Flight Risk: Chapters 1-3

20130612-093527.jpgChapter One

Trevor Steele loosened the tie around his neck. It had been choking him all day. He sank into a blue-and-white-striped couch and stared at the fireplace mantel. An orderly row of family pictures smiled back. Mom, Dad, Shelby and him, years ago, frozen in time.

Half the people in those pictures were dead and buried, and Trevor was left with the aftermath.

He glanced at his eighteen-year-old sister, hovering near the door. The black dress and heels should have made her look older, but with her dark blonde hair pulled into a ponytail and no makeup on, she looked like a little girl playing dress up.

What was he supposed to do with a kid graduating from high school in two months? A kid he’d barely been around the past four years and barely talked to in between undercover assignments. A kid who had just lost her mother. A kid who had nothing left.

Except him.

The choking feeling persisted, but there were no more articles of clothing to free from his neck.

“So…” His voice came out raspy. He’d been talking all day. Talking to people he’d known his whole life. Listening to Pilot’s Point residents wax poetic about his mother’s dedication to the town. Then people had gone on about his dad. The five years in between their deaths had disappeared, and it was as if he’d lost them both in the same day.

The pressure to be what Shelby needed and the town expected felt like a noose. He wished for the anonymity of pretending to be someone else, but his undercover days were suddenly, irrevocably, painfully over. Even if he stayed with the FBI, he now had to be Trevor Steele all the time, for Shelby.

“I’m going to go upstairs.” Her voice was little more than a whisper and she didn’t look at him. In fact, Trevor hadn’t seen her blue eyes angled toward him since he’d returned home from Seattle.

Too late.

His mother had still been breathing when he’d arrived, but barely. He’d said his good-byes to a quickly failing body. Not to Mom. There had been no miracle hand squeeze. She’d merely faded away and the words too late had haunted him ever since.

“Shelby.” Trevor stood, at a loss. He wanted to comfort her, to make the pain go away, but all that came out was a lame apology. “I’m so sorry. I thought we had more time.”

For the first time in a week, Shelby met his gaze. Identical blue eyes studied each other. “I think we all thought that. Even Mom.”

Trevor crossed to her, guilt eating away any lingering uncertainty. He pulled her into his arms. It wasn’t the first time he’d hugged her. The minute he’d walked into his mother’s room at the hospice center, he had hugged Shelby exactly like this. Holding on while their mother slipped away.

“I love you.” It wasn’t something he said often, but as they were the only two people each other had left in terms of family, it seemed the right moment to say it.

She didn’t respond, and he couldn’t blame her. For the past five months of their mom’s final battle with cancer, Trevor had been undercover. If Mom had pushed the envelope, he could have been pulled out, but Shelby was right. Even Mom thought she had more time.

“I love you too,” Shelby replied, her slim frame shaking as she cried into his shoulder.

When the doorbell rang interrupting the moment, Trevor had to fight the urge to yell at the unfortunate visitor. Why couldn’t the damn town let them alone with their grief?

Shelby pulled away, wiping her face with the back of her hand. “I’ll get it.”

But Trevor held her there, not ready to let the moment go without some reassurance. She looked so young despite the stress of the past six months. Her exhaustion was evident everywhere—the sagging shoulders, the black under her eyes. Yet she was taking the responsibility of parceling out flowers after the visitation, sending thank-you notes, answering the door.

Trevor worked up the courage to say the words he hoped she needed to hear. “It’s never going to be okay that Mom’s gone, but we’ll find a way to get through it.” We. A word that added weight to that noose.

She nodded and managed a wobbly smile as the doorbell rang again. “Welcome back to Pilot’s Point where everyone pokes into your business.” Her hand reached out to the doorknob, but she paused for a moment. “I’m so glad you’re home. I don’t know what I’d do without you here.”

She didn’t look at him, instead opened the door before he could formulate a response. His throat closed and it was hard to manage a breath. Shelby was under the impression he was staying inevitably. Trevor had taken a six-month leave of absence.

When Shelby opened the door, Trevor’s guilt melted into relief. Callie Baker stood on the threshold. She’d changed from the black dress she’d worn to the funeral into jeans and a fitted black T-shirt. In each hand was a brown bag.

For the first time since he’d returned home, his mouth moved into the ghost of an honest smile.

“Calloway.” Shelby scowled as she spat Callie’s full name.

“Shelby,” Callie returned. Callie’s hands tightened on the bags, but she didn’t snap at the use of her full name as Trevor expected. “I’m sorry about your mom.”

Shelby’s expression didn’t change. If she was surprised by Callie’s offered sympathy, it wasn’t surprise enough to be polite.

“Shelby, don’t be…” Trevor trailed off lamely. Under the circumstances, telling his sister not to be her usual bitchy self to Callie didn’t seem right. “Don’t be impolite.”

Callie looked at him over Shelby’s head, a smile tugging at the corner of her lips. She didn’t have to speak for him to know what she was thinking. Impolite? Seriously?

“The polite thing to do would be to not show up where you know you’re not wanted.”

Callie’s smile changed immediately from amused to the kind of sharp smile she usually flashed before offering a scathing comment. “I’m only half not wanted.”

In terms of Callie’s comebacks, it was tame, but Shelby turned on her heel and stomped past Trevor and up the stairs. At the sound of a door slamming above, Callie’s smirk died.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything. I wouldn’t have come over, but I do owe you.” She held up the two bags in her hand. “Vodka or tequila? Take your pick.”

“You take the tequila, I’ll take the vodka, and we’ll work from there.” All he could think was thank God she was here. Not just because of the alcohol, but because Callie was someone who would understand exactly what he needed right now.

“Fair enough.” She stood in the doorway, not making a move to come in. They studied each other, silently assessing the changes over the past two years.

She was tall, lean and gorgeous as ever. The T-shirt she wore showed off the muscled arms she got from tinkering with antique airplanes. He’d never thought muscles on a woman were particularly sexy, but Callie had a way of making everything just that.

Her straight black hair was pulled into a long ponytail and brown eyes studied him from behind thick black lashes. She didn’t wear makeup and rarely had in all the years he’d known her.

She had a little kewpie doll mouth that looked out of place on an otherwise angular face. Trevor knew that mouth could curse as creatively as any man he’d ever worked with, snap off the most sarcastic comebacks he’d ever heard, and kiss really, really well.

That’s what happened the last time he’d seen Callie. She’d kissed him senseless before he’d pushed her away. He still kind of regretted that, but the kiss had stemmed from grief after her grandfather’s funeral. So he’d pushed her away before she’d done any damage.

He hadn’t seen her since, but they’d exchanged emails and texts when he wasn’t undercover, as they always had since he’d left Pilot’s Point. Over the course of the past two years, neither had acknowledged their one and only foray into more than friendship. Judging by her demeanor, that wasn’t about to change now.

 

Callie hadn’t stepped inside the Steele’s brick ranch house in years. Little had changed, even if the man who stood in front of her had.

He’d been tall since freshman year when he’d shot up almost four inches over summer, but all that teenage gawkiness was now filled in with lean, hard muscles, evident even under the layers of his suit. His dark hair was buzzed short, and those vivid blue eyes remained the focal point of his chiseled face. It was the kind of face that got a lot of female attention. Even though they’d always been just friends, it was no hardship looking at Trevor.

“The tequila is genius,” he offered. Only then did Callie realize she was still hovering in front of the door, and they were studying each other in similar appraisal.

“We went through the vodka in about an hour after your…” He trailed off like he couldn’t get the words out.

Two years and she struggled with it herself, not that she would show it. “After Gramps’s funeral.” Callie moved into the living room. “Funerals seem to be the only way we see each other anymore, Mr. Hot Shot FBI Agent.”

He smiled a little, but it didn’t last long and his mouth released into that tired, contemplative look people got after dealing with death. “Yeah, well, that’s about to change.”

“You’re not staying permanently.” Not a question, a statement. Callie knew as well as anyone Trevor had spent his adolescence waiting to escape Pilot’s Point for the big world out there, just as much as Callie had always scoffed at the outside world in favor of home.

Trevor shrugged, unscrewed the top of the vodka and took a long swig right from the bottle. He winced as he swallowed the giant gulp. “For the foreseeable future. Six months leave of absence.”

“I guess you can’t leave Shelby here alone.”

“She’s going to UNI in the fall, but we’ve got to get through graduation and the summer first.” His mouth was a grim line. “I figure six months gets me to September. Once she’s settled in to college life, I go back.” He gestured toward the couch, taking another big swig. “Make yourself comfortable.”

Callie looked at the room. Trevor used to try and help her with her homework on that exact coffee table. Mrs. Steele always bringing them snacks and checking on their progress while Shelby complained she couldn’t watch her cartoons. Callie always trying to convince Trevor they should do anything besides homework.

The Steeles were valedictorians, pillars of society, and Callie—aside from the last two years—had been the wild child of Pilot’s Point. Taking a seat on the blue-striped couch was like stepping back in time, erasing all the changes she’d worked hard to make.

Because that old inadequacy surrounded her, some of the old defenses cropped up. “I’ve been on the straight and narrow for two years now. Your sister sure knows how to hold a grudge.”

“Yeah, you wouldn’t know anything about that. Would you?” He grinned and took a seat next to her.

Callie shrugged, but a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. She’d always felt a little less in the shadow of Trevor’s seemingly perfect life, but he’d never made her feel that way. Even when he was teasing her. Shelby was the one who made her feel like the loser from the wrong side of the tracks. “My grudges are fair though.”

“Uh huh.” Trevor took another long pull from his bottle, studied hers. “I’m not drinking alone, am I?”

Callie looked at the unopened bottle in her hand. She hadn’t touched a drop of alcohol in two years. Two years of cleaning up her act in her best effort to keep Antiques in Flight afloat. What good had it done?

Thinking of her own problems, Callie unscrewed the top. Maybe a good drunk would be just what she needed. The liquid burned its way down, a reminder of too many nights spent at the end of a bottle. What was one more? Besides, Trevor had offered her the same comfort two years ago. Her turn.

“Shelby thinks I’m staying. Permanently.” He stared at the bottle in his hands, blinked.

“Then she doesn’t know you very well.” Of course, Callie knew Trevor well enough to know that added to the pain of losing his mother, he was now laying a heavy dose of guilt on himself.

“Why would she know me, Callie? We’re eleven years apart and before last week I’d barely been home for four years. Why should I expect her to have any idea that me staying here is equal to a prison sentence?”

Callie looked at her own bottle. She’d never understood Trevor’s need to always be moving, doing, getting out. In Callie’s world, nothing was better than Pilot’s Point. It was comfort, it was memory, it was home.

“Change,” Trevor muttered, looking down at the bottle in his hands. He took another swig. “I’m supposed to be good at it.” He shook his head, looking so beat down she wanted to soothe him. Unfortunately, Callie had never learned how to soothe away someone’s hurt. She’d been too busy indulging in her own. She could offer a bottle of booze or a joke, but true comfort? Not Calloway Baker.

“It’s not fair,” he said, his voice scratchy and uneven. “She’s eighteen. Two months away from graduating. Mom should be here. Hell, Dad should be here. It isn’t right and it isn’t fair and…” He shook his head again as he trailed off.

The words hurt because she remembered what it was like. Walking down that aisle wearing the cap and gown and knowing the people who were supposed to be there weren’t. To have someone tell you those people were there in spirit or watching from heaven or whatever other bullshit excuses people used to try and help or soothe.

It wasn’t true. Her parents hadn’t been there in spirit, her grandma didn’t have some special lens from heaven. They had been dead. Buried. Gone. At graduation the only people watching her flip that tassel with any vested interest were Gramps and Em. Now she only had Em left.

For the first time in her life, Callie felt a little empathy for Shelby Steele.

“I’m sorry, Cal,” Trevor muttered, and his hand rested on her knee. “This must hit a little close to home.”

Callie shrugged. “Been a long time.” The memories would fade; some of the pain would too. Alcohol would help hurry the process along.

“It’s not about me today. It’s about Shelby. And you.” She covered his hand with hers, and then carefully removed it from her knee. She took another sip, a little longer this time.

“I don’t want to think about me,” he muttered, leaning into the back of the couch. “Tell me about AIF.”

From one depressing subject to another. Callie thought of the fly-in, the annual gathering of members of Antiques in Flight, where AIF made the majority of its money for the year. Antique enthusiasts flew or drove out to the airport and spent five days camping, eating, enjoying each other’s planes, checking out the museum and library.

Last year, most people had attended to memorialize Gramps, but after so many problems, the donations had dropped significantly.

Callie opened her mouth to deflect the topic, but the truth tumbled out. “Em and I are holding on by a thread. If we don’t recover from last year’s disaster of a fly-in, we’ll lose it all.” She hadn’t meant to be bleak about it, but in her head the fly-in in six months would either make or break Antiques in Flight.

If Callie lost AIF along with everything else, she didn’t think she’d make it.

Callie took another deep drink, willing the liquor to kick in. “Let’s talk about something really stupid,” she suggested before Trevor started to try and comfort her. He was the kind of guy who would offer comfort to someone else after his own mother’s funeral. She was the type of woman who brought booze and bad news.

“I think the Cubs have a chance to go all the way this year.”

“Yeah, right. This is really going to be their year.” It was good to laugh. It had been a while since she’d had someone to laugh with. All she and Em ever talked about were bills, business and “what are we going to do”? There certainly wasn’t much laughter when you faced losing your family’s one and only legacy.

Trevor’s smile faded quickly. “What would I do without you?”

Callie tried to keep the smile, keep some of the laughter, but it was slipping away again. “You do without me on a pretty regular basis.”

“Not for the important stuff. You’ve always been there.”

Callie sighed. She couldn’t expect Trevor to focus on the happy. She knew how it felt to lose both your parents in such a short time. Of course, she’d been considerably younger. Still, it was important for Trevor to know he had people he could count on. That’s what her grandparents had given her, until they’d passed away too. “You’ve always been there for me, Trev. This is payback.” She’d buried her grief in the wrong guy, in alcohol, in bad behavior, and any time she’d needed to be bailed out, he’d been there.

Callie rested her hand on top of his. “It’s hard, and with Shelby it’s even harder. I know you both pretty well, and you’re the strongest, most together people I know. It’s a lot to deal with, but you’ll both deal. Eventually things get to a point where they’re bearable. Besides, once Shelby’s away at college she’s won’t expect you to hang around Pilot’s Point waiting for her to come home on break. She’ll understand you have to go back to your life in Seattle.”

Trevor seemed to consider this as he stared at her hand on top of his. He turned his so that they now touched palm to palm. There was a spark, some low humming sizzle of something. Just like when she’d kissed him two years ago. Had that spark always been there and she’d been so busy trying to drown out all her feelings she’d never noticed, or was it something newer, something born out of adulthood, of the people they’d become?

Frustrated, Callie broke the physical contact. Maybe old Callie would have been bold and foolish enough to try and find out, but this was the new Callie. Responsible, sensible, mature. Now was not the time to be thinking about attraction and sparks. If there were ever a time to do something that stupid. New Callie knew there were too many risks and too much outside stuff going on right now to worry about something so trivial.

Sometimes she really missed old Callie.

Trevor shifted so their knees brushed, and Callie looked up. He was staring at her, studying her face with a focused intensity that never failed to make her squirm. When his gaze dropped to her lips, his body moved slightly toward hers, even as her heartbeat increased, Callie knew she had to end the moment before it started. Too tired and scared to tiptoe around the subject, she went for straightforward.

“Don’t even think about it,” she muttered, staring down at the bottle. She was still embarrassed she’d thrown herself at him two years ago. Embarrassed at how easily Trevor had pushed her away and rationally explained she was acting out of grief.

No shit.

“Oh, I think about it,” he returned, though his words were slightly slurred. He gestured his bottle toward her. “You don’t kiss a guy like that and expect him to forget.”

“It was a mistake.” Maybe over the course of the past two years she’d found herself wondering if it had just been drunken grief, but she’d cleaned up her life enough to know exploring a romantic thing with Trevor would be the biggest mistake she could make. He was her oldest friend, her biggest champion. Mixing that up would mean potentially losing him.

“I know it was.”

She refused to analyze why his agreement irritated her. “So let’s not repeat it.” It was best to forget she’d ever blurred the lines. Best to keep pretending that stupid kiss had been nothing, a little fluke of a mistake due to heartache and alcohol.

“You’re right.”

Time to change the subject, and create a little distance. Go back to the main reason for her coming by. Comfort. Help. “We need something to eat with all this liquor. I’ll go rummage around for a snack. You see if you can find something to watch on TV.”

At Trevor’s terrible attempt to hide a wince, Callie stood. “I can make a sandwich or open a bag of chips.”

“Are you sure about that? I’ve heard kitchens are known to spontaneously combust when you walk into them.”

Just like that they were back on even ground. Exactly where they should be.

Chapter Two

Callie drove away from the Steele house, away from the epicenter of Pilot’s Point, out into farmland and curving two-lane highway. The world around was greening up as April meandered its way toward warmer temperatures.

On another day, she might have enjoyed the beautiful morning scene. She might have rolled down the windows of her ancient Ford Taurus and smiled. This morning, a headache pounded behind her eyes and the contents of her stomach sloshed uneasily back and forth.

Monday morning with a hangover was no way to start the week. Monday morning waking up with Trevor’s head cradled in her lap and a hangover was the worst way to start the week. She felt fuzzy, sick and confused.

She pulled into the gate of AIF and onto the gravel drive that led to the cluster of buildings. Gravel popped under her tires as she came to a slow stop. Instead of heading down past the office buildings, hangars and grass runway to the cabin she and Em shared, Callie parked in front of the library and stepped out.

She was already ten minutes late for Em’s weekly Monday morning pep talk so there was no time for a shower and hangover breakfast. Instead of heading inside though, Callie stood for a moment. There was a cool breeze blowing in from the west with the faintest hint of spring’s earthy scent. Dew sparkled on the grass around the buildings. Mowing would need to start soon. More work and they were already running themselves ragged. At this rate, she’d be mowing by moonlight most weeks.

Callie shaded her eyes and looked at the office, the Canteen and her shop. The sun’s rays bounced off the gray metal buildings making them sparkle along with the dew. The blue and red trim would need to be repainted before September. More to-dos. They never ended. It could get frustrating or overwhelming at times, but it was better than the alternative. Losing it all. When Callie looked at all the beauty and memories around her, fear of losing it all grew exponentially.

Callie took a deep breath and allowed herself a moment—just a moment—to dwell on what might happen if they lost AIF. Without AIF Callie would have nothing, be nothing. Em would be able to get work in any library, no problem. Mary, AIF’s longtime secretary, could get clerical work anywhere, or just retire. Without AIF, Callie was hopeless. She had no transferable skills and there weren’t exactly a lot of jobs out there for an antique airplane mechanic who hadn’t been able to finish community college.

But it went beyond her ability to earn a living. She could imagine Gramps sitting in his attic office, his dogs lying in varying positions around him, magazines and letters piled up everywhere. When she pictured her grandfather, it was always there. Always here.

Losing AIF meant she would have lost everything that had ever been home, and everything that had ever been family.

She crossed the gravel drive to the library. It was a repurposed house—her aunt and uncle’s old house before they’d moved to Alaska. As kids, Callie, Em and Lawson had camped out in the backyard and snuck into the hangars late at night. The Baker grandkids, the future of AIF.

At the thought of her cousin, Callie’s mood darkened. Lawson should have come home years ago, but his newly ex-wife’s acting career in L.A. had kept him and his two sons far away.

If he would just come home, things would be so much easier. He would take over Gramps’s role like he’d always wanted, and she and Em wouldn’t be stretched so thin. The boys would be able to help out too.

But they wouldn’t come, so it was a waste of time standing on the porch of the library wishing it could be. All Callie could do was control the here and now. Callie stepped into the library. What was once a TV room and bedroom separated by a wall was now a big, open room with shelves of colorful books on aviation lining three of the four walls. Five long tables stood on gleaming wood floors and sunlight streamed in through big picture windows. The wood-paneled walls not hidden by bookshelves were covered in prints of antique planes, watercolors of the airport itself, and other knick-knacks that gave nod to the overreaching purpose of AIF. Keep the Antiques Flying.

To the left, Em sat at a big, old desk looking over some paperwork. Mary sat stretched out in an armchair. For the past two years, it had been the three of them working their asses off to keep things going. Callie smiled a little. Maybe they hadn’t always succeeded, and maybe they wouldn’t always, but she had to be proud of what they’d accomplished since Gramps died.

“There you are,” Em greeted with her perpetually sunny smile. “How are Trevor and Shelby holding up?”

“About as well as can be expected.”

Mary held out a bagel and a bottle of water. “Lifesaver.” Callie took a long gulping drink of the water. “What did I miss?”

“Well.” Em and Mary exchanged looks Callie couldn’t read, but she didn’t need to know what the look was about to know what it meant. Something she wouldn’t like.

“Well?”

“We were actually talking about…” Mary trailed off and stared down at her aging Metallica T-shirt. Most would look at Mary with her shaggy mop of graying brown hair, clear green eyes, and love of heavy metal and not pin her over sixty. Though Mary kept her exact age a secret, Callie knew she had to be pushing seventy-five.

“Trevor,” Em finished, obviously working hard to keep her smile bright and innocent.

Callie looked from Mary to Em, frowned. “What about Trevor?”

Em stood behind the big desk. With her wavy blonde hair, big blue eyes and long, flowing skirts she looked like some kind of hippie angel. To Callie it was a constant marvel they shared any DNA at all.

“We were just talking about how he’s probably staying in Pilot’s Point for a little bit, right?”

“Yeah.” Callie bit into the bagel, not sure why this topic was making her uncomfortable. “Until he gets Shelby off to college anyway,” she added through a mouthful of food.

Mary perked up in her chair, looking at Em again. They were practically having a telepathic conversation, but Callie wasn’t in the mood to decipher.

“That’d be August or even September, right?” Em asked, shuffling some papers on her desk.

“Yeah.”

“And I assume since he’s going back to Seattle in the fall he’s not working while he’s home?”

Callie closed her eyes. The food and drink were not helping at all and the headache drummed louder. “Would you two spit out whatever you’re planning so I can decide whether or not I need to warn Trevor.”

“Nothing to warn him about.” Em gave a dismissive wave. “We thought maybe he could help out around AIF. As a volunteer.”

Callie’s shoulders hunched up to her ears. The idea was a good one, but she inexplicably felt weird about it. “Trevor is clueless when it comes to planes.”

“Yeah, but he could run a mower, paint trim, and so on. All those little things we’re always struggling to make time for.”

All those things Callie had just been dreading. It would be nice to have someone around to take up the grunt work so they could focus on the important stuff. But Trevor? For some reason the idea of him underfoot day in and day out had her feeling a little unsure.

“Trevor’s mom just died. He’s trying to get Shelby graduated.”

“Yes, but Shelby still has two months of school and Trevor’s sitting around in that house by himself for most of the day.” For the first time, Em’s eyes met hers. As it always did, the bright blue depths reminded Callie of their father. A man Em could barely remember, and these days, it was getting harder and harder for Callie to remember clearly. But, she’d always remember those eyes.

Mary spoke into the silence. “We need help, Callie. And Lawson, well…” Mary trailed off again, sharing Callie’s pessimism about the last Baker grandchild returning to his rightful place.

“Lawson will come home,” Em interjected with a determined nod. “He’s working on full custody right now, and then Sue can’t keep him from moving back.”

This time it was Callie and Mary who exchanged looks. Callie figured Mary was thinking the same thing she was. I’ve heard that before.

“In the meantime, though,” Em continued, not meeting either skeptical look, “Trevor would be a tremendous help.”

“What makes you think he’ll agree to volunteer to be our grunt worker?”

“You.” Em smiled sweetly. “You could convince Trevor to do just about anything.”

Callie scoffed and shoved the rest of her bagel into her mouth.

“Oh, come on. That boy’d do anything for you, and you know it.”

Callie swallowed, tried to ignore the way the unease was building, settling in her gut like a hard, tense rock. “Hardly.”

“Remember in high school when he convinced Mr. Martin you weren’t cheating on that test? Or when he broke Frank Winston’s nose after…” Em trailed off, wisely choosing not to finish that thought.

Callie couldn’t stop from finishing the thought in her head, though. Trevor had broken Frank Winston’s nose after Frank had convinced her to have sex with him only days after her grandmother’s funeral and then dumped her five minutes after he’d taken her virginity. And, like an idiot, she’d whined to Trevor about it and he’d had to get up on his white horse.

“What about when he was working for County and you got in that bar fight with Sheila Evans and he convinced everyone involved not to press charges?”

“Or—”

“I get the picture.” Callie held up a hand in hopes they would stop rehashing the litany of ways Trevor had saved her ass over the years. “First of all, I want to point out that the fight with Sheila was in no way my fault. Second, don’t all those events illustrate that maybe I shouldn’t manipulate a guy who’s done a lot for me into mowing our grass and hauling our trash?”

Em let out a lengthy sigh. “In another lifetime, maybe. In this lifetime, we need to manipulate anyone we can.”

It wasn’t often Em let enough realism in to admit that. Dejection infiltrated the room, weighing on all of their shoulders.

Callie looked from Em’s sad expression to Mary’s disconcerted frown and made a particular effort to smile and lighten the mood. “Adding a guy to this trio of female awesomeness might be a problem.”

Buoyed, Em laughed. “True, it might upset the delicate balance of kick-butt estrogen, but I’m afraid we might need some testosterone around here.”

Callie snorted. “Please. We do not need a man’s help.”

“Okay, it doesn’t have to be testosterone,” Em amended equitably. “But we definitely need help of any variety. I don’t really care where Trevor falls in terms of gender. I just know we need his help.”

“Fine. I’ll ask him.” Callie hunched her shoulders again at the thought of asking Trevor for yet another favor in a lifetime of favors. “But if he says no—”

“You’ll have to find a way to make him say yes,” Mary finished. “Maybe you could seduce him.”

“Mary!”

“What?” She smiled, wiggling her graying eyebrows. “Might be a fun way to help out good old AIF.”

“So much for girl power,” Callie muttered. As if seducing Trevor would ever work. And if it would? Callie shook her head. She was losing her mind. “I’ve got to take a shower. I’d like to get my to-do list done before sundown so I can get some work done on the Stearman.”

“You really think you’ll have it ready by the fly-in?”

“I better. Best chance to sell it.”

Em chewed her lip. “Callie, we don’t have to sell it. You and Dad both soloed—”

Callie held up her hand. “Once I get it running again, we’re selling it. Think what we could do with the money.”

“But—”

“I’m going to grab a shower. I’ll call Trevor this afternoon and see what he’s up for. Later, ladies.”

End of discussion. She’d already made her peace with selling a plane that held so much sentiment. One plane was no match for all of AIF.

Em followed her out onto the porch.

“Leave me alone, Em.”

“This isn’t about the plane.” Em followed Callie’s hurried stride away from the library. “It’s about Billie’s wedding.”

“I don’t give two shits about Billie’s wedding. She’s your friend. Not mine.”

“I know, but I thought I’d warn you. Frank’s a groomsman. The groomsman I’m paired up with.”

Callie stopped short, her stomach pitching. “You can’t be serious.”

“I know Frank’s a total jackass for what he did to you, but it was a long time ago. I don’t want you to get all riled up about this. It’s one night, one little walk down an aisle. No big deal, but I didn’t want someone blabbing it around in town like it was, especially since it’s three months away.”

Frank Winston would not be putting his hands anywhere near her sister. In three months or in three years, but Callie had other things to focus on at the moment. She managed her best reassuring smile and patted Em on the arm. “No big deal, sis.”

Em’s worried frown deepened. “I know there’s going to be trouble whenever you call me sis.”

Callie couldn’t fight a wicked grin. “I guess we’ll find out in three months. Right now, I have got to get in the shower.”

 

 

Trevor pulled into the lot of AIF not quite sure what he was going to accomplish. He’d spent the entire day trying to maneuver around Shelby’s unpredictable outbursts of tears. He didn’t even have to say anything and she’d start crying.

It made sense a teenage girl would be prone to emotional outbursts after losing her mom. Trevor just wished he knew what to do about them. Especially when she would go on and on about how good it was to have him home. Where he belonged.

Why couldn’t Shelby see he didn’t belong in Pilot’s Point? He belonged at work. Where women didn’t cry all over him looking for comfort or expect him to know what to do when a boy called the house asking for his sister. He’d rather face a man with a gun.

He was grasping at straws by asking for Callie’s help, but at least if she failed too he’d have someone to commiserate with.

He parked outside the metal building of Callie’s shop, knowing she’d be there despite the workday being over. The sun was beginning to set and the air was beginning to cool. It was nice to be out of the house, to be outside, to be somewhere that didn’t remind him of his parents.

The fields of green grass at AIF reminded him of summer as a kid. AIF would always remind him of those carefree days before life had gotten so complicated.

Trevor stepped up to the threshold of the shop. The door was open and he peeked inside. Callie was on a stepladder bent over a large, black engine of some sort. Though she faced him, her gaze was so intent on the plane, she didn’t notice his presence.

She looked peaceful, which wasn’t a common look for Callie. She’d looked so sad last night when she’d talked about AIF’s possible future, and though he understood how much AIF meant to her, seeing her in a rare moment of peaceful fulfillment reminded him of exactly that and of how much she had already lost.

It didn’t seem right to show up asking for a favor when she had so much on her hands already. Maybe he could figure out a way to deal with Shelby on his own.

He thought of Shelby’s tears soaking the shoulder of his shirt over lunch. Okay, no, he couldn’t do it on his own.

Em’s sunny, soothing voice broke through Trevor’s thoughts. She was standing off to the side with her back to him, talking to Callie. Callie’s face was intent on the engine as she worked to screw something in. They didn’t seem to realize he was in the doorway, and for some reason he didn’t speak up. Instead he watched the two half-sisters talk.

They were a clichéd image of dark and light. Em with her blonde curls and blue eyes. She was shorter and rounder than Callie. A feminine contrast in a floral, floaty skirt and pink fussy top, to Callie who wore jeans and a black T-shirt liberally smudged with grease along with her forearms and face.

Then there was demeanor. Em was calm and elegant grace—kind, sweet, thoughtful. He’d never met anyone who didn’t like Emerson Baker, or anyone who wasn’t surprised over her and Callie sharing a father.

“I’m just saying my da—Tom could talk to Dana on our behalf,” Em said, standing in the middle of the greasy chaos of the shop looking pristine and untouched.

Trevor watched Callie’s face. The peace melted away into resentment, presumably over the fact Em called her stepfather dad.

“I don’t need Tom or anyone to intervene. I can handle it. I have another meeting with her tomorrow. I’ll get it figured out.”

“Callie, please don’t be upset over this. I’m trying to do what’s best. We have to get this permit.”

Callie’s mouth hardened into a thin line, her gaze glued to the engine in front of her. Her muscles tensed as she worked with something difficult. “I know.”

Since Trevor didn’t know what they were talking about, he tuned the rest of their conversation out and watched Callie. There was a kind of grim focus he found ridiculously appealing. As much as Em and Callie were contradictions, Callie was a contradiction herself. Those hard lines softened by round curves, masculine work somehow made alluring because she was doing it.

Either it was about ninety degrees hotter in the shop than it was outside or emotional distress was no match for his hormones.

He’d only been home for a week and already the next six months seemed like forever. And it wasn’t just busybody neighbors, crying sisters and nothing to do that was getting to him.

It was new Callie. There had always been reasons to ignore his attraction to old Callie. She was too wild, too unpredictable, but mostly, Callie Baker had always scared him. All those repressed hurts and desperate attempts at masking pain. He’d never known what to do with it all except help when she got in trouble, or ride out the storm by her side as she tried to transform her grief into something else.

Getting closer always seemed too much of a risk, and he preferred to take his risks when he was legally authorized to carry an assault rifle and wear a bulletproof vest.

But new Callie wasn’t quite as scary, and that was a problem. Because whether she had finally healed or not, getting mixed up in some fulfillment of teenage fantasy would only make things more complicated when he had to leave.

“Going to stand there staring all night?” Callie called out, not bothering to look up.

Em turned, her confusion quickly turning into a warm smile. “Trevor. We didn’t see you there.” She crossed over to him, resting her hand on his arm. “How are you doing?”

Trevor watched as Callie rolled her eyes. New Callie still wasn’t perfect. Thank God for that.

“I’m doing all right. Thanks for asking. And thanks for the casseroles. Shelby mentioned you and your mom have been keeping her fed the past few weeks. It means a lot to us.”

“No problem. How is Shelby?”

Trevor looked up at Callie, thought about the reason for his visit. “She’s got a lot to deal with.”

Em nodded sympathetically. “Of course. Let me know if I can help with more than just food. I’d be glad to.”

Trevor looked down at his feet. “Sure thing.” Em would be more understanding, definitely more of a nurturing help than Callie, but Em had never lost her mother. In Trevor’s mind, the only option for honest to goodness help and understanding with Shelby was Callie.

“I’m going to head down to the cabin. Callie, we can talk about this tomorrow.”

Callie didn’t say anything, just nodded. On a sigh, Em left the shop.

“Before I came home I recall you mentioning you and Em were getting pretty close. That didn’t look like sisterly devotion.”

Callie tossed a tool into the box next to her, the clink of metal on metal echoing through the shop. “Not seeing eye to eye at the moment. It happens when you work with family.”

“I think it was more than that.”

Callie shrugged, continued to work on the plane. Trevor maintained his silence. If he knew Callie the explanation would come tumbling out if he only gave her a few moments to mull over it silently.

One… Two… Three….

“I hate that she always does that.” Callie gestured to where Em had disappeared. “Starts to say Dad then fixes it to Tom. Like I can’t deal with her calling him Dad. So, she’s completely forgotten our dad. So what? Her business.”

“Yeah, you’re dealing really well.”

She pointed her new tool at him, scowling. “Okay, maybe it pisses me off she gets to pretend our dad never existed. Maybe I’m almost thirty and I still get a little jealous that she got some semblance of a family and I’m left with…” Callie tossed the tool into the box, jumped off the stepladder and began to pace. “What is wrong with me?” she demanded before sinking onto a bench and covering her face with her hands. “What the hell is wrong with me?”

Well, shit. He just seemed to attract female hysterics. What he’d done to deserve this punishment he didn’t know, but it must have been bad to have Callie as the newest perpetrator.

“There’s nothing wrong with you.”

She looked up at him and scowled. “Don’t give me that placating bullshit.”

“Okay, so you’re not perfect.” Trevor sunk onto the bench next to her. “Who the hell is?”

She shook her head, and Trevor was glad she wasn’t crying. He’d only ever seen Callie cry at funerals and he was so not ready to deal with another female’s tears tonight.

“Things were so much easier before this whole ‘new leaf’ crap. I didn’t think about any of this. I drowned my sorrows in something else, and you know what? I liked it better. I liked it better than hurting all the time.” She rested her elbows on her knees, stared at the ground. “And if I thought AIF would survive, I’d go back to being a complete fuck-up. It was so much easier.”

Trevor draped his arm across her shoulders. “Personally, I like this new leaf a lot better than the old one.”

She looked up at him and there was that something. That something he’d been ignoring with Callie since he’d been thirteen and realized girls weren’t so gross after all. He’d kind of forgotten about that in the four years away, or maybe pushed it to the recesses of his mind. Now it was in the forefront again.

Trevor cleared his throat and looked at the doorway where the light was quickly disappearing. “You never thought back then. Now you’re thinking, and it’s probably harder, but I bet you come out the other side feeling a lot better. Maybe actually a little happier. Bad Girl Baker might have been easier, but she wasn’t happy.”

“Bad Girl Baker. Haven’t heard that one in a while.” He looked down at her and her lips were curved into a smile. “She wasn’t happy, but she wasn’t such a pansy ass. I miss feeling strong. I don’t want to be this depressed, pathetic, whiny mess.”

“There might be a happy medium between BGB and GGB.”

She chuckled. “GGB? Good Girl Baker?”

Trevor grinned down at her. “Yeah. You take the strength of BGB and the maturity of GGB and then maybe you’ve got a decent human being who feels the way a woman almost turning thirty should.”

“As ridiculous as that sounds, I think you might actually be on to something.” She smiled up at him, then his eyes rested on that sexy mouth.

Shit. He really needed to be careful about where exactly he looked when it came to Callie. Eager to change the subject, or at least the subject in his head, he blurted out the reason for his visit. “I need your help with Shelby.”

 

Trevor certainly knew how to pull the rug out from under her. Callie had forgotten that. Before he’d moved away how many times had she sat there thinking something was about to happen only to have him hammer her with something completely different?

Six months was going to feel like forever, but he just sat there trying to figure out her reaction, so Callie had to focus on this new topic. “You’re joking, right?”

“You know what she’s going through.”

Callie stood, needing to get some space. Needing to get his arm off her shoulders. “Trevor, I don’t remember my mom. And Dad died when I was eight. It’s different.”

“Maybe, but Callie…” He sat there looking so dejected and miserable she almost went back to sit next to him. “She just starts crying. We’ll be talking and out of nowhere. Bam. And she wants to go back to school tomorrow. How am I supposed to know what to do with all this? I need help. I need you.”

She turned to focus on the plane, sympathy making her uncomfortable and unsure. She didn’t want to be drawn into this. Not only would getting through to Shelby be nearly impossible, but even if she succeeded it meant rehashing her own loss.

“I know Shelby isn’t your biggest fan.”

“She hates my guts. Let’s not dance around that.”

“No. It’s not hate.”

Callie snorted. She was pretty familiar with people hating her, and Shelby was definitely on that long list.

“I was never a teenage girl without parents. You were. I need your help. I can’t do this alone.” He looked around the shop. “I know you’re swamped here, and I hate to put another thing on your shoulders but…”

There weren’t a whole lot of times in her life when she’d had the opportunity to help Trevor. Probably none where he’d ever come out and said he needed her. Mr. FBI Agent wasn’t big on needing what he couldn’t provide himself. Then there was the fact she still hadn’t asked him about her own favor. If she agreed to this maybe him helping out at AIF would be more of a fair trade. Not that she didn’t owe him already for a million past transgressions.

“Okay, fine, I’ll help, but I don’t know what you think I’ll be able to do. Grief is a personal thing. You have to get over it on your own. Opening up to people might help, not that I’d know, but I doubt Shelby will open up to me.”

“Hang out with us. She’ll warm up to you and then maybe, I don’t know. I’m playing this by ear, which you know I suck at.”

“Yeah.”

“Come over for dinner tomorrow night. We’ll sit around and talk. I’m not hoping for miracles, just some advice on what to do. I don’t know. I need help. You’re the best person for the job.”

What a joke. The only job she was best for was the one she’d been doing before Em and then Trevor had interrupted her. “Fine.”

He stood, crossed over and gave her a quick, friendly hug. “Thanks, Cal. You’re the best.”

She didn’t feel like the best. All that hope she’d gotten thinking maybe Trevor was right, maybe she could still be part of her old self, dissolved into feeling like a fake and a failure.

“Well, as long as you’re feeling all warm and fuzzy, I’ve got a favor to ask you myself.”

He was smiling, and it was a genuine one. Handsome and accommodating and, ugh, fucking perfect. So annoying.

“Before I ask, I want you to know this was Em and Mary’s idea. I thought it was a terrible one, but they insisted.”

“Spit it out.”

Callie pulled out a screwdriver, ran it through her fingers and kept her eyes on the tool as she explained. “Since you’re home for a few months and not working they thought maybe you’d be able to help out around here.”

“Sure. I’m surprised you didn’t think of it yourself.”

Callie frowned up at him. He wasn’t just genuinely smiling now, he was grinning. “You’ve got a lot going on.”

Trevor shrugged. “What better way to take my mind off of it than getting out of that damn house most days?”

Of course he would be happy to help. It was her who was the ungrateful bitch who didn’t ever feel comfortable doing anything for anyone else. “It’ll be all the crappy grunt work we don’t want to do or have time to do and we’re not paying you.”

His grin didn’t falter. “Good. I think crappy grunt work will be exactly what my mind needs.”

She turned to her plane. “That was a hell of a lot easier than having to seduce you,” she grumbled.

“I’m sorry, what?”

“Never mind. Just mumbling.” She reached up to examine the cowling, but Trevor’s hand rested on her shoulder, turned her around.

“No, I think I want to hear this explanation.”

“It was a joke.” Callie rolled her eyes and flung her arms in the air so his hand fell off her shoulder. “Mary thought if you said no I should seduce you. Ha ha. Get it?” It felt completely un-joke-like at the moment. So much so a warm blush crept into her cheeks.

“Well, maybe I’m sorry I was such an easy yes.”

“Oh, whatever.” She refused to examine the low, melty way he spoke or the little fluttery feeling in her stomach as a response. “Go home, Trev. We’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow.” He chuckled to himself all the way out the shop door, which left Callie scowling after him.

She had a bad feeling about this.

Chapter Three

Wearing a pink shift dress wasn’t why Callie was pissed off enough to punch something, though it was part of the reason. Pink. Even though the blazer she wore over it was black, the dress—borrowed from Em’s mom—was pink. A disgustingly pale, girly pink.

Her hair was down instead of pulled back. She’d worn a little makeup and had tried really hard to project a together, professional appearance.

But makeup and the damn dress hadn’t convinced Dana Caldwell that Callie was a responsible enough part owner of AIF and therefore worthy of the parking permit needed from the county for the fly-in. Dana was determined that if AIF was going to get anything, it would have to come through Callie begging on her hands and knees.

Not fucking likely.

Callie whipped her car into the AIF parking lot and slammed to a stop in front of the shop. She really needed to bang on something before she went to report to Em, because if she didn’t get some of the aggression out she was going to explode all over Em’s well-meaning concerns and questions.

Callie stomped all the way to the shop before remembering she was wearing borrowed clothes. A borrowed pink dress of all damn things. She couldn’t do any work dressed like that.

When she turned on a heel to go back to the car, she collided right into a hard wall of muscle. Trevor. He was in grungy clothes streaked with dirt from whatever work Em had him doing that afternoon, but Callie was in no mood to deal with anyone right now.

Let alone someone who looked all rumpled and handyman sexy and took in her appearance with wide-eyed amusement. “Holy—”

Callie pushed past him, anger vibrating. “Don’t say a word.”

“Seriously, you have to indulge me in at least a few comments. You are wearing a pink dress.”

“I know what I’m wearing.” She kept walking toward her car, and Trevor followed her.

“It’s cute. Who knew pink was your color? I might fall in love.”

Even as she was doing it, she knew spinning around with her fist cocked was not the right reaction, but frustration eroded any sense of listening to that reasonable part of her brain. Luckily, before her fist could connect with his jaw as she’d irrationally intended, Trevor snatched her wrist and pulled her arm behind her back.

“What the fuck?”

She looked at the green grass in front of her and tried to even out her heavy breathing and blink away the idiotic tears stinging her eyes. Everything was piling up and all the little holes she’d plugged over the past two years seemed to be springing leaks again.

Why couldn’t one damn thing go right?

It took a moment to realize Trevor was still holding her in place, his strong hand wrapped around her wrist. “You certainly got better at dodging a fist,” Callie muttered, hoping the snide comment would take away the threat of tears.

“FBI agents know how to avoid a punch. Besides, a guy generally only lets a girl clock him once before he learns how to avoid it. You got your one and only success senior year.”

Callie thought about that. Different reasoning but similar. Frustration at a boiling point. Trevor being there at the wrong time with the wrong comment. Didn’t she have a lovely habit of going after the few people who cared about her? On a tired sigh, Callie tried to free her arm. “You can let go of me now.”

“You sure about that?”

Callie drew in a breath and slowly let it out. “Yeah.”

He let her hand go and moved so they were facing each other. She was glad to see he was angry despite his calm voice. She deserved for him to be really angry.

Arms folded across his chest, his blue eyes stared at her with what she imagined was a look he’d honed in the FBI. It was the kind of look you gave criminals or scumbags. “Want to explain that little outburst?” he asked, his voice a calm contrast to the look.

“I’m sorry.”

Surprise softened the hard expression. “Well, that’s more than I got when you actually connected.” Then concern worked its way over his face and his arms dropped to his sides and Callie felt about an inch tall. “What’s up, Cal?”

“Just…” She would not cry. Not in front of Trevor. Not at all. She was not a crier. “Bad day.”

He cocked an eyebrow and she knew she wasn’t getting away without an explanation.

“Dana Caldwell is in charge of one of the permits we need for the fly-in. I’m supposed to get this permit, but Dana keeps finding ways to put me off.” Callie kicked a heel behind her and pulled off the stupid too-small shoe borrowed from Em. She repeated with the other foot until she stood in her bare feet on the grass.

“Wait a second. Dana Caldwell is Sheila Evans’s older sister.”

“I know.”

“The Sheila Evans who you—”

“I know. And I’m sure this is some sort of payback for all the horrible things I did to Sheila.”

“You didn’t do anything Sheila didn’t deserve or start. Except maybe the flyer with Sheila’s head on a cow’s body you hung all over the town.”

The laugh bubbled up past all the frustration and anger. Though the pit was still in her stomach, the edges around it were lighter. “I forgot about that one.”

“One of your best.” He grinned briefly before his expression turned serious. “It’s not legal for Dana to hold that against you and keep you from getting a permit.”

“Probably not, but she’s got last year’s disaster to use against me. We blocked a county road for upward of two hours. We’ve got a plan in place to fix the flow problem, but Dana’s got the upper hand. I just have to keep…” Callie swallowed hard. “Groveling.”

“Can I come the next time?” Trevor flashed another grin. “I’ve never seen you grovel.”

“Bite me. I’m going to change. Aren’t you supposed to be on your way home?”

Trevor glanced at his watch. “Shit. Yeah. Besides I can harass you about the dress tonight at dinner.”

“Oh, right.”

“In another situation I might feel sorry enough for you to let you off the hook, but you tried to throw a punch at me and I had to witness Shelby cry twice this morning before she left for school. I need reinforcements. Six o’clock. I’m cooking.”

“You’re cooking?”

“Yes. I discovered that if I make a really delicious meal for a woman, said woman will usually be impressed enough to sleep with me.” He winked before turning toward his car. “Not that I’m trying to sleep with you,” he called over his shoulder, still grinning. “Unless you wear that pink dress. Then I might consider it.”

She hefted a shoe at him, but he easily dodged it so it landed with a thump on the grass in front of his car.

It made no sense that she stood there smiling as he drove off.

 

 

Whistling, Trevor shoved a key into the deadbolt only to realize the door was unlocked. Shelby must have beaten him home. Damn. He couldn’t be the super-sensitive, great advice giver, but he wanted to at least be there when she got home from school.

It had been hard to leave AIF, though. For the first time in weeks he’d felt useful. He could forget about the dark shadows hanging around the Steele house, reminding him of things that would never be again. He’d smiled, sweated, enjoyed his day. Enjoyed it more when he got sight of Callie in the silly pink dress.

Trying to loosen his already-tensing shoulders, Trevor stepped into the living room. Shelby was standing by the ancient answering machine, her backpack still on her shoulders. When she looked over her shoulder at him, there wasn’t that soul-crushing sadness in her eyes.

Nope. She looked downright pissed.

“Hey, sorry I’m late.”

Shelby didn’t say a word, just hit a button on the answering machine.

“Steele.” That was all it took for Trevor to recognize the voice of his boss, and realize whatever the man had to say Shelby had already heard, and whatever she’d heard meant he was in deep shit.

“This is Robbins. I’ve tried you on your cell a few times. No response. Probably no reception in the middle of nowhere. We need your signature on those LOA papers I emailed you two days ago. No Internet in Timbuk Nowheresville? Give me a call.”

Trevor remained silent after the beep, but as much as he wanted to he didn’t drop his gaze when Shelby turned to glare at him.

“I may not be up on all the FBI lingo, but I’m pretty sure LOA means leave of absence.”

Trevor shoved his hands into his pockets, tried to come up with a decent response. “Yeah.” It was the best he had.

“You told me you quit.” Her voice went up a decibel, wobbled, but she wasn’t crying. Yet.

“No.” He was digging himself a bigger hole, but how else could he respond? “I never said that.”

Shelby’s mouth fell open in silenced outrage.

“I never said I quit. You assumed—”

“Are you serious right now?” Her backpack fell to the floor with a hard thud. Anger was better than crying. Kind of.

“Shelby, come on. Let me explain.”

She stomped over to the couch and sank into it, folding her arms over her chest. “This better be good.” Her shoulders were back, those blue eyes a reflection of anger, and she looked so much like their mom in that moment his heart physically hurt.

Swallowing against memories of times his mother had uttered those exact words, Trevor sat down next to her. Did he have a good explanation? Not really. “I couldn’t just quit.”

“I don’t see why not.”

He rested his hand on her knee before she jerked it away. “The bottom line is I have to figure out what I’m going to do. I can’t live off of what Mom and Dad left. That’s for you.”

“But—”

“It’s a leave of absence. I’m not expecting you to be on your own once I go back. I’ve got it all worked out. We can keep the house; it’s paid off. You can come here whenever you want. On breaks and stuff, you’ll come stay with me in Seattle. The apartment is kind of small, but I can get a bigger one.”

“Seattle is half a country away. Pilot’s Point is my home.”

“I know.” Trevor patted her knee. “I know. Like I said, you can come back whenever you want. We can even do Christmas here. You can’t expect me to…” How did he say the rest without coming off the selfish older brother? Was it possible? Maybe that’s just what he was.

“I’m already giving up six months of my life, and I’m not doing any more undercover work all so I can be around if you need me.” Trevor shoved fingers through his hair, frustrated he couldn’t get through to her. Why couldn’t she see he had a life to lead that didn’t involve being her guardian?

Trevor let out a long breath. Could he be more of a dick? Still, the bottom line remained. Pilot’s Point had nothing for him. “I have a great job that I love. You won’t be here nine months out of the year and if you want a decent job, you won’t come back to Pilot’s Point after you graduate college. You have to see this is the best choice for both of us.”

When she was silent, he looked up. The anger on her face hadn’t subsided. If anything, it intensified. “You let me believe you were staying for good.”

Yes, he had. To protect her. Or because it was easier that way. “I thought that’s what you needed.” Her fists were clenched in her lap and Trevor knew his explanation hadn’t changed anything.

“I need the truth!” She jumped to her feet and stood in front of him, looking too young and vulnerable to be in his clumsy care. “I’m a mess right now, but I just lost my mom.” She fisted a hand at her heart, tears getting ready to fall. He couldn’t face them as she continued. “I’m eighteen, prom is in three weeks, AP tests in a month, then graduation. My mom is dead. I deserve to be a mess without you trying to shelter me with lies.”

“Shelby—”

“You’re a terrible brother, you know that?” She wagged her finger in his face. “I used to make excuses for you because you were so much older and because you wanted to get out so bad, but…” She waved her arms wildly in the air. “It’s you.” With every you she shoved a finger into his face. “You’ve always cared more about yourself, everyone else, over your family. For as long as I can remember Callie Baker has meant more to you than any of your own flesh and blood. And I think that’s horrible.”

She stomped over to her backpack and hefted it onto her shoulder. On her way toward the stairs she fixed him with the meanest glare he’d ever seen Shelby muster, worse than anything she’d ever given Callie.

“I hate you,” she said in a low, controlled voice, but the control quickly broke. “I hope you go back to Seattle tomorrow!” She stormed up the stairs, the rapid fire of her running footsteps soon punctuated by the loud slam of the door.

Trevor sat, not sure what to do. The words hurt. As much as he’d like to leave it at that, there was more to it. She was right.

Time passed and Trevor didn’t move. Part of him thought—hoped—Shelby would come back down. He knew he should go up to her, but a heavy weight kept him locked on the couch.

He’d underestimated how hard this was going to be, and he’d known it would be one of the hardest things he’d ever done.

Prom, AP tests, graduation, college.

Honesty, tears, distance, inferiority to the task.

His mother was gone and more than grief, he felt resentment toward all she left behind. That knowledge only made the guilt stab deeper, sharper.

After an hour of staring at a wall, rendered immobile by the intensity and conflict of emotion, Trevor forced himself off the couch. His cell service was patchy, so he used the home line to call Robbins and explain that no, he hadn’t checked his email, but yes Bumfuck, Iowa, did offer high speed Internet.

Then he’d gone to the kitchen to start dinner, but the sight of his mother’s kitchen, so meticulously kept, so ruthlessly white, left him feeling immobile and hollowed out all over again.

She wasn’t here to soothe away the problems. To make dinner, to keep the house freakishly clean. She was gone, but he couldn’t even grieve right. All those things she was supposed to do were now his responsibility. He didn’t have time to miss her.

When the doorbell rang, Trevor moved into the living room feeling like some outward force was moving his body. It wasn’t until he saw Callie on his doorstep that he remembered she was coming.

“Not one crack about the…” She trailed off, her brows furrowing into concern. “Whoa. What happened to you?”

“Callie, hey. Um, I’m sorry. I think we’re going to have to take a rain check on dinner.”

“What happened?”

Trevor let out a long breath. He didn’t know how to explain it. More, he didn’t want to explain it, because it meant admitting some crappy stuff about himself. “Shelby’s pretty pissed at me right now. I don’t think your presence at dinner would help the situation any.”

Callie leaned against the doorframe giving no indication she was going to go and let things be. “Why is she pissed at you?”

Trevor swallowed, but there was a discomfort in his throat that made it hard to complete the action. “She found out I’m on a leave of absence, not home for good.”

“Ouch.”

Trevor shook his head. “I guess it’s best it came out now.” Why was his voice so uneven, his hands not quite steady? He cleared his throat and tried to get a handle on what was working through him.

Callie rested her hands on his shoulders, but he still couldn’t pull together enough control to make out any more words. When she pulled him into a hug, he simply rested his chin on her shoulder and closed his eyes.

Real men didn’t cry. How many times had his parents stressed that Steeles didn’t cry? It was a horrifying thought that the lump in his throat was some kind of precursor to that. He’d just hold on to Callie until the feeling passed.

“Um, it’s going to be okay, you know?”

Leave it to Callie’s attempt at comfort to help him regain a little control. Trevor pulled back and managed a smile. “Sure.”

“I’ll go talk to her.”

He wanted to hug her again, because he knew that was the last thing she wanted to do. “No, not now.” He wanted to leave it at that, but as he turned into the house, the memory of Shelby’s words sharpened in his gut again. “She said I was a crappy brother.”

“That’s not tr—”

“No, it is true.” Trevor didn’t turn around to face Callie, instead he looked at the picture of his parents on the mantel of the fireplace. They smiled at him, and he felt those opposing forces that had driven him away. “Mom and Dad always put so much pressure on me. I got out whenever I could. I pushed them and Shelby away. I shut them all out. I hung out with you or got a job halfway across the country. I got tired of always having to be better. Sometimes I just wanted to be what I was.”

She rested her hand on his shoulder. “Let’s order a pizza, watch the game. Then one of us will go talk to Shelby.”

A diversion. It was definitely what he needed. “No, I said I was going to cook. I’ll cook.” Hopefully it would take his mind off of everything to do something. “You can help.”

When he turned to face her, the skeptical smirk was almost enough to make him chuckle. “Okay, you can watch.”

 

 

Shelby sat at her desk, staring blindly at the homework in front of her. Tears blurred her vision. Hearing the sounds of dinner being made and two voices—one male and one female—reminded her of a time when both her parents had been alive. It made her so sad she didn’t know what to do except cry.

Mom always yelled at her when she cried, saying it was a sign of weakness, but Shelby was giving herself some reprieve. Mom had cried after Dad died, even if she’d tried to hide it.

Shelby immediately recognized the female voice as Callie’s. At the moment, she hated Callie and Trevor with a painful rage, hate and desperation twisting inside her.

For as long as Shelby could remember, Callie had been a sore point in the Steele household. The only real arguments she could remember her parents having had been over Callie’s influence on Trevor. In fact, it was the last thing they’d fought about before Dad died.

Shelby had always hated Callie’s ability to cause argument in her family. It had been a childish hate at first, but it had grown with her. She didn’t care if Callie had turned over a new leaf, and neither had Mom. They’d both been convinced Callie was rotten at the core. On those rare occasions Shelby had been foolish enough to think Callie was actually changing, Mom would remind her that no matter what happened, Calloway Baker was simply no good.

Why Trevor or Dad had never seen that was anyone’s guess. Maybe men just being stupid.

Laughter floated up through the vent and Shelby scowled down at it. Maybe Callie didn’t have anything to do with Trevor going back to Seattle, but she did have something to do with stealing him away while he was home.

The fallen tears had blurred away the work of at least two of her physics problems. In a fit of anger, Shelby ripped the paper out of her notebook and crumpled it into a little ball.

It wasn’t fair. She’d had such a great day at school. It had started off awkward and weird, but then Dan kind of swooped in and saved her, acting like nothing happened in the two weeks she’d been gone. He’d been like a knight in shining armor or whatever, and stuck by her side the entire day trying to make everything as normal as possible.

He’d walked her to her car after school and asked if she wanted to go to prom with him. Though tears still dampened her cheeks, Shelby smiled at the memory of him telling her if she didn’t want to go to prom, he’d still want to hang out with her on prom night. Best of all, he’d told her to take her time deciding.

Like he really liked her. Shelby had been so excited all the way up to the moment she pulled into the driveway at home and realized Mom wouldn’t be at the house to share her excitement. So she’d cried and cried and cried.

Then she’d gone inside, ready to cry on Trevor’s shoulder and tell him all about her day and feel some of the comfort that came from an adult presence. But he hadn’t been home. He’d been off at AIF. With Callie.

She’d listened to the messages and Trevor had walked in looking happy. Everything had crumbled into a haze of fury at that point.

Anger and sadness melded together to make her feel sick and upset all over again. Was this how life would be from now on? Even the happy stuff would be ruined by all this loss?

Trevor was all she had left and he didn’t want her. He wanted Seattle. He wanted to help Callie. He wanted everything but what his little sister needed. Anger began to overtake the sadness, and Shelby liked that better. She liked anything better than feeling sad all the damn time.

Shelby used her palms to wipe the tears off her cheeks. She was going to be valedictorian, go off to UNI, then write Trevor off for good. There were plenty of people in the world who had no one in their lives and they survived just fine. Let him go back to Seattle. She’d survive.

Besides, Dan was going to UNI in the fall too. Maybe going to prom would turn into, like, a real relationship so she could at least have someone.

“Hey.”

Shelby’s head snapped up to see Callie standing in her bedroom doorway. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“Here in your house or here in your room?” Callie asked casually, unaffected by Shelby’s angry demand.

“Both. Neither.” Shelby focused on the anger, mustered her best withering look. “I know why you’re here.” She stopped abruptly when Callie crossed her room and shoved a plate of food at her. Shelby stared at it, but Callie shoved again.

“Take it.”

Not sure what else to do, Shelby followed directions.

“So, why am I here?”

Shelby looked down at the plate, then set it on her desk. She tried to remember the speech she’d practiced giving Callie the night of the funeral, but came up empty. She focused on finding the best way to get Callie gone. Mix the truth with total disdain. “Trevor thinks you have some sort of insight into how I’m feeling. I knew you weren’t the brightest, Callie, but I gave you more credit than this.”

Callie didn’t say anything, just arched an eyebrow.

Shelby pretended she was trying to teach something to a dimwitted five-year-old. “Do you really think you of all people can help me through this?”

“No, I don’t.” Callie shrugged like it didn’t matter. None of Shelby’s meanest insults seemed to be penetrating Callie’s unusually affable demeanor.

“Then why are you in my room?” Shelby didn’t like the way Callie studied her schoolbooks or the pictures on the wall. She didn’t like Callie’s tall body taking up space in the small, feminine room Mom had helped decorate after Dad died. It was one of Shelby’s favorite memories, painting and picking out bedding with Mom.

“I do know what you’re going through. Regardless of my social or intellectual status.”

Shelby turned to her homework. “You don’t know anything about me.”

“Maybe, but you probably went back to school today because you hoped it’d be a distraction. It probably wasn’t as easy as you thought. Because after something like this happens, people treat you differently. It’s worse in high school.” Callie paused, and when Shelby snuck a sideways glance at her, she noticed Callie was frowning and looking at the ground.

It was weird seeing Callie act unsure, almost vulnerable, but Shelby refused to soften, even as Callie continued.

“I had friends who were so uncomfortable they would ignore me altogether. I was younger, but when my grandma died your brother was the only one who treated me the same. Not like I was a leper or a charity case. He was probably one of the few things that got me through.”

Shelby didn’t want Callie of all people to understand, but it seemed she did. Still, Shelby held on to the resentment that Trevor had given Callie comfort, but he’d failed her. Except failed wasn’t the right word. He’d been letting her cry all over him since the funeral. But he’d lied to her. He obviously didn’t want to be around her.

Forgetting her previous mission to write off Trevor, Shelby focused on the fact Callie always managed to get her hooks into Trevor and steal him away. Like Mom always said. Callie had some kind of unhealthy hold on Trevor, and it was their job to break it.

Realizing Callie was studying her in the silence, Shelby shot her a nasty look. “Maybe I have better taste in friends than you did.” Nope, but Callie didn’t need to know that.

“Maybe.” Callie shrugged again, didn’t seem hurt by the statement. “Look, I know you have it in your head that I’m not good enough to take out your trash. Your family is into the college thing and the law-abiding do-gooder thing and I never fit that mold, so I get it. I’m not good enough for Trevor so you hate the fact we’re friends. I’m willing to put that aside and help you if you need it. Maybe you don’t.”

Maybe some of that were true, but not all of it. Maybe Shelby did need help, but not from Callie. Not from some community college dropout loser. “Why would you want to help me?”

“Because I figure after everything your brother has done for me, I owe him.”

“Good to know this isn’t actually about me then.” Shelby poked at the food on her plate with a fork.

“You’ve been nothing but a bitch to me your whole life. Why would it be about you?”

Shelby had no earthly clue why that made her want to smile. She refused to indulge. “Whatever. I’m fine. I don’t need your pity or help.”

“Fair enough, but if you change your mind you know where to find me.” Slowly, Callie made her way out of the room. Shelby did her best to bite her tongue, but half the question tumbled out like it had a will of its own. “Do you think…?”

Callie stood in her doorway, knob still in hand. She didn’t prompt or leave, just stood there.

Two choices: tell Callie to leave and ignore the burning curiosity to get someone’s opinion who knew what it was like or to take a chance that Callie might be honest and give her some perspective.

She was too emotionally wrung out to suppress anymore, so, keeping her eyes glued to the plate of food, Shelby went ahead and asked. “Do you think if I go to prom it’ll be weird and awkward?”

Callie was quiet for a moment as if she was giving it some serious thought. Shelby wished she’d kept her stupid mouth shut. She wished Callie would answer the question already.

“It’s your senior prom. If you want to go, it shouldn’t matter if other people are weird or awkward about it. I regret not going to mine.” Callie smiled, but it was a nasty kind of smile. “But you’re so much smarter and better than I am, maybe you wouldn’t regret it.”

“Maybe I’m a bitch to you because you’re such a bitch to me.”

“Maybe, but I don’t think that’s it.”

No, it wasn’t. She’d been nasty because Mom hadn’t liked Callie. Mom had always been nice to Callie’s face though, and Shelby thought someone should act how they felt.

“Well, see you around, Shelby. If you have any other questions, you can ask, even if you’re bitchy about it. Your brother is desperate to know what to do with you, so I’ll answer.”

The sentiment was nice in a veiled way, but it filled Shelby with guilt over what she’d said to Trevor earlier. Maybe he really was trying, maybe he did actually care, and maybe she should cut him some slack. He was, after all, giving up a big portion of his life to be there for her, even if it was only for a short period of time.

Shelby scowled down at the plate of food. She really hated Callie Baker. That woman always ruined everything.

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