Copyright © 2013 Sydney Somers
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
Promise Harbor, Population 20,121
The town’s welcome sign flew past in the Challenger’s rearview mirror, no more than a blink across Jackson’s peripheral vision. From his point of view there wasn’t a whole lot promising about coming home.
Jackson cranked the pounding music blaring out of the speakers up a little louder, determined to ignore the dread that turned his stomach into a mess of greased knots. One of his best friends was getting married. That’s what he needed to focus on.
Jackson’s trips home had been sporadic over the years. He’d made a point to fly his parents out to see him since the accident to avoid any unnecessary visits to Promise Harbor. Unfortunately, standing up with Josh on his wedding day qualified as a necessary visit.
Promise Harbor’s main intersection loomed ahead, and at the last second he swung right instead of left, away from his parents’ empty house. The dark sky above unleashed an early summer shower as familiar sights blurred past—the elementary school, his high school girlfriend’s house, the rink.
The latter made the tightening in his stomach a million times worse.
He pulled into the parking lot of Stone’s Sports Bar, relieved that the weather and late afternoon meant few cars were out front. He turned off the car and sat staring at the ranch-style building through the rain pounding the windshield.
Why hadn’t he just fed Josh some bullshit excuse about not being able to make it? He’d certainly had enough practice at being a dick. He could have pulled it off, and yet here he sat.
Because he owed them.
Owed his best friends for refusing to let him feel sorry for himself when the rest of the world had wanted to poke at wounds that ripped him wide open inside.
Resigned, he pocketed the keys and climbed out. Even with the rain quickly soaking through his T-shirt, he didn’t rush up the wooden steps that had been slanted for as long as he could remember. Instead he leaned against the railing, inwardly steeling himself against the questions that would follow his long absence.
How’s the knee?
Is that the same car you wrecked?
What are your plans now?
“Son of a bitch!”
Jackson turned at the curse that came from the other side of the glass door. Curious, he pulled it open just as a tool went flying across the floor. Only two other tables were occupied inside, and neither of the two men so much as glanced up when the hammer clanged off the metal table legs closest to Jackson.
Picking up the hammer, he followed the next stream of curses to a cute ass and phenomenal set of jean-clad legs peeking out from behind a jukebox—the Beast—that probably should have been left at the curb years ago.
Wary of more flying tools, he approached from the side as the woman straightened, her blonde hair trailing down the back of her black shirt as she rounded the juke to deliver a solid kick to its front.
“There is no—” kick, “—beating this thing—” kick, “—into submission, Matt.”
A noncommittal sound came from just inside the swinging door behind the bar.
The woman touched the glass dome with far more care than she’d taken with her foot. “You need to smarten the hell up or Matt’s giving you a one-way trip to the junkyard. C’mon baby.” The last words were a fervent plea.
She pushed a couple buttons and “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” exploded out of the speakers. She cursed again and drew her foot back for another kick. From the size of the dent, people were still regularly nailing the Beast, although it clearly wasn’t affecting the sound quality.
“Need a hand?” He offered up the thrown hammer and at the same time processed the woman’s gray eyes as familiar.
Not waiting for an invitation, he eased into her personal space. She relinquished her spot in front of the jukebox, and from the corner of his eye, he thought he caught a glimpse of recognition on her face.
So they knew each other.
A mental replay of those legs and killer ass flashed through his head even as he reminded himself he wasn’t hooking up with anyone while he was in town. Way too much trouble.
“The Beast isn’t a machine you can tussle with. She likes a more precise touch.”
“Is that right?” One golden brow arched, and she waved at the machine with a by-all-means gesture.
He hadn’t expected otherwise, considering his skills with taming the temperamental Beast were widely known. Why then did it feel like she was just humoring him?
He gripped the juke on either side and lifted just enough to rock the Beast side to side for a second, then an extra shimmy before dropping her back on the floor. “That always does the trick when it’s being temperamental.”
Conscious of the blonde’s scrutiny, he skimmed the song selection and punched in a favorite.
“Hit Me With Your Best Shot” played again.
He frowned and jostled the jukebox a little harder this time. The song continued to play and…was it getting louder?
The blonde merely shrugged and held out the hammer.
“I got this.” He ignored the hammer, but reached around back and unplugged the machine for a few seconds, giving it time to reset. The aging machine probably just needed a little reboot and she’d rock the roof off this place like she always had.
Confidence took hold despite the blonde’s amused gaze, and he hit the play button. The same song pounded out of the speakers, the tune a sudden and unexpectedly potent reminder of everything he’d lost.
“Precise touch?” the blonde echoed, laughing a moment later.
The contagious sound of her laughter pulled at his memory, but he couldn’t place it.
“You’d have a better shot of sending a rotten egg into the net without breaking it than getting anywhere with this machine,” she continued. She tucked the hammer back in the bag of tools on the table behind her.
“Sunset Bluff.” The words were out, his mind snagging the faint memory before it slipped away.
She paused, facing him with that skeptical brow arched.
“You and me in a red Chevy with a passenger window that wouldn’t roll down.” There was no way he had imagined that face staring at him through the passenger window, right? He’d borrowed the Chevy specifically for that date at the last second when the transmission had died on his own car.
“I remember that truck.” A flattering smile curved her lips, reinforcing the fuzzy memory he still couldn’t quite nail down. “The radio sucked.” More tools went into the bag.
The radio? “That’s all you remember?”
Her gaze turned reminiscent. “I do remember you throwing up everywhere.”
Details he could have done without came into sharper focus. He could count on one hand how many times he’d gotten drunk before being drafted for the NHL at nineteen, and luck would have it that she’d apparently been there for one of those shining moments.
He winced at the memory and the smile she tried to hide. Despite their embarrassing history, he found himself returning the smile. “At least tell me I made it up to you?”
She laughed even harder. “Not even close.” She hefted the bag off the table and carried it to the bar. “And I highly doubt it would have occurred to you to try.”
He hadn’t been nearly the jerk a lot of his high school buddies had been, even if his mind had been on hockey more than girls. With that easy, sexy smile of hers, he would have wanted to take her out again. He was sure of it.
“Then let me make it up to you now.” He gestured to the bar. “Let me buy you a drink. We can catch up, or at least maybe I can help you remember something better about that night.” His earlier determination to avoid women this weekend was going down in flames.
She threw him a disbelieving look. “You don’t even remember me.”
His silence was undoubtedly telling, but it was coming back to him. Heather…Heidi… Something like that.
“Besides,” she added. “I don’t drink on the job.”
“Then later,” he pressed, wanting to talk to her a little longer. Maybe he could get her to laugh again. “You could tell me what’s changed around town. Or show me.”
When she bit her lip, tipping her head like she was actually considering it, he threw in, “We could sneak into the rink.” The outrageous suggestion had been one of his signature moves in high school, and it had never failed.
“You mean break in?”
He shrugged, both encouraged and just a little wary of the intrigue brightening those storm-gray eyes of hers. Why did it feel like he was missing something?
A moment later she burst out laughing. Again. “Did that actually get you laid?”
At least he was smart enough to keep his mouth shut on that one. Not that she gave him time to answer before she continued.
“You know what else I remember about that night? Taking the fall for my brother lending our parents’ truck without asking, then getting stuck cleaning up your puke and grounded for a month.”
Oh shit. She wasn’t the one he’d taken to Sunset Bluff at all.
“Hayley,” he managed, the croaked name rising to the tip of his tongue out of nowhere.
She nodded and lowered her voice. “Though I usually go by Detective Stone these days.” Without a word she waved at the two tables across the room and headed for the door. “I’ll call you later, Matt.”
“See ya.” Matt came through the swinging door, grinning as he stopped next to Jackson. “Welcome home, bro.”
Jackson stared at Hayley through the glass door. “That’s your sister.” Twin sister, though she and Matt didn’t look at all alike, or at least he’d never thought so before.
Matt had the decency to grimace instead of calling him an idiot outright. “Didn’t remember her, huh?”
An old guy with bushy eyebrows and silver hair that may have been inspired by Albert Einstein whistled and shot his finger up into the air before it took a steep dive. He mimicked the sound of an explosion.
“Crashed and burned with Hayls? Nice homecoming.” Matt slapped Jackson on the back. “You look like you could use a drink.”
“Wasn’t your sister all Goth back in high school?” Now that he had her name firmly in place, he clearly remembered the dark clothing with skulls she favored, her jet-black hair and nails painted to match.
“It was a phase.” Matt leaned on the bar, his expression curious and just a little protective. “Since when are blondes your type?”
“They’re not.” Never had been. So why was he still thinking about that smile of hers?