Martin smoked a menthol-flavored Kool outside the hospital, where he contemplated his options with Melissa and the house. He needed time to reconnect with the life he’d left behind; a life with a thriving practice and a family he sorely missed.
He blew smoke when an ambulance approached in the distance, lights flashing, siren wailing. He could feel the sense of urgency as the ride drew closer, an almost mild euphoria he attributed to the blended tobacco and his instincts as a highly successful personal injury attorney. The same instincts that told him when something, or someone, didn’t feel right.
He flicked his ash at the sidewalk and checked his messages. His last settlement from a wrongful death suit would keep him flush long enough to rebuild his Nashville practice. With the right contacts in a city nearly crippled by historic flooding, new clients would present themselves in short order.
He dropped his cigarette butt inside the smokers’ receptacle and went back inside to catch Sid and the boys. “You headed home?” he asked Sid who shuffled through the waiting area with Jonathan and Adam by his side.
“We’ll be back in the morning.”
“I can take the boys with me.”
Sid looked at Jonathan and Adam. “Melissa asked me to take the boys tonight.”
“You’re her agent, not her babysitter. The boys should crash with me and spend some time with their old man.”
Sid ushered the boys toward the parking garage. He had no one to blame but himself. He should have forced Melissa into rehab, or at the very least, stopped supporting her addiction. He’d given her what she wanted instead of what she needed. Now her boys needed a father, not their dad.
Martin followed them. “My car’s not far.”
“Unless Melissa says otherwise, her sons are staying with me.”
“I’m not the bad guy here.”
“We’ll be back tomorrow morning. You can see the boys then.”
“What about school?”
“I’ll drop them off late.” Sid clenched the car keys in his pocket while Martin lingered like a bad cough. “What exactly is your end game?”
Sid brought the boys to his black Escalade. “Good night, Martin.” He unlocked the doors to let the boys climb inside and put their headphones on.
“Mel needs me.”
“That’s for her to decide.”
Martin waved at his boys through the tinted windows. “Is she still using? I can have the hospital send me her lab results. I’d be willing to bet you supply her with more than career advice.”
Sid moved away from his SUV and stood toe-to-toe with Martin. “She’s still in pain.”
“She seemed cozy with Mr. Presley.”
“He’s a friend.”
“He’s been tapping her, hasn’t he.”
“Melissa’s personal life is none of my concern—or yours.”
“And yet my sons are going home with you.”
Sid looked back at the boys through the Escalade windows. “I think we’re done here.”
Martin stood his ground. “No, we’re just getting started. My sons nearly died in the flood. Mel’s broke. Her career is over. I know about her label’s lawsuit and the IRS vultures circling over her waning assets. What I don’t know is why she’s with that cowboy circus act.”
“Leland saved Jonathan’s life.”
“Jonathan should have never been put in that situation to begin with. Tomás was irresponsible.”
“Tomás is dead.”
Martin reached for his cigarettes. “Despite what you think of me, I’m still the boys’ father.”
Sid opened the driver’s door. “Only on paper,” he said before he climbed inside his luxury SUV and drove off.
* * *
Martin lit up and blew smoke. He wanted his old life back. A fresh start. A clean slate. An opportunity to undo the mess he’d made with his family. He couldn’t change the past, but he could bury it and build a future. His boys would come around eventually. He could see it in their eyes. Melissa would prove the greater challenge.
He inhaled a long drag and shuffled toward his black BMW 850i parked near the back of the garage. He’d ordered flowers for Melissa’s room with a box of her favorite chocolates. He had time on his side, and he had the law.
He drove from the hospital to his hotel, pursuing the same detour he’d traveled the night before. A hot shower and a meal at the onsite restaurant revived him before he caught the local news coverage of the ongoing flood relief efforts. “One second,” he said inside his top floor suite when he heard the expected knock from his associate.
He powered off the flat screen and opened his room to a man in jeans and a brown leather jacket. “You dyed your hair.”
The man entered the room. When the door closed behind him, he handed Martin a cash-filled envelop. “I need to stay under the radar.”
“Anyone see you come up?”
“I waited in the car for awhile and came through the side entrance. No one saw me.”
Martin counted the money. “I trust everything’s in order?”
“The cops think I split town. How’s the Mrs.?”
“You tell me.”
“I did some digging like you asked. She’s got money troubles for sure. The bank wants the house. Her record label has a law suit pending for breach of contract. She’s sold a lot of property recently and several horses. The IRS is pressing her for back taxes.”
Martin continued counting the large denomination bills. “What else?”
“The Mercedes was totaled in the flood. The house suffered some minor roof damage but nothing serious.”
“What do you know about Leland Presley?”
“Some musician she’s been seeing. I don’t like the guy getting close to my boys.”
“I can dig into him.”
Martin peeled off several hundred dollars from the crumpled envelop and extended the cash. “For your time… Pull everything you can on Leland Presley. I want to know his life inside and out.”
“What are you looking for?”
“Anything I can use.”
Leland woke up with Abby standing beside his bed. Still groggy, he rolled over to see his alarm clock flashing 12:00. “What time is it?”
“It’s after 7:30,” Abby informed him in her baggy shorts and a wrinkled T-shirt from the dryer. She wore her hair in a pony tail. “I’m going to be late for school.”
“I thought you hated school?”
“I don’t hate school. I hate being late for school.”
“Why didn’t you wake me up sooner?”
“I thought you were getting ready.”
Leland threw the covers off and reached for his jeans on the chair beside the bed. “Geez Louise, the power must have gone out again.”
“I need five minutes.”
“You’ve got two,” said Abby, holding up two fingers in the air as she left with the cat galloping ahead of her.
Leland rubbed his eyes and stretched his arms above his head. He put his clothes on and splashed cold water on his face at the bathroom sink. He brushed his teeth in rapid fashion and found Abby in the living room petting her cat on the floor. “I’m ready.”
Abby scratched her tabby’s chin. “Why don’t you get an alarm clock with a battery?”
“Because the one I have still works.” He could hear the cat purring loudly.
“Newsflash, Dad. The Civil War called. They want their clock back.”
“Why don’t you use the alarm on your phone?”
Leland looked at his flip phone. “What alarm?”
“Are you serious?”
Leland hugged his arm around Abby and kissed her forehead. “Are we good?”
“I talked to Nicole about Mom when you went to the hospital to see Mrs. Hamilton. Nicole agreed you should have told me about Mom sooner, but she also helped me see the issue from your perspective.”
“As opposed to hearing my perspective from me?”
Abby gathered her backpack. “Nicole’s smarter than I gave her credit for. She thinks you have real potential.”
Leland couldn’t decide if he wanted to thank Nicole or chastise her for inserting herself into his personal life again. “What else did Nicole tell you?”
“She thinks my mom has a right to see me despite what happened.”
Leland grabbed his keys and brought Abby outside to his truck. “Nicole should worry about her own problems.”
“I asked her what she thought. She gave me an honest answer.”
“You’re too young to have this sort of conversation with her.”
“She told me you would say that.”
Leland started the motor and backed out of the driveway. “Did she tell you how much I love you?”
Abby checked her makeup in the mirror. “Don’t be cheesy.”
“What’s on your face?”
“Blush. Nicole gave me some of her makeup before she left. I like black eye liner too.”
“You don’t need makeup.”
“I do if I don’t want to look like a thirteen-year-old girl.”
Leland drove through a yellow light up ahead. “You are a thirteen-year-old girl.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I think you’re perfect the way God made you.”
“When do you think I can see my mom?”
Leland bristled at the comment. “I’m not sure.”
Abby leaned back in the truck’s bench seat and zipped her lip gloss in her backpack. “Maybe she can have dinner with us sometime?”
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”
“Because I don’t want her around you.”
“Are you telling me I can’t see her?”
“I worry about you.”
“That’s not an answer.”
“I think you need to move slowly. That’s all I’m saying.” Leland kept both hands on the wheel and drove in silence for the last few miles. He’d been hard on Abby about her mom and about her challenges at school. Probably too hard at times. He wanted the best for his only child. He wanted her to be safe and protected at all times. He also wanted her to accept herself for who she was and be happy with the life she had.
“I want a horse,” Abby announced.
“Save your allowance.”
Abby’s eyes narrowed. “You still owe me like four week’s worth.”
“Jonathan and Adam had a horse, but their mom sold it. I told them they should get a job and buy it back.”
“Horses are expensive.”
“So are big houses and fancy cars. You don’t hear me asking for one of those.”
“Not yet. Wait ’til you get your driver’s license.”
“I don’t care about cars.”
“Then you’ll be happy to drive this truck.”
Abby looked away and twirled her hair.
Leland drove around a section of damaged roadway under repair. FEMA trailers occupied a parking lot across the street. “I can drop you in front of the school.”
“What about your ankle?”
“What time should I pick you up from detention?”
“Your principal doesn’t think so.”
“My principal hates my guts. She wanted to throw me in jail for macing that bully on the bus.”
Leland slowed at the next intersection. “She thinks you have great potential.”
“What do you think?”
“I think you better hustle, or you’re going to be late again.” Leland eased along the curb and stopped.
Abby got out and slung her backpack on her shoulder. She gave her dad a fleeting wave good bye.
Leland drove slow enough to track Abby’s progress in his side view mirror. Regardless of the tragic events in recent past, he’d finally achieved some balance in his life. With the benefit concert looming and the promise of better things to come, he had momentum in his career—and new love in his sights.