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BOOK: The Terms of Release
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“Nope.” Win gave Dan a smile and a nod. “Thanks for all your help, Dan. They give you any trouble, you holler.”

“They won’t. I’m twenty years too young to be on their radar.”

“Yeah. No shit.” Win clapped the man on the back and hopped in his truck. He had dogs to feed, and he was off duty, damn it.

This whole thing… shit, it sucked, because Sage Redding was going to get pushed into fucking up. It was inevitable, and then Sage’s ass would be back in jail, and there wouldn’t be anything his momma could do about it.

Maybe he’d stop by the Redding ranch later on and have a little chat with Sage, just to let him know someone was on his side.

Or maybe he’d just… sit in his front room with his phone off and his feet up.

It was his fucking Friday night.

He’d better enjoy it before someone did something stupid and he had to go play cop.

 

 

“H
EARD
YOU
got into a fight at the feedstore.”

Sage didn’t bother to answer his piece-of-shit brother-in-law. Hell, what the fuck was he supposed to say? He didn’t fight with anyone. He kept his peace and got on with life.

“It’s a matter of time, you know, before you fuck up again. You fucking faggots always do.” Greg spit at his feet, and Sage kept unloading Momma’s Chevy. “I went with the sheriff, warned both sets of neighbors to keep their kids inside, you know. Don’t want you sticking your dick in them.”

“Greg! Sage isn’t a… a… sex maniac.” Sage’s sister Rosie stood at the door, looking pale as milk, the dark eyeliner making her look a little like a raccoon. “He’s a good man.”

“He’s a pervert and an abomination in the eyes of God. You think he’ll be back in the slammer where he belongs before you pop that baby out? I pray he does.”

“He belongs here. This is his home. He’s my brother, damn it, and I love him.”

Sage didn’t have a chance to wallow in the words, because Greg turned on her, one hand fisted up. “Get your ass in the house, woman. Don’t you dare talk back to me.”

Sage didn’t like how she flinched and stepped back, hand on her belly. Didn’t like it at all, and he reckoned he’d have to nudge Momma on it.

Speaking of Momma, she hollered for Rosie, and as soon as Rosie disappeared inside the screen door, Greg grabbed at Sage’s arm, only getting shirtsleeve. Sage stared the evil fucker down, calm as deep water as Greg hissed, “I’ll never let you see my babies, ever. You’ll get your ass thrown back in jail, and I’ll—”

“Teddy Dale won’t get this land, Greg, no matter what you think, so you’d best let it go.” No matter what. He knew Rosie, he knew Momma, and it wasn’t going to leave the family. Their blood was sunk into the black land itself. “This is Redding land.”

Greg snorted. “Rosie’s not a Redding.”

“Sister will always be a Redding. You can’t rinse that stain off in hot water like she can from your tin wedding ring.”

Taking advantage of the sudden, shocked silence, Sage grabbed the currycomb and the spray and headed toward the barn, telling himself that he was right, that he knew his sister, his own strength.

Walking away from a fight wasn’t a natural thing, it was learned, but God help him, he knew how to do it and he would, for Daddy.

For the land.

C
HAPTER
S
IX

 

 

S
AGE
SAT
in the back of the Red Wagon, his gimme cap pulled down low and eyes on his book. He found if he came in at 8:00 p.m., right before closing, he could have a cup of coffee and a piece of pie and read without anyone giving him shit.

It wasn’t the most convenient time, but Daddy came up at six in the morning, and the older cowboys stared and sucked their teeth. At lunchtime there were the cops and the coffee klatch, and supper time was when the rednecks were looking to impress their women by protecting them from the big bad convict.

Wilma didn’t take any shit, though, and she didn’t give any, making sure his cup was full, his pie was fresh, and no one fucked with him, so he came out every night. He sat for an hour until Bulldog, Wilma’s husband, came to take her home.

Bulldog understood, and the man didn’t seem to worry that Sage was molesting anyone, so it all worked out.

Today he was eating cherry pie, carefully making sure he got a bite of cherry in each mouthful, and he was still on his first cup of coffee. The second cup was the one he waited on—the perfect balance of sugar and bitter. The little things were both the best and the scariest about being out of prison. They were so easy to take away.

Bulldog came in—long gray hair tied back in a braid, riding leathers on. “Hey, baby.”

“Hey, love. You want tea?”

“And pie, yeah. Howdy, Sage.”

“Evenin’, sir.” He nodded at Bulldog, who had an air of calm around him that was completely infectious.

The door opened again a few seconds later, the bell jingling. “Hey, Wilma,” said the man who walked in wearing a county deputy uniform. “Am I too late for pie? I heard it was cherry today.”

“Howdy, Win. Never too late. Have a sit. Coffee?”

God, police. Please, just let me sit here.

“Thanks. I can take it to go if you’re ready to go.” The cop shook Bulldog’s hand and glanced at Sage curiously.

“Nah, have a sit. We’re solid.”

Sage nodded once, focusing on his book.

The cop sat at the counter, which put his back to Sage.
Hallelujah
.

Sage kept his head down, but he couldn’t focus, couldn’t actually read even a single word, because his brain was filled with worrying. If he was smart, he’d leave, but then the damned cop might think he’d done something wrong, and he didn’t want that.

God, his head hurt.

Soon it would be 9:00 p.m., and then he’d head home so he could have the door locked for lights out and….
No. No, there wasn’t a lights out anymore.
He could go home and wait for Dan Henry to lie to him about the weather on KDFW.

“Sage? You need anything else, honey?”

“Can I have my second cup, please? Then I’ll get out of your hair.”

“Of course, darlin’.” Wilma smiled at him, her gold tooth flashing. “How’s the pie?”

“Delicious, thank you, ma’am.”

“So polite. I tell my man, I never worry at night now, because Sage is here ’til he comes for me.”

His cheeks heated, and he ducked his head when the cop glanced back at him, brows raised. “I reckon there are some who’d not say that.”

“There are a lot of assholes in this fucking town, kid.” Bulldog growled the words, the sound vibrating in the huge man’s chest. “Don’t let them get to you.”

Wilma hooted. “Preach it, stud. No offense, Win.”

“Why would I be offended?” the cop said easily, swiveling to grin at them. “I am not an asshole.”

“Nope. You just wear asshole clothing.” Bulldog gave Win a wicked smile.

Win, the cop, laughed out loud, the sound strong, like a hooty owl. “Yep. An ex-military guy like me has two choices. Become a tattooed weirdo like you or be a cop.”

“Poor, poor stupid cop.” Bulldog flexed, the wild ink shifting in the florescent lights. “When you could have been one of my enforcers.”

“I’m not your type, Bull.” Win winked at Wilma. “I could never compete.”

Wilma laughed, and Sage ducked his head again, fighting the smile that wanted out. They had an easy way together that told him maybe he didn’t need to worry so much. He didn’t even freeze when he glanced back up to see Win smiling at him.

He couldn’t find a smile, but he could nod. That worked well enough.

Win nodded back before turning to face the counter again and digging in to his food.

Sage finished his cup of coffee and managed another ten pages on his book before he handed Wilma a ten spot. “I’ll see you tomorrow, ma’am. Mr. Bulldog. Sir.”

“Night, Sage,” Bulldog said.

“Night.” Wilma smiled at him.

“Night,” Win the cop murmured, surprising him.

“Good night.” He headed out to his truck, parked under the light where he could see it.

Time to go home and feed his dog. Maybe read something more adult. That was one of the best things about having a private place. No one confiscated his books. Singing with Luke Bryan on KSCS out of DFW, he headed to the house, keeping the truck at three miles under the speed limit. When the lights came on behind him, his heart stopped.

He hadn’t been doing anything wrong. Nothing.

Sage pulled over, keeping his hands visible on the damned steering wheel, and told himself to breathe. He hadn’t done anything wrong. Nothing.

“Good evening, sir,” the deputy said when Sage rolled the window down. “License and registration?”

He got his registration and proof of insurance out of the glove box, then handed everything over, not even asking what they were pulling him over for. He knew. They were pulling him over for daring to be alive. Go him.

“Have you been drinking, sir?” The guy was all business, but Sage knew that tone of voice—embarrassment mixed with anger. Prison guards who had been told to rough up a prisoner used that same tone.

“Just coffee, Officer.” Just like last night. And the night before.

“Step out of the vehicle, please.”

“Yes, sir.” He counted backward from one hundred as he got out. God, he was tired of this shit.

“Step away from the door for a sobriety test, please.”

He gritted his teeth, his feet moving even if he didn’t want them to. The second set of lights going off behind the first made him want to scream. It was going to happen, one day there’d be something, no matter how hard he’d try, and he’d be back in jail again. It was inevitable.
But please God, don’t let it be today.

“What’s going on here, Bill?” a new voice asked, and Sage knew it, which surprised him—the cop from the diner.

“Just making a routine stop. DUI.”

“Yeah?” Win walked into the circle of light, peering at him. “Funny, I just saw him leave Wilma’s, and you know she doesn’t serve booze.”

The cop shrugged. “I got…. Sheriff said to.”

“Well, you’ve done your part. Now, move on.” Win’s voice cracked like a whip.

“Yes, sir. Win.” The kid handed Sage his driver’s license back.

Sage stood there. Was this where the man was going to start whaling on him?

“Go on, Bill. You get any flack, you tell the sheriff to talk to me.”

“Night, Win.” The lights went off, and the black-and-white headed away, leaving Sage standing there.

Waiting.

“You okay, then?” Win stood five feet away, almost as still as Sage was.

“Yes, Officer. I don’t drink.” Ever.

“No, I don’t imagine you do.” Win stepped closer, and Sage tensed, his muscles pulling in, ready for the blow he expected. So long as he could get home, that was all he needed.

“I’m not out to hurt you, Sage. Believe it or not, I’m on your side.”

“I doubt your uncle or your boss would approve of that.”
Oh Christ, Sage. Shut. Up.

“Teddy and Jim are both my uncles, believe it or not. They don’t much approve of me.” The sudden grin Win gave him made Sage want to smile, almost.

“No? They’re not my biggest fans either.”

“I know.” Win shook his head, lips pressing tight. “Look, I’ll do my best to keep the department off your back.”

“I’d appreciate that. I am keeping my nose clean. I see my parole officer. I do my piss tests. I’m good.”

“Yeah. Yeah.” Win sighed. “Look, I’m sorry, okay? Just, from someone who knows better about Angel and all.”

Sage’s eyes went wide so fast they pulled on the corners. No one but Momma had said that, ever. He wondered for a moment if it was some kind of trap, trying to get him to say something stupid, but Win just grimaced.

“I know it’s shitty to talk ill of the dead, but he never did live up to his name.” Win pulled out a card. “You call me if you need help. Okay?”

He took the card, surprised to see his hand shaking. “Thank you.”

“No problem. I mean it.” Win’s grimace turned into a warm and genuine smile. “It took guts to come back here.”

“My folks need me. I owe them.”

“Well, remember there’s more than them in your corner.”

“I appreciate it.” He just didn’t believe it. “Have a good evening, Officer.”

“You too, Sage.” Win stood there, though, staring.

He didn’t know quite what to do. “You… you done with me?”

“I—Yeah. Yeah, I’m sorry.”

“No apologies necessary. I… I’m sorry your cousin died.”

“Thanks.” Win stepped forward, thrusting a hand at him. “I—Thanks. It’s been good to meet you.”

“Shit, man.” He shook. “I’m just glad you didn’t shoot me.”

Win laughed, a short, surprised sound. “Not me. I’d be aware of how tall a hat I wore, though, if I were you.”

“I know. Thanks for the warning.” Sage backed off, feeling about ten thousand years old and almost like he’d never left the joint. It was time to get home. He should have asked Wilma for an extra piece of pie to have tomorrow. “My dog’s waiting for me, Officer. Have a safe night.”

He didn’t wait for Win’s response. He got in his truck and headed home.

C
HAPTER
S
EVEN

 

 

W
IN
THOUGHT
about calling in. Things at the office had been fucking tense, and he wanted to go fishing or something. He could plead the plague. Maybe tuberculosis.

His phone rang and he grabbed it. “’lo?”

“Win? Win, this is Wilma from the diner, honey. I need a favor.”

“Anything, lady.” He got up, figuring he’d have to head to the diner.

“Can you pop over to the Reddings’ and check on everybody? Sage hasn’t been in for four days, and he never missed once, not since he came home. Me and Bulldog, we’re worried, but my stubborn shit of a husband says he ain’t got reason to stop in.” Her voice rose, heading toward shrill. “He’s a bit of a pansyass, my old man.”

Right. Pansyass. Bulldog. Still, it might stress Mr. Redding right the fuck out to see Bulldog on his big hog pulling down the drive. Old cowboys and bikers weren’t the most natural of bedfellows. Shit. He sure hoped nothing had happened to Sage. “Sure thing, Wilma. I’ll stop by.” Hell, he’d even do it in street clothes.

BOOK: The Terms of Release
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