Chapter 22

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A herd of boisterous men crowded around the bar, shouting over each other while sharing deer hunting stories. Pet followed behind Barlow and Caroline as he led them to a table far from the rowdies for some privacy. After they all sat, Barlow said, "It's busy tonight, and it may be a while until we get served. I'll order us a round of drinks. Beers everyone?"

Both women nodded and Barlow walked away.

The girl – that's how Pet continued to think of her – seemed to have chilled out. Where her expression had been pinched before, now she appeared more relaxed. She ran a hand through her thick mane, preening. "Barlow tells me the two of you have known each other like forever."

"We grew up together, but until last week I hadn't seen him in ten years."

"Has he changed much during that time?"

Pet had to be honest with herself. She had come tonight hoping for a chance to renew the romance she and Barlow once had. She realized now that had been a fantasy. "He's pretty much the same."

Pushing a strand of hair behind her ear, Caroline said, "Sometimes he seems distant, as if lost in thought. Has he always been so pensive?"

He had never been that way with her, always expressive, but they had been teens back then. The burden of thinking his father had been a murderer probably wore Barlow down. He had also served a tour with the Marines. Who knew what hell he had gone through there. "I don't think distant is the right word. Barlow could sometimes be mysterious though. In a good way. Like when he held things back in order to surprise me."

Barlow returned with their drinks. He set a beer in front of each of them. "Anson told me someone will be over in a few minutes to take our dinner order."

The girl got Barlow's attention. "Since you two were childhood buddies, what's the first thing you remember about Pet?"

She winced. When Barlow called her Pet, it was a term of endearment. This girl was being presumptuous thinking she could use her nickname. Also, what kind of a weird-ass question was that? What was she probing for?

"I suppose it was walking down the road together to go to the bus stop," Barlow said. He smiled and looked her way. "Remember? All the way back in first grade."

The thought warmed her. "You used to hold my hand."

His eyes lit up. "That didn't happen until a few years later."

"Oh no, you started holding my hand in first grade. In the spring. Trust me. A girl remembers these things."

Barlow turned in his seat, now fully focused on her. "Then second grade is when I must've started carrying your books."

"Wrong again. We didn't have homework in second grade."

"Maybe not, but we had show-and-tell. Remember?"

She snorted. "How could I forget that time with the hornet nest."

Barlow leaned toward her. "I climbed your dad's maple to cut it down during the winter. How was I supposed to know they were dormant inside that nest and would wake up when brought into a warm school building?"

She laughed. "The principal had to evacuate an entire wing of the school which did not go over well as I recall."

Barlow tapped the tabletop. "I'm not the only one to get into trouble with show-and-tell. How about the poison ivy incident?"

She groaned. "I thought you had forgotten."

"Are you kidding?" He chuckled and glanced over at Caroline. "We were studying poisonous plants that year, and Pet thought it would be cool to bring in a real live sample."

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