There were days when Maddox Stockton felt there wasn't enough water in the world to wash off the filth caked on his soul.
Today was one of them.
He stood on the front steps of the Rogue Valley sheriff's office, staring grimly out at the blowing snow. It was cold, even for a guy like him who didn't bother to feel much of anything these days.
The door closed behind him, but he didn't turn as the local sheriff, Dane Wilson, walked out and stood beside him. "You sure you don't want to crash at my place, Maddox? It's going to be a hell of a drive."
"No. I need to get back." But Maddox didn't move. He just stood there, letting the bitter Wyoming wind knife through him, welcoming the way it bit through his jeans like a she-devil out to savage him. Cold was better than feeling nothing, which was how he went through most of his days. The days when he did feel? Hate, guilt, and a whole shitload of other emotions that served no one.
Dane shoved his hands in his pockets, standing beside Maddox as they watched the wind whip the snow around. The only two trucks left on the street were theirs, just like when they were teenagers. Just like back then, tonight they were the only two in town who had nowhere to go. Just him and Dane. All that was left of the kids who had once thought their darkness wasn't forever.
They'd been wrong. The darkness was forever, and it was their own souls that kept it alive.
"Always another bad guy to track down, eh?" Dane mused.
Maddox shrugged. "Who can give up on a childhood dream come true?"
Dane laughed. "Yeah, because every little boy's dream is to become a bounty hunter who spends his days with scumbags who would be happy to shoot you between the eyes if it kept them from going back to jail."
Maddox cocked an eyebrow at his longtime friend, the only person in the entire world besides his brothers, who he considered worth trusting. "As said by the man whose desk is next to a jail cell."
Dane shrugged. "This is Rogue Valley. Not much bad shit happens here anymore since—"
He cut himself off, but Maddox knew what he was going to say. "Since my bastard dad died, right? It's been like a damned oasis since he spared the world his presence."
"I was going to say, since the Stockton brothers grew up and became somewhat respectable."
Maddox laughed at that one. "You know damn well that only Travis, Zane, Chase, and Steen have become respectable, and that's only because they were lucky enough to find women who were so loyal and amazing that my brothers couldn't walk away."
Dane cocked an eyebrow at him. "You sound jealous."
Maddox took a deep breath and flexed his hands. "No jealousy. I'm happy for them. I didn't think there was any chance that anyone with the last name of Stockton could ever be happy, but I'm glad I was wrong. I'm glad that they're getting a chance to live the life they deserve."
Dane turned to look at him. "You don't want it, too? I'm not gonna lie, sometimes I'm jealous as hell at what they have."
Maddox met his gaze. "Don't waste your energy, bro. Neither of us can ever get that close to someone like their women. The poison inside of us will eat away at anything good that tries to come near us, until there's nothing left of the light that used to exist. We'll kill the light, Dane. You know it."
"What are you, a poet?" But Dane didn't argue.
Because Maddox was right.
The two men stood there for a few more minutes, letting the frigid wind slice into them, before Dane finally sighed. "I'm going to head out." He glanced at Maddox. "Always good to see you when you're in town, bro. Make sure you stop by next time."
There was an edge to Dane's voice that drew Maddox's attention. He narrowed his eyes, studying his friend. "What's wrong?"
Dane hesitated, and Maddox suddenly tensed, realizing that something was going on with his friend. "What's up?"
But Dane simply shook his head. "Nothing."
"Yep." Dane didn't bother to deny the accusation, because they knew each other too well to be able to lie to one another. But he also didn't expand on it. "Drive safe, my friend. There are too many bad guys left in this world for you to kick the bucket just yet."
Maddox grinned. "You got it. Catch you later." He followed Dane down the snow-covered front steps, turning right to head to his truck, which was parked down by the corner. He pulled his cowboy hat low over his head, his boots kicking through the snow as he walked. He knew it was going to be a hellish drive, and he should've left earlier. But it had felt good to chill with Dane, and take an hour to forget who he was and the legacy he carried with him. Besides, he was heading south, away from the storm. As long as he got out of the area before it hit hard, he'd be fine.
He reached the corner, and his truck chirped as he unlocked it. But just as he was reaching for the driver's door, the warm glow of lights from way down at the end of the street caught his attention. He frowned, counting the storefronts, then scowled when he realized it was the café belonging to Lissa, the fiancée of his brother, Travis.
Why was she still at work? He knew Travis was out of town to play a benefit concert back East, which meant he wasn't around either to drive Lissa back to their place, or to make her go home before the weather got impassable.
Maddox thought grimly of the long ride in front of him, but even as he ground his jaw at the thought of driving in heavy snow by delaying his departure any longer, he didn't hesitate as he slammed his door shut.
There was no chance he was going to drive away until he knew Lissa was safe.
Scowling, he shoved his hands in the pockets of his heavy coat, slogging through the snow as he strode down the sidewalk. The town center was empty, completely abandoned, because even the hardy Wyoming residents were hunkering down before the storm hit.
But as he walked, an SUV towing a rental trailer pulled up in front of the café, making him groan. If someone walked into the café needing a meal, it would be almost impossible for him to pry Lissa out of the kitchen. He swore under his breath, but he didn't slow down. If he had to be a complete ass and kick the customer out the door with an empty stomach so that he could make sure Lissa shut down and got out the door safely, then he was fine with that.
People thinking he was a classless bastard was nothing new to him, and he had long since stopped giving a shit what anyone thought.
Besides, what was the point in fighting it?
They were right.