I hated funerals. They smelled like lilies and sadness. There were too many hugs and soggy tissues. And the black dress I found on the Target clearance rack made my neck itch where the tag curled against my skin.
“I’m so sorry for y’all’s loss, Scarlett.” Bernie O’Dell’s stoop-shouldered six-foot frame engulfed me in an awkward hug. He’d closed up the barber shop today for the funeral. He’d been one of Jonah Bodine’s only friends who’d stuck with him until the bitter end, even when he no longer deserved friends.
I gave Bernie a weak smile and a pat on the arm. “Daddy was always grateful for your friendship.”
Bernie’s eyes misted, and I handed him off to Bowie, my good brother. Not that Jameson and Gibson were bad, but Bowie was a high school vice principal. He was used to dealing with emotions that terrified the rest of us.
“God has a plan,” Sallie Mae Brickman announced with a reassuring squeeze on my hand. Her hands were always ice cold no matter what time of year. It could have been a hundred degrees on the fourth of July, and Sallie Mae’s hands could keep her lemonade half frozen.
“I’m sure he does,” I said, anything but sure there was a plan or a god. But if it made Sallie Mae feel better to believe, then, by all means, she was welcome to the faith.
The receiving line was getting backed up like a bad septic system with Bernie sharing a fishing story with Jameson. My brother was something of a reclusive artist, and this was probably his personal nightmare. Our father dead in a box behind him and a line out the door of well-meaning Bootleggers.
Bootleg Springs, West Virginia, was, in my humble opinion, just about the best place in the world to live. We had a storied history of bootlegging during Prohibition—my own great-grandfather Jedediah Bodine was legend here for bringing prosperity to our tiny town with his moonshine and hooch—and we were in the midst of a tourism boom thanks to our hot springs and half-dozen spas. We were small but mighty.
Everyone knew everyone. And when one of us died—no matter their standing in the community while living—we all spiffed up, baked our casseroles, and shared our condolences.
“Hey, babe.” Cassidy Tucker, the prettiest, snarkiest deputy in all of West Virginia, was dressed in her uniform and dragging her sister June along behind her. My best friend since preschool, Cassidy knew exactly the hot mess that was stewing beneath my sad countenance. I hugged her hard and dragged June Bug into our embrace.
June thumped me on the back twice. “I’m sure you’re relieved you don’t have to worry about your father’s public intoxication anymore,” she said gruffly.
I blinked. June was… different. Human relationships bewildered her. She was much happier spouting off sports stats than making small talk, but that didn’t stop me and Cassidy from forcing her into social situations. Besides, she was a Bootlegger. Everyone here was used to her quirks.
“That’s a good point, June,” I said. Everyone else was too polite to mention the fact that my father drank himself to death. But just because he made really shitty life choices didn’t mean he wasn’t part of the fabric of Bootleg. We all tended to forget shortcomings when the person was laid out in a satin-lined box in the Bootleg Community Church.
“What?” June asked Cassidy, raising her eyebrows as they stepped on down the line. Cassidy patted June on the shoulder.
Old Judge Carwell grasped my hand in both of his, and I sneaked a peek to my right at Bowie. He was hugging Cassidy… with his eyes closed. I made a mental note to rib him about it later. Smelling a deputy’s hair at your father’s funeral, Bowie? Just ask the girl out for fuck’s sake.
“Sorry about your daddy, Scarlett,” Judge Carwell wheezed. The man had been looking to retire from his judgeship for fifteen years now. But Olamette County wouldn’t hear of it. Change didn’t come easy in Bootleg.
“Thank you, sir,” I said. “And please thank Mrs. Carwell for the cornbread she sent over.”
Carolina Rae Carwell’s cornbread was famous in four counties. I’d wrestled Gibson, my oldest brother, for the last piece this morning. I fought dirty enough that I won.
I was glad for the sustenance now. It looked like everyone was turning out to say their sorrys and to gossip about how sad Jonah Bodine’s life had been and what a blessing it was that it was all over.
The real blessing would have been my daddy waking up after yet another drunk blackout and deciding to change his ways ten years ago. Instead, my father committed wholly to the idea of being a drunkard, and now the four surviving Bodines were front and center in the church we hadn’t stepped foot in since Mama died.
Yep. I was a twenty-six-year-old orphan. Thankfully, I had my brothers. Those three brooding boys were all I needed in life. Well, them, a cold beer, a good country song, and my little lake cottage. I could get by without much else.
* * *
“Well that was a shit show,” Gibson muttered, flopping down in the first pew. He stretched out and toed off his shoes. A temperamental carpenter and cabinetmaker by trade, he was allergic to suits. He was the quintessential tall, dark, and handsome bad boy. With anger issues. To the rest of Bootleg, he was an asshole. To me, he was the big brother that ran out and bought me tampons in the middle of the night when I was out.
Much to his consternation, he had our daddy’s good looks. Dark hair, icy blue eyes, and that beard that went from nice and neat to mountain man in two days. Gibson was the spitting image of Jonah Bodine, and he hated it.
Jameson lowered his tall frame to the green carpeted steps in front of the altar. He put his hands over his face, but I knew better than to think that he was crying. Sure, he was overcome, but it was from being too social for too long.
Bowie slipped an arm around my shoulder. “Hangin’ in there?” he asked.
I gave him a wry smile. “Yeah. You?”
Reverend Duane had given us some privacy before daddy was packed up for burial. None of us were real keen on the idea. We’d survived the visitation and the funeral. The burial was private. And it was the last thing standing between us and a whole lot of liquor.
I spared a glance in my father’s direction. I didn’t get when people said it looked like the dead were just sleeping. To me, the second Jonah Bodine’s spirit left his body, there was nothing lifelike about it. I’d had that exact thought four days ago when I found him dead in the bed that he and my mama had shared for twenty-two miserable years.
Of all us Bodines, I was the closest to Daddy. We worked together. Or, rather, I had taken over the family business from him when he couldn’t keep himself sober enough to finish a job. I’d learned to drive at twelve. That summer, Mama had started sending me to work with Daddy to make sure he wasn’t drinking on the job. He was. And I learned to drive stick sitting on a stack of folded-up quilts.
And now he was gone. And I didn’t know how in the hell I felt about that.
“Bonfire still on tonight, Scar?” Gibson was looking at me like he knew I wasn’t entirely in the “ding dong the drunk is dead” camp.
“Yeah, it’s still on.”
My little cottage with its swatch of lakefront beach was the perfect place to ring in the weekends, and we did so with bonfires, floats, and impromptu concerts—Bootleg had its share of musical talent.
While tonight would be just another party to my brothers, it would be my own private send-off to the father I’d loved despite everything.
“So, Bowie,” I said, eyeing him up. He had our mama’s gray eyes like me and daddy’s dark, dark hair. “Was it just my imagination, or were you trying to inhale Cassidy Tucker? How many other neighbors did y’all sniff in the receiving line?”
He clenched his jaw, which only served to highlight the sharp Bodine cheekbones. “Shut up, Scarlett.”
I grinned, my first real smile of the day. “Only pickin’,” I promised.
Bowie had never admitted it, but the man was carrying a torch. As far as I knew, he’d never done a damn thing about it. Me, on the other hand, if there was a guy I liked? I let him know. Life was short, and orgasms were great.
The house smelled like sugar cookies and dust. My grandmother had been in Europe for a few weeks, enjoying a spring holiday with her partner, Estelle. When they heard about the trouble I was in, the shambles my life was in, they offered up their comfortable lakefront home in some tiny no-one’s-ever-heard-of-it-town in West Virginia.
I’d never been here. Not with a life in Annapolis. Gran came to us for holidays and events. We were the busy ones, she’d insist, though we all knew the real reason. My mother—her daughter—would throw a passive-aggressive fit about venturing into the backwoods for any amount of time.
However, this backwoods was currently my only option. I’d fucked up and been fucked over. I was banished, temporarily. And now, I wanted to do nothing but sit here with my eyes closed and will away the past few months.
Including the moment when I broke Hayden Ralston’s nose.
Violence was never the answer as my father had so helpfully pointed out. But the dark pleasure I’d felt from the crunch of that asshole’s cartilage suggested otherwise. It was out of character for me, a man who’d been groomed for public approval from preschool.
I stared out into the night through the deck doors. I’d opened them in hopes of freshening the stale air inside, but all I’d done was invite the pounding music from next door into my solitude. Some upbeat country singer was infringing on my angst, and I didn’t appreciate it. I didn’t come here to be subjected to what sounded like a spring break hoedown. I came here to wallow.
With a sigh, I shoved my way out of Gran’s plaid wingback and stalked to the door. The sliding screen door protested when I shoved it open. Another item to add to my fix-it list. If Gran and Estelle were nice enough to harbor a broken man, then I was nice enough to help patch up a few things that could be fixed. Myself included.
The smell of campfire bled onto the lot through the woods when I stepped out onto the deck. If one hard-partying redneck stepped the toe of a cowboy boot over the property line, I’d scare the shit out of him and his friends with a trespassing charge.
I followed sounds now foreign to my ears through the woods. Laughter, hoots of delight. Fun. Inclusion. Belonging. I didn’t know what any of those things felt like anymore. I was an outsider looking in, both from my old life and here at this rustic juncture. This limbo of before and after.
The path between the properties was well-worn, but by human or animal feet I wasn’t sure. When I broke through the woods, it was like crossing the border into another universe. Revelry. Couples slow-danced and laughed under the stars in the front yard. A dozen others crowded around the bonfire that snapped and crackled, sending up plumes of blue smoke into the night sky. The roll of the land was gradual down to the shimmering lake waters. The house—a cabin really—reminded me of a dollhouse. Tiny and pretty.
The music changed to a country anthem that even I’d heard before, and the crowd reacted as if they all just won the lottery. Someone cranked the volume even higher, and I remembered why I was there.
“Whose house is this?” I asked a gyrating couple on the impromptu dance floor.
“Scarlett’s,” the woman answered with a twang so thick I almost didn’t make out the word.
Of course her name was Scarlett.
“She’s over yonder on the pick-up.” Twangy’s man-friend jerked his bearded chin in the direction of a red pick-up truck backed up to the fire. A cheering crowd surrounded its tailgate.
The couple went back to swaying back and forth, forehead to forehead. I stalked across the grass in the direction of the ruckus. Ruckus? It appeared that the backcountry was already rubbing off on me.
I weaved my way “yonder” through the crowd to the rear fender of the truck and stopped cold. She had her back to me, facing the crowd. She wore a short denim skirt, a plaid shirt that was knotted at the waist, and cowboy boots. The legs connecting the boots and skirt were leanly muscled. She had long brown hair that hung down her back in waves. She was tiny, but the curve of her hips was anything but subtle. She looked like every man’s girl-next-door fantasy, and I hadn’t even seen her face yet.
She tilted her head back, the ends of her hair brushing the small of her back. The crowd cheered even louder.
“Drank, drank, drank!” I supposed it was the cheer to “drink” just with an accent.
With a flourish, the slip of a woman righted herself, opening her arms to her adoring audience, revealing the empty 32-oz. plastic mug in her hand. She spiked the mug off the tailgate and curtsied, offering me a shadowy look at just how high that skirt was riding.
The crowd loved her. And I had to admit, if I weren’t a shell of a man, I would have fallen just a little bit into that camp. She danced a little boogie in those boots and leaned over to offer high fives all around the bed of the truck. Until she got to me.
She had a wide mouth and a sprinkle of freckles across the bridge of her upturned nose. Her eyes were big and thickly lashed.
“Well, well, y’all. Look who finally came out to play.” Her voice was as sweet and potent as the moonshine my grandmother had brought to Thanksgiving dinner.
Before I could react, before I could demand that she turn the damn music down and have some respect for her neighbors, she had her hands on me. My shoulders to be precise. She planted and sprang, and I only had time to act on instinct.
I grabbed her by the waist as she hopped out of the bed of the truck. My arms reacted a little slower. I held her aloft and our eyes met. Sterling gray, wide, and sparkling. Was she laughing at me? Slowly, slowly, I lowered her to the ground, her body brushing mine every inch of the way down.
She was tiny, a West Virginian forest fairy that came to my chest.
“It’s about damn time you showed up.”
“Excuse me?” I managed to string two words together and congratulated myself.
She put her fingers in her mouth and let out a shrill whistle.
“We can turn the music down now,” she yelled, or hollered, or whatever it was they did in this godforsaken town.
The volume immediately cut almost in half.
“Do I know you?” I asked, finally finding my words. I was quite certain there was no way this beer-swilling creature and I knew each other.
She ignored my question, grabbing my hand instead and pulling me to a trio of coolers halfway between the house and the bonfire. She bent and fished through the ice before producing two beers.
“Here,” she shoved one at me. “Everybody, this here’s Devlin McCallister. He’s Granny Louisa’s grandson.”
“Hey, Devlin,” the people circling the beer coolers chorused in an Appalachian twang.
Confused, off kilter, I glanced down at the beer in my hand and, with nothing better to do, twisted off the top. The music was down. Mission accomplished. I should go.
“C’mon,” she said jerking her head toward the crowd near the fire. “I’ll introduce you around.”
At this moment, I couldn’t think of anything I’d like less than being subjected to introductions. I just wanted to crawl back to Gran’s house and hide there until…
It was one thing when I was a state representative. A married man with a nice house and a five-year-to-D.C. plan. But now that I was a nearly divorced, newly disgraced lawmaker on leave? I wasn’t exactly in a hurry to start making small talk with anyone.
“Devlin, this is my brother Jameson,” she said, pointing her fresh beer bottle at a man in a gray t-shirt. His hands were shoved into his pockets, shoulders hunched, as if he too didn’t care to be here.
I nodded. He nodded back. I liked him immediately.
“And this here is my brother Gibson,” she said, laying a hand on the flannelled shoulder of a man quietly strumming a guitar.
He eyed me as if I were in a police lineup and grunted.
People sure were friendly ‘round these parts.
“And this is my brother Bowie,” she said, knocking shoulders with a guy in a waffle knit shirt holding a beer. The family genes were abundantly evident when all three of them were in close proximity. Scarlett, on the other hand, had finer features, and in the firelight, I could see more red than brown in her long hair.
“Hey, Devlin. What’s up?” Bowie offered his hand and a quick smile.
“Hey,” I parroted, apparently having lost the ability to perform during even the most casual of introductions. My Queen of All Social Etiquette mother would die of embarrassment if she could see me now.
“Granny Louisa’s asked that we all make Devlin feel right at home,” Scarlett said, giving Gibson a pointed look.
He snorted. “Whatever.”
Scarlett slapped him on the back of the head. “Be-have.” She said it like it was two words.
“Yeah, yeah,” Gibson grumbled and went back to his guitar.
“He’s the strong angry type,” Scarlett said by way of apology.
“Jameson’s the artistic, leave-me-alone type. And Bowie just loves everybody. Don’t you Bowie?” She fluttered her lashes at him, and he gave her a glare.
“Don’t you start that bullshit again,” Bowie said, pointing a warning finger at her, but there was no heat behind his words.
Scarlett laughed, and it sounded like the twitter of birds on a sunny Sunday morning. The light in her laughter turned something on inside me.
“And you are?” I heard myself saying the words.
She gave me the side eye.
“Why, I’m Scarlett Bodine, of course.”
Someone turned the music up to head-throbbing levels again, and Scarlett let out a bred-in-bone whoop when she recognized the twangy song. It made me remember why I’d come in the first place.
“I’d appreciate it if you’d turn the music down,” I snapped.
“What?” she yelled.
I leaned down into her space, avoiding the arms she tossed in the air in time to the music. “Turn down the music!”
She laughed. “Devlin, it’s a Friday night. What do y’all expect?”
I’d expected the tomb-like quiet of a backwoods town whose residents were in bed by eight while I licked my wounds. I’d expected my wife to remain faithful. Hell, I’d expected my entire life to turn out differently.
“Not everyone likes a party,” I said, sounding like an old man who’d kick kids off his lawn. “Turn it down, or I’ll call the cops.”
“Well, excuuuuuuuse me. I didn’t realize that fun was illegal where you’re from,” Scarlett snipped.
“Causing a disturbance is illegal where everyone is from, and you’re disturbing me.”
“Well, bless your heart. Maybe y’all need to lighten up?” Scarlett suggested, batting her eye lashes with false sympathy.
I wasn’t sure of anything right now except for the fact that it had been a mistake to come here. Bootleg Springs was not a place to hide and heal.
“Just turn it down,” I muttered. I turned around and headed for the sanctity of the woods.
“Real nice meetin’ you,” she called after me. One more thing to be sure of. Scarlett Bodine was lying.