An excerpt from Long Shot

Leith MacDougall stacked three bags of topsoil, shoved his hands under the bottom one, and heaved all three into the back of his white pickup truck. On the other side of the barn, his phone jumped and buzzed from where it sat on the empty potting bench. He let it go to voicemail. There was a shitload of packing up and consolidating to do before he closed down this location and handed the keys back to Loughlin, the property owner. Wasn't like it would be a new client calling anyway.

Chris, his lone remaining employee, entered through the big sliding door, pushing an empty wheelbarrow. The younger guy eyed how much Leith had cleared out in fifteen minutes. "Wow. Motivated?"

"You could say that."

Leith lifted the bottom of his already-soaked T-shirt to wipe his sweaty face. His muscles ached, but that's what he loved most about his business. Planning and designing the landscapes fed his brain and gave him a deep sense of accomplishment, but it was the digging and planting and grunt work that really made his blood buzz. The physical stuff always got him going, and over the past year, he hadn't gotten nearly enough of it.

Was he referring to landscaping or sex? Sadly, either one applied.

The phone stopped ringing.

"Heard this morning at the Kafe they're still going through with the games this year even though DeeDee took off," Chris said, crossing the vast, empty floor. "Rumor has it Mayor Sue found some sucker to take over, last minute."

Leith reached for the last two bags of soil. "Good for them."

God, the barn was so empty. The only things left were his worktables and the shiny sign hanging on the far wall, an indulgence he'd splurged on when business had been so good he could afford such a thing. MacDougall Landscape Design. Gleann, New Hampshire.

Chris popped up the wheelbarrow and turned it upside down in the truck bed. "You're not even going to stick around for it?"

Leith swiveled the final soil bags so they'd fit nicely. "Why would I?"

Chris took out a rubber band and tied back his hair. "Dunno. Curiosity? Tradition? DeeDee said my band could play." He was trying to come across as nonchalant but failed miserably.

Like so many others living here, Chris had been born in Gleann, would probably die here. At nineteen, he hadn't gone to college, not that that had been an option for the kid who'd barely made it out of high school. He'd had a rough go, made some shitty mistakes with drugs and booze, gotten in some serious trouble, and then Leith had given him a chance at employment. Turned out that chance had been exactly what Chris needed to straighten out his life, and Leith did fear what might happen to the guy when he left.

There came that old guilt, rising up to bite him again.

Leith didn't answer Chris. The games he'd once loved and excelled at had turned into a sad, sorry event showcasing how sad and sorry this town had become. He'd stayed for so long out of of a loyalty that seemed to be part of your blood if you grew up here, and because when Hemmertex had been here he'd been swimming in money, but now he needed to move on. Correction: he was dying to move on.

Of course, the second he let himself think that, his da's voice rattled through his mind—Don't turn your back on the people who need you, boy—and Leith was right back where he started.

"Sorry, man," Leith finally replied. "I'm supposed to head over the state line that weekend. Checking out a possible new location in Vermont."

Chris hung his head. "Oh. Yeah."

The landscape business should have been enough to keep Leith here, but it wasn't. Not any longer. He'd started his business right as the rich people had arrived, and he'd made his own killing. But the whole valley had been slowly dying since the last Hemmertex executive locked up his giant vacant house on the outskirts of town almost two years ago. No one to design for anymore. Local maintenance was no longer going to cut it—not for his bills, and not for his dreams.

Family could have kept him in town, but with Da gone three years now, he was alone.

His phone started ringing again. He realized he hadn't heard a beep earlier to indicate a voicemail had gone through. Maybe it was a client. A shrubbery emergency or something. Hell, he might take anything at this point; the finish line of his reserve funds was in painful sight. He jogged across the barn and grabbed the phone.

"'Lo?"

"Mr. Lindsay, my name is Jen Haverhurst. I'm told your property at 738 Maple Avenue is available for rent."

The connection must have been pretty crappy, out here in the "suburbs" of his tiny hometown, because he could have sworn the fast-talking woman had claimed to be Jen Haverhurst.

"Mr. Lindsay, are you there?"

It was Jen, all right. Same flat Midwestern accent. Same barely contained impatience, same determination.

His ass sank onto the tipped-down hatch of his pickup. Why the hell did she think he was Mr. Lindsay? Oh, yeah. Because he owned that house now, along with two others on that block. More empty properties dragging Gleann into the murky depths. Whoever kept track of the rental listings must have updated his contact phone but not the name. And if the listing still had Mildred's husband's name, the records hadn't been touched in the twenty years before that.

Jen.

Last he'd heard from Bev Haverhurst before she died, Jen's job was putting on big parties and events in New York City. Wait . . . was she the "sucker" Mayor Sue had dragged in to help pull off the games on short notice? Why on earth would someone like Jen agree to attach herself to a sinking ship?

And why hadn't she called him when she got back? That's right. Ten years ago she'd taken off like a flash and never looked back, not even to see how damaged he'd been by the force and speed of her wheels. He'd long since given up imagining her returning, but, pathetically, never stopped hoping.

He wasn't about to let this surprise phone call be their reunion. No, it had to be better than that, and, honestly, he wasn't quite ready to face her.

He pushed off the truck and turned his back to Chris. "Yeah," Leith said into the phone, pitching his voice lower. "I'm here."

"Is the property still available? I'm looking for immediate move-in."

"Immediate." Now he didn't have to concentrate on disguising his voice. It dropped all on its own, along with his stomach. She was here. "It's available."

"Great. I'm looking for a short-term stay. Two weeks. It's furnished, right?"

Two weeks, up through the games. So she definitely was the sucker.

"Yes," he said.

"And it has a working washer and dryer?"

"Sure." Truthfully, he had no idea if the things worked. Two months ago, after the shocking inheritance, he'd taken a quick tour of 738 and then locked the place up tight, overwhelmed.

God, her voice. Despite his reservations, despite all the bad feelings returning and mixing with the good ones that he'd never completely let go of, the sound of her was starting to make him dizzy. Excited. What did she look like now?

"Can you knock two hundred off the rate?"

"Two hundred?" he gasped. It was already cheap as dirt, priced to be used. And Jen lived in New York, where she probably paid ten million dollars a month on rent anyway. But then, she'd always been the haggler. Had always wanted things done on her terms.

Which was why the two of them hadn't lasted.

A little bit of that excitement died as he remembered how they'd ended, that sharp, hard conclusion to something that had been really fucking good.

He could use her cash, though. "Fifty off," he countered.

"One fifty."

"One hundred."

"Done."

He scrubbed a hand over his itchy, stubbled chin, his body starting to hum. It felt too good, playing like this with her again, even if it was one-sided. Back in the day, when they'd been the best of summer friends, they'd spent many nights playing innocent pranks on the townspeople.

She exhaled, and just that little sound, leaking through the cell phone waves, sent him hurtling back in time to when they'd last spoken—also on the phone, only far less civil. Ten years should have been enough to dull the hurt and fill in the ache. Surprisingly, it wasn't.

"Great," she said. "Like I said, I'm looking to get settled in tonight. Will that be a problem?"

"Ah, no." He straightened and swiveled back to Chris, snapping his fingers. "I won't be around but I'll have someone leave a key and rental agreement under the mat."

Chris pointed to his own chest and mouthed, "Me?"

Leith nodded. He was due to scout locations in Mount Caleb, two hours south, this afternoon. A new corridor of strip malls was going up over there. That usually meant progress, housing starts. New construction always meant new landscaping.

"Under the mat." She chuckled. "Of course." How quaint, her tone said, and he gritted his teeth.

"I don't know if you have a car," he added, "but you can't use the garage. A, uh, local is using it for storage."

"Oh. That's okay, I suppose. Thank you so much, Mr. Lindsay." In her pause he heard the distinct sound of fingers on a laptop. He suddenly remembered how sweet she could be, how genuine, when she wasn't running you over with her severe drive. "You can reach me at this number if you need me."

He pulled the phone away from his ear, saved her number, and tapped it off. Stared at the phone as though it were her face.

She hadn't faded for him, over time. Why would she, when every corner and crevice of Gleann had something to remind him of her?

First sex. First love.

"Who was that?" Chris came over. "Yo, Dougall. Who was that? A ghost?"

You could say that, he thought.

Fuck. Jen Haverhurst. Back in Gleann. Staying at 738 Maple.

Right next door to him.

 

~*~

 

It was approaching ten o'clock by the time Leith turned the pickup onto Maple Avenue back in Gleann, and he almost put his face through the windshield, he braked so hard. A compact black rental car was parked under the carport of 738 and the kitchen light glowed between the drape of the brown curtains. One month he'd been living in the two-bedroom cottage at 740, and he'd gotten used to not having a neighbor.

He also thought he'd gotten used to not having Jen in his life.

He'd tried to get out of Mount Caleb faster, but the real estate broker had sprung several more properties on him, and there'd been a terrible four-car pileup blocking both lanes of Route 6 coming back. He'd been hoping to get back and surprise Jen, though he hadn't gotten much further than that in his head. What exactly did he want to do? Just walk up and knock on the door? Pretend to run into her on the street?

Slowly he pulled into the 740 driveway, absently noting the bushes along the front walk needed a prune. Mildred used to pay him to do that. Now that she was dead, she paid him in three headaches in house form and probably thought she'd done him a favor. Old people were like that, thinking you wanted to keep their stuff forever and ever. He wondered if he'd be like that eventually.

He pulled his truck into the garage and got out, careful to shut his door with minimal sound. There was a chance she'd turned off the air-conditioning and opened the windows; it was a perfect night for that. The light from 738's kitchen window angled across 740's postage-stamp backyard. The soft, yellow rectangle froze him. He stood right in the center of it, willing Jen to come into view. Wondering what he'd do if she did. Clearly she was awake; a shadow moved inside. Should he just walk over there? No, he decided with a tight shake of his head. She'd been in town a whole day, and she hadn't made any attempt to see him.

Then, there she was. She sauntered into the kitchen, holding a giant mug of something steaming and blew gently across the top. She wore these dark-rimmed glasses that screamed Bad Librarian. So weird how he remembered that her eyesight was for shit. Her hair looked darker and it was piled in a giant mess on top of her head. A sensory memory struck and nearly leveled him: how thick her hair had felt. Setting the mug down on the kitchen table, she leaned forward on her hands, peering at the glowing screen of a laptop.

Was she . . . ? Jesus.

No bra. A little black top with dental floss for straps. Black underwear that covered her tight ass, but just barely. And a whole mess of skin, the sight of which made his mouth dry up and his palms tingle with the urge to touch.

Ten years apart from whom he'd once thought was the love of his life, almost six months since he'd had anything remotely resembling sex, and this was his re-introduction to the female species. He told himself that seeing anyone of the opposite sex wandering around like that after his length of forced abstinence would inspire such an epic hard-on, but the truth was . . . she looked incredible.

Then he realized that it was more than just the way she looked. Seeing Jen again, here and close, was like being swept through a time warp. His brain flipped back through all the summers they'd been joined at the hip. Back when they used to play kickball in the park, when they'd played all those good-natured pranks together. When they'd spent evenings sitting with Da on his front porch, listening to his childhood stories of Scotland. Back when they'd laughed so easily, and talked about anything and everything.

Then came that summer before she left for college. Right from the start he'd known it was the last summer she'd make it to Gleann. Mix that up with the fact that he'd been almost nineteen, raging with hormones, and she'd showed up right after high school graduation looking like sin. They'd resumed their friendship as easily as any of the previous nine summers, but he'd felt the change inside him so suddenly and so acutely it was like she'd reached inside his mind and thrown a switch.

When they'd waited tables together one night at the Stone, he'd very intentionally brushed up against her. He remembered her response so clearly: the slow way she turned around, the perfect circles of those incredible green eyes, the slack-jawed look of surprise. He'd grinned at her, knowing. As soon as their shift was done, he'd pushed her against the outside wall of the pub and kissed her.

And continued to do so every summer night thereafter.

So by the time they'd wedged themselves into the backseat of his old man's '69 Cadillac DeVille convertible and, shaking, they'd stripped each other and gone through three condoms in one night, he was pretty sure he was in love with her.

Then she'd left.

Back in the kitchen of 738 Maple, Jen pushed away from the table, the lean muscles in her arms flexing. She started to pace between the table and refrigerator. Her lips moved soundlessly as she talked to herself. She gestured with her hands, ticking something off on her fingers.

She was curvier now, fuller everywhere, but still fit. Definitely more of a woman. She yawned, stretching with arms overhead.

He reached down, adjusted himself through his jeans.

He realized that a little bit of the old anger still rattled around inside him. Also, even more surprisingly, some pain. Which angered him even more. He was an adult. He was over her. He'd been over her for ten years. Okay, maybe nine. But they'd been eighteen and, when he thought about it, they really hadn't been ready to be together long-term.

Besides, he hadn't exactly turned priest after her departure. And he was pretty sure she'd forgotten about him soon after their last phone call, when she'd told him she loved him back, one month and a thousand miles too late.

Of course that was the moment his phone chose to go off, the ring clanging across the yard, the sound so loud it could have reached the moon. He fumbled with taking it out of his pocket, his thumb missing the mute button. The phone kept ringing. Jen froze where she stood in the middle of the kitchen like she might have heard, but then she started talking to herself again and he knew she hadn't.

Still, he quickly ducked out of the light and dove for the back door, which he never locked. Nothing of his inside to steal anyway. In the mudroom, he flipped on the weak bulb over the basement stairs.

He glanced at the number on the phone before answering and tried not to get his hopes up. "MacDougall."

"I still think you should answer with a Scottish brogue," chuckled the woman on the other end.

"I would, if I had one," he replied.

"Bah, just fake it. No American would ever know."

Leith smiled, thinking he could probably pull out a brogue if he thought about Da hard enough, but just the idea made his chest ache.

"What can I do for you, Rory?" She'd been one of his favorite clients before her Hemmertex president husband had moved the headquarters to Connecticut and changed the valley forever.

"Sorry to call so late, but I just got back from this boring office party where I heard a wicked rumor that you were leaving Gleann and going to set up your business elsewhere."

He moved through the darkened house to the little TV room in the front with the window overlooking Jen's rental. He kept the light off, and collapsed into the pink velour recliner with the lace doily armrest covers.

"You heard right," he told Rory.

"Then I'm calling to beg you to come work for us again." Now he heard the slight slur of drink in her voice. "Hal's bought the most ridiculous house in Stamford and I hate all the landscapers. You'd be my very own, just like I always wanted. Well, at least until word got out. Then I suppose I'd be forced to share you."

At least Rory was open and lighthearted about her flirting. Mildred had just peeked at him from behind her curtains. And Rory was completely devoted to Hal, who teased Leith mercilessly about being the underage gardener of his wife's fantasies.

And now Rory Carriage wanted him to start work in Stamford, one of the more competitive areas in the country, to say the least. But if he could get an "in" using her . . . It was the first lead he'd had in over a year, and it really didn't get any better than this one.

He scooted to the edge of the recliner and switched the phone to the other ear so he could twist toward the window and watch Jen's shadow pace.

"What do you need?" he asked Rory.

"Oh, honey, don't ask me such open-ended questions." She laughed. "Everything. I've got three acres, a concrete hole for a pool, and a gazebo from 1983. The gardens were laid by the most boring designers ever. I could have done what they did. I need you and your big bulldozer. Don't say no."

Three acres. He started to sweat from the excitement. Three acres, from scratch, in a whole new area he could immerse himself in researching. Brand new inspiration.

"Sounds promising." He kept his tone level. She'd called him and begged, which meant he could probably get away with a little jump in price, when all along he'd been preparing to cut back. He stood up, the recliner groaning and snapping back into position.

"I'm heading out tomorrow for one of Hal's conferences; I don't even know what it's for. We'll be home Monday. Any chance you can get here first thing? I want everything done before Candy's wedding in September."

Monday. Stamford was a five-hour drive. He'd get up in the middle of the night if he had to.

"Monday it is," he told Rory, then got her new address and hung up.

Fucking A. Exactly the kick start he needed at exactly the right time.

Jen's kitchen light went out. A few moments later, the dim chandelier over the staircase blinked on, followed by a warm glow in one of the upstairs bedrooms.

Yeah. Exactly the right time.

Because even though Jen had come back after all these years, she'd leave again. And this time, so would he.

He stood there in the musty dark of Mildred's old house, staring up at Jen's window. She reappeared, and it stopped the breath in his throat. Her gorgeous body backlit, her hair now down around her shoulders, she yanked the curtains closed. A second later, the lamp went out.

Leith ground his forehead into the window, knowing he was about to have a completely unsatisfactory few minutes with his right hand.

(c) 2013 Hanna Martine