Chapter One

 

THE PLANE dropped without warning, a brick through the clouds.

Patch grabbed his laptop in midair and pulled down, clamping it against the meal tray as they plunged. Just as suddenly, the plane crested and steadied, rocking the cabin.

His stomach turned over and clammy sweat congealed on his face. They’d either hit an air pocket or Texas was trying to kill him again.

The groaning girl in the window seat, all of sixteen and gray-green from the turbulence, clamped her hand over her mouth. She’d chatted shyly with him on the tarmac, taking music recs and then a selfie once she’d recognized him, downed a Monster Energy Lo-Carb, and promptly dozed off. Usually he avoided chatting on planes, but she’d seemed so lost. Now she looked on the verge of ralphing for real.

Fall was hurricane bait, but he’d caught this flight so he could make his parents’ funeral. They’d probably hit a freak storm outside Houston. The cabin shivered and bounced, then leveled out again.

Patch gripped the seat arms in white-knuckle nausea and glared at the ceiling. Don’t you fucking dare. He pretended he was talking to God, but more likely he was talking to his dead parents or his fairy godfather, daring the universe.

He refused to die en route and give Tucker Biggs the satisfaction.

The speakers cracked to life overhead. “Sorry ’bout all this rough air, folks.” The pilot sounded casual and awful un-sorry.

The girl next to him in 23C twisted and whimpered, eyes narrow. While he had the chance, he tucked his laptop back in his bag and scraped his curly hair back into a short ponytail.

Time’s wasting.

Last week his parents raced a train and lost. A cruel joke. Pa had always ducked through the crossing gate near their farm at the last minute, but the passenger side had taken the hit. His mama had died on impact; his father had died on the Life Flight from Hixville to Beaumont. Only person left out there was Pa’s best bud, and Tucker probably wished the train on Patch instead.

The plane pitched and rolled. Patch closed his eyes and counted to infinity.

The flight out of JFK was two-thirds empty, and the weary business travelers around him griped and whimpered.

He heard a sour, choking sound as the 23C girl almost puked but fought it down. He smiled in pained sympathy. My feelings exactly.

Last night, a lawyer had called one last time about the funeral. To be fair, she’d been trying to get ahold of him for a week, but he’d been DJing in Ibiza and couldn’t afford international cell coverage. He’d landed in the States, already wrestling post-partying depression, and caught the messages soon as he turned his phone on. He spoke with the lawyer before he deplaned, and then he carried his duffel of wadded club clothes right to the United counter to beg for an emergency ticket he couldn’t afford so he could lay his parents to rest.

They’d discarded him, but Patch was still their son. Someone besides Tucker should be there to pay their respects.

His pulse slammed in his ears. He gripped the seat and held his breath, trying not to count the seconds. He’d just made the 11:04 a.m. flight in time to die.

Around him now, the agitated crew tried to calm folks down and made another apologetic announcement Patch ignored.

Next to him, Miss 23C heaved again.

He fished the little folded sick sack out of the seat pocket. Just as he passed it to her, she curled forward and vomited Monster Energy over his sleeve, her lap, and the side of the airsick bag.

The poor girl whimpered. “Oh God, I’m so—!” Her wet hands shook and dripped. “I can’t—

The passengers around them gawked in that horrified, titillated silence reserved for public humiliation.

“Naw. Shh.” He let his accent creep in to seem less scary and shook his head. “Don’t you worry. You’re okay, hon. I swear.” His sleeve and hand were soaked, but he’d certainly done way worse for sillier reasons.

She used her travel blanket to daub at the sweet mess. The plane juddered again. He flashed his best smile to seal the deal. “Cross my heart.”

His folks were dead; nothing could make this day any worse.

The only hot flight attendant made his way up the shaking aisle with a clenched jaw and a fistful of cocktail napkins. Patch gave a tight nod so the dude wouldn’t stick around to witness the aftermath. She didn’t need to feel shamed on top of it.

“Jeez.” She coughed and blinked solemnly. “I could die.

“Don’t sweat it.” He shook his head with a dry wheeze of laughter. “Seriously. It coulda been me. F’realz.” Poor kid. He passed her the napkins and tried to dry his arm.

The plane steadied.

She mopped herself up, glancing at him with mortified, apologetic eyes. “I can’t believe I just threw up on a model.”

“I done way worse. Promise. My first runway show, I yacked on the designer backstage.” His grimace made her grin, at least. “Dehydration.” True enough.

“Ugh.” She frowned sympathetically.

He raised his eyebrows. “Swimwear, even. Andrew Christian.”

At that she giggled. At least she wasn’t wigging anymore.

The cabin shimmied again but continued its descent through the soupy clouds outside.

“We’re almost there,” he said to the girl, like a judge pronouncing a harsh sentence.

As the lights brightened for landing, the hot attendant came by again to “check” on him and apologize for the mess. Swarthy and hung, he was, and whether he recognized Patch from the swimwear ads or had met him at some Circuit party, his timing sucked.

Maybe next time, hombre. Instead he kept his gaze turned out the window past his sick seatmate.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve begun our descent”—No shit—“into Houston.”

And finally the plane rocked wheel to wheel as it touched onto the tarmac under wet, gray skies. Houston, flat and muggy and bleak as ever.

His stomach unknotted slowly as the adrenaline subsided. Time’s wasting. His impatience reared and spun under him like bronco. After the past thirty minutes, he expected a missile strike or a lunatic to open fire.

No such luck. At this hour, they reached the gate before 2:00 p.m. and started deplaning at the usual glacial pace.

Soon as the seat belt light blinked off, he leapt to his feet and pulled down his duffel, then the girl’s. He’d change shirts in the bathroom before he picked up the car.

While they stood waiting for folks to shuffle off, Miss 23C thanked him and apologized again and assured him he was the coolest and the cutest, which was hard to fathom standing in the north of Houston covered in Lo-Carb vomit going home to bury the parents who’d all but banished him, vanished him for being a damn queer.

Cool. Cute.

The faster he wrapped this, the sooner he’d be back in New York where he belonged.

Off the plane, Patch strode at speed past business traveler zombies staggering through the echoing terminal. Thank Christ he hadn’t checked baggage. He paused in the bathroom for a cat bath in the sink and a fresher shirt from his bag. The vomit pullover went into the trash.

At the rental counter, Patch checked his phone: No update from the lawyer. No calls at all. An e-mail from a Vegas nightclub with a party offer he ignored; if they found another DJ before he resurfaced, he’d live.

The flirty rental agent handed him the contract to sign and then keys.

Parking lot.

There.

A red Impala. His father hated bright cars. Fagmobiles, he called them. Then again, his father didn’t have much say anymore. If Patch could have rented a chariot pulled by greased cowboys in tighty-whities, he would’ve.

Patch tossed his duffel and laptop case into the backseat. He considered pausing for coffee but didn’t want to waste the time. At this hour, in the rain, the drive to Hixville should take two hours. With luck and no troopers, half that.

By 2:34, he was on 69 headed up to 105, driving back into the storm that had tried to kill him. Stymied by the car’s stereo, he scanned the radio for anything besides church, pop, and country, and gave himself up to hissing highway silence as he fought to stay awake. A couple more hours, he’d be able to stop running. Cold comfort.

Somewhere outside of Kingwood, his phone jangled in the cup holder—scared the pluperfect shit out of him but woke him right up. Scotty. His ex was a fellow DJ born in South Carolina—ripped, dark, and sweet as molasses.

God bless Sprint.

Patch poked the speaker phone and grinned in real pleasure. “Scotty! You get my message?” They were opening a club in the spring if he could find backers. Velocity.

“’Sup, Hastle? I maybe heard half that mess, but I’m wrecked.” Scotty worked big hip-hop parties these days, which was how he’d found their amazing space during an after-hours video shoot at a former factory… practically begging for velvet ropes outside.

“I wish I could say the same.” Patch glanced in the rearview and changed to the slow lane. Car calls sucked, and he didn’t want any more surprises. “I need a favor, my man. Spinning.”

“Are you fixin’ to ask me to go to Jersey, yo?”

“No. City. Can you cover for me at Beige?” Beige did a Sunday after-hours disco he spun at on the regular. “Next couple Sundays. Eight hundred cash per. Three hours each set.” He laughed. “You’ll dig it. Pretty fellas. Bread-n-butter mix. Pays easy. And your smoke’s fine long as you keep cool.”

Key bait to dangle. They’d dated for about ten minutes last spring, but with his weed, Scotty was strictly wake and bake and too laid-back to fake it. In any case, Patch could trust him to shine and not swipe the job after.

Scotty whuffed with pleasure. “Oh, I see how it is! You’re dipping wick in hot Spanish wax while I’m stuck here, slumming in Queens and slaving over a hot real estate agent to land us a lease that won’t cost me a kidney.” He grunted. “What? Did you miss your flight ?”

“No. I’m stateside, but I never made it out of the airport.” He glanced at the duffel in the passenger seat. At some point he’d need real clothes, too. Hopefully his parents hadn’t thrown all his stuff from high school out.

“C’mon, man. Where you now? Double-booking it.” A warm, sleepy chuckle.

“Sorta-not-really. I’m down in—” He peeked at the GPS. “Huffman, Texas. Population: who gives a shit. On my way to way worse. Yee-haw.”

Scotty took a swallow of something. “Mmph. Some kinda hanky-panky?”

“I wish. Family.” He didn’t want to talk about his folks or the accident. “Emergency.”

“Sorry. You going’s the right thing. With your folks.”

No. They’re gone. But Patch nodded in gratitude, feeling better for talking to a real person who knew him, liked him. “Mmh. There ain’t nobody ’round here wants to see me.”

“They musta dosed your Dr Pepper, boo. You already coming down with a case of the shitkickers.”

Patch chuckled. “Fuck, I hope not.” Outside the storm picked up speed, pelting the windshield. “Listen, I gotta jet. But you’re cool for Beige, right? I’ll text the contact and details soon as I stop driving. I really appreciate it, man.”

So no problem. Prayers, huh? Stay chill down there.”

“Thanks. Owe you.”

Scotty laughed and ended the call. Patch sighed in relief and slid back into the passing lane.

At least he had someone to protect his regular jobs until he made it back to the real world. Once Velocity opened, he wouldn’t need that money, but for now…. The thought ricocheted inside his head.

Come to think of it, an inheritance might change the game. The farm had to be worth something to someone.

What if he and Scotty didn’t need other partners? That money might buy him a shortcut. Maybe he could sell the farm, pay for half, and take the city by storm. After-hours impresario at twenty-two, and suck it, Hixville.

Evicting Tucker for old times’ sake would be a bonus: sweet revenge.

Now rain lashed the car while he battled his exhaustion, shifting his weight and drumming the dash. He hadn’t slept last night or on the plane, so now he’d been up for two days straight just in time to get dragged back into his childhood sand trap. A half an hour later, he entered the East Texas terrain of feed stores and future farmers.

Anyone sane would’ve pointed out there was no future in farming.

Gusts of wind made it harder to hold his lane. A few times he caught himself drifting into the passing lane, but cars stayed too sparse to worry him. Once he veered west on 105, the storm sank lower, slashing the asphalt and blurring the road into a smeary silver tunnel through the kudzu.

He kept his speed steady at ten miles over the limit until a loud honk snapped him fully awake to face an eighteen-wheeler barreling right at him. He jerked the wheel to get back into his lane in time. As Patch swerved clear, the wind of the truck’s passage sucked him closer. He swallowed bitter spit and gripped the wheel tightly as he coasted, not daring to slam the unfamiliar brakes on the slick road until the truck had fully passed.

He skidded onto the shoulder of the wet two-lane, glancing at the honking semi in his rearview. Cold sweat. His breath and pulse sounded loud inside the rental car cocoon.

The engine ticked with heat and his hands shook until he squeezed the wheel again. He put the car in Park, turned the engine off, and slowly lifted his foot from the brake. The rain on the rental’s window dissolved his view like a sitcom flashback on repeat in all directions. He wanted to be anywhere else, but the choice wasn’t his.

Slow down. His mama’s soft plea in his head. “Yes, ma’am,” he answered, and then did.

Both of them gone and headed into the dirt. No time left. His mother had finally slowed down so much she’d stopped. The only choice was to come say good-bye, even if they couldn’t or wouldn’t hear.

He knew he should take a nap and call ahead… only there was no one to call. No one except—

Tucker.

He frowned at the thought and started the engine again. He’d sooner jump in front of another eighteen-wheeler than knock on that bastard’s door.

After pulling back onto the freeway, he kept his speed at fifty, determined not to give the locals any chance to smash him into homo roadkill.

And so Patch Hastle made it back to Hixville in one piece, ready to burn all his bridges and bury the hatchet in someone’s head.

 

 

HIXVILLE, TEXAS, was a dusty pimple north of Sour Lake, just shy of the oil fields around Beaumont. Population 1,537 minus me.

Patch grew up saddled with his mother’s patrician features: aquiline nose, sharp chin, long neck. His face was camera bait in New York and Milan, but out on the saltwater flats of east Texas, it made him an easy target. As a kid, all he’d wanted was to grow into a cowboy; instead he’d grown up a sissified dork with ants in his pants. A skinny, grade-grubbing pretty boy who couldn’t throw a ball and didn’t like to fight. In Texas? Football was religion and any queer who didn’t bow down was fair game.

Didn’t matter, ultimately. If Patch had been crushed or twisted by Hixville, he’d grown around and beyond the reach of these dipping dimwits, the way a tree splits rocks to push skyward. No time to waste and no fucks to give.

Hixville proper survived at the edge of the Big Thicket, where the flat coastal plains favored pine trees and stubborn sumbucks. Main Street was a bend in 421, and along its bleached knot of prefab buildings, you could buy gas, burgers, seed, and Jesus… in that order. Texaco, Whataburger, Feed & Seed, Piney Baptist.

He missed his parents every day but knew better than to hope.

East of town, the office of Melinda Landry, Esq. occupied a detached garage behind her house on Bear Creek Drive.

At least the downpour had relented, mellowing to a sluggish drizzle.

As Patch climbed out of the Impala, he pretended to smile and straightened.

“Mr. Hastle?” Ms. Landry stood in the drive in a faded blue cotton dress. She had the raw-boned prettiness of a farm wife, crisped by the sun and faded to brittle poise. She wiped her hands on a tea towel. “I’m so sorry for—” The rain? The towel? My parents?

“Not at all, ma’am.” He cut her off with a consciously boyish nod. He was twenty-two but knew he looked younger when he wanted. “Thank you.”

“Someone musta yanked out the stopper.” With a pleased twinkle, she gestured him into the little sheet metal building. The interior had been carpeted (brown), and a window unit (old) worked hard against the muggy swelter outside.

She rubbed her thin hands together. “I been trying to call you these five days. Messages and all.” Her accent wasn’t local. Louisiana, maybe, this close to the state line.

“I was working in Spain,” he said, as if he’d gone to Mars. Same difference.

“Busy man. Off in the big city.” She made it a compliment.

“You know how it is,” he said, because he knew that she didn’t. “Never stops.”

Except when you’ve been smashed by a train.

She eyed his expensive, rumpled clothes. “I know your parents were proud of you.” A shameless lie, but maybe she was just being polite to grease the proceedings.

“They raised me to get a move on.” He let his eyes glow, using every bit of his looks to get what he wanted from her and get out. Not for nothing had he been modeling since he’d split at sixteen. “My daddy wasn’t exactly patient.”

“Not what I’d call ‘exactly.’” She blushed and paddled the papers in front of her. The will? “No.”

He smiled at her but didn’t fill the silence, telepathically urging her to get moving already.

She didn’t. “Have you thought about your plans?”

“That’s almost all I think about, ma’am. I’m fixing to open a club in New York.” He and Scotty had been busting their asses. Launching it was like holding a slippery bottle. Once they could afford to lease and build out the space as a nightclub…. “Velocity, it’s called.”

A wrinkle between her eyebrows. “I meant with the farm.”

He frowned but quickly hid it. “Sell. Obviously.” If he sold the farm, he and Scotty wouldn’t need partners to open his club. He’d own the other half free and clear.

Her smile faltered. “Oh.” In a town this small, a farm changing hands had seismic consequences.

Wrong tack. “I’m in the process of building out a space in the city. New York, I mean.” Almost the truth. Scotty had put up half the cash, but if they didn’t need other investors for the reno, Velocity could start now. Having his own club was like finally staking a claim on the fast lane. Patch would bring the crowd, and they’d make a fucking mint. He’d give himself two weeks max to give Tucker the boot, find a buyer for the farm, and then hightail it back to New York.

She fidgeted. “Ranching doesn’t appeal?”

“It’s a hay farm, ma’am. My folks kept a few animals, but the property’s always been a baling operation.” The past ten years, Texas weather had turned nasty, and many small outfits had sold to escape foreclosure. “I’ve been gone a long time. The heat kills me.”

“Ah.” She flipped open the file, glancing at a list of numbers.

Patch shook his head ruefully. “I’d never have time to take care of the property properly.”

She gave a sad smile and nod. “Most youngsters do just that. Take off an’ all. Not an easy life, farming.”

“And time is a problem.” He didn’t look at the documents on the desk.

“So you’d be looking to—”

“Move quickly. Yes.” He turned the full blaze of his charm on her and saw her warm to it. Good girl. With luck he could split back to New York in a week.

She softened. “Well, a couple companies were buying up acreage. Farming rice, mostly, cause of the water table, but the drought’s made rice iffy.” Southeast Texas had gone dry back in 2010 for a stretch of years.

Patch shook his head. Big agricompanies would stall and dicker. Eight hundred acres didn’t mean much to combines. What he needed was some dipshit from Houston who wanted to play rancher. Or a crazy developer looking to build a suburb in the middle of nowhere. Or maybe a Walmart desperate to ruin this particular county. Justice. “What about oil outfits?”

She regarded him with baffled bake-sale eyes. Folks liked the idea of making money on oil, but the byproducts were toxic and nobody wanted the runoff screwing up their land.

Raised eyebrows. Ms. Landry took a moment to respond. Clearly Patch had taken a left turn on this one. “I didn’t think you’d be interested—” She sounded shocked.

“I’m not. But their money’s good. Texaco’s been trying to buy it from my folks for years.” For four decades, locals had fended off the intrusion of oil companies. “Or even one of the pipeline companies.”

The law would protect him on that front. Texas had never been superconcerned about chemical pollution. What did he care what happened to this hateful place?

“Oh! ’Fore I forget…. Funeral home’s asking. We didn’t know… your situation, but now you’re here, we can set up the service for… a week? Next Monday, say? I can make the necessary arrangements.”

“That would be….” Patch swallowed. “That’s—Thank you.” A long awkward pause while she shuffled papers. “Ma’am? You were saying?” He gave her the smile again to move this along. What was she waiting for? “I’m happy to sign anything you need to get started.”

“I should wait.” She blinked and looked at her watch. “We’ll begin as soon as we’re all here.”

“We?”

“The other party named in the documents. We’re waiting for a Mr.”—He thought the name a quarter second before she said it. Biggs.—“Biggs.”

“As in….” Patch laughed without smiling. “Tucker Dray Biggs?” He snorted and his accent crept loose. “That’s a joke. Isn’t he in prison yet?”

“Is he a relation?”

“Uh. No.” More my worst nightmare. “My dad’s best friend. Local scoundrel.” Patch’s hands shook. How did she not know Tucker? Everyone knew him. “Crooked as a bucket of snakes.”

“Bit a foofaraw locating him. We’ve left four messages.” The lawyer sniffed. “Phone trouble, I ’spect.”

“Football season, probably. He coaches at the high school. Or used to, part-time. Trains horses sometimes. Odd jobs around town.” Actually, he had no idea what Tucker Biggs did for a living these days.

“No. Apparently, he’s been caretaker for your folks a few years now. He said he wouldn’t be long.”

Patch squinted in confusion. “Is that necessary?”

“He’s the executor. For their estate.”

The room rocked, as if about to crash. Again. For a moment he was back on the damn plane.

“He—” Patch sat down in the closest chair and blinked slowly. “He what?”

She finally looked up at him. “Executor. You’re the beneficiary, but your father left him in charge of the dispensation of your parents’ assets. There’s a life estate.” Spots of hard blush rose on her cheeks.

Patch laughed right out loud, a sharp ugly bark. Pa had resented him so much, and Mama had let him do it. At least he knew. To have hard proof felt like water in the desert, harsh relief.

“Fuck a duck.” He shouldn’t curse, but he couldn’t stop himself. He’d walked into a trap. “Look… if I need to go find him, I will. If he’s even home.” Tucker’s rodeo days were a ways back, but seven years might have changed that. Maybe he was back on the road or, better, dead and dust. “You ever been out to his place?”

She opened and closed her mouth, not liking his tone, not softened by his looks anymore. “Uh, no. No, sir.”

“Well, that’ll cut to the chase, at least.” Shame and terror and lust flooded him. Just don’t make me face him. Tucker had witnessed everything he wanted hidden: all the insults, bruises, and one-sided scraps. Every time Patch had snuck off looking for trouble, Tucker had hung around, scowling, to dish out guilt and guff.

Flustered now, she drifted to the door to glance out, then to her desk. “I’ll give him a jingle just now. See what’s keeping him.”

Patch scrabbled through his options. All he’d wanted was to pay his respects and scram. Now he had to come up with a way to get around a stupid SOB who’d spent his whole life as a speed bump. “What the hell am I gonna do?” After getting caught and whupped and running like hell, his nemesis had laid in wait like quicksand.

Tucker Biggs. Serves you right.

He knew Tucker dreaded him, and the feeling was mutual.

The awful part: Patch had worshiped the man, dwelled on him the way every awkward boy meditates on a perfect specimen of the male animal… as a scourge, as a god, as a goal. His whole life, Patch had been fascinated by Tucker’s giant hands and hard ass, the rodeo drawl and the Skoal ring worn into his Carhartts, and the uneven wad massed under his zipper. Patch knew and feared every thick inch of him.

But Jesus was he sexy.

At eleven years old, Patch figured out his hankerings and why girls didn’t keep him awake at night. Hand lotion and the Internet kept him from rushing into anything too dangerous, too fast. Mostly. Sophomore year, he’d even found a couple scruffy roughnecks willing to “practice,” which was their word for “fuck the skinny kid from chemistry class till they learned to lift skirts.” Long as Patch didn’t rock any boats and swallowed when they squirted, they left him in peace. He learned how to scrap, joined the football team, rodeoed when he could to get away, and the worst mouthbreathers let him be.

But not Tucker.

Patch’s dad, Royce, had been a saggy, sorry sight, but Tucker looked like a cartoon of what a Texan male oughtta be, and his Neanderthal habits only stretched the gulf between them.

Looking back, Tucker had probably seen him as the linchpin to the shotgun wedding that pulled Patch’s dad off the rodeo circuit and back home to cut grass for a living. Tucker’s family was less than nothing. He’d grown up bouncing around foster care: fistfights and hot-wired trucks. Patch’s grandparents had finally taken him in hand and knocked sense into him. Well, as much sense as would fit inside his thick skull.

When Royce stopped bulldogging with him, Tucker had nobody to whore around with. He’d given in to a real job, coaching football at the high school and seeding surly bastards in a fifty-mile radius. At homecoming Patch’s junior year, Tucker had at least three sons scattered across both football teams: dumb as hammers, mean as snakes, and sexy to a man. Yet none of his mongrels were as good-looking as their sire.

Tucker had moseyed through life gruff and buff, unattainable in the worst way and vicious to the bone. Before high school, Tucker had avoided Patch altogether, but once they’d collided away from the farm, he’d made Patch’s misery a personal mission.

A flash of football junior year. Coach Biggs shaking him by his helmet on the sidelines and calling him a “damn faggot” in front of both teams, while Patch practically pissed his compression shorts. Then himself dawdling in the locker room to watch the brash bastard saunter to the showers wrapped in a towel. Whacking off in the barn after. Gross.

Every time he’d screwed up, Tucker had been there to kick his ass.

Patch had wanted him anyway, the way you do when you’re too stubborn to be happy and too attached to steer clear. Hell, a twang and a pair of Luccheses and he couldn’t be held responsible, so he had run like hell.

Even now, Patch only dated small-town escapees like him, pretty boys his age with clean hands and lean bodies, because he hated that out-of-control hunger he remembered too well. Instead, he skirted insanity… went to bed with sweet farm boys who let him take charge while dreaming about one rugged redneck that wished him dead.

He blinked and turned back to Ms. Landry, schooling his face into hopeful stillness, a little-boy glimmer in his eyes.

She frowned. “Mr. Biggs had no idea you were en route today. I believe he planned to meet you home.” His home, she meant, because Tucker lived on the farm and Patch did not. What did she know? Everything. Hell, she’d written the will. She opened her mouth to say something, but Patch laughed again.

“Tucker Biggs can’t pay his water bill. He’s a….” Bigot. Fraud. Sleaze. Loser. Prick. Bully. He didn’t bother to shield his distaste. And they put him in charge. “Mess. Hell, he lives in a trailer he stole from an ex-girlfriend in Lake Charles. On our land.”

She blinked, no longer charmed. “Unfortunately, we’re not authorized to take any kind of action without the executor. Do you know if he’s willing to sell?”

Shrug. His mind raced. “What can you tell me?”

She sounded distraught. “I assumed you knew.”

Head shake. “My parents and I had a falling-out.”

“There’s insurance, but your daddy might be deemed at fault because of the signals. I can file the paperwork, if you….” She turned toward the door. “…want.”

Boots on gravel, a tread he knew better than he’d ever admit out loud. He hated his heart for beating faster, his skin for prickling. A dull roar in his ears as the door flapped open and all the oxygen escaped.

“Patch?” A low rumbling drawl he remembered too well.

Patch braced himself before he looked up.

Sure enough, Tucker filled the doorway in a chambray shirt and a straw work hat that he took off as he stepped inside, likely because the lawyer was a lady.

There he stood, larger than life, with the same square sandpaper chin and twinkle in his wink that got him a free piece of pie anywhere he ordered iced tea. “Well, hell, son! Look at you all growed up.” He wiped at his chiseled mouth.

Just the same.