Just Because, Book 1
“I don’t understand why you can’t tell me who he was meeting with,” Jessie Warner said, her hands shaking with frustration. She’d tried for two weeks to get her late husband’s partner to agree to see her, but to say the man had been evasive was an understatement.
“Client confidentiality, Jessie,” Rex replied so smoothly she wanted to reach across the desk and ram her fist through his smug face.
“You’re an accountant, Rex. Not a fucking priest or psychologist. It’s not like I’m going to grill them about their back taxes. All I want to know is which clients Tommy met with the day he died.”
Jessie sighed, perfectly aware that this discussion was going to end like every other conversation she’d had regarding the night of her husband’s death.
“I just want to talk to them. See if they noticed anything strange in his demeanor that day.”
“Why?” Rex repeated, and for a moment Jessie was struck by the fact that the man was no longer looking at her with annoyance, but rather with pity in his eyes.
She hated pity. She’d seen it on the faces of too many people lately and it only made her angrier, more frustrated. She was tired of being treated like she was weak, and she was sure as hell tired of being treated like she was crazy.
“Forget it,” she said, rising quickly. “You aren’t going to tell me a fucking thing. You know it and I know it. Thanks for nothing, Rex.”
“Dammit, Jessie, don’t leave like this. I know you think Tommy’s death wasn’t an accident, but believe me when I say it was. It’s been seven months since he died. You’ve got to let this go.”
An accident. She’d read the police and coroner’s reports and she knew what they all believed. They’d said it was an accident, but she couldn’t shake the idea that it wasn’t—despite the fact she had no proof to the contrary. Tommy had fallen on the ice and hit his head. It seemed to be an easy answer for everyone—everyone but her.
Shortly after his death, she’d begun probing into the details a bit more—asking the police and hospital workers questions, but so far everyone she had encountered had been less than helpful. They thought she was some silly, grieving widow who had watched one too many episodes of CSI and had decided to create a crime out of thin air.
Apparently Rex was no different. He’d ignored her phone messages until finally she’d decided to take the direct approach. Her spur-of-the-moment, “oh I was just in the area” visit had been a surprise to him. She knew he was too wrapped up in appearances to throw the widow of his former partner out on her ass in front of an office full of employees. She’d seen in his face that he wasn’t pleased about being shanghaied into this visit. No doubt he’d heard the rumors that she was chasing shadows and had hoped to avoid this conversation.
“I can’t let it go, Rex,” she said quietly as she reached for the door. At one point, she’d considered the man a friend, but nowadays she found it harder and harder to reconnect with the people she’d known before Tommy’s death. Aside from her best friend Todd, she’d drifted away from everyone else in her life. “Please help me.”
The man shrugged sadly. “I’m sorry, Jessie, but I can’t.”
“There’s a world of difference between can’t and won’t. I think you have them confused,” she said, storming out. She closed the door loudly behind her and sighed heavily. She’d known when she left the house this morning it would be a wasted trip. She’d been a fool to think that Rex would offer her any sort of help. Hell, the man had avoided her calls like she was a telemarketer.
“Jessie? Is that you?”
“Jordan.” She smiled at the older man in the foyer as he leaned down to hug her. Jordan Scott had been a good friend to Tommy in addition to being one of his biggest clients. He’d always been kind to her as well. He’d never forgotten to send a birthday card or his traditional bottle of champagne Christmas gift. They’d dined at his penthouse apartment on more than a few occasions. Neither she nor Tommy had been close to their families, and in some ways Jordan had taken on the role of a beloved uncle. One they didn’t see often, but with whom they were always happy to reconnect.
“What a nice surprise,” she said as he released her. Always dressed to a tee, he was an extremely attractive gentleman in his mid-fifties, with salt-and-pepper hair and expressive deep blue eyes. She had often questioned him about why he’d never married. She couldn’t imagine a whole generation of women letting Jordan slip through their fingers. He was handsome, rich and charming.
“I haven’t seen you since—” He paused and Jessie nodded at the silence that followed.
“Since Tommy’s funeral,” she finished for him.
“How have you been, my dear? I meant to call, but I’m afraid a problem at work pulled me out of the country for a few months. I’ve only just returned from Italy this past week.”
“I’m fine,” she answered, the lie a familiar one. She hadn’t been fine for seven months. Not since the night she’d found her husband’s dead body.
“What brings you to the firm?” Jordan asked. “I thought Rex said you’d sold Tommy’s half of the business to him.”
“Oh, I did,” she said. She looked into Jordan’s compassionate face and found her suspicions, her fears falling from her lips. “I’ve had this feeling since Tommy passed away that something was wrong and I wanted to know which clients Tommy met with the day he died. I was hoping to speak to them, hoping one of them could help me understand his frame of mind that day.”
Jordan’s puzzled look gave her a moment’s pause. “Frame of mind?” he asked.
“I don’t think his death was an accident.”
“You don’t?” he asked in such a way that for the first time, she felt a glimmer of hope that someone actually understood.
She shook her head.
“I met with Tommy the day he died, Jessie.”
Jordan’s confession stopped her short. She’d anticipated another pitying look, another pat on the head, another condescending comment about being foolish. She hadn’t expected an answer. “You did?”
“We met earlier that morning about the audit he was performing for my company. Rather run-of-the-mill stuff. I can assure you his behavior was perfectly normal. I wish I’d known then that I’d never see him again. So many things I would have liked to have said to the dear boy.” The older man looked away and Jessie could see the glimmer of tears at the corner of his eyes. When he turned back toward her, the look of sadness was replaced with one of concern. “What’s going on, Jessie? Why don’t you believe it was an accident?”
The tightness in her chest that never left eased as Jordan spoke. For the first time in months, someone was listening to her, answering her questions, taking her seriously. “Tommy called me earlier in the afternoon, the day he died. He said something that made me think—” She paused, uncertain how to word her concerns.
“Made you think?” he prodded.
She paused and shrugged, her thoughts were traveling a different direction. Jordan had seen Tommy, spoken to him that day. She couldn’t focus on anything other than that fact. “Was Tommy acting strangely that day? Did he seem preoccupied, overwrought, worried?”
“Not at all. What did he say on the phone, Jessie?”
“Nothing specific.” Tommy hadn’t said anything at all really. Perhaps it was his tone more than his words that had sparked her suspicions.
“I suppose you’ve spoken to the police about this,” he said.
She nodded and sighed. “Yes, for all the good it’s done me.”
“I take it they don’t share your belief that there was foul play involved?”
She shook her head. “No. I sort of get the impression they think I’m insane.”
Jordan laughed lightly at her lame attempt at a jest. “Nothing could be further from the truth. I wish there was something I could say that would help you, but honestly, there was nothing in Tommy’s demeanor that day that leads me to suspect foul play. Tell you what. Why don’t you let me do a bit of digging around? I’ll see if I can’t scare some information out of old Rex, the shyster.”
Jessie grinned. Jordan had never made any bones about the fact that Tommy was his preferred accountant in the firm.
“Would you? Really?”
“I’m not sure what help I can be, but if it will put a smile back on that pretty face of yours, I’m willing to try.”
“Oh, thank you, Jordan, you’ve already been more help than you know. If you remember anything else about that day, will you call me?”
“Of course, my dear. You will be the first person I call.”
She said her goodbyes and walked to her car feeling lighter than she had since Tommy’s death. She still hadn’t discovered any answers, but Jordan genuinely seemed to believe her and wanted to help. For the first time in a long time, she didn’t feel as if she was wandering around in a dark room with no doors. Jordan had just offered her a flashlight and, God willing, a way out—back into the sunshine that had eluded her for months.
Maybe she wasn’t so crazy after all.
One month later
“I can’t believe I let you talk me into this,” Jessie said as she walked up to the front porch of the huge ranch house. The party she’d been reluctantly dragged to was already in full swing if the blaring music and loud voices coming from inside were any indication.
“You need to get out, Jess. You can’t hide out in that tiny apartment of yours forever. You need to live a little,” Todd said, wrapping his arm around her shoulder and dragging her forward.
“I’m not ready for this. I told you that,” she said, repeating the argument that had begun several days ago when Todd, her best friend since childhood, had told her he was taking her out to a party.
“No,” Stephen said, walking on her other side. “I believe what you said was you weren’t ready to go out and meet other men. That’s not going to be a problem here.”
“Because?” she asked, waiting for Stephen to elaborate. He and Todd had been very closemouthed about where they were going.
Stephen laughed. “Our friend Jacob James lives here and throws this party every year. It’s an annual event he likes to call Gay Fest.”
Jessie rolled her eyes at Stephen’s joke. He and Todd had been a couple for nearly a decade and she adored them both. They’d rallied around her after her husband’s death. Although she lived over three hours away, in the city, they’d made the trek to Denver to spend many weekends with her in an attempt to help her through her grief. She was an only child, estranged from her mother and stepfather, and in her mind, Todd and Stephen were her family now.
“Very funny, Stephen. Really. Hysterical.” She replied deadpan as Todd laughed.
“It’s just a party, Jess. You used to love to go out. We’ll down a few shots, dance around Jake’s backyard, you can throw your bra on the bonfire, we’ll all sing karaoke and—”
“Oh Jesus, you never said anything about karaoke.” She groaned, stopping mid-step.
Stephen gripped her arm and started moving her toward the door. “Just ABBA songs,” he said.
“Shit,” she muttered. They made their way up the front porch and into the house. The place was packed with people and Jessie found herself instantly besieged by Todd and Stephen’s friends. Jacob was the first to greet them and Jessie instantly liked the man.
“Well, it’s about time you got the girl over here for me to meet,” he said, playfully chastising Todd. “I mean, you do live a whole mile away. I’ve heard all about you, Miss Jessie, and I’ve decided I’m going to steal you away from Todd and we’re going to be best friends.” As he spoke, he linked arms with her.
Todd grabbed her free hand and pulled back. “Get your own damn best friend. Jessie is mine,” he teased.
Jessie laughed and shoved them away. “I’ll be friends with both of you if you get me something to drink. I have a feeling I’m going to have to be very drunk to tolerate spending time with either of you tonight.”
“Way ahead of you,” Stephen said, fighting his way back through the crowd. He handed her and Todd each a cold bottle of beer. “Good turnout, Jake.”
“Tell me about it. My brothers are gonna go through the roof when they see how many people have shown up. Attendance seems to double every year. Going to have to start renting a banquet hall at this rate.”
Stephen laughed. “Well at least it’s not raining. I noticed you’ve got a good crowd hanging around out back.”
“Doc’s out there right now, working to start the bonfire, and we’ve cleared off the patio for dancing. My brother Matt’s band is setting up to play later.”
“You’re lucky to have such cool brothers,” Todd said, and Jacob nodded.
“Tell me about it. They’re the best. Even Mark helped me set up a bunch of tents in the backyard and cleared away some of the living room furniture so people can crash on the floor or outside if they want. Of course, after that, he hit the road. He’s still not comfortable around this many gay men,” Jacob joked. “I told him I had lots of guys I’d like to set him up with. Man, you should have seen him spin tires in the driveway to escape.”
“You shouldn’t tease the poor guy,” Todd said. “At least your brothers tolerate the fact you’re gay. My parents are still convinced therapy and drugs can cure my homosexual affliction.”
“Hey, Jake. Where are the chips?” someone yelled from the kitchen.
“Ah, the duties of hosting never end. Why don’t you all head out to the backyard? Once everyone’s well on their way to wasted, we’ll start the ABBA singing contest.”
“Oh crap,” Jessie muttered so only Todd and Stephen could hear her. “I thought you were joking about that.”
The guys laughed and they walked through the house to the back door. There were even more people gathered on the lawn. Most were men, but Jessie spied a few women scattered amongst the partiers.
“Who are all these people?” she asked.
“Jacob’s got lots and lots of friends. We don’t exactly live in the most liberal-minded of communities, so a few years ago—after he came out—he decided to start holding a Gay Fest. Started out with just a dozen or so friends who shared the lifestyle. Word seems to have spread though, and now folks have started driving from as far as two hundred miles away to attend. It’s just a fun night where we can let down our guard and party it up,” Todd answered.
Jessie nodded. “That’s cool.”
She tagged along behind her friends as they reconnected with acquaintances from previous parties. They always introduced her and she tried to join in the conversations, but her heart just wasn’t in a festive mood. Before her husband’s death, she’d loved a good time as much as the next person, but lately it seemed to take too much energy—something she was definitely lacking. The memory of Tommy floated through her mind. She was certain Todd had suggested this quick vacation hoping that the break would clear her thoughts and encourage her to stop pursuing shadows that weren’t there.
Shadows that called her every night.
For the past month, she’d been plagued by midnight phone calls. She’d tried to have them traced, but the number belonged to one of those pay-as-you-go cell phones. The police and Todd had chalked them up to a prank caller, and Jessie wished she felt as certain the calls were harmless. There was something very frightening about the silence that always greeted her at the other end of the line.
“You’re drifting,” Todd said, leaning down to talk loudly into her ear. They were standing far too close to the speakers for her sanity. She spotted a bar set up at the end of the patio with a few empty stools.
“Drifting? I can’t even hear myself think. I’m going to go drum up another beer. You guys want anything?” she asked.
“Naw, I’m good,” Todd said as Stephen shook his head. She waved and walked away. Climbing up onto one of the tall barstools, she sighed heavily, looking back at the crowd. It really was a terrific get-together. Jacob definitely knew how to throw a hell of a party.
“That’s not a fun face,” a voice said from behind the bar.
Jessie turned to find a handsome man smiling at her. Holy wow, she thought as she looked into the man’s deep green eyes. His dirty blond hair was neatly trimmed, and he had honest-to-God dimples. Inwardly she groaned. Just my luck, she thought. First spark of attraction she’d felt since her husband died and, of course, it was toward a gay man.
“Oh, I’m having fun,” she assured him. “Just a bit tired and not in much of a party mood.”
“How about a liquid pep-me-up? I’m mixing drinks tonight because I’m not in a party mood myself. Seemed easier to volunteer for this job rather than to fight my way through the revelers and try to participate in small talk,” the man answered. “I’m Caleb, by the way.”
“Jessie,” she replied, reaching out to shake Caleb’s outstretched hand. “Jessie Warner.”
“I don’t think I recognize you, Jessie Warner. Are you from around here?”
“No, I’m here on vacation. I’ve been visiting with Todd and Stephen for the past couple of weeks. They live about a mile down the road.”
“I know those guys pretty well. I forgot Todd mentioned he had company. Best friend from kindergarten, I think he said.”
Jessie rolled her eyes and laughed. “Yep, that’s me. Todd loves to tell everyone exactly how long we’ve known each other.”
“Got to admit, I figured Jessie, the lifelong friend, was a man,” Caleb said. As he spoke he mixed several liquors with orange juice before handing it to the man sitting next to her.
“Thanks, Caleb,” the man said, walking back to his friends.
“Everyone thinks that. Curse of my name,” she said.
“What are you drinking?” Caleb asked.
“Oh, just beer. I’m heading back home tomorrow and wouldn’t want to do it with a headache.”
“Smart woman,” he said, uncapping a bottle of ice-cold beer and handing it to her. “Where’s home?”
“Right now, it’s Denver.”
“Right now?” he asked.
“Todd and Stephen are trying to talk me into moving here. I’m a website designer and I basically work out of my house. My friends think I need to move out of the big, bad city.” Her words were a joke, but she had been giving their request some serious consideration.
She would never have dreamed of leaving Denver before Tommy’s death, but over the past eight months, she’d had more than her fair share of bad karma. She’d been mugged a few weeks earlier and although she hadn’t been seriously hurt, it had triggered a fear in her that hadn’t been there before. Between that, the prank calls, the feeling of constantly being watched, and her unfounded suspicions about Tommy’s death, she was one giant mass of nerves.
Since coming to stay with her friends, the paranoia had gone away. No more late night calls, no eyes watching her every move. Todd and Stephen lived on a nice-sized ranch just outside Saratoga, Wyoming and the peacefulness of the area, the beauty of the landscape was certainly calling to her. She’d only been here two weeks, but she was already starting to feel like her old self. She was tired of being frightened—jumping at every sound, flinching at every sudden movement.
“Well, I may not be impartial, but I don’t think you could pick a better spot on earth to settle down than right here,” Caleb said.
“Oh, so you’re a local? Not one of the masses who drive hours to attend Gay Fest?”
Caleb laughed long and loud at her question, and she wondered what he found so funny. “No,” he finally answered. “I didn’t drive at all. I live here with the host. Jacob’s my insane-but-loveable kid brother. And, sweetheart, I ain’t gay.”
Jessie giggled at his response until she felt a hand on her shoulder.
“Well, doesn’t this just figure.” She turned to see Jacob and Todd standing next to her. Jacob was shaking his head in mock disgust. “Only two straight people at the whole damn party and they find each other. It’s like they’ve got radar or something,” Jacob said to Todd, who laughed.
Jessie shook her head, grinning at Jacob’s joke and feeling slightly surprised at how pleased she was to discover Caleb wasn’t gay. She didn’t even want to consider why that should matter to her. She was nowhere near ready to start thinking about dating someone else. The pain of losing Tommy was still too fresh, too intense.
“I was hoping we might borrow you for a second, Jess,” Todd said.
“Borrow me for what?”
“We want you to kick off the karaoke contest,” Jacob answered. “Todd says you two used to tear up the elementary school circuit with your song and dance routines.”
“Forget it,” she said firmly. “I’m too damn old and too damn sober for that.”
She felt a nudge at her elbow and looked down to find Caleb pushing a shot glass at her. “As luck would have it, Jessie, I’m a doctor and I’m fairly certain I can take care of that sober problem of yours. Take this shot. It’ll make you feel better. Then get up on that stage and sing. It’s a party and it looks like it might do you some good to let your hair down.”
“Now that’s what I’m talking about,” Todd chimed in. “Set us all up with a round of those, Doc.”
Caleb poured the tequila, and she was secretly appeased when she watched him include himself in the group. On the count of three, all four of them downed the drinks.
Jessie winced as the hot alcohol burned her throat, but after feeling cold for months, she welcomed the sudden warmth. Maybe Caleb and Todd were right. She needed to cut loose, laugh, give herself one night to let go and forget.
“What song are we singing?” she asked as Jacob cheered.
“‘Super Trouper’,” Todd answered. “Jake and I are gonna be your backup.”
She heard Caleb laugh behind her and turned quickly, narrowing her eyes. “You owe me for this,” she teased.
“Sweetheart, I look forward to paying up.”
* * * *
“Oh hell, what time is it?” Jessie asked, leaning her head against his shoulder as they rested against one of the large logs circling the bonfire.
Caleb felt like a damn teenager on his first date with this lovely woman. He’d seen her the second she’d arrived in the backyard and he hadn’t been able to take his eyes off of her. Her long, light brown hair shimmered with auburn highlights accentuated by the firelight. Her chocolate-colored eyes were sweet and had been just a little sad when she’d first sat down at the bar. He wondered about that sadness, but as the night progressed, it had gradually disappeared until all he could see now was a woman genuinely enjoying herself…with him.
As an ER doctor, he didn’t have a lot of time for dating, and he struggled to remember the last time he’d spent an entire evening with a woman, talking and dancing and laughing. His brothers constantly chastised him for his workaholic tendencies, but he didn’t think there was anything wrong with being committed to his career. Sure, he worked long hours and he was on call more than he was off, but that was all a part of the job. Lately, Jacob had begun suggesting that Caleb open up his own practice here in town and start dating, an idea he’d previously rejected outright.
However, after spending the evening with Jessie, he realized something he had never noticed before. He was lonely. He’d assumed his patients and his brothers were enough for him, but now he couldn’t help but wonder if something vital was missing from his life.
Jessie was a fun companion, and he was more than a little bit sorry about the fact she was leaving in the morning. Although Denver wasn’t terribly far away, something about her demeanor told him that tonight was likely all he would get.
“It’s after one.”
“Ugh,” Jessie said, straightening up. “I think my morning departure is suddenly looking like an afternoon one.”
He grinned. “Probably not a bad idea. You’ve had quite a bit to drink.”
“That’s sort of the pot calling the kettle black, isn’t it?” she joked.
He shrugged. “I don’t have a three-hour drive tomorrow and I’ve got plenty of time to sleep this off. I don’t have to be back at work until Monday morning.”
“I think my chances of dragging Todd and Stephen away are next to nil,” she said, her voice betraying her tiredness.
He looked across the yard and spotted her friends in the middle of a huge mass of swaying bodies on the patio. His brother’s band was playing and they showed no sign of stopping anytime soon.
“I’ll walk you back if you’re ready to leave,” he offered.
“Oh, that’s okay,” she said. “I can wait around.”
He thought for a moment he saw a flash of fear in her eyes, but she quickly shuttered it away. “Seriously, Jess. It’s only about a mile. I don’t mind walking you.”
She glanced toward the path and again he sensed her reticence.
“I’ll have you know I was a Boy Scout. You have my solemn pledge that I will get you home safely.” He rose before reaching down and helping her to her feet.
She grinned guiltily as she swayed a bit, betraying her tipsiness. “All right then. I mean if you can’t trust a Boy Scout, who can you trust? Let me go tell the guys I’m leaving.”
He nodded. “I’ll let Jacob know where I’m going and meet you at the bar in five.”
Caleb watched her pick her way through the couples who were making out by the giant bonfire, and he smiled at her drunken clumsiness. She apologized to a man whose drink she knocked over before dancing her way across the patio to her friends. He looked around and spotted his brother entertaining a large crowd by the bar.
“Hey, Jake,” he called out. “I’m going to walk Jessie back to Todd’s guesthouse.”
Jacob’s eyebrows wiggled suggestively, obviously reading far too much into his actions.
Caleb shook his head. “She’s gotta drive back to Denver tomorrow and her friends aren’t ready to leave. I’ll only be gone a little while. You got things under control here?”
Jacob pulled him aside with a mischievous grin. “Everything here is fine and I think Jessie is a great girl. Take your time.” Then he adopted a stern face and for a minute, Caleb was struck by how much Jacob looked like their father. “However, I feel I should remind you to practice safe sex,” he said in a deep voice, mimicking dear old Dad perfectly. Jacob reached into his pocket and pulled out a condom. “Here, take this just in case.”
“Jake, you’re drunk and a dumbass so I’m not going to embarrass you in front of your friends by kicking your ass and making you cry like a big baby,” he teased. “I’m just escorting her home,” he repeated, despite the small hope he harbored that maybe tonight could include something a bit more. There was a special quality about the woman he couldn’t quite put his finger on. He put his hand up to refuse the silver foil packet.
“There you are. You ready?” Jessie asked from behind him. Caleb hastily grabbed the condom Jacob was swinging around and thrust it in the front pocket of his jeans to hide it before Jessie could see. God only knew how she would interpret that move, and he fought the impulse to punch his brother for nearly ruining the whole night with his damn foolishness.
Turning, he wrapped an arm around her shoulders and directed her toward the dirt path that connected to the James Ranch.
“Ready,” he said as they set off, away from the loud music and into the quiet night together.
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