound surprised right out of him and resembling nothing more than a buffalo with a nose cold. “Uh, thanks.”

“Anytime. Thank you for your help and your service in the military. If I catch anyone you work with harassing my son, I’m holding you personally responsible.”

“Sure. Just call me.” He handed her a card before she could slip away, then watched her drive off. “Wow, Dan. That lady is something else.”

“She is. She’s pissed. I don’t envy any of those guys in there.”

BOOK: The Terms of Release
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