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Copperhead Road

This excerpt is unedited.
____________

CHAPTER 1

“You’d think a man like that would be ashamed to show himself in public. After the murders and all.”

Dare Childress didn’t bother sighing. It wasn’t worth the breath. He was well aware small towns had long memories and the more scandalous and salacious the event, the longer community memory lingered. The sins of the fathers and mothers were joyfully passed down and explored with gleeful revulsion over and over. He did his best to ignore it, not even glancing across the diner where Evelyn scrubbed at the counter as she vented her latest bile.

Instead he tried to savor his first sip of coffee, looking out at the early morning, the heat and humidity already making even the air conditioned interior of The Shrimp Basket barely tolerable. But then Bay Mignon, Alabama in June wasn’t a place for those without a fondness for the heat.

“Who? What murders?” Toby Fisher sounded far more interested in his grits and eggs than Evelyn’s latest rant.

Dare couldn’t blame him for the disinterest and didn’t bother to look up from his copy of the Mobile Press Register. Whatever had Evelyn stirred up couldn’t be that interesting. Not compared to the sports section any way. Lord, the woman could blather on. But then he wasn’t dating her and so, unlike Toby, blessedly wasn’t expected to reply.

“Bolt Truitt.”

The playoff recap blurred and darkened, the print moving of its own accord as it sought to skitter off the page and leave it blank and empty. Rather like Dare’s thought processes. Bolt? Back in town after all these years? Dare’s heart set up a wild Mardi Gras beat.

“After what his daddy did, you’d figure he’d be mortified to walk the street much less sit down in here and order supper last night just as fine as you please!” Evelyn huffed in the sort of righteous indignation only a Southern woman just a step or two above white trash could manage. “Handsome as homemade sin and just as arrogant as Silas Truitt ever was. And just as worthless as Quillar, I’d be willing to bet.” Her outrage reached out to scoop the previous generations of Truitts into her outrage.

Ah, yes. Few scandalous memories lingered longer in Bay Mignon than that of the Truitt family. Well, there was the tale of racially mixed twins hidden on the upper floor of the Peacock family mansion until they were old enough to ship off to boarding school up in Massachusetts. And the one about the policeman from Raleigh and his ghostly boyfriend. Those might out-live the Truitts’ infamy but it would be a near-run thing.

“I don’t see Bolt has anything to be ashamed of.” Dare folded the newspaper and set it beside his coffee mug. Dare had never quite managed to let that particular scandal go unchallenged, either.

Evelyn huffed again and tilted her nose up, the action setting hair frosted just past the point of slightly trashy swaying. “Well, if my daddy went stone crazy all hopped up on dope and shot my mama dead in the middle of the courthouse square before putting the gun to his own head, I’d lock myself up in my house and never come out again.”

Dare took another sip of his coffee and wrinkled his nose at the bitterness. “I don’t see any reason for Bolt to become a hermit. He wasn’t even home when Quillar killed Maybelle and himself. I can vouch for that.” He stirred extra half-and-half into the brew and tried not to remember Bolt’s face when old Sheriff Coons Senior told the other boy what Quillar had done. Few of Dare’s memories hurt more than the blank incomprehension on Bolt’s face. “I’d expect folks to have some sympathy for a boy who lost his parents that way.”

Evelyn’s rouged mouth drew up. “I might if he wasn’t following in his daddy’s footsteps. The Truitts have always been white trash and it doesn’t look like living out West changed that where Bolt’s concerned.” The sour-lemon expression made her dark eyes glitter. “But then you always ignored that, didn’t you? I forgot you and Bolt were tighter than sin.”

“So we were.”

Ah, if the old busybody only knew.

* * *

Dare watched the red-brown waters of the Tensaw River flow past a tangle of cypress knees and water hyacinths before swirling to wash the narrow shore of Copperhead Landing. He should be up at the house working on the blueprints for a new Wolfe Corp business park in Dallas but his brain wouldn’t fix on design elements. Not with Bolt Truitt reappearing in town. The post holding up the roof of the old boat dock supported Dare’s back as it had many times. He’d leaned against this same ancient cypress the last time he’d seen Bolt. He’d just stood here and watched the other boy walk away, shoulders hunched against the cold of a misty rain. Watched him vanish into the night while Dare’s heart broke and he crushed a cheap Valentine’s box in his hand. He’d hated February fourteenth ever since.

Even now he could hear that break in Bolt’s voice as he split their world in half, never to be mended. My uncle says I have to leave tonight. I don’t want to but I don’t have any kind of choice. He’s my guardian now so I gotta do what he says. I can’t run off and make a living myself. He’s got work out in California for me. I can save up until I’m eighteen.

Eighteen. Almost two years away. Back then such a thing loomed as an eternity. They’d been on the cusp of manhood. Unsure of their place in the world, of their future, of who they’d become. Afraid of failure, of looking dorky in front of their classmates, of being who they really were. The only thing that didn’t hold uncertainty or fear was their love. Their one anchor. Until Quillar cut the anchor rope and set them all adrift in the middle of a hurricane. Rumor, innuendo, and public opinion could buffet and rage as hard as any storm the Gulf ever brewed.

And devastate a life just as completely. The post Dare leaned against had seen the secret tears, the lone witness to his misery because Southern men never cried in front of anyone for anything less than their mama’s funeral. Time dried the tears but never erased their cause.

The river rolled on leaving no tears today; just regrets and a sense of loss that iced Dare’s stomach. He tossed the tan oval of a live oak leaf out into the water and watched it float away, its direction at the mercy of the river.

“If that’s your truck, you got two flat tires.”

He pushed to his feet, starting at the interruption and turned to the speaker. “Damn it! I just bought new ones and I knew that kid was mounting them wrong. I’m gonna…” His heart skipped and skidded, taking his voice with it. It couldn’t be.

A phantom stood at the edge of the dock. Long blue-black hair gleamed in the dappled sunlight. A dark t-shirt emblazoned with the perfection of Steve Earle’s latest album hugged lean muscles and emphasized broad shoulders and a narrow waist. Light eyes, a sharp contrast to ebony brows, grew wide with recognition. “Dare?”

It just couldn’t be real. It had to be an illusion, wishful thinking. Still… “Hello, Bolt.” Now if Dare could just catch his breath. “I heard you were home.” Sometimes the Childress ability to appear unruffled under the most imposing enemy fire stood him in good stead.

Long legs encased in tight denim worn threadbare and nearly white carried the vision closer. The color matched Bolt’s eyes. “Lord, Dare! It’s been fifteen years!”

Half a life-time. Dare could only nod.

Those pale-denim eyes scanned him up and down. “You grew.” White teeth flashed in a tanned face. So did a diamond below Bolt’s lip. “And filled out. Real nice.” A generous mouth pressed to his.

Cinnamon. Bolt tasted of cinnamon. He’d always loved cinnamon toast for breakfast and cinnamon gum at intervals throughout the day. Dare couldn’t walk past Flora’s bakery without the aroma of her sweet rolls bringing his lost love to mind. But then almost everything in and around Bay Mignon brought Bolt to mind. Sometimes the mental hurt turned into a physical ache. Those times there wasn’t enough Tylenol in the state to ease the pain. Today though it fled with that warm, spiced kissed.

Dare groaned and gripped shoulders grown broader than he remembered, mouth opening under strong, soft lips for a questing tongue. So good! A lean, hard body press against him, slender fingers warm on the side of his face, cradling it. He lost himself in the dance of tongues, in the feel of being back in arms he’d longed for his whole adult life.

“God, I’ve missed you.” Bolt’s breath teased Dare’s lips as he spoke. “Not a day went by without me thinking of you. Some day’s all I could focus on was coming home to you.”

Dare stared into radiant blue eyes, his hands creeping down, fingers spreading over marble pectorals covered in soft cotton knit. “You missed me?”

“Every single minute.”

Dare pushed as hard as his shattered heart allowed. He wasn’t sure which gave him greater satisfaction – the wide-eyed astonishment as Bolt teetered on the edge of the dock for a long second or the huge splash he made when he hit the water.

He came up sputtering, wiping rivulets from his face.

“You didn’t miss me enough to write or pick up the phone.” Dare glared down, anger coursing warm and bitter through him, awakening dormant pain. “I ought to beat the crap out of you like I did when we were twelve.”

Bolt shook wet hair from his face. “So you decided to drown me instead.”

Dare snorted. “It’s still only four feet deep. If you drown, it’s your own fault.”

Bolt smoothed his veil of hair back and laughed. The sound rocketed over the water, startling and sharp, full of crystal music. He pulled himself to his feet and waded to the shore, brown water pouring from his clothes. “You always were at your best when you got stirred up.” He sloshed onto the narrow strip of sand and red clay, his boots making sucking sounds. He stared down at them for a moment before grinning back over his shoulder. “Damn it, Dare, these boots are new.”

“And how the hell is that my concern?” Dare was not going to be appeased by that impish smile. It might have worked with he was fifteen but not any more. He could fight off the urge to give up and let go his anger just so Bolt would keep smiling at him.

“I suppose it’s not.” Bolt’s grin grew. “But I reckon a pair of flat tires might be. So, you want a ride into town or not?” Well-remembered joi de vie lit a face too handsome for Dare’s good.

And some things were just as invincible as spring flooding. Dare sighed and let the most immediate sting of anger recede under the power of that smile. “I reckon.”

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Copyright © 2006 T.D.McKinney. All Rights Reserved.