Second Chance Season
1 (Garrett Strickland)
If you want to get to know someone, there are a hundred different ways. Drinking games and personality tests, or the long haul of good old-fashioned time. But where I’m from, there is one thing that’s more efficient, less complicated—and never lies.
From the make and model, to the number of dings and dents, these things say a lot about who you’re dealing with. Take the guy who’s cruising around in a brand-new rig, bright like it just rolled off the assembly line, with wheels so clean it seems they haven’t seen a dirt road and likely never will. My bet would be on its owner being just as slick and polished. The sort of guy who likes his beer crafted and his beard coifed.
But a beat-to-hell one-ton with a permanent layer of dust on the dashboard, a flatbed loaded with bales of hay, and a border collie riding shotgun? I probably know that guy. He might be someone I grew up with or someone my dad grew up with. Here in Hotchkiss, odds are that if your truck only sees water when it rains and sounds like it needs a new muffler in the worst way possible, then I’ve probably known you my whole life.
As for me, I drive a 1996 Ford F350. Crew cab, diesel, and enough sheet metal damage to make it clear this is no show truck. Lifted to serve purposes when I’m out in a field, but not so much that it looks like I’m compensating for what’s behind my fly or between my ears. The odometer has long cleared two hundred thousand, but despite all those miles, I’d bet on it being more reliable than any throwaway import on the road these days. It can tow like an ox, too. No hesitation, no delay, nothing but power when you need it.
But, no, my truck does not have a name. Only complete tools do that sort of shit.
Most important, I own it. Free and clear, pry the title from my cold dead hands, it’s a piece of shit, but it’s mine. And nothing beats the peace of mind that brings. Because losing the shit that matters to you . . . it sucks.
So what does my truck say about me?
Today, it says one thing: that I’m smarter than Braden.
Because if I were Braden, right now I’d be stuck, watching the tires on my Dodge spin deep ruts into the mud in the field we hunted geese over this morning. I’d be pissed off and muttering “fuck” on repeat. Just like my best buddy is currently doing.
Thankfully, I do not drive a Dodge. I drive a real truck.
Casting another glance in my rearview mirror, I enjoy the sight of Braden’s scowling face reflected in his side mirror for a few more seconds before hooking reverse. Steering with one hand, I come to a stop next to him so that our windows are side by side. I shove my truck into park, but keep the motor running, because we both know how this is going to go down. He’ll tell me to fuck off, try to power himself out again, then give up and beg me to tow his ass out of here.
Perhaps “beg” is overstating it. More like grunt and cuss like a pissed-off moose surrendering to the inevitable.
I roll down my window but say nothing, simply drop my forearm to rest on the trim panel and tap my fingers casually. Braden eases off the gas and the roar of his overtaxed motor descends into a low whine, which makes it easy to hear his oh-so-cheery acknowledgment of my arrival.
“Fuck off, Strickland.”
I force myself to hold back a chuckle. And so it begins.
He’s in an exceptionally pissy mood already, but that makes giving him shit even more fun. First, he overslept, which Braden never does. We started our morning later than planned because of it and found ourselves setting up at sunrise—about an hour later than we should have. Success in goose hunting means you’re in the field well before first light, so that when you set out your decoys it’s still dark. Anything later means the real birds can see what you’re up to, and once they do, you’ve effectively ruined your chances for a decent hunt.
Second, his bird dog—a gorgeous toffee-colored Chessie girl named Charley—listened . . . well, not at all. She was wiggly and wild, all over the place, and did a bang-up impression of a deaf dog by ignoring every command Braden issued. I spent most of the morning sneaking her pieces of venison jerky as reward for her bad behavior.
To top it all off, Braden missed just about everything he shot at. I’m mean, he missed everything. As in, the broad side of a barn would have been safe. Something I was happy to point out each and every time he skunked it.
Yup, good times. Good, good times. For me, anyway.
I grab the Hostess Fruit Pie—apple flavor, natch—that’s sitting on my dashboard and tear the wrapper open.
“Now, now. No reason for that kind of language. I’m just checking on you. Looks like you’re having a bit of bad luck out here. I care, Braden, that’s all.”
Braden hits the gas again and the truck’s tires give everything they can, launching dirt so violently that my windshield quickly looks like a freak mud storm just rolled through this field. I take a large bite of the apple pie goodness and wipe a few flecks of sugary glaze off my chin using my coat sleeve. Charley scents my snack from the passenger seat and proceeds to crawl over Braden, standing on his lap so she can stick her head out the window, craned forward to see if she can figure out a way to lick my face from this distance. Braden immediately lets off the gas and flops backward into his seat, his head tipped skyward.
I take another bite and wait it out. After a few more grumbled cuss words, Braden gently but pointedly shoves Charley back into the passenger seat and starts to roll up his window.
“Hook it,” he growls.
Ah, there’s the grouchy, defeated moose I knew would show up eventually. His window is halfway up when I tilt my head toward him, cupping my ear. “What’s that? Say again?”
He stops the window and shoots a hard look in my direction.
“I picked a weird spot to park. That’s all. Just fucking hook it, Garrett. I’ve got to get to work.”
“See”—I raise an index finger, pointing it his way—“that’s where you fucked up. Should’ve brought your work truck in the first place.”
Braden is a game warden for the state of Colorado, and his work truck is a Ford, thus a smart use of my state tax dollars. Why he spent good money on a Dodge for his personal use, I’ll never understand. We’re friends because we both like to hunt, I’m good for his surly disposition, and I appreciate the way he tells it like it is. Plus, he owns a trailer full of quality goose decoys.
I take the last bite of my pie and toss the empty wrapper back on the dash, then make a show of straightening my coat and ball
cap before putting the truck in reverse again. And, while I won’t admit it out loud, someday when I’m the one who’s stuck, I know exactly who I’ll call. Braden will show up without question—no matter the time or place—with his Cummins motor and a few insults at the ready.
I feather the gas pedal of my truck, revving the motor for no reason other than to prove a point.
“Two words, Braden.” He flops his head forward and visibly grips the steering wheel tighter. I grin. “Power Stroke.”
Twenty minutes later, we’re both on our way. Braden heads east on Highway 92 toward the Parks & Wildlife offices, and I head west to my place to grab a quick shower and a change of clothes. Braden’s job means he can show up at work decked out in camo from head to toe if he wants, but I work at the Hotchkiss Co-op, where jeans and a duck jacket are a better choice.
Cranking up the radio a touch louder so I can hear it better, I waggle my pinkie finger a few times in my ear, hoping that might fix what’s left of the dull buzz in my head. Braden’s payback for my lording my Power Stroke motor over him was to blast his horn right when I hunched down to hook a tow rope to his front bumper. Fucking juvenile—but exactly what I would’ve done in his place.
I give the heater dial another nudge higher and aim the vents toward my still-thawing-out fingertips. Late-January mornings are always cold, but a cloudless sky like today’s means the air turned crystalline and frigid at sunrise. But despite the weather and the fact goose season is coming to a close, I love this time of year. When I was a kid, hunting was all about bag limits and the excitement of a good shot. Now I couldn’t care less if we come
home empty-handed or not. It’s the entire experience that gets me out of bed at four a.m. to set decoys in the dark and tuck myself into a layout blind in the middle of a freezing-ass-cold cornfield. Because the silence of first light is deafening in a way only waterfowl hunters can understand. Just like the stillness that comes with the ritual of waiting for something to happen. Even if it never does.
I slow the truck at the county road that leads to my place, then hang a right onto a long dirt driveway. The place I rent is nothing special, just an old modular set on a raggedy patch of dirt. But it’s quiet, clean, and set back from the road enough to feel secluded even though I’m only a five-minute drive from the heart of Hotchkiss. I’ve got plenty of room to shoot my bow outside and wrench on my truck, but no yard to mow in the summer or sidewalk to shovel clear in the winter. Basically a dream come true for a twenty-five-year-old redneck bachelor.
Inside, I strip off my gear and duck into the shower for a quick rinse, craning under the shower head that’s set too low and was clearly not installed with my six-foot-four height in mind. I’m out and dried off in record time, tugging on a pair of battered jeans and grabbing a shirt from the towering stacks that line the shelf of my tiny closet. After grabbing a refill from the coffeepot in the kitchen, I’m back in the truck, barreling down the driveway because I’ve realized how close I’m cutting it this morning.
I hit the gas and my beast starts to rumble. Just ahead I spot a car pulled onto the side of the road, the four-ways on, blinking bright amber against the burgundy metallic paint color. I slow my truck and ease toward the center line because while it’s technically on the shoulder, the car isn’t over quite enough to be safe. Which doesn’t surprise me once I’m closer, because I see it’s a Lexus. One of those crossover SUVs that are often owned by
very rich—potentially unpleasant—old ladies. I crane my head as I pass by, spotting only dark-tinted windows and out-of-state plates.
Tourists, I’d guess. Lost and confused vacationers whose original destination may have been the ever-ritzy ski town of Aspen. And if I’m right, they’re about a hundred miles off course and in the wrong fucking county.
Or maybe they overshot the town of Paonia or Palisade, where the wineries, orchards, and a bunch of crafty artisan businesses are the big draw in this once quiet part of southwestern Colorado. While the Grand Valley used to be nothing more than an afterthought in the state, now—thanks to whoever dreamed up the concept of agritourism—it’s a destination.
Regardless of why they’re here, the driver of that Lexus has their four-ways on, which means something could be wrong. And if it were my grandma or my mom out there, lost and confused while trying to find that quaint vineyard with the simply fabulous red wine she’s heard so much about, I’d want a guy like me to stop.
Fuck it. I’m going to be late opening the co-op anyway, so I hit the brakes and flip a U-turn. Once I’m close enough, I ease off the road and pull to a stop in front of the car.
Illinois plates. The top of a woman’s downcast head is visible through the windshield, but she doesn’t even lift her head, despite the way my truck announces itself a good mile before you can actually see it.
I put a little extra force behind my truck door when I shut it, thinking that might draw her attention. No luck. Dirt kicks across the tops of my boots when I deliberately drag my feet on my approach to her driver-side door, because if she’s ancient enough that too much of a surprise might cause a heart attack, I sure as hell don’t want that on my shoulders.
Once I’m next to her door, the thump of music blaring inside explains why she can’t hear me. And whatever it is that’s on blast in there sounds eerily similar to the goose-calling DVDs I bought to improve my honking skills in the blind—not exactly what I’d expect to hear coming from a ride like this.
I give a quick rap to the door glass. A sharp squeal and her head whips up. Through the dark-tinted glass I see the shadow of her pressing one hand to her chest before moving to turn down the radio. The window hums to life and descends.
Definitely not an old lady. Nope. Not even close.
Instead, this Lexus Lady is a woman my age, maybe a few years older. And—welcome to Hotchkiss, why don’t you stay awhile—she’s beautiful.
Shiny and soft-looking chestnut-colored hair comes to just above her shoulders, mostly straight but with a few wavy pieces that frame the fair skin of her face. She’s wearing a pair of eyeglasses, black frames that are shaped like Wayfarers and give off a Clark Kent vibe. Specs I might declare utterly geeky if it weren’t for the gorgeous big brown eyes behind them. A half-eaten Twizzler hangs out of her mouth. Those brown eyes lock on mine and she reaches up to yank the Twizzler from her lips.
“Jeez. You scared me.”
Her left leg is bent, with her bare foot perched up on the seat, positioned in the lazy way that girls with an automatic sometimes drive. She’s wearing a pair of light-colored jeans, in a dusty sort of pink color, and a heap of plat maps are sprawled across her lap, some half-folded and the rest askew. All of them unexpected, since plat maps show farming section lines, landowner names, and acres owned—but they don’t make the best road maps for someone from out of state.
But even with the maps in the way, it’s still easy to deduce how
she’s built. It’s a safe bet that if this girl unfolded herself from that seat and stepped outside the car, she’d be damn near my height—and nearly all legs. Picturing that turns my brain mushy for a second because you can keep all those curves and handfuls that some guys can’t get enough of—for me, long, lean legs are like kryptonite.
Christ. This scenario is not what I was expecting. But my inner Boy Scout led the way, and now I’m goddam glad of it. Because one thing about living in the small town you grew up in is that meeting new women is nearly an impossibility. And one who’s beautiful, your age, and sitting on the side of the road just down from your house? That never happens. Which means it’s time to see if I can earn my merit badge in community relations.
I set one hand to the roof of her car and drop my chin to focus on her.
“Didn’t mean to scare you. Your four-ways were on; just wanted to make sure you aren’t stuck or something. I passed you once, then turned around and drove back here. My truck is usually loud enough to wake the dead. Most days it sounds a lot like an industrial wood chipper.”
She cuts her gaze to the windshield and takes note of my truck sitting there covered in mud and dwarfing her little SUV. Her eyes widen in a way that looks like she’s half horrified and half fascinated. I lean forward a bit, lifting one side of my mouth up into a lazy grin.
“Your music was blasting. Either that or you have a huge bag of pissed-off farm cats in here, engaged in some sort of feral cat choir practice. Not sure which.”
She lifts one brow wryly, then leans back in her seat, removes the Clark Kent glasses, and tosses them on the passenger seat.
And that’s not particularly a good thing, because now her entire gorgeous face is on display, along with her expression turning
intent. Her eyes travel down my chest, landing at my waist and staying put for longer than I would have expected. Not that I particularly mind if her gaze is glued to the space inches from my dick, but it’s worth wondering what she finds so fascinating. I might be country, but I’m no cowboy, so I’m not sporting some trash-can-lid belt buckle. It’s just a regular belt, the same one I’ve had for years. I hook one thumb into the waist of my jeans and her eyes shoot back up.
“It’s from Lakmé,” she says, as if that one obviously foreign word will clear up everything.
I nod slowly. “Sure. Lakmé. So, the cats are here on a passport?”
Reaching toward the radio console, she turns the volume back up. A woman’s voice belts out a long high note just as she does.
On second thought, that noise is less like cats or geese and more like an elk bugling. Loudly. And in the rut.
“No cats, no passports.” She fiddles with radio again and the wailing fades into the background. “Opera. It helps me concentrate.”
I give up a chuckle. “Good to know someone finds that racket soothing.” Another lift of her one eyebrow, annoyed this time. Not the best reaction if I want to earn that merit badge. “So do you need some help? Directions or something? Paonia is a ways back. If you’re looking for Palisade, you need to keep driving.”
Quickly, that annoyed eyebrow of hers sinks. Her head drops to the seat back with a defeated thump and she directs her gaze out the windshield for a beat, then cuts her eyes my way, along with another pass of her eyes skirting toward my belt.
She needs to stop doing that. If she doesn’t, I’m bound to give in and start indulging in a fantasy where the gorgeous girl in the very expensive SUV finds me and certain areas of my body all too interesting.
“Are you from here? Hotchkiss?”
She dips a hand into the open bag of Twizzlers sitting in the center console and slips one between her lips, eventually taking a small bite. Short of the biting part, my dick likes the scene a little too much, so I remove my hand from the roof and straighten myself up.
“Born and raised.” I outstretch a hand. “I’m Garrett. Garrett Strickland.”
When her hand meets mine, it’s all I can do to let go within a reasonable amount of time. Her fingers are long, nails manicured and done up with those white tips. The sort of nails I love—and combined with the softness of her hands, a few very non-PG thoughts cross my mind before I can stop them.
“Cara Cavanaugh.” She pulls her hand back and looks up. “And I do need some help.”
Great. My favorite kind of nails, legs for miles, and now she’s all doe-eyed and looking up through her lashes at me to tell me she needs help. I’m hoping and praying that her next words will somehow follow the shitty script of some low-budget skin flick. Nearly any story line will work. Randy college girl gone wild. Stranded motorist gone desperate for a redneck in a beater Ford truck.
But I keep my voice steady, just to be sure I don’t do or say anything that might signal exactly how many months it’s been since I was this close to an age- or situation-appropriate woman—let alone how long it’s been since I got laid.
“I’m a helpful guy. Consider me at your service.”
Intrigue flashes in her eyes, disappearing just as quickly. Cara leans over to rustle around in a bag on the passenger floorboard. This means that half of her ass comes into view, along with a few inches of very soft-looking skin on her lower back when her T-shirt rides up. I nearly let out a whimper when she rights herself into the seat and hands a scrap of paper my way.
“I’m having trouble finding this address. I managed the drive all the way from Chicago without getting lost once, but the minute I passed through Paonia, my GPS wanted me to turn around. The system must not have the right data for this area. Do you know where this place is?”
I glance at the paper.
Then again, just to be sure I’m not imagining things. Nope.
Do I know where this place is? Yes. I know exactly where it is. I could probably walk there in the middle of the night, drunk off my ass, under a moonless sky. Muscle memory and autopilot have already been known to take me there on occasion, pulling into the driveway as if it’s still the place I belong, even when years have passed and I’ve worked damn hard to bury the ache that comes with understanding how much was lost.
My hand crumples the paper slightly. I cast my eyes back to her.
“No one lives there anymore. You sure this is the right place?”
She snags another Twizzler and points it my way in offering. I shake my head.
“I know it’s empty,” she mumbles, answering around a mouthful of licorice. “A family friend owns it, and he said I could stay there for a few weeks to work on a project.”
So much for my lucky day, because this is bound to get a little awkward. A beautiful girl and her equally beautiful legs arrive in town and I decide to Boy Scout my way into her orbit, only to find out she’s about to crash in the house I grew up in. The family farm I had to sell, even when I would rather have done anything but that. The land my dad busted his ass on to make it through one year after the next, but in the end was too debt-ridden for me to keep afloat after he died. The life I rarely let myself remember—if only because my dad never believed in looking back and he raised me to do the same.
So I ignore the sting of emptiness that’s centered itself in my rib cage as I hand the paper back to Cara. Her fingers graze mine again, making it easier to focus on what lies ahead: a beautiful girl in from out of town, who—you never know—might be up for some fun while she’s here.
“Well, City, I think this is fate. I happen to know everything about this place.”
Her eyes light up. “You do? Oh, this is perfect.” An exhale visibly releases from her chest. “How do you know about this place?”
Leaning forward, I latch both hands to the roof of her car and let my entire body drift closer. Those damn eyes of hers seem to eat up the advance of my body, drawing another long exhale out of her, but shakier this time. She wets her lips.
“It used to be my house.”