In late September, twilight turned to darkness with little warning. Turning off County Highway 12, Adam Collins braked hard, and the rear end of his Charger, loaded with what few personal possessions he’d accumulated during twelve years in the Marine Corps, swerved on the mud and loose gravel. He cursed and steered out of the skid, but the car’s highbeams veered crazily in a white swath across Brookhaven. The house loomed black and huge, sharp-angled peaks and chimneys jutting from the top of the hill into the foreboding gray sky. For a moment the headlights illuminated a woman’s curvaceous figure, tall and proud on one of the second-floor balconies, her outstretched arm pointing through the rain toward the cottonwoods lining the creek at the bottom of the hill. Only after he parked in the first available spot at the bottom of the driveway and began the long walk up the semicircular gravel drive did his tired brain realize the too-still figure was actually a wooden figurehead from a sailing ship.
The incongruity jerked him out of his driving fog, then made him laugh. Whoever owned the house now had a screwed-up sense of place. They couldn’t choose a decoration more wrong for a historic mansion looming over the prairie surrounding Walkers Ford, South Dakota.
A group of men huddled under the overhang protecting the door to the kitchen. Cigarette smoke drifted downwind to Adam. He recognized a few of the men by the set of their shoulders or the way they held their cigarette. A whispered, “Adam’s here?” reached his ears, but he just gave the group a nod as he passed, moving quickly to retain the element of surprise. Bright patches of yellow light on the grass mirrored the enormous first-floor windows, and excited girl chatter drifted from the open front doors. He climbed the three slate slabs forming the steps to the front door, and strode into the entry hall. Light blinded him and he blinked, as much from the high-gloss clear coat on the polished oak parquet floor and grand staircase climbing to the second floor as the shock of seeing his fiancée in his best friend’s arms.
But while Keith Herndon had been his best friend for going on fifteen years, Delaney wasn’t his fiancée anymore. She’d been engaged to Keith for four months, and not Adam’s for eight. All conversation in the huge room halted as everyone turned to stare at the man who shouldn’t be there. His mouth open with shock, Keith’s arm tightened reflexively around Delaney’s shoulders. She’d frozen mid-gesture, her hands raised, fingers splayed as if she were being held at gunpoint, or pleading for quiet with the elementary school students she counseled. Before the surprise they’d looked happy, his ex-fiancée and his best friend from childhood. A matched pair, really, both the product of Norwegian ancestors that settled in the eastern part of South Dakota, with blond hair, blue eyes, and fair skin still tanned from a summer of sunbathing on the artificial lake on the county’s golf course, where the Walkers and the Herndons both lived.
“Well, goodness gracious, if it isn’t Adam!” Delaney’s mother broke the silence with this genuinely pleased exclamation. A crowd of the town’s middle-aged female residents, all cooing and exclaiming, surged around Mrs. Walker, carefully avoiding the cane her Parkinson’s diagnosis only recently had forced her to use. Adam had time only to blink before he was engulfed in a cloud of competing perfumes and big hugs from Mrs. Walker, and Mrs. Lerner, his junior-year English teacher. Welcome home, we’re so glad you’re back; a credit to the town; such a long drive, you didn’t do it all in one day, I hope, and similar phrases bombarded him before he managed to get a little space.
“No, ma’am,” he said to Mrs. Lerner. “I got as far as Grand Junction and stopped for the night. Came the rest of the way today.”
“You should have told someone,” she said. “We would have had a reception for you. It’s not every day one of our own comes home from active duty service. Are you a civilian now?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. His separation became official just a few days earlier, but the title of civilian didn’t fit. Neither did former Marine. Marine was all he’d been for the last twelve years. In January he’d start graduate school in South Dakota State’s architecture program. Between now and then, he had a few loose ends to tie up.
Performing the duties of a best man headed that list. He squared his shoulders, crossed the slick, gleaming floor, stopped in front of them, and held out his hand to Keith.
“Congratulations,” he said.
Keith reached out and gave Adam’s hand a firm shake. “Thanks,” he said.
Adam then turned to Delaney. “Congratulations, Delaney.”
She said his name in the quiet, tempered voice he’d heard ten thousand times, in person, over the phone, over Skype. The pitch had transformed from girlish to womanly over the last ten years, but always held a note of unshakable certainty. Delaney knew wrong from right when he was still fucking that up.
“It’s so good to see you,” she continued, “but we weren’t expecting you until a couple of days before the wedding. You didn’t need to come so early.”
He just looked at her, the woman he’d planned to marry when he left the Corps. “I came home, Delaney.”
She blushed. “Oh. Of course you did.”
“I’ve got some things to do,” he said. Find an apartment. Sort through the boxes stored in his mother’s garage for the last twelve years. Start the internship arranged by an organization that helped veterans transition back into civilian life. Among other things.
But Delaney didn’t ask, a simple reminder that his list of objectives was no longer her concern. Conversation flowed around them. Delaney’s mother and a couple of aunts from Minnesota discussed table arrangements and decorations with a confident-looking woman in a black pantsuit carrying a clipboard, who could only be the wedding coordinator, in town from Brookings to get familiar with the venue.
The acoustics in the enormous room brought him low-voiced snatches, words like candelabra and deployments, tablecloths and red rose centerpieces, such a strain on relationships, ivy and white lights, candles, the contingency plan of an awning over the entrance in case it rained on the wedding day, three weeks away.
“Excuse me,” Delaney said. “I really should talk to Stacey about the tent.”
“It’s not going to rain on our wedding day,” Keith said confidently.
Delaney looked back at her fiancée. “We should be prepared,” she said before the knot of people absorbed her.
“Long drive?” Keith asked easily.
“Fifteen hours,” Adam said as he looked around. The last half of the drive had been through a cool, rainy front carpeting Nebraska and South Dakota; his eyes were gritty with exhaustion and strain, and the room looked almost surreal. The crystal chandelier overhead refracted modern electric light while antique-looking sconces cast soft pools on the parquet flooring. Floor-to-ceiling windows lined the west-facing wall, Delaney’s family reflected in the glass. At either end of the room a fire burned in a tall fireplace, but while the mantel and woodwork remained intact around the smaller of the two, bricks, plaster, and lathing framed the taller fireplace.
Memory flashed in his mind, the picture made hazy by time and his blood alcohol level at the time. His hands, holding a pry bar and a hammer, as he balanced precariously on a ladder and ripped another square of hundred-and-thirty-year-old [CE1] oak paneling from the wall. Marissa’s face, wet with tears, brown eyes enormous, pleading as she reached up the ladder, her hands plucking at his ankles.
Drunk teens surrounding a fire roaring not in the fireplace but in the backyard. Cheers erupting skyward as he carried more of the paneling outside and hurled it onto the flames. Yeah, he’d gotten that party started, all right. Burning most of Brookhaven’s irreplaceable wall was just the beginning of what he’d destroyed that night.
He cleared his throat. “How’d you talk the new owners into clearing out the furniture for a wedding reception?”
“We didn’t,” Keith said. “Marissa owns the house. Bought it back for taxes owed five, maybe six years ago. She’s been renovating it ever since. Jesus, man, you’d think you’d been in Afghanistan or something.”
He’d put Marissa and Brookhaven out of his mind the day he left for boot camp in San Diego. So the sprawling, incongruent house belonged once again to the last living descendant of the Brooks family, like the Walkers a founding family of Walkers Ford. Despite him, Marissa’s dream had come true.
Gray shimmered in his peripheral vision. Keeping his gaze fixed on Keith, he absorbed more details. Bare shoulders exposed by the halter-style top, silky fabric clinging to breasts. Arms folded across a slender torso, muscles delineated in forearms, biceps, shoulders. Dark brown hair cascading over one bare shoulder. A ruffled black skirt that stopped mid-thigh. Long, bare legs. Black heels.
His heart slammed into his breastbone, then took off in triple time. “You’re holding your wedding reception in Marissa Brooks’s house,” he said, but it wasn’t a question.
“The country club was booked until late January and Delaney didn’t want a winter wedding,” Keith said, and this time his voice held a hint of discomfort.
Adam didn’t bother reminding Keith he knew all about Delaney’s preferences for her wedding. For example, he knew the country club was the only place in three counties elegant enough to hold a Walker-Herndon wedding reception, but if couples wanted quiet elegance, Brookhaven would give them a run for their money. He looked around the empty room. “She rents it out?”
“First time,” he said. “Won’t be the last, either. I hear she’s in debt up to her eyeballs at the lumberyard. It’s great, but a total fucking boondoggle. She can’t live here by herself.” Keith stepped away, putting distance between him and Adam by looking around and spreading his hands. “You’d never guess what went on here when we were in high school.”
With that, Keith turned and walked away. What went on here in high school was Adam and Marissa almost having sex in every room in this house. Back then the windows were missing, the flooring water stained, filthy, scuffed; the plaster chipped, cracked, or missing. But over the spring of their senior year, they’d almost, almost had sex in this house more times than he could count.
She’d been willing. Experienced to his virgin. Despite desire raging inside him like a dragon’s fury, he’d stopped just short. Every time. That uncharacteristic discipline cost him. Cost her. Cost everyone in town, but he, Marissa, and Josh Wilmont paid the most.
The presence hovering at the edge of Adam’s vision coalesced into a living, breathing woman standing in the doorway leading into the kitchen. Another woman stood next to her, in knee-high boots, black pants, and a dusky brown sweater the same shade as her hair. Adam recognized Alanna Stanbeck from the newspaper article link his mother sent him, but the town’s recently hired librarian blended into the woodwork next to Marissa. He’d seen her since he left, but never alone, never up close. Sharing air with her was a risk he couldn’t afford, not after he’d gotten a second chance at everything he dreamed about.
A smile on her face, Alanna said something to Marissa, then walked through the door leading to the kitchen, leaving Marissa all alone at the far end of the enormous room.
You can face her. What you felt, for her, around her, is long gone.
One breath. A second, as he fought combustible emotions. With his third inhale he bent his head and counted the strips of wood forming one parquet square, but on the exhale he put his hands on his hips and cut her a glance. One shoulder braced against the kitchen door frame, she didn’t move, but the only color in her face was the red on her mouth, a deep, rich color he only saw on models on the backs of women’s magazines. No real woman wore lipstick that red.
No woman in Walkers Ford drew that much attention to her mouth. The older females in the room wore skirts and blouses, and the younger ones wore tight jeans and low-cut tops, but none of them radiated Marissa’s sheer sexual energy. Back in the day, he and Ris had had enough chemistry to set fire to rain-soaked wood. Today, right now, he stood in a no-man’s-land between the wedding party and Marissa, and given a choice between the group planning wedding logistics like it was a two-week reconnaissance mission for an entire platoon and the girl he left behind twelve years ago, he chose the girl. The Marine Corps taught him how to handle himself. Surely he could handle a simple conversation with someone he used to know.