|A Test of Brotherhood
Author: AnneWithane PM
Steve Jamison left Sparta more than a decade ago, and has returned home with big trouble. Will his brother, now a cop, be able to figure out Steve's secret before his problems follow him all the way home?Rated: Fiction T - English - Drama - Chapters: 4 - Words: 16,567 - Reviews: 11 - Favs: 4 - Follows: 2 - Updated: 11-02-05 - Published: 08-06-04 - id: 2000957
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Parker stuffed a greasy onion ring in his mouth and sighed contentedly. He loved everything about Fat Eddie's – particularly the fact that not a single thing on the menu qualified as "heart-healthy." He also loved the feeling that this snug, familiar place was the true beating heart of Sparta – everyone ate at Fat Eddie's from time to time, which meant that anything worth knowing was going to be discussed at one of Fat Eddie's tables sooner or later. Parker made it a point to come to this place at least twice a week. It was the best way to know what was going on in his home town.
As a police officer, and as a citizen, Parker thought it was important to stay informed – part of his civic duty, so to speak. If you knew people, as Parker did – or if you knew when to be quiet and pretend to enjoy your barbecue to the exclusion of all else – you could learn a lot at Fat Eddie's. At the moment, Parker was learning a lot about people he thought he already knew pretty well. As he licked barbecue sauce off his finger tips, Parker carefully watched the expressions of his lunch mates.
From Bubba, Parker saw a look of happiness and contentment – more so than Parker had ever seen before. 'Marriage agrees with him,' he thought with pride. Parker often saw a similar look on Austin's face when her gaze met her husband's, and Parker wanted nothing more in the world than his little sister's happiness. He always wanted good things for the people who were important to him, but Austin held a special place in his heart. Parker also liked that Austin had married Bubba because that was about the only thing that would have kept her in Sparta long-term. Parker definitely wanted his little sister to stay close so that he could keep an eye on her.
From Sweet, Parker detected an air of careful observation. Parker had seen that look before, but not usually directed at people within their own professional or social circles. Something was dampening Sweet's usual air of casual joviality. He surreptitiously followed Sweet's gaze to the observed.
Something was making Lonnie Jamison uneasy, but Parker wasn't entirely sure what. He wondered if Lonnie had heard the same things that he had about Steve. Parker knew that Austin had no use for Steve Jamison, but the last time Parker had seen Laura, he'd mentioned Steve and she hadn't seemed troubled, so there may not be anything to the rumors floating around town. Still, something was going on that was getting through Lonnie's famous poker face, so whatever it was, it was big.
Knowing how Lonnie would react to prying, Parker decided to pry anyway. "So, Lonnie, how long's your brother gonna be in town?"
Lonnie shrugged noncommittally and spoke around an onion ring. "Don't know, Parker. Didn't ask him."
"Rumor I heard is he's back for good." Parker smiled, "At least for a while."
Bubba rolled his eyes. "You know what your trouble is, boy?" He continued without waiting for a reply. "You just don't make no sense."
Sweet was the only one who seemed to be interested in what Parker had to say, finally pulling his dark eyes off Lonnie. "Where you'd hear that, Parker?"
"From Mrs. Robinson over at the library."
Lonnie snorted. "What were you doin' at the library?"
Parker shot his friend a disapproving look. "What do folks usually go to a library for?"
Lonnie gave him the same flat, expressionless look that always unnerved him. "You mean you read?" Lonnie deadpanned.
Parker was beginning to take genuine offense at Lonnie's sardonic attitude. "More than you might think, smart guy."
Bubba put his buffalo wing down and held up sauced-tipped fingers. "Hey, now..."
Parker refused to be deterred. "Anyway, I hear your little brother is lookin' for a place to settle down. Do you think he'll hang around?"
"More like he's lookin' for an inheritance," Lonnie mumbled under his breath.
Before Parker could say anything, Sweet's head shot up in surprise, but it was Bubba who spoke first. "Do you really think that's what this is all about? Your Aunt Cordelia's estate?"
An unusual flush crept across Lonnie's cheeks, and he seemed desperate to change the subject. He gruffly removed the napkin from his collar and wiped his mouth, then pulled some cash from his shirt pocket. "Look, I don't know. I probably shouldn't have said that. Just forget it. Sweet, are you ready to go?"
Parker watched Sweet's eyebrows shoot skyward in amazement. They both swapped glances with Bubba.
"Yes, sir," Sweet said as he stood and tossed down some cash. He snatched a handful of onion rings from his plate and followed Lonnie out the door.
Bubba turned sharp eyes toward Parker. "Now why did you go and do that?"
Parker did his best to give his brother-in-law his 'innocent' face. "What?"
Bubba's expression made it clear that he wasn't having any of it. "Bring up Lonnie's brother. You know how squirrelly he gets about his kinfolk."
Parker shrugged sheepishly under the weight of Bubba's glare. "Oh, Bubba, I wasn't tryin' to start nothin', it's just that no one in town seems to know anything about what Steve's been doin' since he left Sparta. Don't that seem a bit odd to you?"
"I thought Lonnie said Steve was in the import/export business?"
"Yeah but what does that mean?"
Bubba sighed tiredly. "It means to ship in some things, and ship out other things. Honestly..."
Parker gave his brother-in-law a dirty look. "Well if it's that simple, then why has he given at least three different answers around town to the same question?"
Bubba ducked his chin as one eyebrow shot skyward. "Say what?"
Parker let a smug smile spread across his face. "I thought that'd get your attention. Steve told Milfred Landry over at The Jewelers' Emporium that he'd spent the last ten years in the diamond business. Then he told Evan Mercer – who tends bar up at the McGuffie House every other Tuesday and Thursday – that his business was buyin' and sellin' luxury cars. And he told old Beau at Mason's Dixieline that he made his money importin' antiques from Europe," Parker finished with satisfaction.
Bubba considered carefully for a minute, quirked his eyebrows again, and sighed. "You're right, it don't seem to add up. But Parker, isn't it possible that all those things can be part of a large import/export business?"
Parker drew himself up a little straighter, very pleased that for once; he seemed to know more about a situation than his know-it-all brother-in-law. "Then why didn't he just say so?"
Bubba's expression froze for a long moment as he thought. When he spoke again, his voice was quiet and very serious. "That's a pretty serious accusation you're makin' – against Lonnie's brother."
Parker nodded, his tone dropping to match Bubba's intensity. "I know, but think about what Lonnie said just a minute ago. I'm not the only one havin' doubts about what Steve's really doin' here in Sparta."
Bubba nodded in reply.
"And don't you think we owe it to Lonnie to get to the bottom of this one way or another?" Parker pressed.
"Don't you think it's possible that Lonnie will want to do his own diggin'?"
"Yeah, but you and I both know he'll do what he always does with his kin folk – ignore the situation until he just can't anymore, and if Steve's got a mind to cause some sort of trouble in Sparta, it might be too late by the time Lonnie finally gets into it."
Bubba nodded begrudgingly. "You've got a point, Parker. I hate to admit it, but you do have a point."
Parker sat back and smiled. "Well, it does happen from time to time."
Bubba rolled his eyes in mock disgust. "Oh, come on, knothead. If we're gonna do this, let's get on with it."
Lonnie let his car roll to a halt in the driveway, set the parking brake, and cut the engine. Exhaustion pulled heavily at his limbs and eyelids, a phenomenon that had become more common since the shooting that nearly cost him his life. No matter how hard he worked out, or how careful he was, it was harder to maintain his energy level now. A good night's rest nearly always left him feeling good-as-new the following morning; but his stamina had not returned to previous levels. He was beginning to wonder if it ever would.
He took a moment to let his eyelids fall closed, resting briefly before he went into the house. What had happened was in the past, and he was determined to keep it there. Over and done with. No going back. He simply wouldn't have it any other way, and he refused – no matter how tired he felt or how much he secretly wondered if he pushed himself too hard – to let that teenager's bullet keep him from doing exactly as he pleased with his life.
Lonnie knew that the worst thing he could do when he was feeling this weary was let Laura see the exhaustion on his face. His wife tended to be overprotective, and he knew she fought to conceal her distress from him as much as he fought to keep her from brooding over his health. Lonnie laughed to himself, a wry smile twisting its way across his mouth. He supposed it was fairly absurd the way each of them tried to keep the other from worrying – they were worrywarts by nature, the both of them – and knew each other so well that it was nearly impossible for either of them to keep any thought secret for long.
A boisterous laugh startled him from his brief repose, his eyes flying open as he looked around. The voice sounded like it belonged to Laura, and seemed to come from behind the house. He knew she often spent quiet moments on the screened-in porch that overlooked the backyard, but had no idea what amused her so heartily. Climbing out of the Corvette's low-slung driver's seat, Lonnie made his way around the side of the house.
Before he rounded the corner into the backyard, Laura's bright laughter reached his ears again, this time joined by the quieter rumble of a man's voice. Lonnie frowned. Steve was here – again. 'Does he ever go anywhere else these days?' That made twice in the past week Lonnie had come home to find his brother "keeping Laura company." The last time Steve showed up he invited himself to another impromptu dinner party that lasted well past midnight. 'Doesn't he still know anyone else in this town?' Lonnie wondered irritably.
"I can't believe he did that, Steve. I refuse," Laura giggled.
Before Steve could respond, Sampson noticed Lonnie rounding the corner of the house and rose to give a warning bark. Delilah raised her head from her bowl to investigate; but, recognizing Lonnie, simply gave a welcoming wag of her tail before returning to her dinner. Sampson – the more social of the two – trotted over to the edge of the fence to greet Lonnie.
"Hey there, boy," Lonnie said as he scratched the Shepherd behind the ears. "You can't believe who did what?" he asked in the direction of the porch.
"Hi, honey," Laura greeted as she continued to giggle. She rose to open the screen door for him, lightly kissing him on the cheek before returning to her favorite spot on the porch swing. Clad in a broken-in pair of jeans and one of Lonnie's old button-downs, she looked relaxed and happy – a look that always brought a smile to his face. It didn't often happen that they were both home at a decent hour, and Lonnie knew that Laura guarded such moments as fiercely as he did, so he was a bit surprised that she seemed so comfortable with Steve's increasingly regular presence.
"Your brother's been tellin' tales," Laura said as she swapped a conspiratorial glance with Steve.
Lonnie threw a warning look in Steve's direction as the younger man nonchalantly crossed an ankle over his knee and leaned back comfortably in the wicker chair.
"What?" Steve asked innocently. "Laura's not from here, so she didn't know you back when. I think every woman has a right to know what kind of child her husband used to be. This could be useful information if you guys ever have kids. You know, in case any of them turn out as wild as you were."
Lonnie glowered at both of them as Laura erupted in a fresh burst of laughter and Steve favored them both with his best Cheshire Cat grin.
"Now wait a minute," Lonnie began, determined to convince them both that this was not nearly as funny as they obviously thought it was. "Just because a guy got into a little trouble during his teenage years doesn't mean that anybody gets to hold it against him forever – especially you, you little twerp," Lonnie finished with an icy glare in Steve's direction.
Laura held up a hand to both of them as if to stave off a genuine argument. "Stay in your corners, please." The amused light in her eyes and her relaxed posture belied the seriousness in her voice as she looked at them both. "Now, hon, Paul's already told you about all of my youthful misadventures, and you don't love me any less, right?"
Lonnie nodded somewhat reluctantly, but winked at her as Steve laughed.
"Besides," Laura continued, "I have to say that rigging the high school's PA system to make farting noises every time the principal tried to make an announcement was fairly ingenious. I mean, I've always known you're brilliant, but I didn't know you were so electronically inclined. If you can do all of that, why can't you program the VCR?"
Lonnie felt his cheeks color a bit at the memory, and the impossibly broad smile stretching across her face. He could tell that this story was going to be around for a while. "I can't believe you told her about that, Steve."
His brother held up both hands and shrugged his shoulders in a 'Who me?' gesture. "Hey, I'm not the one who did it. I'm merely reporting."
"Remind me to give you somethin' to report when the lady's not around," Lonnie told him quietly.
"You'd have to catch me first, and I think we both know you're not that fast," Steve shot back.
"Girls," Laura interrupted, this time her tone brooking no nonsense. "You're both pretty. Now..." she stopped as her beeper started to vibrate from its spot on the tiny wicker side table. "Oh, you've got to be kidding."
Lonnie watched her check the number and roll her eyes heavenward. "What is it?" he asked.
She shrugged her shoulders as she stood, her bare feet silent against the porch's old wood floor as she started toward her home office. "No clue. There wasn't anything goin' on when I left a little while ago." She paused at the back door. "Do you want something cool to drink, hon?"
He nodded. "Yeah, that'd be nice. Thanks."
Steve sighed and stretched as Laura disappeared inside. "This is a nice spot you've got here, Lonnie. A cozy house, a lovely wife, an established career. You seem to have it all figured out. It's still a little amazing to me to see you so grown up and settled."
"Well," Lonnie said as he shrugged his shoulders. "You've been gone an awfully long time. People change." He worked to keep the note of accusation out of his voice.
A moment of semi-uneasy silence stretched between them, and perhaps for the first time Lonnie was aware of the active role his wife had taken in his relationship with his younger brother over the past couple of weeks. It was somewhat odd to Lonnie that a woman who hadn't grown up in Sparta and didn't know either of them during their childhoods had become the arbiter of any and all discussions between himself and his brother. He wasn't sure where to start on his own without her direction.
Steve looked like he was about to say something else, but Lonnie's attention was diverted as Laura reappeared through the screen door with her cordless phone pinched between her shoulder and her ear. One hand held open the screen door and the other clutched a tall glass of iced tea. She crossed the porch and handed him the glass before turning back toward the house.
"Yeah," she said. "Okay." She paused for a moment with one hand on the screen door as if struggling to hear what someone else was saying. "Okay. Just give me a minute to fire up the computer and then I'll dial in."
Lonnie watched with growing concern as she ended the call. "What's up?" he asked.
She shook her head and blew a few stray wisps of hair off her forehead. "Oh it's nothing to worry about. Darnelle just pulled me into a conference call with people in several different counties. Not as easy a thing as it should be to organize, as it turns out. Campaign stuff. Unfortunately he's convinced the whole house of cards is going to come crashing down around him if we don't hash out whatever's on his mind right this minute. He swears it can't wait until tomorrow, and wants me to dial in from the sun porch."
Steve sat up. "So he is going to run. I knew it!"
Laura grinned at him. "Yeah, he's gonna run. And if I have anything to say about it, he's going to win, too." She winked at Steve before turning her blue gaze to her husband. "I'm sorry."
"Just remember your humble friends when your candidate's elected governor," he kidded her gently.
"Yeah, yeah," she said. It was a familiar joke between them. She disappeared into the house without further comment.
Lonnie looked over to see his brother giving him a somewhat confused look. "What's The Sun Porch? She has to go out to join a conference call?"
Lonnie grinned and shook his head. "No. We closed in a side porch that she uses as a home office. She's got a laptop, a fax machine, a dedicated phone line, and all sorts of bells and whistles. To tell you the truth, I'm not really sure what-all she has in there."
"Oh," Steve answered. A moment of relative quiet stretched between them, the approaching darkness and the sound of cicadas closing in to surround them. Steve's sharp hazel eyes focused on Lonnie, prompting him to meet the younger man's stare.
"Well, it's really none of my business," Steve began with uncharacteristic hesitancy.
"And that's stopped you when?" Lonnie challenged.
"There's only one thing missing here." Steve began before pausing again.
Lonnie knew he'd regret asking the question as it left his mouth. "What?"
Lonnie flinched, automatically thinking back to the last time this sensitive issue had come up between himself and his wife. "Look, man..." he began.
"What? You have something against children?" Steve's gaze was frank.
"What are you tryin' to do here, exactly?" Lonnie demanded, this time making no attempt whatsoever to hide the accusation in his voice.
"I'm not trying to do anything, I'm just asking," Steve insisted with an air of wounded dignity. "Of the two of us, you're the one with the perfect little domestic life, and I'm the one who's rooted only to being...rootless. I mean, I don't own a house. I nearly had a heart attack when I bought my car. Signing on the dotted line for the 911 was the biggest thing I'd ever done. The mere thought of signing for a mortgage? Terrifies me. I've never met a girl I wanted to date longer than a few weeks, let alone marry. So, I guess I'm just curious."
"Steve," Lonnie said, shaking his head incredulously. "It's just a house. It's not that big a deal."
"And getting married? That wasn't a big deal?"
"Sure it was, but I waited until I was ready, and that made all the difference. I waited for the right woman, and even though I didn't think I'd ever get married before I met her, once I got to know her, a lot of my decisions got easier." For reasons Lonnie neither understood nor fully believed, the mantle of 'Wise Older Brother Counseling the Prodigal' was a natural fit for his shoulders. Something told him that particular realization would bug him later.
"Then why no kids? Isn't that what comes next?"
Lonnie leaned forward and ran a hand through his hair as a familiar mix of sadness, frustration and uncertainty washed through him. "It's more complicated than that. You weren't here. You don't know."
"Then tell me, because I have to be honest with you, it doesn't make a heck of a lot of sense as I see it. She's a beautiful, warm, nurturing woman, who seems like a natural mother. I don't know why you'd have a wife like that and not have kids."
The smugness in Steve's voice prompted Lonnie to drop any remaining pretense that this was going to continue as a civil conversation. "Frankly, I resent the fact that you haven't set foot in Sparta in nearly two decades and suddenly you show up and presume to tell me what to do with my life. Who the hell do you think you are questionin' the choices I've made? You don't even know me. Or her."
To Lonnie's supreme irritation, Steve watched him as though seeing him for the first time throughout the uncharacteristically wordy tirade. "Lonnie, man, seriously," Steve said in a carefully controlled tone. "I can't believe you're this upset about it. Are you telling me that neither of you wants to have children? Because like I said, from where I'm sitting, it seems like the next logical step, that's all." He paused, but Lonnie knew that Steve had more to say, so he remained silent. "How much of this has to do with you guys and how much of it has to do with Mom?" Steve asked.
"Why are you goin' there, Steve? What exactly is it you're tryin' to do?"
"You want the truth?"
Lonnie leveled an expression toward his brother that usually stopped even cold-blooded murderers in their tracks. "Yeah," he said – his voice quiet and deadly serious. "And I suggest you get started, 'cause I'm tired of this little game."
Whether it was sincere or supreme acting, Lonnie wasn't sure, but Steve seemed suitably chagrined when he continued in a halting voice. "I wanna know because...you made it. And I don't know that I expected either of us to be able to say that."
Lonnie watched as Steve hesitantly raised eyes again, and was a bit taken aback by the sincere gaze that met his. "You remember what Mom was like, and how awful it was to live at our house. It was like livin' in a funeral parlor after Dad died. We were both runnin' so fast to get the hell out of there; it didn't seem possible that either of us would ever want to do the family thing. And yet here you are – almost."
Lonnie watched in silence as his brother struggled for words, the realization only slowly dawning on him that Steve was perhaps more screwed up by their upbringing than he had been.
"Okay, look, no B.S." Steve pressed. "Part of me thinks that if you can do it – get past what we grew up with and make a family for yourself – I can too. Maybe. But I don't know. If you don't like kids, or don't want 'em, then maybe I was right not to..." Steve paused and shrugged his shoulders before throwing up a hand and sighing in frustration. "I don't know. Look, forget it. Sorry."
For a long moment, tension hung in the heavy summer air between them. Finally, Lonnie took a deep breath and plunged in. "Like I said; it's complicated. We'd always talked about havin' kids, just someday. You know, any day but this one. But last year I got shot, and...I don't know; now all of a sudden she wants kids tomorrow, and I'm hesitatin'. It used to be mostly her puttin' the brakes on, but now it's all me."
Steve sat up straight and his eyes widened in shock. "You what! What happened?"
Lonnie sighed. "It's a long story, never mind about that. The point is, I got hurt pretty bad, and almost died. And because I do remember what Mama went through, the last thing I wanna do is leave Laura in Mama's situation if anything ever does happen to me. Like I said, it's not her draggin' her feet, it's me."
Steve sat for a moment with a stunned expression on his face. "I can't believe I didn't know about that."
"Once again..." Lonnie began.
"Yeah, I know, I know," Steve interrupted. "Totally my fault. I'm sorry." Steve's expression changed before he spoke again, though Lonnie wasn't sure what prompted his apparent change of thought. After a long pause, Steve continued. "The more I think about it, though, there's one thing that occurs to me."
Lonnie rolled his eyes. "I can't wait to hear it."
"Mama lived for Daddy. And for her, the only thing that kept her going after he died was the two of us. I don't think she'd've lived half as long as she did if it hadn't been for her kids. If it hadn't been for you and me."
Lonnie snorted derisively. "Don't you remember the temper? And the drinkin'? The cryin' jags that lasted all night?"
"Yeah, I do," Steve insisted. "And I also remember that the only times she ever smiled were when one of us did something good. When you made the all-state track team. When my ACT scores came back so much higher than she expected. That was right before she died - it might have been the last time I saw her smile."
As Steve talked about their mother, Lonnie saw a wistful, somewhat softer expression settle on his brother's face. He felt the same way about his mother – it hadn't always been the easiest relationship, but he thought of her in some small way nearly every day – almost twenty years after her passing.
For long moments he sat there with Steve, as the lush summer twilight and a new, easier silence enveloped them. Whatever they were now, and however they got there, and no matter what the future held for them, he and Steve had shared experiences that neither of them could ever share with another living being. Lonnie wasn't sure he'd ever quite looked at it that way, but when he looked at his brother across the porch, he saw history for the first time.
Lonnie also knew that there were no simple answers in life, and in all honesty he wanted children of his own, but he was still a bit leery of the potential complications that kids would add to his life. Were he and Laura really ready to forgo their quiet, lazy evenings at home for homework sessions and soccer practice and ballet lessons? For that matter, were they willing to quit putting in sixty-plus hours per week on the job to come on home and take care of children? Did he ever want to appear anywhere in public in a minivan?
Lonnie laughed at his last thought and shook his head as he shoved the more serious feelings he was experiencing aside. Oddly enough in this moment of newly-discovered closeness with his brother, the person he most wanted to talk all this over with wasn't here at the moment. So he did his best to laugh it off. "I just don't know, man," he admitted. "But I hear you. I think. Thanks."
Before his brother had a chance to speak, Lonnie stood and gave another mental shove to the sentimentality that had been creeping up on him over the last few minutes. "Come on," Lonnie told him. "Let's go see if she's done yet. I'm starvin'."
Lonnie led his brother through the back door and across the cozy kitchen to the tiny sun porch on the far side of the house. As they entered, Laura hit the mute button and turned toward them. "This could take hours. We've gone from a proposed gubernatorial campaign to a race for the White House and electoral math. I mean, I admire big thinking, but please."
Lonnie grinned at the dramatic eye roll that followed her little diatribe and crossed the room to stand behind her computer chair. "Are you hungry? If you want I can go out and pick somethin' up."
"Thank you, but I don't want anything." She looked up at him with a pitiful expression. "I'm sorry, honey. I was going to cook you a nice dinner tonight. I know you're having kind of a long week."
"It's okay, don't worry about it," he told her, giving her shoulder a squeeze to reinforce his point. "I'll do somethin' else."
Steve piped up brightly from the doorway. "Let's go out for a beer."
Lonnie turned toward his brother, but not before he saw his wife's face light up at the idea.
"That sounds like a great idea," she enthused.
Lonnie thought briefly about turning down Steve's invitation, but decided spending some more time with Steve might give him some insight into his brother's life that he was only starting to glimpse. "Sure."
"Just don't pick up any wild women," Laura admonished them with mock sternness as they headed for the door.
Lonnie grinned back at her over his shoulder. "You kiddin'? I've got enough trouble with the one I got."
Bubba had long since tuned out the conversation his wife was having in the next room. When he heard the click of the handset returning to the cradle, he snapped off the television and got up to join her in her office.
It had been more than a year since he'd thought of this room as the dining room it was intended to be. They didn't entertain much at home so it was just as well Austin had taken it over.
As he entered the make-shift office, he stepped around Austin's laptop case, a stack of leather-bound law books, and a pile of their daughter's toys to approach his wife. She seemed lost in thought, absently tapping her short fingernails against the edge of her keyboard as she stared off into one corner of the room.
"You look about a million miles away, honey," he told her as he rested a hip against the table top.
Austin looked up at him, a small smile lighting her blue eyes. "You'll never believe what Laura said as we were wrappin' up," she said incredulously.
"What?" Bubba asked, concerned at the expression clouding her beautiful face. "Is everythin' okay?"
"She said that Lonnie and Steve went out on the town – together."
Bubba laughed. "You really don't like him, do you?"
"No, I don't." Her tone was emphatic. "Are you saying you do?"
Bubba scratched his chin, thinking back to the conversation he'd had just that afternoon with Parker and deciding how much he should tell Austin at this very early point in their very unofficial investigation. They hadn't even told Chief Forbes yet what they were up to. "Well, I can't say that I've spent that much time around him. What's botherin' you, hon?"
"I'm not sure," she shrugged. "I just know that I don't trust him. Something about him makes my skin crawl."
"You know, Parker said pretty much the same thing this afternoon," Bubba told her, making the decision to let her in on at least the broad scope of what they were trying to do. "We're gonna do some quiet checkin' around."
Austin's expression brightened as relief flooded her features. "I think that's the best idea I've heard all day."
"I'm not sure Lonnie trusts him all that much either," Bubba admitted, "but he sure don't wanna talk about it." He cocked his head to one side as a new thought occurred to him. "What does Laura say?"
Austin bit her lip as she looked up at him through thick lashes. He could tell she hated to say what was on her mind. "To be honest, Bubba, I think her judgment may be a little clouded in this case. She wants so much for Lonnie to have the chance to reconnect with his brother that I'm not sure she's lookin' for red flags. Or even seein' 'em when they jump up and wave themselves at her."
Bubba always hated to see a troubled look on his wife's face. Not knowing what the truth was to tell her, he decided distraction was probably his best bet in this situation. "Look, darlin'," Bubba said as he pulled her to her feet and wrapped his arms around her waist. "I don't want you to worry about it. If there's anything to find, we'll find it, and we'll deal with it. Okay?"
"Okay," she answered, but he could tell from her expression that she wasn't entirely ready to let the issue drop.
Bubba searched for a way to put her mind on happier thoughts. "Why don't we go out for supper?" Nothing perked Austin up quicker than the thought of a meal that someone else prepared and cleaned up after. "We'll go anywhere you wanna go."
Austin grinned up at him. "Sounds great. Let me go find my shoes and get Dallas ready."
He let her go, watching as he always did as she sauntered across the room. There was more sashay on that woman...shaking his head to distract himself, he said the first thing that came to his mind that he thought might bring a smile this wife's face. "If the boys're out, wanna invite Laura to come with us?"
She grinned over her shoulder at him before disappearing from sight. Her voice drifted back to him from the hallway. "I already asked. She said she's going to take advantage of the quiet and go to bed early."