The Hero (Page 31)

Author: Robyn Carr

Eric went to the service station and had his Jeep SUV gassed up. He pulled over to the side of the station and went into the garage to have a chat with Norm Sileski who had owned and worked this station for about forty-five years. He had a couple of grown sons who didn’t want it. It was far beneath Eric’s standards—it was run-down, dirty, greasy, broken down and weathered. But it was the only game in town, had room on the lot to expand and Norm did most of the car repair in town. Eric suspected people got their gas other places when they could; he was a little high-priced. He’d looked over the P&L reports—Norm made a decent living.

And no one knew better than Eric how to turn a run-down dump like this into a first-rate business. He’d already done it once in Eugene. He’d expected to be there for the rest of his life. But then some rich guy who wanted a chain of body shops came along and...

“You need new pumps there, Norm,” Eric said.

“Need new everything, Mr. Gentry,” he said. “But I’m not putting another dime in this place to pretty it up. I’m headed for seventy years old. Fast.” And then he grinned. “You buy this place, I’ll turn a wrench for you part-time as long as I’m upright.”

“You don’t want to enjoy your retirement?”

“Yes, sir, I do. If Mrs. Sileski has her way, I’ll be going on cruises and traveling to countries where I don’t speak the language. Just gimme a wrench.”

Eric laughed at him. He asked a few more questions—who were his employees, mechanics, cleanup crew; had he ever kept a tow truck at the station; who was his distributor? They chatted about the weather for a little while. Eric asked Norm if he’d lived in Thunder Point his whole life and how he liked it. “Like it fine if you can take having everybody and their brother in your business all the time.”

Hmm, Eric thought. That might be a downside, especially for someone like Ashley. And her mother.

He was a little early when he got to the McCain home to pick up Ashley. The place was alive with activity. Mac was rushing off with his son, Ryan. Eve McCain and her boyfriend were taking the youngest, Dee Dee, to her dance class, Gina was still at work. Everyone said hello, shook his hand and carried on. And Ashley was ready. “This is a typical Saturday,” she said. “I usually have cheer practice, but we won last night’s game and that bought us a day off.”

“Hungry?” he asked.

“I’m starving, but I never shop after food. Can you make it another couple of hours? Two at the latest?”

He thought he might faint by then. Of course if he had his hands in an engine or was in the paint bay or hammering out a classic car bumper, he could forget to eat. But, trying to play the good father, he was going shopping.

“No problem,” he said. “Just lead the way.”

Eric hated shopping. He usually went about twice a year—once for a bunch of clothes, underwear and socks and the second time to buy Christmas presents. But there was something about shopping with the daughter he hadn’t known he had that was a whole new experience, and it was energizing. She tried on everything; she was very particular. And as if she was spending her own money, she was painfully frugal. She turned away many items even after he said he could well afford them. Her choices were mostly sale items. In the end she had a very full shopping bag for a grand total of $247.68. Most girls her age would have taken advantage of an opportunity like this. After all, he owed her.

“Shoes?” he asked.

“I’m good.”


She laughed. “Starving. There’s a Red Robin around the corner.”

They got a booth and wasted no time in ordering. And while they waited for food, Eric asked about school and about Frank, two things he asked about whenever he talked to her. When he’d first learned of Ashley and first met her she’d been going through a painful teenage broken heart—her serious boyfriend had gone off to college and found himself a new girl, throwing Ashley into a very vulnerable depression. That was, in fact, the reason Gina came looking for him. She’d been so worried about Ashley she thought it made sense to find out if things like depression ran in Eric’s family.

And then in one of those fateful episodes no one can plan or even guess, one of the people to help her pull out of it was Crawford Downy’s younger brother, Frank.

“Frank is good,” she said. “He already has scholarship offers. He calls himself a nerd, but he’s not really. Well, yes, I guess he is. But he’s so interesting and so cute I forget about that. Besides, he’s the nicest person in the world. And to think I wouldn’t even really know him if Downy hadn’t dumped me.”

“What’s that like? Dating an ex’s brother?” he asked.

“Sometimes awkward. Thank God Downy went back to State. We see him around town when he’s home for a visit and Frank swears Downy doesn’t give him a hard time. I bet Frank would swear that even if it weren’t true—he’s so protective. I think Frank is going to go to MIT. I’ve lived in Thunder Point my whole life and not too many people I know scored that kind of education just based on brains. We’ve turned out some decent athletes, but nothing like what Frank’s doing.”

“And what about you?” Eric asked.

“Same,” she said with a shrug. “I’m going to go to community college in Coquille for at least a year, maybe two. I’m just not quite ready to move away. Almost, though. I haven’t decided where I want to go to school after that, but I can’t wait to visit Frank on the East Coast. Something there might get my interest.”

“Do you think you’ll come back to Thunder Point after college?” he asked.

“I have no idea,” she said with a laugh. “I have no idea what to study! I took one of those tests to show you what you’re most interested in and have the best aptitude for and guess what it came up with? Coroner!”

He whistled. “Talk about job security. Always a need for coroners, unfortunately.”

“Yeah, I don’t think so. Although I do like to watch TV shows like Rizzoli & Isles.”

“Maybe you’re just interested in science. Maybe you’ll be a doctor.”

“I think I could,” she said. “But every time I think about twelve years or so of college and residency, I think—gimme a break.”

He just laughed and right then their burgers arrived. “I didn’t even finish high school.”

“Yes, you did,” she said. And then she did what so many females did—she rearranged her sandwich, moving the lettuce, tomatoes around, making it all neat and then cutting it in half. “And you have a little college.”

He’d gotten his GED in prison. He’d taken a few more courses, mainly to pass the time, never having any idea he’d one day own his own business. “And Frank?”

She took a dainty bite of her burger, wiped her mouth, swallowed. “I think Frank might run the world someday. He’ll be like the head of NASA or something. If he had the slightest interest in politics, he’d be the president. You just have no idea....”

He smiled at her. He’d met Frank. Nice kid, very cordial and respectful. But Eric hadn’t been as dazzled by his big brain as Ashley apparently was. Then again, Frank hadn’t really been showcasing his brain. He’d been paddleboarding. And Eric had been studying his physique and the way he looked at Ashley. Frank really cared about his daughter. It was a very odd feeling.

“And what’s going on in the car business?” she asked.

“Day to day,” he said. “There has been an interesting development. Some guy wants to buy my business. He’s been in contact several times over the past year. I’ve been ignoring him.”

“No kidding? That’s very cool.”

“Yeah, I guess it is. My lack of interest just makes him want it more. I’m kind of proud of that—that some guy with money is impressed with the shop. With the help of some friends, I built it from nothing.”

“But you’d never sell it.”

He gave a shrug. “Part of me thinks that would be crazy, starting over now after all the work I put in. Another part says, take the money and run. I could do it again. In fact I’ve been looking around to see if there’s anything out there.”

She got a panicked look on her face. She swallowed. “Would you be farther away?”

“Well, funny you should ask,” he said. He hadn’t meant to bring the subject up like this, but he told himself he’d learn a lot just from Ashley’s expression. “There’s a possibility in Thunder Point.”

Her eyes sparkled, it was unmistakable. “Seriously?”

“Nothing I can confirm—I haven’t even decided it makes sense to sell the shop. But Thunder Point...the question is, is that little town big enough for both of us?”

“What do you mean?”

“Ashley, it’s one thing for me to spend a couple of hours there every so often. It would be another matter to have me there all the time. It would probably raise questions about our history. About your birth. It could be uncomfortable for you.”

She smiled at him. “Eric, everyone in town knows my mom wasn’t married when I was born. I’ve introduced you as my biological father even though I think you’ll always be Eric to me.”

“You could be teased or criticized for having a father who served time in prison....”

“Well, I haven’t mentioned that to hardly anyone, just my best friend, who is now my stepsister. And I’m sure my mom told Mac. I don’t know if anyone else knows, but I don’t really care what anyone says about that. It’s not on me, Eric. But I can understand if it bothers you.”

“Look, I gave up trying to conceal my past a long time ago. I sure don’t brag about it, but if it comes out I don’t deny it. But your mom, Ashley. She’s in a new marriage.... Having an old boyfriend around...”

“I don’t think it matters anymore. But maybe you should talk to her. If you moved here, would your girlfriend come? Is it Cara? Is that her name?”

“Hmm. That ended. A couple of months back.”

“Ended? Oh, no, what happened?”

He actually smiled. “She’s a web designer, remember? She threw me over for a computer geek.”

“No way!”

“Way. She was pretty married to her computer and I was...” He rubbed a hand along the back of his neck a little self-consciously. “I’ve been putting in long hours. It’s probably my fault. I could have been more attentive.”

Ashley sat back. “You don’t seem all that broken up about it.”

“My pride was hurt. But I think our relationship ran its course and we both knew it. The truth is—I’m glad I didn’t hurt anyone. I’ve hurt enough people in my life. Which brings us back to... Ashley, I don’t want to put your mother on the spot. I don’t want her to feel backed into a corner. She’s a nice person—if I come right out and ask her if living in or near Thunder Point would be a problem for her, she’ll probably tell me to do whatever I want to do. Even if it’s not her first choice.”

“You think you could stand living in a little town like Thunder Point?”

He gave a shrug. “It’s a good little town, I remember that much. And I think I’d like running into you more often. But I’m not making any assumptions—we’re friends. You can come to me with anything, but I’m not going to try to step in as a father figure. I’m not ever going to assume any authority over you. I promise.”

“You’re very funny, Eric. It’s almost too late for anyone to have much authority over me. I’m real close to being out the door.”