Heathens to Hearts, The Celebration Series, Book 3
Chapter 1: ~ Jason ~
The New Year’s Eve party was in full swing at Dabby’s Tavern, and at least half of the town was there ready to celebrate the dawn of another year.
“I believe you owe me a hundred bucks. I’ll take those in ones, thank you. That way I don’t have to go to the bank next time I head out to the strip club,” I joked to Linda after she kissed my cheek hello.
“Funny, Jason, really funny.” Linda rolled her eyes and moved back to Ian’s side. As she sidled up to him, her entire face lit up.
Linda Maxim and I worked together in the emergency room at the hospital. From the moment I had started, the two of us had formed a solid friendship that had only grown stronger over the years.
During that time, I’d watched her struggle to balance a demanding job, lose her mother, and raise a daughter as a single parent. How she managed to do as well as she did, only God knew, but I could only hope that someday, if I had a little girl, she would be half as amazing as Linda’s daughter Megan was.
Linda smiled up at Ian with the kind of look I had only ever once been blessed with. For the first time since I had known Linda, she was letting the love shine out of her golden eyes.
Ian had been her high school sweetheart, and he’d vanished off the face of the Earth fourteen years ago leaving Linda alone and pregnant. He hadn’t known she was pregnant when he’d left, and imagine his surprise when he had awakened in the hospital and in had walked the teenaged daughter he had never known existed. From the moment that Ian and Megan had stared into each other’s light sea foam eyes, they had known they were related.
I had bet Linda a hundred dollars when Ian had first shown up that they would work things out, and now as Linda laughed and Ian gazed down at her as if she was the most precious thing alive, I found myself both extremely happy for her and insanely jealous of her newfound joy.
Just a moment later, a face that haunted my dreams, or sometimes my nightmares, stood alongside Linda, and any happiness I’d felt quickly nosedived under the table.
What the hell was Riayn Simmers doing here? Of all the towns in the United States, she had to show up in Celebration Township! What the hell!
I was dumbstruck as Linda introduced Riayn around the table to Ian, Thad, Casey, and Corrine, but when she stopped at me, I could barely look in Riayn’s direction. I was so rattled by Riayn’s sudden appearance after, what, eight, nine years that I stood so quickly I almost knocked over my bulky wooden chair.
“We already know each other.” I gave Linda a brisk nod and refused to glance at Riayn as I fled the table without another word. My heart raced in my chest as past memories roared through my skull in a deafening wave.
No doubt Linda was going to bust my chops for taking off the way I did, but by the time she got around to cornering me, I could hopefully come up with an explanation. I just hoped that Riayn didn’t open her big mouth before I had a chance to speak with Linda.
My blood felt like it was boiling under my skin and I practically shoved people out of my way to get to the bar, “Dabby, give me a shot of whiskey.”
I clenched the worn wooden edge of the bar and kept my back to the mass of people who had shown up at Dabby’s New Year’s Party as the room began to spin.
Why the hell was she here? I was tempted to turn and search for her in the crowd, but I waited tensely for my shot, and when it arrived, it barely touched the bar before I was throwing it down the hatch. “Another.”
Dabby raised an eyebrow at me but didn’t say anything while he refilled my shot glass. I tossed that one back just as quickly and then stared at the scuffed bar.
The burn of the first shot was filling my gut, and the second one was working its way down my esophagus. I didn’t normally do shots, not since college, but tonight it seemed more than appropriate to throw back a few—numb the pain, numb the memories, numb myself.
“You alright, man?” I jolted to awareness to find Thad standing on my right side.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” I held my finger up to get Dabby’s attention since he had wandered off to help another customer.
“Please tell me you don’t want another shot,” Dabby eyed me critically as he returned. He was a big man who could easily be confused with a lumberjack because of his ever-present flannel shirts and bushy beard. I guess it was good to look like a hard ass when you owned a tavern, but if you really knew the man, you’d know he was a teddy bear.
“How many shots did you just toss back?” Thad queried from beside me.
I turned to him, “Two, and don’t worry, I promise I won’t drive home. I’ll sleep in my car if I have to, but I won’t drive.”
Thad slapped a hand on my back, “Good to know. I’d hate for one of my guys to have to arrest you for DUI.” Thad Wagner was one of the local police officers on our small Celebration Township police force, and a good friend to have.
“I’m not stupid, Thad,” I retorted and winced as I considered how harsh the words sounded. Maybe the way I was feeling was senseless, but at the moment I wasn’t sure which had been more stupid, lying to her or working the job I had through college. It was a tossup that made me reconsider another shot.
“Sorry, man. I know you’re just looking out for me,” I said to Thad softly.
“That’s alright. You want to talk about it?” Thad asked as he sipped from a longneck bottle, probably the same one he’d been nursing the last hour.
“Nah, I’m good, but thanks.” I gulped down half my beer to stop the burning in my throat.
“Alright, but you know where I am if you want to talk.”
Thad slapped my back again and walked away, leaving me with a storm of memories that immediately crashed around in my skull.
Of all places, Riayn had to show up here. I couldn’t help myself this time as the urge to look for her struck me again. I’d blame it on the whiskey, not my lusting need to get another peek at her after all these years.
It was hard to find her in the crowd of people, but as I shifted to the right a bit, I could just make out her head. She was still talking to Casey and Linda.
Under the dim lights of the tavern, her hair looked so dark, but I knew that it had a shine to it that could take your breath away. It was so black that in the sun, the strands appeared to have streaks of blue running through them. I used to be mesmerized by the sight of it and spent long moments running my hands through the soft locks, letting the colors shift back and forth in the bright light—and her eyes, damn, those gorgeous gray eyes were so expressive. They sparkled with vitality and energy, and when she was happy, they were a light shimmering gray.
The last time I had seen her, she hadn’t been very happy, and even in the darkness of the club where I’d worked, I’d seen the flat charcoal color of her irises as she had glared accusingly at me.
I turned back to the bar and noticed a woman I didn’t know staring off toward Linda and Casey. She had dark black hair too, but was dressed like a runway model, not a local.
The only person I knew who dressed to the nines all the time was Missy, the police dispatcher, but everyone knew she was out to impress a man. She could possibly get one if she stopped trying so hard—and toned down the perfume a tad.
The unknown woman walked away from the bar toward the restroom, and I rolled my wrist to check my watch. I had to blink twice to get it in focus. Okay, no more shots for me, I decided. Besides, in just under an hour, the New Year would begin and I could ditch this popsicle stand without causing too many tongues to wag.
Right there was a huge reason why Riayn shouldn’t be in this town. Damn, how had she ended up here? All it was going to take was for Riayn to open her mouth to one person, and everyone in town would know within twenty-four hours. Hell, this kind of gossip and it would be around town in half that time. I clenched my teeth. Son of a bitch!
Maybe she was just here to visit, and she would leave soon and never say a word.
I glanced over my shoulder, and the crowd just mysteriously parted to reveal her sitting at the table laughing with Corrine, Thad’s sister.
If she was just visiting, then why would she be here getting to know everyone? She hadn’t been this outgoing back when I had known her. What had changed?
“Hey, Jason, have you seen my mom?” I glanced to the side and found a miniature of Ian and Linda staring up at me.
“Sorry, Megan, the last I saw her, she was talking to Casey, but your dad’s over there.” I pointed to the back of his head as I watched Ian walk toward the restroom.
“Okay, thanks,” Megan began to leave, then twisted back around to stand on her tiptoes and kiss my cheek, “Happy New Year, Jason!”
“Yeah, Happy New Year to you too, kid,” I called out as she slipped between a few people and disappeared.
I turned back to the bar and took another long swallow of my beer. My head felt fuzzy in a way that I hadn’t allowed in a long time.
Back in college, doing four or five shots in a row had been no big deal. In fact, it was liquid courage that had helped me get through a long night. Nowadays, I needed the caffeine more than I needed the alcohol. If Riayn stayed in town, though, I might have to rethink that.
I turned and glanced over my shoulder yet again to find Riayn talking to Levi Rivers, the owner of Celebration’s lone car repair shop. Riayn barely came up to the middle of his chest, and Levi was bent down, leaning in and laughing as she said something funny.
A searing stab filled my chest as I remembered how it felt to hold her against me. She was only four foot eleven to my five foot ten and those eleven inches had made me feel like a giant next to her.
I didn’t feel so giant now, especially as she batted her eyelashes up at Levi and gave him one of her killer smiles. Suddenly, I felt like a total ass.
I guzzled the rest of my beer, slammed my bottle on the bar, and pulled out my wallet to drop some money for my beverages. Before I could think twice, I grabbed my coat off the hook by the door and walked out into the cold.
There was no way I could stand in there and watch the New Year begin with cheers and well wishes when I felt like my life was about to be smothered in a massive avalanche.