I didn’t care what my sister said, being here tonight wasn’t good for me.
She’d called no less than half a dozen times today, insisting I needed to get out of the house. Why? Who knew with Scarlett. Once that girl got an idea in her head, it was damn hard to get it out. And apparently Miss Scarlett Rose had decided her brother needed a drink at the Lookout.
Now that I’d been sitting here awhile, I’d decided she was wrong. I didn’t need to be here. I’d have been much happier if I’d stayed in my shop. I made my living as a metal artist, and I was working on a big commission—had plenty to keep me busy. Granted, I liked a cold beer as much as the next guy, and Nicolette served ’em up good. But what I did not like was the fact that half the people in here were looking at me.
They thought they were being so damn sneaky. Little glances over their shoulders. Heads together to whisper.
Moving my gaze back to the table, I shifted on my stool. The noise of a dozen conversations drifted around me. I knew what people were whispering about. All us Bodines knew. They were wondering if our dad—a man who was no longer among the living—had been responsible for the disappearance, and possible murder, of Callie Kendall a dozen years ago.
Did I think he’d done it? I didn’t rightly know. There’d never been a lot of love between me and my father, but that didn’t mean I believed he’d been a murderer.
Hadn’t been a lot of love between our father and any of his children, save Scarlett. She’d always tried the hardest with him. Maybe because she was the baby, or the only girl. Hell if I knew.
There had been good times with him, and with our mama. A lot of ’em, in fact. But Dad had made it hard. Drank too much. Blamed us kids for every problem in his life. My brother, Gibson, had taken the worst of it. Turned him into a mean son of a bitch if you weren’t related to him. Sometimes even if you were. Bowie seemed to have decided he’d be Dad’s opposite. Nice guy, Bowie. Upstanding sort. Our half-brother, named Jonah after our father, hadn’t the pleasure—or misfortune—of growing up with Dad. That seemed to have been a blessing, far as I could tell.
Me? I’d always tried to stay out of his way. Keep my head down. Be invisible. Kinda what I did in general, and it usually worked out fine.
Wasn’t working no more. Not with the whole town whispering about Jonah Bodine Sr. and Callie Kendall’s damn sweater. Now eyes were on me, and I did not like it. Not one bit.
Moisture beaded on my beer bottle and the scent of garlic fries and whiskey wafted by. I took a sip and ran my thumb down the cool glass.
Bowie sat across from me, staring into his beer. He was usually a bit more talkative, but tonight he’d been quiet. I hadn’t asked why. June Tucker sat next to him, reading a book. I liked Juney. I found her bewildering sometimes, but she also didn’t talk too much, or expect me to. Although she did tend to ask awkward questions.
Jonah sat on her other side. We’d only found out about Jonah’s existence a couple of months ago when he showed up in town looking for us. He’d heard about dad’s death, and saw he had siblings he’d never known. Of course Scarlett had claimed him as a Bodine after about ninety seconds of knowing him. I reckoned she’d been right to do so. Jonah was a decent sort. He hadn’t been sure about staying in Bootleg, and I wasn’t sure if he’d wind up settling here long-term. Somehow—I wasn’t quite sure how, seeing as the agreement had been made in the sixth inning of a Bootleg Cock Spurs softball game, and I’d been pretty far gone on moonshine—Jonah had recently become my roommate.
I took another sip of my beer and Scarlett flashed me a sweet smile. She was standing by another table with her beau, Devlin. My brothers and I had reluctantly agreed that Dev was all right for Scarlett. She’d made us promise we wouldn’t toss him in the lake again. We got around it by promising we wouldn’t unless he deserved it. She’d thank us later. Devlin was obviously crazy about Scar, but every man deserves to get his ass thrown in the lake once in a while. Even the good ones.
Normally I wasn’t one to start a conversation where one wasn’t already happening, but I glanced up at June. “Where’s Cass tonight, Juney?”
She blinked at me once. “On a date.”
My eyes flicked to Bowie. His jaw tightened, and his eyelid twitched. Now I knew why Bowie was playing the part of the broody Bodine tonight. He had eyes for June’s sister, Cassidy Tucker, but for reasons none of us could fathom, he’d never done a thing about it.
“A date, huh?” I said. “Who’s she seeing?”
“Someone she met online,” June said. “I told her the probability of finding a suitable match using an appropriate online resource was high.”
“You gave her this idea?” Bowie asked.
“It’s perfectly logical,” June said. “Cassidy would like to meet, and date, a man with potential for long-term commitment. Utilizing a dating application will widen her range of potential mates.”
“Potential mates?” Jonah asked. “You make it sound like she’s an animal.”
“Technically speaking, we’re all animals,” June said. “Homo sapiens are classified within kingdom Animalia.”
“Thanks for the science lesson, June Bug,” Bowie said.
“Bowie, are you experiencing feelings of jealousy because Cassidy is having a potentially romantic encounter with another man?” June asked, her voice flat. There was no sarcasm or humor in her question. She was really just asking.
I tried to cover my smirk by taking a drink of my beer.
“No,” Bowie said. “I’m good.”
June shrugged and went back to her book.
Scarlett swept up next to me and elbowed me in the ribs. “See, Jame. I told you this would be good for you. Aren’t you glad you came out of hiding?”
“Oh, stop,” she said. “Y’all are a bunch of negative Nancys over here. Bowie, quit your scowling. You look like Gibs.”
“Who looks like me?” Gibson asked.
He’d come up behind Scarlett, a bottle of water in his hand. The oldest and youngest Bodines were opposites, and not just in gender. Scarlett was tiny, while Gibs was the tallest of all of us. Looked the most like Dad, too, which I was pretty sure he hated.
“Bowie,” Scarlett said. “He’s over there trying to turn his beer sour.”
Gibson just grunted.
“Y’all are a sad-lookin’ lot,” Scarlett said. “And I know exactly why.”
“Why is that?” Bowie asked.
I wanted to kick him under the table for encouraging her.
“Because you’re single,” Scarlett said. “Here I am, the youngest Bodine, and I’ve got this great man. And you poor things are still waiting to find someone.”
“Who says we want to?” Gibson asked.
She smacked his arm. “I wasn’t talking about your grumpy ass. You find a woman who can put up with you, and I swear I’ll learn to cook just so I can bake her the best pecan pie in Olamette County. She’ll deserve it.”
Gibson snorted and took a drink of his water.
“But y’all,” she said, pointing to the rest of us sitting at the table. “You need to think about it. Finding somebody. Settling down. It’d be good for you.”
“Like coming out for a beer’d be good for me?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, poking me in the shoulder. “Just like that, only better. Come on, Jame, that girl you’ve been seeing doesn’t count if you can’t even bring her around to introduce to your family.”
“I ain’t seein’ her anymore,” I said.
“What?” Scarlett asked, her voice going up several octaves. Devlin paused behind her, like he wasn’t sure if he should come near or wait to see if it was safe. “Since when?”
I rolled my eyes and hunched down over my beer. Half the place was looking at us openly now. And the other half was straining to listen.
“Jesus, don’t make a scene,” I said. “It ended quite a while ago. It’s fine.”
I’d been seeing Willa Sawyer, a girl who lived over in Maryland, for a couple of years. It was an on-again, off-again type thing. Long distance. Sometimes she’d come out here and see me; other times I went to her. Wasn’t ever real serious, but we had a nice time when we were together. She’d decided she wanted more commitment than I could give her. Met someone else—planned to get married soon. Kinda left me without as much to look forward to, but I was glad for her. She was a nice girl—deserved that sort of thing.
“Well, you could have told us,” Scarlett said. “Here I thought you were keeping her a secret for a reason. Like maybe you were ashamed of us.”
Devlin seemed to have decided it was safe to come near. He stepped up next to Scarlett and slipped his arm around her waist.
“Don’t be dumb, Scar,” I said. “I wasn’t keeping secrets, and you know I’m not ashamed of y’all. It just wasn’t a big deal.”
“Too bad it’s over,” Gibson said. “Seemed like you had a good thing going. Got a little action when you wanted it, and none of the bullshit.”
“Isn’t that exactly what you have?” Scarlett asked, her disdain for Gibson’s dating habits—or lack thereof—evident in her tone. “Action when you want it. No bullshit… That is, no commitment or connection to anyone.”
“Scarlett, just because y’all are acting like lovesick puppies doesn’t mean the rest of us need to go out and get ourselves attached,” Gibson said.
Scarlett rolled her eyes and turned her back to him. “What about you, June? Got your eye on anyone special?”
June looked over the top of her book. “No.”
“Jonah?” she asked.
“Sorry, Scarlett,” Jonah said. “Not really.”
Scarlett huffed and grabbed Devlin’s arm. “Y’all are no fun. Come on, let’s go play pool.”
Our table quieted down considerably in the absence of Scarlett. She pranced around the pool table, shaking her backside at Devlin. The way he watched her still got my hackles up, and I had to remind myself that Scarlett was his girl now. He could look at her like that. Truth was, he should look at her like that.
I reckoned any guy in Scarlett’s life couldn’t win, not with us as her brothers. If he looked at her with those hungry eyes, we wanted to bust his face. But if he hadn’t been looking at her like that, we’d have hated him for not appreciating her enough.
The TV behind me caught my attention and the noise level in the bar went down a notch. Nicolette had just changed the channel to a reality TV show, Roughing It.
The premise wasn’t all that exciting. A bunch of minor celebrities stuck in a cabin out in the woods somewhere, expected to get by without a lot of modern conveniences. Mostly it was just a bunch of drama between the cast members while they fumbled around in the woods. Definitely not something I’d watch under normal circumstances.
But my interest—and the interest of everyone else in Bootleg—stemmed from the fact that Leah Mae Larkin was on the show.
Leah Mae was one of us. A Bootlegger. She’d lived here until she was twelve. Then her mama had divorced her daddy and moved her away. After that, she’d spent summers here for a while—at least until the rest of the world discovered how pretty she was and she became a model. She’d dropped the Mae—went by Leah Larkin now.
Back when she’d still been Leah Mae, she’d been one of my only friends. Maybe my best friend.
I hadn’t seen her in a long time. And it wasn’t like I was harboring any foolish unrequited feelings for her. She was basically a celebrity now. I was only interested in what she was up to because it wasn’t every day that a Bootlegger was on TV.
Shifting in my seat, I looked at the screen. There was Leah Mae, standing in front of a mirror, pulling all that long blond hair up into a ponytail. She’d always wanted to be on TV. When we were kids, we’d spent more hours than I could count with her making up plays and starring in them. Playing dress-up and twirling around. Telling me how she was going to be a famous actress.
The scene cut to the cast going out to the nearby lake to fish. Maybe it was one of those challenges they were always putting them through. People got voted off the show each week, and so far, Leah Mae had made it every time.
I tried not to pay attention, but they kept showing Leah Mae struggling with her fishing pole. Kinda looked like she didn’t know which end was which, but that couldn’t be the case. Leah Mae could out-fish anyone, and we all knew it. Sure, with her glamorous lifestyle now, posing for pictures and walking in fashion shows, she probably didn’t get out fishing much. But fishing was like riding a bike. You didn’t just up and forget.
The guy in the boat with her asked if she needed help. Brock Winston. That guitar-toting pansy-ass. His music wasn’t terrible, but I’d hated him from the first minute I saw him on that show with Leah Mae. He was married to some actress, but he sure seemed to be cozying up to Leah Mae in a way a man shouldn’t if he already had a girl.
Damn celebrities. One famous girl wasn’t enough for that guy? He had to go flirting with another?
Brock got her pole fixed and the camera zoomed in. Her eyes caught me, held me fast. Back when we were kids, she’d always had this sparkle in her eyes when she was acting. But there was no sparkle now. They were flat. Still damn pretty, but this wasn’t Leah Mae. It didn’t look like her, the girl I’d once known. She looked like a girl in a cage, being made to do tricks.
Leah Mae turned her gaze to Brock and the camera panned in on him. He was giving her a look I knew all too well. A distinct I want to fuck you tonight look. All men had one, and we could spot them in each other if we were paying attention. And that was exactly how Brock Winston was looking at Leah Mae Larkin on Nicolette’s stupid big-screen TV.
I turned back to my beer. Didn’t much want to see the rest.
“I bet those two are gettin’ busy in the back when the cameras are off,” Rhett Ginsler said behind me.
“You think?” Trent McCulty asked.
“Sure as shit,” Rhett said. “She’s actin’ all coy, but I’d bet ten bucks and a jar of moonshine she’s spending her nights getting plowed by that Brock guy.”
The muscles in my back clenched and I tightened my grip on my beer.
“Maybe she’s just playing it up for the camera,” Trent said.
“Could be,” Rhett said. “Leah Mae’s an attention whore anyway.”
I rose so fast my stool fell backward behind me, crashing to the floor with a loud bang. Without much awareness of how I got there, I stood behind Rhett and Trent, my hands balled into fists.
“I reckon you need to stop talking shit about her,” I said, my voice a low growl.
Before I finished speaking, Bowie and Gibs were already flanking me, ready to throw down. They probably didn’t know what had me so riled, but they wouldn’t care. This was how we did things. Backed each other. They might kick my ass later if I got them into something stupid—although it was usually Gibson getting the rest of us into something stupid, not me. I was prepared to deal with the consequences. No one used the word whore in a sentence with Leah Mae’s name. Not in my hearing.
Rhett shifted on his stool, turning to face me. “What’s it to you?”
“She’s one of ours.”
He snorted and took a swig of his beer. “I guess. How long since she’s even set foot in Bootleg, though?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Bowie said, and Gibson growled in agreement. “Jameson’s right.”
“And I suppose you think you’re gonna do something about it?” Rhett asked.
Eyes were on us. Lines being drawn. A couple more guys stood nearby, clearly on Rhett’s side. Like I gave a shit. Jonah stood on Gibson’s right. He hadn’t grown up here, but he understood.
“You’re damn right I’m gonna do something about it,” I said.
Rhett got off the stool. He was about my height—could look me in the eyes. I stared back, my face hard, my jaw set.
“Y’all better back away from my bar if you’re gettin’ rough,” Nicolette said.
“Well, shit.” Scarlett’s voice.
I saw Devlin come up next to Bowie. He was rolling up his sleeves, but he leaned closer and spoke under his breath. “Watch it, guys. You’re supposed to stay out of trouble.”
“Bootleg justice, Dev,” Bowie said, his eyes never leaving Rhett and Trent.
“I know, I know,” Devlin said.
I wasn’t an idiot. Hitting first was a bad idea, if you could avoid it. But if I didn’t hit first…
“What are you hanging out in here for, anyway, Rhett?” I asked. “Shouldn’t you be keeping tabs on your girlfriend?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Rhett asked.
I shrugged. “Word around town is Misty Lynn’s been messin’ around with Wade Zirkel. I reckon you ain’t man enough, so she had to go look elsewhere.”
“You son of a bitch.” Rhett drew his fist back, and I let it come. Took it across the jaw.
Rhett’s punch was the invitation I was looking for. I clocked him square in the nose while all hell broke loose around me. Rhett grabbed his face and hollered, blood running down his chin. Gibson and Bowie dove in, pushing and punching at anyone who dared face them. Even Dev and Jonah got in on it.
The scuffle was broken up quick, and I let someone pull me back. I’d bloodied Rhett’s nose, and I was satisfied with that. Didn’t seem like too many punches had landed on anyone. The only blood was Rhett’s, although Trent looked like he might wind up with a shiner. Gibson flexed his fingers a few times. Everyone else gave each other a good mean glower and went back to their places.
“Jameson, what in the hell were you doing?” Scarlett asked. She touched my jaw and tipped my face see if I was hurt.
“Rhett needs to remember himself, is all,” I said, jerking my chin out of her reach. “I’m going home. See y’all later.”
“If you wanted to go home so bad, you could have just left. You didn’t have to punch someone in the dang face,” Scarlett called after me.
I walked out, ignoring the eyes that followed me. Yeah, starting a bar fight meant people would look—and talk. Although a scuffle in the Lookout was pretty typical for a Friday night. But I could not abide that good-for-nothing pond scum Rhett Ginsler talking about Leah Mae like that. She’d been my friend once, and that still meant something to me. That jackass needed to remember his manners.
After I got home, I might have scrolled through her Instagram a little bit. And that might have been a habit I’d gotten into recently. A habit that was right stupid, and I knew it. Nothing had ever happened between Leah Mae and me when she’d been a normal girl, visiting her daddy for the summer. Sure as shit wasn’t any chance of something happening between us now.
The scenery rushed by in a blur of green and brown. I’d been looking forward to the drive—I hadn’t been out here in so long—but all I could think about was last night’s episode of Roughing It.
“How could they have done that to me?” I asked.
Kelvin had his hands on the steering wheel of our rental car, his phone in a cradle on the dashboard with a map showing the route to Bootleg Springs. He was wearing a Ralph Lauren dress shirt and gray slacks, a pair of Versace sunglasses perched on his nose. I was the one with the modeling career, but Kelvin Graham looked like one too. It was how he’d gotten his start when he was just sixteen. He had that pretty-boy Abercrombie and Fitch look. Dark hair and hazel eyes. Toned physique. Perfect bone structure.
But he liked the business side of modeling more than being in front of the camera. He wasn’t a man who liked people telling him what to do. He owned his own agency now—managing my career as well as the careers of dozens of other models—and this way he could grow his stubble, or cut his hair, or put on a few extra pounds of lean muscle, and no one could tell him not to.
“Babe, you’re getting excited over nothing,” he said without looking at me. “We both knew they were going to make it look like you and Brock were flirting.”
“But we weren’t,” I said. “And I’m telling you, that fishing pole was rigged to break on me. I know how to fish, and they made me look like an idiot.”
“You looked great,” he said, flashing me a smile.
I looked down at my phone. The gossip columns were all buzzing over whether something was going to happen between Leah Larkin and Brock Winston on Roughing It. Would Leah tempt Brock away from his sweet-as-apple-pie wife, Maisie Miller?
It made me want to gag. Brock had seemed like a nice guy when we were filming, but even if we’d both been single, I wouldn’t have been interested in him. He was too flat. Too one-dimensional. He had a nice singing voice, but he didn’t write any of his own music. He wasn’t that creative. Having spent time with him filming the show, I wasn’t sure if he’d ever had an original thought in his head.
And Brock was most definitely not single. He’d had a very public romance with Maisie Miller when they were both celebrity judges on Talent USA. The entire country had been enamored with their sweet little glances and whispered flirtations in front of the camera. When paparazzi had caught them kissing in an out-of-the-way bistro one night, everyone had gone crazy. People had been rooting for them to fall in love, and when it happened, it was like the happily-ever-after the world had been waiting for.
Now everyone was predicting that I’d be the vixen. The woman to break up the perfect love story.
Well, I hadn’t. Filming had already wrapped on the show, and as far as I knew, Brock was back in L.A. with Maisie. They’d been quiet on social media, but all the cast members had. Our contracts stipulated what we could and couldn’t reveal before all the episodes aired, so the easiest thing to do was lay low for a while.
I glanced down at the ring on my left hand. I wasn’t single, either, although the world didn’t know. Kelvin had insisted we keep our engagement secret until after the season finale of Roughing It aired. I’d left my ring at home when I went to film the show, and we had yet to tell anyone, save my mom and stepdad. And they knew to keep it under wraps.
Now we were heading to my hometown to tell my dad.
I’d grown up in Bootleg Springs, West Virginia, and after my parents’ divorce, I’d spent summers there with my dad. I had so many good memories of Bootleg. Long days spent in the sun sipping lemonade and sweet tea. Jumping into the lake that was as warm as bathwater. Traipsing through the woods. Coming home at sunset, hungry, dirty, and tired.
I hadn’t been in Bootleg Springs since I was sixteen. That was the summer Callie Kendall had disappeared. She’d been my age, and spent her summers in Bootleg, too. As soon as my mom had heard about her disappearance, she’d insisted I come home to Jacksonville.
Not long after that, my modeling career had taken off. There were always auditions and casting calls, photo shoots and fashion shows. Things had moved fast, and my life had changed almost overnight. It had been easier to fly my dad out to visit me, wherever I happened to be, rather than make the trip to West Virginia.
But this year, Dad hadn’t been doing well. Although he’d quit smoking years ago, he had ongoing lung problems. Last winter, he’d been hospitalized with pneumonia and hadn’t bothered to tell me until he’d already gone home. I was still mad at him for keeping it from me, but he’d insisted he didn’t want me to worry.
He was my daddy. Of course I was going to worry.
I felt awful for not having come to see him sooner. But filming Roughing It had gotten in the way, and afterward I’d had a series of photo shoots to get through. But now my schedule was clear for the foreseeable future while Kelvin and I considered my next career move. With this rare time off, and our engagement, I’d decided it was time to visit Bootleg Springs again.
Although I hadn’t been here in a dozen years, the road was still familiar. And as we pulled into town, it was like stepping back in time.
“You have got to be kidding me,” Kelvin said, looking around as the first buildings came into view.
“What?” I asked.
He lowered his sunglasses. “Nothing. It’s just… you said it was a small town in West Virginia. I guess I hadn’t realized you meant small-town West Virginia.”
“Come on, Kelvin, don’t be a snob. It’s charming.”
“Not the word I’d use,” he said. “But okay.”
I rolled my eyes and looked out the window. The route to my dad’s house skirted the outside of town. I’d have to show Kelvin around later. From what I could see, Bootleg Springs looked much the same as I remembered it. Dad had told me it had grown as tourists discovered the hot springs. But so far, it still held the same charm I remembered so well.
My dad lived about five minutes outside town. Kelvin cast me a questioning glance when we turned down the gravel driveway, but he didn’t comment on it. We bounced down the long drive until the house came into view.
Dad’s house was a little more worn that I remembered. The wood slats were weathered and there was a slight sag to the front porch that hadn’t been there before.
A grin stole over my face at the sight of my dad. He sat in his old rocking chair on the front porch, just like he always had. Kelvin brought the car to a stop and I hopped out.
My heart squeezed when I saw how slowly he rose from his chair. Add to that the tube beneath his nose connected to an oxygen tank, and the sight of him almost brought me to tears.
“Leah Mae sunshine,” he said, holding out his arms. His hair was more gray than blond now, and the lines at the corners of his eyes and across his forehead had deepened. He wore a faded hickory shirt and a pair of jeans that had seen better days.
I walked up the creaky steps. “Dad, you didn’t tell me you were on oxygen.”
“Oh, this?” he asked, tugging on the clear rubber tubing. “This is nothing. Just a little extra help. I won’t need it much longer.”
I stepped carefully into his hug and was surprised at how far around him my arms went. Dad had always been a big man—tall with a barrel chest and arms thick from hard work. His height hadn’t gone anywhere—I was five foot ten, but at six foot four, he still made me feel a bit like a little girl. But he felt so much smaller—his thickness was diminishing with either age or his illness.
He was only fifty-four—much too young for this.
“It’s so good to see you,” I said, pulling away. The stairs behind me creaked beneath Kelvin’s feet. “Daddy, this is Kelvin Graham. Kelvin, this is my dad, Clay Larkin.”
The smile left Dad’s face and he straightened. He had a good three inches on Kelvin, and apparently he intended to use them.
“Mr. Larkin,” Kelvin said, his voice smooth as he held out his hand to shake.
Dad hesitated a second before shaking his hand. “Kelvin, huh?”
Kelvin’s eyes flicked to me, as if he wasn’t sure how to respond. “Yes, well, it’s nice to finally meet you. I think the last time you visited Leah, I was away on business.”
“I reckon,” Dad said.
I’d expected my dad to be a little cold to Kelvin at first. That was the Bootleg father way. He’d warm up to him soon.
“Well, Daddy, can we come inside? It was a long drive from the airport.”
Dad’s smile returned. “Of course, sweetheart. Come on in.”
Kelvin stood back with his hands in his pockets, eying the old house while Dad shuffled inside, wheeling his oxygen tank behind him.
The house was clean and cozy, with a wood-burning stove in the corner and a worn couch with a blanket over it. It smelled faintly of pine and cinnamon. A few pictures of me as a little girl hung on the walls in mismatched frames.
Dad went over to his old leather recliner and lowered himself down. It took him a second to get his tubes situated. Kelvin followed me in, but stayed standing while I sat on the couch.
“Place looks nice,” I said. “You’re still getting help from Betsy Stirling, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, Betsy comes by regularly,” he said. “Checks up on me and helps me keep the place in order.”
Dad had balked at hiring someone to help him around the house, but after his hospitalization, I’d insisted. And Betsy Stirling was perfect. She was a part-time nurse down at the Bootleg Springs Clinic, and had been looking for a side gig to keep her busy. She helped Dad with things like grocery shopping and cleaning up the house, and she kept tabs on his health. It made me feel a lot better to have her around.
“How long do you think you’ll be in town?” Dad asked.
“A few days,” Kelvin said.
I glanced up at Kelvin, raising my eyebrows. Our return flight to L.A. wasn’t for a week. But since he’d insisted on flying in and out of Pittsburgh—as if there was something wrong with airports in West Virginia—we’d need to leave Bootleg Springs on Friday afternoon. Still, that was more than a few days.
“We’ll be here until Friday, actually.”
Kelvin cleared his throat but didn’t argue with me.
“Anyway, Dad, there’s something Kelvin and I wanted to talk to you about.” My heart started to thump harder and my fingers tingled. I didn’t know why I was so nervous to tell him I was getting married. It hadn’t been difficult to tell my mom. But I’d been more sure of how she was going to react. Dad? He could go either way. And as frail as he seemed, I didn’t want to shock him too much.
“All right,” he said, resting his hands on his thighs. His gaze flicked to Kelvin for a second before coming back to me.
“Well, you know Kelvin and I have been seeing each other for a couple years,” I said. “We’ve decided to get married.”
“Huh,” Dad said. “Is that so?”
“Yes,” I said, trying to keep my voice bright. “We can’t talk about it publicly yet, but we wanted to tell you while we were here.”
Dad crossed his arms and leveled Kelvin with a hard stare. “You’ve already asked for her hand?”
Kelvin blinked. “Asked for her hand? We decided to get married, yes.”
“Isn’t there something you’ve forgotten, son?” Dad asked.
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“I don’t recall you ever coming to me to ask my permission,” Dad said.
Kelvin’s brow furrowed, and he cracked a little smile. “Well, no, but that’s a very old-fashioned custom, don’t you think?”
“’Round here, that’s the way it’s done,” Dad said.
“Okay…” Kelvin said. “But Leah is a twenty-eight-year-old woman, not a girl being handed off with a dowry.”
“Daddy,” I said, putting my hand on his knee, “Kelvin didn’t realize that would be so important to you. That isn’t the sort of thing everybody does anymore. This is my fault; I should have told him.”
Dad looked at me, his eyes boring deep into mine. “You want to marry this man?”
He held my gaze a moment longer, scrutinizing me. I tried not to fidget. He sighed, like he was resigning himself to something unpleasant. “When’s the wedding?”
“We haven’t set a date yet.”
“It depends on our schedules,” Kelvin said. “We probably won’t have time for anything fancy. I’ve been thinking we’d just go to Vegas after Roughing It airs.”
I glanced at Kelvin in surprise. He’d never mentioned getting married in Vegas before. “You don’t want a wedding?”
“We could still have a wedding, babe,” he said. “But this way, we could work it in when we both have a few days free. Come on, you don’t want to get married by Elvis?”
My mouth dropped open. “No, I don’t want to get married by Elvis.”
He smiled. “You know, you’re right. If we have a big wedding, we could turn it into a great PR opportunity. We could sell the rights to the wedding photos.”
I gaped at him. “We’re not selling the rights to our wedding photos. What are you talking about?”
“I’m glad you brought it up,” Kelvin said. “We’d be crazy not to. That’s a huge missed opportunity. We should get planning now if we want to capitalize on your visibility from the show.”
He walked outside, pulling out his phone as he went. The screen door banged shut behind him.
“Really?” Dad asked.
I sighed. “I know, he seems… opportunistic. It’s just the way he is. That’s why he’s so successful.”
Dad raised his eyebrows. He wasn’t buying it.
“He’s just… not a Bootleg type of man,” I said.
“No, he is not.”
“But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have other good qualities,” I said. “He’s just different from what you’re used to.”
“Leah Mae, I’ve seen the sorts of people you run with now,” he said. “Slick big city folk. Smooth talkers. I admit, I’ve never cared much for any of it. But it’s your dream and I am nothing but proud of you. And if this is what you want, I’ll be happy for you.”
“Thanks, Dad.” I squeezed his hand. “Listen, why don’t I take Kelvin into town and show him around. We’ll come back here with dinner for all of us before we go check in to our cabin. Do you need any groceries?”
“No, I’m fine.”
I didn’t believe him. I’d pick him up a few things just in case. “We’ll be back in a little while.”
I got up and found Kelvin on the front porch, typing something on his phone. Probably texting his assistant, asking her to look for wedding venues. I sighed again. That was Kelvin, always going at full speed. I figured I should be happy he’d let go of that silly run-off-to-Vegas idea so easily. He wasn’t always so quick to change his mind.
“Come on, let’s go into town,” I said. “We’ll bring back dinner.”
“Are we going to be able to find a place that’s paleo and gluten-free?”
I stopped myself from sighing. The chances of that were very slim, but I didn’t want to sour him on my hometown before he’d even seen all of it. He was just a bandwagon health nut anyway; it wasn’t like he had real food intolerances. “I’m not sure. I guess we’ll have to look around.”
We got back in the car and headed into town.