Authors: L.J. Wilson
The car pulled away from the prison gates. Aaron heaved a sigh. He’d made it. He’d survived seven years, sixty-two days and four hours in that hole. Nothing could be worse. Nothing could feel better. Alec’s big-brother hand came across the seat, play-punching Aaron in the arm. He forced himself not to react.
“You’re quiet for a guy who just got his life back.”
Aaron’s eyes locked on the side-view mirror. Razor wire and despair slipped into the distance. “It just doesn’t feel like a celebration. You know?”
“I know you paid a debt, man. I know it was rough, bro… but it’s over.” Alec sped up, moving into the passing lane. “The drugs. The dealing… the… well, everything, it was a mistake. It’s over.”
Was it? Aaron doubted his brother’s perspective. They drove toward Nickel Springs. The scenery hadn’t changed from the ride into Biddeford Correctional Facility—only Aaron’s point of view. Last time he was shackled, seated in a Department of Corrections van. A guy who said his name was
pressed against Aaron’s leg, a smile sneaking into the fucker’s life sentence
. “Lastic… short for elastic… You’ll see why…”
Aaron shifted in the seat of Alec’s SUV, feeling no less uncomfortable.
And just like the ride into prison, Aaron couldn’t keep the future from coming. “Listen, Alec, I hope I’m wrong. But unless Honor’s done a one-eighty in the past seven years, I thought… Well, I did think she might go for some kind of crazy homecoming.” He glanced at his brother, and Aaron’s eyes closed. “She’s rolling out a red carpet, isn’t she?”
Alec’s grip tightened around the wheel.
There was no verbal response.
“What? Did she invite all of Nickel Springs to welcome home the wayward Clairmont brother?”
“No. Not that bad. More like half.”
“Are you—shit. Do not tell me Jake showed up for it.”
“That part I can confirm. Jake’s on location, shooting a movie in South America. Honor said he couldn’t make it, but he sends his best.”
“Thank God for that much. It’s not that I don’t want to see him…”
Alec nodded. “I get it.”
Their famous younger brother was still a Clairmont, but most of his life took place on the big screen. He’d been there for Aaron’s sentencing and used a chunk of his first million to pay for a top-notch legal team. Aaron was grateful for that, even if Jake had ridden off into the sunset. Who could blame him? Who needed a brother with a felony record screwing up their celebrity bio? Despite the legal aid, Aaron had refused a trial. It would be messy—worse, they could call witnesses. After that he refused to plea bargain. Again, there’d be too many questions. He’d shocked everyone by pleading guilty. Aaron remembered holding his breath as the sentence was read: twenty-five years. The maximum.
He’d shown zero emotion. It was done, and Aaron allowed himself to be led away in shackles. The judge handed down a sentence based on facts. Aaron had attempted to kill Nickel Spring’s mayor—his girlfriend’s father, aggravating the unsavoriness of his crime. Add to that Aaron’s role in a highly profitable and vastly intricate drug-running operation. It had been plotted directly through their quaint town. Slam. Dunk. But in the past few weeks, Aaron’s fate had changed, overcrowding and good behavior turning twenty-five years into a stunningly reduced sentence and early parole.
“As for the rest of it,” Alec said, “Honor’s plans… You’re on the money.”
Aaron thrust his head back. “She never could think of prison as anything more than an alternative lifestyle.”
“Look, Honor’s kept a vigil since they carted you off. She’s not about to let your newfound freedom go uncelebrated.”
“I didn’t graduate from Yale, Alec. I did the minimum of a quarter-century sentence for attempted murder, deep drug trafficking. It’s not a reason to hire a DJ or bake a cake.”
“At least she didn’t have to put a file in it.” Alec’s hand gestured toward him again. Aaron flinched and forced a defensive swing in check. “And you did earn a college degree while you were on the inside. That’s something to be proud of. Look how long it took me to—”
“Don’t compare. A degree in business is nothing next to your personnel jacket. That and I doubt the world—at least greater Nickel Springs—will be beating a path to the door to hire me. Anyway, Navy Seals are in a league of their own,” he said, referring to Alec’s prestigious past.
These words seemed to cause Alec’s mood to turn darker than Aaron’s, and he flipped on the radio. “Just do the best you can. Honor’s been planning this for weeks.”
“Sure. It’ll be like ripping off a Band-Aid—everyone can gawk at once at the ugly scar. Well, almost everyone…” Aaron’s fingertips ran over the real scars that mapped his hand, the pins and screws that held it together. He looked up. A
Welcome to Nickel Springs
sign blew past. At least one thing was right where he’d left it.
Alec turned down the radio. “So tell me what you missed most? What are you looking forward to again?”
He went with easy answers. “A steak… a private shower… grass under my bare feet… mail that hasn’t been opened. Air that doesn’t stink of sweat and piss and other cons. Lights that turn off when I want.”
“Hey, Aar, aren’t you skipping over the obvious? Isn’t there something missing from that rundown?”
“Yeah, sure. There’s that.” Aaron said it, but it was half-hearted. What did it matter? When Aaron learned about his early release, there was only a dull ache in his gut. Inside prison or out, Ruby wouldn’t be in either place. Thankfully, Alec didn’t go after the banter that he would have years ago. Aaron couldn’t play along. Before Ruby, the two brothers had shared plenty of talk about girls, eventually women. But Alec seemed to get that Aaron’s mind wasn’t on a quick fuck. He wished he could go back, play those games, and live that rogue mindset. But it wasn’t Aaron any more, not since Ruby had come and gone from his life.
He continued to stare out the window. At least prison had given him somewhere to be, forced his thoughts elsewhere. Now the past flooded back—all of it. Aaron remembered the physical moments, the way Ruby’s body felt under his touch, a spitfire sexy side that he’d never imagined. But he also recalled the other end of the spectrum, the night of his arrest and the devastated look on her face. Nickel Springs’ police had shoved him into a cruiser, Aaron mouthing the words, “I’m sorry…” She hated him. Hell, how could he blame her? It was exactly what she saw—Aaron with the Glock 17, firing a shot meant to kill her father.
Aaron swallowed hard, unsure if he’d said her name out loud. A glance at Alec confirmed that the thought was inner. Good. No one had said Ruby’s name since the sentencing. While she never made a statement in court—Aaron adamant that his legal team not approach her—she’d showed up at his sentencing.
It was the only time his hands shook. He knew this because shaking hands were noticeable when cuffed. In the courtroom, Aaron snatched a fast glance. Still, it was seared into his brain—Ruby’s dark eyes, red-rimmed, her nose running. She’d stood with Dante, her arm looped through his. She looked ill… crushed. Still, she managed to hold her chin high. In the wake of his betrayal, their presence was a show of solidarity.
He understood what they saw. Clearly, Aaron had used her. Innocent Ruby was the fast track to the mayor’s inner circle and privileged information. Hell, Dante had even given him a part-time gig at city hall. Aaron had access to everything: the mayor’s office and house, confidential intel, and suspected drug-trafficking information. All of it was crucial to making Nickel Springs the middleman stop for filtering drugs and money into and out of the city. Not long after his sentencing, Aaron heard that Dante Vasquez and Ruby left Nickel Springs. And this, Aaron suspected, was for the best.
A bump in the highway reminded Aaron that Alec was there. He took a breath and tried to come up with conversation. Relevant topics were thin. Aaron squeezed his eyes shut. When he opened them, he saw Nickel Springs’ main thoroughfare. The fast-food places he hung out at as a kid, the bowling alley where he’d gone with Ruby, scoring a perfect game. Three days later, he’d scored a major deal out back. It was as if he’d been two different people. Yep. It was all right where he left it—all the shit that didn’t matter. As they turned onto Lakeshore Drive, Aaron took back the thought he had getting into the car. Prison wasn’t the worst fucking thing that could happen to a guy.
Alec pulled into the side driveway of the Clairmont’s
Dutch colonial. Aaron’s brother was savvy enough to know the covert option gave them the element of surprise. No one would be watching from that direction. Aaron needed to get it together. He needed to bury his mood like a couple of kilos of contraband. No big deal. He knew how that was done. Aaron reached for the same numbing mindset he’d used the last time he was here. It was the night he left home prepared to take down Dante Vasquez. Icy rain had trickled through the night sky and down Aaron’s back. Nervous breaths caught on winter air. Before he got into the Dodge Challenger, Aaron double-checked his weapon. The gun was loaded, ready to go. It was precisely what Silas Brikk and
—the faceless operation mastermind—had ordered.
He and Alec made their way up the sidewalk and Aaron was rushed by a different thought. It had been so many years since they’d lived there as a family. More than a decade since their parents were gone—killed in a plane crash. If it hadn’t been for Jake, his siblings would have sold the house to pay for his legal expenses. The screen door creaked, and Aaron took a deep breath, thankful circumstance hadn’t come to that. Only Honor and Troy lived here now. Himself too, he guessed. They hadn’t discussed it much before his release. He’d just filled in the Lakeshore address on his paperwork. Maybe it wasn’t what Honor really wanted. Troy was only twenty-one, thirteen when they’d hauled Aaron off. Maybe a brother with a record wasn’t the best influence. Aaron stopped moving.
Alec took off his sunglasses. “It’ll be fine,” he said, putting his hand on Aaron’s shoulder. This time he couldn’t stop the reflex. Aaron’s fist curled. Alec ducked fast as his arm blocked an incoming punch. Both men backed down fast.
“Sorry,” Aaron said, shaking his head. “But where I been, a guy puttin’ his hand on your shoulder means one of two things—neither pleasant.”
Alec was quiet. Aaron’s gaze pressed into the ground. His brother was wearing boat shoes, a departure from military-issue boots. He was even wearing shorts, a Navy Seal emblem on the outside of his ankle. Aaron wore the same basketball treads he had on the night he was arrested. Prison officials had returned the sneakers that morning. He’d waited in the discharge-holding cell, wondering where prisons stored beat-up, size-twelve Nikes.
Alec’s deep voice cut in. “Okay, I swore I wasn’t going to ask. But, Aaron, if something like… like what I’m thinking went down in prison, you need to tell me.”
He looked up. “It’s easy to imagine, isn’t it? Gettin’ fucked up the ass happens pretty much like roll call. I got threats. I got offers.” He shrugged. “I think it was the eyelashes, maybe the divot.” Along with brooding, these were other Clairmont traits—long, thick lashes and square jaws, though only Aaron and Jake owned the divot. “But no. It never happened to me. Between my
and a big brother who’d kicked my ass enough to teach me a thing or two, I managed.”
A sigh seeped from Alec. It had so many edges of discomfort Aaron couldn’t count them all. And for a second, Aaron thought about bolting. Why was he doing this to them? Ruby and her father were smart enough to erase themselves from the Nickel Springs landscape. He should do the same. There was nothing here for him.
Alec was one step ahead. “Aar, everybody in that house is glad you’re here. It’s all good.” He looked into Alec’s dark eyes. Aside from being a registered felon, it was one of a few clashing differences between the brothers. Aaron noticed that they’d traded haircuts over time. Aaron’s was shorn to the tight buzz-cut his brother no longer needed—his pitch-colored hair styled, wavy. Christ, Nickel Springs might not have changed, but their lives sure had.
“Aaron, listen to me.” His tone sounded like Pop’s, and it made Aaron obey. “We’re going in there, and everything’s going to be fine. Got it?”
Aaron nodded, took a deep breath, and forward marched.
The room whirled. Aaron was used to noise. No problem there. But there were so many faces from the past. Faces time had aged, some he had trouble putting a name to. At least nobody ambushed him—well, nobody but Honor. Admittedly, the hug felt good—soft. She seemed too overwhelmed to speak, handing him a drink and a fresh starting point. Alec stuck to him like a bodyguard, making the small talk Aaron couldn’t.
He saw the Martels, his parents’ best friends. After Sebastian and Evie died, the Martels hovered nearby, though they never invaded the Clarimont kids’ lives. Alec had taken over that job.
Aaron thought he saw Hause Deacon, his baseball coach, grade school through high school. Then he remembered Honor telling him, three or four years ago, that Hause Deacon had died—a heart attack. It hadn’t sunk in, not until that moment.
There were other familiar faces, people who’d talked themselves into giving the Clairmont kid who’d gone bad a second chance. There were the Brewsters and the Lamberts, the Pikes, who’d brought their daughter, Chloe. At least Aaron thought it was her. She wasn’t much older than Troy, but she used to look after his kid brother.
Aaron recalled a chunky girl with frizzy red hair. While she was still curvaceous, the only chunky part was the boobs spilling out of a dress that, otherwise, grabbed her ass like blue cellophane. The hair was still fiery red, though like her figure, she seemed to have it under control.
Even so, her presence screamed:
I’m Here! I’m Hot!
He never did care for obvious. Damn. He had nerve being cynical. No doubt, Chloe Pike had dressed for her boyfriend, who she planned to fuck later,
fulfilling her parents’ demand that she put in a polite appearance. But as he turned away, Aaron saw Chloe smile at him. Her red head tipped just so, making Aaron feel like the weirdly wired science fair exhibit. He thought about how old she was now. Maybe twenty-three. Time had moved on. Aaron reminded himself he’d finished out his twenties in prison, marked off a few thirties from behind bars.
After an hour or so, Aaron confirmed his suspicion—most people had come for Honor’s sake, maybe out of respect for the parents of the
Tribe of Five
. Shame rolled through Aaron’s gut, sure about how Pop would have reacted. A party? Hell no. Sebastian Clairmont wouldn’t have been celebrating. He’d be giving Aaron a private speech about not making the same mistake twice.
The party-goers knew it too. There were curious glances and Solo cups swinging his direction, but not much attempt to engage him. Well, fuck, go figure. What was a good conversation starter for a guy who’d done hard time—who’d been convicted of attempting to kill the town’s mayor? The father of the girl he’d claimed to love. Like a lame graduation party, Aaron guessed the distant chatter was about the polite amount of time you had to hang around.
Aaron decided he’d met his quota. He made his way to the celebratory cake. Mercifully, it was not hacksaw shaped. Of course, now it was almost gone. Not surprising. While he was in prison, Honor had launched a successful catering business:
. Great. She could add
“Now hosting parole parties…”
to her repertoire.
Aaron hadn’t eaten all day. He hadn’t eaten icing in seven years. He cut a thick slab off the corner, and along with a beer, headed up the back staircase. From near the top steps, a spot that offered a good overview, Aaron stared at the scene.
Honor was caught up in a conversation with a man he didn’t recognize. He looked slick in a shiny suit—lawyer-ish or a sharp businessman. The guy was standing too close to Honor, and Aaron wondered if there was something between them. Admittedly, Aaron didn’t know much about his sister’s personal life. When she visited prison, talk had been generic. Filler rambling about her business, a few words about Troy, talk always ending on the hope that he’d come home soon.
Alec was deep in conversation with a blonde woman, dark tan—Jess. Alec had introduced her briefly, said she was his
. Like that made sense. She was hot though she looked older. Well, shit, didn’t everybody? He didn’t see Troy, who hadn’t grunted more than hello before disappearing. Like male dogs in a den, they seemed to be giving each other space. Aaron took one last glance before taking the rest of the steps two at a time.