Ruth Long’s Picture Choice: One
Title: The Dirt Road Home
[Family and friends, they’re your gold, they’re your guardians. - Sean Hayes]
There was still blood under his nails and on his sleeves when he pulled onto the dirt road home. Shower and sleep was all he had on his mind but the freshly plowed road woke him up and the sight at the end of the pavement brought him up short.
What had been a haphazard arrangement of dilapidated trailers was now a neat row of restored mobiles and tidy gravel parking. What the hell had happened in the four days he'd been gone? The answer walked out of Seamus' trailer carrying a laundry basket.
He'd been on her heels off and on for two years but something always yanked him back before he crossed that line and tripped himself up. Now here he was as broken as he'd ever been and that line was a brick wall he was going to hit soon as he got out of the truck.
He parked and met her on the steps. "Evening, Layla."
She propped the basket on the railing and looked out across the snow dusted meadow. "All I'm going to say in my defense is that I couldn't stand by. Not this time."
He lit a cigarette and took a drag.
She turned to face him. "Look, maybe you don't want me, Connall, but right now, you need me. With Liam locked up and Seamus in the hospital, your family needs to make strong alliances."
She was wrong. He wanted her as much as he needed her. Wasn't going to say that though. Not now. Not yet. Maybe not ever. "Seamus still isn't home?"
She pushed her hair out of the way and rubbed her shoulder. "Not until tomorrow. I made arrangements for an aide to come out every afternoon the next two weeks to make sure he's doing alright and we know how to properly manage his care."
He took a couple more drags. "I'll pay you back soon as we get on our feet."
"No need. The union is picking up the medical bills, the property cleanup is courtesy of my brothers, and next week, Uncle Moose wants to talk to you about bringing Aiden and Liam into collections."
"He's taking on partners now?"
"No. Retiring and willing to sell the business to your family if you're interested. My brothers have their hands full with the bar and running shine. Mind if we go inside? It's awful cold to keep talking out here."
"Sure," he said, moving to open the door for her.
She scooted past him on the other side and headed down the steps and around the back of Seamus' place towards a trailer he'd never seen before and for a moment, his chest got so tight he couldn't breathe.
As they went through the front door, she said, "Patrick had this out back in hopes my daddy would move out there but he never did. I set it up as a community hub. Offices in the front bedrooms and coordinated meal prep and laundry at this end.”
He followed her to the laundry room and stood in the doorway. "What the hell is going on? You’ve come in here and completely restructured our property and lives.”
She closed the lid, switched on the wash cycle, and faced him. “I went through the books with Aiden and unless you make some serious changes, you’ll lose this property before spring.”
Damn it. He needed another cigarette. Or a punching bag. “How did you persuade Aiden to give you the ledgers?”
"The same way I persuade everyone. I know how to manage people and money. That's what I came in and did. Showed your brother the bottom line if he implemented my suggestions and he was sold."
“He didn’t have any right to let you in on family business. Shit, Layla! You didn’t have any right asking!”
“I told you soon as you got out of the truck that I couldn’t stand by any longer. I watched you almost lose your brother and then realize you were going to have to deal out retribution. I couldn’t let that sacrifice go to waste.”
He closed the distance between them. “What am I supposed to do here? Let you persuade me too?”
She shrugged. "I've never been able to persuade you to do anything, Connall. You always do what you damn well want."
"No, I don't. Isn't that the point? I took on my father's business after he died. I shouldered the blame for Dylan's accident last year. I avenged Seamus' beating. I didn't want any of that."
“We don't always get what we want. I've been running the bar, business, and books since my mama died. You think that's what I wanted?"
"What do you want, Layla?"
"Don't ask just to make conversation."
"I've never talked to you just to make conversation or pass the time."
She moved past him into the kitchen. "The same thing I've wanted every day since I was twelve."
He was on her heels now, in earnest this time. “Fifteen years is a long time to want something, girl. You should have given up a long time ago. Anybody else would have."
She paused at the kitchen window. "It's getting late and a storm's coming. I should go."
"Layla, you've always been in my head and my heart."
“But never your hands.”
“You know why.”
“You think I haven’t seen it before? I know what blood looks like. I know how it gets on my brother’s hands. Same way it gets on yours.”
He leaned forward and nuzzled the back of her neck.
She turned on the faucet and handed him a bar of soap.
He sighed. “Not enough soap in the world to wash off all the blood on my hands.”
“Maybe not, but you only need to clean up one day at a time. Wash your hands, throw your shirt in the laundry, and call it good for the day.”
He took the soap. “It’s getting late and a storm is coming. You should stay.”
There was still blood under his nails when he finished washing up and still on the sleeves of the shirt he threw in the washer. Shower and sleep were on his mind but not in that order and not before he and Layla got tangled in the sheets enough to make a dent in all the years of waiting.
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