Gravel crunched under the wheels of the sleek black sports car as it pulled into the nearly empty lot in front of the gray, weathered building, and parked next to an ancient, faded-red pickup truck.
Jason Caldwell released his grip on the steering wheel, took a deep breath, exhaled slowly then turned off the car. He stared out the window at the Spanish moss hanging from the centuries-old trees and the thick vegetation edging the clearing. Yanking the keys out of the ignition, he pounded his fist on the leather-covered wheel, wishing things were different. They weren’t though. No amount of wishing would change what had happened. He’d been given no choice, and he’d broken the one promise he’d sworn on his soul to keep.
Opening the door, he stepped out of the low-slung car and locked it, shaking his head in silent laughter afterward. City habits had little place in the bayou, hours from what most people would term “civilization”. What was foreign and scary for his friends and co-workers was normal and right here. It was the same way he’d felt when he’d arrived in the city years ago. He inhaled deeply, the earthy scent of the trees and soil filling his lungs, welcoming him home. The land didn’t care about promises made between people. It knew who belonged there and who didn’t. His grandma had always told him the land would always call home those who belonged to it. It had called them home after leaving for the war. It had called to him with increasing frequency over the years. He’d resisted. Until now.
Shoving a hand through his hair, he crossed the lot and paused at the bottom of the steps. The two-story, gray-wood building was exactly as he remembered. Windows on either side of the door were open, drawing in the slight breeze and giving him hope that at least the owner would be there.
This was the last building he’d seen before he’d left ten years ago and the last place he should have ever come back to. Gator’s had been the only bar, restaurant, general store and post office in the area for years until someone had gotten the bright idea to offer outrageously priced tours to city dwellers. He’d walked away from Gator’s early in the morning with his ID and fifty dollars in his pocket—all the money he and his sister had. He’d sent cash back several times then finally a debit card so she could have money whenever she needed it. He still stuck money in there every payday. She’d used it sporadically at first, but hadn’t touched it in seven years.
The steps creaked as he climbed them. A single rocking chair sat on one side of the porch, topped by a threadbare cushion. A hard-back chair had been placed next to it with three matching chairs clustered together on the other side of the porch. He could almost hear the voices of the old grandfathers arguing and swapping war stories. Taking a deep breath, he grasped the knob and pulled. Slightly surprised when it actually moved, he stood still for a minute before stepping into the dimly lit room.
“We closed at dusk. Best be on your way,” a male voice yelled from somewhere out of sight. The Cajun drawl sang to his soul, reminding him of what he’d been missing and what he’d worked hard to remove from his own voice and vocabulary.
Jason’s gut clenched. The voice was deeper than he remembered, but familiar in a way only one man’s had ever been. Jason had been expecting to meet his sister or at least Bob, Gator’s son and his father’s best friend. Unable to move or speak, he stared toward the back corner where he knew a small kitchen and storeroom were located, in addition to the stairs that lead up to the private second floor. A mixture of excitement and horror coursed through him.
“Damned city dwellers. Don’t you hear?” The voice was different this time, one Jason didn’t recognize. “We’re closed.”
Bright light flooded the room, chasing away the shadows and dim lights. Jason blinked rapidly, trying to force his eyes to adjust. “I-I was looking for… I’m supposed to meet Miri here.”
“No one here by that name.”
“Miriam Caldwell. She doesn’t live here. She lives over in on Willow Cove with—”
“You sonofabitch! You have a lot of nerve showing up here after all this time!”
Jason swallowed and stepped forward, the man’s face and voice coalescing. Black hair and brown eyes, a beard that was starting to grow in. The soft features of a young man had sharpened into that of a man and spoke experience. It would be a sexy combination on the right man. Any other man, Jason admitted to himself.
“Randy.” The name escaped through ground teeth.
Randall Biddeaux. Jason clenched and unclenched his fists. The man had destroyed his life and Jason had promised he’d kill the older man if he ever saw him again. Time was supposed to heal wounds, dulling anger and the desire for vengeance. He wasn’t so sure. He hated Randy as much now as he had ten years ago. Killing him wouldn’t help the situation. Jason took another breath and let it out slowly. Maybe, time made a way for logic to triumph over anger and hatred.
“What in the hell are you doing back here?” Randy asked, walking over to him.
“And you chose to stop here first?” Randy stopped several feet from him and folded his arms over his chest.
Jason shook his head. “Miri said it was easier to get in and out of here for her.”
“You took his heart and soul with him when you left. You should have stayed away.”
Shawn. Randy’s younger brother and Jason’s best friend. Jason nodded, his heart constricting. “I didn’t—”
He stopped and stared at the dark-haired man entering the room. He’d filled out, gained a man’s body, but his blue eyes were haunted, carrying more pain than Jason had imagined anyone could.
“Didn’t what? Mean to stay away? Mean to come back?” the newcomer asked standing next to Randy, his arms crossed over his chest.
“Shawn.” The name came out little more than a whisper. Jason took a step forward. Years of pain and regret flooded him. He stumbled and fell to his knees.
“Answer me. I deserve an answer damned it!”
“Yes,” Jason whispered, nodding.
“What kind of bullshit answer is that?” Randy demanded.
Anger rushed through Jason, and he pulled himself to his feet. He’d been forced to leave and promised to never return, to never set foot in the county again. Because of who he’d fallen in love with. “Like you give a shit, Randy.”
“Why you little—”
“Let me handle it, brother,” Shawn Biddeaux ground out, closing the distance between them.
Jason’s gaze stayed riveted on Shawn. The only man he’d ever loved. The only man he’d ever wanted to spend his life with. The one man he wasn’t allowed to have. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. I swear. I had no choice.”
“Bullshit! You had no choice?” Disbelief was evident in Shawn’s voice.
Time slowed to crawl as Shawn drew back his arm and swung. Jason stood still as the fist connected with his jaw. He had it coming. While he knew why he’d disappeared, Shawn had been left without answers or anyone to turn to. Jason staggered backward, fell against a table then landed on the floor.
He shook his head then pulled himself to his feet, wiping the blood from the corner of his mouth. “Yeah, no choice. I didn’t want to leave. Your daddy and mine confronted me, said they knew all about us. They said I wasn’t welcomed here anymore and that it was better for you and on you if I left, since they knew I was the one who tried to seduce you. I promised to never come back.” He winced at the half-lie. There was more, but it wouldn’t do any good for Shawn to learn the truth. His life was here in the bayou with his friends and family. Jason’s was in the city, with people he’d met through work.
“If I had left voluntarily, on good terms, don’t you think I would have been back for Grandma Caldwell’s funeral. Not only was I not there, but I’ll bet you every penny I have, I wasn’t even mentioned by anyone in my family or yours.”
“So why now? Why come home now after all these years?”
“Miri called. Your daddy asked me to come home because my daddy is dying.”
“Miri? She knew how to get a hold of you all this time?”
Jason nodded. “She’s called several times in the past couple weeks. The last time, your daddy got on the phone, told me himself I needed to come home. Both he and my daddy wanted to see me one last time.”
“She never… She always said she didn’t know where you were or how to reach you. Told me I was better off forgetting about you. That you were gone for good.”
“I made her promise not to tell anyone. I didn’t want anyone to get in trouble. Not because of me.”
“Wait, you said you had no choice. That they confronted you. Blamed you. How did they find out?” Shawn asked, pulling a chair out from the table and sitting down hard. “We were careful. Nobody knew.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Jason said flatly. “I came back at my daddy’s request, but I wasn’t asked to come home.”
“You’re leaving again?” Randy demanded. “You come all this way with this bullshit story, and you’re leaving again? You really don’t give a shit about anyone else but yourself do you?”
Jason pinned Shawn’s older brother with a glare. “Yes. And you know damn well I have no choice and never did.” Pent-up anger and frustration rushed forward, followed quickly by guilt as he realized he’d broken another promise. He’d always known who’d told on them. Turning away from Randy, he dropped to his knees in front of the man who still held his heart. “Shawn, I was eighteen and scared for you. For us. Of our daddies. Of what would happen if I stayed.”
“You should have trusted me.” Shawn’s voice broke. “Told me. Taken me with you.”
“I couldn’t.” Jason stood, pulling Shawn up with him and wrapped his arms around the man who had never left his heart. “Our daddies took me to my gram’s then brought me here. I walked to the highway and hitched a ride to the next town. Grandma Caldwell fed me and gave me my grandpa’s watch before I left. We both knew it would be the last time we’d see each other.”
“You could’ve come back for me,” Shawn argued, pulling away from Jason. “I’d have left with you.”
Randy shuffled his feet and blurted out, “I was stupid okay? I thought it was wrong and disgusting. I didn’t realize how bad I’d fucked up until it was too late, after you stopped caring about anything else. I didn’t know he was your entire world.”
“You sonofabitch! I ought to—”
Jason grabbed Shawn and pulled him back into his arms. “Randy’s still your brother. Leave him be. I never stopped loving you, Shawn. Not one day passed when I didn’t think of you at least once. I wanted to share every new experience with you. Wanted nothing more than to hold you when all I had were memories to keep me warm.”