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Travis: Chapter 32


I placed my blue sundress into my suitcase, my heart twisting as the memory of the day I’d worn it to the blueberry festival came rushing back, and I swore for a moment I heard the laughter and felt the warm sunshine on my shoulders. I balled it up—the dress and the memory—and shoved them under some shoes.

Blueberry sat propped against my pillow and I stared at him mournfully, remembering the flood of excitement when Travis had won him, the joy when he’d placed him in my hands. I should leave him here. It would always hurt to look at him. And he was nothing but a dumb stuffed animal. I brought him to my chest, closing my eyes and burying my face in his flat, patchy “fur.” He smelled like dust. He’d sat on a shelf for a very long time. I placed him atop my clothes, gently pressing him down and creating a travel nest.

A sharp pounding on my door jerked me from my despondent reverie and useless attempt at balling up memories and shoving them beneath shoes. They just kept rolling in, vision after vision of my time in Maine. And I was so afraid they always would. “Haven! Open up, it’s me.”

I pulled open the door and he came rushing in. “Easton, what are you—”

He gripped my upper arms, shaking me lightly, his face lit in a grin. “You won’t believe what happened.”

I looked him over. His smile was bright, and yet the rest of him looked . . . rough. His hair was sticking up in every direction, dark circles were smudged beneath his eyes, and it looked like he’d slept in his clothes. “You look awful.” The greeting was beginning to get repetitive. But so was my brother showing up in the morning looking like death warmed over.

“I know!” he answered, letting go of my arms. “The guys at the firehouse invited me to a get-together. Even after what happened, they rallied around me.” Something that looked like surprised gratitude altered his features momentarily, and it made my throat feel suddenly clogged. The kid who’d regularly been shunned, the man who’d very recently been publicly shunned, had been embraced. “I’ve been up all night, drinking and smoking and gambling,” he finished proudly.

I felt the blood drain from my face. “Gambling?”

Oh God. I hadn’t thought things could get worse, but leave it to Easton to prove me wrong. “Please tell me you didn’t gamble with our money. It’s all we have.” I’d known he’d been devastated after the town meeting . . . embarrassed . . . ashamed, but was he really so self-destructive that he’d leave us high and dry in the middle of Maine without jobs (we’d both quit) and a place to stay (I’d let Betty know we were checking out of The Yellow Trellis Inn today)?

But he shook his head. “No, no. I mean, yes, three thousand of it—”

“Three thousand!” I sputtered. We only had thirty-two hundred that we’d been saving over the past two years so if we settled somewhere and didn’t immediately find jobs, or my car broke down, we’d have a safety net. My mouth dropped open. We had both promised not to touch it. I wouldn’t even be able to pay Betty for our stay. “Oh my God, oh my God—”

“No, listen! I won! I won! I doubled that money.” He spun away, raking his hand through his already disheveled waves. When he turned back, the grin had widened.

I was frozen to the spot, watching him, my heart in my throat, my stomach churning as I shot daggers with my eyes. I was going to kill him.

“Did you hear me? I said I doubled our money!”

“You could have lost every cent of it,” I said between gritted teeth. “Don’t you ever think, Easton?”

“I know. I thought I was going to puke, Haven. But I didn’t lose. I won. And get this. At the end there, the pile got so big, Haven. Holy shit! It was, like, three a.m., right? We’d all been up drinking for hours. And Eric Philippe, you know the captain of the firehouse? He’s all out of cash, right? So he throws this deed to some land in the pot. ‘I have no real use for it,’ he says. ‘The wife and I have the perfect little place at the other end of town. Why should I pay taxes on a place I don’t even need?’ So in the pot it went. Every cent we have, plus the deed to that land in Calliope.” He raked his hands through his hair again, his eyes widening as if re-living the memory. “I was shaking so hard, I swear to God. But I won. I fucking won!”

I shook my head, trying to catch up, my heart slamming in my chest, anger and the desire to murder him for risking our security warring with any gladness I might have had that he’d doubled our money.

What if he’d lost?

But he hadn’t lost. He’d . . . won.

That meant we’d be able to get far, far away from here now, which brought both heartache and relief.

“Land?” I finally asked, his words organizing in my head as I gave it another shake. “In Calliope? What in the world are we going to do with that?” Sell it? Give it back? The man who’d gambled it had been drunk. His wife was likely burying his body as we spoke.

Easton let out a big breath, his smile softening. “Stay,” he said. “Wait until you see the property, Haven. I went there this morning. The air smells like fruit. It’s beautiful, right on the lake, with this old red barn. I told you about the position available at the firehouse and that it’s just a test to apply . . . the guys tell me they’re sure I can ace it. They’ve even offered to help me study.” He paused, breathless, as I stood, listening with my mouth hanging open again. “You said there’s only one nursery in Pelion, that all the residents of Calliope have to drive there to shop.”

My mouth snapped shut, chin tipping. “Yes,” I muttered. “And the way the plants on their clearance rack are treated is disgraceful!” I said, a burst of indignation energizing me momentarily.

He eyed me. “Yeah? So . . . what if we did something about it? What if we started a business on that property? We own the land now. The barn would be the perfect spot to set things up. There’s plenty of room for parking. We could use the money we have to start buying some inventory. You know, it would start small but I bet soon enough—’

Stay?” I let out a humorless laugh. “Stay? Start a business? Join the firehouse? No, no we can’t stay. I’m glad the guys at the firehouse accepted you back, at least as a gambling and drinking buddy.” I couldn’t help the bitterness that still seeped into my tone. “But we’re pariahs here.”

I clenched my eyes shut. How many years would go by before I stopped cringing at the memory of that flyer?

My every fear and insecurity summed up in two words.

Most unwanted.

“We don’t belong in this town, Easton.” This perfect town where people drank lemonade on their porches, and set apple pies to cool on windowsills while their children played in sprinklers watering lush, green lawns. They didn’t even know the half of it when it came to who we really were. The extent to which we didn’t belong. What would they all say then?

No. Run. Run away. We had to.

But Easton was still smiling. He looked dead tired, hungover, wrinkled, and exorbitantly happy. He tilted his head, his smile growing. “I think you should watch something.”

Movement in my peripheral vision made me turn my head toward the doorway where Betty, Burt, and Cricket had come to stand.

“Before the party, the guys from the firehouse asked if I’d go with them to the town meeting. I didn’t want to but . . . they sort of insisted. I put on a ballcap and hid at the back.” He paused. “It was . . . well, it was interesting to say the least.” My brow dipped as he grinned. “Come with me.”

He took my elbow and led me to the door, Betty, looking practically giddy, looping her arm through mine as we followed the group of them down the stairs to the office. Cricket all but pushed me into the chair behind the desk and pulled up a video. I recognized the same room I’d been in several nights before for the town meeting.

“It’s . . . well . . .” Betty began, leaning forward to press play, but pausing, her brow wrinkling the way it did when she’d lost a word.

“Astonishing,” Burt said.

“No . . . no, not quite.”


Betty’s frown deepened.


She grinned. “Extraordinary! Yes. Yes, it is. Oh, wait until you see.” And then she pressed play as Travis, appearing sleep-deprived and moving stiffly, took the stage. He looked miserable . . . and scared. I leaned closer, my heart thrumming, barely registering the soft sound of the door clicking shut as I was left alone.

I sat in that chair and watched it all, my emotions swinging wildly between one extreme to the next. At the end, I sat back in the chair, tears streaming down my face as I swallowed back laughter.

Then, fingers shaking, I started the video over, needing to hear him say it again. I’m in love with Haven Torres. Deeply, miserably, completely in love with her.

And what he’d done to back up those words. He’d put everything on the line . . . for us. No one had ever done that. No one.

I stood, flinging the door open. Betty, Burt, Cricket, and Easton were all waiting outside. “Oh my God.” There didn’t seem anything else to say.

“We thought you’d say that,” Betty said, her smile as soft and gentle as her heart.

Oh my God.

“The town’s still talking about it,” Cricket remarked. “I imagine they’ll be talking about it for a long time to come. Most people didn’t go home until the wee hours of the morning. From what we hear, families were reunited, friendships reconciled, consciences cleared, forgiveness and repentance spread far and wide. Pelion is a more beautiful place this morning.” Betty smiled. “Cricket and I were even invited to join the community relations group. It’s been renamed The Bob Smitherman Citizen Outreach Council. Of course, its mission has been drastically . . . oh . . . oh . . .”

“Altered,” Burt said.

“Yes. Yes, it has. Drastically,” she emphasized.

Bob Smitherman . . . the dead cat. I recalled what I had just watched Cricket confess at the meeting. Poor Bob Smitherman. And poor Betty. Poor Cricket. I gave my head a small shake. But all that . . . that was going to have to wait until later. “I . . . I don’t know what to say.”

There was a lot to say.

“I don’t reckon this is the time for talking. At least not to us,” Burt said.

Right. No, probably not. My head whirled. “I have to go,” I said.

“I’d say.” Cricket smiled.

“I’ll keep your rooms available, dear!” Betty called as I rushed past them, grabbing my keys on a hook by the front door, and throwing it open.

Gage stood outside, leaning against his red sportscar, his face breaking wide in a smile when he saw me. I halted and he pushed off his car, carrying a humungous bouquet of cut roses. I descended the steps slowly as he held the flowers toward me. I took them, needing two arms to do so, bringing them to my nose and inhaling their muted fragrance. “Gage? What are you doing here?”

He tilted his head, looking just a little self-conscious. It surprised me. And charmed me. Perfect Gage Buchanan was humbling himself in front of me. “I heard you might be staying.”

“From who?” I frowned.

“From Travis. Listen”—he looked behind me momentarily and then met my gaze—“I think we could have something special, Haven. If I haven’t pursued you wholeheartedly, it’s only because I’m at a point in my life where I want something serious and you were only passing through town. But now . . . well, I’d love to see where things might go.”

I stared at him, my mouth falling open.

I was going to kill him.

“Excuse me?”

“Not you,” I said, realizing I’d made the threat out loud. I handed him back the flowers. “I’m honored by your offer, Gage. And you deserve someone serious, someone perfect, someone who you’re perfect for.” Because Gage Buchanan was perfect. “That’s just not me.” I leaned up and kissed him on his cheek. “I hope we can be friends. I have to go.”

And with that, I jumped in my car and peeled out of the driveway of The Yellow Trellis Inn. When I glanced in my rearview mirror, the crew, including Easton, and now Gage, who had walked up the steps to join them with his massive bouquet, were all standing on the porch, watching as I drove away.


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