There were three things Sage Nichols knew with absolute certainty.
Death couldn’t be escaped.
Mr. Right Now was never Mr. Right.
Hell wasn’t fire and Brimstone. It was a cold April day in Denver.
In the dark, dank basement of her sister’s house, Sage held up two sets of scrubs and looked at her dog Otis, who was sprawled across the bed. This was the time of night his poor body gave out. Missing a hind leg took a lot out of the Golden Retriever.
He lifted his head, and his amber eyes looked between the two uniforms. He touched the blue with his wet snout.
“Blue it is.”
She ruffled the fur around his neck, and Otis rolled to his back while she gave him his final belly rub of the night. He pulled back his lips to show his teeth in what she could only describe as a smile.
If Sage didn’t hurry, she’d be late to work. She yanked at her unruly curls and forced them into hair tie submission. Dressed, she took the stairs two at a time to the main level. The exertion got her blood pumping so she’d be ready to take on the triple shot latte her sister Lydia would pass off at the front door. After two years of working the night shift at the hospital, Sage should be used to the schedule, but she needed that surge of adrenaline that came from three hundred milligrams of caffeine.
Keys jingled in the front door lock, and Sage greeted her sister with a “Hey, Doc. How was your day?”
Lydia handed over the coffee. “Too long. One gunshot wound. One car accident. Can you believe a little boy broke his arm and leg playing Superman? He tied a tablecloth around his neck like it was a cape and jumped off the roof.” Lydia shook her head and wrapped Sage in a bear hug and squeezed. “Have a good night. Don’t kill anyone.”
“That’s always the goal.” Sage laughed at their conversation. Anyone unaware that Lydia worked triage at Denver General and Sage in the geriatric ward of the same hospital would find it shocking. Sadly, despite the gang fights, shootings, and car accidents average for the city, Sage saw more death than her sister.
The door closed behind Sage, and she walked into the thick layer of fog, normal for the spring when winter battled for its final breath. It was as if the cold had wrapped its fingers around the city and refused to let go.
She hopped into her RAV4, started the engine and pulled out of the driveway to cut through the arctic chill one mile at a time. Normally, the trip to work took twenty minutes, but with poor visibility, she’d be lucky to make it in thirty. She sipped her coffee. At least she’d have enough time to wake up before she had to do her rounds and fill out patient charts.
On the seat beside her was a stack of pink paper and envelopes for favorite patient Bea, the third such delivery in as many weeks. It was a good trade. She supplied paper, and Bea brought sunshine into Sage’s otherwise gloomy life. Hospitalized for pericarditis, Bea spent her days writing letters that seemed to disappear as quickly as Sage brought supplies.
Fluorescent lighting blinded her as she pulled into the parking spot reserved for the night-shift employees. There was no name on a placard for her. That benefit was reserved for important people like Lydia’s boyfriend, Doctor Adam McKay, the hottie who ran the ER.
“Everyone make it through the day?” Sage asked Tina as she arrived on the 9th floor ward. She tucked her purse into the desk drawer and set the stationery down on the desk for a later delivery. Tina handed over the clipboard so she could leave. The halls of the ward were quiet except for the beeping of heart monitors and the whir of oxygen tanks. All seemed in order.
Tina tucked the hair that had fallen from her ponytail behind her ears. “It’s been a busy day.”
That wasn’t the answer Sage wanted, but it was typical because talking about patients would keep Tina there a few more minutes, and she gave no one extra time. Five minutes later, Sage started the rounds, checking vitals and stats as she moved down the hallway of the nearly full ward. She pulled a chart from a once empty room to find it had been filled with a new patient. “Clive Russell.” Saying the name out loud helped reinforce the fact that these were real, living, breathing people, not just patient numbers on a page.
Sage skimmed through his records to see the hands of Clive’s life clock wouldn’t make the rotation much longer. He had stage four pancreatic cancer. A shiver raced down her spine. Of all the cancers she’d seen eat up her patients, pancreatic cancer seemed to be the one with the sharpest teeth and biggest appetite. It gnawed at her that she couldn’t save these people. She cared for them and did her best to bring them joy in their final days, but it wasn't enough.
She pasted on a brilliant smile and walked into his room.
Monitors beeped, and the air was filled with a scent that seemed to be synonymous with an older population. Sage tried to figure the smell out, but the closest thing she could ever come up with was Ben Gay for arthritis, mixed with contraband candy.
At ten o’clock, her patients were often fast asleep, but not this one. He sat up with his thick gray mane of hair shooting in every direction. A roadmap of lines etched deep into the face of the smiling man. His hand gripped the remote control. The glow of the television lit up his jaundiced skin.
“Hello, Mr. Russell,” Sage said in a quick, caffeine-induced rush.
For an eighty-year-old man, it surprised her he had all his teeth. “I told them not to send in my date until after the news.” His eyes shifted between her and the television.
While he watched his show, Sage moved through her checklist, which started with vitals and ended with fluids.
She wrapped his wrist with the blood pressure cuff and pressed the start button. The bladder filled and released as it counted the ebb and flow to his arteries. “I couldn’t wait to see you,” Sage said as she swiped the thermometer across his forehead and recorded his numbers. “They told me there was a handsome new man in town, but they didn’t do you justice.” She checked his IV fluid levels and the output from the bag collecting his urine.
The old man grinned. “Call me, Clive. I mean, since we’re on our first date and all.” His blue eyes shone behind the veil of his ill health.
“You’re a charmer, I see. Just the way I like my men—with a bit of mischief and a lot of sweet.” The fact that Clive Russell, a man fifty years her senior, was as close to being her boyfriend as any living, breathing person with an X and Y chromosome spoke to the sad state of her life.
“A beauty like you must have a boyfriend.” He adjusted his pillow and flopped back.
“Oh, I do. His name is Otis, and he has a thing for kibble and Milk-Bones.”
Clive laughed, then winced.
She filled his water and pulled a spare blanket from the cupboard in case he got chilled during the night. “Well, Clive, everything looks great.” Great being a relative term, its scale ran the gamut from “great for almost dead” to “great, you’ll make it out of here alive.” Clive sat low on the former scale. Even though the pallor of impending death dulled his skin, she was buoyed because Clive clutched onto every moment of life he had left. Or at least gripped the remote control as if it contained magic elixir, and to Clive, it might because he was not watching the news like he said. No, Clive was watching Game of Thrones, where there was a weekly dose of a naked blonde beauty called Khaleesi.
“Let me know when you get to the weather report.” Sage patted the old man’s hand.
She left him to his “news” with a promise to check in on him later, then continued her patient rounds. Mr. Dumont needed pain meds. Mrs. Young, who had celebrated her ninety-first birthday yesterday, needed a new IV bag. Nora Croxley needed a hug. Mr. Nolan needed to be slapped upside the head for flashing his old man parts for the second time this week.
In her second favorite patient's room, Sage found him sneaking a Snickers bar. “No junk food for you.” She confiscated the candy and reminded David Lark that a man with diabetes shouldn’t feed his disease.
“Come on, I gave up women. I gave up alcohol. I gave up swearing. I’m dying.” He watched her tuck the candy bar into her pocket.
“Not on my shift.” There was no dying allowed on Sage’s shift. That was one of her silly rules. One she could never enforce. She understood dying was a part of life. The minute a human was born, they started to die, but somewhere deep inside, she believed if she cared enough, worked hard enough, and brought joy to those around her, it would be enough to keep them tethered to this world.
As Sage passed the nurse’s station, she picked up the packet of pink stationery from the desk. She shouldn’t have favorites, but she did. Bea was hers. Just walking into the older woman’s room lifted Sage’s spirit. Despite Bea’s failing health, she was full of life. It didn’t hurt that Bea reminded her of Grandma Nichols with her head of white hair and a voice sweeter than honey.
Her mind skated around distant memories of her grandma who had stepped up to love and care for her and Lydia when their parents died. Had they really been gone for fifteen years? Grandma Dottie for two? She couldn't believe how fast time evaporated from a life.
Sage stopped at the lounge to get two cups of coffee. Sweet and creamy for Bea. Black and bitter for herself. She tucked the writing paper under her arm and hurried toward Bea’s room, ready for a hug and another story.
Bea entertained her with tales about her hometown of Aspen Cove. A town straight out of a television series. A place where everyone had enough. No one went without. All residents, though not related, were considered kin. Sage knew the stories were told from the perspective of a woman looking back on her life. Where the memory was sweeter than the reality, but Bea told it in a way that made it sound possible.
Coffee in hand, Sage turned her back on the closed door, pressed on the handle with her elbow, and shoved her tail end into the room. It was alarmingly silent and almost black, except for the outline of an empty bed. Bea was gone. The pink stationary fell from her arm and hit the floor, spreading out like a carpet to soak up the coffee that fell next. Sage stumbled back to the wall and slid down to the cold industrial floor—the lifeless white tile that filled the hallways of every institution. As the pink stationery soaked up the spilled coffee, Sage came to terms with the reality that Bea was gone.
There was no way she’d been released. Just yesterday she’d had a cardiac MRI, and no changes were noted in her condition. Nothing was better, but nothing was worse. Pericarditis didn’t cure itself overnight. No, her Bea was gone, and with her went one of the final sparks of light that shone in Sage’s eyes.
She pulled herself into a tight little ball and buried her face against her knees. She released a wail that sounded foreign but vibrated deep within her soul. She knew she needed to get on her feet and resume her shift, but her arms wouldn't move from the hug she wrapped herself in. Her eyes remained shut, trying to staunch the flood of tears. Her heart beat with a sluggish rhythm that negated the effects of her coffee.
Why did this life mean so much more than the rest? Why did Bea’s death create a cavernous hole inside her? It was one more loss in a life full of them. One more soul she’d tried to hold onto without success. Another person who abandoned her before she could say goodbye.
The heavy door opened, and her crying halted. A sliver of light cut through the darkness of the room, but not the darkness that invaded Sage’s soul. She looked up to see the outline of a man, but the bright light in the background made it impossible to see his face.
“Sage?” She recognized the baritone voice as her supervisor, Mr. Cross. He slipped into the quiet room and cast his shadow over her. “I need to see you in my office.” He didn’t wait for a reply. The door opened, the light seeped back in for a brief second, and he walked out leaving Sage cloaked in blackness once more.
Hands fisted, she swiped at her tear-stained cheeks and struggled to stand on legs too numb to feel. She pulled herself from the floor and straightened her uniform. Blood rushed from her head to her cold feet. The room spun, forcing her to lean against the gray walls for support.
After a quick splash of water to her face, she returned to the nurse’s station to find a nurse she didn’t recognize looking through the charts.
“Who are you filling in for?” Sage asked. With two nurses on the night shift, it was a reasonable question when the nurse in front of her wasn’t a regular.
The woman whose nametag read Terri said, “You. I came up from pediatrics. We were over-staffed.”
Sage’s stomach twisted and turned. “Oh, okay.” Mr. Cross had called for a replacement, so this couldn’t be good. “He’s expecting me.” It was time to face her fears.
When a boss summoned, there wasn’t a choice to stay or go, and so she went. She wound down the corridor to the left and approached the first door on her right. Sage stood at her supervisor’s closed door filled with apprehension. She’d never abandoned her post before, but since he had to come and find her, it meant he noticed her absence. She looked down at her watch and groaned. She’d missed thirty minutes of her shift sitting on the floor, mourning the woman she’d come to love like family.
It was bad enough Sage was filled with sorrow. Now she had to deal with the regret of poor choices.
It took her two more minutes to build up the courage to knock. The solid wood door thunked under her knuckles.
A muted voice told her to enter.
Her scrubs felt tight. A stethoscope hung around her neck and choked her like a noose. After a deep breath, she opened the door. The last time she was in this office was after her grandmother passed. Surely, two meltdowns in as many years weren't that bad. Well, two that were obvious. Internally, she suffered each time a patient left, but she’d always done her job—until tonight. No matter how much Sage tried to convince herself she was allowed to mourn, she knew emotions weren’t revered in her field. Grief got in the way of good decisions.
Mr. Cross didn’t stand. He leaned back in his big leather throne. “Have a seat.” He pointed to the chair in front of his desk, its sleek design more about looks than comfort. When she sat, the fabric’s rough texture poked through the thin cotton of her scrubs while the wooden arms offered no sense of softness or warmth.
“Mr. Cross,” she began. “I’m so sorry.”
He pushed forward and placed his elbows on the dark wood surface of his desk. His steepled fingers pressed to his lips. After what felt like a lifetime, he broke the silence. “I’m sorry about Bea. I know how much you cared.”
A lump stuck in her throat, forcing her to swallow hard. Tears pooled in her eyes, but she refused to allow them to drop. She looked at the ceiling in hopes they’d go back to where they came from, but her attempt at the return was futile as one escaped and ran down her cheek.
Mr. Cross slid a box of tissues across his desk.
Sage fought the urge to break down. Instead, she pulled a few tissues from the box and patted her eyes dry. “When did she pass?”
He picked up a clipboard and scanned for the information. “She was pronounced dead just after noon.” His voice had a sincere empathetic quality to it, surprising to Sage because Mr. Cross was always factual, not emotional. “We need to talk about your future here, Sage.” His monotone snapped back into place.
“I understand how this must look, but I’m only affected because I care.” Most people would believe a sensitive person makes the best nurse, but that’s not the case. Feelings are frowned upon when dealing with a population of people who suffer. It’s too hard to remain neutral when your heart is involved. Too hard to jab that needle into flesh when it hurts. Too hard to be honest when the truth is so brutal.
“Why did you transfer to this ward?” He pulled a manila folder from his drawer. The tab across the top showed Sage Nichols in bold black letters. He flipped it open. “You used to work in labor and delivery, where life outnumbers death. What happened?”
Her eyes drifted to her employee file. “I worked there for four years before I transferred to this ward a little over two years ago.”
“Why? Most people don’t go from birth to death in their career choices.”
Mr. Cross scribbled notes on a blank page in her file. Her heart rate sped. Would this be her first negative report? When her grandmother died, no one questioned her tears because the Dottie Nichols was a relative.
“I transferred so I could care for my grandmother, who was in this ward. It gave me more time with her.” It was a hard sell to the supervisor who held the position before Mr. Cross. Mrs. Stankowski denied her initial request, saying it wasn’t recommended, but she gave in to Sage’s endless pleading. Sage had worn her down and broken her resolve by numerous calls and visits and notes.
Disapproval etched in the lines on his forehead. “And you stayed because...?”
Sage fidgeted in the chair. “I wanted to make a difference in the last minutes of a person’s life.”
He lifted the edge of her employee folder and let it fall closed. His dour expression remained stiff as his hand rubbed across his stubbly jaw. Thin lips drew thinner with his frown. “I don’t think you’re a good fit for my ward.” If disappointment had a soundtrack, it came in Mr. Cross’s sinking tone. Every word an octave lower until only a vibration remained.
The floor felt like it opened up and sucked Sage into a dark pit below. “You don’t want people who care on your ward?” She gripped the arms of the chair so hard, she was certain she’d dent the wood.
Mr. Cross twisted his wedding ring in circles and stared at his wife’s picture like she’d offer counsel. “Caring is not the problem. You’re a good nurse, but not everyone is wired for death. In this ward, it happens with regularity. You have to be able to turn your emotions off like a switch.” He moved his index finger up and down mimicking the motion. “I’ve talked to some of your co-workers, and they say every patient’s death affects you similarly. You can’t save them, Sage.”
A muscle twitched at the corner of her eye. “Obviously, because Bea died,” an unintended clip tingeing her voice. In her mind, she listed several dozen patients who had pulled at her heartstrings with their passing. Her shoulders drooped. This situation didn’t look good.
Mr. Cross opened his drawer and pulled out a familiar piece of pink stationery. “I had the privilege of talking to Bea yesterday morning. I can see why you liked her.”
“She was an amazing woman.” Sage closed her eyes for a second and pictured the white hair and wise brown eyes of Bea.
“Do you know what the last thing she said was before I left her room?” He turned the pink envelope in his hands.
Sage shook her head. She didn’t want to open her eyes and let go of her vision of a smiling Bea, but she did. “I don’t have a clue.”
He stood and turned his back to her. He looked out the window into the night where the fog moved past slow and thick. “She told me to fire you.”
“What?” His statement was like a dagger to her gut. Sage felt a strong connection to Bea and couldn’t believe the woman would suggest such a thing. “She did not.” Her voice filled with indignant denial. Sage grabbed for more Kleenex to absorb the new flood of tears.
“She did. In fact, she begged me to let you go.” He turned around and leaned on the desk, dropping the pink envelope to the dark surface. “Not because you’re a bad nurse. She thought you were skilled and wonderful.”
Her thoughts were in disarray. “I’m confused.”
“She told me this job would kill you. That your heart was big but couldn’t hold all the sorrow and pain that came with a job that ended in death.”
“It’s not true. I love my job.” The lie tasted bitter on her tongue. She didn’t love the job. She loved the people. Maybe she loved them too much, because every death chipped away at her. Little pieces of herself that she gave only to her patients died when they did. “Are you firing me?”
Mr. Cross shook his head. “On what grounds? Caring too much? It’s not a crime, and it’s not against your contract.” He looked down at the pink envelope where Sage was written in perfect penmanship. “However, I will honor a part of Bea’s last request.” He slid the envelope across the desktop. “She asked that I give this to you after her passing. You can’t hope to save everyone. All you can do is pray that at the end of the day, you make a difference. You made a difference in her life.”
She pulled the envelope to her chest. “Still feels like you’re letting me go.”
He pursed his lips and shifted them back and forth. “You abandoned your job today. You were missing in action. You can’t do that. Every minute is a minute where anything could have happened.” He sank back into the soft leather chair that folded around him in a hug that Sage envied. “That’s not who you are as a professional, and not who I need as a caregiver. Rather than mete out disciplinary action, I’m giving you a professional courtesy. I’m requesting your transfer from my department. You’re on unpaid administrative leave until another position opens.”
The wind left Sage’s lungs. He may have given her a professional courtesy, but it still left her without a job and a paycheck. She wanted to stomp her feet and cry and argue and beg. Instead, she nodded and whispered, “Thank you.” Logic told her he was right to let her go, but it stung to know she’d failed the one group of people she wanted to help the most, her patients.
“You have vacation days. Use them. Search your soul for the truth. Is this where you want to be in ten, twenty, thirty years?”
Sage rose from the chair and turned to leave.
“Bea said your life was wasted on the dying. That a girl like you should focus on living. I don’t disagree.”
Sage left Mr. Cross’s office feeling worse than she had when she arrived. She approached the empty nurse's station, empty because Terri was probably doing the job Sage had failed to complete. She gathered her belongings. Before she left for home, she peeked in on Clive, hoping to say goodbye, but his light was out. Except for the beep of monitors, his room was silent. He would be another regret.
She looked around the ward for the last time before she walked into the elevator and worked her way back to her car. She sat behind the steering wheel for endless minutes, wondering what in the hell she would do. She tucked the pink envelope into the side pocket of her purse and pulled her SUV into the night. In her rearview mirror, the hospital that had been the largest part of her life became smaller and smaller until it disappeared.
Cannon Bishop wiped down the counter of his bar. He fisted the damp rag when Melanie Saunders, a woman he’d shared a few fun times with, put another coin in the jukebox. He didn’t have to wait to hear the song; he knew it would be B-13, Strip It Down. She’d played it three times tonight, as if he didn't get the hint she wanted to be naked on the cot in the storage room after the first two times it played. The truth was, she wanted to be naked anywhere he’d have her. He now regretted the few times he’d indulged his need and given in to her desire.
Mel waggled her ass. She was a nice woman, but she was looking for something different from what Cannon could offer, which was little. She wanted long-term, heart-pounding love. He wasn’t capable, given that he’d barricaded his heart behind a wall of steel years ago.
Dalton Black, the cook from Maisey’s diner, slammed the empty pitcher on the counter. “Fill ‘er up.” He grabbed the bowl of nuts from the worn, wooden bar top and returned to the pool table. He and a few of his buddies were determined to close the place down drinking beer and playing billiards.
Sunday nights were slow at Bishop’s Brewhouse unless Dalton’s friends rode through town. They’d crowd around the pool table for hours, drink beer, and talk about crossing the country on their Harleys. Cannon listened to their stories and remembered a time when his life was different. A stint in jail changed Dalton’s life. A death changed Cannon’s.
He skimmed the foam off the pitcher and delivered it to the four men. “Last round.” Under the collection of neon beer signs, the men laughed and jeered at each other while Dalton fleeced his friends by running the table.
Cannon returned to the bar and looked at Mel, who had gone back to her normal stool at the end of the counter. She’d been there all night, tracking his every move like a cat tracked a laser light. “You want me to get someone to walk you to your car?” He took her empty beer mug and put it in the sink. It floated on a blanket of suds for a few seconds before it sunk to the bottom with a clunk.
“Nah.” Doc Parker, the town’s resident physician, sat two stools down from her and answered Cannon when Mel didn’t. “I can walk myself.” He slid his glass forward and held up a finger. Doc Parker had a two-beer limit. He said it was enough to take the edge off his day, but not enough to hinder his ability to provide care.
Cannon drew another lager and set it in front of his long-time friend and mentor. “I was talking to Mel. She’s got a long drive ahead of her.”
“She new in town?” he asked.
“You blind, old man? That’s Mel from Copper Creek, she comes in a few times a month.”
“I’m not blind, but you may be, son.” He motioned for Cannon to come closer, and when he did, the old man whispered, “She’s looking for a different type of long ride than the one going home to Copper Creek. I may be old, but I’m not stupid, and I’m certainly not blind.” Doc cuffed him upside the head and laughed.
Cannon walked around the bar and offered Mel his hand. A tentative smile graced her lips when she threaded her fingers through his.
“Come with me.” The second the wrong words flew he wanted to rip out his tongue.
“That was the aim.” She turned toward the back room while Cannon headed for the front door. Divergent paths separated their hands.
Mel took a few seconds to figure out he wasn’t following and marched after him into the cold, cloudless night.
“Damnit, Cannon, why do you keep avoiding me?” She stomped her foot and let her hands slide from her breasts to her hips like she was showcasing her goods. “What the hell is wrong with me?” She leaned against her rusted, red truck.
“Look, Mel,” Cannon stopped in front of her. “I’ve been up front with you from the beginning. I’m not that guy—your guy.”
“I know.” She lowered her head. “I know.” The fringe of her too long bangs covered her eyes. “You’re not interested in a relationship. Just the benefits.”
He brushed her blonde hair aside. The moonlight reflected off the tears glistening in the corners of her expressive brown eyes.
“Did I ever offer you more?” God, he hoped she said no, because he’d always thought he’d been clear with her about the non-future of their relationship.
“No. You were straightforward.”
The breath he held burst past his lips. A silent Thank God filled his thoughts. “Did I ever take more than I gave?”
She smiled, and maybe even blushed, but it was hard to tell. The only lights on Main Street came from the bar’s open sign, the stars, and the sliver of a moon that hung overhead.
“You know you didn’t. That’s why this is so hard. I want more.”
Cannon knew what wanting more felt like. He’d wanted more for the last eight years. The building behind Mel was his future. The bar was his life now that he’d come back to Aspen Cove. More wasn’t in the cards for him.
“You deserve more, but it will never come from me.” He pressed his lips to her cheek and stepped back. “You should go.”
She reached out to touch his face. “I could have been good for you.”
He opened her truck door and helped her inside. “You’re too good for me.”
He waited until she drove away before he walked back inside. In the bar, Doc was halfway through his last beer.
“I hope you let her down easy.” He pulled the mug to his lips and took a long, slow drink.
“She’ll be all right.”
The Doc shook his head. “Puppy brains.”
“Thirty-two’s long past puppy status.”
“You’re not an island, Cannon. A man needs a mate. She had all the right parts.” Doc Parker folded his napkin into a grid of nine. It was how he left the bar every night. If Doc beat Cannon at tic-tac-toe, the beer was on the house. If Cannon won, the beer was on the Doc.
Cannon grabbed two pens from a cup by the register and tossed one to the old man, who had been more of a father than his own these past eight years.
Doc marked an X in the center. “Can’t believe that Bea is gone.” His voice was low. Not in tone, but in a volume that reflected loss. Doc hadn’t been sweet on Bea Bennett, but they had been friends since grade school.
“The town won’t be the same.” Cannon turned the napkin around, as if seeing it from a different angle would make a difference.
“She made sure of that,” Doc said.
Cannon marked an O in the top right corner, and Doc marked an X beneath him. “You’re talking in code.” Doc always talked in circles. It was his way. He’d never tell a patient you’re overweight; he’d tell them the trail around the lake was a nice walk this time of year, or he’d say Maisey’s Diner served the best oatmeal in town. They served the only oatmeal in town, and it happened to lower cholesterol.
“She had me mail a letter before she passed.”
Cannon didn’t care much to talk about Bea. He didn't understand how God could take away the best people in his life and leave his father. “Drink up, Doc. I’m getting tired.” He put an O on the left center row, and Doc followed with an X on the lower right. Every night, it was the same. Tied, and a tie went to the patron.
“You tire too easily. That’s why that pretty little blonde number is heading back to Copper Creek alone. It’s why you curl up by yourself in that lake house each night.”
Cannon hated when Doc got all preachy and philosophical. Not because Doc was wrong, but because he always managed to hit Cannon’s issues on the head. He was lonely. That was a fact, but there was no easy cure for loneliness.
Doc finished his beer and slammed the mug upside down on the scarred wooden top of the bar.
Cannon marked an O in the top left-hand corner. Doc marked his X in the center left-hand column and won the game.
“You gave up too easily.” Doc pulled a few ones out of his wallet and set them on the table. He always left a tip, regardless of the outcome.
“I told you, I’m tired.”
Doc looked around the bar. Dalton and his friends were hanging up the pool cues and pulling out cash.
“Where’s your old man?”
“I’m not my father’s keeper.” Cannon assumed the role eight years ago when his mother died, his brother left, and his father drowned his sorrows in a bottle of vodka. He’d failed miserably when it came to his dad. “You can’t save a man determined to kill himself.”
“I’ve been telling you that for years.” The old man reached out his hand for a friendly shake. It never ended there. He always pulled Cannon in for a hug, a task made more difficult across the expanse of a wide wooden bar, but not impossible.