Adapting to the openness had taken awhile. In prison, he’d been alone, despite the crowd. But here, he was out in the boondocks with the crickets croaking and the coyotes yapping, echoing and prolonging the eerie silence afterward.
He loved it. But after his release, he dreaded every moment. The silence. Feeling incredibly alone. He’d considered a pet, but the upkeep was more than he was willing to handle at the moment.
He jumped when the door slammed and Lauren waltzed out.
“I love jalapeno poppers,” she said. “Can’t remember the last time I’ve grilled some of those.”
“I’ve got the makings if you want to do it.”
She clapped her hands together. “Yes, let’s do that.”
“I picked enough jalapenos this morning, but we can always grab more from the garden if you want.”
“Too dark and I’m afraid of snakes. I’m sure you have plenty.”
She prepped the poppers and he prepped the fire, and they drank another margarita while the food cooked. They sat around the fire under the stars instead of the deck, near a large oak tree that had been the focal point of many parties with friends and family. They chatted about the weather, the river and the current news. Once the poppers were done, they ate a few and chatted more, but nothing too serious.
“You wanna just eat jalapeno poppers and margaritas tonight?” he asked, never wanting this night to end.
He grabbed a stick and thrust a wiener on it. “How about we at least roast wieners?”
Laughing, she seized the stick and jabbed it in the fire. “I thought I had already roasted yours.”
His loins jumped. “That you did.”
She removed the burning wiener from the fire and blew on it. As she took it from the stick she muttered. “Hot, hot, hot.”
He grabbed a paper plate and placed it under the wiener, where she let it fall. “Of course, it’s hot silly. It just came from the fire.”
She set the plate on the table and blurted, “I’m sorry I didn’t trust you.”
“You didn’t trust that the hot dog was hot?” He took his from the fire and blew, but laid it across the plate before sliding it from the stick.
“No.” She swept her hand through the air. “About everything else. For years I thought you had slaughtered my sister. How can I step away from that and remember what things were like before?”
Shadows skimmed Lauren’s body. The dim light from the fire and from the deck’s lighting flickered around her, enough to discern most of her features. He leaned closer and brushed a finger across her cheek. “Knowing me the way you did, how could you even think I would do something like that?”
Lauren shrugged. “Maybe I had a few doubts, but I called it wishful thinking. Then I went through such pain and heartache I didn’t have room for doubts. Everyone convinced me. Your cap. Your knife. Your motive. Clint…” Her voice bubbled, a tenuous thread of something he couldn’t name. Regret? Remorse? Confusion?
Luke jerked away. His muscles tensed, gut twitched.
“We became friends. Not like you and I were, but he was there for me—”
“Of course he was.” His voice was harsh, hot like the fire steaming from his pit.
“As Laramie grew up, he became her godfather. But she didn’t like him and never wanted to be alone with him. She never accused him of anything, but she steered clear of him. Even her instincts were right and I couldn’t see through my pain.”
He stood. Yes, they should have this conversation. They needed to have this conversation at one point. And now was as good a time as any. But it was too hard to sit. Too hard to face the demons that Lauren’s mistrust in him had stirred.
“If I had doubts, I…I—”
“You had too many people lying to you.”
She stood and planted her palms on his chest. “But you never lied, did you? You were the only person who didn’t.”