Homecoming

Homecoming

Chapter 1

Lily Sommers sat impatiently on the crowded flight, dreading the moment when the pilot

would come on the intercom and announce it was time to prepare for landing. She wasn’t

looking forward to this trip. Not when the drive from the airport would end up in Sterling

Wood. Whenever she went home, it was stepping back in time from the fast, hectic pace of

her life in California. Nothing changed in Sterling Wood. Ever. If Jesse Watson, the Sterling

Wood Police Chief, had not called her day before yesterday and told her that her uncle, Jimmy

Richardson, was dead, she would not have returned so soon. The unexpected late-night

phone call changed that.

Uncle Jimmy was her mother’s brother. He lived in a rundown house a few miles down

the road from where she grew up. He loved his privacy and only came up to their house for

dinner, when his sister shamed him into it. He never stayed long afterward. He was a recluse

much of the time. The one thing she remembered about her uncle was he always had a ready

smile for everyone. There wasn’t anyone in town who didn’t like her uncle.

Lily admitted she wasn’t close to him. When she was growing up, he was always on the

road transporting industrial machinery to various locations in the continental United States

and Canada for Xavier Metal Works, a large local company in the area. After his road trips,

he spent much of his time in McHenry’s Pub or looking for General Braddock’s Gold, a futile

quest her father believed her uncle was obsessed with.

As her father told it, for more than a hundred years, fortune hunters had been trying to

find the gold General Braddock and his men buried along the Allegheny River while on their

way to fight the Indians during the French and Indian War. What General Braddock didn’t

know, was the riverbank where they supposedly buried the gold was the Youghiogheny

River, not the Allegheny River which was the intended burial site. That location was thought

to be the most likely burial, although there were others in Maryland and Virginia. The gold

was never found, and the story of the treasure became an urban legend.

But not to her uncle. He extensively studied the legend and kept a journal of his

activities. Each failed attempt ended with him drowning his sorrows at McHenry’s Pub, a

local watering hole, where Jesse would find him and bring him home.

Her father used to tell her about Jimmy’s exploits every time she came home. He

complained that Jimmy was seeking a treasure that would never be found, and he should be

doing more productive things with his time. Despite it all, her father loved Jimmy and they

were close.

First thing tomorrow morning, Lily planned to go to Sullivan’s Funeral Home and get all

of the arrangements made. She wanted to get the service over with as soon as possible. She

hated funerals and all the hoopla that went with them. The endless condolences, the

casseroles, and cakes she’d never eat. Not to mention, the lofty sermons and mournful songs

that tore at her soul. She wanted none of it, but tradition dictated that she grin and bear it.

Besides the funeral to endure, there was her family home and her uncle’s ramshackle

house to deal with. After her father, William Sommers, suffered a heart attack and died five

years ago, she didn’t hang around. She left the day after the funeral. At the time, the thought

of taking care of the house and its contents never crossed her mind. Now, she would have to

sort through her father’s things, the items her mother, Eleanora Sommers, didn’t take with

her when she left, and all of the things Uncle Jimmy brought with him after he moved in.

When her father died, her uncle asked if he could stay in the family home and she didn’t

object. The place he lived in was uninhabitable, and she doubted there was much there

worth saving.

She would go through both houses and donate what she could to the Salvation Army and

throw the rest away. With the two coal mines owned by the Xavier family closing in the last

three years, and hundreds of people out of work, the coal miners’ families would be able to

use the things that her father had squirreled away for decades. Her father was a pack rat --

he kept everything. Uncle Jimmy wasn’t much better. His place was so packed with stuff; you

could barely walk around it. It didn’t help that his house was only six hundred square feet.

Removing everything from both houses would require the Salvation Army to make

several trips in their ten-foot box truck, to haul thirty years of memories away. Afterward,

she would put both properties up for sale.

Lily often wondered why her father kept all of her mother’s things. She had been gone

for years, and it was obvious she was never coming back. Her father was heartbroken when

she left, and rarely talked about her unless Lily brought her name up. Her father loved her

mother, but she didn’t. She hated the woman for what she put the family through. As far as

she was concerned, her mother abandoned them and she had no use for her. Eleanora

Sommers could be dead as far as she knew, and she didn’t care.

One of the main reasons she came home regularly, was to check on her father and her

grandmother, Haddie Richardson. With her father gone, all that was left for her in Sterling

Wood was her grandmother, Uncle Jimmy, Sonya, and Jesse. Now, Uncle Jimmy was gone,

too. Once her grandmother passed away, she wouldn’t come back again and she hoped she

could talk Sonya and Jesse into coming to LA to visit her instead.

Maybe I can hire someone to help me, she thought. She would have asked her childhood

friend, Sonya Morrison Stone, to help but she was seven months pregnant and big as a

house. Sonya told Lily her ankles and feet had swollen so much over the last few weeks, her

obstetrician ordered her on bed rest. Lily smiled. She loved Sonya. They had been best

friends since kindergarten. Sonya called her at least once a month and kept her up on the

local gossip, even though Lily told her she didn’t care to hear it. Sonya always ignored her

and continued to recount the endless tales of Sterling Wood drama. But there was one

subject they didn’t discuss, and Lily was so grateful. He was the one person in Sterling Wood

she tried to never think about – Luc Pearson.

Lily suddenly wondered if Luc would be at her uncle’s funeral. Her heart did a little flip

as she recalled seeing him at her father’s graveside funeral service at Gethsemane Memorial

Cemetery. Luc had been more handsome than she remembered from high school. Her eyes 

roamed over the stylish black suit that did little to hide his broad-chest and six-foot-two

frame. He’d put on a significant amount of muscle in all the right places since she’d last seen

him, right before she left Sterling Wood to attend college at the University of San

Francisco. His straight, expresso brown hair was longer than it had been then. It was pulled

back in a tight ponytail. She tried not to stare at him as he stood on the other side of her

father’s grave, with a handful of townspeople. He looked directly at her with those startling

green eyes, and she was instantly enthralled.

For a moment, she couldn’t breathe. The impact of their failed relationship hit her hard

and swift. The what-ifs swirled in her mind, and her head throbbed. How could their

relationship have ended so badly? She tore her eyes away from his and saw Stephanie Xavier

walk up and kiss his cheek. Luc glared at Stephanie, but Lily was barely aware of it. The

images of the last time she saw Luc flickered through her mind like a bad movie. The images

were burned in her mind and on her heart forever. Seeing Stephanie made it much

worse. She felt sick.

She was on the verge of hyperventilating when she heard Pastor Bradley’s voice. He

was speaking to her.

“Lily, dear, would you like to say a few words?”

She was jolted back to reality as she stared at him without speaking.

“Lily? Do you want to speak?”

“Yes,” she stammered out awkwardly.

Jesse, who was sitting with her and Uncle Jimmy, touched her arm lightly and whispered

in her ear. “Are you alright, Lil?”

“I’m fine,” she whispered back, and tried to smile at him, but fell short. “I just want this

to be over.”

“Soon, baby doll. You don’t have to get up there and speak if you don’t want to.”

Lily stared into Jesse’s sincere blue eyes, and tears welled in hers. “I have to. For my

father.”

She blinked the tears away as she stood mechanically and walked to the podium. She

stared into the faces of people she’d known all of her life. She tried to avoid looking at Luc,

but her eyes went instinctively to him. He smiled and nodded, silently giving her

encouragement. At that moment, she wondered why they broke up, but the pain of that

horrible memory abruptly swept her thought away. She knew why and she couldn’t think

about it. Not at her father’s funeral.

“My father, William Sommers, was the best father any daughter could ever wish for. He

was always there for me and my brother, Robbie. He always put us first, and I miss him so

much.” Lily looked down at her father’s flower-covered casket and a single tear rolled down

her cheek. “Daddy, you’re not alone. You are with God now. Someday, I will see you again. I

love you.”

Lily turned away from the podium and with tear-filled eyes, headed for her seat. Jesse

stood up to help her back to her chair. She glanced up for a second to see Luc stand up and

Stephanie grabbed his arm to stop him. He grudgingly sat back down, but his eyes never left

hers. Was he trying to get to her? Dear god, she really wanted him to. The unexpected gesture

pushed her emotions over the edge and she began to sob.

Jesse wrapped his arms around her shoulders and let her cry against him. He whispered

to her and gently stroked her hair. Uncle Jimmy sat on the other side of her, hunched over

with his head in his hands and wept.

As soon as the service was over, Uncle Jimmy jumped in his pickup truck and sped away.

He was probably going to drown his grief at McHenry’s Pub. Jesse would retrieve him later

and bring him home.

Jesse went to talk to Pastor Bradley, and Lily stood alone watching her father’s casket

being lowered into the ground. She was surprised when she looked up to find Luc making

his way toward her.

Luc’s eyes swept over her with an emotion she dared not define. “I am so sorry for your

loss, Lily. Your father was a good man.”

She looked at him, and her heart melted. She couldn’t help it. She felt so vulnerable and

so alone. She was on the verge of telling him how much she missed him, when she saw

Stephanie come up behind him and wrap her arm possessively around his. The words died

on the tip of her tongue. “Thank you, Luc,” she replied instead. She regarded Stephanie with

a face devoid of emotion. “Hello, Stephanie.”

Stephanie Xavier’s beautiful face was glowing. Didn’t she realize this was a funeral; a

solemn occasion marked by loss and pain — not a photo shoot for The Sterling Wood Herald

society page.

“It’s too bad that death is the only thing that brought you back to Sterling Wood. How

long has it been?”

“Stephanie!” Luc growled, his eyes blazing down at her.

“Sorry,” she flinched. “What I meant to say is, that California must be so different from

Sterling Wood. I always wanted to go there, but Daddy wouldn’t hear of it. I wouldn’t leave it

either if I were in your shoes.” She squeezed Luc’s arm tighter. “We sure do miss you around

here.”

Who's we? Lily thought caustically. Does she mean her and Luc?

“I’m very busy with my photography business. I travel a lot and don’t have much time

for anything else.”

“That’s what Uncle Bronson told me. He said he'd seen your photos in a variety of travel

magazines. He said you are terrific.”

“Yes, you are,” Luc interjected, as he removed Stephanie’s grip on his arm. “You have a

great eye for capturing the perfect shot.”

Lily smiled at him, surprised he was familiar with her work. “Thank you.” Their eyes

locked and for a moment, nothing else existed around them. Luc’s eyes softened to sparkling

pools of emerald, and she was drawn into them. Sucked into them was more the truth and

she had no willpower to look away. That’s why she avoided him whenever she came to

town. She was still heartbroken over catching him with Stephanie. She had to face the truth.

Luc didn’t want her. The fact was staring her in the face. The thought was painful, but the

way he was looking at her was confusing. There was longing in his eyes, even though he

didn’t say the words. Maybe it was because she was something he could not have. Not

anymore.

“Sorry the rest of my family couldn’t be here today,” Stephanie replied quickly, breaking

their connection. “My uncle is out of town, and my father is caring for my mother. She’s

having one of her episodes. If there’s anything I can do…”

Lily forced a smile. “Thank you, but I’m fine.”

“Lil,” Jesse said, as he approached and put an arm around her. “I was looking for you.”

Lily looked up at him and smiled. “I’m right here,” she said, more cheerfully than she

felt. “Thank you for worrying about me.” Each word scratched her raw throat like sandpaper.

“Always, Lil, always.” Jesse leaned down and kissed her forehead.

Luc’s eyes narrowed as they swept over Lily and Jesse. He did not look happy.

“How’s it going, Luc?” Jesse asked, in his usual pleasant voice.

“It’s going,” he quickly said, as he continued to glare at him.

Lily was shocked by Luc’s tone, but Jesse didn’t seem to notice.

Stephanie leaned up and whispered in Luc’s ear, then stared back at Lily and smiled

coquettishly. Luke frowned.

“Got to go. We’re late for dinner with Luc’s parents. Again, sorry for your loss. Maybe

I’ll see you while you’re still here. We’ll catch up.” She tugged a reluctant Luc away, before

he had the chance to say anything else.

Luc looked back at her, and she saw the regret in his eyes and wondered what he was

thinking. Did he regret leaving her? Was there something more? She wanted to believe

there was, but wasn’t it pointless when he was with Stephanie? How could she compete with

the most sought-after young woman in town? With her good looks, killer body, and her

family’s wealth; who could blame every man in town for wanting her? In Sterling Wood, if

you were a Xavier, you were local royalty.

Luc’s mother, Regina Pearson, made no secret she wanted her son to marry

Stephanie. She also didn’t hide the fact that she disapproved of Lily when she and Luc were

dating in high school. Regina didn’t want her son with a poor black girl. In her mind, she and 

Luc had no future, and she pushed her son toward Stephanie every chance she got. Luc had

always ignored his mother and dated Lily anyway. But things have changed.

She stared after Luc and Stephanie as they left the cemetery, and felt her heart being

ripped out again as it had been six years ago. Seeing Luc and Stephanie together again,

brought that cursed night back in blinding technicolor and crushed her all over again. Luc

was her high school sweetheart, and he had broken her heart. Dear God, why did she have

to come back? It was a stupid question. She came back to bury her father.

After leaving Sterling Wood, she went to the University of San Francisco on a full ride

scholarship and received a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in photography. She had a good life.

After she graduated, she landed a job in a San Francisco based marketing agency. She

worked hard and paid her dues. Instead of taking the promotion her boss offered her, she

decided to start her own photography company, Strictly Defiant Photography. Her business

took off fairly quickly, and she soon traveled the world doing photo shoots in some of the

less known tourist locations, and was paid handsomely for it. She gained quite the

reputation in the industry for her ability to capture life and nature in unique ways. She was

in demand. She loved her work and was so busy; it gave her little time to think of Sterling

Wood and the man she left behind.

In the years she had periodically come home to visit her father and her grandmother,

she never saw Luc once, and that’s the way she liked it. She wanted to avoid all contact with

him, so she didn’t go to the pub or frequent any of the places where she might run into

him. She had been lucky; until her father’s funeral and there was no way to avoid that. It

was fitting that he attended. Luc was a regular visitor at their house, and her father liked him.

He wasn’t thrilled she was dating a white boy, but he didn’t tell her not to. He always let her

make her own decisions. She wasn’t ready to see him at her father’s funeral, and she wasn't

prepared to see him now. She wasn’t sure she’d ever be.

Lily pushed those thoughts away as she picked up her suitcase at baggage claim and

went to the rental car counter. She scolded herself for dwelling on the past. There was

nothing she could do to change it. She just had to get through the next two weeks and then

she could go home to California and her life there.

Chapter 2

The forty-five-minute drive from Pittsburgh International Airport in her rental car was a

pleasant one, and brought back good memories. Memories of driving with her brother and

her parents to the country, to dig sassafras roots, and pick crabapples. She remembered

crushing walnuts skins and picking hickory nuts. Her mother would sell most of their bounty

at the local farmers’ market, along with the vegetables she grew in their garden and fruit the

family harvested from their fruit trees. She even had a flower garden where she grew a

variety of flowers for sale. Eleanora Sommers had quite the green thumb. It was something

Lily didn’t inherit. She barely managed to keep the cactus in her condo alive.

Along the highway, the autumn foliage brought the hillsides to life with an eruption of

yellow, burnt orange, deep burgundy, and red. As much as she didn’t like coming back home,

the outdoor scenery in Pennsylvania was unsurpassed. With the cities separated by rolling

hills and lovely forests; it was postcard perfect. The cities here did not meld into one another

like some cities in California. That’s the one thing she couldn’t take away from the state she

was born in.

The people -- well that was a whole other story. But her bitterness had little to do with

the people in town, but how she left it. There was a lot to be said for small-town charm. The

people in the LA area were a little self-absorbed and not that social. It was wealth, fame, and

privilege that drew the attention and the foundation on which friendships were made. One’s

address was everything, and it dictated your status in the world. It was funny. The detached

way of life in LA, was what she liked about the overpopulated city. If she wanted anonymity,

she got it in spades.

Lily drifted back to her surroundings, and she thought of Black Water Falls in West

Virginia, another state where the landscape was unequaled. She loved the falls and would

make a point of driving down there to take some photos before she left town. Some of her

clients might be interested in them, so she brought her new cameras with her. It would also

give her a much-needed break from Sterling Wood, the funeral, and going through her

parents’ and Uncle Jimmy’s things. It was going to take days to do that. A day or two away

from that grueling task would be a welcome distraction.

When she normally came into town, she only stayed a few hours and then drove back to

Pittsburgh. There, she would spend the night in a hotel near the airport, so she could take an

early flight back to California. But this trip would be different, and she would have to stay

longer. She was dreading it. God, why did Uncle Jimmy have to die and force her to come

back here before she was scheduled? She would take care of everything and go back to her

routine. Once her grandmother passed on, she would never have to come back to Sterling

Wood again.

Before she knew it, she was in the center of town. It was nearly dusk, and there weren’t

many people on the streets. Most of the stores were closed. The red light in front of the old

movie theater turned green, and she accelerated. Nothing in town ever changed. The quaint,

red-brick storefronts that housed used books, antiques, souvenirs, and home goods were still 

charming. The buildings themselves were steeped in local history. The tables of the outdoor

café were nearly empty. It was an Indian Summer, and the outside tables and chairs would

remain until it got too cold to eat outside. The local newspaper, The Sterling Wood Herald,

was housed on the first floor of the two-story building that stood on the street corner she

was approaching. Above the newspaper office was the only radio station in town. They

broadcast the area news and played golden oldies all day long. Directly in front of her, was

the Sterling Wood Courthouse that dated back to the mid-1800s. When she was a little girl,

her father would take her and her brother downtown to sit on the courthouse wall and

people watch. Afterward, they’d go to the ice cream shop. She and Robbie would have a

vanilla milkshake, and her father had a root beer float, or they would go to the Sterling Wood

Diner for an early dinner. Those were the times with her father and her brother she

cherished most. They were gone now, and she missed them so much.

She drove through the residential area until she came out on the other side of town,

where the row of small, single-story houses and the lawns were separated by old chain link

fences. Many of the properties had multiple acres.

She pulled into the driveway of a white bungalow with pale blue shutters. It was her

childhood home. Jesse Watson was waiting for her, leaning casually against his police car.

Even in the waning daylight, she could tell the last few days had been rough on him. Her

suspicions were confirmed when he pushed his police cap up to reveal the rest of his face.

She got out of her rental car, and she saw the full affect her uncle’s death had on him. He had

days of unshaven beard on his face, and his eyes were bloodshot. So unlike the attractive,

clean-shaven blue-eyed blonde, she’d known since childhood. Jesse never lacked for female

attention. He and Uncle Jimmy had a way with the ladies.

In high school, Jesse and her Uncle Jimmy were inseparable. They were both on the high

school football team and had aspirations of going to the NFL, but they both sustained injuries

that prevented them from pursuing that dream. Jesse got hired on at the Sterling Wood

Police Department and eventually became Chief of Police, and Jimmy became a truck driver

for Xavier Metal Works.

She got out of the car and shut the door.

“You’re looking good, Lil,” Jesse said, as he pushed off his police car and started toward

her.

“Nice to see you, Jesse.”

When he reached her, he encircled her in a bear hug. Her head barely came up to his

chest. “I’m so glad you are here.”

Jesse couldn’t help but notice Lily was more beautiful now than she had been the last

time he’d seen her. She avoided everyone when she came into town to see her grandmother

except him and Sonya. She always made sure to see him but she never told him what

happened the night she left town. He always hoped she and Luc would work it out, but she

never tried, according to Luc. Luc had no clue why she left for California so suddenly without

him. Every time Luc saw him, he asked about her.

He had to admit; he was happy to see her, especially now with Jimmy being gone. They

were like family. As tough as he was, he didn’t think he could get through it without her. The

days and weeks to come were going to be sheer hell.

Lily grimaced as she looked away, hoping he didn’t see it. “It’s not where I want to be

you know that, Jesse, but I’ve missed you.”

“Missed you too. How’s life been treating you?”

Jesse was in his late thirties, and he stayed in excellent shape. He was never arrogant

about his looks. He didn’t seem to notice when the local girls gawked at him, especially when

he was wearing swim trunks, diving into the community swimming pool in the summers.

Too bad he was like a brother to her and married, or she might have been interested in

him; if her heart hadn’t belonged to Luc.

Lily looked up at him and smiled as he let go of her. “I’m well, Jess,” she studied his face.

“How are Gladys and little Jesse? I’m sure he’s growing like a weed.”

Jesse stopped smiling. “Gladys left me, Lil. She took Little Jesse and moved to Texas

over a year ago. We’re divorced. I haven’t seen my son since they left. She even got a judge

in Texas to issue a restraining order against me. Said I was abusive and she was afraid of

me. Hell, I never laid a hand on her. I would never do that. I’m not allowed to visit my son,

part of the restraining order. I heard from her mother that Gladys’ new boyfriend forced her

to file it. No way I can prove it. My ex-mother-in-law says her boyfriend is dealing drugs and

didn’t want a police officer hanging around. It wasn’t good for his business. I’d file for sole

custody to get my son back, but don’t have the money right now to hire a lawyer. Since Gladys

resides in another state, it’s a little more complicated.” He shrugged. “Nothing I can do about

it, so I’m just trying to live my life. I got to tell you, Lil, it’s been rough. First Gladys leaves

with my son and now Jimmy.”

“Jesse, why didn’t you tell me? I’ve seen you three times in the last year, but you never

mentioned it.”

“I didn’t want to burden you with my problems. You’ve been through enough. Besides,

there was nothing you could do.”

“I could have been there for you just as you have for me. I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Jesse stopped and looked away, blinking back tears. He didn’t want to lose it in front of

Lily. He’d been holding in his tears since he saw Jimmy lying dead on the dried leaves in the

woods not far from the front gates of Gethsemane Memorial Cemetery, his eyes vacant in

death. He kept thinking if he had been a better friend, or had spent more time with him, his

best friend would still be alive. It was his heart talking and he knew deep down there was

nothing he could have done to prevent it.

Lily nodded. “How are you holding up?”

He smiled, but she could tell he forced it. “Ok,” he sighed. “Gonna miss that old son of a

bitch. He and I had some great times together. We were talking about going on a fishing trip

in a few weeks. He was supposed to be coming over the night he…” He stopped and blinked

rapidly, as he fought to maintain control.

“Jesse,” Lily said softly. “It’s okay. You don’t…”

“It was so hard on Jimmy, Lil, after your father died, he was adrift. He and your father

were close. Your father was his anchor; the one person he would listen to. He drank too

much, got into fights. Lost his job at the Xavier Metal Works a few months ago. The company

couldn’t afford to keep him on with the way he was drinking and carrying on. Showed up

drunk for work and the manager sent him home. Percy Xavier fired Jimmy the next day. I

can’t tell you how many times I got a call from the bartender at McHenry’s to come and get

him. I always took him home, instead of hauling him in and locking him in a holding cell for

the night. After I got off duty, I’d go over and stay with him.” Jesse’s chest heaved with

emotion. “He was my friend. My best friend.”

Lily looked away, feeling guilty; she didn’t know how much her uncle was struggling. He

was out of town most of the time driving trucks. She hated to admit it, but when she came

into town after her father died and her Uncle Jimmy had moved in, she would see her father’s

F150 truck parked in the driveway, and go straight to the assisted living facility to see her

grandmother. She wanted to see the old place, but didn’t want to talk to him. They had little

in common and she honestly didn’t know what to say to him.

When her father was still alive, she stayed there. After he died, she never stayed in

Sterling Wood. One of the main reasons was she didn’t want Luc to see her. He would have

known she was there. Nothing in town ever remained a secret. She never wanted to take a

chance he would seek her out, and luckily, he never did. But why would he? He was with

Stephanie.

“Uncle Jimmy and I were never close, but I was always close to you. I loved him and

would have done anything for him if he ever asked. He was my blood. I didn’t know how

bad it was. I wished I had. Maybe I could have helped him.”

“I know you would have, but there was nothing you could have done. You’re a good

kid. Always have been. But you had your life and career in California. I had Jimmy’s back as

much as he would let me. Recently, Jimmy told me he found out something that would change

everything. When I asked him what he was talking about, he shrugged but didn’t

answer. Jimmy had been more obsessed than usual with finding Braddock’s lost gold. That’s

what I thought he meant. I thought that’s what Jimmy was doing the day he died; looking for

that damned gold. But I could be wrong.”

Lily frowned. “What do you mean, Jess? How did Uncle Jimmy die?”

Jesse pursed his lips. “He was murdered, Lil. Had a bullet hole in his right temple. A

gun was found beside his body. Someone tried to make it look like a suicide, but Jimmy

would never take his own life. Never.” He drew a deep breath. He was relieved. He’d only

talked to two other people about what he suspected. He told Luc and Harvey, the medical 

examiner, his suspicions after Jimmy’s body was removed from the crime scene. They both

agreed with him. But that was not going to solve Jimmy’s case. He needed hard evidence and

he had nothing to go on. He would have to interview Jimmy’s acquaintances in the

neighboring towns – that meant every bar in town. If that’s what it took to find his killer, he

would do it. Without evidence to the contrary, no one else would believe him.

The color drained from Lily’s face. “Why would someone do that? Who would want

Uncle Jimmy dead?”

Jesse shifted and pulled his police cap back down. “I don’t know, but I’m damn well

going to find out.” 

Chapter 3

Lily froze in place. She was afraid to move for fear her legs would buckle, and she’d be on

her ass on the gravel driveway. Uncle Jimmy murdered? She thought, what the hell is going

on?

“Lil, are you all right?” Jesse eyed her critically.

She stumbled slightly. “I’m not sure.”

He grabbed her arms and held her steady. “Let’s get you in the house.” He wrapped an

arm around her waist, and helped her up the stairs and onto the porch.

Lily fished the house key out of her purse and tried to unlock it, but her hand was

shaking so much she couldn't get the key in the lock. Jesse took the key from her.

“Let me do that.” He opened the door and led her inside. He got her settled in an

armchair by the window. “I still have a key to the house, Lil. When I came over yesterday

morning to find a suit for Jimmy for the funeral, I saw what condition the house was in and

had someone come in and tidy the house up for you. Jimmy was a slob, and I didn’t want you

to come home to that.”

“Thanks, Jess, I appreciate it,” Lily said, out of breath.

“Sit tight, I’ll get you a glass of water.” He went into the kitchen, and she heard him

rummaging through the cabinets.

Lily looked around the room, trying to get her bearings. Little had changed since the

last time she’d been there. Had she expected it to be different? Her dad had done nothing

after her mother disappeared, and when he died, Uncle Jimmy moved in and left things as

they were.

“Here, drink this,’ Jesse encouraged. “It will make you feel better.”

Lily took a sip of water. “How are you going to prove Uncle Jimmy didn’t kill himself?”

He frowned. “I’m not sure yet, but I know Jimmy. He would never take his own

life. Regardless of how hard he’s had it over the last few years, he didn’t want to die. If he

had been desperate to do that, he would have come to me and asked me to put a bullet in his

head.”

“Would you have done it?”

“No. If I have to live in this miserable fucked up world, so should Jimmy. I would never

hurt him, even if sometimes he deserved it. He could be a real bastard when he was

drinking. That was the only time I considered shooting him.” He slumped into the recliner.

“Do you have any evidence?” She picked up the glass of water and took another drink.

Jesse shook his head. “I’m sorry, I can’t divulge any details yet. It’s an active police

investigation. The medical examiner is making one more sweep through the woods. He

should finish up today. When he’s through, I plan on going back out there and check things

out myself.”

Lily sipped the water thoughtfully. “Who found my uncle? Can you tell me that?”

He nodded then hesitated. “Yes. Lil, it was Luc who found Jimmy.”

Lily’s face paled as she was putting the glass down on the end table, but stopped in midmotion. “Luc? How? Why? What was he doing out there?”

Jesse crossed his leg over his knee. “He was collecting objects for one of his art pieces. I

don’t know if you know this, but Luc’s been creating sculptures out of organic materials and

recycled objects for years. He owns an art gallery in Pittsburgh.”

Lily set the glass down. “I knew that. He’s had art shows in Philly and Manhattan

too.” When Jesse lifted his eyebrows in surprise, she smiled. “I haven’t been oblivious to

what has been going on in Sterling Wood. Sonya keeps me informed whether I like it or not.”

“After your breakup with Luc, I thought you put the town and all of us behind you.”

“Not everyone, you know that. But Luc…” she paused. “Things didn’t end well.”

“Luc was so closed-mouthed after you left. He refused to talk about you. And you left

without telling him goodbye. It was easy to assume something must have happened between

you two.”

“I’ve never talked to anyone about it except Sonya and didn’t tell her everything. How

did you know?”

Jesse shrugged and grinned. “You know how it is when men in a bar have a few shots

together and shoot the shit. Things start coming out.” He paused. “Luc was pretty broken

up when you left. He was at the bar with his older brother, Larry, and a few guys from our

high school football team and we all got to talking. One of the guys asked about you and

Larry spilled the beans. Luc was so pissed his brother told us. He didn’t want us to know you

dumped him. I bought him a few shots of tequila even though he was underage. He looked

like he needed them. Afterward, he told me you left him and never told him why.”

Lily scowled. “I don’t know why he was so upset. He had Stephanie Xavier to comfort

him.”

“It wasn’t like that. Luc said he was packed and ready to go, Lil. You left and didn’t look

back. That’s what he told me.”

She put her hands in the air. “I was the victim, not Luc. I’ll tell you what happened the

night I left for California.”

Jesse uncrossed his legs and sat up in the recliner. “You are family to me too, Lil. You

always have been. You’re the little sister I never had.”

Lily’s heart clenched as she immediately thought of Robbie, her older brother. He died

when she was seven-years-old. He was eleven. Her brother was found dead near the

Number 16 Coal Mine in a drainage ditch. He was stabbed multiple times in the chest. There

wasn’t a day that went by when she didn’t think of him. Of his crazy sense of humor and that

silly crooked smile. She missed him so much.

“Lily, what’s wrong?” Concern spread across his face.

She looked over to Jesse and smiled. “I was thinking of Robbie. All this talk of family

brings that horrific day rushing back, even though I was too young to remember most of it.

What I do remember is not being able to talk to him or play outside with him. At the time, I

didn’t understand why he wasn’t there anymore. He was just gone.” She blinked back

tears. “I’m so glad to have you in my life, even more so after Robbie was gone. I needed a big

brother, and you were always there.”

“I’ll always be here for you.”

“I know.”

Jesse sat back in the recliner. “Tell me what happened the night you left for California.”

She was surprised he brought it up and she didn’t want to open those old wounds, but

she needed to. She’d held the words in too long. She needed to be free of them. She knew it

should be Luc she was talking to, but she didn’t know how to.

She took a deep breath and exhaled, trying to rid herself of the sudden anxiety that

gripped her. “I was supposed to meet Luc that night after going to see my grandma. I wanted

to tell her goodbye. He told me he’d be home from work by the time I got back from the

assisted living facility and would be waiting for me. So I went home, took a quick shower,

and drove over to his house. All of the lights were off in his parents’ house except for the

lamp in the living room and his bedroom. His parents were out of town, and we’d have the

house to ourselves. We were going to talk about the trip and other things.” She blushed and

looked down at her hands which she was twisting nervously.

Jesse laughed. “Nothing to be embarrassed about. I was young once too. I know all

about raging male hormones.”

“Jesse...” Lily admonished.

He waved for her to continue. “Sorry. Just me and my dirty mind. Please continue.”

“I knocked on the front door and got no answer. I turned the doorknob, and the door

opened. I shouted for Luc and still got no answer, so I headed upstairs. When I got to Luc’s

bedroom door, I was going to knock, but I heard a feminine voice and stopped. I was afraid

to look inside, but I opened it anyway and peered in. Luc was lying naked on the bed with

his eyes closed while Stephanie Xavier, dressed in nothing but panties and a bra, was leaning

over his midsection, her head bobbing up and down. Luc was moaning softly. Stephanie

flipped her long hair back over her shoulder, and I already knew what I would see. She was

giving Luc a blow job.”

Jesse took Lily’s hand. “I’m so sorry, Lil.”

“I couldn’t say anything,” Lily continued. “I just stood there in the doorway. The words

stuck in my throat. My boyfriend, my Luc, was being serviced by the town slut and enjoying

it. When I finally could move again, I ran down the stairs. I leaned against the front door to

get my bearings. I felt sick and wanted to throw up. The sight of her sucking him off played

over and over in my mind. God, I wanted the Earth to open up and swallow me.

“That morning started so great. I was leaving for college and Luc was coming with

me. We had it all planned. We were going to get an apartment, and I’d go to school while he

got a part-time job and went to school in the evenings. After we both graduated, we were

going to get married. The future we planned together was so bright, so full of hope. Within

seconds, that dream of a happy life was obliterated by his infidelity. I began to wonder if it

was the first time or had he been playing me all along. Dating me and fucking her on the

side. At that moment, I hated them both.

“I didn’t see Stephanie’s red convertible until I was halfway down the street. She didn’t

park in front of Luc’s house. She didn’t want her daddy to know she was there. Sonya

overheard her tell Melissa that her father didn’t approve of Luc. He wanted her to marry an

Ivy League man, not a boy from a Sterling Wood blue-collar family.”

Jesse rolled his eyes. “Percy Xavier has always been an arrogant bastard. He always

thought he was better than the rest of us. He’s nothing like his older brother

Bronson. Bronson has always been a stand-up guy.”

“Yes, I remember that about Bronson Xavier. Percy rarely spoke to me when I would

see him in town, but his brother always had a kind word to say. He always asked about my

family.”

“Lil, you’re wrong about Luc. He wasn’t willingly with Stephanie that night or any other

night.”

Lily frowned. “What do you mean? I saw him. It doesn’t surprise me. Stephanie had a

crush on Luc for years, but he never showed any interest in her, and it pissed her off. But she

never gave up, even after he started dating me. Luc used to complain about how much she

annoyed him. I guess he got over it.”

“The truth about what happened is far different. What you saw was a guy wiped out

from working all day. Luc told me he fell asleep waiting for you. He woke up thinking it was

you that was touching him, only to find Stephanie naked and trying to mount him. He pushed

her so hard she fell on the floor. He made her leave. He waited for you, but you never showed

up. When he didn’t hear from you, he got worried and drove to your house. When he got

there, your dad told him you were taking a redeye flight to California that night and Jimmy

drove you to the airport to check-in and wait for your flight. Luc headed for the airport but

there was a fatal car accident on the highway, and the traffic was backed up for miles. By the

time the accident was cleared, and the traffic was flowing again, it was too late. He got to the

airport just as your plane was taking off.”

“Luc did that?”

“Yes, Lil. He honestly didn’t know why you left without him. He said he tried to call your

cell phone for days after you left, but you never picked up. He called the manager at the

apartment building you were planning to rent, and he told him you never moved in. He

wanted to fly out to California to find you, but he didn’t know where to start looking. He had

no way to find you. Your father refused to tell him anything. He told Luc it was better that

way and he wanted you to find a nice young black man to settle down with.” Jesse cocked a

sideways glance at her. “Your father didn’t approve of your relationship with Luc?”

“No,” was all she said, as she processed everything Jesse told her.

“Why, Lil? Luc is a great guy.”

“My dad was old school. He didn’t believe in dating outside our race.” Lily stared at

Jesse with luminous hazel eyes. “Did you believe him? Did you believe Luc.”

He smiled sadly at her. “Yes. The Luc I know wouldn’t make up something like that.”

“But I saw the two of them at my father’s funeral.”

Jesse scoffed. “What you saw was Luc coming to the funeral alone and Stephanie

showing up to find out what he’d do when he saw you. The dinner plans she bragged about

didn’t happen. He walked her to her little red convertible and went to his art studio in

Pittsburgh. There was no dinner with his parents. Luc can’t stand Stephanie. Believe me;

there were other forces at work too. Luc’s mother, Regina, has done everything she can to

get Stephanie and him together. She’s even had tea with Stephanie’s mother, Rosemary, and

tried to plead her case, but Rosemary is as crazy as a loon and nothing she says when she is

lucid is taken seriously. Percy is staunchly against the match, so that’s never going to

happen.”

Lily stared at him, too stunned to respond. Could she have been so wrong? Had she

misinterpreted everything she saw in Luc’s room and years later at her father’s funeral?

He looked earnestly at her. “Lil, talk to Luc. Hear what he has to say. Clear the air. Fix

your relationship. You two were meant to be together.”

“I don’t know if that’s true anymore, Jesse. Besides, it’s too late. I’m in a relationship

and my boyfriend is pushing me to move in with him.” She didn’t mention the fact that she

was going to break up with him when she got back to California. He wasn’t the obstacle. She

was.

“You’re still single. I don’t see an engagement ring on your finger. Lil, all I’m asking you

to do is take the time while you’re here to explore the possibilities with Luc. If you don’t, you

may regret it for the rest of your life.”

Chapter 4

Lily sat alone in the Lincoln Town car owned by the funeral home, as it traveled the half mile

to the Gethsemane Memorial Cemetery. Jesse asked her if she wanted him to ride with her,

but she knew he would prefer to lead the funeral procession in his patrol car and she wanted

him to do that. Besides, finding out who killed her uncle, it was his final act he would do for

his best friend. Strong, kind, steady as a rock; Jesse needed that.

The car drove through the massive wrought iron gate, down the gravel road along the

main section of the beautifully landscaped cemetery, past marble headstones, large granite

statues, and stately mausoleums to a less traveled road to the section where all of the AfricanAmerican residents of Sterling Wood were laid to rest. This part of the cemetery was not as

well maintained as the rest of it. No one complained about its debilitating

condition. Funerals were rarely held here anymore. The last person to be buried here was

her father.

The African American population of Sterling Wood was very small, with only a few

families remaining. Most lived on the outskirts of town. There were many prominent white

families in town; including the most affluent family, the Xaviers, whose ancestors were

deeply rooted in the South. While racial tensions were never incited by either the whites or

the blacks in town, there was an unspoken line neither group crossed. Blacks of Lily’s

generation left Sterling Wood for jobs in large cities or attended college elsewhere, like Lily

did and never returned. Was it the antiquated attitudes about race held by some of the white

residents the reason they left? Or, was it simply the lack of good job opportunities in

town? Lily believed it was a little of both. Her reason for leaving and not returning was

something much more basic, and had nothing to do with race. Lily left because Luc cheated

on her, but after talking to Jesse, she wasn’t sure the reason was still valid.

Since she and Jesse talked three days ago, she thought of nothing but their

conversation. Was it all a big misunderstanding? If it was, what does she do now? After all

of this time, was there a real chance for her and Luc to work it out? What about Santiago?