River’s Deep by Kelsey Kain

 

River

They think being the preacher’s daughter is hard, but being the preacher’s son is just as difficult.

“I appreciate what you’re doing for the church, River, but if I keep hearing these rumors, I’m going to have to let you go.”

There is nothing like your father telling you he’s going to fire you over a little small town gossip. I used to think that Benson Stallone was everything I wanted to be when I grew up. He was a man who loved and cherished his wife. He was a good father. He had a job where he helped the hapless souls of Emerald Ridge. But the older I got, the more I saw through his thin veneer of community service for the needy.

Benson was a good dad, but he wasn’t always a good person. He’ll be the first to tell you about his history with drugs and alcohol abuse and how both led to a brief stint in jail that brought him to Jesus. He won’t tell you that he became a preacher to do more than save souls; he wanted the glory and praise for himself, too. Benson liked to be highly regarded and praised, the sin of pride, if you will. Some days that rubbed me the wrong way.

“Dad, I’m going to level with you.” I sit forward in my chair and run my tongue along the front of my teeth. In the comfort of his pastoral offices, he’s at ease and comfortable. Surrounded by the four walls that have always been a boon to my development, I’m ready to tell him to kick rocks. One of us needs to say the mature, adult thing and I don’t think it’s going to be him. “I’m not too concerned if I lose this job. I’m sure there are other people around town who could use a good maintenance guy. I think the elementary school is hiring and they don’t care who I’m screwing in my off hours as long as it isn’t the kids.”

My dad blushes scarlet as though I’ve offended his delicate sensibilities, but in reality, he’s just frustrated that I don’t respect him the way his parish does. I don’t dote on his words as though they were law and it infuriates my father. “Son, if you don’t care about the gossip, that’s fine. But what about your immortal soul?”

I sigh angrily and throw myself back in my chair. It’s as though I’m ten years old again and he’s chastising me for stealing a pack of gum from the convenience store. “What about it?” I glare from across the desk at him. “Give me the talk. Bring me to salvation, dad.”

Benson isn’t amused and I can see the disappointment as deep as the lines in his brow. “River, what you’re doing is an offense to God.”

I’m not an atheist. I’m past the age of doing theological research to prove my father wrong. I believe that there is a God and He probably wants the best for His people. But I don’t express my religion and beliefs like they’re a personality trait. What I believe in spiritually doesn’t define me. It sounds counter-intuitive when I explain it to people, but one belief doesn’t make a person. People are made up of their actions, their thoughts, the things they consume, and a thousand other things that play a part in developing their personality.

“I thought we were here to discuss my salary,” I change the subject before it gets too intense and my dad blows a gasket. “You know, the money you guys pay me to keep One Love from breaking down every other week? What happened to that conversation?”

As much as it pains him to see me damning my immortal soul, Benson gets back on task with another frustrated look on his face. This time it doesn’t seem directed at me, but the circumstances. “I don’t know if we’ll be able to keep paying you your salary from last year. Our budget is down and—”

“So it isn’t the rumors that’ll get me fired, it’s your pastoral expenditures. Got it. Can I go now? I’ve got a few things to do.” I start making a to-do list in my head. Should I get groceries today? Or should I swing by the elementary school and apply for their open Head Maintenance position? I wonder how much of that job has to do with janitorial pursuits. I don’t want to clean up vomit…

Benson slams his fist down on the table. For a man who’s seventy-five, he’s surprisingly spry. “Damn it, River, this is serious. Did you or did you not sleep with the bartender down at The Barn? She’s married.”

It takes a lot to get Benson Stallone to swear. However, in this case, he’s in the wrong. I don’t know who told him that I was getting it on with the owner and lead bartender of The Barn, but they’re gravely mistaken. “Would it make you feel better if I’d told you I hadn’t slept with anyone in nearly two months? I’m in a drought, dad. You think Katie would be willing though? I haven’t seen her husband around in a while and maybe she needs a little River lovin’.”

I know I push his buttons, but he makes it so easy. His face turns red and I see him start puffing up like he was stung by a bee. I reckon it’s time for me to take my leave before he blows his top. “Keep me updated on the job situation. I’m going to head over to the school and see if I can put in an application. You know, because my mortgage requires cold hard cash, not credit with Jesus. Then I’m going to head over to The Barn and see if that buxom bartender you think I’ve nailed is available to turn this lie into the truth.”

I pop out of the chair and ignore his mutterings. Though I catch a handful of words—ungrateful, disrespectful, no good rotten son—I keep going. He doesn’t mean what he said, he’s just annoyed. I know that he’s upset because I won’t follow in his footsteps and become a man of God, but I’ve got other things to take care of right now.

I wasn’t kidding about finding the bartender. Two months is a long time to go without sex. Albeit I went seventeen years once, but for about fourteen of them, I wasn’t interested in doing the deed.

Now though, I have sex like it’s a hobby. My dad has spoken to me at length about waiting until marriage or at least finding the right woman, but Emerald Ridge isn’t New York City. I don’t have a few million women at my disposal to choose from. I’ve dated some of the best the mountain has to offer and still haven’t found the one. I’m beginning to think she doesn’t exist here in the great big yonder.

That’s why I switched over to extended intimate relationships with people I knew that I would enjoy spending time with. We didn’t need a connection or to talk about our day, we just needed someone to stay warm with and exhaust our pent-up sexual frustrations.

Too bad the women I was seeing dropped like flies. Things would go well for a couple of months, then they’d leave Emerald Ridge. Or, and this was the one I loathed the most, they found their person. I was starting to feel like a good luck charm. One romp with me would lead you to the love of your life. On more than one occasion, I said that if that was the case, I was going to start charging.

I haven’t found a replacement for my latest girlfriend, though I use that term loosely, which is why I am going through a drought. Two months is a long time. Days are beginning to pass like a fever dream. Get up, go to work, strikeout with the ladies, and go home alone. What sick, twisted universe have I stepped into?

Absentmindedly, I make it to The Barn instead of the elementary school. There are a handful of cars in the parking lot and the skies are a painted sunset tapestry of yellows, pinks, and purples. It isn’t late, but if I want to grab a beer before going to the grocery store, I might as well do it now. I suppose going to the school can wait until tomorrow.

With a look in the mirror, I wince before running my hands through my hair. Not that I look a mess, but you can tell I’ve been working. That’s what I get for having my head under the bathroom sink all day looking for a leak someone reported at church yesterday. Everything is broken down at One Love though. I’m sure I’ll go in tomorrow to another leak somewhere else and three busted chairs.

I get out of my truck and head inside, cursing my job, my life, and everything else. But immediately, I see a woman sitting at the bar that I’ve never met before. Long, blonde curls waterfall down her back. A pair of dark-rimmed, cat eye glasses hang off the brim of her nose. She laughs with the bartender, Katie, the very woman that my dad thought I was sleeping with. But when I look from Katie to the stranger, I know that there’s no way I’d be interested in her now.

As if she feels my gaze on her, the stranger turns her head toward the door. I catch a glimpse of her blue eyes and know that the two of us will make beautiful babies. For a second I consider calling my dad and telling him that the drought is over. In fact, I might have found a woman to bring home to mom. But then Katie calls my name and invites me over.

“Hey, River,” she says with an easygoing smile, “meet my sister, Scarlett. Scarlett, this is River Stallone.”

I look back and forth from Katie to Scarlett almost frantically; they look nothing alike. Scarlett is a cool foil to her sister’s dark looks. “Er, sister?” I question, trying to gain more insight into the situation.

Katie rolls her eyes and grabs a frosted mug to fill with my usual. “Sister-in-law, if you want to get technical.”

This is Colton Miller’s sister? She looks too good to be true. I take a seat beside Scarlett at the bar and toss her a roguish grin. “Where’s Colton been at these days, anyway?”

The two of them exchange a look, the blonde’s blue eyes meeting Katie’s dark brown ones. It’s the love of my life who responds. “Prison, probably. Halfway to Mexico, maybe.”

“I think I missed something.” I tear my eyes away from Scarlett and pin a look on Katie. “Is everything okay?”

She grabs a bar towel and starts wiping down the wood. A trickle of tears slide down her cheeks and she rubs them away angrily. “It is now that Scarlett’s here. She’s my knight in red-bottomed heels.”

Scarlett reaches across the bar to grab her sister’s frantically moving hand, stilling it in her grasp. “Hey, we got this, Kat. And I painted them red myself, you know that. I can’t afford Louboutin's now.”

I am bewildered. Where did Scarlett come from? What brought her to Emerald Ridge? Why is she dressed so nicely? It’s a Monday and therefore too early in the week for me to be feeling this confused.

“Since you’re here, meet River Stallone,” Katie says with a sniff. She recovers from her brief meltdown with a shake of her head and a deep breath, pulling a smile on her face like an accessory. “He’s our resident bad boy and the preacher’s son.”

Scarlett takes a glance in my direction with a raised eyebrow. “Resident bad boy, huh?” She releases Katie’s hand and sits back on her barstool. She grabs the glass of red wine in front of her and takes a hearty sip. “Well, I’m a good girl from California, so I’ll probably have to stay away from you. I don’t want to risk being corrupted.”

I can hear the flirtation in her tone. Combined with the words silkily rolling off her tongue, I start to believe in love at first sight. “Katie, you’re going to have to tell me now if you don’t want me to corrupt your sister because I think I’m in love.”

Katie audibly snorts in derision. “Don’t believe him, Scar. The devil comes dressed as everything you want. Don’t think I don’t know who you run around with, River Stallone. You break my sister’s heart, I’ll break your neck.”

I’m dressed in dirty jeans and a green plaid shirt. If this is everything Scarlett wants, then I’ll quit whoring today. I’ll give up any woman in the world if it means I can have this one.