Harlan’s Haven – 6th book in the Colorado Skies Series
I hope you enjoy this excerpt from Harlan’s Haven.
Bright lights and an air horn blaring catapulted Harlan from his thoughts. He cut the wheel hard to the right.
“Sonofabitch,” he hissed. His heart did a staccato beat on his ribcage. He pulled to the shoulder for a minute. After popping the gearshift to neutral, he pulled on the emergency brake and then fell against the back of the seat. The dust and dirt whirling in the beam of his headlights echoed what he’d been remembering before the air horn. At least this time his blood pressure had a reason other than his memories for being in the stratosphere.
Maybe he should have flown home and had Larry pick him up. The thought that he would have had to return to the base to pick up his truck reminded him of why he hadn’t done just that. The pity in the eyes of those at the hospital had been bad enough when he was still commissioned. There was no way he would survive going back on base again now that he’d been discharged.
He gave his heart a few minutes to recover while he considered his options. There weren’t many. Releasing the emergency brake, he put the truck back in gear, checked his mirrors, tapped his lights to high since there was no other traffic, and pulled back onto the road.
“You’re almost there. No reason to stop now. There’s nothing to go back to anyway. Besides, Larry’s expecting you. If you don’t show up soon he’ll panic and send out a search party.”
Hearing himself say the last made him grin. When he’d called his brother last night, Larry was already worried because the drive was taking twice as long. Usually laid-back, Larry became a world-class worrier if he had an inkling something might be wrong. That tone had come through the phone line loud and clear. Harlan knew if he didn’t make it home tonight, there would be hell to pay.
The extra illumination from his high beams gave him a look at more of the flood damage he’d noticed while driving across the plains. Now in the foothills, he could see places where the river’s path had changed.
“I guess nothing stays the same forever,” he said as he took the next ramp off the highway. Twenty minutes and four turns later, he was on the main road through town. The small mountain town near the Big Thompson River had changed from more than just the flood since he left almost fifteen years ago. If it wasn’t almost midnight, he expected he would notice even more differences. He’d had a chance to talk with his brother shortly after the flooding. Larry had said the town had some major damage, but everyone in Bluff’s Corner pitched in and it had bounced back.
He saw the new sign above the door to his brother’s bar a block down the street. Taking a deep breath, Harlan turned right onto the street then right again into the back parking lot. He pulled up beside his brother’s old car. The kid had bought the car in high school planning to fix it up. Obviously, that never happened, he thought with a grin.
After pulling the keys from the ignition, Harlan leaned on the steering wheel and looked at the back of the building. It was quiet. He thought back to when he’d grown up in this town. A few times over the years, there had been minor troubles, but nothing huge. The peaceful area, with the nearby creek, stream, or river depending on whom you talked to, fit Larry and their parents well. Their brother Gil and their baby sister, Priscilla were more like him. They wanted to see what else was out there. He had been more than ready to leave by the time he graduated from high school.
Now he wondered why.
Harlan stepped out of the truck and stretched as best he could. His muscles were stiff from lack of use the past month. Physical therapy hadn’t been half the workout he was accustomed to, but it was almost more than he could manage after being caught between two exploding vehicles.
Just the thought had him pounding his fist on the side of the truck. The resulting pain screaming up his arm was better than where his thoughts had started to drift. A few deep breaths and he shook it off.
A cold wind whipped through the back lot and he shivered. It must have been a clear day because he’d checked the temp and knew it had been ninety earlier. If the sky was free of clouds all that heat disappeared quickly at night up here in the mountains. He reached behind the seat and grabbed his leather coat, glad he hadn’t rolled it up and put it in his duffel. As he shoved his arms in the sleeves, he looked up. The sky was ink black with a myriad of stars. He caught himself naming constellations and grinned.
His dad had started teaching them to him when he was only four. There were some huge boulders near their house by the river. They would go out at night, lie on a boulder, and look at the stars. It was a time just for him and his dad. His brothers and sister never got the star bug, but he never got over it. The desert was the only other place he’d ever known where you could see so many stars. Unfortunately, the fact there was a war going on made stargazing difficult. Maybe he could get back into it now that he was home. He wondered if dad still looked up.
You could ask.
Harlan ignored his prodding conscience. He wasn’t ready to face the whole family. Larry was different. He would give him space and time. As long as Larry could keep an eye on him, he wouldn’t worry as much. Mostly, he was happy. That’s why I came here, Harlan thought lifting his bag from behind the seat. He needed to be reminded what it meant to be happy. The last couple of years, his missions required him to focus on war and survival.
He turned to face the back of the building. “Well, you drove all this way; you might as well go inside.”
He walked across the parking lot to the bar’s back door. Years ago, Larry had sent him a key to the building, the apartment stairwell door, and the apartment for the rare occasions he would come home. Somehow, his brother had known going back to the house wouldn’t have worked. Harlan still wasn’t sure why he’d been so against staying at their childhood home, but he didn’t have to figure it out tonight so he let it go.
The private entrance for the upstairs was immediately to the left after you entered the bar’s back exit. The alcove between the exit and the bar itself was empty, so he went upstairs unseen. He let himself in the apartment and dropped his bag inside the door. Exhaustion weighed on him. He really didn’t want to go downstairs.
In his teens, he’d been the life of the party. Now he preferred solitude and silence.
He didn’t want to upset his brother, so he used the bathroom, splashed water on his face, and headed back downstairs. To give himself a few more moments of quiet and to stretch his legs a little more, he walked around to the front. It had been a long ride from the east coast. The fresh air would hopefully give him some energy.
Opening the door, Harlan felt like he was entering another dimension. Loud music, loud laughter, even louder conversations, and a lot of people filled the neighborhood bar. For the past month or more his life had been filled with beeps from monitors, squeaky wheels rolling down hospital hallways at night, and the quiet of staring out the shrink’s window while listening to him ask questions Harlan never answered. But, he’d wanted a change, and this was definitely different.
Stepping inside he scanned the entire room by the time he’d taken two steps. The place was impeccable, just as he’d expected. The brass accents on the bar gleamed. The real and locally created stained-glass lights cast colors into the mirror behind the bar. The floor had some peanut shells on it, but it was late on a Friday night. Yep, neat and tidy, just the way Larry liked things.
As he made his way to the far end of the bar, several people stared as if trying to figure out who he was before it would register. Then they’d smile and offer their hand. Harlan forced himself to nod and return the handshakes. He clenched his jaw to keep from groaning when a few people slapped him on the shoulder. He didn’t speak to anyone. There was nothing to say, they simply recognized him because he’d grown up here and was Larry’s brother. The resemblance was clear even though they were very different. Harlan didn’t really know or at least didn’t recognize anyone here anymore except Larry. As far as he was concerned, that was fine.
Halfway to the other end of the bar a waitress almost backed into him. At the last moment, she turned, avoiding him with a fluid grace he couldn’t remember seeing in a bar before. She cast him an apologetic smile before turning to give Larry her order. That’s when Larry looked up and saw him for the first time.
He nodded and Larry returned the greeting with a smile. Harlan knew he wouldn’t have long to come up with a better hello. He hoped the waitress had a big order for his brother so he would have a few extra minutes to think. Not having come up with anything in the past four days, he couldn’t imagine what good a few more minutes would do. He watched the waitress for a moment. Larry listened and started mixing drinks, though he kept glancing at Harlan. Offering the closest thing to a smile he could dredge up, Harlan continued his journey toward the back.
He didn’t remember the place being so busy it needed waitresses. Then again, it had been years since he’d been back. That was when he realized the bar itself was almost a full circle. Most of the wall between the two buildings had been knocked down. The bar now encompassed the first floor of both buildings and included a new dance floor. Harlan was impressed. Larry worked hard and deserved the success.
Rounding the end of the bar, he headed for the last seat. He was glad this part of the wall was still intact. When he was here, he always sat here so he could watch both entrances. The stool had a cardboard sign propped on it. Harlan picked up the placard. Reserved for the guy with black eyes. He grinned. It was a family joke. Somehow, he had been the only one to inherit his grandfather’s black eyes. Everyone else had brown eyes. When he looked up, his brother was walking toward him with an amber-filled glass and a smile. Yeah, maybe a scotch would help rid him of the last of the tension from unintentionally playing chicken with an eighteen-wheeler. He dug deep and found a real smile for his brother.
“I was starting to wonder if you were going to make it tonight,” Larry said, grasping Harlan’s hand after setting the glass down.
Harlan held up the sign in his other hand. “Cute.” He was thankful that since the real black eyes he’d had in the hospital had healed the joke wouldn’t take on a different meaning.