Cassidy Cooper watched as her son threw himself down in front of her at the bottom of the stairs. Dressed in torn jeans, black t-shirt and heavy army boots, his dark hair all messed-up and spiked in various different directions, layers of black leather bands covering both wrists, she still couldn’t get over how handsome he was. And that wasn’t just because he was her son. He really was a good-looking kid.
‘What’s wrong?’ Mason looked at his mum with a genuinely baffled expression, and Cassidy couldn’t help but smile. He was seventeen-years-old for heaven’s sake, which meant there really wasn’t anything wrong with the way he looked. It was just her, being all protective again. He was growing up, and she had to get used to that, whether she wanted to or not.
‘Nothing,’ Cassidy sighed, smiling as she surreptitiously yanked his rather-too-low-slung jeans back up his hips. ‘There’s nothing wrong. You look fine. You look like a rock star. Although, you could do with eating a bit more. You’re way too skinny for my liking.’
Mason took a step back, grinning at his mum, and Cassidy couldn’t help but grin back. Her beautiful boy. And she loved him more than life itself.
‘You know, the band’s really coming together, Mum. And now that Si’s dad’s bought us that drum kit we can start rehearsing properly, maybe even line up a few gigs.’
‘Whoa, slow down there, kiddo. You should be concentrating on getting things ready for university. The band should be taking a back seat for now.’
‘Yeah, whatever. I couldn’t borrow a tenner, could I? Please?’
‘What happened to the money you got from Sid?’
‘Come on, Mum. Sid pays me peanuts. I help him fix the odd car and he bungs me a couple of fivers. That wouldn’t pay for an hour in the pub.’
‘You shouldn’t even be in the pub yet, mister,’ Cassidy pointed out, turning around to look for her purse.
‘I’m a couple of weeks away from turning eighteen. A couple of weeks. What difference does that make?’
‘A lot. If you’re caught. Here – and that’s all you’re getting, so make it last.’
Mason rolled his eyes as he took the notes Cassidy held out, shoving them into his jacket pocket before leaning over to kiss her on the cheek. ‘You’re the best, Mum.’
‘Yeah. And don’t you forget it.’
‘I won’t be late. Promise.’
‘You got your phone?’ Cassidy shouted after him as he ran out of the front door. He held his phone up above his head without looking back at her as he disappeared down the front path towards the car full of his friends that was parked outside.
Cassidy waited until they’d pulled away before stepping back inside, closing the door behind her. She leaned against it, taking a few seconds to catch her breath. She was the mother of a soon-to-be-eighteen-year-old-boy, and sometimes she still found it hard to get her head around that. The years had flown by so quickly. It didn’t seem five minutes since Mason was starting nursery school, yet here she was, about to watch him head off to university. He was growing up fast, and that meant that, every day, she was left with a feeling of impending emptiness at the thought of being alone. For eighteen years it had been just her and Mason. She’d been a young mum, just eighteen herself when she’d given birth to him, and from that second on he’d become her world. Everything she’d done had revolved around him, and she’d done everything in her power to give him the best life she could, with help from her mum, of course. Without her she knew she wouldn’t have been able to cope. Not all the time. But the thought of Mason leaving home, starting a new life that didn’t involve her, it scared her. More than she cared to admit.
Walking back into the living room she switched on the TV, desperate to alleviate the silence that filled her small but comfortable little house. A silence that always seemed to descend whenever Mason wasn’t around. And silence gave her far too much time to think, about things she’d never really thought all that much about before – things she’d tried not to think about, anyway. But with her son about to turn eighteen, those thoughts kept creeping back into her head with alarming regularity now.
Sitting down on her huge, over-sized couch, she sank back into the cushions and closed her eyes. She should really make the most of having the house to herself. She could run a nice hot bath, light some candles, listen to some music. It was the perfect opportunity to kick back and relax. She smiled, keeping her eyes closed as she sank further back into the pile of cushions behind her. Or, she could just stay right where she was, dig out that box-set she’d started watching last night; take advantage of the peace and quiet. There was a bottle of wine in the fridge, and some of that chocolate cake she’d bought the other day. It’d still be fine, especially if she smothered it in cream. Yes, all of a sudden an empty house seemed like a good thing. She just wasn’t sure she wanted it to last forever.
‘My, don’t you look handsome, Sheriff Everett.’
‘Coffee, Jolene. And make it strong.’ Ethan Everett slid onto a stool at the counter of Jolene’s Diner which was, as usual, bursting at the seams as most of Glenville gathered for their breakfast.
‘Something wrong?’ Jolene asked, sliding a mug of steaming hot coffee towards Ethan, who caught it before taking a long sip. ‘You got an asbestos mouth there, Sheriff?’
Ethan threw her a sideways smile, taking another sip of coffee.
‘Still playing the strong, silent type I see,’ Jolene sighed, wiping down the counter in front of her.
‘I’m just not in the mood for conversation, is all.’ Ethan took a look around him; the same old faces, people he’d known all his life. This was a small town, and somewhere he’d never really managed to escape from, even though there’d been times he’d wanted to. But this was where he belonged. It was his town.
‘I heard about the divorce.’ Jolene stopped wiping and leaned forward, moving closer to Ethan as she spoke, a seductive smile on her pretty face. ‘Does that mean you’re back out there on the open market? ‘Cause I sure would love to try me some of that Everett charm, if you’re a free man.’
Ethan smiled slightly, his eyes locking onto Jolene’s for a second or two. ‘Oh, I’m not sure I’ve ever been a free man.’
‘That doesn’t answer my question, sugar.’
Ethan took another sip of coffee before throwing some money down onto the counter, that sideways smile still there on his handsome face. ‘I think you’ll find that’s right.’ He stood up, tipping his flat-brimmed Stetson slightly at Jolene. ‘I’ll see you later, honey. You have a good day now.’
Ethan Everett was Sheriff of Glenville, a small town in central Kentucky. Despite being somewhat of a rebel in his younger days, he was a popular choice; someone the people of Glenville respected. Especially the women. More handsome than any man deserved to be, Ethan Everett had a reputation that preceded him. With short, dark hair that – at the age of forty – was now beginning to grey slightly around the edges, deep brown eyes and a constant stubble around his strong jaw line, he was the man every woman in Glenville, no matter what their age, wanted to be with. Sleep with. And most of them had achieved that, at some point or other over the years. Which was the reason why his short-lived marriage to Rayner Marshall, a local girl he’d known since school, had just ended in one hell of a messy divorce. Although, he couldn’t for the life of him think why she’d been quite so upset at finding him with Daisy Harper that Sunday afternoon. She’d known about his reputation long before she’d married him. And it wasn’t like her entire family hadn’t warned her about getting so serious with him. They’d told her it would end in tears, but she’d been so determined to be the one to “tame” Ethan Everett that she’d shut her ears to anything anyone had tried to tell her. Hell, he’d even warned her himself! He’d told her he couldn’t promise fidelity. It wasn’t what he did. But, he’d been curious all the same, to see if Rayner could do what she’d claimed she could do. She couldn’t. It was over. He had his life back.
‘Hey, Sheriff Everett! Great day for the parade, don’t you think?’
Ethan pushed his hat back on his head, resting his arms on the roof of his car. ‘It sure is, Rusty. Not a cloud in the sky. We couldn’t have prayed for better weather. Let’s just hope it stays that way for the fireworks tonight.’
‘Forecast’s good, I know that much. We still set for a 5pm start?’
‘Absolutely. You know how I like these things to run on time.’
‘You’ve never let us down yet, Sheriff.’
‘Give him time.’
Ethan swung around to see Rayner standing behind him, arms folded, her tousled red hair hanging loose around her shoulders. She really was quite pretty, when she wasn’t scowling. And she’d scowled a lot during their short marriage. A hell of a lot.
‘I’ll leave you to it, Sheriff,’ Rusty shouted over, and Ethan raised a hand in acknowledgement, his eyes still fixed on Rayner.
‘You got something to say there, Rayner?’
‘Did you put an ad in the paper or something? The whole town knows about our divorce, Ethan.’
‘Rayner, honey, this is Glenville. The whole town knows when you take a crap, what did you expect? You really thought you could keep this quiet? How in the world did you think that was gonna work, huh?’
‘Jesus, Ethan…’ She pushed a hand through her hair, stomping her foot like a petulant child. ‘I don’t know. I guess when something like this happens it makes you realise what a fishbowl of a town this is.’
‘They were all at the wedding, Rayner. Now they all got front row seats for the d-i-v-o-r-c-e. That’s the way it goes round here. Look, I got somewhere I need to be. You have a good day.’
‘Have a good day? Ethan! I’m your ex-wife, the least you can do is give me five minutes of your time.’
Ethan opened the door of his car, turning to look at Rayner once more. ‘The clue’s in the word “ex”, Rayner. And I’m a very busy man. In case you’d forgotten, it’s parade day today and that means I need to be in five places at once, so forgive me if I haven’t got time to stand here and listen to whatever it is you’re gonna nag me about. You’re just not that high on my list of priorities, darlin’. Okay?’
‘I never was, Ethan. That was the whole problem. Maybe if I hadn’t actually married you I would have seen more of you. I’d certainly have had you in my bed more often, I know that much.’
Ethan laughed, pushing his hat forward, shielding his eyes from the morning sun. ‘Well, honey, there you go. What can I say to that, huh?’
‘You’re such a bastard, Ethan Everett.’
‘Yeah, but one good-looking, son-of-a-bitch bastard.’ He threw her a wink, knowing it would irritate the hell out of her. ‘You take care now. I’ll see you at the parade.’
He climbed into his car, slamming the door shut before Rayner had a chance to say anything else. Maybe he hadn’t been completely fair to her over the years, but she was quite capable of looking after herself now, and she knew that. She didn’t need him, and she never really had. She’d just had her feelings hurt because she’d failed to prove she could change him, that was all. She’d get over it. She already had a queue of Glenville men ready and waiting to take his place, and he knew it wouldn’t be long before she was out and about on the arm of more than one of them.
Meanwhile, he had places to be. Things to sort out. He had his life back, and it was time to start living it.
‘Of course he wants a fuss! It’s his eighteenth birthday. And you know Mason, never one to let the chance to be the centre of attention pass him by.’ Cassidy handed a mug of tea over to Helen, her colleague in the office she worked in at the local college in town. Things were just starting to slow down now as all the major exams drew to a close and the students drifted off for the summer, so she and Helen were enjoying the slightly quieter days, and making the most of them.
‘You’re having a big party for him, then?’ Helen asked, ripping open a new packet of biscuits, taking two out and dunking one into her tea.
‘Well, we’re having a bit of a do in the function room above the King’s Head, if you can class that as big. Jeff’s sorting out the buffet, and his mate Larry’s manning the DJ booth, so, I think we’re all sorted. It helps having a friend who runs a pub, though.’ Cassidy smiled. ‘And Jeff’s been great. He’s taken a lot of the pressure off me, that’s for sure.’
‘I can’t believe Mason’s about to turn eighteen,’ Helen sighed, sitting back in her chair as she dunked the second biscuit into her tea.
Cassidy said nothing for a beat or two as she stared down into her mug.
‘You alright?’ Helen asked, noticing Cassidy’s sudden change of mood.
‘Hmm? Oh, yeah. I’m fine. Still just trying to get my head around the fact my baby’s all grown up, that’s all. Where does the time go, Helen? It only feels like five minutes ago I was waving him off at the gates for his first day at school, now he’s just finished his ‘A’ Levels and he’s about to head off to university.’
Helen shifted about in her chair, taking a sip of her tea before looking straight at Cassidy. ‘Has he ever asked about his dad?’
Cassidy leaned back against the wall, turning her head to look out of the window. ‘Once or twice over the years, yes.’
‘And what have you told him?’
She turned to look at Helen. ‘What can I tell him? I haven’t seen his dad for almost nineteen years, so…’
‘Has he ever expressed an interest in meeting him? I mean, would you help him, if he wanted to find his dad?’
‘You know what, Helen, I really don’t want to talk about this now. Mason doesn’t ask about his father all that much because he’s never really missed him. He’s never known him, so how could he miss him? He’s had everything he could ever need from me and his grandma. He doesn’t need his father.’
‘I didn’t mean to pry, Cassidy. It’s just that, well, with Mason turning eighteen I just wondered if he was curious, that’s all. About his dad.’
‘If he asks, I tell him all I know. Which isn’t all that much. It was just one time, that was all. It wasn’t like we had any kind of relationship going on, so I don’t really know all that much about him myself. Now, haven’t we got something we need to be getting on with?’
Cassidy put her mug down and busied herself sorting out some paperwork that had been left on her desk, trying not to let that conversation get to her. Mason had never really asked about his father. It was other people who seemed hung up on him. She just didn’t see why. He’d given her the most beautiful boy she could have wished for, but that was all. As for anything else, she just hadn’t wanted him to be involved. There was no need. She suspected he had a life to be getting on with, just as she did. Just as Mason did. They didn’t need anyone else.
Her phone ringing interrupted her private thoughts and she reached into her bag to retrieve it. It was her mum. Frowning slightly, she answered it. Her mum wouldn’t normally bother her at work unless something was wrong. She very rarely rang for a pointless chat, it was just the way her mother was – business-like at the best of times.
‘Hey, mum. Everything okay?’
‘Cassidy, honey, I’m not disturbing you now, am I?’
Cassidy listened as her mother’s slow drawl echoed down the line. Born and brought up in a small town in Kentucky, Ava Cooper had met Cassidy’s father on a business trip to the north east of England, and had never gone back home to America. She’d started her own company making scented soaps and toiletries, and by the time Cassidy had started school she’d opened a string of shops across the region, stretching country-wide by the time Cassidy was a teenager. She’d never lost her distinctive accent, though, despite all her years living in England. And Cassidy had spent many a happy time asking her mum all about life in small-town Kentucky, mimicking her mother’s accent to perfection as she’d listened to her stories.
She’d been over there, to the town where her mother had been born, just a couple of times – once when she’d been eleven-years-old, when her father had still been alive, and again when she’d been seventeen, not long after her father had died. She and her mum had gone for the summer, spending a few months over there with Ava’s father, Clayton. A big-built man with a booming voice, he’d been Sheriff of that town for decades, commanding respect from everyone who lived there, and Cassidy had always been slightly in awe of him, of the way he could sort anything out for anyone without any fuss. He was very much a practical man, which is where Cassidy suspected her mother got a lot of her no-nonsense attitude from. Whereas Cassidy, on the other hand, was very much a dreamer. She lived with her head in the clouds a lot of the time, but that was the way she liked it.
‘No. You’re not disturbing me. What’s up? It’s not Mason, is it?’
‘No. Mason’s fine. He called earlier, though…’
‘Oh, Mum, he hasn’t been asking for money, has he?’
Sometimes Mason played on his grandma’s emotions, knowing she would always fall for his charm and give him whatever he wanted. She lived in London now, far away from her daughter and grandson’s home in north east England, and Mason knew she wished she could see more of them. He knew she had her own way of trying to make up for the fact she didn’t see enough of him. He’d always managed to wrap her around his little finger, but just because Ava was well off, it didn’t mean he had to go trying to score money off her whenever he needed it. That wasn’t what Cassidy wanted, because she knew that her mum always gave in to him. He needed to know the value of money, not assume he could just get it from his grandmother.
‘No, he hasn’t been asking for money. But where’s the harm in me giving him a little something towards his college fund? It’s an expensive business, university, Cassidy. And you know I want to help you all I can.’
‘I think I can manage to see my son through university, Mum.’
‘Stubborn as ever, I see.’
‘And I wonder where I get that from. Anyway, what’s wrong? You never call without a reason, so…’
There was a slight pause before Ava spoke again. ‘It’s your granddaddy, honey. He’s gone. Last night. According to your Aunt Lynette he died in his sleep. A peaceful end by all accounts. Just the way he wanted it.’
Cassidy felt her stomach sink slightly. She’d never seen all that much of her granddad Clayton, but she still had happy memories of him. The first time she’d gone over to the States to see him she remembered him showing her around the small but friendly little town he’d lived in all his life, dressed in his Sheriff’s uniform, and she’d felt so important sitting beside him in his Sheriff’s car. He’d even taken her into the big city one day, which, at the time, had fascinated a young Cassidy. It had all felt so big, so very different to her life back home in Britain.
The last time she’d seen him had been a long time ago, though. Once she became a teenager her life changed, there were other things she wanted to do, other things had got in the way and she hadn’t been back to see him in almost nineteen years. Something she felt a little guilty about now. And sad that he’d never met his great-grandson. He’d only ever seen Mason in photographs or when he’d talked to him via Skype. And that feeling of guilt grew stronger because she knew that was her fault. Mason had always wanted to go over and visit his American granddad – it was Cassidy who’d stopped it from happening. Maybe she’d just been too protective. But she’d had her reasons.
‘Oh, Mum. I’m so sorry.’
‘It’s okay, darlin’. We all knew he didn’t have long left. I just wish I’d been able to be with him at the end.’
‘He knew we loved him, though, didn’t he? He knew we were all thinking of him.’
‘Oh yes, baby. He knew. He knew… Listen, honey, the funeral. It’s next week, over in Glenville. I’ve booked the flights…’
‘Whoa, hang on, Mum. I… Look, as much as I loved Granddad Clayton I’m not sure I can get the time off…’
‘Oh, baby, come on. This is your Granddaddy we’re talking about here. We saw precious little of him when he was alive, the least we can do is be there to say a proper goodbye. And Mason is so looking forward to finally going over there, even if the circumstances could have been better.’
‘Mum… I… Jesus! What about Mason’s birthday party? I can’t believe you spoke to him before you talked to me.’
‘Mason is quite happy to postpone his party until we get back home. And he doesn’t start university for another few months yet, so, where’s the problem? I haven’t seen the old town for such a long time, honey. And aren’t you curious to go back and see what’s changed since you were last there?’
Cassidy closed her eyes, rubbing the bridge of her nose. ‘The funeral’s in Glenville?’ Her voice was quiet, an almost resigned tone to it now. Her mother had spoken. The decisions had already been made. Whether she agreed with them or not.
‘Where else would it be?’
Cassidy swallowed hard, sitting back in her chair. ‘I haven’t been back there for so long, Mum.’
‘Well, neither of us have, sweetheart. And, as much as I wish I was going back home for happier reasons, I’m quite looking forward to seeing the old place again. And Mason, well; he’s finally going to see some of his heritage.’
‘Yeah,’ Cassidy sighed. ‘Yeah. I guess he is.’
‘Old Clayton Carmichael passed away last night,’ Larry said, throwing a file down onto Ethan’s desk.
Ethan kicked it away with the heel of his cowboy boot, placing his hands behind his head as he leaned back in his chair. ‘He was a good guy, old Clayton. Did a lot for this town over the years.’
‘Yeah. He was a damn good Sheriff in his day. Think you can live up to his reputation? Now he ain’t here to keep an eye on you?’ Larry grinned, helping himself to coffee from the machine at the back of Ethan’s office.
Ethan grinned back. ‘Too busy living up to the reputation I already got without worrying about living up to someone else’s.’ He swung his feet off the desk, standing up and walking over to the filing cabinet.
‘You know, he never did approve of the way you came in here and turned things on their head. He ran this place real old school did Clayton. It took him a long time to get used to the way you work.’
Ethan turned around, nudging the drawer shut with his shoulder. ‘So I don’t wear a uniform. I can do my job just as well in jeans and cowboy boots. I mean, I’ve managed pretty well up ‘til now, don’t you think?’
Larry shrugged. ‘Hey, I like the way you run things, Ethan. You get the job done, and you don’t ask too many questions.’
‘Yeah, well, as long as we get results, does it matter what I’m wearing?’
Larry smiled, watching as Ethan picked up his Stetson and placed it on his head. ‘And you know fine well that’s what gets the women going round here, Ethan Everett. No wonder you wanted free of Rayner.’
‘I never wanted free of anyone, Larry. She was the one who chose to leave our marriage.’
‘You didn’t give her much choice, to be fair.’
‘I told her I ain’t changing for no one. She knew that before she floated up that aisle looking like some pretty hillbilly princess.’ Ethan whistled, shrugging on his jacket, sliding his phone into the pocket. ‘Boy, I sure do miss her sometimes.’
‘You miss the sex, you mean. Rayner Marshall always was one hot cookie in bed.’
Ethan threw his deputy a look as he strode towards the door. ‘You been with my ex-wife, Larry?’
‘Hell, sure half the town been with her at some point. Guess that’s why everyone thought you and Rayner might actually have managed to make a go of things. You know, on account of the fact you were two of a kind.’
Ethan stared at Larry for a second or two, before his face broke into a wide grin. ‘Yeah, well, didn’t really work out like that, did it? I’ll be over at Boyd’s Farm if anyone needs me. You can hold the fort here, can’t you?’
Larry nodded, helping himself to another cup of coffee. Ethan closed the door behind him, tipping his hat further down over his eyes as he walked out of the building, keeping his head down. His mood had turned somewhat since he’d heard of old Clayton Carmichael’s passing, and that unsettled him. He had everything going for him now – he had his life back, nobody else to worry about; only himself to please now Rayner was gone. And, despite the fact he’d always looked up to the old guy – because Larry was right, he had been one hell of a Sheriff in his day – now Clayton was gone he could go about his day-to-day business without always wondering if somebody was breathing down his neck, forcing their own ways onto him and making sure their obvious disapproval was very much noted. That was over. He was the main guy in Glenville now. And Ethan Everett was going to look after this town the way he saw fit. The way he’d always promised himself he would.
That last thought brought a smile back to his face as he pushed through the double doors that led outside, the early summer sunshine causing him to squint slightly. This was his town now. His. How much better could his life get?