His Best Friend’s Sister in the Show Me State

 

Chapter 1

The confounded ringing wouldn’t stop.

Preston Harding batted groggily in the direction of his head.

Where was he anyway?

A bottle clanked on the floor, falling off the couch on which he was lying—was it his living room? Or someone else’s?

He winced at the clanking glass which seemed unnaturally loud.

His head throbbed.

The ringing came again, and he grimaced as pain shot through his skull, pulling at the back of it, tightening the skin of his forehead and neck, before shooting down through his chest and aching in his legs.

He needed a drink.

He needed the restroom.

And he needed that accursed ringing to go away.

He cracked his eyes and the room spun, like it was floating around in space.

He closed his eyes again. This was his house.

The idea that maybe he shouldn’t have drunk as much as he had last night probably should have crossed his mind, but it didn’t.

He’d been blissfully free from the pain of witnessing his best friend’s death for the entire evening, and the physical pain and discomfort he was experiencing now was well worth the cost.

Did he have another bottle in the cupboard?

If not, priority number one for the day was to go get one. Priority number two: drink as much of it as he could before lunchtime.

That would make the afternoon at least bearable.

The pain, more intense and sharper now that he was waking up, shot through him as the ringing began again.

He finally realized it was the doorbell.

Who would be ringing his doorbell?

His best friend Andrew would just walk in.

And…and he couldn’t think of another person who would actually want to see him.

Eyes that were so light brown they were almost golden ran through his mind.

She was in town, although for how long he didn’t know since she was a hospice nurse, and Mr. Hudson, her last patient, had just passed away.

She wouldn’t be coming to see him anyway.

Athena couldn’t stand him.

Even if she was his best friend’s sister. Andrew would shoot him before he’d let Preston anywhere near his sister in the condition that Preston was currently in.

The ringing started again, and Preston groaned.

It was probably somebody selling something. Why wouldn’t they just go away?

His hand reached out and patted along the floor. He couldn’t remember if there was anything left in his bottle or not. It had sounded pretty empty when it hit the ground, but maybe his luck would hold, and there’d be a couple swallows to tide him over.

Maybe if he could just get a drink, he could manage to get himself up and at least open the door and yell—in a whisper in respect for his head—at whoever was refusing to go away.

Didn’t they know he wasn’t answering the door for a reason?

Didn’t it ever occur to them that maybe he didn’t want to have any visitors?

Preston didn’t often get disgusted with himself, but he kinda did at that point.

Shane would be disappointed in him.

Andrew, Shane, and he had been inseparable through their early twenties and done all kinds of dangerous things together. Three cocky daredevils, who thought they were invincible.

Then one day, they all found out they weren’t.

That was the day Shane fell off the rock wall they were climbing, ropeless climbing.

They’d listened to his yell echo the whole way to the bottom.

He could hear that yell even now in his head.

He could hear the abrupt way it cut off. Could still feel the pain that swamped over his body, the disbelief.

The shock that ripped between Andrew and him as they looked each other in the eye, knowing that seconds ago, everything was right in the world, and now, just mere heartbeats later, everything was wrong.

He wasn’t sure he’d taken a single breath since then without hurting.

The doorbell rang again, and words that he would never have said growing up tumbled off his lips.

Growling deep in his throat, he rolled off the couch rather than even trying to sit up.

Misjudging the edge, he landed on the floor on his stomach with a thump and a few more words that would make his mother cringe.

It wasn’t too uncomfortable. Maybe he’d stay here for a while. He put his forehead on the floor, grains of dirt digging into his skin.

He probably owned a broom, but he wasn’t sure where it was.

Now there was less time between each ring, like the person standing outside was getting impatient, like they knew he was in here and weren’t giving up until he answered. He didn’t know who it was, but he supposed Cowboy Crossing was a pretty small town, and even if he didn’t know the person at his door, if they’d stopped in town to ask about him, locals would have been able to say exactly where he lived and that he’d be there.

Depending on who they’d talked to, they might have even been told there was no point going out before noon.

And they probably would have heard that they’d have to ring the doorbell until he stumbled to answer it.

Expect to wait a while.

Not everyone in town would say that, but there were a few.

He should feel more remorse about that than he did.

He’d worked hard not to feel anything.

As long as he had enough alcohol, he was successful.

His head felt like it was going to explode. His mouth was dry as a stack of hay in the desert. He really needed the restroom, but he was going to get rid of this person at his door because they’d annoyed him to the point of anger.

He could almost hear his mother saying, other people don’t make you angry, you are in charge of your own feelings.

But he shoved that aside. No one else believed that rubbish, and he wasn’t going to either. He could blame the entire rest of the world for his problems.

And he would.

He dragged himself to his feet, leaning heavily on the coffee table before standing with his knees slightly bent and one hand holding his aching head.

Marshaling up all the resolve that he possibly could, he put one unsteady foot in front of the other and made his way to the door, banging his knee on the end table and knocking the lamp to the floor with a sharp clatter that reverberated like gongs through his head.

He didn’t give a flip about the light. He never used it anyway. All he cared about was getting rid of whoever was at his door.

He finally made it to the door, fumbling with the lock and jerking the door at least three times before he managed to unlock it and yank it open.

He barely registered that there were two women and a young boy between them before he growled, “What do you want?”

Then his eyes seemed to focus, and he swayed, shock ripping through him.

The one woman looked familiar, but he wasn’t focused on her.

Because Athena’s golden eyes, filled with disgust and disdain, stared back at him, and he forgot about his headache, his dry mouth, and all of his other problems until he realized how terrible he must look and what she saw.

His eyes narrowed, and black meanness bubbled up inside of him.

She looked down on him, and while she was right and he just couldn’t justify himself, she also couldn’t possibly understand the pain and the memories.