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Riding the waves in the early morning just off Trestles was something he’d dreamed about when he’d been in Afghanistan. The constant dirt and injuries and the threat of losing a limb had him edgy…hell; it had made them all edgy. Which was why he’d gotten out of the navy. But three weeks home and he still had no clue what to do. At twenty-eight he’d expected to have his life together…but he was still living over Preacher’s bar on El Camino, tending bar at night and surfing all day.
Some men dreamed of that life. But Heath Connelly, known to everyone as Con, knew he wanted more. He had his dog Butta on the front of his board. The three-legged pug mix had been a rescue. Just like Con. He’d had the dog for almost three years now and whenever he’d been back in Cali on leave, they’d been out here surfing.
When he’d gotten out of juvie at sixteen all he’d had waiting for him was a ticket to a halfway house in San Clemente, California, a duffle bag with clothes that no longer fit him, and a rosary his grandmother had given him for his First Communion. Fifteen years later as he got out of the navy all that had waited for him was a letter from his ex-wife saying she’d left him, his rosary, and a beat-up dog that he’d rescued the last time he’d been home.
San Clemente had some dumb ass rules about no dogs on the beach so Con had been getting around them by putting Butta in a doggie swim vest and teaching the dog to surf.
He’d needed the dog with him when he’d come back from that first tour in Afghanistan. He’d felt battered by his experiences in a way he hadn’t been since he’d been a kid on the streets, watching his mom slowly spiral deeper into her addiction. The dog had given him something to survive for.
Other guys had pictures of their girlfriends in their wallet and he’d had Butta. She was way more loyal then any of the women he’d hooked up with over the years. He got ready to ride a wave in as he noticed the beach filling up with families preparing for their day. The last of the waves from the swell were rolling in before the tide killed them as the wind changed and textured the water.
He paddled to get into position.
His pug stuck her tongue out which Con knew was a solid hell, yeah. He paddled and then stood, finding his balance as he caught the curl. All the dark weight he’d been totting around in his head disappeared. Butta barked and her little knot tail wagged and the cool spray of the water and the sun in his eyes made him feel like…well like a god.
He owned life when he was on his board.
He hopped off the board as they hit the beach and scooped Butta up in one arm. Clay Jefferson was waiting by Con’s stuff as he approached.
Clay had been a narc and a total jackass when they’d been in middle school so it hadn’t really surprised Con that Clay had grown up to be a cop. Patrolling the beach on his bike.
Part of Con knew it was petty but Clay had that goody-goody look about him with his short haircut and his polo police shirt on. Something about the guy made Con want to punch him. Probably the fact that he always hassled Con.
It was hard to keep his cool some days but after riding the waves he’d found his inner Zen. Yeah, right. But it did make him mellower.
“Dude, they got you on beach patrol this morning?” Con asked as he approached his backpack.
In the old days, he’d have been afraid of getting busted for possession, but those days were long gone. He dropped his board but kept Butta in his arms.
“You know this is my beat. No dogs, Connelly. How many times am I going to have to fine you before you stop bringing that ugly ass dog down here?”
Con stroked Butta on the back of her head. “Buttercup isn’t ugly, Clay. And technically she’s not on the beach.”
“We’ll see what Judge McCoy has to say about that,” Clay said, handing Con the ticket he already had written up.
He put Butta on his towel; the little dog circled three times and then sat down. “You know that’s not right.”
“It’s the law. And unlike you…never mind that’s an old argument. I thought being in the navy would have changed you. Weren’t you a SEAL?”
Yeah, he had been. And he’d changed more than this rule stickler could ever imagine. “I was. I guess seeing kids firing RPGs at me made me realize not to sweat the small stuff.”
Clay had no response to that. Con turned away, and unzipping his wet suit, pulled on the faded black t-shirt that he’d left on top of his bag.
He pushed the wet suit the rest of the way off, and wadded it up, tossing it his backpack while he dug out Butta’s leash. He clipped it on her collar and then removed her swim vest. He scooped up his towel, shoved it in the backpack, too, and then zipped it up. He put on his sunglasses and scooped up his board, giving Clay a mock salute as he walked away.
Dogs were allowed on the walking path at the top of the beach, not that it mattered. He stooped to get Butta some water, pulling a bottle from his backpack and along with a collapsible water bowl and filled it for his dog.
“You and Clay still don’t get along?”
The voice was soft and sweet and straight from his past. Mia Santos. She’d been the prettiest girl at his school and when he’d gotten out of juvie and started attending regular school again, she’d been his math tutor.
She’d left “pretty” in the dust and matured into a stunning woman. He looked over at her. From the long caramel hair, curling around her shoulders, to her painted toenails and Havaianas flip-flops, up her long, tanned legs to her jean shorts and then the surf t-shirt, which was doing a hell of job accentuating the curves of her breasts. He noticed she cradled her hand to her midriff and that there was some bruising around her neck. He stood up to get a closer look at her. Underneath her large sunglasses he saw her black eye.
“Nah,” Con said. “He’s still a prick.”
Mia laughed and bent down to pet Butta who was more than happy to let her. “Yeah, he is. Who’s this?”
“Buttercup,” Con said.
She laughed again as she stood up. “Buttercup? That hardly seems like something you’d choose.”
“She was a rescue. After she lost her leg, her owners didn’t want her any more. So I got her.”
“Sounds like a good match to me,” Mia said.
She knew his sordid history. How he’d been in the system for too long and never stayed at one home for longer than a few months. No one had wanted him. He’d been labelled as trouble since elementary school.
“What have you been up to? Preach told me you own a shop on Del Mar.”
She rubbed her uninjured hand over her wrapped wrist. “Yeah. Just a little beachwear shop. I do a lot of tourist business, and you know how I like my clothes.”
But she didn’t. She might be pretty, but she’d never been about clothes and all of that.
“What? Yeah, I’m fine. I should let you go. It was nice seeing you,” she said.
She turned but he stopped her putting his hand lightly on her shoulder. She’d been beat-up, but by who? Her boyfriend?
“You seeing someone now?”
“Who hit you?”
“Don’t, Con. It’s nothing. I have to go even if you don’t. Glad you’re back in town.”
She walked away and he watched her. Butta started sniffing around and did her business before Con walked to his old Jeep 4×4 in the parking lot. He put his board in the back and gave Butta a lift into the passenger seat. He was curious about Mia.
Hell, he was more than curious. He’d been a wild mess when they’d been younger, and he’d always steered clear of her. But secretly, she’d been the one he’d wanted.
From the beach, he drove up Del Mar to Preacher’s Place. The street was all old-time, beachy California with sidewalks for the tourists and large leafy trees lining it. The street looked bucolic but Con knew it wasn’t. Or at least it wasn’t for him.
He got back to Preacher’s place, parked his jeep around back, and used the stairs to go up to his rooms. He had a small one-bedroom apartment over the bar. He washed the salt water off himself and Butta in the shower and then his dog went to her bed to lie down, while he got dressed and went to find Preach and Dulcie.
Preacher was a defrocked Catholic priest who had left the priesthood but not his faith. He was a good man with a strong moral code—one that Con knew he mirrored. It had nothing to do with following the law to the tee. Preach had said, and Con agreed, most people were smart enough to know right from wrong.
He took a couple of hundreds out of his wallet and carried the money and the ticket that Clay had given him down the hall to Preach’s place.
Dulcie was sitting at her desk when he entered. She was in her late fifties but looked younger. Her hair was a riot of brown curls shot through with some gold and grey. She was tall at five-foot-ten-inches and lean. She’d been the one to encourage Con to start surfing when he’d first come to live with her and Preach. Rumor had it she was the reason Preach was no longer a priest, but Con hadn’t asked either of them. That was none of his business.
“Hey, can you write me a check and send this in?”
She laughed as he put the money and the ticket on the desk next to her. “Why don’t you leave Buttercup here? I’d watch her.”
“At this point, it’s the principle of the matter, I carry her to the water and put her on my board…she’s not on the beach,” Con said. “Where’s Preach?”
“Down at Range’s garage working on his pickup,” Dulcie said. “There’s some breakfast quesadillas in the warming oven if you’re hungry.”
“Thanks,” he said, turning to fix himself a plate of food. He ate standing up at the counter and quickly. He knew he should slow down. But he couldn’t help the way he’d been raised. Food was few and far between when he’d been a youngster, and he’d learned to eat it quick before someone else stole it. He washed his plate and put it back in the cabinet before leaving.
He could walk to the garage and put Butta on a leash and bring her with him. The town was a mix of touristy shops and generations-old businesses. The architecture was mostly Spanish mission style. The mid-morning sun was hot, but there was a nice breeze blowing as he walked.
It was nice to be able to take a deep breath and not inhale sand. He still hadn’t really adjusted to being back in California and not in some godforsaken desert.
Rangeley owned Top Notch Auto Stop. He’d inherited the garage from his old man when he’d retired to Arizona four years ago. The garage did custom work on old American classics, which meant Range had plenty of vehicles he called his own. Rangeley had been after Con for years to bring the Jeep in but putting new paint on that old junker…well Con wasn’t interested in prettying anything up.
“Dude, you seen Preach?” Con asked, walking up to his friend.
Rangeley was actually Brandon Rangeley. He had thick, dark hair that he wore styled like a badass. Seriously, the dude was fixated on his hair.
He had broken a finger on his left hand when he’d dropped an engine block on it at fourteen and it had never healed properly since his dad had been in jail at the time for street racing and Range had pissed off his foster parents.
“Just finished work on his carburetor and took the truck out for a spin,” Rangeley said, give Con a bro hug and then stooping down to pet Butta. Everyone liked his ugly dog except his ex-wife and cops.
“Do you know if Mia’s seeing anyone?” Con asked.
“Dude, I thought that you weren’t crushing on her anymore,” Rangeley said.
“I’m not. Just curious,” Con said.
“Curious about what, kid?”
Preach had come back into the garage…on foot. Preach had thick, blond hair that was slowly giving way to grey.
“Guess the carburetor still isn’t working?” Con asked.
“Piece of shit left me stranded two blocks over. I’ll need a tow, Rangeley.”
“No problem. I’ll send one of my guys to bring it back,” Range said.
Rangeley went to make the call from the dispatch. There were three other mechanics in the shop but they were all working quietly in their bays. The guys who worked for Rangeley weren’t really interested in anything but fast cars.
“What were you asking about?”
“Does Mia have a boyfriend?” Con watched the older man.
Preach had to be at least sixty, but he looked more like forty. He didn’t have a lot of vices except Dulcie. He was six-feet-five inches tall and solid muscle. Con knew this not because he was a perv but because he’d gone up against Preach in the boxing ring two nights back. He still couldn’t beat the old man.
“Why you asking?” Preach walked over to the vending machine in the corner and dropped some coins in.
He came back over to Con and offered him an Orange Crush, which he took. This was their ritual. Drinking orange soda while Preach nudged him back on the right path. But he was twenty-eight and didn’t need nudging.
“Someone beat her up,” Con said. “I want to find the SOB and give him a lesson in manners.”
Preach stopped drinking and put his can on the workbench behind him. “The hell you say. Where’d you see her?”
“At the beach. She had contusions—bruising—on her neck, her wrist was wrapped and though she had sunglasses big enough to cover half her face, she had a black eye.”
“Yeah. That’s what I think, too. So who’s hitting her?” Con asked.
“I…I’m not sure. I don’t think she’s dating anyone. Let me ask around and see what I can find out.”
“You don’t think it’s got something to do with her pops, do you?”
“Who knows? Santos is in Mexico and he’s not coming back up this way. But I have heard there is movement as the different drug gangs are vying to take over his old turf. The son just got dumped on Mia’s doorstep half-dead a few weeks ago,” Preach said. “When my truck gets back, you bring it back to the bar for me.”
“Where are you going?”
“To ask questions, kid. I’ll tell you what I find out tonight.”
End of Excerpt