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The Last Letter(7)
Rebecca Yarros

Havoc rested her head on the leather console between our seats as I drove my truck through downtown Telluride. It was Norman Rockwell perfect. Bricked and painted storefronts, families strolling with children. Not quite the tourist haven I was expecting.

It looked like a hometown was supposed to.

It just wasn’t my hometown.

It was Ryan’s. Mac was buried here, at least that was what I’d been told. They’d only sent back Captain Donahue and a couple other guys for the funeral. I’d been kept in the field with the rest of the unit, too valuable to be given leave.

I knew the truth: it wasn’t me—at least not with the state I was in then. It was Havoc. They needed her, and she would only listen to me.

I rubbed the top of her head, promising her silently that she’d have a peaceful life from now on. That as quickly as we’d both been given terminal leave, she deserved a little peace.

Me? I lived in a hell of my own making. One that I more than deserved.

I stopped to fill the tank before heading out of town, following my GPS to the address online for Solitude.

Solitude. How fitting. Alone.

I was alone.

Ella was alone.

And we’d remain that way, because we’d never be together. I’d seen to that when I’d stopped writing the day Ryan died.

But I could do this. For Ryan. For Ella. But not for me. Thinking it was for me implied there was some kind of redemption that I was worthy of.

There wasn’t. What I’d done was beyond any redemption.

My jaw flexed, and my hands tightened on the wheel as I approached the private drive. I made the turn, my gaze catching the mailbox that hung at a haphazard angle on the post. How many times had she gone there looking for my letters? How many times had she found one and smiled? Twenty-four.

How many times had she made the walk without one? Wondered what happened to me? Maybe she thought I’d died on the op with Ryan. Maybe it was better that way.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

I drove up the asphalt drive, under the budding aspen trees that lined the way. Ryan would have said there was something fitting about arriving in spring, during the period of rebirth, but that was a load of crap.

There was no rebirth for me. No new beginning. I wasn’t here to watch life begin; I was here to help Ella if it ended for Maisie. If Ella even let me near.

The pit in my stomach was entirely too familiar, reducing me to that skinny, quiet kid I’d been twenty years ago, showing up at yet another family’s house, hoping this one wouldn’t find a reason to make him someone else’s problem. Hoping this time he wouldn’t pack his stuff in another garbage bag when he accidentally broke a dish or some rule he hadn’t known existed, then be labeled “troubled” and shuffled to another, stricter home.

At least this time I already knew what rules I’d broken and was more than aware that my time here was finite.

I pulled up to the circular drive in front of the main house, which matched the pictures I’d seen online. It looked like a log cabin, except huge. The style was modernized rustic, if that was even a thing, and somehow it spoke to me, reminded me of a time when men harvested entire trees to build houses in the wilderness for their women.

When they built things instead of destroyed them.

My feet hit the ground, and I paused, waiting for Havoc to jump down before shutting the door.

I threw the signal for heel, and she came right to my side. We climbed the small staircase that led to a wide porch, complete with rockers and a porch swing. The boxes that lined the porch railing were empty, cleaned out and ready for planting.

This was it. I was about to meet Ella.

What the hell was I going to say? Hey, I’m sorry I quit writing you, but let’s face it, I break everything I touch and didn’t want you to be next? I’m sorry Ryan died? I’m sorry it wasn’t me? Your brother sent me to watch out for you, so if you could just pretend that you don’t hate me, that would be great? I’m sorry I ghosted you? I’m sorry I couldn’t bring myself to read any of your letters that came after he died? I’m so sorry for so many things that I can’t even list them all?

If I said any of that, if she knew who I really was—why I’d stopped writing—she’d never let me help her. I’d get a boot in the ass and sent on my way. She’d already admitted in her letters that she didn’t give second chances to people who hurt her family, and I didn’t blame her. It was a torturous irony that in order to fulfill Ryan’s wish to help Ella, I’d have to do the one thing she hated—lie…at least by omission.

Just add it to the growing list of my sins.

“Are you thinking about going in? Or are you just going to stand out here?”

I turned to see an older man in his sixties coming toward me. Those were some crazy eyebrows. He dusted off his hand on his jeans and reached for mine.

We shook with a firm grip. This had to be Larry.

“You our new arrival?”

I nodded. “Beckett Gentry.”

“Larry Fischer. I’m Solitude’s groundskeeper.” He dropped to his haunches in front of Havoc but didn’t touch her. “And who might this be?”

“This is Havoc. She’s a retired military working dog.”

“You her handler?” He stood without petting her, and I immediately liked him. It was rare that people respected her personal space…or mine.

“I was. Now I think she’s mine.”

His gaze narrowed a bit, like he was searching for something in my face. After a prolonged silence, which felt like an inspection, he nodded. “Okay. Let’s get you two settled in.”

A bell chimed lightly as we entered the pristine foyer. The interior was as warm as the exterior, the walls painted in soft hues that looked professionally designed to give it a modern farmhouse look.

Yeah, I’d seen way too much HGTV in the last month. Stupid waiting rooms.

“Oh! You must be Mr. Gentry!” a chipper voice called from behind the long reception desk. The girl looked to be in her early twenties, with a wide smile, brown eyes, and hair to match. High-maintenance but pretty. Hailey.

“How would you know that?” I took out my wallet, careful not to dislodge the letter in my back pocket.

She blinked at me rapidly before dropping her eyes.

Shit. I was going to have to work on softening my tone now that I was a civilian—well, almost a civilian. Whatever.

“You’re our only check-in today.” She clicked through her computer.

I’d be checking out if Ella realized who I was. Then I’d have to find another way to help without her filing stalking charges. Although I’m sure Ryan would have gotten a kick out of that one, he wouldn’t be laughing if I couldn’t help her.

“Any preference for your cabin? We’ve got quite a few open now that the season is finally closed.”

“Whatever you have will be fine.”

“Are you sure? You’re booked for—wow! Seven months? Is that right?” She clicked quickly, like she’d found a mistake.

“That’s right.” I’d never stayed in one place for seven months in my life. But seven months took me to the anniversary of Maisie’s diagnosis, so it seemed prudent to book out a cabin. It wasn’t like I was buying a house here or anything.

She looked at me like I owed her an explanation.

Well, this was awkward.

“So if I could get a map?” I suggested.

“Of course. I’m sorry. We’ve just never had a guest stay that long. It caught me off guard.”

“No problem.”

“Wouldn’t it be cheaper to get an apartment?” she asked quietly. “Not that I’m implying that you can’t pay. Shit, Ella’s going to kill me if I keep offending guests.” She mumbled that last part.

I put my debit card on the counter in hopes that it would expedite the process.

“Run the entire amount. I’ll cover incidentals as I go. And yeah, it probably would.” That was as much of an explanation as she was going to get.

A ridiculous transaction amount later, I put my wallet away and thanked my younger self for saving like a poor kid determined to never go hungry again. I wasn’t poor anymore, or a kid, but I would never wonder where my next meal was coming from ever again.

“Is that…a dog?” an older woman asked, her tone soft but incredulous.

“Yes, ma’am.” The woman seemed to be the same age as Larry, and by the look of her, had to be Ada. I had the weirdest feeling of stepping into a reality show that I’d only ever watched. I knew who each of them were from Ella’s letters, but to them I was a complete stranger.

“Well, we don’t have dogs here.” Her gaze locked onto Havoc like she might immediately grow fleas and infest the place.

Shit. If Havoc went, so did I.

“She goes where I go.” My standard answer flew out of my mouth before I censored myself.

Ada gave me a look I’m sure must have sent Ella running when she was younger. I gritted my teeth and tried again.

“I wasn’t aware of that policy when I made the reservation. My apologies.”

“He’s paid up through November!” Hailey said from behind the desk.

“November?” Ada’s mouth dropped open.

“Don’t worry, love.” Larry walked over to his wife and put his arm around her waist. “She’s a military working dog. She’s not going to ruin the carpet or anything.”

“Retired,” I corrected him as Havoc sat perfectly still, reading the atmosphere.

“Why was she retired? Is she aggressive? We have small children here, and we can’t have anyone bitten.” Ada wrung her hands—actually twisted them. It was plain to see her conflict. I was paid through seven months, most of which were in their off-season. I was guaranteed income.

“She retired because I did, and she wouldn’t listen to anyone else.” I’d been her handler for six years and couldn’t imagine my life without her, so it worked out. “She’ll only bite on my command or in my defense. She’s never peed on the carpet or attacked a child. That I can promise you.”

She wasn’t the child-killer in the room.

I was.

“She’ll be fine, Ada.” Larry whispered something into her ear that made her peer a little closer, wrinkling the fine skin of her forehead. Then they had a wordless conversation full of raised eyebrows and head nods.

“Okay, fine. But you’re on your own for feeding her. Hailey, put him in the Aspen cabin. That one is due for new carpet next year anyway. Welcome to Solitude, Mr.…”

“Gentry,” I supplied with a slight nod, remembering to force a quick smile that I hoped didn’t look like a grimace. “Beckett Gentry.”

“Well, Mr. Gentry. Breakfast is served between seven a.m. and nine a.m. Dinner can be arranged, but you’re on your own for lunch, and so is…”

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