Releasing October 24, 2016
Ethaniel Shockley waited until the top of the extension ladder was flush to the side of the house and the base secure on the ground before putting his foot on the bottom rung. He double-checked his tool belt, as was his habit before going up, because coming down for a forgotten tool was a pain in the ass. Better to be thorough than waste time.
“You drop your balls somewhere or what, E?” Andy Tolley asked. The skinny Pole from Chicago never missed a chance to give Ethan shit about his insistence on preparedness. Even though Andy had served in the 82nd Infantry, he acted like an unbroken pony—spirited, high-strung and galloping toward disaster.
“At least I brought my balls back with me,” Ethan snapped.
Behind Andy, Butch Pelligrino guffawed loudly at the familiar line. The three of them had been roofing houses together for almost two years, and they got along like bread and butter—despite the fact that Butch was former Navy, while Ethan and Andy were both Army. They all three wanted to do their jobs, earn a paycheck, and sleep without having nightmares. Since his return from Afghanistan eight years ago, Ethan had found that a long day’s labor in the hot summer sun meant a deep, dreamless sleep.
Winters were more difficult.
“Supervisor said the north end of the roof is rotted, right?” Ethan asked. “The rest is safe to walk on?”
“For the sixth time, yes,” Andy said. “They surveyed these roofs yesterday, and this one’s mostly fine. The roofs on the two end units are rotted through all around.”
Ethan ascended the ladder, carefully placing his feet each time. He had no problem with heights, but sometimes ladders gave him fits. He’d fallen off the barn ladder twice as a kid, and he hated that free-falling feeling. Probably why he’d never bothered with the airborne division. He preferred his feet on a firm, flat surface.
Their company was replacing the roofs on a two-story converted apartment unit. Three bottom units, three top units, and they’d been leaking all winter. The landlord had finally ponied up for an assessment, and the company they worked for got the bid. Ethan, Andy, and Butch were going up to start ripping out the old tar paper so they could look at the structure underneath.
At the top of the ladder, Ethan paused and studied the roof. Big, square patch with little to visibly divide the three units, except some duct tape their boss had placed yesterday. Ethan squinted at the lines. This was where he’d been told to place the ladder so they’d come up on a firm portion of roof, but the whole thing looked warped and sad.
“You gonna make love to it with your eyeballs, or what?” Butch yelled from farther down the ladder.
“At least the monk would be makin’ love to somethin’,” Andy said.
Ethan removed his hand from the ladder rung long enough to flip them both off, then hoisted one leg over the ledge. The ceiling felt firm enough beneath his right foot, so he climbed off.
So far, so good.
He moved to his right so Andy could get up and over.
“Oh, hey, so’s I don’t forget,” Andy said while Butch climbed up. “Susan is throwing an anniversary party for us next weekend, and she told me to invite anyone I wanted. Since this is mostly going to be her girlfriends, I’m inviting all the men I know.”
“Then why are you inviting Butch?” Ethan asked.
Butch took a lighthearted swing at him that Ethan ducked. “Says the guy who couldn’t get a piece of snatch if he paid her. You gonna bring a girlfriend around once in a while?”
Ethan ignored the gentle pang of apprehension that always plagued him when his lack of a love life came up in conversations at work. He never brought a girlfriend around, or even talked about one, because he had no interest. And the men he used to scratch the occasional itch were rarely worth a second look.
“I would if I was the girlfriend type,” Ethan said, playing up his role as a love-them-and-leave-them ladies’ man.
Butch snorted. “You are so full of shit. Just wait, one of these days you’ll fall for a pair of big brown eyes and long legs.”
He hoped so, as long as they came attached to a dick.
“Whatever, you two,” Andy said, “just show up.”
“Definitely,” Ethan said. He wasn’t much of a social butterfly, especially with the guys he worked with. They were all former military, he took great pains to stay firmly in the closet around them. His family, as well. But Andy and Susan had been married for three years and Susan was six months pregnant with their first child. Ethan could suffer a few hours of social niceties in order to wish his work buddy well.
“Let’s do this,” Butch said.
Ethan walked farther out onto the roof, using his crowbar to test the tar paper with each step. Despite the supervisor’s report, something felt off in this section. Too soft. He stopped halfway to the spot where the roof was supposed to be rotted. Instincts that he trusted without question screamed at him to wait. Something wasn’t right.
“Guys, hold up a minute,” he said.
“What?” Andy kept walking, putting two feet between them before turning around.
Ethan pressed with his left foot. Something snapped. Groaned. His stomach dropped. He glanced back at Butch, whose eyes went wide with alarm. “Back up slow,” he said to Butch. “Andy? Really, really slow.”
“They told us this was solid,” Andy said.
“I know, but it’s not.”
Ethan shuffled back a few inches, towards Butch. The structure beneath him shuddered and rumbled. Someone’s voice squawked over his radio.
The ceiling beneath Andy caved in first, and he was gone in a crash of wood and plaster. Ethan yelled his name.
Ethan’s world gave out, and he plummeted into darkness.
“Are you sure you don’t want to come to church with us, honey?” Mom asked, with expected precision, at nine-thirty on Sunday morning. She was already in her blue floral dress and matching flats, and flanked on either side by his sister-in-law Jillian and niece Sarah.
Ethan looked up from the scrambled eggs he was still choking down at the kitchen table, fork poised to spear some more of the fluffy yellow mess. In the month-plus that he’d been back home to recuperate from his accident, his mother asked the same question every single Sunday on her way out the door.
His answer never changed. “No, thank you, ma’am.”
“You know it’s an open offer. You might meet some young people your age.”
“Bye, Uncle Ethan,” Sarah said as she followed her mother and Gram out the kitchen door. Sarah was eight and the spitting image of her mother, which Ethan thanked God for every day the thought occurred to him, and he didn’t thank God very often. Other than some DNA, Sarah shared little in common with her father, Ethan’s brother Daniel.
Sarah wasn’t his daughter, but she was the closest thing Ethan would ever have to one, and he adored her. The only good thing his busted leg had done for him was force him to move home from Pennsylvania to Delaware, where Jillian and Sarah lived with the rest of Ethan’s expansive family on two hundred acres of land. Most of the land was for the horse farm they’d been running for three generations. Smaller sections had been handed off to his siblings as they married and settled down, keeping the eldest three Shockley kids tethered to home.
Ethan had been so eager to get away from the stifling horse farm as a teen that he’d enlisted in the Army as soon as he graduated high school—he’d never expected getting away from home to cost him so much of himself.
He shoveled down the last of the cold eggs, along with a glass of orange juice, because he’d promised Mom he would. Eating had become more of a chore than a pleasure since the accident. He never knew what would nauseate him. Sometimes foods he used to love tasted awful for no good reason.
One more side effect of the concussion that had laid him up in the hospital for most of September.
The cast on his right leg, from ankle to above his knee, was the other reason for his long hospital stay. Losing both his mobility and his independence had been the most humiliating time of his life. The decision to move home had also made him a hermit on the farm. The last thing he wanted was (a) sympathetic looks and platitudes, (b) well-meaning questions, or (c) something going wrong in public.
Something like getting dizzy while stepping out of the tub and face-planting on the bathroom floor.
The bruise on his cheek from that incident had almost completely faded.
He leaned on one crutch while he hobbled first his plate and fork, and then his juice glass over to the dishwasher. Putting them in was easy enough. Getting a detergent pod from under the sink required a little extra finesse. Leaning down was like courting a dizzy spell. He stuck his cast-covered leg out to the side, then squatted on his left leg to retrieve the pod. His leg screamed from the stress of standing back up, and he was panting by the time the dishwasher was locked and on.
Sunday mornings were generally quiet around the stables. They didn’t open for riders until one o’clock, which gave the family free time to do whatever they wanted. Some of them—Mom, Jillian, Sarah, his brother Caleb and Caleb’s fiancée Polly, his sister Abigail’s family—attended the Methodist church in town. Dad, Benny, and Benny’s two sons went fishing at the pond on the southern edge of the property. Benny’s wife Lesley…well, he didn’t know what she did on Sundays. Laundry?
Ethan did the same thing he did pretty much every single day: he collected his iPod from its charger on the back kitchen counter, crutched his way out to the front porch, and settled onto the wicker swing with his leg up on a waterproof cushion.
Audiobooks had saved his sanity. He’d always been an avid reader, and he had sixteen boxes of books stored in his parents’ attic. Thanks to his concussion, reading printed words for longer than fifteen minutes produced mind-numbing headaches. Even if they’d had high speed internet—which they didn’t, because they were in the middle of nowhere—he couldn’t have spent more than fifteen or twenty minutes online before getting off, even to play games. More than an hour of television usually ended with a migraine. Coupled with his inability to do anything more physical than hobble a hundred yards from the house to the practice arena, audiobooks were all he had as entertainment.
Earbuds in place, he started his audiobook from the last chapter and lost himself in the narration.
A formation of snow geese flew overhead, migrating elsewhere. This late in October, most of the geese were either gone or had settled into their winter homes. The leaves in the forest surrounding the edges of the horse pasture were a stunning mix of yellows, golds, and reds, and they weren’t finished turning yet. It had been an unusually warm autumn so far, but the weather could snap cold anytime.
The family car appeared at the far end of the paved driveway, coming back toward the house. The driveway curved past the main public barn, as well as the smaller private barn—where they housed other people’s horses—and the practice arena, before ending in the private family lot. Mom parked her red station wagon in its usual spot.
His three favorite women climbed out of the car, along with a fourth, unexpected face. He didn’t know Angel Garrett very well. The young stable hand showed up at the house for dinner most nights because his apartment only had a hot plate, but he always ate in the kitchen instead of the family dining room. He lived on the property, had worked for his parents for three years, and mostly kept to himself. For some reason, seeing Angel get out of his mother’s car wearing pressed slacks and a button-up dress shirt surprised him. He wouldn’t have pegged the kid as the church-going type.
Then again, what did he actually know about Angel?
Angel said something to Mom, then strolled off toward the garage where his apartment was. Caleb had lived in that tiny apartment before meeting Polly. The two had moved into their own new house on the northwest side of the property last month—an engagement gift from Mom and Dad. Abby had lived in the apartment before that, giving it up for marriage and four kids. Ethan had joined the Army before he could be offered the apartment’s moderate amount of privacy. And even if Angel wasn’t living there, Ethan could never have managed that long flight of stairs in his present condition.
Mom and Jillian went inside through the kitchen door on the side of the house, but Sarah bounced around to the front porch.
Ethan saw her coming and paused his book. “Hey, chicklet, how was church?”
“It was okay. We didn’t have kids’ church because the choir sang today. They sang a lot of songs, and then Pastor Jameson talked for a while. He talks to the grownups, though, so I didn’t like it much.”
“I don’t like it much, either. That’s why I don’t go.”
“Mommy says I have to go until I’m fourteen. Then I can choose if I want to go, and I probably won’t.”
“You don’t go. I’d rather stay here with you.”
Ethan wanted to tell her that in six years he might not be here anymore, so she shouldn’t use him as an excuse. Instead, he said, “Well, I think it’s good that you go. I know your mommy likes it, and church is good for kids.”
Sarah scowled. “Then how come none of my cousins have to go?”
“You know what? You should ask Aunt Abby and Uncle Benny the next time you see them.”
His siblings were going to love him for that. Abigail was the eldest of the five Shockley kids, and she had four children of her own, ages fourteen to five, with her husband Mark. They lived in a big house on the north side of the property. A path through the woods connected their home to the main farmhouse, as well as the house where his eldest brother Benny and his family lived. Benny and Lesley’s two sons, Doug and Zack, were eight and ten, and they were hell beasts on a good day. Ethan tended to gravitate to the porch when they were inside, because their voices grated on his nerves like sandpaper.
He was a little scared of the offspring that Caleb and Polly were likely to produce.
What had once been a constant barrage of “When are you going to settle down and have kids, Ethan?” had dried up to a mere trickle this past year, and Ethan was glad of it. Mom and Jillian were the only two people in the family who knew he was gay, and they’d subtly gotten the rest to back off.
“What book are you hearing?” Sarah asked.
“The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas.”
“What’s it about?”
“It’s about a young man who wants to be a special guard for the king of France, and he ends up having a lot of adventures.”
“Adventures like you had?”
Ethan’s pulse jumped. Sarah only had a vague idea of what it meant to be in the Army, and he’d explained it as far as “we went overseas to protect innocent people.” She didn’t need to know anything else until she was older. “Something like that, yeah.”
“Sarah!” Jillian’s call from inside the house startled them both. “Please come inside and change into your play clothes!”
Sarah giggled, then scampered in through the front door. Ethan un-paused his book.
When his bladder and butt demanded he get up and move around, he left his iPod on the swing and crutched into the downstairs bathroom. He avoided the kitchen, where the sweet scent of cooking hamburgers made his stomach roll unpleasantly. He retreated to the fresh air of the porch, determined to take a short walk. The five steps down from the porch to the front yard took some careful maneuvering, but he managed it without breaking a sweat or having a dizzy spell, so he counted that as a win. Dad had offered several times to build a ramp, but Ethan didn’t want him to go to all that trouble. His leg would heal eventually.
His head was another story.
Dad’s pickup truck rumbled up the driveway with Dad and Benny in the cab and Ethan’s nephews standing up in the back. He waited for the truck to park next to Mom’s car, then hobbled over.
“We caught fish,” Zack announced. He leapt out of the back with a white pickle bucket in both hands. Water sloshed out, and something inside thrashed. “We caught four fish to eat for lunch.”
Ethan checked out the four black crappies. “Nice haul. Who caught them?”
“I did,” Zack and Doug said at the same time.
Doug bounced over to join his big brother. “I caught one. That one right there.”
Ethan had no idea which fish Doug was pointing at. “That’s a nice one, pal. Great job.”
“I caught the other three,” Zack said, puffing up his chest.
“So that means Dad and Paps were slacking, huh?”
Benny flipped him the bird over his kids’ heads. Paps chuckled while he gathered up the poles from the truck bed. William Shockley’s four sons looked exactly like him: light brown hair with shades of blond, dark green eyes, long noses, sharp cheekbones. Zack, Doug, and his niece Dana had inherited those looks to a T. Only Abigail and her other three kids had Ruth Shockley’s dark brown hair and brown eyes.
“You better get those fish to Gram fast, because she’s already cooking hamburgers for lunch,” Ethan said.
Doug and Zack raced off with their catch, and moments later the kitchen door slammed.
“How’s the leg today, son?” Dad asked. A familiar, repeated question.
“Hurts less than yesterday,” was Ethan’s canned response. It wasn’t always true, but today he could say it honestly.
“Sleep last night?”
“Good. Sleep helps bones heal faster.”
Ethan didn’t know if that was true, but it helped his dad to say it, so he accepted it. Dad never seemed to know what to do with his two youngest sons. Growing up, Ethan had never shown the same interest in horses as his two eldest brothers. Daniel, who was barely a year older, had even less use for the horses, and he’d gotten into a lot of trouble in high school, going so far as to get suspended twice during Ethan’s junior year. Daniel had nearly been held back his senior year, but some last minute power-studying with help from Ethan and Jillian—who’d dated Daniel since they were fifteen—had helped him graduate.
Sometimes Ethan missed how close he and Daniel used to be, before high school complicated things. And then Ethan enlisted, Daniel started drinking, and they each ended up in very different kinds of prisons. Daniel’s was physical, while Ethan’s was emotional.
Benny and Dad carried the fishing equipment into the garage behind the house. Doug and Zack raced back out of the kitchen with their bucket, yelling about cleaning them so Gram could cook them.
Ethan hobbled in the opposite direction. If hamburgers made him queasy, he was pretty sure frying fish would give him dry heaves.
He ended up outside the roofed arena most often used for dressage competitions. Angel was near the middle of the arena, raking out the sand. Even on Sunday, when everyone else took the morning off, the kid was working. Although maybe “kid” was unfair. From a distance he looked eighteen, but Mom said that Angel was twenty-four. Up close—on the few occasions he’d seen Angel up close—Ethan saw the faded scars and worry lines of someone who’d lived hard over a short number of years.
Angel’s lean shape blurred out of focus briefly. Ethan blinked a few times, then moved to sit on the first row of built-in bleachers. He’d been standing for too long. His vision cleared after a few minutes off his feet, only to be filled by a sweating bottle of water.
He looked past the bottle at Angel’s concerned frown.
“I d-d-didn’t open it.”
Strange thing to say, but okay. Ethan took the bottle. “Thanks.”
“You okay, s-s-sir?”
“Just a little tired.” He twisted off the cap. “And you don’t have to call me sir. Makes me feel like I’m still in the Army.”
Ethan drank the water in small sips, waiting for each to settle before adding more, until he’d managed about half of the sixteen ounces. His audience hadn’t left. “You must be more bored than I am if you’re standing there watching me drink water.”
Angel’s cheeks darkened. “Apologies. Ruth asked me to keep an eye on you when you’re about. S-s-says you get d-d-dizzy s-s-spells.”
“Oh.” Everyone in the family knew about his post-concussive syndrome, so why not the hired help? “Thanks, I guess.”
“You’re n-n-not mad?”
“Why would I be mad?”
Angel shrugged, clearly out of his element and unsure how to extricate himself from the conversation. He had a bashful cuteness about him, if only he’d smile. His curly brown hair had streaks of gold, likely from time spent in the sun, and his dark brown eyes were haunted with more things than Ethan dared ask about. Another ten pounds on him wouldn’t hurt, either.
Twenty-four going on sixty.
“What?” Angel asked. He touched his cheeks like he expected to find something clinging to his tanned skin.
“Nothing. Sorry.” He should probably excuse himself, but he was in the unique position of having a conversation with the reticent stable hand. Perfect time to ask a few questions. “Is Angel your real name?”
“N-n-no. It’s Matthew.”
“Where did Angel come from?”
“My grandmother. She d-d-died when I was ten.”
Angel shrugged. “It was a long time ago. Cancer.”
“Mom had cancer. Breast cancer. She’s been in remission for almost five years.” After months of chemo, a double mastectomy, and a lot of prayers from a son who rarely saw a reason to speak to God.
“She told me. She’s very brave.”
“Yeah, she is.”
“You took care of her while she was s-s-sick.”
Ethan tilted his head up to study Angel more closely. Mom didn’t talk about her illness very often, and it surprised him that Angel knew so much about an event that occurred two years before he came to the stables. She obviously liked him. She’d always had a special place in her heart for down-on-their-luck strays. Dad had once said that she insisted they hire Angel, even though he had no experience with horses. Mom used to say you could see someone’s heart in their eyes.
He tried to study Angel’s eyes more closely, but Angel was looking at the ground.
“Mom needed someone here, and I could take the time off,” Ethan said.
“You have s-s-siblings.” Angel sounded oddly frustrated.
“They have their own families, and they had to keep the stables running.”
“You gave up your life to help her.”
“It wasn’t much of a life, trust me.”
Angel’s gaze flickered briefly toward him. “It was very s-s-selfless.”
“Family comes first, right?” He glared at his cast. “Maybe if I’d stayed, I wouldn’t be such a mess right now.”
“You think you’re a mess?”
“You don’t? My tibia has a spiral fracture that’s taking forever to heal. The Post Concussive Syndrome makes getting dressed in the morning an Olympic event and eating a trip to the fifth level of hell. I’ve not slept a solid night since the accident, and now I’m unloading all my bullshit onto a near stranger. Sorry.”
“D-d-don’t apologize. I’m a good listener.”
“Well, if you’re going to listen, can you sit down? You’re straining my neck.”
Angel perched on the edge of the bleacher next to him, keeping a very deliberate three feet between them. His gaze stayed on the sand, as if looking Ethan in the eye was grounds for termination. Something had happened to this kid to put so much fear into him, and the idea of anyone hurting Angel lit a strange, unexpected burn in Ethan’s chest.
“Did you grow up around here?” Ethan asked.
Not much of an answer. The Shockley property was in southern Delaware, which made “hereabouts” pretty much the entire Delmarva peninsula. “You have any family in the area?”
Angel shook his head. “N-n-not alive.” He squinted at Ethan, almost making eye contact. “They d-d-didn’t tell you about me?”
“Apparently not. Something I should know?”
“Hey, there you are.” Benny ambled into the arena, hands deep in the pockets of his cargo pants. “Mom sent me to tell you lunch is almost ready.”
Lunch. Another exercise in gag reflex control. “Thanks.” To Angel, he asked, “You coming up? They caught some crappies at the pond.”
“N-n-no, thank you,” Angel said. He retreated from the bleacher and picked up his abandoned rake. “I have work to d-d—finish.”
“Thanks for the water.”
Angel wandered to a different part of the arena and continued to rake out the sand. Ethan stood and tucked the half-empty water bottle into the waist of his sweatpants, and then followed Benny toward the house.
“Making friends with the stray dog?” Benny asked. The comment was unusually cruel, and almost made Ethan stumble. Benny didn’t like Angel, that much was clear, but why not? The kid seemed harmless enough.
“Some new stable rule about the owners not being allowed to talk to the hired hands?”
“Mom didn’t tell you?”
Benny spared a disgusted glance behind him, directed at the arena. “Our so-called Angel? Watch your back around him, bro. He went to prison for killing a guy.”
Angel worked the tines of the rake through the loose sand in a careful forward/back rhythm that helped focus his thoughts. Nothing mattered except preparing the arena for the next round of dressage practice, which was on the schedule for three p.m. He’d meant to finish it last night before bed, but he’d gotten lost in his latest book and forgotten until morning.
The mistake had been both fortuitous and torturous. Fortuitous in that he’d managed an entire conversation with Ethaniel Shockley. Torturous for the exact same reason.
He’d first seen Ethaniel three years ago in the family photos lining the walls of the Shockleys’ den. Angel had walked into Pine Creek Methodist Church that Sunday on a whim, needing something more in his life than filling out job applications and avoiding fights at the halfway house. He’d prayed for peace, and in response God sent him Ruth Shockley.
Ruth had struck up a conversation with him after that Sunday’s service, claiming she’d heard him singing the hymns in the row ahead of her and had been struck by the beauty of his voice. Angel had never considered his voice anything special, but the compliment endeared the older woman to him. And he’d opened up, surprising both of them with his bluntness. He was on parole, living in a horrible group home, and he needed a job so he could get out of there.
She’d driven him to Shockley Stables for lunch, introduced him to her husband William, and they’d hired him to muck stalls and feed the horses. All in five hours’ time.
For three long years in prison, Angel thought God had abandoned him. That Sunday afternoon, over a lunch of pot roast sandwiches, he’d thought maybe God gave a damn again.
Within a week, he’d met all of the Shockley children, the children’s respective spouses, and the grandchildren—everyone except Ethaniel, who lived in Pennsylvania and only visited on holidays. Ethaniel, who was handsome and fit and carried a familiar, haunted shadow everywhere he went. Angel was smitten from the moment he saw Ethaniel that first Christmas, admiring him from a distance, and he’d made it his mission to stay far, far away from the youngest Shockley son.
Someone like Ethaniel would never want anyone as damaged and dirty as Angel Garrett, so he took the conversation they’d had and locked it up tight inside of his heart. He’d bring it out later and replay it, maybe pretend Ethaniel was actually his friend, and they were jawing as friends did over silly things like the weather and a couple of crappies.
He’d protect their conversation from spoilage, because sooner or later, Ethaniel would know what he’d done. He’d know and he would look at Angel the way the rest of the Shockley kids looked at him—with disdain and distrust. No one trusted an ex-con, especially one who’d served time for killing a man.
Bless Ruth, William, and the stable manager Russ Hanlon for keeping his other secret.
Angel lost himself in raking the arena, spending far too much time perfecting the smoothness of the ground that would be trodden down and kicked up in only a few hours. This sort of busy work relaxed him. It gave him something to focus on besides the constant soundtrack of regret and pain that screeched through his mind. He finished his task with pleasantly weary arms and a slightly sore back.
He returned the rake to the work shed near the arena. They had a few lessons on the books for today, and he needed to make sure he wasn’t needed on-hand for any of them—which meant walking down to the public barn where the office was. He circled behind the private barn in order to keep out of sight of the riders who’d shown up to check on their prize horses. He didn’t like speaking to the people who boarded their horses. Not because he disliked them or was afraid of them. He gave very little thought to who they were outside of these acres of land and pasture, so long as they treated their horses good. Mostly he avoided contact in order to avoid The Look.
The Look: He’s the one who killed his momma’s boyfriend.
The Look: He went away for three years for beating that man to death.
The Look: You know someone made that kid their bitch. He probably liked it, too.
Angel had had enough of The Look.
“Hey! Hey, with the blue shirt!”
The feminine voice startled him into stopping. He’d reached the corner of the private barn and had twenty feet of walking to get to the safety of the other barn, but the voice was speaking to him. He was wearing his blue Shockley Stables polo like he always did when performing official stables tasks, even if he was technically off the clock. A clean white tee was waiting for him on his bed for when he was no longer at work.
Angel turned and blinked at a pair of big brown eyes. He stumbled backward several steps, heart tripping, amazed the girl had gotten so close without him noticing. She was slim, blonde hair pulled back into a thick bun at the nape of her neck, dressed in expensive riding clothes, a hat clutched in one hand. Maybe seventeen, with a cocked hip full of attitude.
With his pulse racing and his personal space invaded, he choked getting the words out. “Can I help you, M-m-miss?”
She couldn’t hide The Look: Oh great, I’m asking questions of a moron.
“You work here, right?” she asked.
Angel glanced down at his shirt. Maybe he wasn’t the moron in the conversation. “Yes.”
“Awesome. Do you know where I can find Caleb Shockley? I’m supposed to have a riding lesson, like, five minutes ago, and I can’t find anyone.”
“D-d-did you check the office?”
“He may s-s-still be at the house. I c-c-can check.”
“Great, thanks. I’ll be with my horse.”
Angel walked past Jennifer, adjusting his course to head back to the main house via the driveway. He would have preferred sticking to his less visible routes, but he didn’t want to miss Caleb if he passed him. A familiar shape was lounging on the porch swing, eyes closed, earbuds in. Angel’s palms went instantly sweaty.
He paused at the bottom of the stairs and waited, hating the idea of disturbing the sleeping man. If Angel stood there long enough, maybe Caleb would come outside and save him the task of knocking. Ethaniel looked so peaceful, so relaxed. On the few occasions Angel saw him around the farm, he always seemed agitated. Exhausted.
True peace was a rare thing.
Angel counted to sixty, giving Ethaniel another minute of fleeting peace, but he had a job to do.
He ascended the five wood steps to the porch as quietly as possible. Shuffled across the time-worn boards to the front door and raised his hand to knock.
Pain exploded in his left calf, and then he was on the ground. The back of his head cracked off the wood. He raised both hands over his face, knees curling in tight to protect his midsection, anticipating the next blow, needing to guard his head. Fear and adrenaline surged through him, making his hands shake, but he didn’t put them down.
“Jesus Christ. Angel? Shit, I’m sorry. Angel?”
A soft, repentant voice. Not the growl of an enemy or the snarl of a predator. Angel peeked through splayed fingers, still not completely certain who he’d see or what had hit him.
A crutch lay on the porch between him and Ethaniel, who was sitting on the ground near the swing, an arm outstretched in his direction. Ethaniel’s face was red, his breath coming in short pants—surprise, pain, he wasn’t sure. Angel couldn’t make the scene come together.
“Ethan?” Ruth’s voice, from inside. “What happened? Did you—oh my.”
The screen door squealed open. Angel lowered his hands and blinked up at Ruth, who was looking back and forth between them like she didn’t know who to help first. A bit of flour was smeared on the front of her green dress—a faded, casual thing she kept for Sunday only. Every other day of the week she was out in the stables in jeans and a polo, like the rest of her employees.
“My fault, Mom,” Ethaniel said.
Angel hauled himself into a sitting position, then poked at the back of his head. No skin breaks. Thank fuck. “N-n-no, my fault.”
“No, it was me.” Ethaniel flinched. “I overreacted. I knew someone was close by, but they weren’t making much noise. I just…I reacted. I’m sorry I hit you, Angel.”
“You hit him?” Ruth glared at her son, then crouched in front of Angel. “Are you bleeding?”
“N-n-no, ma’am,” Angel said. “Hit my ankle, is all.”
“With the crutch,” Ethaniel said.
Lashing out with the crutch had made Ethaniel fall off the swing. “Are you okay, s-s-sir?”
“Well, I definitely embarrassed myself.”
Ethaniel’s eyebrows jumped, like he was surprised by the concern. “Gave it a good jolt, but I think my ass hurts more.”
“Well, why don’t you both get up off the floor and sit properly,” Ruth said. “I’ll get you boys some iced tea.”
Angel scrambled up. His ankle smarted a bit from the blow, but he’d survived far worse. Ruth had already gone inside, and Ethaniel was staring helplessly at the swing behind him. “Help you?” Angel asked.
“Why not? I’m only the jerk who knocked you onto your ass.”
“I’ve had worse.”
Ethaniel’s dark green eyes flickered toward him, then away. Angel ignored the odd way that made him feel inside—like Ethaniel was scared of him, but curious at the same time. Angel saw that particular Look less frequently than the others.
He hitched his forearms under Ethaniel’s pits. Once Ethaniel got his left leg beneath him, Angel lifted. Ethaniel levered with his good leg, and they got him into the swing. Angel grabbed the chain to steady it while Ethaniel settled his cast on the cushion.
“Thanks,” Ethaniel said. “And I am sorry about hitting you like that.”
“You were s-s-startled. My fault.”
“No, it really was mine. If I’d opened my eyes and looked, instead of reacting like I was back in—” Something darkened his eyes, and he stopped talking.
Angel knew a thing or two about jumping at ghosts.
“I’m not hurt,” Angel said.
Ruth bustled back onto the porch with two tall glasses of iced tea. “Angel, why don’t you sit and rest a minute?”
“Can’t, ma’am.” He’d had a reason for coming to the house. “Caleb has a lesson. Jennifer Rosen is looking for him.”
“Oh that boy.” Ruth handed off the teas, then stormed back into the house, hollering for her son.
Ethaniel grunted. “Caleb will be lucky to be on time to his own wedding.”
Angel had no response, other than to agree, which might be seen as rude. He wasn’t a member of the Shockley family, and he had no reason to think Ethaniel would appreciate jokes at his brother’s expense. So he remained silent, cold tea in one hand, his back straight, shoulders tense. He wanted to leave now that his task was finished, but Ruth had given him tea and leaving it untouched definitely was rude, and he’d never purposely do something to upset her. She’d only ever been kind to him.
The screen door burst open and Caleb jogged out, down the steps, toward the driveway. Angel watched him go, amused at his fumbling haste, then sipped his tea. Too sweet for him, but this was Ruth’s house and her pitcher of iced tea, so he wouldn’t complain. Considering his life before coming to Shockley Stables, he had very little to complain about.
“You can sit, you know.”
He blinked at Ethaniel, confused by the statement. Of course he could sit. He was fully capable—oh. Ethaniel was pointing at the wicker chair near the swing. “I can’t s-s-stay.”
“Why not? You aren’t working this afternoon, are you?”
“You got someplace to be?”
“Good, then you can keep me company a while. All I do is sit around and listen to audiobooks, so you’ll shake up my day a little bit.”
“You don’t mind?”
Ethaniel smiled, showing off a dimple in his left cheek. “I invited you, didn’t I?”
“Your brothers d-d-don’t like me n-n-near the house.”
“You eat here almost every day.”
“And then I go.”
His smile dimmed. “Caleb and Benny give you shit?”
“It’s their land.” Angel could take dirty looks and the occasional insult. Child’s play, really. He’d survived worse than two privileged horse breeders and their rude comments. And he might as well make sure Ethaniel had no illusions about Angel’s past. “And I’m a convicted killer their mother hired and let live in her garage.”
Ethaniel’s eyes narrowed over his tea glass. “You in any danger of killing again?”
An angry burn settled in Angel’s chest, and he gripped his glass tight enough to make his knuckles ache. “No, sir. N-n-not unless I’m pushed again.”
“Pushed.” Ethaniel said the word like he was trying it out, unsure what it sounded like on his own tongue. The thoughtfulness confused Angel. “Benny told me you were in jail for killing someone, but not why.”
“I was in prison. Jail is d-d-different.” Most people didn’t know that, and a deep shudder tore down his spine. The few weeks he’d spent in jail between his arrest, arraignment and eventual sentencing—the court system moved much faster when you pled guilty—were a holiday at the beach compared to the harsh realities of life in a state prison.
“Okay, prison then,” Ethaniel said. “What happened?”
His heart sped up and his brain fumbled. “My mother’s boyfriend was beating her. N-n-not for the first time, but this time with a bottle. She was s-s-screaming. Bleeding. I grabbed a bat and hit him. Twice.”
The entire experience had lasted only a few minutes, but the build-up had taken months. At first, Angel had kind of liked Shawn. Shawn hadn’t been an addict of any kind, unlike Angel’s mother, who was on and off heroin, and then meth for years. Shawn had kept her straight for a while. And then Angel turned eighteen, Shawn kicked him out, and his mother started showing up with bruises. A lot of bruises.
Angel had always been thin and underfed—par for his existence as extra baggage when his mother was using, and as another mouth in crowded group homes when she tried rehab again. And again. And again. He possessed no real feelings of love for his mother anymore, but he’d loved her once. Loved her enough to protect her from the man who was beating her on a daily basis.
He’d stopped loving her when she refused to testify in his defense. She was too angry that her lover was dead and she had nowhere to live.
“Even if you go to prison, you’ll have a bed and three meals a day. What the fuck do I have now, huh? What? What about me?”
Always, always, it was what about her? Her lack of support was why he’d pled guilty. He’d done it, after all, and he would do it again to protect her even though she’d never lifted a finger for him. In Delaware, manslaughter was a Class B felony that carried a sentence anywhere from two to twenty-five years. The judge in his case had been sympathetic enough to Angel’s past to give him a fairly light sentence, considering a man was dead.
A worthless piece of abusive garbage, but still a man.
“You got manslaughter?” Ethaniel asked.
“Yes. S-s-served three years. Finished my parole this s-s-pring.”
“No.” Angel shook his head. “N-n-never free.”
“I hear you.” Ethaniel’s voice softened, hinting at the demons he probably carried from his days in Afghanistan.
Angel could never pretend to understand that sort of pain.
They didn’t talk for a while. Angel sipped his tea, hoping to stomach about half before making his excuses. But the longer he stood there, the more he wanted to stay. Ethaniel was kind to him, like Ruth and William and Russ. And Jillian, to some degree, even though she told him to stay away from Sarah. The others looked at him like the hired hand he was, and they didn’t let him forget his place.
He didn’t want to stay long enough for one of them to shoo him off.
“I should go.” Angel put his glass on the porch railing.
“Sure.” Ethaniel put the earbuds back in. “Stop by whenever. I’m here most days.”
Angel didn’t respond. Ethaniel probably didn’t mean it. He was saying it to be polite. He’d already been extraordinarily polite, given their circumstances. Ethaniel owed Angel nothing, not even a conversation.
So why did Angel walk away feeling like he’d done Ethaniel some kind of favor?