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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Romance  ➡  Romance  ➡  New adult

Tiny Dancer

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Copyright © 2016 J.M. Worthington

All rights reserved

Shakespir Edition

Published by J.M. Worthington

ISBN

This book may not be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages for review purposes. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of events to real life, or of characters to actual persons, is purely coincidental. The author acknowledges the trademark status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction.

 

 

Dedication

 

My dedication is to my children T & N.

 

My beautiful daughter, if you could only see what I see when I look at you; a girl with child-like wonder and a woman ready to take on the world wrapped in a package of pure beauty, grace, and love.

 

My curious son, you make each day brighter by the way you see it with a wonderment that exceeds even the greatest minds and a stubbornness to take on any challenge.

 

Soulmate

A person with whom you have an immediate connection the moment you meet – a connection so strong that you are drawn to them in a way you have never experienced before. As this connection develops over time, you experience a love so deep, strong, and complex that you begin to doubt that you have ever truly loved before.

 

To my one true soulmate, thank you for showing me daily what true love looks like.

Love, you always

 

Only fools fall in love …

And I was no fool.

~Lucas Carter

Prologue

Lucas Carter

8-years-old

As I sat in the dark theater and pulled at the tight bowtie Granny had dressed me in, I smiled, knowing my mommy hated when I did that. She said it stretched my collar. I didn’t care. I tugged on the collar just for the heck of it. Mommy didn’t like anything I did anyway.

I couldn’t understand why my parents didn’t like me. My granny liked me, even if she did make me wear my church pants. I would’ve rather had on my jeans and boots, but she said we had to look nice — we were going to see dancers and she was going to get to see her two favorite people in the whole wide world together. I guess that would’ve been Daddy and me. Granny loved Daddy, but Daddy didn’t care about me.

The truth was, there were three facts about me that everyone knew — I had a father who only loved power, a mother who only loved herself, and a family who had more money than God. People only cared about the latter. Only Granny cared about me.

Daddy didn’t even want me to tag along; he never wanted me around, but Granny said he had too. Mommy had gone with her friends, and they couldn’t leave me home alone. I thought about sticking my tongue out at Daddy, but he would just ignore me anyway. He never cared what I did. Just last month, I finally mastered the track on my dirt bike. Daddy still didn’t go to my first race on Sunday. Sunday was his “me” day.

Daddy acted funny. Once, he even cried, but I couldn’t see over the lady in front of me to know why. Her hat was bigger than the state of Texas. That was where my mommy went. She went every July to see her best friend. I couldn’t understand why she never came to our house. We had a big house with extra bedrooms.

Then Granny started crying when one small dancer, dressed in a pink tutu, started doing some kind of twirling down the center aisle. She held her caramel-colored arms high in the air as she leaped up each of the four steps leading to the stage. I frowned, my eyebrows pulling together as I tried to figure out why she made Granny and Daddy sad. She had really brown hair piled on her head like a bird’s nest. Which was ironic, because she had a big white bow on the side of it that reminded me of a dove in flight.

Then she smiled. She smiled so big my heart jumped in my chest. She was prettier than Harper Cooksey, and I told Harper she could be my girlfriend. I wondered who the girl was and if she had a boyfriend.

The program lasted forty-eight minutes longer, but I couldn’t forget that one girl with a yard of dark-brown hair and the smile of an angel. Daddy was holding some smelly flowers and asked me if I wanted to give them to someone special for Granny and him. I only wanted to give them to her. My tiny dancer.

Out in the main lobby, all the dancers were lined up against the wall and everyone gathered around: taking pictures, giving out flowers and gifts. I saw my tiny dancer and felt my heart pitter-patter. It was weird. My heart had never done anything like that before.

I about leaped on the spot when Daddy handed me those flowers and pointed to my tiny dancer. “Take these over there and give them to her. Tell her it was from her biggest fan.”

I made a seesaw gesture with my head and raced over then stopped in front of her. I waved with my free hand, and she smiled again. It made my chest feel puffy and was my favorite smile ever. I handed her the flowers and told her they were from me. After all, I’d become her biggest fan.

She cradled them in her arm and held out her other hand.

I stared at the girl. Harper would never be my girlfriend again. Her dark hair and smile didn’t make me smile, but my tiny dancer did. I breathed in real deep, and forgot what I was even doing. She smelled like strawberry and cream suckers. They were my favorite. I glanced down at her feet where she didn’t see my cheeks turning red. On her feet were those pink dancing slippers. She was beautiful.

I looked up again and she still had her hand held out. Mommy always said to shake all hands offered up for a handshake. I reached for her hand and forced it into mine then shook them both up and down twice.

“I love them, thank you,” my tiny dancer said.

I didn’t say anything — for some reason my voice box refused to work. Then I realized she was still holding my hand. Maybe that was why.

“I said thank you, you should say you’re welcome,” my tiny dancer said and laughed.

I liked the sound of her voice and the way she said her “R” s. I liked the sound of her laughter and the way her eyes lit up when she laughed. I liked her hair and the big white bow holding it up. I liked her.

I snatched my hand away and cleared my throat. “Welcome, you’re welcome.”

“Nice to meet you. Maybe we can be friends. Maybe even best friends.”

I scrunched up my face. She was too pretty to be my friend. Scared, I turned and ran straight into my Granny’s arms.

I never saw my tiny dancer again.

Then one day, I forgot her face.

And on another day, I forgot I even had a tiny dancer in the first place.

 

 

What is the meaning of life?

Webster said it was the condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death.

I always believed it was the period between the birth and death of a living thing, especially a human being. However, life taught me differently.

Chapter 1

Annie Prieto

The only name I’ve ever known is Annie Prieto, and this is my story. At times, you’ll hate me, but other times I hope I make you smile. In the end, only he will matter.

I sometimes wondered if anything mattered. Don’t get me wrong, I was a realist but not completely without emotions. Everyone had those moments that renewed their sense of humanity. It was usually found in the simplest of things: a group of children swinging on a playground; a young couple sharing an ice cream cone on a hot summer day; a hug from a mother and son; a little girl wearing a smocked cotton dress. The other day, I felt a slight flutter in my chest at the sight of a little girl walking hand in hand with her daddy.

Humanity was usually brought to the surface by the things your heart had lost and longed for. And if life had taught me anything, it was that what was lost usually was never found. There are no do-overs in life. A person isn’t made to look back. Mimi once told me that every person tells themselves that but no one ever takes their own advice. I guess that was why God put swivel joints in our necks. For once, I was going to heed that advice. The past no longer mattered — only the future. My life would start today.

It was February 21st, and everything screamed I didn’t belong. I had just moved to Small Town, USA in the heart of Tennessee. A late-night rain and rising temperatures caused a mist to spiral up from the sidewalks as I walked under a blanket of elm and maple trees that had to yet be touched by the blight of the city. The traffic could be described as sporadic at best. The majority of cars were parked out in front of Pearl Fowler’s house. Ms. Fowler’s husband had been the mayor of Carterville for years.

I couldn’t help but wave to the ladies who gathered on the veranda for tea. That wave only gained me a few sneers, but only two of the proper ladies pointed. Not because they were crotchety old ladies, but because they were vaguely interested to see an unfamiliar person walk by.

Beyond the tree-lined streets of one grand old home after another was the actual town of Carterville. It was homey and had an almost Victorian quality to it. The main street running through town was lined with a flower shop, a dollar store, a small Mom-and-Pop grocery, and nestled in the farthest corner of the street, was the Downtown Café — my present place of employment and current destination.

I trudged in through the backdoor of the small restaurant, sliding my feet across the slick tile floor — because I was too damn tired to lift them — and pulled my apron off its hook. I started to tie it around my waist when I heard the name that would forever change my life.

“Lucas Carter is back.”

I usually fell back into the shadows and had absolutely zero friends but I still knew who that group of girls were. They were the popular girls — the ones whose daddies owned half the town — all blonde, all cute, all skinny, all fake, and every single one of them had a brain the size of a rooster’s testicle. I didn’t know them personally but already knew I didn’t like them.

I might’ve been a recluse, but I did have the knack of eavesdropping; it was the only thing that kept me sane. I walked over to the grill and started flipping burgers, sure that not one of those girls had ever done a day’s worth of work in their lifetime. They stood there laughing and gossiping about the small-town hero of Carterville: Lucas Carter. The former all-star quarterback of the state champion football team, and the only son of the biggest landowners in the whole damn county, Wes and Jennifer Carter.

I wasn’t sure why I even cared, but for the last five weeks that I’d lived in that armpit from hell called a town, I heard more about the infamous Lucas Carter than any other name. I couldn’t help but have a small flutter across my stomach at the thought I might actually have a chance at meeting him.

“Has Candice seen him yet?” Giggly Airhead #1 asked Giggly Airhead #2.

I’d heard enough to know that Lucas had dated Candice Armstrong all through high school and rumored to have asked her to marry him before abruptly dumping her to attend college in Texas. Okay, I admit, I was eavesdropping again.

“I doubt it. I haven’t heard of Lucas being killed yet.” Giggle, giggle, snort, snort. I rolled my eyes; not one damn thing they had said was that funny.

“What the hell are you looking at?” the prettiest of the group asked and stared daggers at me.

I laid down the spatula I was holding when I realized I’d been staring at them the whole time through the window separating the kitchen and the serving area. I stuck out my tongue then gave her a big, cheesy grin until he walked up. I swallowed, trying to keep my throat from closing.

A guy — my age? Could easily be older? Possibly younger? — the kind of guy most girls would describe as “eye candy”, walked in and over to the group of those girls. I’d never been easily intimidated by anyone or anything, but he … He intimidated me.

Their attention suddenly adjusted from me to him.

“Be nice, Cat. That look really doesn’t look good on you,” he replied in a lazy drawl as he ran his hand through his long, sun-bleached-blond hair that hung loosely around his face, revealing a piqued curiosity.

“Lucas,” she giggled out more than spoke the word. Oh, hell, she batted her eyelashes. I thought that was a move even too cheesy for the movies nowadays. I guess I was wrong because Giggly Airhead #2 followed suit with a flutter of her own eyelashes.

“Hey,” Giggly Airhead #2 said and waved her hand like she had won the lottery.

Lucas smirked and returned the wave but his was seemingly uninterested. He was almost mocking her.

He did rile my curiosity. A leggy blonde irritated him. One point for Lucas. Still, he wasn’t exactly my type, but it was impossible not to admire his tall, muscular physique and the ease at which he moved around the room. He narrowed his mesmerizing blue eyes and turned them in my direction. Damn, they had to have been the clearest blue eyes I’d ever seen. I’d say they were the color of the Caribbean, but since the only body of water I’d ever truly been around was the Tennessee River, I wouldn’t know what color blue the Caribbean was. I continued to stare at them. My knees went weak. I’d never gone goo-goo over any guy before but I could see what all the talk had been about. Lucas Carter could easily get a virgin to drop her undies with the look he was giving me.

He stood there for a second before heading into the back where I was. I froze in place the moment he stormed through the kitchen door.

“Who the hell are you?” he asked. His eyes never strayed from mine; they felt like hands as they roamed over my body.

I backed up, bumping my hip against the side of the grill.

I was pretty sure I was having a hot flash.

Or, at the very least my skin was turning to flames.

Or, I was leaning onto the hot grill.

“Ow.” I jumped in place.

“I asked you a question,” he said. He had put up an invisible wall of armor with his proud posture and rigid body language. It should’ve made me dislike him. However, I’ve never been one to do as I should.

“An-nn-ie Pri-eto,” I stuttered and crossed my arms, trying to hide from those eyes. They were incredible. The thick black lashes contrasted with his blond hair and almost looked like eyeliner. It was completely unfair. I had no outstanding features. I was one color: brown. Brown hair, brown eyelashes, brown skin. The only exception were my eyes; they were green. Which did nothing for me except distract from any exotic look I might’ve had going. Come on, Annie Prieto, quit staring at him like an idiot.

His expression melted into a smile. He could easily tell he was getting to me. How could he not? He had the tightest, hardest body I’d ever seen. I wanted to rip open the shirt he was wearing, knowing I would be awarded with an amazing sit of abs if I did. He had worked hard to obtain that body but the lucky ass was born with a face that rivaled even that body. Every bone looked like it had been chiseled into perfection, cheekbones as strong as his jaw, and I could not even begin to describe the depth of blue in those eyes. They were piercing and intense and had not once stopped staring at me.

“Damn,” he said and ran his hand through a mound of long, silky strands of hair.

Bob, the owner and my boss, busted open the door. “Lucas, can I help you?” he said almost humbly.

Lucas shook his head. “No, I just thought,” he paused and gave me one more hard stare. “Never mind.” He waved his hand and turned on his boot heel to leave without a backward glance. I turned back to the sink, determined not to watch him walk away. Especially since his backside was pretty damn hot in those skintight jeans.

“Annie, leave that one alone,” Bob said, shaking his head and looking back into the dining room at Lucas. “No good would come from you two together.”

“Don’t worry about us. I have a feeling I’m more trouble than he’s looking for.”

Bob left, mumbling something about calling our dad. He wasn’t calling mine, for the simple fact I never had a dad that gave a crap about me.

I glanced back out the small opening leading into the dining room. Lucas had placed himself in the corner where he easily could view the entire restaurant, but he seemed disinterested in everyone, especially the gaggle of girls surrounding him who were totally unaware he wasn’t even part of their conversation.

They each tried to gain his attention, but the most anyone achieved was a sexy little smirk where only one side of his face turned up. At one point, he reached up to pull his long, blond hair into a bun, causing the muscle in his upper arm to flex and my body to tingle.

“I think he might be the one causing the trouble,” Bob said and placed his hands on my shoulder physically to turn me.

Flames were shooting off the grill, scorching the vent hood. I immediately turned off the grill, and luckily, the fire died down to a small smoldering-flare. The burgers, unfortunately, didn’t survive.

“Told you I was trouble,” I said and shrugged my left shoulder.

For some reason, Bob had taken an instant liking to me and looked over all my faults. He had even found a place for me to stay. When I first showed up at his office looking for a job, I’d taken temporary resident at the Knotty Pine Inn. It was less than desirable, but it was a warm place to lay my head at night. But no sooner did I get my name out then he was on the phone and arranging for me to stay at a rental house in one of his friend’s extra homes for free. Normally, my pride wouldn’t allow me to accept charity, but with only $236 left to my name, I swallowed my pride as I said, “Thanks,” and moved in three days later.

“Annie, stay away from Lucas Carter. I’ve known his family for years. I promise you two will lead to nothing but problems.”

Bob knew everyone in the community except the one I wanted to know about. I came to Carterville to try to learn about my mother. All I had was a name — Evie Prieto — and that she was living in Carterville when she was killed in a car wreck off route 41 when she was only eight months pregnant with me. She was able to hold on long enough to give birth to me, but she never did reveal who my father was. Some people believed it was the man who was also killed in the wreck with her, Miles Blankenship. However, there was no proof that he was, either. The facts were, after spending my life in the foster system, I was more than ready to know where I came from. But if I didn’t find her small gravesite out at old Lanier Cemetery, I would swear I had the wrong town. At the mention of her name, I either got a flat-out “I never knew her”, or everyone around would go suddenly tight-lipped.

So, that was why I found myself in Carterville. And here I would stay at least until my questions were answered.

After cleaning up the mess the fire caused, I glanced back out into the dining room and wanted to kick myself that Lucas had left and I didn’t get the chance to see that fine ass leaving.

I looked down at the saltshaker in my hand, letting my ponytail create a curtain around my face. I didn’t want to be one of those girls that blushed in his presence. I didn’t want to be one of those girls with butterflies in her stomach.

I’m one of those girls, damn it.

I’m the least romantic guy there is, and while I’ve heard more than one girl talk about love at first sight, I never believed in it for a second, and I still don’t.

I would have almost placed a bet on it, but the first sight of Annie was sit with a clarity in my head that was almost mind-boggling. There was something about Annie, and when our eyes met, something inside of me clicked, kind of like a key in a lock. It had something to do with the genuine sadness of her smile or the warmth in those eyes. My heart and feelings connected with her. She was too familiar. Felt way too right — too wrong. All at the same time.

I couldn’t dwell on any of it. Being healthy and having a clear head had to be my main focus. Who was I kidding? I no longer knew what a healthy mind and body felt like. I existed; that was about the extent of life.

“Lucas, leaving already? You just got back in town.”

Their cackling was bad enough inside the restaurant, but them following close on my shirttail was more than I could bear. I needed a beer.

The past six months, I’d done everything I could to finally get my life straight. I attended class at a local community college and had not missed one service of church, all while living at a rehab center.

I had been back in town for two weeks and finally decided I needed to get out and away from the drama that came with my family. That had been possibly the worst decision I had ever made.

As soon as I started to mount my bike, I heard her.

“Lucas Carter, the rumor is true,” the high-pitch squeal came from behind me.

I wiggled my finger in my ear as I turned around and came face to face with Candice Armstrong. Hell, I only left the house because I heard my mom say Candice and her mom had some event in Nashville.

“I was beginning to believe it was a myth you were back. ‘Cause surely you aren’t trying to ignore me.”

Of course, I am. Isn’t it obvious?

I threw my motorcycle leather over the handlebars and sat my helmet on the seat of my bike. My 2016 Harley Forty-Eight^™^ motorcycle was waiting on me when I arrived home from rehab. I’d ridden dirt bikes my entire life and always wanted a motorcycle. Instead of spending time with me, my dad purchased me one. He said he hoped it could take the place of everything I’d lost.

On Halloween, the previous year, I flipped and told every one of them what I truly felt — Candice Armstrong had taken the brunt of the abuse. I’d felt guilty about some of the things I’d said, but not enough to ever want to go back to that place with her.

“Of course not,” I answered. “Just trying to get my head on straight before I threw myself back out there.” I leaned against the bike and crossed my arms.

Candice smiled. Her neon-pink tank top was so bright it could’ve possibly caused retinal burns. However, the jingly, silver earrings she wore showed off her blue eyes and platinum-blonde hair in full effect. But, what fully got my attention was the fact she was wearing the smallest pair of denim shorts in the damn world. When did Neiman Marcus start making denim underwear?

“Mom said that your dad got you a motorcycle. And just think, all I’ve gotten were a few outfits.”

Somehow, I doubted that. I’d seen the inside of Candice’s closet more than once; she had well over a couple of hundred different pair of shoes and an untold number of clothes. Her closet could have easily housed a Buick.

I twisted the handlebar. “It’s no Louboutin but I like it. I guess I should’ve told them all where to go earlier.”

Crap! Candice had started twisting a strand of her hair around her finger. I needed to shut her down fast because I wasn’t feeling it.

Candice never got me, nor did she ever try. Hell, I had a hard time figuring out my life and I lived it.

My dad, Wes Carter, was the golden boy of Carterville. He followed my grandfather’s footsteps and finished law school at the University of Mississippi before returning and marrying my mom. If my dad was the golden boy, Jennifer Carter was the town’s princess. What my dad’s parents didn’t own, hers did. My dad and mom were high school sweethearts who didn’t give a rat’s ass about each other. My dad would disappear for days, and my mom didn’t give a damn as long as he was back for the next charity event. Twice I even heard her ask him how his sidepiece was.

Shaking my head, I ran my hand through my hair and pulled hard. I just wanted out of there. “I need to go. Mom’s probably already walking the floor.”

“We both know your mom could not care less where you are,” she said and winked. “So do I get to take a spin on your new wheels?”

No, you don’t. My bike hasn’t been soiled with the memories of my past mistakes, and I hope to keep it that way.

Candice and I were no better than my parents. She liked having the boy whose family was richer than God on her arm, and I liked how freaky she could be in the sack. There was no love or trust between us. Once she caught Harper Cooksey and me in my old tree house. She didn’t care that I was screwing her brains out; she just wanted to make sure I would be finished in time to make it to some event at the country club that night.

Candice was the daughter of my mom’s egotistical best friend, Jana Armstrong. Their family owned the biggest cotton gin in the state and about fourteen smaller ones. Our mothers had prearranged our marriage while we were still in our cribs. Good thing plans were often changed.

I slung my leg around and straddled the bike. “See you around, Candy.” I twisted my wrist to start the bike before she had time to reply. I wasn’t in the mood for one of her fights — the screaming, the threats of sleeping with one of my friends. By then she should’ve figured out I didn’t care who she slept with.

I rode down every back road in the county and still couldn’t get Annie off my mind. She was familiar, but hell, a man could never forget a woman like her. Not a mile passed by that I didn’t think about that mouth. Those were the plumpest, sweetest lips I had ever had the pleasure of witnessing. I wondered what they tasted like. That long, dark, mahogany-colored hair was pulled back in an impudently cute ponytail, which only highlighted the most striking green eyes ever to look in my direction. I had to have come across as an ass to her, but she did things to my head I didn’t understand. I was halfway relieved when Bob walked in behind me, knowing I had to get away from her, but all I wanted to do was free that ponytail and lose myself in that long, luscious hair.

The only thing left to do was to go back and see if she was truly everything my mind comprehended.

Chapter 2

Annie Prieto

Busting my butt was an understatement; I had not stopped since I walked in the door.

“You look like death had ran over you and came back for seconds.” John, the head cook, slammed a tray of glasses down onto the counter.

John was almost too attractive and knew how to capture anyone’s attention with his piercing gray eyes. The women flirted shamelessly with him. It was one of the main reasons he preferred the safety of the kitchen over the dining room. See, John didn’t care for the women’s attention. He swung for the home team.

“Gee, thanks, and here I thought I looked like Miss Carterville,” I said and slapped his shoulder with a damp washrag. “Speaking of beauty queens, did you see the guy with the longer blonde hair sitting at the table of beauties tonight? I believe his name was Lucas.”

John leaned against the sink I was washing dishes in. “Please tell me you’re not talking about Lucas Carter?” he asked.

Will, the manager at Downtown Cafe, walked in with a fresh load of dirty dishes. “The Lucas Carter? Messy blonde locks? Killer eyes that burn right into your undies? Lips that make you want to sin?” Will asked and arched his eyebrows that were in desperate need of some grooming.

“Sorry, man, if you have a thing for him forget I asked. You can have him.”

Will reached into the soapy water and splashed my face. “Not my type. Nice hair but wrong parts.”

“I’ll take him, if he’s offering,” John said and winked.

Will grabbed the bottle of bleach and a clean towel. “You’re both crazy. If you have any sense at all, he won’t be your type, either. He’s not worth the catfights. Those terms are only a handful of the words I’ve heard him described with on a nightly basis.” He smacked my behind with a towel. “I’ll clean the dining room if you finish the dishes.”

Thirty-six minutes later, Bob was sitting at his desk, counting the night’s profits, when I grabbed my backpack off the couch in his office.

“I got the kitchen clean, John has the kitchen stocked for in the morning, and Will took care of the dining room. If you don’t care, I’m headed out before the rain sits in.”

Bob looked up at me over the top of his glasses. “Wait a few minutes and I’ll drive you home.”

I slung my backpack over my shoulder. Bob had been nothing but super with me, but at times, he looked at me with this far-off stare — it was almost as if he was debating “what ifs” in his head. As much as I needed a ride, I wasn’t ready to be alone with him in the confines of a car.

“That’s okay, I kind of need to walk to clear my head.”

“Be careful, see you tomorrow,” he said, but never looked up from the desk and his counting.

I had to use the backdoor to leave, and the placement of the garbage dump bothered me. I kept envisioning some man jumping out from behind it.

Pulling the backpack firmly to my shoulder, I quickly darted from the alley that ran the entire length of the back of the building.

“Annie,” came from the left parking lot, causing my heart to race out of my chest.

No one knew who I was in this town. No one from the past knew where I was, either.

As if my heart wasn’t already pounding in my chest, I turned to look, almost lethargic. The effort was more than rewarded when I saw — oh, my God up in Heaven — Lucas leaning up against a motorcycle, smiling at me. I was doomed. Motorcycles had always been a major turn-on for me. I blinked three times in rapid succession, sure I was imagining a mirage brought on by pure exhaustion.

Lucas’s arms were crossed but he raised a hand in my direction, and O-M-G that smile alone was enough to get me to agree to almost anything he wanted. I noticed something I didn’t spot earlier — he had deep dimples in the center of each cheek. It was hard to catch my breath. Then he winked, and the little girl ballerina in me wanted to do a pirouette.

I approached him with an extra sway to my hips. Lucas tugged the baseball cap he was wearing low over his eyes, leaving them and his nose shadowed. I purposely licked over my upper lip before letting a smile peek out. He tugged at my shirt, bringing me against his hips and snuggled between his thighs. He started to say something, but I didn’t care what he had to say, I planted a hard kiss on his lips instead. Our mouths came together like two pieces of a puzzle. Only it was two pieces from two very different puzzles. However, his reaction was what I knew it would be — electric. He rammed his hands through my hair, working my head to move in unison with his.

Okay, that was not what happened at all.

I stood there like some incompetent nincompoop, chewing on my lip until I was sure I had permanently bruised it.

“I don’t bite,” he said, flashed that smile, and adjusted his ball cap. “At least, not on the first night.”

Okay, Annie, bitch face, never let them know they are getting to you. You’re not some inept, bumbling, social fool.

I shoved my hands in my pocket and slowly walked over to him, careful not to smile like the Cheshire Cat. “Lucas, right?” I asked, and tried diverting my eyes from his. I failed.

I wanted to read the thoughts passing through his mind. It was almost a need at that point. Especially the one that was in there right at that moment, hiding behind those stoic, unnaturally beautiful eyes.

“The one and only.” He flashed the same smile he had for the girls earlier. I wondered if he practiced it, because it was effective.

“Leave something?” I asked.

I couldn’t comprehend what he was doing there; the place had been closed for at least an hour and at the stroke of midnight, the streets of Carterville turned into a ghost town.

“You,” he said with a force that almost knock me over. “Annie Prieto.” His lips curled around my name as if he wasn’t only saying it but also making love to it.

Desire swelled between my thighs, but I would never let him know that. “Didn’t know I was missing.” I crossed my arms, trying to match his stance. He was more impressive, and no matter how I tried, I stood in awe of him in his tight blue jeans and green polo shirt. A model in any magazine couldn’t compare to him at that moment.

A raindrop hit the tip of my nose. I had a thirty-minute walk ahead of me and needed to get home before the rain sit in but I didn’t want to budge an inch. And no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t think of one single thing to say to him as another drop of rain fell across my forehead.

“Need to get home,” I said, and felt the instant frown on my face.

“Where’s your car?” he asked and looked around.

The only car in the parking lot was Bob’s, and the Downtown Cafe scrolled across the back windshield screamed that fact. I felt a tad embarrassed to admit I didn’t own a car. I wasn’t some miser, but with no one to fall back on, I had no choice but to be thrifty.

“I walk. It helps clear my mind.” Plus, I don’t have the dough to buy a bike.

He reached out for my hand that was clutched around my forearm. Lucas Carter, the man every woman in town had mentioned at least once since I’d been there, was touching me. My breath caught in my throat. Shit, I don’t swoon over boys. He pried my hand loose and held it. Just a simple hand hold, but it felt nice.

“Hop on, I’m headed that way.” He handed me the helmet that had been hanging on the handlebars of a pretty impressive Harley.

“What way is that?” I choked out, watching him intently as he moved closer to me.

“Any way you’re going,” he said, and leaned closer to me, washing my face with his warm breath.

Okay, I must be home and dreaming, but then again he is still clothed, so maybe not.

“Well, aren’t you a gentleman?”

Lucas’s hand reached out and took the helmet from mine. “The unofficial welcoming committee,” he said, then placed it on my head and adjusted the straps.

He was close, I could smell his breath. It had a wonderful scent that I assumed was mouthwash, and maybe, even a breath mint. I inhaled deeply to take it in as he straightened the helmet.

“Now, we have that gorgeous head safe,” he said, and handed me his leather jacket.

I couldn’t quit staring at his eyes; I’d never witnessed eyes hold with that much intensity.

“Annie?” he said as he took a few steps back from me. He slipped the backpack off my shoulder and slung it on the handlebar. “Ready, beautiful?” he asked and threw a leg over the bike.

I stood frozen. Every muscle in my body suddenly forgot how to work. He had called me beautiful. I’d been called beautiful more than once, but Lucas was the first to make me feel like he meant it. I was the hit-it-and-leave-it girl, not the girl someone cherished.

He revved the engine. “Hop on, and hold on tight.”

I shrugged on his jacket and placed my hands on his shoulders — and couldn’t help but notice his muscles twitching under my touch — then kicked my leg over the seat. Definitely dreaming, I thought when he reached back and pulled my arms around his waist.

“Tight, babe, I would hate to lose you,” he demanded, and I obeyed.

Not being a virgin by a long shot, I was shocked how amazing it felt to have my chest pressed up to Lucas’s back. Just the warmth of his touch made everything tingle. Each breath I took, my nostrils were flooded with him. I was thankful for the darkness that masked exactly how much my body was responding to his.

The Harley roared under my already aroused body and we were off. The hold I had on Lucas involuntarily tightened as he raced through the streets.

My heart pounded against Lucas’s back, accelerated by the adrenaline rush coursing through my body.

Charles and Ruth Anne, the couple who raised me the first fourteen years of my life, would be disappointed in many of the choices I’d made, but something deep down told me they would be elated at my choice in going with Lucas. After all, girls like me didn’t often get a chance with a guy like him. He was untouchable. But for one night, I was getting to touch him.

And as much as I needed to tell myself that this wasn’t meant to last, I just wanted to memorize the feel of his body against mine.

“Turn that way,” I said in his ear so he could hear me over the roar of the wind and pointed to the right.

He looked over his shoulder, bringing his face close to mine. “Nice part of town.”

Fact: not only did Bob obtain a rental house for me but it was in one of the oldest and nicest neighborhoods in town. It might’ve been small, but it was nicer than any other home I had ever lived in.

I didn’t respond, not knowing how to. He didn’t need to know the details of a one-night stand’s life. Lucas slowed around a curve then pulled into a service station. When he parked next to a pump, Lucas placed both legs on the ground. The image of him under the streetlights, his strong muscular body straddling his bike, was the sight I would be masturbating to for days to come.

He turned to look back at me, letting his nose tap against mine. A smile appeared on his perfectly-shaped lips, and I lost focus on everything but his mouth. His top lip was more plump than his bottom lip, but it was so slight only someone staring at it like a maniac would notice.

“Annie?” His voice broke through to my feeble train of thought. I shook my head. Why, oh, why is this man affecting me like this? I brought my gaze up to meet his again, and he was no longer smiling. He looked smug.

Yes, handsome, I was ogling you.

“I need to fill’er up then we will be on the way.”

And what else do you plan on filling up tonight? Hopefully, maybe me. I’d never been more … quite frankly … horny.

“Okay,” I replied, a little too eager. After all, he had just caught me checking out of all body parts, his lips. I dropped my head and stared at the oil-stained pavement. I didn’t trust myself to look at him.

He laughed before dismounting the bike. I almost lost my balance, but he caught me. “Place both feet on the ground. I’ll be right back.”

All it took was the touch of his hand and the deep timbre of his voice to bring my attention back to his enchanting face. No wonder he was on the tip of every girl’s lips in Carterville.

“Got it,” I said and tried my hardest to hold a somewhat seductive smile.

He fully laughed, then turn to head into the gas station, giving me a moment to gather my bearings.

Annie Prieto, you have screwed more men than you care to admit, why is this guy turning you into a pile of mush?

“How old are you?” Lucas asked, signaling to me that he was back.

“Twenty,” I answered. “Why?”

“You just look too innocent,” he said and stored the nozzle back into the pump.

“Looks can be highly deceiving.”

“Anything you say,” he said, and braced himself back on the Harley to start the engine again. “Real tight, babe,” he reminded me.

No problem, babe.

Once my arms were firmly around his middle, he shot out into the direction I pointed.

When we finally got to my house, he pulled off into the front yard.

Before he even had the engine cut off, he said, “This is where you’re living?”

The warm tone I heard all night was replaced with an almost angry, assertive tone.

I climbed off the bike, and answered, “Yes,” before chewing on the side of my mouth.

“Since when?” he bit out as if it was the ugliest statement he had ever said.

“About five weeks. Why?” I asked.

“Maybe you’re right and not innocent,” he said, before gunning his engine and skidding out of the yard.

That was when the rain started pouring.

I hate rain.

It always found the most poetic times to fall, like when some bonehead dumped you on your front lawn as if you were the day’s trash.

Chapter 3

Annie Prieto

The water stain on the ceiling had grown and seemed to be extending down the wall. It didn’t care. It was just there destroying the integrity of the drywall, being visually unpleasing. It had become the metaphor of my life. The boy slamming in and out of me didn’t care about my integrity and how his actions were chipping away at me. The marks left on my body made me visually unpleasing to anyone.

She’s good. She doesn’t care what you do to her,” my foster-monster slurred from the other side of the room, and I opened my eyes to see some burly man-boy whose lack in personal hygiene was grossly apparent with a joint dangling from his lips.

Really, maybe I should give her a try. See if she can keep up with me,” Mr. Burly said, reaching down his hand testing the strength of the ropes they had me tied with. He smiled, and the only thing holding the joint in place was one of his three remaining top teeth.

The screams woke me once again, and as always, they came from my own voice box.

I bolted upright in the bed and placed my hand over my chest, feeling the familiar erratic beating of my heart. The screaming would always be laying just at the surface. The pain, the living nightmare would always be a part of me.

But I refuse to cry one tear over what those monsters took from me.

I laid in bed another hour staring out my bedroom window. The mid-morning sun filtered down through the vast amount of cedar trees. My rental was in an established neighborhood but yet, it was secluded in its own small forest. A family of squirrels were dancing from branch to branch, and I could just make out a momma bird feeding her young. I could’ve laid there for hours, forgetting the past.

A walnut fell from a nearby tree and smashed against the window with a ding. I startled and quickly sat up, briefly knocked from the state of tranquility. Glancing out the window again, the idea of spending the day drawing the scene seemed peaceful, but work called instead.

I scooted my feet over the hardwood floors, my muscles tensing with each step, a crushing, absent pounding in my chest erupted as the look of disgust on Lucas’s face when he saw where I lived drifted into the forefront of my thoughts.

I inhaled three deep breaths, reminding myself why I was even there. I snapped open the shower door and turned on the water. The world around me faded away as the spray of water took on the sound of a heavy rainfall. I leaned my face back and closed my eyes, letting the water wash down my face. Another day. A day I doubted would include any Carters. A day free from any monsters from my past.

I turned off the faucet and dried off the remaining water beading on my skin before stepping out of the shower. I picked up my uniform thrown over the edge of the tub. Good thing, I needed the money because by the image staring at me from the mirror, eight more hours of sleep was in order.

I blow dried my hair, applied a minimum amount of makeup, then slid on my ugly, black, non-skidded tennis-shoes, and was out the door.

Thirty-five minutes later, I’d arrived at the Downtown Cafe. I was getting faster at the walking gig.

“Time to leave, Candy,” I said, frustrated. “You know I don’t do mornings.”

Candice had been the last-minute hook-up after I flipped out on the one I really wanted to spend the night with. I had to get Annie out of my mind. After all, I had a pretty strong hunch she was my dad’s new sidepiece.

I slid two slices of bread into the toaster as Candice walked up behind me in a huff, and placed her jaw over my shoulder.

The overwhelming scent of her perfume, my shampoo, and sex began to suffocate me. I turned and leaned onto the counter but didn’t step farther away so she wouldn’t think I was insulting her.

She knew I had a strict “no staying the night” rule, but Candice thought rules were beneath her. One of the many reasons she grated on my nerves.

“Baby, we both know you do me any time of the day.” She licked her lips. It was getting harder and harder to do her at night. Much less mornings.

Come to think about it, I only ever gave Candice the time of day to try and make my mom happy — to make my mom pleased with one of my choices.

“When are you ever going to settle down? I know we’re too young for anything permanent, but I won’t stick around much longer if you don’t stop playing the part of the playboy,” she said.

I smirked and shrugged my shoulder, letting her assume my silence was admission I agreed. My silence was clarity that not in a million years would I ever commit to her.

“Bye, Candy.” I flipped around just as the toast popped up.

“Grow up, Lucas, before you lose a good thing.” She grabbed her purse off the kitchen table.

I stared out the window above the kitchen sink, not looking at her. I was a horny guy and she was hot, and I refused to give in to her and her demands. Candice had a way of making you see things her way, usually by the tricks she performed in bed.

The sound of the door slamming caused me to let out a sigh of relief. I rubbed my hand over my face before grabbing a jug of orange juice out of the refrigerator.

“Are you ever going to cut that damn hair? You look like a girl,” Dad said as he walked into the kitchen.

I didn’t say anything at first, simply placed the orange juice on the counter and reached up to release my hair from its tight bun then shook my head forcibly, letting my hair fall around my shoulders.

“If you had a daughter, would you act like she didn’t exist too?”

Dad winced and the pained look in his eyes was more real than any emotion I’d ever witness on his face.

Never once in my twenty years of life had I ever seen my dad truly smile. He was good at plastering on that fake smile when he was in front of a crowd, but the smile that came from somewhere deep inside and lit up the whole face never graced his lips. I asked him once if he had ever been truly happy. He told me that when he was about my age he was the happiest man in the world … then life happened.

I couldn’t understand what life had done that was so bad. Most of the people around town would cut off their right arm to trade places with him.

If you knew anything about Carterville, you knew who Wes Carter was.

The Carters were the backstory to everything concerning Carterville. At one point, the whole 23.6 square miles that encompassed the town was owned by my great-great-great-grandfather, James Floyd Carter. In 1852, he donated some land, allowing the Memphis to St. Louis Railroad to have a proper station. After his kind donation of all that land, they named the train station Carterville in his honor. It beat Decherd, which was what he wanted to name the place. Decherd was the name of his prize-winning horse.

“I’m headed off for a few days.” Dad slammed an overnight bag on the table and picked up the morning newspaper.

What else was new? Dad was the county judge and farmed some land on the side, more as a hobby than anything else, and nothing involving his job explained the times he would leave for days. I often figured that was what kept my mom in bed, mourning a life she didn’t sign up for. I shrugged. Why should I defend my mom and their marriage if she never did? My parents never argued; in fact, they simply co-existed with each other. The only time I ever saw them touch was when they had to make a show of being the perfect family.

Don’t get me wrong, they were never bad parents. Not once did they hit me or anything like that. At times, a beating might have been easier to deal with than the idea I was simply an object that got in the way unless they needed to take me out and parade me around to their friends.

I didn’t say those things to get attention, either. I abhorred people that used it as an excuse for their bad behavior. I didn’t become an asshole because my dad never played ball with me. I didn’t sleep with every girl who would willingly spread her legs because I was a Carter. I did those things because that was the kind of person I was — I was a S.O.B. without any help from anyone.

“Hey, Dad?” I said and let out a breath of relief when he acknowledged me and turned around. “The girl, Annie Prieto, that is living in your bachelor pad. How do you know her?”

“Oh, that. Bob called your granny and said he had a girl working for him that really needed a place to live.” There was a slight hitch to his voice, and I swore at the sound of Annie’s name his eyes watered. Odd reaction for someone he didn’t know. “So, the next thing I knew, she was letting her move in. You know how your granny is.”

My granny was that kind of person. She was the one who took me fishing when I was younger, there to cheer me on at all my baseball games, rocked me when I was sick, all that small stuff that every little child needed to grow up to be a productive adult.

“Granny arranged it? She’s not one of your friends?”

He shook his head and diverted his eyes. “Lucas, leave Annie alone. She’s been through enough without you hurting her more.”

Dad grabbed his bag, took a giant gulp of coffee, and walked out without even a kiss my ass, much less a goodbye.

That didn’t bother me; I was use to my dad by then. It was the idea that what I wanted with Annie had the capability of hurting us both.

It was more of an involuntary curiosity than an actual willingness to work that had me looking up when I heard footsteps approaching. It was late afternoon, the usual downtime at work, and I found the only people working to be Bob and myself.

The first thing I noticed wasn’t the finely-made suit the man was wearing, his red hair and thick beard, or even the slight graying around his temples, but the way the smile he had glued on his lips was betrayed by the rest of his face. He was hollow, and simply trying to keep his head held high as if every day he had to work to put on a fake face so people wouldn’t see what he truly felt inside. Nevertheless, something told me he wanted someone to understand, to recognize his loss, to be there for him. It was the kind of depression that found a way into your heart whether you wanted it to or not. He was quite possibly the most depressing man I’d ever come across.

He approached the counter, and I could have sworn I’d met him in another part of my life. His eyes alone were as familiar as my own.

After an exaggerated and uncomfortable pause, I finally offered up an off-the-wall greeting, “Welcome to the Downtown Cafe. Home of fried pies, hand-patted patties, and the best milkshakes this side of the Rockies. How can I serve you?”

His smile started to take on the resemblance of real emotion, and when it hit his eyes, they had a brief flash of happiness, causing me to smile in response. Everything about him was confusing.

“Good morning,” he said. His voice was deep and commanding but there was still a touch of deep grief in it. I couldn’t fathom what kind of spell he had over me but he had taken root deep somewhere inside of me.

I hated the feelings I was having and wanted out of there and as far from him as I could get. Luckily, Bob must have sensed how uncomfortable I was because he came from the back and had stepped between the cash register and me.

“Wes, can I help you?”

Wes’s brows creased together as he tilted his head to look past Bob and at me. “I just needed … Never mind. I’ll take a strawberry milkshake.” He tapped his knuckles on the counter twice, totally out of nerves. “Remember how much she loved strawberries?” Wes asked Bob then looked directly at me. “Do you like strawberries?” He reached out his hand for me to shake. “You might know my son, Lucas Carter?”

No wonder Lucas was a little off. Wes Carter had gone way past odd into a territory all his own.

“Yes, sir.” I shook my head. “No, not really.” I took his hand. “Annie Pietro.”

“Annie, why don’t you make Mr. Carter’s milkshake?”

Wes scratched his head as if he was wondering what was happening. I raced to the back but kept my eyes on the front of the restaurant. Bob had his hand in his always-messy hair. He was agitated. I strained to hear what was being said between them. Every word was left unheard. However, their actions spoke loudly — Wes was an unwelcomed guest.

I raced to the counter and then offered Wes the cold cup. I almost jumped out of my skin when he took it and his fingers lingered over mine. It was clearly on purpose. “Nice meeting you, Annie.” He handed me a ten. “Keep the change.” He raised the cup up. “Bob, good running into you again.”

Bob slammed down the towel he was holding on the counter and stormed to the back without a word to either one of us.

What the hell happened? I guess I should’ve counted myself lucky Lucas dropped me like a bad disease.

I should’ve just stayed in bed with my sketch pad.

Chapter 4

Annie Prieto

I slammed an empty tray down on the kitchen counter and took several long, deep breaths. Twelve hour shifts were for the dogs. Never mind, dogs deserved better.

“What’s the matter, chickadee?” Will asked. “Is it that bad out there?”

The assignment board had dining room clearly marked in red by my name.

I managed a nod and pasted on a smile. Will was direct, and I thrived on direct; it took the guesswork out of the equation. Will walked up beside me and I placed my hand on his broad shoulder. Bad move. Will had been trying to get me to date him since I first started working. It wasn’t a great idea, though. It had nothing to do with his physical appearance. He passed as good-looking, with a mop of brown curls that fell softly over his shirt collar. His eyes were green, not any special green, but they always held an extra sparkle, kind of like he was hiding some magical secret. His body was fit, but nowhere near the build of Lucas Carter.

Oh, hell, how did his name come into the equation? I’m not about to start comparing every guy to Lucas.

The main reason I wouldn’t go there with Will was because he was Bob’s nephew, and Bob had been one of the few who had showed me any kindness since I move to Carterville.

Will blew his hair off his forehead and looked down at me, almost as if he was deciding if things were changing between us. I promptly moved my hand. A bad move.

“You know the old saying, ‘I used to like people but people ruined that for me’,” I said, trying to switch his train of thought.

Will placed two drinks on a tray and handed it to me. “Hope I’m not lumped in the ‘I hate people’ group.”

I lightly laughed. “You’re one of the very few I actually like,” I said, and balanced the tray on my shoulder. “Which table?”

“Table two,” he answered and slapped my behind with a dishcloth.

“Be careful. I can still put you in the ‘I hate people’ group.”

I backed up and pushed the kitchen’s swinging door open with my backside. Waitress might have been a job I hated, but I still rocked it.

Faking the act of confidence had never been my issue; I was full of it as far as the world could see. That was, until I flipped around and saw them: Lucas Carter and Candice Armstrong sitting at table two. Seeing Lucas threw me for a loop. Not sure if it was the fact he was on a date, or the fact he was there at all.

I shook my head and started to his table, still not sure why I was upset over Lucas having a date. He let me know I was disposable. Another fact I learned all too well growing up in the foster system.

The conclusion I’d come to was Lucas would never be more than a fantasy to me … a nightly, very effective fantasy.

Speaking of fantasies — Candice Armstrong was the epitome of every man’s dream girl. She had to be close to six feet tall, and ninety percent of that was legs. A perfect complement to Lucas’s six-foot-and-a-few-inches’ frame. The fake platinum blonde wasn’t my thing, but then again, I was no man, either.

I didn’t realize my feet were frozen in place until Will rammed into my back. Luckily, I held tight to the tray. I would’ve hated for Lucas to wait a moment longer for his drink order.

“Seen a ghost, baby doll? You’re paler than one,” Will whispered in my ear and nudged his elbow into my side.

“No, sitting at table two is the president of my ‘I hate people’ group.”

Will rolled his eyes. “You’re the first girl that has ever uttered those words. Lucas Carter is every girl in town’s dreamboat. If you don’t believe me, just ask him.” He nudged me again, and I put on a smile and headed to table two.

Candice turned her catlike blue eyes on me, and I think she instantly grew claws. What’s her problem? She had no idea that I’d ever taken a ride on Lucas’s Harley, and that I would’ve gladly rode something else. For that, I was grateful and hoped that would stay a secret from the whole town.

I placed the glasses on the table but did not bother taking their order. Suddenly, I was making table two Will’s responsibility.

I spent the next thirty minutes working the room, trying my damnedest to ignore Lucas. The problem with that was his deep, lyrical voice was the only thing I heard. Two other couples had joined them shortly after Will tried taking their order, and Lucas had not stopped laughing since they showed up. He was happy. A switch from the last and first time I saw him. Why renting that house sit him off was beyond me — he acted like I stole it from him.

Lucas turned his head to look directly at me and shook his empty glass in the air, signaling he needed a refill. Crap, why is this hard? At that moment, I decided to charter a new goal in life: to build up an immunity to Mr. Carter. I started with serving him a drink.

“Tea?” I asked, barely over a whisper, not wanting to draw attention to myself.

“How do you know my dad?” His aquamarine-colored eyes met mine, and for the briefest of moments, I saw a flash of regret in them.

“Who?”

“Wes Carter?” He leaned back and put his arm behind the chair Candice was sitting on.

Other than our very odd encounter?

“I don’t. I mean he’s been in, but I really don’t know him.” My stomach twisted in knots, confused at why he would ask such a question.

Lucas looked away to continue his previous conversation with the guy on his left.

Candice laid her head on Lucas’s shoulder. They matched. The intimacy between them couldn’t be denied.

I quickly hurried to the safety of the kitchen where John handed me a tray overflowing with food.

“Baby doll, you seriously need a night off. You look exhausted.”

“Need the money more than I need the rest,” I said.

“Whatever,” he said and shoved the platter in my hands. “Sorry, but I have to mix up some chili, will you carry these to table two and the infamous Mr. Carter.”

“Gee, thanks.”

John winked and held the door opened while I carried the tray out.

I went to the far end of the table Lucas was sitting at. The farther I stayed away from him the better. I placed a salad in front of Candice. She picked up a piece of chopped cauliflower.

“What is this shit?” Candice asked and scrunched up her nose.

“Cauliflower. Don’t worry, it won’t go to your hips. It’s safe,” the Bubbly Ginger to the left said, and I fought back a smile.

The urge to smile suddenly vanished when I felt the heat of Lucas’s gaze on me. That stupid knot I had in my stomach all night grew tighter.

I had to lean over Lucas to place the Ginger’s plate in front of her. His shoulder rubbed up against my lower stomach. My ability to talk ceased to exist.

Why does Lucas make me nervous? Guys didn’t affect me that way. I felt nothing with them, not nerves.

“Thanks, Annie,” Lucas said in the same tone he used with me when I hopped on that bike with him. “Care for a piece of cake?” There was a touch of regret in his voice somewhere hidden behind all the husky sultriness.

I scanned the table to see a small white cake with the words, “Happy Birthday, Lucas” on top.

Lucas was celebrating his birthday with the people he cared about. I would never be in that category.

I shook my head as the dream I had of us on the back of his motorcycle flashed in my head. Damn, of all places to think of that particular dream. Not only my face but also my whole body heated in response.

Tonight, that spot on his bike has been reserved for someone other than me.

The pain in my legs were strong but I reminded myself it was pain from living and nothing else. At my appointment that morning, I had a consultation with Dr. Gore. It was one of that no news was good news visits. I left with an appointment card to come back in three months to start some trial treatment, or sooner if any more problems arise.

Happy fucking Birthday to me.

I’d reached the point where I just wanted to live to the fullest.

But the fullest seemed futile with Candice on my arm and Annie doing everything in her power to ignore me. It was frustrating. Annie was not the girl I needed, but it didn’t stop me from closing my eyes when I was with Candice dreaming she was Annie. A low move, I know, another sin written in the book of Lucas, and Candice deserved more than to be a fill-in.

Annie deserved for me to leave her alone, but I’ve never done what I should.

It was easy to find Annie in the small room. The catching of her gaze was another story. When she finally looked my way, I shook my empty glass in the air, broadcasting my need for a refill. Annie didn’t even try to disguise her distaste at being near me.

“Tea?” she asked and drew her shoulders in, trying to hide in plain sight.

“How do you know my dad?” I caught her stare and my heart cracked at the lost expression in her eyes.

“Who?”

“Wes Carter?” I leaned back and put my arm behind the chair Candice was sitting on, proving to Annie what a son-of-a-bitch I truly was.

Precious, I don’t want Candice, but you’re too good for me. Precious, what the hell? No one was precious, but something told me Annie was.

“I don’t. I mean he’s been in, but I really don’t know him.”

I couldn’t take the sweet melancholy of her voice, knowing I’d hurt her. So, I looked away to pretend I cared what the guy on my left had to say.

Candice laid her head on my shoulder. I zoned out before I did something I would regret again.

Chapter 5

Annie Prieto

Once I had clocked out and left behind the misery of the night, there was only one place I wanted to go — to see my mom.

It was a fairly-long walk. Lanier Cemetery was at the edge of town, but over the past few weeks, it had become a familiar route.

I circled to the backside of the courthouse, passed by five churches, and cut a path through two cotton fields, then climbed up a small hilltop.

The cemetery was small and exceptionally maintained by a local farmer. I’d happened to meet him one day when I was out there visiting the only proof my mom even lived, a small marble headstone. It was in a back corner under a massive oak tree. The oddity of it all was that not one person claimed to know her yet someone purchased her a headstone, and the inscription on it let me know someone loved her.

I sat down and wiped my hand over the cold marble.

My Beloved

Not even a gravesite

Can dim the love

We share

Evie Prieto

3-2-75 – 7-23-95

She was the same age I presently found myself.

“Hey, Mom,” I whispered, and curled my legs under me. “I still haven’t learned anything about you. I wish I could’ve met you. But I know there is so much to your story and someone loved you, I’ll find your secrets. I’ll learn who you are, who I am.”

I always whispered when I was there. I knew I wouldn’t wake the dead, but I told my mom my deepest secrets, and the last thing I wanted was for them to land in the ears of some eavesdropper.

Yes, I’m an eavesdropper. Double standard? Of course.

I didn’t have a choice but to be nosey. It was the only way I survived my teen years. I just wanted to be close to someone. My mother would have sufficed. If only I could’ve known her.

I leaned back against the oak tree and sat there. The tears started easy enough, but it was the lump in my throat that caused the greatest pain. I just wanted someone to love me. I wanted to know who my dad was. Was he the man killed with my mom? Or a man that threw me away? Say something, Momma, find a way to tell me what to do.

My backpack slipped down my arm and plopped to the ground. I brushed the pink tie out of my hair, releasing my disheveled locks to fall over my shoulders, and took the art book from my backpack.

It was dark but the moon was full and cast down an almost eerie glow. The perfect light to draw by. For some reason, I felt more creative when I was near my mother’s grave. It sounded silly but I’d prayed she would send me a clue through my art.

Art was a passion of mine; drawing had been a way to get my feelings out in a more constructive way. I drew every moment I found myself alone, but I’d never shared my art with anyone.

An hour had passed and still, I was in no hurry to leave. The picture I was working on was starting to come together when I realized I was drawing Lucas and that damn Harley. I ripped the page out of my book and tossed it across the cemetery. There was no way my mom would be sending him to me. Okay, I wasn’t crazy, and fully aware that my mom couldn’t talk or send me anything. But I liked to think that a part of her still lived on in me and I could tap into that part when I was near her grave. Sometimes it seemed to work, sometimes it didn’t.

A burst of cold wind suddenly fanned over my face and ruffled my hair along my neckline, causing a rush of fear to rake down my spine. I jammed everything in my backpack and started to pick up my hair tie when I heard shuffling coming from the opposite side of the cemetery.

I paused as I stood and touched her stone one more time. “Bye, Momma. I’ll be back real soon.”

Silently, I started to walk down the hill toward town. The closer I got, the more uncomfortable I felt. I tried to ignore it — the tingling of my skin, the fine hair on my arms standing up, the awareness of being watched. Eyes seemed to be everywhere, following me. Someone seemed to be moving amongst the trees.

I circled around and screamed, “Is anybody here? Anybody?”

A shadow flashed across the ground, and I took off running, through the cotton, past the churches, and didn’t slow down until I was standing in the middle of court square. I placed my hands on top of my head and took a deep accelerating breath.

Maybe there was nothing back there, maybe I just panicked. It wasn’t like I’d never been followed before.

My mind had trouble comprehending what I was looking at. She had been drawing a picture of me. Why? I slid down the trunk of the tree to sit on the cold, hard ground.

I didn’t mean to scare her. I was just getting a closer look. I tried staying away. I wasn’t stalking her, exactly. Just unable to get her out of my mind.

When I went to park my bike in the garage, I saw a figure out in the old family cemetery. It was her. I had seen her a few times back there visiting a small grave for an Evie Prieto. My dad told me it was a woman who had worked for them when she was killed in a car wreck, and since she had no living family, Granny Ann had her buried on the hill. The tombstone inscription was confusing as hell. Dad told me that a man placed it there a few years after her death, but he had no idea who it was.

The inscription started to make sense when I stormed off in that kitchen at the Downtown Cafe and my eyes locked with a pair of green eyes so damn sexy I was sure I was hallucinating. If Evie had anything in common with Annie, no man could walk away.

I should know … I’ve tried.

I’d spent the past two weeks trying to forget how it felt when I was with Annie. Nothing came close to the feel of having Annie’s arms wrapped around me.

On the ground, the moon highlighted a glimmer of pink silk. I picked it up and rubbed it through my fingers before bringing it up slowly to touch my lips.

Annie had some connection to my screwed-up family. She was living in my dad’s fuck pad. I no longer cared. I wanted what she had to offer.

I crumpled up the picture she had been drawing and threw it across the cemetery. Who was I kidding, I never got what I wanted. Whoever started the urban legend that I did, obviously, never took the time to know me. So, I guess it could’ve been anybody.

Chapter 6

Annie Prieto

John stood in the kitchen, grinning when I walked in. “Thought our girl had the night off?” John questioned.

“I did, but Bob called and said the place was going to hell without me.”

“The place is hell with or without you. Sorry to burst your bubble,” Will said and handed me an apron.

“Touché, you know the place is a little brighter with my bitchy personality around.” I tied the apron around my waist and tucked a pen behind my ear. “Time to shine.” I picked up a pitcher of sweet tea and smiled as I bumped the doors to the dining room open with my hip.

Luckily, there were only a handful of customers sprinkled around. I hurriedly took down their orders and refilled a few glasses of sweet tea before heading back to hand in my orders to John.

John had already filled two of Will’s orders and held them up when I walked back into the kitchen. “Here, if you don’t mind. Will’s too busy flirting with the girl at table two.”

Better her than me.

“Got-’em, handsome,” I replied and took the platters from John.

I delivered the burgers and refilled two soft drinks before taking the order of a new customer. All while Will lingered at table two. I wouldn’t complain. At least he had given up on me. I wasn’t ready for a relationship with anybody. I had one goal to achieve: learn who my dad was, and then I was leaving this hell hole.

Will finally headed to the kitchen as I was punching an order into the computer. He saluted me and grinned. “She’s hot,” I said and raised my hand to give Will a high five.

He slapped my hand back but informed me it was his cousin who was down visiting his grandmother. Damn, I need to find him a girl.

I quickly gathered the orders John had finished onto my tray then returned to the dining room. When I saw him … or them. Lucas was at a table with his head tilted toward some brunette. She wasn’t as alluring as Candice but quite possibly prettier in a more natural sense. Her cheekbones were high and emphasized the perfect pout to her lips.

He leaned in closer to her like he didn’t want anyone to hear what he was saying. She laughed.

My eyes went from the brunette’s face back to Lucas’s, and I came eye to eye with his intense stare. I had no idea what to do. Should I smile or simply look away? I decided to copy his lead, but he refused to look away. He continued to watch me until little Miss Brunette started nibbling on his neck.

I felt my tray wobble. I had to hold it together. After all, I worked at the only restaurant in town and had no choice but to see him with a number of girls. But seeing him gave my heart a strange new ache and caused my stomach to lurch into my chest. Hearing that girl’s laughter made me just a little jealous. Okay, a lot jealous. He didn’t even take the time to make me laugh. I wasn’t the type of girl Lucas would ever parade around town, but I would’ve liked to have him take the time to whisper something funny in my ear.

No one had ever taken the time to make me laugh. I’d cried myself to sleep too many nights after allowing someone to use me and promised myself I would never do it again. But when Lucas told me I was beautiful, I let myself believe he meant it. I guess that was my latest mistake.

“Breathe, Annie,” Will said and walked up behind me. I took a deep breath. I hadn’t realized I’d visibly panicked.

How the hell could Lucas incite this kind of reaction in me with only a simple glance? Because I was a martyr looking for a punishment.

That was why I had to keep my distance from Lucas and anyone else in the small town of Carterville.

“Can you remind me again why I agreed to come in on my night off?” I managed to ask without my voice changing five octaves.

“To be with me. Why else?”

Fortunately, when Lucas saw me, he left, and the rest of the night flew by. All I wanted was a hot bath and my bed.

I have had two semi-regulars in my life: Candice Armstrong and Harper Cooksey. Candice made my mother happy. Harper made me happy when I was with her. Annie made me happy by simply thinking about her, but she was the “do not touch” girl. I had no choice but to leave her alone.

I’d tried giving Harper a chance last night, but seeing Annie ruined any hopes of that happening. Then I thought I could give Candice one more go. That was how I found myself squashed between Candice and some guy with a matronly hairstyle that was short with slightly longer bangs named Cruz and his date who I couldn’t care less what her name was. She meant nothing to me; just another one of Candice’s sorority sisters.

If you’re calling me an ass again … bingo, that’s me.

I focused on some picture of a thoroughbred hanging on the wall directly across the room, not even vaguely interested in the talk around me.

I’d always thought double dates were a waste of time. What did anybody think they would gain by spending time with another couple? If the other couple were happy and in love it would rub off on the them? Not me. I’d never let someone else influence me.

“You okay?” Candice whispered and squeezed my thigh to gain my attention.

I faked a smile and nodded my head, wracked with guilt. Candice was entitled to more than I could ever offer.

“Here you go, good-looking,” a waitress said and winked before sliding a plate of cheese sticks over toward me.

The waitress was hot and didn’t hide the fact she was willing and available. I didn’t even acknowledge her. I might’ve been an ass, but I’d never once played two girls on the same night.

Everyone else ordered salads — even Cruz. He had already complained earlier in the night about the sweetener ration of his virgin martini. I’d offered him a cheese stick and rolled my eyes when he fluttered his hands in the air at the thought of so many calories in one bite. That guy was happy; I was sure he shit unicorns and rainbows out at night.

I needed a beer … bad.

“Lucas, Allison was asking you a question?” Candice whispered in my ear.

Who the h-e-double hockey-sticks is Allison?

“Lucas, I saw you had a Harley. My dad has a Honda Gold Wing,” the blonde to the left of Cruz said. I finally made eye contact with the girl who must’ve been Allison.

Congrats, Cruz, she’s a hottie.

“How do you know what I have, besides the Jeep I drove up in?”

I’d never seen that girl in my life, and the way her boobs were spilling out of her top, I think I would’ve remembered her. So, the idea she knew what I owned was agitating.

She patted a napkin to the side of her lips and swallowed back a mouthful. “I’ve seen you around. I think you were at the Downtown Cafe last night.”

Annie … I’d promised myself I would give Candice my full attention. She warranted no less. Then someone had to name the place Annie was surely slaving away at.

I slammed my fork down. I hated the idea of Annie always working and serving people like Candice who didn’t have a clue what work was. More than anything, I wanted to not care what Annie did. I sure as hell didn’t want to be picturing her serving some ass who was trying to pick her up, but that was exactly what I did.

“Maybe you can take me for a spin sometime,” Candice said and stroked over my shoulder, crinkled up her nose, and laughed. I told myself I should’ve found that face adorable, but it was all wrong and too fake to find attractive.

“The bike is a me thing,” I said a little too sharply but we had already had that talk more than once. My bike was my sanctuary, and I wasn’t cluttering my head up with memories of random people on it.

Candice started to pout. Was she for real? Her lips stuck out so far I was afraid she was going to step on them with the six-inch heels she was wearing. “You don’t mind me riding other things,” she said as she smirked.

“Other things are already tainted.”

Cold? Yes, but truthful.

At that point, I couldn’t hang around and act like it was my scene when all I was doing was worrying about Annie.

“Really, you’re going to say that to me?” Candice asked incredulously.

I shook my head and wrapped my arm around her neck, pulling her head over onto my shoulder. Candice did deserve more, but more with Candice wasn’t what I wanted. “Sorry, just not feeling good tonight.” I paused before looking over at Cruz and what was her name … oh, yeah, Allison. “Care if I get this one home? I have a long day ahead of me tomorrow.”

They mumbled, “No”. Sure by the way Candice was nibbling on my ear that I was going to let her ride something.

The only thing I even had a remote interest in Candice riding was my Jeep back to her house. She warned me that if I ever acted like I did again that it would be my last chance with her. It would’ve been the best damn news I’d heard in a while if I knew it to be true.

After dropping Candice off, I hurried to the Downtown Cafe. It was only eleven but the place was already closed and vacant for the night.

The idea of her walking home alone in the dark terrified me. Someone could hurt her, take her, I was letting my imagination get the best of me. Annie was a grown woman used to taking care of herself. But it still didn’t hurt me taking her familiar path on my way home.

Annie had made me do the one thing I said I would never do for anyone … care.

Chapter 7

Annie Prieto

Other than one house across the field, the cemetery was off to itself, and the thought someone was there the other night was more than unnerving. The idea I was being watched almost kept me away. I had to push it out of my mind; nothing was going to keep me from visiting my mom’s gravesite. I just wanted to know where I belonged. After all, everyone had family somewhere.

Leaning against the oak tree, I slipped the notebook out of my backpack to draw.

“Mom, why do they even ask how I’m doing when they obviously don’t care?”

“Maybe, they do care,” came from a husky voice behind me.

I stumbled sideways in my attempt to turn around, and a strong muscular hand reached out to steady me. Before I even glanced up, the yummy scent of musk and earth washed over me. I squeezed my eyes shut before opening them and staring into the same blue eyes that had haunted my dreams the last few nights. Any warmth or humor I imagined in his voice was void from his face.

“Lucas,” I whispered.

“The one and only. Care if I join you?”

He continued to stare at me. I wrapped my arms around me, trying to hide behind the backpack held snuggly against my chest. The way he studied me and one of his eyebrows turned up only reminded me I didn’t have the kind of body the girls I’d seen him with did. I hated the fact he was comparing me to them.

“Do you always hang out in a cemetery?” I finally asked, wanting to bring his attention back to my face and off my body.

“Do you?” His blue eyes narrowed and grew hot and smouldering as they crept over my face. That stare and pout he had going had to be illegal.

I pointed over to my mother’s tombstone. “Visiting family. You?”

He slid down the trunk of the tree and pulled me down beside him. “Same. Most everyone buried here is family.”

“Really? Do you happen to know anything about my mom?”

He hesitated before shaking his head and looked off into the distance. “No, she was before my time, and my family doesn’t talk much about the past.”

He was being sweet, I guess. At least he wasn’t being a total asshole, and as weird as it seemed, I liked his attention. There was something appealing about him, and he made me feel almost happy when he was around.

“How did you end up renting that house?” he asked.

He tilted his head and pouted his lip as if he knew to bring attention to it. Even more than those blue eyes, I had dreamed about those full, lickable lips.

“Going to answer me or just stare all day?”

Crap, he asked me a question.

Those lips were distracting, especially when he ran his tongue over them as he was doing at that second. My cheeks flamed hot, and I’m sure as pink as the panties I was wearing. “What was that again?”

“How did you end up in that house?”

I had to stop acting like a babbling idiot. I dropped my arms to my side and squared off my shoulders. “Bob, my boss, when he found out I was living at the Knotty Pine, arranged for me to rent it. And no, I’m not paying with my body. I tried but the owner only accepted cash.”

Lucas slowly let his gaze trail up and down my body. “That’s a shame. Should’ve negotiated with her son; I heard he would accept alternative payments.”

He made my heart flip over in my chest by the way he was looking at me. He practically fondled me with his eyes. I wanted him to like me, but I was scared to be a one-nighter with him. I knew one taste of him would never be enough. I had to keep the upper-hand. “Must be a friend of yours?”

“Family.”

Neither of us said anything else for a while. Lucas, however, had something on his mind. The way he clenched his lower jaw let me know it was probably a thought I wouldn’t like to hear.

“Where’s your dad at?” he asked, focusing his eyes back on me.

That was an easy enough question to answer. “I have no idea who my dad is. That’s why I’m here.”

He looked back at my mother’s tombstone and muttered the dates under his breath. “Who raised you?” His face grew soft as he realized I didn’t have anyone to depend on.

“The foster system.”

Shit. Are you happy?”

The first fourteen years of my life, I’d been extremely happy. I was raised by an older couple who had an endless amount of compassion and understanding. I wanted for nothing — especially love. Then my foster mom died and my life was ripped apart. I became a paycheck for no less than five other families over the course of four years. After I graduated from the foster system, I went to find pawpaw Charles and learned he died three weeks after I was removed from his home. That was how I learned that the world wasn’t a place of vibrant colors but a land of dull and lifeless gray.

“Give me a year, and I’ll let you know,” I replied as honestly as I could.

Lucas didn’t acknowledge my answer with words but with a simple hook of his pinky around mine. That one small gesture meant more than any words.

After several minutes of silence, Lucas let his finger slip from mine and softly said, “Annie, ask anyone who knows me and they will tell you that I’m not a person who is good for you. I’m a straight up jackass. Please tell me to leave you alone because I can’t force myself to stay away.”

“I think I can handle you,” I said and reached back for his hand.

Lucas wouldn’t take my hand and stood up. “I hate you living in that house,” he said and didn’t look back as he turned and headed off to his bike.

What was it about that house?

Why did I even care?

I stood and walked over to my mother’s grave. I was in that godforsaken town to learn where I came from, not for the likes of one Lucas Carter. I shook my head; I couldn’t stop thinking about him. He was sexy, gorgeous, and most of all, odd.

My heart pounded in my chest when I saw her in that graveyard again. I had to walk away because if I got too close there was no doubt my body would shatter into oblivion.

But oh, how beautiful that oblivion would be.

Damn, I hated myself more with each step I took closer to her. Then I heard the sweetest damn voice in the world, say, “Mom, why do they even ask how I’m doing when they obviously don’t care?”

No one could be that sweet and naïve. It wasn’t safe, for her or me. Why in the hell did I have to say anything to her at all?

Every second I’d been around her played verbatim in my head.

Everything reminded me of Annie. She had invaded my every thought. She was everything I looked at. She was everywhere I went. That was how it had been since I first laid eyes on her. She was nowhere, then no matter how hard I tried to fight it, she was everywhere.

She was all-consuming.

Just the thought of her shouldn’t have made me ache. Yet, I caught myself rubbing my chest.

I threw a football onto the ceiling as I fell back onto my bed, wondering if I was anywhere for her. If I was even a blimp in her thoughts. I caught the ball and sat up, annoying the hell out of myself.

One thing was for sure — there was no way I could stay away anymore. Maybe, I could satisfy my craving with a friendship.

Friendship, shit, that ever-present clawing in my chest told me she was going to be my next big mistake.

That night I dreamed of her. Vivid imagines of just her smile.

Shit, I was screwed.

Chapter 8

Annie Prieto

“Really, the damn dining room again?” I complained to Will, already over the night and it had only begun.

“I don’t make the schedule, just enforce it,” Will said and handed me an apron. “And since the gentleman at table four asked for you, Bob might keep you in the dining room.” He winked and bumped his hip against mine.

Someone asked for me. Who? I picked up my check presenter out of the organizer on the wall, and raced to the dining room. My eyes focused on table four, and I saw him. Lucas smiled a naughty, panty-dropping grin then pulled his bottom lip through his teeth.

Don’t, don’t do it, he did it.

He bit his lip. He practiced those faces, no doubt, and the smug bastard knew he had an unfair advantage. What female had ever resisted a sexy Lucas face?

After snapping a mental picture of his face in my mind, I headed to his table. Standing in front of him, my throat instinctively tightened.

Lucas had a semi-nervous, positively-adorable gleam in his eyes. Not the look I expected from the stories I’d heard of the legendary Lucas Carter.

“Can I get you something to drink?” I finally managed to ask without sounding stupid.

Lucas smiled and tilted his already filled ice tea glass before tipping it back to take a gulp. The way his throat muscles moved with each swallow almost had me fanning myself.

Why oh, why, do you have to make my heart swell?

I didn’t miss the appraising eyes and giggle of the girls sitting on the table to the left.

Suck it, I’m not the only one Lucas makes nervous.

“Quick question. Doesn’t Bob regret hiring you?”

My mouth gasped open; surely, I wasn’t that repulsive.

“I mean you are pretty hot.” He winked. “Hot enough to melt the ice cubes.”

Is this guy serious?

I placed my pad on the table. “Why did you ask for me?”

“I expect the best,” he said and leaned within an inch of me. “And, you, sweetheart, are the best this place as ever seen.”

“That’s a change in attitude.”

“The other night …” He paused and the way his mouth curled up into a soft, regretful smile, it almost made me forget how he hurt me. “If I made you mad, I’m sorry. I wasn’t myself.” He looked down and fidgeted with a straw wrapper.

He’s apologizing. Bet that’s a first.

“When have you ever been yourself?”

Lucas raised his head, his gaze grew fierce. “Fair enough.” He held out his hand to shake mine, I placed my hand in his and he jerked me closer to him. “The Real Lucas Carter at your service, nice to meet you.” His eyes narrowed, studying me. I hated being studied. Despised it, as a matter of fact. “I don’t expect anything, either,” he said. “Not that I would say no, either.”

“Too bad, I already have someone taking care of that need. But I still have a spot open in the friend department.”

“Anybody I know taking care of that need?” The instant grimace of his face informed he didn’t like the idea that statement had given him.

“Don’t think so, just another satisfied customer.” I pulled out the pen tucked behind my ear. “Now what can I do to serve you tonight?”

He reclined back in his chair and lifted the grease-covered laminated menu out of the napkin holder. “Looking for something hot and wet. Any suggestions?” he asked.

Lucas, you’ve already proven that you think I’m good for only one thing, and I was willing to give you that one thing the other night. Tonight, you can settle for food.

“The hickory bar-be-que burger it’ll be.” I snapped my check presenter closed. “Fries or tots?”

“Fries. Don’t care for tots. Short and stumpy is not my thing.”

I smirked and matched his gaze. “Funny, fries have always been too thin to give me any satisfaction.”

I’m being a bitch, I know.

But it was something about him did things to me that were unnerving.

I flipped around as his hand shot out and clasped around my lower arm. His touch sent an electric current blazing up and down my body.

“I’m sorry, that house threw me. Can we be friends?” he whispered so softly, I almost missed it.

I twisted around. His face almost appeared humble. “Why do you care where I live?”

“I know the owner. He’s never rented it before. He used it for a bachelor pad when he needed to get away from his family.”

I sucked in a sharp breath. “You thought he was keeping me?” My heart went into a frenzy, and the butterflies had taken flight in my stomach.

Was he jealous, or did he truly think so little of me?

“Like I said, I’m sorry. Forgive me?” His thumb stroked over the underside of my arm. “Can we at least be friends? I’d like to be friends.”

Friends? Was that code for I-want-in-your-pants-but-don’t-expect-anything-else? Could I even pretend to be his friend?

I looked down at the pad my hands had a death grip on, anything to divert my attention from his eyes. Those baby blues were lethal. Could I even pretend to be friends? I glanced at him and locked eyes with his. My carefully constructed walls came tumbling down. I had to try. Even if I was sure it was a mistake. Lucas had affected me in a way I couldn’t understand; I was willing to try anything just to be near him.

I nodded then raced to the kitchen. As I came barreling through the kitchen doors, I rammed into John who was holding a tray full of drinks, causing him to spill the whole tray down the front of my shirt.

He made a tsking sound as he sat the tray on the counter. “Sorry, Annie, are you okay?”

John had already picked up a cloth and had started to pat the sticky liquid up off my arms as I just stood there, staring at the far wall trying to figure out what just happened.

Bob came around the corner, taking in the scene of spilt soda and my soaked shirt. “Annie, what happened?” His voice snapped me out of my shock. He looked over my clothing. “You’re coming with me.” Bob yelled over his shoulder. “Will cover her tables.”

“Sorry again, Annie,” John called over his shoulder, already fast at work at the grill.

I didn’t have time to respond before Bob had my arm and was dragging me into his office. I kept my eyes on his hand, wanting to break away from his grip. My face flushed from anger. It wasn’t like I’d broke anything. Bob just needed to calm down.

Once we were in his office, I stepped free of Bob and managed to shake off the standing liquid still clinging to my shirt. “Do you have anything I can change into?”

Bob didn’t even pretend to smile and no longer looked at me with that soft, almost-fatherly concern. Instead, his brows worked together in a worried frown. “Yeah, there are some extra uniforms in the supply room. Grab one and change in the bathroom.”

I clutched the handle to the door to leave.

“Annie, after you’re through, come back; we need to talk,” Bob ordered.

Bob needed to chill.

Lucas was going into the men’s room when I exited the office. He eyed my shirt then narrowed his eyes. I waved him off and made a beeline to the supply closet. He hadn’t earned any explanation from me at that point.

“Annie, wait, I need to ask you something.”

The door slammed behind me, blocking out anything else Lucas might have to say.

I wasted no time finding a uniform that fit, and changed. Something told me, whatever Bob had to say would not sit well with me.

Walking back to Bob’s office, I took a quick glance out at table four. Will and Lucas were laughing at something. Probably me.

I closed the door behind me when I entered the office. The stance Bob had taken did nothing to ease my nerves. He had leaned back on his desk, hands firmly on his hips, and eyed me from head to toe.

What is his problem? Drinks get spilled daily. I work seven days a week and never complain.

“I thought I told you to leave Lucas Carter alone,” Bob spit out before I even got sat down on the sofa. “There is too much history with his family.”

After the statement “history with his family”, he paused, took off his glasses, and pinched the bridge of his nose as if the idea of it gave him a headache.

“What history? I barely know the guy,” I replied, tempering my tone to keep the confusion from that statement from lacing through.

“I know you fumbled out there to his table like a mad woman, and he was apologizing to you about something that obviously upset you.”

I raised my hand to dismiss him and stared off to the sidewall, but he had the whole situation pegged.

“I know you fumbled out there to his table like a mad woman, and he was apologizing to you about something that obviously upset you.”

I raised my hand to dismiss him, and stared off to the sidewall, but he had the whole situation pegged.

“Lucas is not a person you need to get involved with. I know things, and trust me, they are not pretty. Please, Annie, listen to me.”

He knows things. Does it have anything to do with his creepy father? Is Lucas like him? Is Lucas a bad guy?

“What things? I can’t believe Lucas is some big bad guy. Every girl in town is dying for him to get into their pants.”

Did I just say that to my boss?

I felt the heat rush through my body and my cheeks turn a bright flaming red.

Bob stiffened before he moved to sit by me on the couch. “The things are big and bad, Annie. The last place you need him to be is between your legs. Believe me,” he said and took my hand. “I know I’m not your father, but I care. Just think about what I’ve said. Okay?”

Sure,” I said and nodded my head to be polite. He didn’t say anything for me to think about. Just gave me a demand, and I didn’t take well to demands.

“Why don’t you go home and rest? You look exhausted. We got enough staff to handle tonight’s crowd.”

He finally said something I agreed with. The last few days I’d hardly been able to put one foot in front of the other. Exhausted was an understatement.

“I’m off tomorrow too. Is that okay?”

He patted my knee, but it felt nice, not creepy. It sorted of reminded me of when I was little and my foster dad, Charles, would squeeze my knee when I said my nighttime prayers.

“Sure, get some sleep.”

I didn’t even walk back through the kitchen on my way out, afraid someone would have a chore I must do before I clocked out. I did, however, look back into the dining room. Lucas was leaving. However, what caught my eyes was the exchange of two small packages between him and Will.

I signaled for Will. He and I at one point in our lives were best friends. That was until the world told us that he belonged on one side of the cafeteria and I belonged on the other.

“What’s up?” Will asked and placed his ass in the seat opposite mine.

What’s up is Annie. I smiled thinking about her nervously shifting from one foot to another. Damn, it was hard not to want to touch her. I wanted to feel her body next to mine. I had to remember that Annie wasn’t the normal kind of girl I encountered. She was like no one I’d ever met before.

Annie didn’t have a lot to say, but when she finally did say something, it was somewhat bitchy even when she was trying hard not to be. She had put up a shield to keep everyone out – especially an asshat like me. I had to admit it was sort of a turn-on. A girl had never loathed me before I gave them a reason to. I also liked the way I made her nervous. It only reassured me I was affecting her. The way she stammered her words and bit her lip before regaining her stamina and her claws came out. Those claws would be fun to tame, but first, I would try this friend thing. I would try anything simply to be near her.

“What would it take for you to give me Annie’s phone number?”

She said we could be friends. Friends hung out, didn’t they? I needed a number to plan one of those hangout days.

“Never thought I would see the day Lucas Carter would have to wheel and deal to get a chick’s number.” Will cocked an eyebrow, annoying the crap out of me.

“Annie is no chick.” I picked up my glass to take a drink and calm down. My nerves had been on edge since Annie entered town. Coincidence, I think not. “Plus, every man has his kryptonite.”

“Sure, man, I’ll have to go in the back and get it. She has some cheap-ass prepaid cell, don’t blow up her phone, dude.”

“Thanks, I’m going to take a piss. Be back in a minute.”

I saw Annie ducking into the supply closet and yelled for her. She all but flipped me off.

Why did I have to be a jerk with her? She was just so familiar it scared me. But I would never forget a face like hers. Damn, maybe there is a God. Because only he could create a face that would rival any angel’s. Just those eyes alone sucked me in and eased my inner demons, and damn, her deep-brown, porn-star hair made me want to get lost in it.

Suck it, Lucas. She can see right through you.

It ate at me that she thought I was an arrogant piece of shit. More, I hated that I cared so damn much.

Chapter 9

Annie Prieto

If a guy was to show up on a pretty cool Harley, would you be interested in joining him for a nice cruise through the countryside.

I discovered the text after I finally checked my prepaid cellphone. No one ever called, much less text, I couldn’t help but grin.

Me: Who is this?

After I pressed send, it dawned on me who it was — Lucas. How did he get my number? No one had it. I only purchased the pre-paid phone and a hundred-and-twenty-minute card at the local Dollar Store for work.

Lucas: A very unhappy customer who never got his hickory burger and side of very thick, juicy steak fries.

I laughed out loud. The idea Lucas somehow obtained my number, the warning Bob gave me about him being big and bad, not even the thought of a long afternoon nap would deter me from doing a little flirting.

Me: The only customer I served last night ordered some thin, flimsy fries. You know I’ve always heard you are what you eat.

His response was swift and cunning.

Lucas: Must be true, because I eat passion fruit every morning and a foot-long hotdog every night.

Me: and Humble pie for lunch.

Lucas: I am humble, baby. Very humble.

Me: How did you get my number? Stalking much?

Lucas: Stalking is a little hard when you have no Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. I tried.

He admitted to looking me up on social media. An involuntary smile broke out on my face. It was so big it almost hurt. I had to confess I was a little more than flattered.

Me: Don’t like to be found. How did you manage the impossible?

Lucas: Swapped a favor with Will.

So, that was what they were trading.

Me: Why would you want it? You made it clear how you felt about me.

Lucas: I freaked out. You agreed we could be friends. Please. Let me your friend.

Friends? Those pesky birds fluttered across my stomach. We could try the friend’s thing. After all, I could use a friend.

Me: Friends. But don’t expect anything from me and I sure as hell won’t expect anything from you.

Lucas: Sounds great, too many people expect too much from me anyway.

Now, can we go do something as friends?

Yes, especially if you show up on that motorcycle or wearing only that smile.

Me: Sure, I can be friendly.

Lucas: What time should I show up for some friendly stalking?

Me: 4 but only if you’re very friendly.

Lucas: The friendliest. See you then. Tootles, babe

I placed my phone on the kitchen counter. I needed a shower and a change of clothes before he showed up, because at that second, I smelled like sweat and grease. I seemed to always smell like grease. An occupational hazard of working in a grease-pit. I rummaged through my closet and came across the only decent thing I had to wear: a fitted sundress that clung to me but still concealed my scars. I tried to picture myself in it on the back of Lucas’s bike; it was a glorious sight, enough to make my heart race at the thought.

I grabbed a pair of boxers out of the drawer. No way was I not having a barrier between Lucas’s backside and me. I was planning on leaving him wanting and needing, not myself.

My mom never missed an opportunity to inform me that my addictions would be what destroyed me. Annie Prieto had become an addiction who had the power to do it.

There was something about her; I could not get out of my mind. She had some crazy connection to my family I still hadn’t figured out, and the thought of trying to be her friend was crazy. The past was confusing enough; trying to predict where all this would lead was pointless. Even knowing all of that, I couldn’t stay away. All I wanted was to feel her ample body on the back of my bike, holding on tight to me.

I pulled up outside her home and started to dismount from my bike when the front door opened and she walked out wearing a short, little sundress that not only showcased her body, but also screamed that it was the tightest little body any man would be lucky to hold. I planned on playing the friend thing but keeping my hands off her in that dress was going to be damn near impossible.

“Hey,” she said, looked up at me, and slowly pulled her teeth over her bottom lip.

Damn, she was too much. She wasn’t like the other girls I’d fooled around with. They played the damsel in distress bullshit. Not Annie — she didn’t play games and gave as good as she got.

Her hand moved over the hem of her dress, causing it to ride up even higher over her already too-exposed thigh. That dress was going to cause me to get in a fight. I might’ve agreed to the friend card, but my body knew it was a lie before it even came out of my mouth. And I would be damned if I stood by and watched her with anyone else. I’d find a way to show every other man she was off the market and still stay within the friend zone.

“Quit checking out the legs. I’ve got shorts on under the damn dress.”

“You have on a dress? Never noticed,” I said and held out my hand to help her climb on the back. I was close to forgetting it wasn’t a date. Just two friends hanging out.

True to Annie’s style, she bypassed my hand and gripped my shoulder before throwing her long, lean leg over the cycle. The sweet smell of strawberries invaded my nostrils and sent a bolt of electricity to my groin. I froze and inhaled deeply. That was no artificial smell of perfume. Just the sweet smell of Annie. I handed my extra helmet to her. There was no way I was letting anything happen to her.

I held my breath and adjusted my pants when she slipped her arms around my waist and pressed her very abundant breasts to my back. This was the main reason for the addiction she had caused in me. Her naked legs involuntarily squeezed by thighs. It felt nice. Too damn nice.

“Hold on, baby. I’m going to take you on a ride you’ll never forget,” I said, and pushed the cycle backward with my feet. “Ready?” I added, and with a flick of my wrist, I pulled out onto the street.

I sped down the street at twice the speed limit just to hear her squeal. Enjoying the sounds, she made. Every other girl simply gave me a headache.

No longer caring what connection she had to my screwed-up family, I was determined to mean a whole lot more to her than just a friend.

Chapter 10

Annie Prieto

A wet dream was the only explanation I could come up with — a very hot and visual wet dream. After all, no man I’d ever come across compared to Lucas. He said we were friends. How the hell was I supposed to pretend we were only friends when I wanted more? Much more.

When I stepped out on that porch and caught the sight of him straddling that hunk of metal in a pair of skintight jeans, a vintage cowboy shirt, boots, and looking at me like I was the dessert for the night — bless my heart, have mercy on my soul, damn — that pesky tingling raced through my body. Cowboys had never been my thing, but Lucas in those cowboy boots had suddenly become my thing.

When I walked up to his bike, his eyes roamed over my body, and when they reached my legs, his nostrils flared. I tried to come up with a smart remark but I could only manage to get out a “hey.” Then the nerves sit in. I had to bite my lip to control the trembling.

Noticing him studying me a little more than I found comfortable. I had to make a comment about my dress and wanted to kiss him when he snapped a remark immediately back at me. Maybe Bob was right and Lucas was the big, bad wolf because no guy had ever held my attention like him.

He held out his hand to help me on the bike, but I knew if I took it, my heart would do silly stuff, I braced myself with the help of his shoulders. I should’ve simply taken his hand because sitting with his back pressed firmly against the front of my body caused my heart to leap anyway. I wondered if Lucas could feel it beating, because it was hammering so hard, I could hear it vibrating in my ears.

The daredevil in him took joy in scaring the daylights out of me. After a while, it became a game between us — the bigger the stunt he pulled, the harder I held on.

I was enthralled with his every movement, I never realized he had pulled off at, of all places, a honky-tonk.

Fast Jack’s was located in a building that was large but less than impressive. It appeared to be made from simple large wood planks, and the outside and inside walls were covered in large florescent beer signs. It must have been popular, because every parking spot was taken and the side field was almost filled to capacity, and it was only five. Lucas pulled around back. Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” was blaring out of every window.

Lucas knocked the kickstand out with his foot and turned slightly to whisper, “I have a girl crush.”

The tingling inside had taken over. I was officially swooning. Mr. Carter, that was almost romantic, not a very friendly thing to say.

He took my hand to guide me off the cycle. After riding for a little over an hour, my legs wobbled as soon as my feet hit the ground. Lucas gripped my hips to steady me.

“Careful, baby,” Lucas said. The sound of his voice dropped an octave and grew husky, signaling he was affected by the connection between us as much as I was.

He carefully removed my helmet and ran his hands through my hair to separate the knots with his fingers.

“Beautiful,” he said and took my hand. Beautiful, there was that word again. Lucas had officially captured me.

The bouncer waved in Lucas who held my hand tighter as we bypassed a line going into the building. Beer, sweat, and musk assaulted my nostrils the moment we step through the door.

They were checking IDs inside, except for Lucas’s and mine. Lucas flashed his sideway grin and the bouncer slapped an armband on the both of us. “Hey, Lucas,” came from more than one barmaid as he led me across a wood floor covered in peanut shells to a small booth in the corner.

“I take it that you come here often,” I stated as I slid on to the bench closest to the wall.

“Yeah, it’s where I come when I need to get away.” Lucas looked up at the waitress who appeared before he fully even sit down. “Two beers,” he said and held up two fingers in her direction.

“I’ll have them right up,” the waitress, who looked a bit high from just being in the presence of Lucas said, and wrote down our drink order.

I rolled my eyes at the unprofessional work ethic of the waitress and caught a glance of a group of girls in cowboy hats staring inquisitively at Lucas. After seeing him with Candice, I seriously doubted they had a chance at catching Lucas’s eye.

“Can’t picture Candice here; she looks more country club than honky-tonk,” I said, not meaning to let my thought slip out. Actually, I wanted to kick myself for even admitting I knew who Candice was.

Lucas leaned over the table, supporting his upper body with his elbows, his blue eyes vibrated as they bore into mine. “I’ve never brought her here. This is the place I escape to when I can’t take anymore.”

“Then why am I here?” I asked, and then took a swig of the beer the waitress had already placed on the table. I was always told alcohol was flammable, and it tasted that way as it burned down the back of my throat.

He pulled the bottle from my mouth. “I honestly couldn’t tell you. I just thought you might need an escape too.”

He brought the beer bottle up to his lips and looked around the room. The beer bottle I was just drinking out of. It was hot as hell.

I wasn’t just falling for Lucas. I’d tumbled down the Mt. Everest of lust. That thought terrified me. I wasn’t in a good place in life to fall for anyone, especially someone I could feel for.

“How old are you?” I asked.

He placed a finger over his lips before whispering, “Just turned twenty in February.”

“Then how …” I said and raised the beer bottle I was holding.

“I slept with the owner,” he said, and unrolled his silverware before straightening them beside his plate, and without looking back up, he added, “Don’t judge me, I’m young, and she’s a pretty damn good-looking woman.”

“With all the attention you get around here, why did you go off to college?”

“I haven’t been in college. I’ve been in rehab for the past three months.”

Rehab? When a guy admitted to going to rehab, a girl should run. But I’ve never been accused of being very smart.

“You haven’t been at college?”

My smile instantly dropped as my mind wandered to what my foster brother was capable of doing when he was strung out on drugs. Was Lucas capable of the same?

“No, that was what my parents told everyone to save face.” He took another sip of his beer. I was positive it was to keep from looking me in the eyes.

The warning from Bob came to my mind. What has Lucas done in the past?

“I won’t deal with a drug addict.”

“I certainly hope not, but there is more than one reason to go to a rehab.” He looked over his shoulder and worked his tense jaw back and forth before tipping his beer bottle back and gulping half of it down.

“Is liquor not a drug?” I asked.

“Liquor is one sedative I can control. It’s almost a necessity in my family.”

Those girls in cowboy hats were laughing. One even had the nerve to wink at him. Lucas didn’t seem to be interested in the least — he was annoyed.

“I won’t take part in any drug use.”

“I sure as hell hope not,” he said, distracted.

Those girls laughed at something, and it felt as if Lucas was ready to bolt. A subject change was desperately needed.

“Have you always lived here?” I asked.

“Of course, I’m a Carter. Where else would I live?” He was working his jaw again, increasingly irritated with that group of girls.

The beer started to dilute my judgment and heat my blood. The warmth started radiating from deep in my belly and soon enough my ears were hot and I could no longer feel the tip of my tongue. I placed my hand on my head then Lucas’s face started to blur around the edges.

Lucas’s attention was fully on me, his eyes widened. “Are you okay? You look like you are about to throw up.”

I slightly shook my head. “I didn’t know beer would affect me this fast.”

“Annie, how many beers have you drunk?”

“Tonight or ever?”

“Ever?”

I raised the bottle on the table and shrugged a shoulder. He immediately reached out to take the bottle from me and flagged down a waitress. “You need to eat something. Why didn’t you tell me you’ve never drunk before?”

“I didn’t think it mattered.”

“Everything about you matters.” Lucas turned to give the waitress our order so I couldn’t see his face, but could tell by his shoulders he had gotten stiff. “Can we get an order of chili cheese fries, two cheese burgers, and a sweet tea for the both of us?”

When the waitress walked off, Lucas placed his arm on the back of the bench he was sitting on and smiled over at me. “The chili fries are amazing; if you promise to dance with me later, I might share them with you.”

I clasped my fingers together and straightened my arms out over the table. “Maybe, if you promise not to let me fall.”

“Never, baby, never.”

The guy sitting in front of me held my attention like no one ever before. I could stare at him all night, but the waitress arrived with a smile for Lucas and our food. The waitress diverted our attention to two plates holding the biggest cheeseburgers I had ever seen, two sweet teas, and a platter full of fries, cheese, and chili. Lucas didn’t waste any time grabbing a fry and popping it in his mouth. I laughed when a string of cheese trickled down over the side of his mouth.

After only one bite, I became hooked. The food was surprisingly delicious. “Now I know why you drive so far out of the way. It’s really good,” I said, then wiped my napkin over the corner of my lips.

“Of course it is, but I really come for the company.”

I chewed the bite I’d taken and placed the napkin over my mouth. “The owner?”

“No, she is one of the reasons I would want to stay away. I keep coming back because no one I know in my everyday life would step foot in this place. I can be me here.”

“I like this you,” I said, sitting my tea glass on the table. “This you is worthy of my company.”

“Your company. Is your company that great?” Lucas playfully narrowed his eyes and licked the corner of his lip. “Someone needs a little ego deflating,” he said and stabbed a fry with his fork as he laughed.

My ego is all bark and no bite. Matter of fact, it is nonexistent.

“I think your ego has met its match,” I said and took another bite.

He paused before finally taking a bite and slowly chewed before saying, “Oh, babe, I think I can handle anything you got.”

“Prove it.” I cocked my head to the side and went into full-blown eye-staring mode, hoping to mask my low self-esteem.

His playful expression vanished, and in its place, was a more challenging one.

I didn’t know if I wanted to have a war of words with him, walk away before it all got too intense, or rip his clothes off. Well, I wanted the latter, but maybe not in a bar.

“You should really cover up those legs because they are kind of puny, and your hair has some split ends, and I won’t even start on that face,” he said.

I tried to appear unaffected by the words he was saying, but they hurt. If he felt that way, why did he even have me there? I rubbed my hands up and down my legs, wishing I could physically cover them. He tipped his head to the side and laughed.

“Don’t ever test me. I’ll always win. Oh, yeah, that face of yours is perfection, I jacked-off imagining those legs last night, but you really could use a haircut.”

I tossed a wadded-up napkin at him. “Gee, thanks.”

“Just keeping it real.”

“Real from the guy who looks like a girl.”

Lucas meticulously yanked the band holding his bun in place and shook his hair onto his shoulder before pulling it back up and licking his tongue across his lips. “Would you like me to show you how much of a man I am?”

I shook my head forcibly and laughed.

“Thought so.”

He took another bite of his hamburger, and my stubbornness wouldn’t allow me to respond so I took a bite too.

He grabbed a fry off the large platter in front of us. “Ask me.”

I dabbed a napkin over the corner of my lips and swallowed back a large lump of food. “Ask you what?”

“What’s going through that beautiful head of yours. I’ll tell you the truth.”

I didn’t want to get into any more deep crap, I thought I would keep it light and fun. “When did you learn to drive a bike?”

He closed his eyes and his left hand formed a fist on the table. “My first love was horses, but even though we own them, my mom refuses to allow me to ride them. She said they are too unpredictable.” He rolled his eyes, before dipping a fry into a pile of cheese. “So, my dad got me a dirt bike when I was about five. I didn’t love it like I did being on the back of a horse, but I thought it was something I could finally share with my dad.” His eyes grew sad and he looked away for more than a few seconds. Suddenly, his eyes pierced mine and he said, “My dad’s a dick, I don’t know why I was surprised when he never found the time. He was too busy chasing some whore’s skirt tail. But I soon discovered I loved the solitude I experienced on the back of a bike. It gives me time to think.”

So much for keeping it light.

Lucas placed the fry he had been scooting around in the cheese the last few minutes in his mouth and followed it up with a drink of his tea.

We both sat quietly eating our burgers and fries. We sat like that for way too long but not long enough. I was sure he was going to say it was time to leave.

But Lucas stood up, tossed his napkin on the table, and held out his hand. “Someone promised me a dance.” He pulled me out of my seat and tugged me through the crowded dance floor until we were standing in the very middle of it.

I hadn’t danced a step since they ripped me out of my first foster parents’ home, and my dreams of becoming a prima ballerina vanished before my eyes.

“You promised you wouldn’t let me fall.”

Lucas smiled, and slowly placed a hand on each of my hips before jerking me to him. “And I always keep my promises.”

The way Lucas pressed his body against mine caused that deep fluttering in the pit of my stomach to start back and my heart to pitter-patter in my chest.

He cinched the back of my shirt in his hands, and I noticed a glimmer in his eye I’d never seen before. I moved my hand down his well-defined chest and over his rock-hard six-pack, feeling each muscle twitch under my touch.

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stop from smiling when he grabbed my hands and pulled them up and around his neck. I closed my eyes and laid my head over onto his chest.

One song turned into another, the food we left on the table was long forgotten, and Lucas showed no sign of stopping.

His body moved against mine in perfect rhythm with the beat of the music. The DJ started to play Pink’s “Try” and Lucas flipped me around and pulled my back firmly against his chest. The way his midsection felt against my ass, the motion of his hips as he ground into me, the way he worked my neck with his hand, manipulating my head to lean back onto his shoulder … He took me to a place that was more than friendly.

“Let you fall. You’re a damn dancing queen, Annie,” Lucas yelled in my ear over the music. “You might not be an experience drinker, but damn, you know how to move your body.”

Lucas was damn comfortable with his body too. He moved with a grace I didn’t expect from a guy with his muscular statue. If he made love like he danced, it would be an experience to have. I brought my hand back up and wrapped them around his neck. A bead of his sweat dripped down over my fingers, only making the lust pool deeper into my stomach. His hand ran down my arms, across my ribcage, and finally worked back over my hips. I shivered when I felt his lips and then his tongue against my neck.

I stepped away from him. I wasn’t the only girl on his date card, and if we ever hoped to form any kind of friendship, we had to stop before we went down a road that would only lead to destruction. Lucas Carter was the one guy who had the capability to crush me, and I would never allow that.

Annie looked like she wanted to take me out back to both kick my ass and to screw it. There was no mistaking the lust in her eyes but also the fear and anger. “Not enjoying yourself?”

“I don’t know who you think I am, but I’ll never be one of your whores.”

Those teeth of hers raked over her bottom lip before she turned to retreat to our booth.

One of my whores? Hell, she was the one who was rubbing her tight little body all over mine and smiled when I admitted to jacking-off to the image of her legs. I would play the friend card, but damn was it going to be hard.

I followed her and slipped into the bench across from her. I watched as Annie signaled to Tammy that she wanted another beer. Tammy was the owner, and I’d hooked up with her a couple of times not long after I turned nineteen. I’d told Annie I’d slept with the owner, but I still didn’t want it rammed down her throat. Luckily, I knew Tammy wouldn’t say a word about us in front of Annie. She wanted me to form a relationship with a girl my age. I wanted that too.

I held up a finger that I needed another one as well. Tammy didn’t even get the bottle placed on the table before Annie had brought it up to her lips. As she was chugging it down and ignoring me, Tammy cocked her head in Annie’s direction and winked. She didn’t need to tell me she approved of Annie — I was already fully aware that Annie was special. The bottle clanged against the table when Annie slammed it back down.

“You never drunk before?” I asked as she slumped on the bench.

“Already told you I haven’t. I won’t kiss another lady’s man or lie.”

I laughed. She had spent close to an hour grinding her pretty little ass against the firm ridge of my pants, and suddenly she was worried about other girls. “Why?”

“Why what?” She turned back to look at me and shot me a looked that could be described as deadly.

“I’ve never known a twenty-year-old who has obviously lived not to drink occasionally.”

“I’ve always had to stay alert. I was too scared to drink.” She grabbed for my beer bottle which I swiftly removed from the bar.

“Why tonight? Where did the sudden change of mind come from?”

Annie looked down and scratched the top of her head with both hands before looking back up at me. “I finally felt safe. You made me feel safe. Happy now?”

Damn right, I was happy. The thought I made her feel safe had me want to go all caveman on her and pound my fist onto my chest. However, Annie looked less than thrilled with me.

“Are you ready to go?”

Her cheeks flushed to the roots of her hair and that gorgeous smile of hers grew bigger than it ever had, even in my fantasies of her. “Can we get another helping of those fries first?”

If she wanted fries, she would get fries. Anything to get her to stay a little bit longer with me.

After three shared orders of chili cheese fries and a long motorcycle ride through the countryside, I took her home and spent every second since trying to convince myself all we felt between each other was friendship.

Chapter 11

Lucas Carter

I lobbed the book I was reading down on the table and watched Annie laughing with some of the local farmers. She hadn’t even noticed I had walked in, and I enjoyed the opportunity of watching her. I didn’t know if I would find her working; I half expected she would be home nursing a hangover after the night we shared.

“I think I would’ve remembered a girl my age who looked like you. I always remembered the pretty ones,” Frank, the man who farms my family’s land, told her.

“Too bad they never remember you,” one of his younger workers said.

Frank tossed a napkin in his direction. “Hush, Jim. I haven’t seen Annie look in your direction, either.”

Annie nervously laughed and tucked a loose piece of hair behind her ear. When she glanced at Jim, she caught the sight of me out of the corner of her eyes. She smiled.

“I need to help the other customers,” she said, and turned to walk in my direction. “Good morning, I had fun last night,” she said when she reached my table.

Me too, precious.

“You feel, okay?”

“Other than the stabbing pain behind my eyes or the frequent wave of nausea, this hangover thing is a piece of cake.” She wiggled her nose. “What’s a productive morning without a little hangover anyway?”

I soaked in her laughter. Annie was easy when it was just the two of us.

“Did you come to talk or eat?”

“Eat. Talk is overrated.” I glanced at the menu. “Coffee, three creamers, one sugar, and bring me your favorite on the menu to eat.”

“Three creamers? Don’t like it black and strong?”

“No, I like my coffee like I like my women: sweet, creamy brown, and hot.”

“I didn’t know you were picky about your women.”

“Touché, now serve me, woman.”

She was still smiling when she served the coffee and a biscuit smothered in gravy. “Mouth-watering,” I said, confused as to whether I was describing her or the biscuit.

“As if I hadn’t been told that multiple times today. So, stop flirting, I already told you no, I’m not the other woman material. I’m more of the ‘top of the list’ kind of girl.”

She sure as hell was. Just the sound of that laughter would’ve knocked her to the top of anyone’s list.

I threw up my hands in mock amusement. “A guy can dream.”

I was just finishing the last bite when she finally got around to filling my coffee cup. “Got any plans later?” I asked then wiped my mouth with the edge of a napkin.

She shook her head and appeared guilty of something. “I was planning on going to the courthouse and go through the files from the year my mom died.”

I sipped back the last drop of coffee, needing to break the spell she placed me in.

Annie’s smile disappeared and a voice from behind me made me cringe. “Lucas Carter.”

Candice pushed herself in the booth with Lucas then kissed him lightly on the cheek. Lucas’s attention shifted to Candice but his ever-present smile faded.

I turned my back on them, but kept my ears opened to their every word. “Still going to see The Lumineers in Nashville tonight?” Candice’s voice was way too whiney.

I looked down at the skin on my hand making sure it hadn’t turned green from all the jealousy coursing through my body. A great band with Lucas sounded like an ideal night. But it wasn’t the night I would get — it was reserved for Candice.

“Maybe, I haven’t decided. But I’m going solo, if I do go.” He didn’t sound the least bit apologetic.

“You’re incorrigible, Lucas Carter.”

I didn’t turn to look but I could hear the tapping of Candice’s shoes as she left. When the bell on the door chimed, I glanced over my shoulder to see Lucas smiling. He ran a hand through his long curls and looked me dead in the eyes. “The Lumineers are no dust-filled file cabinet at the courthouse, but would you want to take a trip to Nashville with me?”

The Lumineers were a popular folk band. I had at least three songs of theirs on my computer’s playlist.

I could use a music fix with Lucas.

“What time?”

“Leaving at four.”

“Can we take the bike? And tickets are on you, deal?”

He nodded.

“Pick me up at the house. Now let me get back to work so I can pay my electric bill this month.”

At 4:28, Lucas pulled into the drive. I was waiting outside on the swing. He straddled his bike. Damn, he was smoking hot. I hadn’t been this turned on … well, ever, and couldn’t quite figure out of he was blessed or cursed with those looks. He had on those boots, skintight jeans, and a black Lumineers t-shirt. I later learned it was his third concert of theirs. Music was his favorite pastime. He was just too tone-deaf to perform any music on his own.

I jumped on the bike before he had time to change his mind.

“Hold on tight, if you die tonight it’ll be a buzz kill,” he said and handed me a helmet.

We merged onto the interstate at a snail’s pace. Inconsistent with Lucas’s normal death-defying speed, we never got over the speed limit. I almost wondered if he was purposely taking his time. I wouldn’t complain, enjoying being on the bike with me.

Thanks to a crowded highway and following every rule in the driver’s manual, we pulled into the parking space with thirteen minutes to spare. I started to walk toward the ticket booth when Lucas pulled two tickets out of his wallet and held them up.

“I purchased them the day they went on sale. I wanted good seats.”

“Why did you tell Candice you were going alone when you had two tickets?”

“I don’t take girls I fuck to concerts. I prefer to enjoy myself.”

“I’m glad I’m not one of your fuck buddies then.”

The show was a feast for the ears. I loved more of their songs than I realized and even drooled over a few I had never heard before. The energy the band emitted was amazing and would stay with me for days. Nothing was as good as live music, and I understood why Lucas enjoyed it that much.

Lucas didn’t drink at all, neither did I. A good buzz would have been a bad idea driving home on the interstate, but the lack of one did nothing to keep us from acting like fools. I was pretty sure Lucas sung along to every single song, and he was right — he couldn’t hold a tune if his life depended on it. Twice I had to quiet him before the people around revolted.

By the final song, we had pushed ourselves right up against the stage. Lucas held me firmly next to him. I told myself it was to keep us from getting separated again, but it was more.

They ended the night with my favorite of theirs “Angela”. I stood there long after they finished, watching the roadies tear down the stage. Lucas never let me go and seemed to find solace in the chaos of the night.

When I finally peeked back up at Lucas, he was looking at me with a gleam in his eyes that would put any toddlers to shame. “This has been the best concert I’ve ever been to, and something tells me it’s because of you.”

“Of course it is,” I said and paused. Lucas stumbled and braced himself with my back. “I think we need to be headed home.”

Lucas’s legs seemed to have lost the ability to walk on the way back to the bike. Perhaps he slipped a beer in when I wasn’t looking.

Due to the late hour, the interstate almost felt deserted, and we settled into a quiet peacefulness. I placed my chin on his shoulder and smiled. It had been the first night in years where I felt like a normal teenager. Something about Lucas made me happy.

I smiled for the next seventy-seven miles until he pulled onto my front yard.

“I need to get home. Thanks, it really was a great night.”

I clumsily climbed off the bike without evoking a reaction or snide comment from Lucas. I took in his face one last time. Lucas’s face appeared pained. “Are you okay?”

“Great, just tired.”

Something told me he was anything but okay, but it wasn’t my place to push.

My cell buzzed on the kitchen counter. It was a text from Lucas. I hadn’t seen him in four days, but his texts were regular and flirtatious.

Lucas: Stop

Annie: Stop what?

Lucas: Stop thinking about me. Don’t lie, you’re doing it right now!!

Annie: Leave me alone, I’m working. Are you coming by to see me tonight?

Lucas: Going to see someone who’s nicer. But I’ll be thinking of you.

Chapter 12

Annie Prieto

The weather was oppressively hot for a March day, and I “luckily” had the task of opening the Downtown Cafe. Even though I usually woke up in a fairly-cheery mood, I was in no mood for any smiles or giggles. I’d stayed up most of the night drawing and imagining how nice the person was that Lucas had visited instead of me.

Thankful as I am to work, I would’ve rather slept the morning away.

For the most part, I liked my job, had grown quite fond of the customers, and they had grown used to seeing me around. I had a soft-spot for Will and John, even Bob. The farmers who came in every morning now that the crops had been planted liked to tease me about being the sweetest thing on the menu. I liked the red hat ladies who came in every Tuesday for lunch. They were more down-to-Earth than the ladies that met out at Mayor Fowler’s most every day. Ms. Ann who dropped in every day and drank exactly four cups of coffee. I made an extra effort to spend time talking to her. I sometimes got the impression it was the only conversation she had most days. Even the annoying, size-0 customer who stated the calorie count with every order no longer bothered me. In fact, I was learning a lot about what to eat and not to eat from her. A lesson we all needed at times.

But not one of them remembered a dark-haired young girl who may or may not have looked like me. Twenty years did seem to erased the mundane everyday memories.

Carterville High School had spent the night celebrating the school year coming to an end. I could still smell the faint scent of milkshakes and fries. The place had been jumping. A stark contrast with the morning. The joint was depressingly empty as I switched on all the overhead lights, so the knock on the door rather startled me.

Lucas Carter had his hands cupped around his eyes with his face pressed against the window. He motioned to the door handle and said please. He looked tired. His hair was pulled back into a messy knot but one side was falling around his face, a few strands even swept across his forehead as if he had recently rolled out of bed and never even took the time to look in the mirror. The thick stubble surrounding his jaw couldn’t possibly have come from one-night’s growth. That would take some powerful testosterone to achieve that fete. His eyes were heavy with sleep, but they were no less striking. They even matched the blue in the very wrinkled cowboy shirt he was wearing. Despite the lack of grooming, he was still the most attractive man I’d ever laid my eyes on.

I forced myself to smile. There was no way I would let him know that just the sight of him sent my heart into a funny tap dance.

I unlocked the door and let him in. “Can I help you, Lucas?” I couldn’t miss the tiny bit of jubilance I had in my voice at the sound of his name.

“Annie, I didn’t think I would find you.”

I guess he doesn’t need a friend this morning.

He didn’t even try to hide the grimace of his face. I let him in, he could at least fake one of those smiles. I would settle for one that didn’t even show his dimples. Anything was better than the way he was staring into my eyes. What he was hoping to find was beyond me.

“Oh, here’s the paper. Bob will be looking for it when he gets here.” Lucas handed me the paper, walked right past me, and behind the counter. He flipped on the coffee maker and spooned out the correct amount of coffee grounds for the commercial unit. I still had to read the directions to work the machine. Lucas had it down pat. When he finished filling the unit with water, he leaned over the counter and supported himself up with his elbows. He finally flashed the smile I’d easily become addicted to. “Oh, I’m sorry.” He pointed back at the coffeemaker. “Bob lets me make some coffee before I head home and face the parents.”

I stood there, basically speechless. Maybe Bob knew more about Lucas than I wanted to make myself believe.

“You do this often?” I waved my hands in the air, still confused.

“Nah, not really. Only when I stayed out all night. Bob understands I need the caffeine to tolerate the old man. Shit, he’s the only man in this town who hates my dad more than I do.”

I gathered that.

He narrowed his eyes and did that hot little staring thing he does. The thing that made me feel like I was totally exposed. “What’s wrong? You seem out of it,” he asked.

I let out a breath and re-secured my ponytail. Does he already know me enough to tell when I am out-of-whack? Do I want him knowing me that well? Shouldn’t I be more scared of … well, him? I started to walk toward the back and the kitchen, praying he couldn’t read my thoughts.

“I’m great, just didn’t expect to see you this early.”

“Not buying it. Talk. I have all day.” Lucas crouched over the counter and looked up at me under those incredible long lashes. It was unfair for a guy to have lashes like that. Even being brown, mine needed a fair amount of mascara to stand out.

I yawned. “I’m fine. Just sleepy.”

I stayed up late thinking about you, and I don’t want to even begin to imagine what you were doing.

Lucas leaned across the counter to place a twenty in the tip jar. The coffeemaker signaled it had finished brewing. “You look sexy. I kind of like that sleepy look you have going on,” Lucas said as he bent over to get a cup and lid out from under the counter. “I take it that mornings are not your thing.” Lucas popped up and smiled.

No, you are.

“Not really,” I said as I started to switch on the machines in the kitchen. “But I needed some overtime.”

Lucas laid down the cup and started to pour fresh grease into the deep fryer. “If you need some extra money, tell Bob to get you on at the country club. They are always looking for servers for their parties.”

I’d bent over to turn on the dishwasher someone conveniently forgot to start before leaving the night before when I caught him checking out my behind. The sound of water and a grinding engine filled the room as I rose up and pulled my t-shirt down.

“I promise you’ll make a killing in tips alone,” he added. “My dad and his friends like to tip the pretty ones big. I think hoping they stand a chance of getting in their pants.”

I’m not that easy.

I tossed a metal spoon and listened to the loud clang as it hit the sink. The stare I threw him must have worked because he didn’t say anything else, but he did spend the next thirty minutes in silence helping me open the place.

He grabbed the cup of coffee as he went to leave and raised it in his hand as if he was saluting me. “Thanks for the coffee,” he called back over his shoulder. “And don’t forget what I said about serving at the country club,” he added just as the door shut behind him.

Two minutes later, my cell dinged.

Lucas: Thanks for the coffee. The only thing is now that I’ve seen you, my day can only go downhill. Because you’re always the best part of my day.

Normally, I didn’t mind the overnights, however, it seemed they were putting a kink in the stay-pain-free plan. Coffee was all I had on the brain before I headed home, but once again, God blessed me more than he should. Annie was just the sight I needed to forget it all. I’d helped Bob more than a few times open his place when I needed to get away but never once did I enjoy it. But I didn’t want to be anywhere else. Just being near her muted the thoughts in my head. Even when she didn’t speak, the sound of her breathing was as soothing as any song. I was screwed and didn’t like the feeling.

Damn Annie.

I’d purposely stayed away, trying to figure out my next move. I had nothing, except some flirty text messages, and even they seemed wrong.

Annie was such a mystery, the way she carried herself with assurance and dignity was baffling to me and only proved that I needed to draw a line with her. I didn’t deserve a friendship with a girl like Annie, much less what my body was craving. That was when it hit me. If I ever planned to keep whatever was going between Annie and me platonic, I didn’t need to forget who I was and what I did to get through the day. I would find a hot little piece who wanted a good time with no strings.

Just as I hopped on my bike, I saw a girl with a micro-mini leaning over the back of a car at Gus’s service station. Her shiny, black hair bounced against her shoulders. She twisted her head and I caught a glimpse of her face. It was Harper Cooksey. She was always up for a good time. No pressure. Just fun. Not the least bit clingy. And would offer me the release I needed.

Twisting the handlebars, I climbed off the bike and walked over to Harper. I plastered on my game face with the smile that always got me any girl I put my mind on. I came up behind her and placed a hand in my pocket. “Didn’t think I would be greeted by your fine ass this early in the morning. What did I do for this privilege?”

Giggle. When would girls learn that the only thing a giggle gave a guy was a headache? She placed the nozzle back into the gas pump. Her smiled pulled to one side. “Heading to class. What are you doing out this early in the morning?”

Running from life. I waved the coffee cup I was holding. “Needed a cup of Bob’s mud.”

“Candice wouldn’t make you any?”

I hated the idea everyone assumed I was with Candice. I don’t think I’d ever really stated I wanted a relationship with her. More than anyone else, Annie thought we were some kind of couple. Crap, I had to stop always thinking about Annie.

“Candice can never make it like I want it. If I remember right, you always know how I like it.”

“We do know how to mix it up.” Her tone was flirtatious, and her smile grew even bigger.

My mom was in Austin on one of her many girls’ getaways, and my dad had to leave in the middle of the night for one of his emergencies. I could take her back to my house. Not that any of that mattered. Random girls had often been found wandering my house in the morning and as long as I showed up at the right places with an appropriate date, no one said a word.

Harper stroked a finger over my breastplate. My muscles usually jerked in response but they didn’t care what she had to offer. The only thing my body craved was working at the Downtown Cafe.

Quit thinking about Annie! But how? She had sit the bar so high, no other girl could ever come close.

I couldn’t go through the mass of conflicting emotions swimming around inside of me. I would make this work even if I had to give my body a pep talk. Something that had never happened before.

“I’ve learned some new recipes since the last time we cooked up anything together.” The top three buttons of her shirt were undone, perfectly showing off the soft curve of her breast and about twenty-five percent of the lacy bra she had on.

“I have a perfectly good kitchen that is not being used at the moment.” I smiled, making sure to flash her both of my dimples. For some reason, girls always responded to them.

Harper would have crawled in the backseat of her car if I’d asked her to. However, there was no way in hell I was taking the chance of Annie seeing what a jerk I really was.

She grabbed the handle of her car door. “Let me park my car and I’ll meet you at your bike.”

Damn, I hadn’t even thought about her wanting to ride on my bike. What if Annie saw us leave together? Hell, Annie was the only other person who had rode on my bike. My stomach twisted at the idea of someone other than her ever riding on it too. “Just follow me to the house. Gus might have the thing towed if you leave it around here.”

Luckily, Harper was a good girl as usual and didn’t argue.

She had her tongue down my throat before I even had time to get off my bike and had my shirt totally unbuttoned before we even reached the front door. We were less than graceful, but it was just what I needed to make me forget. The front door was always left unlocked, I made quick work of shoving her through the door and pinning her to the wall.

I kicked the door closed as she wrapped her long legs around my waist. Her dark-brown hair brushed against my face and smelled of strawberries, reminding me of Annie. Harper bit down on my lip, and I kind of dug it and wondered how kinky Annie was willing to get. I shook my head. I needed to stop thinking about Annie, but every time her face crossed my mind, the swelling in my jeans pushed harder against the denim. I took a step back and crashed into the entry table, sending various items to the floor.

“Shit,” I whispered in her mouth but continue to invade her lips with my tongue. The maid could pick it up later.

She made that bullshit girly laugh again. I hated that sound and was relieved Annie never made it. I let her slip from my grasp. She smiled, having no idea who I was really thinking about, and walked over to the table in the formal dining room. She leaned over, showcasing her perfectly-round ass. Hell, she didn’t have on any panties under that small, tight skirt.

Was I wrong to take something she was willing to give. If no, then why did I feel guilty? She arched her back, whipping her long, brown hair against her back.

Hell, she wanted to use me as much as I wanted to use somebody.

My zipper could no longer contain what was underneath it. I unbuttoned my jeans and slid down my zipper.

Hell, I could regret all this later.

She turned to look up at me and I was elated to notice she had green eyes too. A perfect stand-in for the one I truly wanted.

Quit, thinking about Annie, damnit.

I planted my lips on hers. “Are you ready?”

“Just wondering what you’re waiting on.”

She moaned the second my fingertips touched her tender flesh, giving me the greenlight to go for it. And I did, making sure she enjoyed every inch of it.

Chapter 13

Annie Prieto

The sun streaming through the large picture window signaled I’d slept late. It was my first day off in two weeks — I was exhausted. Stretching, I pressed my elbows onto the pillow as I sat up.

Then I heard what probably woke me in the first place: the doorbell.

It was simply a doorbell. It shouldn’t cause any warning bells to go off. Burglars I was sure didn’t use one often to gain entrance.

Or did they?

I glanced down at myself, I was wearing a pair of pajamas I’d pulled out of the laundry hamper the night before, and my hair was piled on top of my head. The look I had going on was deadlier than any weapon. I sat up and tossed the blanket to the floor.

Burglars beware.

The doorbell buzzed throughout the house again. Whoever it was, they weren’t giving up. I shifted the bun on my head and rubbed over my eyes, wiping crust away.

I knocked a sketchpad and some drawing pencils onto the floor as I got up and slipped on a pair of flip flops.

Before I got to the door, whoever it was had started banging on it.

“Coming,” I said, turning the lock.

The weird sensation I felt when it was Lucas was disorienting. Not sure why it was surprising; Lucas was the only person I’d invited over since I moved to Carterville. Even if he did nicely decline the first offer.

“Hey,” he said, and leaned against the door jamb.

“Hey to you,” I said and smiled. Lucas waking me up bought about a continuous loop of Lucas porn in my head, and I had to think about the execution scene from The Green Mile to control the lust Lucas caused without even a touch.

“I thought you might enjoy a picnic.” Lucas held up a large picnic basket and his lips turned up into a smile, exposing two very deep dimples on his cheeks. I took a step back to let him in. He lost his footing and crashed into the entry table on the wall behind me. A lamp and some figurine fell to the floor.

I reached for his hand to help steady him.

“And here I thought I was incapable of knocking you off your feet.” He laughed and leveled his gaze on mine.

Baby, you have no idea. If you only knew what your smile was capable of doing to me.

I twisted a stray piece of hair that had fallen out of the bun it was in and deliberated on the fact no one had ever put that much effort in to trying to make me happy. I knew for a fact Lucas was the first guy who was kind to me without the foregone conclusion of simply getting into my pants. Maybe Lucas truly wanted to be friends. I’d seen him at the Downtown Cafe with his other friends, and it always seemed as if he had mentally removed himself from them.

“Lucas, there is not a girl in this world who could resist your smile.”

“Really,” he said, and cemented on the biggest, fakest smile. Even that face was irresistible.

I needed a breather to clear my mind before I could start the day. “I need to change. Can you give me ten minutes?”

He appraised me for a moment then shot up an eyebrow and tilted his head. “You’re not already ready? You mean you can do better than this?”

I looked down at my stained t-shirt. “Sure, I can get naked.”

“Don’t tease, precious.” He slapped my ass. “It makes me think very unfriendly thoughts.”

In my hurry to leave before the blushing sit in, I kicked a piece of glass across the wood floor.

“I hope that wasn’t priceless,” he said and eyed the figurine that had fallen and shattered on the floor.

“I hope not. The house was fully furnished when I moved in, so it’s not mine.”

Lucas whistled and gave the room a quick glance. “Why don’t you go change so we can get out of here?”

I needed a shower, and quite frankly, I needed to pee. I grabbed clean panties, a bra, a pair of cutoff blue jeans, and a soft pink blouse that covered the scars out of my dresser. Pink had always featured my ever-present tan, and gave me the shot of confidence I was lacking. Candice and her merry gang of suck-ups always appeared pulled together in their designer clothes. At the present moment, I owned three dresses, four pair of shorts, two pairs of blue jeans, and twelve shirts, and not one of them carried a designer label.

Out in the hall, I shot a glance at Lucas, who was picking up some odd clay sombrero saltshaker. Being part Mexican myself, I found it strange how many small Hispanic touches were around the house. And if I didn’t need to pee so badly, I would’ve watched Lucas and tried to discover his fascination with the objects around the place. However, nature wouldn’t wait any longer.

Once I showered and dressed, I hung the towel and bath cloth over the shower door, brushed my teeth, and added deodorant before checking my face in the mirror. I’d never been one to wear makeup. I wanted to look in a mirror and see me, not some painted clown of myself. However, when I thought of the girls who hung around Lucas, I decided to place a little mascara on my lashes, hoping it would do a little to bring out my green eyes, and ran a hand through my hair before pulling it back up in a bun.

I rushed to the living room, having taken a little more than ten minutes but not much more.

He placed some whatnot back on the shelf. “See you got the salt shaker? Any idea where the pepper shaker is?” he asked.

“Not mine, so the answer will be a no.”

Lucas turned and almost knocked off an empty picture frame when his eyes caught mine. “I guess you’ll do,” were the words that came out of his mouth but his face told an entirely different story. His eyes blazed and hungrily devoured me. “We match,” he added and winked. I raked my eyes over his body and realized my subconscious was working overtime again. He had on a pink and green plaid button-up shirt, blue jeans, and those damn cowboy boots. I laughed, hiding my secret desire for my newest and biggest turn-on, those damn cowboy boots. I hated him for a second; he didn’t have to be designer to look like a runway model, just slip on a pair of plain brown boots.

I hurried when he opened the front door and stood back, waiting for me. A true gentleman. My feet halted on the spot when I walked out and where his motorcycle usually sat was a white Jeep Gladiator with metallic rims and an immaculate paint job. He had already placed the basket in the bed of the Jeep, and I was still frozen in place.

He held opened the car door. “Come on, precious. I don’t have all day. The potato salad is going to go bad.”

“Where’s the bike?” I asked as I crawled into the Jeep.

His easygoing expression disappeared and in its place, he had a look I couldn’t quite describe; it was almost reflective. However, it didn’t last long before that Lucas Carter patented side smirk flashed on his face. “I have to have a truck for all my bitches,” he answered as he slammed the door.

Once he was inside the Jeep, Lucas adjusted the air conditioner and cranked the engine. He had grown quiet. I hated the silence. It was unsettling.

“So since I get to ride the bike, does that make me not one of your bitches?” I asked, and punched him lightly on the thigh.

“I don’t know what it makes you,” he said and took my hand in his. “I guess my best friend because the bike is just a me and you thing.”

That was quite possibly the sweetest thing he had ever said to me.

He continued to stay silent until we pulled off onto the cotton field beside the cemetery where my mom was buried.

Lucas placed the Jeep in park. “Pennies for your thoughts?”

“Where is this?” I asked, almost scared of his answer.

“See that house over there?” He pointed to the house that shared the hill with the cemetery.

“Yes,” I replied.

“That is the only home I’ve ever known.”

That was Lucas’s house. I’d sat in the cemetery often and wondered about the family who lived in that house. It was a sprawling ranch, sitting on a rolling hill with several patches of cotton and wheat fields. A horse barn stood beside three silos and a large pond bank. The whole scenario reminded me of the dad’s house in The Parent Trap, even down to the spotted horses in the pasture. I couldn’t imagine having anything other than the perfect childhood in a place like that.

“My great granddad built it and left it to us when he passed away. My dad’s side of the family has lived on this hill for over two hundred years.” He pointed out a huge oak tree in the corner. “That is where my tree house is.”

I craned my neck out the Jeep window until I could see an old rickety latter, swaying in the wind. “Tree house?” I asked, more confused than anything.

He turned toward me with a mocking smile. “Will you come play with me in my tree house?”

“Really?” I tried to smile back, but the smile was totally unconvincing.

“When I was little, I spent every waking moment up in that tree house. As I got older, it was where I went to escape the parents. It is where I smoked my first joint.” He paused and looked over at me. “Lost my virginity.” He stared out the front windshield. “I haven’t been back since the night it all got to be too much and I snapped.” He shrugged his shoulder. “I want you to help me reclaim this spot.”

“You seriously bringing me to your make-out spot?”

“Yeah, I guess I am, but if it makes you feel better, I don’t want to have sex, just talk.” He flicked the tip of my ear and chuckled before opening the door.

Yeah, it feels absolutely amazing to be the one girl you don’t want to screw.

I wanted to be hurt, but as I watched him intently as he walked around the front of the truck, it was impossible. He was hurting enough for the both of us. His cocky, confident walk had been replaced with a walk of defeat. His long, luscious, million shades of blond hair fell around his face, covering his stoic profile. I willed him to look at me, and when he finally did, I gasped at the look of despair in his eyes. Why didn’t anyone else seem to notice how he was hurting? His proud, confident walk was a mask to hide what was really going on beneath the surface.

When he opened the door, and took my hand, he squeezed a little too tight. His tension was almost palpable and led me to believe this was a big deal for him. In the distance, I heard the roar of a tractor and the honking of geese overhead. But nothing could distract me from the gloom and doom on Lucas’s face.

“Are you okay, Lucas?”

He shook his head and looked toward the tree house. “The last time I was here, it was bad. Really bad.”

“Are you sure? We can go somewhere else.” I said as I climbed out of the Jeep.

“No, I need to do this.” He paused and then looked back at me. My heart ached like an open wound at how beautiful he was, and yet still there was something about him that was broken and in pain. “I can do it with you,” he said hoarsely.

Lucas guided me through the trees and held onto me with an ease that went way beyond a simple friendship. Before we reached the ladder, he bent and plucked a dandelion from the earth and held it up to his lips. Closing his eyes, he blew as the fluff floated away. The dread embedded in his face had me praying that one of those seeds would reach the ears of God himself.

He led me a tad farther until we reached a ladder hanging down and swinging in the breeze. “Ladies first,” he said and helped boost me up onto the ladder. “Nice view,” Lucas said and popped my backside with the palm of his hand, causing a twinkle of spark to shoot across his eyes.

When I pulled myself up into the tree house, I did a double take. The place had been kept in immaculate condition. The planks covering the wall were honey-colored, same as the floorboards.

Lucas came up behind me, let out a breath that sounded like relief, and placed the picnic basket on the floor. His hands instantly went to my waist. “What do you think?”

I leaned my head back onto his chest as I took in more of the room. The south side of the tree house had a large opening with a view of acres upon acres of farmland. The west side of the structure had a half-sized pool table and one of those basketball net games. On the opposite wall was an old, ragged sofa; it was almost a relief that everything wasn’t perfect in his world.

“If I get kicked out of the place I’m living, can I live here?” I asked and walked over to a table piled with Harry Potter books.

He laughed, the corners of his eyes wrinkled up in delight, and nodded.

“I knew you were the one I wanted coming up here with me but,” he said and cracked his knuckles in the palm of his hand, “I like it here with you.”

“I like it here too,” I said, smiling back. I loved the idea he wanted to share part of himself with me, even if it was another time the lines blurred between us.

He walked over to the large window on the south wall and unlatched a hook, pushing open the whole wall. His wide muscular body blocked out the sun for an instant, causing the light to cast a halo around him. Incredible perfection. He sat on the edge of the tree house, letting his feet dangle off the edge, and patted the spot next to him.

“The last time I was here. I snapped,” he let flow from his lips when I sat down beside him. “The pressure of being Wes and Jennifer Carter’s son, people telling me that my life was perfect when it was everything but. My dad is in love with some woman I don’t even know. My mom lives in the past and can’t stand to look at me. She always says I’m just like him. I’m like none of them. They’re all crazy. They had this built for me when I was eight just so I would stay out here and away from them. No one has ever just cared about me, only what I could do for them. But you care. You don’t ask for anything. You didn’t care where I live. What my family has. That I’m a Carter or what that even means in this town.”

I placed my hand on his and worked my fingers around his. “You’re pretty great all on your own. I just like being around Lucas. I could care less about the Carter part.”

“Please tell me you were really happy growing up. ‘It was great’ is not just some excuse, you don’t have to talk about it. You deserve to be so damn happy.” He ran his fingers through his hair; he had that far-off look he got when his thoughts ran deep.

“The first fourteen years were almost magical. I lived with a couple named Charles and Ruth Anne Williams. It was like living with the world’s greatest grandparents ever. Their life revolved around me and my dancing.”

“You dance?”

“I did. I love ballet, and was one of the youngest member of my ballet school to go on pointe. I was only nine. But when Mimi, my foster mom, died, the wills-that-be wouldn’t allow me to stay with Pawpaw. So, the next four years, I was shuffled from home to home.”

“Were they good to you?”

“Not bad, just didn’t care. I was a check to them.” I wasn’t ready to discuss what the first couple’s son did to me. I was positive I never would be. I loved it when he looked at me with an almost hungry look. I liked having someone look at me with something other than pity. If Lucas only knew what those boys did to me, he would never look at me like that again. I would become just another charity case. Poor pitiful little Annie.

“Do you still want to do the ballet crap?”

I laughed at the term crap. Lucas didn’t know all the secrets of my past. He couldn’t begin to understand the pain I’d suffered. He flirted with me without measuring how his words might make me feel, he didn’t hold back any punches. He pushed me to my limits. With him, I felt normal. I liked feeling human almost as much as I loved the dimples he was flashing at me at that moment. “It’s been too long now. My dreams of being a Prima Ballerina are long gone.”

He hooked a foot around my ankle, which was dangling off the side of the tree house. Lucas sung the chorus of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” into my ear before kissing the side of my temple.

I ducked my chin onto Lucas’s chest, creating a veil of my hair to hide the redness on my cheeks. “I love that song. I did one of my last solos to it.”

“Yeah, my granny Ann loves the ballet. Her and my dad used to go all the time.” He tucked my hair behind my ear. “My granny would love you; you kind of remind me of her. Maybe you can meet her sometime?”

“I doubt Candice would appreciate you taking me to meet the family.”

Lucas laid his chin on the back of my head and wrapped his arms around my body. His embrace was excruciatingly hard, and he made no apologies for needing me, too. “I don’t give a damn what Candice would like.”

The sun overhead was warm and glowing, and Lucas watched it with a steady glare. He often looked at me with a depth that was well beyond his years, and at times, I’d caught him studying objects with a fascination that was unexplainable. Lucas held more in him than he let anyone know, but for some strange reason, he allowed his shield to slip slightly around me.

“Why did you come to Carterville?” he asked.

“I just wanted to know something about my past. I need to know if I have any family out there. Why do you ask?”

He laughed; the sound was a mix of nervousness and joy. He startled me when he lifted my hand and softly brushed his lips across my knuckles. “’Cause all I want to do is get out of this town. Can’t figure out why someone would want in.” He squeezed my hand he was holding three quick times. “I hope you get your answers, but in all honesty, I’m just glad you’re here.”

A small buzz hummed through my body when Lucas rose to his feet then helped me to mine. He led me over to a small medium height table and placed me in one of the three ladder-back chairs sitting around the table.

He opened the picnic basket and took out a pair of Beats Pills. His iPhone synchronized with it instantly. He flipped through his music and smiled before pressing play. The lyrics of Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris” filled the treehouse. Lyrics about wanting someone to know who he was. I tried holding his gaze as I listened to the words of that song.

Did they represent his feelings for me?

It made me want to weep at that possibility.

Lucas held his head down as he gathered the food out of his picnic basket, but a small trace of a smile never left his face. When the song ended, he glanced up at me, smiling bright enough that both of his dimples were prominent on his face, turned down the volume on his phone, and placed the last of the food on the table. I needed him to say something about that song. Instead, he zoned out.

Music had always been an escape for me. I would let the music pound in my ears and ride my Harley for hours. Then Annie happened and music no longer held the power to erase the images in my head, the endless pain, the never-ending crying of my mom, the thoughts of when it would all be over.

Then a song I haven’t heard in ages started to play, and in that instant, it was obvious, I would not only play that song for Annie, but I wanted her to know me like no one ever knew me before. I wanted her to hold my hand as I walked my next few steps through this life.

I wanted to tell her everything. Tell her I was broken. But I would settle on her simply being near me. “Eat up, my granny worked hard on this.” I handed her a plate and looked around at the variety of food Granny had packed for me. I called her at six AM and to no surprise to me, she was elated to help, almost too thrilled to be cooking for a girl she had never met.

“Your granny made all of this?” she asked and scooped up a spoonful of chicken salad.

“Yes, and FYI, she was glad it was you and not Candice I was wanting it for,” I said, sat down beside her, and took a bite of the apple slice she was holding.

Then that smile that made me higher than any drug appeared. Simply calling it a smile seemed wrong when it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

The more time I spent with her, the more I realized how much she was taking over my every thought, and I loved it.

“Do you have more songs on that thing?” she asked and pointed to my phone.

I nodded and pushed the phone in her direction. She held my gaze as I stroked my hand over hers. Her skin was soft. The touch of it felt as if she had doused my skin with accelerant and it would burst into flame any minute. I reluctantly removed my hand from hers and started to smear some chicken salad on a slice of bread.

She flipped through the music on my phone. “How many songs do you have on here?”

I shrugged. “It’s only 32 gigabits. Most of my songs are on my iPod.”

“You have more?” she asked and dodged her head until I was unable to see her face. “O-M-G, you have this song.” She literally bounced in her seat.

She started to play Dion’s “The Wanderer”. It was a song that my granny played repeatedly for me when I was small. I couldn’t understand why another person my age would be that excited to hear it.

“Mimi and Pawpaw use to play this for me. Mimi said it was her best friend in high school’s favorite song. They would have sleepovers and stay up all night singing that song. I haven’t heard it since she died.”

“Mimi? Your first foster mom?”

She nodded, smiled, and had that same wide-eyed stare she had the first day I met her. I wanted to know everything about her. I wanted to put that wonder in her eyes every day. I clutched my sandwich, realizing I finally found a girl worth having and she was too damn good for me.

I placed the sandwich down on a paper plate and patted my lips with napkin. “Do you ever think about the future? What it will be like? What you will be like?” I asked, throwing her with the question.

“No.” Annie looked away and got a far-off expression in her eyes. “I’ve learned it is better to live in the moment. That is the only time you have any control over.”

Wow. My whole life I’d been told that the only thing that mattered was the future. Not once had I ever heard someone put into words the exact way I’d always felt. But Annie did.

“When you were little, there was nothing you dreamed about?” I wanted to know every small detail about her.

She twisted her lip, and by the gleam in her eyes, I could see she was thinking. “I dreamed about finding my dad. I dreamed that when I found him he would hold me, tell me that he loved me, and always will. When I envisioned my wedding, he would walk me down the aisle and he would cry because he was able to share that moment with me.”

I thought about it for a second and the idea of her father was not what I focused on. It was that when she thought about a wedding, she was planning a happily-ever-after. Happily-ever-after wasn’t part of any future I had.

Needing to focus on something other than Annie with any bastard, I proceeded to toss an endless line of questions at her. I learned that her favorite song ever was Anna Kendrick’s “Cups”, but she hated the movie Pitch Perfect. She hated steak but would eat it if it were covered in bacon. Actually, she admitted she would try anything wrapped in bacon. Her favorite childhood memory was getting a dozen roses after every one of her dance recitals. She pretended they were from her dad. Her biggest fear was that a nude picture of her would end up on the internet. I had to confess that had become my biggest fear too.

The conversation turned into a comfortable silence as Annie laid her head on my shoulder.

The orange and red tones were low down on the sky, and the top was a burst of pink as if the sky was blushing at the beauty lying against my arm.

Being with Annie was easy and natural, and she seemed to feel the same way about me. I would be happy I had those memories with her, and would drill on the fact she was accepting our friendship.

Her knee accidently brushed against my leg. Hyper-awareness of her every movement and her very smell sizzled through every pore in my body. I was undone. Completely and happily undone.

Repeat, Annie and I are just friends. Annie and I are just friends. If I say it enough, I might start believing it.

That is what I wanted too,” I lied to myself simply to keep from getting my heart broken.

Chapter 14

Annie Prieto

Lucas: Do you like me? Do you want to be my best friend? If you do, then don’t be afraid to say so. If you want too. I think this is a crazy attempt to say hey. Tell me you want to see me tomorrow? Check yes or no? P.S. I know you have the day off. (Will has a big mouth.)

Hated to admit it, but I more than liked him. And I wanted to spend every day with him. Even if he spent his nights with others.

Me: Already have a date in the morning but would love to hang after that

Lucas: I promise to show you a better time than any other so-called date. Now get back out here. I visually enjoy seeing you. You’re kind of hot when you work.

You just don’t enjoy me as much as you do your real dates.

Me: Have fun with your friends.

Lucas: The only friend that matters is working. You’re my best friend, Precious.

We ended every night with a phone call and our days sparring over text messages so often I had to ditch my prepaid phone for a contract with Sprint.

He never talked about his family nor did he question me anymore. We just discussed our everyday life. Well, most every aspect of our lives.

Which only made our situation increasingly confusing. Like the other night, he showed up at the Downtown Cafe and acted as if he barely knew me, then one of his friends started flirting with me and he flipped a switch and became unhinged; or the times he told me we were no more than friends but held onto my hand like I was some lifeline; showing up every night after work to drive me home; and most of all, kissing me goodbye on the cheek every time he left me.

At times, I swore we were becoming a couple then I would see him with Candice, and I realized I was no more than the girl to have fun with. Just not as much fun as he was having with Candice. In the restroom earlier, I overheard Candice tell some ginger about sucking Lucas off before they went out that night. I was fully disgusted.

Maybe I was wrong. Maybe Lucas was no better than my foster brother. Maybe I was just wanting to see something good in him so bad I overlooked the obvious.

I pushed open the kitchen door and walked into the arms of Lucas. His clear-blue eyes shimmered with such a fierce force, my body hummed in awareness. Was it a look reserved just for me, or was he aware it was a look that got him whatever he wanted? Like a quickie with Candice in the back of his Jeep.

“Whoa, precious, you look like you can punch somebody.”

Yeah, you. “I’m fine. I need to work. See you after you take your friends home. Maybe you’ll even have time to work in another blowjob.” I lowered my eyes and focused on a large silver belt buckle Lucas was wearing.

“Look at me,” he demanded.

A shake shimmered down my spine as I tore my focus off his body and onto his eyes that were watching me in complete reverence. “Do you have any idea what you are doing to me?” he asked in a deep and raspy voice. His eyes went dark, causing my heart to pound in my chest.

“Hey, Lucas, new pussy? I thought Candice was the girl of the month again?”

Pushed forward, I fell onto Lucas’s chest. He banded his arms around me and pinned me protectively against him. I twisted my head enough to see that whoever shoved me, it was on purpose.

“Troy, if you know what’s good for you, you’ll go back over to your table and leave us alone,” Lucas said, squeezing my waist tighter.

Troy was tall, but not near as tall as Lucas. He was clean-shaven, had piercing dark eyes, and wore a pressed pinstriped polo shirt and khaki shorts. His wavy, dark-brown hair spiked on his head as if one of those girls at their table had recently had her hands in it. I imagined punching him square in the mouth and knocking a few of those perfectly-straight teeth down his damn throat.

I focused my attention back on Lucas, the veins were bulging on his hands, arms, neck, and forehead. We stared into each other’s eyes. The air around us sizzled, and Lucas seemed to want to jump my bones and run away all at the same time. “Shit,” he whispered then started to usher me to the back of the building. Troy followed us but Lucas ignored him as if he was some unwanted pest.

“Candice is waiting on you. Haven’t you hurt her enough?” Troy said behind us.

Lucas stalled, his hand formed into a tight fist at my side. “Troy, walk away. This, Candice, none of it is your damn business.” Lucas started walking, pulling me with him, but never once looked back at Troy.

Before the door to the office even slammed shut, Lucas was looking at me with a look that sent a chill down my spine.

“What is that about?” I asked.

“Remember when I told you that I snapped last Halloween?” he answered in a long and drawn out way as if he dreaded what was coming.

I simply nodded and bit down on the inside of my cheek.

“The person I was the hardest on was Candice. Now her and her goons are trying to make me pay for what I said.”

“Is that why you let her suck your dick earlier? Surely you didn’t enjoy it; you were just atoning for your sins. Right?” I crossed my arms and stepped away from him.

Why was I pissed? Lucas had never promised me anything. Had he?

Lucas’s hand fidgeted with his baseball cap, something I’d already figured out was one of his nervous quirks, and his cheeks turned the guiltiest shade of red.

“You look more shameful than a whore in church.” I rolled my eyes to avoid Lucas’s, not because of what I said but because of the way it seemed physically to hurt him.

It was obvious Lucas was hanging on by a thread. He kneaded his fingers deeper into his neck. It was then when I noticed how fiercely he was trembling.

“Do you have any idea how hard it is for me to make everyone happy? Especially when all I care about is making you happy.” He was visibly trying to calm himself, and then suddenly, he caught a hold of my wrist so tight, I whelped. He eyed my lip as he worked his own between his teeth. I waited for a kiss as he closed his eyes and leaned his forehead against mine.

“Please, Annie,” he breathed.

I worked my hand from his grip, mulling over the word “please” and the look on his face when he said it.

I’d become a junkie and he was the finest wine. Nothing in my life had ever compared to the way he smelled. Freshly showered, high-priced cologne, him. I caught myself deeply inhaling, not only to take in more of his scent but also to see if I could smell a trace of someone else. Luckily, I didn’t.

None of it mattered, I had to fight for my life and not spend time trying to hold onto something not even there.

“I’ve already wasted enough calories talking to you today.” I waved my hand as I turned around, scrambling to get away. I hesitated at the set of swinging doors before pushing them open into the back, making sure the door slammed behind me.

Will was sitting behind Bob’s desk and looked up with a huff. “I don’t mean to get into your business, Annie, but whatever is going on between Lucas and you needs to be resolved.”

“What are you talking about? Lucas and I are just friends, nothing more. He has … Candice.”

“Don’t give me that bullshit. I see y’all together. I tried for weeks just to get you to go out to eat with me, and all I got was a no. Lucas drives up on that damn Harley and you hop on the back of it with the most beautiful smile in the world on your face.”

“Will, I cherish our friendship more than that, and as far as Lucas goes, it will never be anything there other than a friendship. I refuse to become one of his whores. Candice can suck him off all day for all I care.”

The fake smile was a mask to hide my true feelings. Damn, the idea of Annie even thinking about what I’d done with Candice turned my insides to Jell-O. I was just hoping to get Annie out of my head. Even if it was briefly. However, not even post-orgasm could I escape her memory.

No girl should have that much power over me. However, Annie did. She caused me to forget everything. I informed Candice, after she sucked me off in her mother’s bathroom, whatever she thought we had was over. Sex wasn’t enough to ease the burn in me anymore. Getting off between some girl’s legs or even in her mouth only numbed me for an instant. Then all the shit came back. When I was near Annie it all seem to vanish into a million small pieces.

Then I heard Annie say, “As far as Lucas goes, it will never be anything there other than friendship. I refuse to become one of his whores.”

She was talking to Will.

Shit, could it get any worse.

Maybe I should just give myself over to Candice and the demands of my family. It was becoming clearer every day I would never get to hold on to what I really cherished in life.

The bleak outlook on my life slipped into my consciousness with each of her words. The disappointment was crushing.

I stood watching the door Annie was behind when Candice came up behind me and wrapped her hand around the base of my arm. “Lucas, I thought you were lost.”

I shrugged her off my arm. “Go back over to your friends. I’m leaving.”

The disappointment was slowly morphing into anger. Anger was the one emotion I could understand.

“What the hell?” Candice said and swung on my arm hard enough that it forced me to look at her. “I have stood by you and all your shit. Now you want to throw it away. You know no one will satisfy you like I do.”

I slid on my sunglasses, hiding the hurt in my eyes.

“There has never been any satisfaction between us. Just money and sex.”

Annie came out, slipping an apron over her head, when she caught the sight of Candice holding onto my forearm. The deep sadness I witnessed in her eyes the first night we met was back. Candice sensed the emotions passing between us.

“A damn Mexican, Lucas. You know your family will never allow their son to bring a damn wetback home.”

Please, God, don’t let Annie hear this crap. I wanted away from there and to be able to punch someone. I truly wasn’t a violent person. I’d never hit anyone in my life, but right then, I was pretty damn close. The weight on my chest felt like someone had parked a Buick on it. I stood firm, knowing even if Annie didn’t want me, I would never allow anyone to hurt her.

“It’s none of your business what I do. I’m going to ask you to leave me one more time nicely, and if you don’t, I won’t be so nice the next time,” I said.

No wonder I had enough and flipped out on her once before.

“Go play with your new play toy, but be sure to tell her that when you are through with her you’ll come back to me. Like you always do.” Candice had her full lips puckered out as if she was about to bust out in tears. She looked ridiculous.

Annie plastered on a smile so big and beautiful if I wasn’t looking carefully, I would had missed how fake it really was.

“Hey, I’m Annie, the wetback. I’m sorry, but I don’t have a clue who you are.” Annie held out her hand to shake Candice’s then turned to me. “Lucas, you should’ve told me you were seeing someone.” Annie giggled. I loved that sound more than anything in the world. It was pure intoxication. “Oh, she’s the who,” Annie whispered, pretending as if she didn’t want Candice to hear. “At least she’s pretty, but poor girl.”

Candice let out one of her annoyed huffs. My least favorite sound in the world. “Whatever,” she said, and flipped around, letting her hair fly across my shoulders.

Annie wasn’t fussy like most girls, in fact, she was like no other girl I’d ever been around, she was tough and didn’t take shit off anyone.

“Has anybody ever told you that you’re amazing?” I asked Annie as Candice walked away.

“I’ve got to get back to work. Just go enjoy your real friends,” Annie said and dismissed me with a wave of her hand.

Annie didn’t want me. Her smug expression spoke louder than any words. I was no better than an infantile jackass with the self-control of a three-year-old. I was on the verge of a public tantrum, and a tantrum would display a weakness, and Carters didn’t show any weakness. I simply walked away.

I roared the engine of my bike to life and drove to Fast Jack’s, slower than I’d ever driven before. Annie had me regretting every questionable decision I’d ever made. I was pretty close to hell … closer than I ever dreamed possibly going in this lifetime.

My vision had grown blurry. My limbs were past the point of numbness and I was aware they were entering the state of mechanically uncooperative as I pulled onto the parking lot of my safe place. Thank heaven for hand breaks.

I walked passed the bouncer, daring him to stop me, and ignored every waitress who looked in my direction.

With one glance, Tammy figured out that I wasn’t in the greatest of spirits. She didn’t let me get one beer drained before another one appeared on the table. The beer, the music pumping throughout the room, nor the fact my blood had turned 80 proof was capable of drowning out my thoughts.

I tossed a nearly empty pack of Salem cigarettes across the table. A few girls, even a set of twins, had come and gone, trying to strike some kind of spark in me, but I couldn’t shift my focus from the bench across from me. The bench Annie last sit on.

The crowd finally started to thin. The only people left where me and four other drunks. I sat and watched the half-burnt cigarette dangling between two of my fingers. I wasn’t a smoker. Never had been. It was a distraction to keep my mind from sinking back into the deep, black hole it went when life got too hard.

Tammy came over and sit two shot glasses on the table and then filled them to the brim with Jack Daniels. She handed me one and tipped the other back, letting the golden liquid slid down her throat. I followed her lead, and rejoiced at the burn that slipped all the way to the pit of my stomach.

“Okay, are you ready to talk?”

“I have nothing to talk about.” I slammed the shot glass down and pointed to it, signaling I wanted another shot.

Tammy shook her head. “It’s that girl you’ve been bringing in here, isn’t it?”

“Annie is none of your business. She’s nobody’s business. She’s different.”

Tammy sit down on the bench reserved for Annie. “No girl is different; some just know how to weasel into your heart a little more.”

“Annie hasn’t weaseled herself anywhere.” The anger in me was growing with each word. “She’s just precious. She silences the demons in my head. The demons I’ve fought for years. The sex, the liquor helped me cope, but with one smile from Annie, they all go away. It doesn’t matter because she sees what a piece of scum I really am. I can’t even buy her with things because she doesn’t care about things. She cares about people, and I lost all that because I can’t keep my dick out of some random whore.”

“Lucas, you should really quit stickin’ your pecker into everything that breathes, before you catch something Ajax can’t even get off.”

I moaned, and Tammy cupped her hand around mine. It felt wrong. “Show her you’re different with her. Find the one thing she needs and give it to her.”

Tammy poured me another shot, and I had it thrown back immediately.

Could I even begin to prove I wasn’t the world’s biggest scumbag when deep down I knew I was?

Tammy gripped the bottle and went to leave but not without one more piece of advice. “You’re worth it, Lucas. This girl is the luckiest girl around to have someone like you willing to fight for her.”

I jerked on my riding jacket. The one thing I could give her was a part of her past.

Chapter 15

Annie Prieto

I climbed off the bus, let out a sudden sigh, and opened my mouth to speak but nothing came out. Lucas was sitting on my doorstep, leaning against a brick column.

His eyes were closed but he eased them open at the sound of my footsteps falling upon the walkway.

He was pale and there were deep dark circles under his eyes. Only Lucas could be bewitching with a sexy hangover.

Friends. Lucas and I are only friends. If that.

I let my backpack slip down my arm and onto the ground. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m not really sure.” He flicked the cigarette he was smoking onto the grass. I’d never seen him smoke before and was a little astounded he was even smoking at all. “Where have you been?”

I sat down beside him and clasped my hands in my lap, not sure what to do with them. “Spent the morning at the newspaper office going through old microfilm trying to find out something about my mom.”

Confused as if he woke up in some foreign land, he pulled his ball cap down over his eyes, shadowing any emotions in them.

“The librarian helped me get an appointment with the editor,” I said. “I think she was just hoping I would leave her alone a few days.”

Lucas didn’t seem to hear me. He was too deep into the thoughts in his head.

Lucas’s eyebrows pulled in as he took a deep breath. “It’s over with Candice and me. It really never started but no more.”

“You can see anybody you want. Friends don’t get to dictate who the other screws.”

There was a sudden stinging to my eyes, and I had no idea why I even wanted to cry.

“Whatever, I just wanted you to know,” he replied.

The taste of cigarettes lingered on my tongue, but those damn cigarettes did nothing to calm my nerves. I scraped my hand over my jean leg, trying to release some of the pain in me. The idea I hurt was hard enough, but realizing she didn’t give a rat’s ass was agony.

So many things I wanted to say. I wanted to tell her how she made me feel. Things I thought were impossible to feel for anyone. I swallowed back the lump slowly swelling in my throat. I was unbelievably crazy about her, and it was driving me insane because I didn’t know how to process those feelings. I couldn’t find the words to say. Focusing on showing her was the only option.

“Will you take a field trip with me?” I popped my head up, a move I quickly regret, but I couldn’t allow her to see an ounce of regret, I smoothed out my face into a pleading smile.

“To where?”

“My granny’s,” I said, but my voice was a little more than a whisper.

She blinked, a rapid, fluttering succession of confusion. “Why do you want me to meet your grandmother for?”

“Because she knew your mother.”

I wasn’t sure what I expected but it wasn’t what I got. Annie silently stood and motion with her hand to follow her. She understood the power that silence wielded. Silence often said more than words ever could. I picked up her backpack off the ground and followed her up the porch stairs.

When we entered the front door, I glanced around at the house I’d literally despised my entire life, but now served as the home to the only one I’d ever cared about. It was still hard to understand.

She pointed to the couch, informed me she would be back in a few minutes, and switched on the television.

I took a seat on the couch and pretended to stare at the television while Annie primped or did something in her bedroom. My watch hand slowly ticked by. Ten minutes … twenty minutes … forty minutes. I didn’t have a clue what was even playing on the television. I was nervous and scared. Not a combination I was familiar with.

I stood when I heard Annie’s bare feet scuffling against the floor.

Keeping up with the Kardashians? Didn’t take you for a Kim K fan,” Annie said and bent over to slip a pair of sandals on. The sheer, asymmetrical dress she was wearing rose slightly, exposing about an inch more of her upper thigh.

Kardashians or Kim K fan didn’t register with me. I was too busy picking my jaw up off the floor. Annie stood center stage in the room. She was beautiful; every part of her was perfection.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” she asked.

I nodded. There was nothing I wanted more than to share her with my granny. Pride might be the word I would have chosen to use.

“I know one thing about your mom.”

Her eyes lit up and she took a step toward me. “What?”

“She had to have been beautiful to have a daughter as gorgeous as you.”

A brief flash of disappointment crossed her face but was quickly replaced with that enchanting smile that always managed to turn my brain into a pile of mush. She looked down at the dress she was wearing. “Thank you, Lucas, but you look hungover.”

“I am hungover. Your mom was beautiful and so are you. My dad’s an ass. See, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

I buried a hand in each of my back pockets, fighting the urge to say, I hope you learn something about your mom today, but mostly, I just want my granny to meet you. Damn, I’ve never felt like this before. This has gone way past friends. I think I’m maybe, sort of, a little bit, completely falling in love with you. I looked away before I blurted out all the crazy thoughts racing through my mind.

“You okay,” she asked.

I nodded and held out my elbow, and after a brief pause, Annie took it, allowing me the privilege to escort her to the truck.

I opened the passenger side door for her, and she stepped in then turned her entire body to face me before I had a chance to shut the door. “Lucas, I know your dates like these small gestures, but we’re just friends. Remember?”

The urge to scream, I’ve never opened a door for anyone else before, and hell you are much more than a friend was intense. Most girls put too much expectation into those small gestures. They believed it made them special and cherished. Not Annie. Not the one I actually did cherish.

I placed my hands on her knees. “Best friends, and friends do take care of each other. Now buckle up. I only have one female I classify as a friend. I want to keep her safe.”

I walked around to my side of the Jeep, repeating to myself, Friends, all Annie wants is a friendship. That’s all it will ever be.

I climbed in, not sure what my next move should be. Should I talk, hold her hand, ignore her?

“Lucas,” she said, bringing my attention back to her and the small smile touching her lips. “It was a very sweet thing to do. No other guy has ever opened a door for me before.”

I nodded. “You deserve to have the door opened for you. But I understand. We need to draw a line. You know with this friend thing and all.”

I pulled out of the driveway and headed toward my granny’s. Annie didn’t say anything else, instead she seemed to have been focusing on some unseen image in the windshield. I flipped on the radio, trying to stop staring at her long, lean legs. Which she happened to cross, only making her skirt ride up a little shorter. Annie had great legs. They were runner’s legs. I should have asked her if she ran. She definitely had the body for the sport.

“Bob got me a job at the club this coming weekend. Some ball.”

Shit, I’d totally forgotten about that. I’d been scheduled to escort Candice to that event for over a year. How would that make Annie feel? Hell, I know. She would smile and say that’s wonderful. Because she’s that wonderful and the last thing she would’ve wanted to do was to hurt someone else. Another reason she was too good for me.

But I would save that tidbit of news for another day. Today was about proving I wasn’t a universal dick.

“You’ll make a ton in tips.” Because you’ll be the prettiest thing there. I put the truck in park. “We’re here.”

Chapter 16

Annie Prieto

Only two streets from my present home was a tidy little shotgun house. I had walked by it numerous times and admired the large elm tree in the front yard and the overabundance of azalea bushes. It was a well-loved and tended to home but I would’ve never believed that the matriarch of the Carter clan would live in such a simple place.

“This is your granny’s home?”

“I guess you can say that. She has a big house she shared with my grandfather but she has always preferred this place. To be honest, she has never cared for my grandfather too much.”

Lucas gripped my hand when I got to the front of the truck. The idea he wanted me there made me ridiculously happy and almost forget about Candice.

“Does your grandmother know we’re coming?” I asked.

“Yeah, I think she is looking as forward to this as I am.” Lucas swung open the door and hollered in a way of a greeting, “We’re here. Hope you have lunch cooked.”

“In the kitchen, Lucky,” she said.

“Lucky?” I asked as I followed Lucas through an immaculate but cozy living room.

“She’s always called me Lucky instead of Lucas. She told me I was her lucky charm because I made her the luckiest grandmother in the world because she got to love me.”

“There they are,” his grandmother said when we rounded the corner into the kitchen.

I paused, jerking Lucas still. It was Mrs. Ann from the Downtown Cafe.

“Not what you were expecting?” Lucas whispered in my ear.

She was nothing like I thought she would be and exactly how I thought she might’ve been.

“I know her,” I whispered back. “She comes into work all the time.”

“Um, I didn’t know,” Lucas said.

I mentally calculated Ann’s age to be somewhere in her seventies, and she seemed to be one of those ladies who didn’t fully come into her looks until she was older. Her face was classic; the kind a painter would use for inspiration, and she had white hair curled tightly against her head. She was in great physical shape, but I expected that from what I heard about the Carters. Her physical appearance was almost the image I had in my head but the ebullient expression on her face took me by surprise. She was almost jumping up and down when she saw us.

Lucas never let go of my hand — not even when his grandmother stopped battering the chicken she was cooking. Her fingers were covered in wet sticky flour but it didn’t stop her from hugging first Lucas then me, all the while holding her fingers out not to get us dirty. I felt safe in her arms and wanted to protest a little when she finally let me go.

“I’m fixin’ chicken. Hope you like it. It was one of your mother’s favorites,” she said as she leaned back from hugging me.

Hope settled into my gut as I closed my eyes and let her words sink in. No one had mentioned my mother before. Much less told me some trivial fact about her. She loved chicken. So did I. Matter of fact, Pawpaw use to laugh at me as a child because I never ordered steak at a restaurant, always chicken.

“Yes, ma’am, it’s my favorite.”

“Good, mine is better than Bob’s,” Ann said and winked.

Lucas laughed. “Yours is better than everyone’s.”

Lucas finally let go of my hand and walked over to pour himself a glass of sweet tea. Ann’s house was extremely neat, all polished and scrubbed. She had a collection of knickknacks on every flat surface. I shoved my hands into my back pocket, and for once, I wasn’t sure why, but I finally felt at home in Carterville.

“Have a seat,” Lucas instructed as he sat down at the head of the table and patted the chair next to him.

I wiggled my butt in the chair beside Lucas and watched as Ann went back to dipping her chicken first in buttermilk then flour. It was exactly how Mimi made chicken when I was little.

“Mrs. Ann, can you tell me more about my mother?”

“Call me Granny. It’s what Lucas calls me.” She placed the last piece of battered chicken into a pan of hot grease and washed her hands under the kitchen faucet. She took her time scrubbing her nailbeds and stared out the window above the kitchen sink. “Let’s see your mom,” she finally said as though she had drifted back from some dream, “she worked for us about a year, and was full of life and made you happy just being in the room with her.” Ann finally turned around to face me. “She was beautiful. You look a lot like her.”

“Really, I always figured I had a lot of my father in me because at times I don’t really look like a Mexican.”

“Sweetie, your mom wasn’t Mexican. She was Colombian.” Her warm hand reached out and took mine in hers with a gentle squeeze. “She was very proud of her heritage.”

My chest felt heavy making it hard to breathe. Joy. Happiness. Sorrow. Guilt. Loss. It all swirled together in a mayhem of emotions. Elated at finally learning something about my mom and sad at how little I actually knew. Tears stung my eyes. Lucas covered my hand laying on the table with his. The warmth was just what I needed to process the information.

“Did you know who my dad was?” I asked and prayed she knew the most important of facts.

“I didn’t know about you until two months before you were born. I still remember Evie’s smile and the way she softly stroked her stomach. She loved you fiercely. If I could give you anything, I would give you the ability to feel how much you were wanted and loved.”

The tears finally started to flow but were easy to handle with Lucas and Ann each holding one of my hands.

“Why did she wait so long to tell you?”

“My husband was an ass of a man who thought the only people worthy of anything were people like him. He never thought Evie was good enough because she wasn’t a white elitist but your mother was more precious than any of us. I’m sorry we couldn’t keep you and love you and tell you every day how special Evie was. I wanted to.” Ann’s eyes watered, and she didn’t even try to stop the tears from sliding down her face. “Lucas has been my greatest joy in this life but my second is having him bring you back where you belong.”

“Okay, enough of the heavy. You’re going to let the chicken burn, and I’m starving,” Lucas said and cocked his head toward the stove.

“Ow,” Ann squealed and hopped up to rescue the chicken.

Lucas winked at me and stroked his finger against my palm.

Ann placed the chicken on the platter and scooped the corn out of the pot they had been simmering in.

“You really do look like her,” Ann said from behind me.

Even beneath the tears, I couldn’t wipe the absurdly gigantic smile off my face if I tried. To finally have someone to talk about my mom with, to tell me crazy little facts about her was a million prayers come true.

We ate, laughed, and I learned so many little tidbits about Evie Prieto. She came to America after her mother died from cancer. She never knew who her father was, either. The American language was still new to her and at times she would replace a word in a sentence with the Spanish equivalent and never even realized she was doing it. She loved to dance and had taught Wes how to Salsa dance. Ann said they looked like a graceful gazelle and clumsy monkey trying to mate when they danced together. She had eaten so many strawberries when she was pregnant with me they were sure I would come out red. Her favorite piece of clothing was a Member’s Only jacket Jennifer had given her.

Learning about my mother after all those years was almost euphoric, but I still had one giant piece missing from the puzzle of my life — who my father was. I asked Ann one more time if she had any idea who he was. Once again, she didn’t answer, she simply told me about the time Evie caught the oven on fire. Maybe, I am my mother’s daughter.

Most of my happiest memories had been with my granny and at that house. To see Annie there, laughing with my granny was the happiest one of all. To have been able to give her a piece of her past not only thrilled her but me. She had to see not all of me was a jerk.

“Are you going to the big cookout tomorrow?” Annie asked.

I’d forgotten my granny even mentioned that. Why the city of Carterville even pretended to hold an election was a fraud within itself. The only officers in the whole county were members of families where the roots on the old family tree ran deep in the Carterville soil and the money ran even deeper. But to keep up with the facade of a real election, the candidates held a giant cookout for the entire population of town the Saturday before every election.

“I don’t think I have much choice. I’ve got to be the proud son.” Even I noted the sarcasm in my voice. Proud and son were never two words my brain wanted to connect. However, pretending had been the one trait my father had taught me.

“I take it you don’t like your dad?”

“He’s not in my top ten of favorite people ever.”

“Your granny is super.”

“Yeah, she is.”

Granny was the best part of my family, but I couldn’t see how Annie felt that way. After all, it was no doubt she knew who Annie’s dad was and made a conscious decision not to tell her.

Chapter 17

Annie Prieto

Election Day in Carterville was a bigger deal than Super Tuesday in a highly-contested primary race for president.

Mr. George Jones won the mayor’s race for the eighth time. Mike Tracy went unopposed in the sheriff’s race. It was his first election. On a side note, his dad held the office for the last thirty-six years. In addition, Wes Carter once again won in a landslide the office of county judge. The race once again proved that a newcomer wasn’t the most welcome commodity in town.

With every candidate and the entire election board emptying out in the Downtown Cafe, Bob had me work the kitchen for the first time in weeks. Which, first of all, I was thankful for — it kept me in the shadows once again. Secondly, it kept me from running into any Carters. Except for Lucas who made a thirty-minute appearance and spent fifteen of those minutes in the back with me.

“Hey, chickadee, you want to help me clean up out here? You would think the town had a party or something.” Will slid a tray of empty glasses down the steel counter, letting them land into a sink full of soapy water, splashing me.

“Only if you promise to load the dishwasher. All this dish washing is killing my manicure.”

I held up my hands and wiggled my fingers to show my lack of any kind of manicure, and laughed.

“Is that fancy manicure how you got the golden boy to come back and wash dishes for you earlier?” Will asked and turned his back to me with the excuse of wiping off the top of the fridge.

Will still had a touch of jealousy where Lucas was concerned. I was learning every boy in town had the same issue. Will, however, had gotten over the hurdle of him seeing me as anything other than a friend, and I have learned what a bright and capable future Will had.

Will had a thirst for anything newsworthy, and constantly had a book in his face. Reading was his escape from reality. That and devouring anything political. He was majoring in political science and dreamed of being a political analyst for a top news channel one day.

We had spent hours discussing our opinions on so many subjects, and we were both open-minded enough to listen to the other’s point of view. We were discussing the latest presidential election and what our view was on Hilary’s email scandal — Will believed she was guilty, me not so much — when I noticed Will’s eyes kept drifting over to the only table still occupied. I glanced over my left shoulder to see a table of girls; all I’d seen hanging around Lucas at one time or another. One of the girls was plainer than the other five with her mousy-brown hair pulled up in a tight bun. She wore glasses, which happened to be going for her. She had that sexy school librarian look going. I halfway expected her to stand up and toss those glasses across the room before breaking out in some sexy striptease. That one was making bedroom eyes at Will.

I turned back around and went back to stacking dirty glasses onto a tray. This had to be the worst part of my job. People could be repulsive and the way they often left the dining area only emphasized that fact. I picked a fork out of a full glass of tea and French fries. And this was left behind by the high-falutin’ members of society. Definitely, people were gross.

Mousy Brown turned to take something out of her purse and I elbowed Will. “Hey, Will, Miss Sexy Librarian over there has been eyeing you. You should try to hook that one.”

His cheeks flamed brick-red in embarrassment as he scooped up the last glass off the Formica table-top and placed it on the tray. “She’s country club, and in case you didn’t know, I’m not.”

I smiled, aware that they both had been checking each other out for the past I was sure twenty minutes. “Country Club is overrated. Plus, in case you didn’t know, you’re no slouch, either.” I picked up the tray and winked. “And some of us girls prefer the latter.”

The two pink splotches on his cheeks deepened, and he cut his eyes over to Mousy Brown. “You prefer country club.”

“Since when?” I asked and tapped his hip with mine.

“Lucas Carter is the epitome of country club.”

“That is why he’s been friend zoned.” I glanced back at the girl. “Talk to her, Will, I happened to know she will probably say yes.”

“I wouldn’t know where to start.”

Did Will not see what a catch he was? Why do people always see the worst in themselves and the best in everyone else?

I slammed the tray down on the nearest table. “You’re a great guy, and she looks like a nice girl. What do you have to lose? You talk to her; she says yes or no. If you don’t talk to her, it’s a no by default. I think your chances are better with a ‘hey’ myself.” I hauled the tray up to my hip. “If you ask me. She’s the lucky one. I heard country club boys suck in bed. All money, no dick.”

I turned to leave when he laughed.

Man, I’m good.

I started to open the kitchen door when I heard them. I should’ve turned and not listened but my mad eavesdropping skills had me hanging on to every word.

“Thank you for keeping her in the back tonight.” It was Wes Carter talking. Was he talking about me? Did Lucas and I really cause that much revulsion in him?

“It wasn’t for your benefit believe me,” Bob answered. “She deserves more.”

“It hurts so damn much to be near her. She’s just like her,” Wes said and rubbed the corner of his eye.

“She sure as hell is. I sometimes wonder if God isn’t giving us a second chance to get it right. E would want us too. She would be proud of her,” Bob said.

“Yeah, she would.”

“How’s she doing?” Bob asked.

“Not good. The pneumonia has taken its toll on her this time. She’s back on a vent again.”

Who the hell was he talking about? Did it matter? However, it was breaking Wes in two. I peeked through a crack in the door. Wes Carter, the man who commanded the room earlier, stood against a table a hollow shell of himself. There was no joy in his eyes, no happiness, no brightness. He appeared mired in the very center of this deep, choking misery that didn’t seem to have any end.

“You should tell her. She deserves to know the truth,” Bob said.

“What if she hates me. I know I deserve it, but she’s the only happiness I’ve had the last twenty years. She’s the only good in my life.”

“Lucas, he needs a father too. You promised Jennifer you would be that.”

“We both know I’ve sucked in that role.”

I became memorized by a single tear running down Wes’s cheek, evoking me to drop the entire platter of dirty dishes.

Both Wes and Bob looked over at the door and caught my deer in a headlight look. Bob was at my side instantly but my eyes stayed glued on Wes’s. He was drinking me in and seemed to grow more lost every second.

“Annie …” Bob shook my shoulder, drawing my attention from Wes. “I’ll clean this up. Why don’t you leave it and meet me in my office? I need to talk to you about something.”

He was telling me in not too many words; it was time for me to crawl back into my own little world. I wasn’t welcomed into the world of the Carters, and my eavesdropping had crossed a line I might not be able to backtrack from.

I crisscrossed my arms over my chest and looked down at my feet. I wasn’t sure looking at either one of them was a good idea. I couldn’t take the stares they both were leveling in my direction. I’d had enough. I spun around and headed for the safety of the break room before the tears welled up in my eyes and broke free.

I washed my face and gathered my stuff together to head into the office. Bob and Wes stood in the dining area in what looked like a heated argument when I walked out. They didn’t even notice me.

I glanced down at my watch. The time crawled by at a snail’s pace. It had only been twenty minutes but it seemed more like hours had slipped by.

The door clicked open and I stood to face Bob. He appeared his usual calm self and even managed a smile. It gave me the courage to smile and take a seat again.

“Relax. First, whatever you thought you heard in there, you didn’t. Wes and I go back too far and sometimes the past comes back to haunt us.”

I had no idea what I heard in there and didn’t want to spend any more time trying to figure it out, either.

“I really didn’t hear anything. If that is what you wanted to talk to me about.” I stood up. “I guess I’ll go.” I pointed over my shoulder with my thumb. “I need to help Will finish the cleaning.”

Bob waved his hand up and down, motioning for me to sit. “I asked you in here to talk about the ball at the club this weekend.”

Bob pulled his desk chair in front of his desk instead of behind it, telling me this wasn’t a formal boss/employee exchange but more a mentor/friend thing.

“I know Lucas and you have formed some kind of friendship …”

“If this is about me not listening to you,” I interrupted him to say and held up my hand.

He shook his head. “No, I’m past that. But I hired you this weekend for the ball because I know you can make more in that one night than you can in a week here. You’ll represent not only my catering company but the club. This particular ball is a charity fundraiser for the under privileged children’s fund.” Bob lightly giggled. “The members are so giving. They spend thousands of dollars to attend an event to raise a few hundred for some cause. But how else are they going to be able to stroke their egos?” Bob scratched his forefinger over his chin. “Candice is a being presented this year.”

“What?”

“Between the ages of eighteen and nineteen, all female members are presented to society. This ball is one of the many they get introduced at.”

Okay, that small fact did nothing to ease the nerves inside of me. If anything, it made them worse.

“I haven’t seen the lineup, but if Jennifer had anything to do with it, Lucas will be her escort. So, whatever Lucas and you have going on, you leave it at the door. Every girl in that club has grown up with the intention of landing Lucas one day. The club doesn’t need any drama. No matter how it was supposed to be; he’s a member and you’re the hired help.”

“We’re both well aware of that. In case you missed it, he always chooses them over me.”

“You really don’t see it, do you?”

“See what?”

“He’s not choosing them, he’s protecting you. Those times you think he’s ignoring you when they’re around, he’s keeping them from attacking you. But he’s doing a horrible job. He never takes his eyes off you. He smiles every time you walk into the room. They see it and view you as public enemy number one.”

I slumped over and buried my face into my hands, not knowing how to digest that information.

“The club doesn’t need any unnecessary drama and sure as hell doesn’t need a catfight. The girls there will do everything they can think of to push your buttons. It will be in your court to ignore it.”

I raised my head. I’d been the new girl at four different high schools; I knew how to handle myself and bite my tongue when the need called for it.

“I understand. Lucas will be a total stranger to me. And only honey will drip from my lips. And no matter what anyone said, I’ll smile and say ‘yes, ma’am’.”

Bob walked closer and reached out to lightly squeeze my shoulder. “I know you will, and it will be worth it when you get your paycheck. Annie,” he said, and I glanced up at him. “Lucas is a smart man. He sees how special you are.”

“Thank you.” I only wish I believe you.

“Head on home. I’ll help Will clean up.”

The sound of Annie’s laughter was better than any of the drugs Dr. Gore injected into my body. The newest medicine he added into the mix had wiped me out but still couldn’t keep me away from her.

It was election day and the candidates always convened at the Downtown Cafe to listen as the results came in. Even though the nerves in my legs were numb and it took all my effort to stand upright, I needed to know Annie was safe from any of their venom.

She was.

Bob had enough sense and forethought to place her in the back. I stayed as long as I could but it wasn’t long. I needed my cane, and I still wanted to keep that fact my dirty little secret. Men my age wasn’t supposed to need the aid from little gadgets like a cane. It was a reminder that the only desirable thing about me was my bank account.

I pulled the covers up over my shoulders and sent Annie a text.

Me: Sorry, I couldn’t stay longer, but I’m allergic to politics.

I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d ever have the guts to admit the truth to her.

Chapter 18

Annie Prieto

The grocery store wasn’t my idea of an exciting night, but the lack of food in my pantry said otherwise. I’d only picked up enough food to easily carry on my walk home, but it was more than enough to last me a few days when I eyed him waiting in line at the pharmacy window.

Long, thick hair with just enough curl to make it appear messy was pulled back into a luscious man-bun. A green plaid shirt hung loosely from his broad shoulders as he hunched over supporting his entire body weight on a wood cane. Lucas and a cane wasn’t a sight I thought would’ve gone together. But there he was.

I laid my food stash on a nearby shelf to be able to reach out my hand to tap his back, but paused. I hadn’t seen Lucas in three days and he had been a little distant on the phone. He had something going on, maybe, he got a job as an extra on the set of The Walking Dead. He looked the part.

Dread suddenly festered up in me and got caught in my throat as the idea that Lucas had slipped into his past life of drugs. I shook my head, not allowing my mind to wander down that path until I had more concrete proof.

And no, I wasn’t living in denial, but I needed to be able to trust someone.

Lucas stumbled and barely caught himself before falling over. Whatever it was, he needed help.

I tapped his shoulder. “Lucas, going for the zombie look?”

His whole body jerked in response to my touch. He went to open his mouth but quickly closed it. Talking appeared not to be worth the effort. Even shifting his head in my direction seemed to be unbearable.

I placed the back of my hand against his forehead. He felt cool, but it was no doubt he was sick.

“Do you need me to take you to a doctor?”

He shook his head no, causing his head to roll around on his shoulders.

“Well, at the very least, you need to be in bed.”

He stared at me blankly before saying, “Still trying to get me in the sack.”

He smirked, and even in his disheveled state, I loved the way his mouth looked when he did it.

It would almost have been flirtatious, if he didn’t tumble and fall over on me. He was exhausted, and I wondered why his parents let him out of the house in that condition.

I adjusted my body to help him stand upright. “Again, you need to be in bed. Where’s your parents at?”

He shrugged. “Mom’s gone to Texas again, and Dad’s with one of his whores,” he slurred.

There was something unspoken in his voice but the hurt screamed loud and clear from his eyes.

“Are you high?” I asked and cringed when his eyes cracked fully open.

“No, I’m sick.” He paused to catch his breath. “I’m not the bastard you think I am.”

Lucas and bastard didn’t belong in the same sentence but delirious did. Something told me that he was in a plight he was familiar with.

“Come on, sweetie.” I took the can of soda and doctor’s prescription out of his hand and laid them on the counter when I came to the front of the line.

After I paid, I turned to find Lucas leaning against the wall, rolling his forehead along the brick inlay. I took his hand to guide him out.

I struggled with what to do. He couldn’t even walk without the help of his cane and was in no shape to drive, especially his motorcycle, but I couldn’t carry him on my back, either. I scanned the parking lot and was relieved when I saw his Jeep parked.

“Looks like you are coming home with me.”

Lucas slurred the statement, “I can’t stay at your place?”

Confused, I asked, “Why?”

“Because it’s my dad’s fuck pad,” he said as he fell into the passenger side of his Jeep, unresponsive.

The blood drained from my face and an array of dizzying images fluttered through my mind. It was as if time stood still, and everything finally made sense between us.

We were both running from the ghost in our past and toward the biggest monster of them all — the unknown of the future.

I tossed his cane on the floorboard and fished around in his pocket, pulling out the keys to his Jeep. My mind never stopped playing every small detail we had shared together.

I jumped up in the driver seat and started the Jeep. Lucas head fell over against my arm. “I think I’m falling in love with you,” he murmured.

I’d never been in love. I vowed I never would allow myself to. But what I felt for Lucas was different from anything I’d ever felt before. He had become the most important person in my life, and I would be whatever he needed me to be. Even if it was only a friend.

His head slipped down onto my lap. I liked it. I ran my hand into his silky curls and untied his bun. He didn’t protest. I drove his Jeep with one hand, the other hand played with each of his curls.

Lucas was different than I wanted to give him credit for. He was one of those rare people who had no clue of how beautiful he was, how intelligent he was, how gentle his soul was, how good his heart was, he was simply … Lucas.

Parking the truck outside of Lucas’s house, I nudged him and helped him to sit up.

We struggled to walk up the steps to his front door. I thought he was basically passed out, but he raised his head long enough to inform me the door was unlocked.

We stepped into a grand foyer. No doubt, it was the nicest home I’d ever been in. My eyes traveled over a long line of pictures of whom I suspected was Lucas’s ancestors. Lucas told me once that he was like none of them. He was right. I tried to find the resemblances to Lucas. There was none, but the majority of them did have the rugged ginger look his dad had going for him.

My eyes looked out over a formal dining room. The table was obviously custom and could easily seat at least twenty people. I couldn’t help but imagine all the meals served on it.

Lucas hutched over and his heaviness informed me I couldn’t get him much farther. I stepped through a double glass door into what appeared to be the family room.

I paused to take in a sofa table lined with pictures of Lucas growing up. He had been stunning his entire life. There was one picture that stood out from all the rest. Lucas appeared to be around eight or nine years old. He was standing in front of a dirt bike, smiling a lopsided, snaggletooth grin. One curl fell over his left eye and I was positive I dreamed about that little boy before.

Lucas stumbled against me, bringing my attention back to what was really important … him.

“Come on, sweetie. I need to get you on a horizontal surface before you fall.”

I lowered Lucas onto the couch and tossed the bag from the pharmacy on the coffee table. I had to think my options out and needed to strip him out of his clothes. But it was Lucas, and I didn’t know if I could go there and keep my mind from entering the gutter.

“I need to get these clothes off, good-looking.”

He shook his head with some semblance of understanding and flashed that lopsided grin that rendered me useless. It was such a natural response of his I almost decided it needed its own name.

“I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours,” he said. His delirium had hit the point it was making him deranged.

He started pulling his shirt over his head, but with his eyes closed, he had little success and was unable to free his head from the shirt, he just sat there with it wrapped over his head like a turban. With modesty the last thing I needed to worry about, I shrugged it off.

My imagination failed me. Lucas’s naked chest was stunning. Quite frankly, his entire upper body was a work of art. He seemed to have a slender build in his clothes, but there was nothing slender about Lucas in the flesh. Nothing at all. His muscular arms were large; his shoulders were broad and toned. I wished I’d invested in a camera phone because a picture of him in that state of dress would have made an outstanding screen saver.

I wondered what other surprises lurked under his clothes and let my eyes wander over his well-defined abdominal muscles and deep V that extended into the band of his jeans and pointed to the promise land.

Damn, Annie, he’s sick and you’re staring at his crotch.

I blushed. Lucas was sick and in my mind, I was screwing him. It would have infuriated me to have him doing the same thing in reverse. I slipped off his boots and jerked open his belt buckle. The yanking motion as I pulled it through the loops on his jeans, piqued his curiosity.

“Precious, I know how you can make it feel better.” He raised an unsteady hand and caressed the skin over my lower arm. “But you need to be careful because I like it rough.”

All I know is rough.

“You can’t handle my rough right now,” I said and unbuttoned his jeans before slipping them down his long, muscular legs.

I sat down on the coffee table and took the prescription out of the bag to read the direction on the bottle. It was a prescription for Dilantin. Not a typical street drug. Take two pills every six hours for neuropathic pain.

I handed two tablets to Lucas and helped him get it to his mouth. I had to hold the Coke bottle up to his lips myself. Something was breaking the strong, powerful Lucas. It was heart-wrenching.

“Naptime, good-lookin’.”

As I lifted his legs onto the couch, he whispered, “Stay.”

The couch was oversized, there was enough room for me to squeeze next to him. I should’ve left after where my thoughts had led, but I was more terrified of leaving him alone than acting on my impulses.

He held my hand over his chest and fell asleep almost instantly. As his breathing evened out, I drifted off into my own nighttime slumber.

It took a minute for me to adjust to the darkness and gather my bearings. My muscle cramps had ceased sometime in the night but my head still pounded, every cell in my body screamed out in pain, and my bladder spasmed to be let free. Then I felt a small warm body squirm at my side.

Crap, I never let them stay.

I glanced down at the woman who couldn’t understand the word leave and my heart stilled. My Annie. Her head was resting on my chest, her leg carelessly thrown over mine, trapping me under her.

The night came flooding back to me. I remembered getting sick again and running to the grocery store for some meds, her taking care of me. She stayed.

She had fallen asleep on me … literally on my body … and she was still here.

No one had taken care of me since I was fifteen and my granny nursed me back to health from a bad case of the flu. I loved that it was Annie that tended to my wounds this time. She had no ulterior motive. She simply saw someone who needed help and she cared.

I rest my head back on the pillow it was propped on and let her physical closeness fill me. Touch was the most underrated of the five senses. Everyone was aware that losing the sense of sight, sound, taste, and smell was a handicap. However, the truest disability of them all was having no one to hold you when life got too much. Lack of touch was a handicap I believed Annie and I shared.

“Lucas,” her voice was raspy and still full of sleep.

I held onto her a second longer, not wanting the moment to end. “You took care of me.”

Somehow saying the words cemented in my head what she meant to me — she had become my world.

She sat up on the side of the couch, and my body instantly felt cold and alone.

“Don’t leave me, precious.”

She peeked back at me over her shoulder and placed her hand on my forehead. “No fever but I see the delirium is still sit in.” She picked up her cellphone off the coffee table and looked at the time. It was 4:58 AM. “I need to make a pit stop in the little girl’s room. If you would point the way.”

I pointed down the hall, told her third door on the right, and suddenly realized I had been stripped down to my boxers. I slipped on my pants, thinking about Annie undressing me, then retreated for a long overdue trip to the restroom myself.

As I watched my piss splash into the toilet bowl, I closed my eyes and thought about how peaceful Annie’s face looked as she slept on my chest. And the realization of it all hit me: I’d lived in the same house my entire life but I never knew what home felt like until Annie fell asleep in my arms.

I shook my head. Annie only wants to be friends.

I found her in the kitchen pouring a can of chicken noodle soup in a bowl.

“Swanky kitchen, hope you don’t mind me making myself at home,” she said and placed the bowl in the microwave.

Mind? I loved seeing her in my place, surrounded by the stuff I’ve grown up with.

She started punching the buttons on the state-of-the-art microwave over the stovetop. The tale-tell sign she had grown frustrated was when she bit down on the corner of her lip. I walked up behind her to punch the time into the microwave. She leaned back against me, and I was lost.

“I’ve had some issues the last few days and had some killer muscle cramps. I shouldn’t have taken my meds until I was back home.”

I’ve never been one who believed I should explain myself to anyone. My life was no one else’s business. However, I wanted Annie to understand. I wanted her to see that a part of me was worth all the trouble.

When the microwave beeped, I took the bowl out and placed it on the bar, then held the stool out for Annie. As I gathered a spoon and napkin out of the drawer, I stumbled backward.

I caught myself and heard Annie laugh. The sparks flew. Only this time, they didn’t shoot to my groin but stopped in the middle of my chest. It was surreal.

“Dude, you really need to go back to bed. You still look like shit, and I would hate to be the cause of something happening to the infamous Mr. Lucas Carter. The lynch mob would be out for blood.”

I shook my head and tried suppressing a smile. “I’ve already told you that I wasn’t sleeping with you. But I do think I need to lay down.”

We ate our soup, and she followed me to my room. It was six AM by then but I wasn’t ready for the night to end. Having her in my room did weird things to my heart. “Stay, I sleep better when you’re near.”

She stared at me, and for a second, I thought she would bolt but she nodded her head and crawled under the covers beside me.

“I sleep better with you too.” Kissing me on the forehead, she said, “Why didn’t you tell me that was your dad’s house?”

I racked my brain, trying to remember when I told her that fact. Nothing was coming but she knew and I wouldn’t lie to her about it.

“It was your home. I didn’t want to taint it with his shit.”

“I understand why you freaked out that first night. But in case you were wondering, I would have slept with you.”

“I know. A guy can sense those things.”

“But I’m glad we didn’t because something tells me that you wouldn’t have talked to me again and I like us.”

She was right. If I hadn’t freaked out about her living in my dad’s house, I would’ve slept with her and thrown her away like I have so many before, and I would have missed out on the best friend I’d ever had.

Annie deserved more than me, more than some hookup in the back of some guy’s car, some asswipe’s tree house, someone broken.

“I’m broken.”

When I finally said the words, I’d thought a million times, it blew even my mind, but I wanted her to know.

The way she stroked her hand over my jaw caused me to flinch. Never had I had someone touch me with such tenderness. “What are you talking about? You’re not broken.”

I closed my eyes unable to look at her and say the following, “Yes, I am. The day I told you I flipped? I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.”

Then something magical happened. She softly but briefly kissed my lips. It was chaste and quick and the best.

Broken was an inherit trait I’d learned to live with. MS was as much a part of my body as my legs and arms were. The limitations were a challenge I fought every day to overcome. I hated it. I hated the symptoms. I hated the pain. The embarrassment of when my legs refuse to listen to my brain were the worst. I just wanted to be the guy who didn’t have to hold his breath when I climbed up into a tree house, dashed up the stairs, but I was broken and unrepairable.

“We’re all broken in some ways. Some of us just have more visible scars than others. I know it’s not the life you signed up for but life often gives us obstacles we don’t want or even deserve,” Annie said and smiled. That earth-shattering smile. I loved when she smiled at me like that. It made me feel like I was the most important person in her world. Made me feel like a king. I wanted to look at that smile every day for the rest of my life. “We can be broken together,” she added.

Broken with Annie didn’t sound so bad. Anything sounded great with Annie.

“They changed my meds three days ago, and it has really kicked my ass.”

“Is that what made you sick?” she asked.

I nodded. “For the last three days, I haven’t even been able to get out of bed.”

“But you still called me every day.”

I nodded again. “Hearing your voice is the best medicine. It makes me forget all the bad.”

She laid down and curled up to my side.

“When you went to rehab, it wasn’t for drugs. It was a physical rehab?”

“Yeah,” I said and kissed the top of her head.

“Why didn’t you correct me when I assumed it was for drugs?”

“Because people will believe what they want to. As long as I know the truth, that’s all that matters.”

An hour easily passed by, and as it did, our bodies gradually melded into one intertwining blanket of warmth and familiarity. My body ached. I was exhausted but savored the feel of her head tucked softly on my shoulder. Slowly, so slowly, sleep came over us both and held us captive until well after lunch. Then we were woken by her unnatural shrill.

Chapter 19

Annie Prieto

“I won’t have you sleeping with her under my roof,” a lady screamed from the foot of the bed.

I darted straight up in the bed and came face-to-face with a woman only money could buy. If they were casting for The Real Housewives of Carterville, she would have landed the role as head housewife. I would say her hair had already turned white but she had too much class and/or pride to age prematurely. Therefore, I presumed she dyed it a light and very pretty shade of platinum. Her eyes were blue but ten shades darker than Lucas’s were, and stared through me as if they could mentally open every piece of baggage I had. Feeling exposed under her watchful glare, I pulled the covers tight against my chest.

“What the hell, Mom?” Lucas asked and pulled me closer to his side.

His mom? What the heck?

Jennifer’s mouth distorted into a look of disgust. The sickened look was almost in total contrast with the more depressed one I witnessed on Wes’s the first time I met him. Jennifer placed her hands on her hip and stuck out her head like a chicken. She appeared almost comical.

“Of all the girls you could fu —” Jennifer paused when she realized what she was asking, but I guess she didn’t care because she went on to say, “Why are you screwing her?”

“Again, I’m asking you, what the hell?”

Anyone could easily hear the distaste in Lucas’s voice.

“Do you have any clue who she is?” Jennifer asked in a voice even more appalled than she previously spoke in.

“I know precisely who she is, and as if it is any of your business, we didn’t sleep together. She took care of me. Those new meds kicked my ass, if you even care.”

“She knows about that?”

It baffled me she still was more concerned with who I was than the fact her son had been suffering.

“Yeah, what’s it to you.” Lucas sounded more like the man who left me on my front lawn the first night than the Lucas I had grown to love. Love, what the heck?

“You won’t tell Candice; the only girl you’ve ever cared about.”

A shiver wracked Lucas’s body so hard, I physically felt it. Jennifer never noticed. She kept on being indecorous and talking.

“I can’t even talk to her mom, my best friend, because you don’t want Candice to know. Then you tell her,” she said and pointed to me, her lips curled into a scowl. “Do you have any idea what she means to this family?”

Jennifer waved her arms in the air, and almost appeared to be half-crazed. I glanced back at Lucas. His nostrils flared, and if looks could kill, Wes Carter would have been planning his wife’s funeral.

“Candice has never been or will ever be the girl I care about. She’s the girl you pushed on me. And no, Mom, I don’t know what Annie means to this family. Why don’t you delight us both with that information?” His tone grew eerily calm.

Lucas worked his fingers deep into my hip. The rage in his voice laid just beneath the surface, but Lucas remained in control. Jennifer, on the other hand, froze in fear. Literally, petrified.

“Mom?” Lucas said.

Jennifer slapped a hand against her hip as if to bring herself under control. “She means nothing to me. She has no future. Just like her mom.”

I bounced out of bed and Lucas’s arm, stunned. “You knew my mother?”

Of course, she did. My mom worked for her mother-in-law and had somewhat of a relationship with her husband.

“Yes, I did. She ruined my life. Just like you will do to Lucas’s. So, I won’t tell you again to get out of my house.”

“Do I need to remind you whose house this is?” Lucas said when he stumbled up behind me as Jennifer turned away from me and left the room.

He wrapped his arms around my waist and kissed me on the top of my head. It was such a loving gesture, and I felt it from the tip of my toes to the top of my head. “Sorry, precious, I can’t understand that myself.”

“How the hell did you turn out normal?” I twisted around to bury my face onto his chest.

“What do you mean?”

“Not to hurt your feelings, but your parents are screwed up.”

“They’re screwed. I told you. I’ve always believed I inherited some decency genes from some long lost relative I’ve never had the joy of meeting.” He kissed my forehead, and I heard him mumbling to ten. “Come back and lay down with me.”

“I don’t think I’m welcomed here.”

“She has no say who I can and can’t have over, and I want you here.”

“Thank you, but I think it’s time for me to go,” I said and used my hands to push off him.

“Don’t leave me,” Lucas pleaded.

Watching Annie walk away after all I admitted to her was a pain like no other. I wanted to rip my mother’s throat out. She had never been much of a mom to me but talking to Annie like that took it to a new level. A level I didn’t even think she was capable of achieving.

I had to remind myself she was my mother and I owned her something for that fact, but I didn’t own her much. My mom, however, did deserve a talking to. It was the only reason I allowed Annie to even leave. I grabbed the cane leaning against the bed and walked to the living room where I found my mother fuming. She had her arms crossed, tapping a foot, and staring daggers at me.

I wobbled and caught myself with the aid of my cane. The new medicine wasn’t the cause of the unsteadiness I found myself experiencing, the reason was the rage I was having toward my mother. The rage I was trying to compress.

“Can you not control your dick at all? She’s just using her body to get in your wallet,” my mom said.

I shook my head in disbelief then stalked over to her and stuck my finger in her face. “No one, I mean no one will talk about Annie again. Not even you.”

“That girl’s mother is the reason I lost the most important part of my life. I’ve lived my whole life under her shadow. I won’t allow her daughter to walk into my home and take my son from me too.”

“Remember who this house belongs to, Mother.”

“I can’t believe you’re turning on me for some girl you just met.”

There had never been any arguing with my mom. She was always right in her head and she wouldn’t listen to anyone else’s opinion.

“Annie’s mom has been dead for twenty years, whatever she did in the past, get over it, because Annie means something to me and she’s not going anywhere.”

I waved my hand in the air before jerking the keys off the coffee table.

I hadn’t been to a jobsite in a few days. Maybe a little work would get my mind off everything?

As I climbed in my Jeep, I saw Annie kneeling in front of her mother’s grave.

Chapter 20

Annie Prieto

The entire sky was lit in a rainbow of colors from red to yellow to orange as a new day greeted me with her warm embrace. It was as if God knew I needed a gentle hug.

I had raced out of that house, hoping and praying I didn’t have another run-in with Lucas’s mom. She hated me, and I had a deep suspicion her hatred for me stemmed from my mother.

On top of the hill, my mother’s tombstone mocked me in silence. I took out in a jog. Having no one claim to have known her was surreal but having someone spew hate at her was a stab to the heart.

I reached her grave in record time and kneeled in front of her tombstone. I stroked my hand over her name. I was a jumble of emotions. The primary one being confusion.

I fell down on my knees. My instinct was to fight, protect what was left of my heart. But I no longer had it in me to fight, so I cried.

“Mom, I’m more confused than ever. You might not have made an impact on the town but you left your mark on the people who did know you.”

“Her daughter has too.”

When I looked up, Lucas was leaning heavily on his cane. The muscles in his arms bulged and with or without the cane he was the most beautiful specimen of a man I’d ever laid my eyes on.

“Lucas,” I whispered and wiped at the tears pouring down my cheeks. “Maybe I don’t belong here.”

I stood up to face him, and he let the cane fall to the ground and wrapped his arms around me. My face was pressed up to his t-shirt and I inhaled deeply, simply to take more of his scent in. Not just the smell of his cologne or aftershave, but … him.

He kissed the top of my forehead. “Don’t say that. It sounds like you are wishing us away.”

“I’m not, but I think everyone else is.”

“Who gives a damn what everyone else does or even thinks? I like whatever we have going on.”

“Friends?” I asked.

“The best of friends.”

I hated the word friends. But I was stupid or naive because if that was all he was willing to give I would be greedy and take it.

He nuzzled my neck just below my ear with the scruff on his chin. “Forget about my mom. If I listened to half the crap that came out of her mouth, I’d be half crazed. Remember, she’s the one who screams I’m just like my dad every time she’s mad, and … well, you met my dad.”

I couldn’t hold it in another minute and burst out laughing.

“Now, that’s the sound I love to hear. Are you going to forget everybody else and just worry about us?”

I nodded but it was an all-over body nod. The kind of nod that swept through your body and exploded into a million yeses.

“Good, I had this really great nurse last night and actually feel better this morning. I’ve got some business to take care of and you have some Mommy-time to catch up on. How about I go and text you later?”

I held on a few minutes longer before letting go. I wasn’t sure, but something told me our relationship had taken a turn that was more than friendly and we both needed to take a few moments to process.

Lucas: I dream of those eyes, those lips, that face, and that amazing body … Ok, that’s enough about Me and Your Dreams!! Swimming soon?

I laid a pencil down and glanced from my cellphone to my latest sketch of Lucas. He was correct about one thing: I dreamed about the smug bastard a lot.

Annie: You did look hot today. I almost got a tan just looking at you

Lucas: You know what? I always thought God was showing off when he made me, (I guess he was LOL!!) but then I met you and was WOWed at what a MASTERPIECE He was capable of making. So, when do I get to see this Masterpiece in a bathing suit?

Annie: Already told you I’m not going back to your house. Your mom made it clear I wasn’t welcomed.

Lucas: Good thing I’m the Master of my universe. Not her. How about Saturday morning?

Annie: Saturday night is the banquet at the club.

Lucas: Night, not day. So, what’s your question?

Annie: You’re going to win this battle, aren’t you?

Lucas: I always get what I want, precious.

And things he didn’t, because he had me hook, line, and sinker.

Chapter 21

Lucas Carter

A shapely leg stepping out of the French doors was the first sign Annie had finally emerged from the bathroom. I’d been sitting on the edge of my chair, ready to go pull her out of the house myself. It had taken me all week to convince her to swim with me in the first place. I finally clinched the deal when I told her swimming was the one time I felt normal because the strength in my arms made up for the weakness in my legs. I could be pretty damn persuasive when I wanted something, and Annie in a bathing suit was a view I’d wanted for a while.

Her feet softly padded down the back steps. Her shoulders were slumped; her chin was tucked firmly against her chest. My oversized high school football jersey covered whatever bathing suit she happened to have on. The usual confident and prideful Annie was totally unsure of herself, but she didn’t have any reason to be. Just seeing her in my jersey brought a roaring, prideful beast inside of me alive. Candice used to wear it on game days in high school, and once I let Harper wear it simply to piss Candice off. Not once did I even give it a second thought. But watching Annie stroking the hem as it glided over her curves, I felt like an animal marking his territory. I loved the feeling.

“It took you long enough. I thought maybe you had made a run for it,” I said, stood up from the chair I’d been sitting on, and walked over to the side of the pool.

“I tried. Some bastard had locked the front door.” She laughed and pulled on the left sleeve of the t-shirt she was wearing.

“Sounds like it was a smart bastard,” I replied, and dove into the water, covering my semi-erection.

How many girls had I had over to swim and not one had ever gotten me hard even with a lot of flirting and suggestive moves? But Annie only had to show her legs to get my hormones surging.

“Jump in, precious. The water feels amazing.” And PLEASE take off that damn t-shirt.

Annie jerked on the hem of the shirt again. I should’ve maybe took a lap to the other end of the pool. At the very least divert my eyes from her. But I simply couldn’t look away. Instead, I let my eyes outline her every curve.

My blood surged in my most intimate part as Annie slid her shirt over the flattest stomach before loosening her grip on it, letting it fall back down over her hips.

I turned and dove underwater trying to calm the hell down, repeating over and over in my head, friends, no more, no less.

I swam the entire length of the pool before I came up for air, then gripped the edge of the diving board and hung on it with one arm. Annie was walking down the steps. Her eyes found me and her magical smile appeared.

Damn, what is she doing to me? Does she even comprehend how wonderfully perfect she is?

I refused to move, wanting her to come to me. I guess I needed to have my ego stroked a little. She took her time, leisurely making her way to where I was. When she got within a couple of inches of me, I closed the gap separating us. She wrapped her arms around my shoulder, interlocking her fingers on the back of my neck. My fingers traced the hem of her shirt and worked it up until my hands had a firm grip of her sides. She was tiny, my large hands completely encompassed the entire width of her waist.

“Are you sure it’s okay I’m here? Your mom doesn’t seem to like me much.”

“Precious, it doesn’t matter what my mom likes or doesn’t like. I own this house not her.”

Annie started to say something but stopped. I was sure digesting what I’d revealed. My grandfather had legally signed the house over to me shortly after my birth. He held a lifetime deed on it, but after his death only six months earlier, it had come under my complete ownership. Another unknown fact I didn’t share. Annie was actually the first I’d even told I owned it. And like everything else, she didn’t start doing any math in her head. She didn’t care what I owned. She was there for me.

“And I want you here,” I added.

Another one of those gorgeous smiles started to appear but she nipped at the corner of her lips to suppress it. Annie took a deep breath and glanced down at our bodies before hoisting herself up and locking her legs around my waist. “Why?”

She honestly wondered why? At the same time, she set every nerve in my body into a blazing flame.

He squeezed me tighter against his chest and traced the contour of my ear with his tongue before whispering, “Why? I have no idea. I just know I do. Maybe it’s because you’re my best friend.”

There was that word I was beginning to despise — friend. That word sounded flat coming from his lips.

We both glanced down at our bodies tightly intertwined with each other’s. I willed my legs to release him and did a backflip out of his arms and into the water. The lines were starting to stay blurred between us.

We spent the next few hours swimming and basically goofing off. Never once crossing the friend line again. In all fairness, Lucas acted regretful. I wasn’t sure if he simply regretted our occasional stepping over the line or if he truly wanted more.

His next move didn’t answer that question, either. He started a fire in a small fire pit on the far corner of the patio. I took a nose-dive off the diving board and when my head floated above the water, I found Lucas standing at the edge of the pool, holding a towel. I pushed my wet hair off my face and knocked the water from my ears.

“Come sit by the fire with me?” he said in a husky tone.

I pushed myself up on the side of the pool and snatched the towel from his hands. Lucas ran a hand through his long, unruly hair. “Why don’t you trust me?” he asked.

“What are you talking about?”

“Am I such a douche? You won’t even take off that t-shirt. I can control myself and won’t rip your clothes off if you only have on a bikini.”

Lucas was hurt. I didn’t wear the t-shirt to hide my body from him but to hide my visible scars. No one had ever taken this much time to get to know me. I couldn’t lose him. I craved the way he made me feel too much.

“Lucas, that’s not why.” I shook my head and stood. “I just can’t.” Shrugging the towel around my shoulders, I practically raced to the fire pit where I plopped down in the nearest lounge chair. Lucas’s shoulders lifted and fell as he walked up behind me and slid his body down behind mine.

He caressed his hands up and down my shoulders. “Sorry, I guess trying to point out I wasn’t a douchebag was a pretty douchey thing to do.”

“It’s nothing. Forget about it. I have.”

I hated a liar. Especially, when I was lying to a person who had treated me as well as Lucas had. But my scars cut deep into me and they would forever be a festering sore; a sore I couldn’t share with anyone. The ache that came with the truth hurt. I reached up to rub my chest and closed my eyes, telling the emotions that were churning inside of me to calm down. Some people couldn’t be fixed, and they had to hold on to any little bit of peace they could find. At least, that was the lie I told myself.

Lucas cupped my chin with his pointer finger and gently forced me to look up at him. “That’s not nothing going on behind those beautiful green eyes,” he said and kissed the tip of my nose. “Tell me.”

“You’re nothing like I thought you would be the first time I met you,” I said.

“How so?”

“I don’t know. You’re sweet. I can see why every girl in town wants to be near you. When Bob told me that fact, I wasn’t surprised. How could they not?”

Lucas made this “I’m thinking real hard about it” smirk and let his hands drop from my arms.

“What else did Bob say?”

“Not much, he was just warning me about the ball. Apparently, it’s a big deal and so are you.” I completely turned to sit sideways in the chair and leaned my shoulder against Lucas’s chest. “If anything is said or done, it will be my fault not a member’s.”

“I doubt that it could ever be your fault but they would take the side of some spoil little bitch.”

“He also says you’ve been protecting me.”

“What do you mean protecting you?”

“When your friends come in the Downtown Cafe, you aren’t ignoring me but keeping them from attacking me.”

He looked off for a few seconds than placed his chin on top of my head, tucking me close to his body. “I’ve not thought about it but I guess he’s right. The thought of anyone hurting you because of me.” He shook his head back and forth forcibly. “Everyone has always pulled at me, but never took the time to get to know me.

“Can I ask you a question?”

“Anything.”

“Will you tell me the truth? Not what you think I want to hear.”

“You’re scaring me but always.”

“The morning you showed up at the Downtown Cafe, who did you sleep with that night?”

“By myself in the hospital.”

“The hospital?”

“I had to get a steroid IV. It only took about ten hours. It was no biggie.”

“You were alone?”

“Yeah, only four people know about my MS. My dad, mom, granny, and you.”

“Where were your parents?”

“Mom had some event in Texas, and Dad took me but got called away on business.”

“What about your grandmother?”

“She would’ve come, but it would’ve only upset her that my parents weren’t there. It wasn’t worth hurting her.”

“I would’ve come.”

“You didn’t know then.”

“I would’ve still came. And if you didn’t want to talk I wouldn’t have asked any questions. Just been there.”

“I know,” he answered.

Our eyes lingered, I felt the heat in my neck, my breast, and then I flushed and quickly turned away before he noticed.

Chapter 22

Annie Prieto

Watching Lucas pull that tux out of his closet only emphasized the difference between us, and standing in the kitchen getting grilled on how important this ball was with every other server and staff, it all hit me — our two very different worlds would collide into one in only twenty-five minutes.

The club had fashioned all the females in a black and white long-sleeve server dress with our hair pulled up into a tight bun. The only makeup we were allowed to use was a touch of clear lip gloss. Which was kind of a bummer. I’d wanted to spend a little time on my hair and makeup, hoping to give Lucas something to look at. I wanted to make his tongue wag.

Instead, I got to play the role of Plain Jane.

At least my cheeks had a little color from all the sun I’d gotten that day.

I shoved a roll of antacids in my apron pocket, and mentally prepared myself for any remarks any of the girls there would say to me.

Bob placed a clear glass cup on the platter I was holding of champagne flutes. “For your tips tonight.” He had that gleam in his eye as if he was remembering something terribly sad.

He held my stare a few seconds longer before turning and clapping his hands to gain everyone’s attention. “Everyone knows their job. Come on, crew, let’s give these people a night they’ll never forget.”

I looked in the mirror that was just inside the kitchen door. Examining myself, I wondered if anyone ever glanced at me and thought of a young lady who once lived in this town. My mother, Evie Prieto. Bob waved me out of there, and I scurried out of the kitchen. The burn in my stomach had become so familiar I’d hardly noticed it. However, reasoning on the side of caution, I reached in my pocket to retrieve an antacid and popped it in my mouth.

I stood in the middle of the ballroom, clutching my tray, fighting off the urge to turn and leave. The waves of nausea and the gripping sensation of my stomach had taken over. The same feelings I got when I was little and was about to take the stage. Mimi told me it was stage freight and was the key to a magical performance.

You got this, Annie, I told myself and let out a breath before deliberately not giving myself time to think and headed to my delegated corner. Will had the spot to my left. I slightly waved to him and smiled. I shouldn’t have been dependent on him, but I felt safer knowing he was there.

The first few couples didn’t even acknowledge me as they walked over and took a drink off the tray. Other than some unwanted passes made by a few older men, I was invisible to them and it felt nice to be in the background for a change. When the platter was empty except for the glass cup already over filled with dollar bills, I rushed in the back for a new tray of drinks which Bob had already prepared and thrust into my hand. He placed the cup of money back on my new tray. “Told you that you would make a ton tonight,” he said before shooing me away.

I started back to my spot when Wes Carter stepped in front of me, blocking the entire room from my sight.

“I remember your mother working this event.” He placed a hundred-dollar bill in the cup before picking up a flute of champagne. “It was the night I presented Jennifer, and just like you, Evie was the prettiest girl in the room.” He took a sip of his champagne. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything.”

The air had left my lungs as he spoke those words and nothing registered except for the fact I was following in my mother’s footsteps. She had stood in that same club once and served some of the same people. I didn’t realize I’d even closed my eyes until I opened them and Wes was gone. I had so many questions for him but would he even answer them? I rubbed at the beginnings of a headache behind my eyes but maintained a smile.

Ann smiled and waved at me. She was drowning in a group of other ladies her age. Maybe I’d gotten the wrong impression of her at the Downtown Cafe. She wasn’t lonely and did just love coffee and an intelligent conversation. Went to show one should never judge. Everyone wasn’t who they seemed. I waved back at her and smiled. It had been bearable thus far and I’d almost forgotten about Lucas being there with Candice. Almost.

My eyes scanned the room and locked with Lucas’s. He didn’t even pretend to smile, and quickly shifted his gaze from mine. Candice held onto his arm and smiled in my direction. She was beautiful, but then again, Candice was always beautiful. She had almost an enchanted quality to her. And who could resist Lucas? Tall, blonde, handsome, finely dressed … and rogue.

I tried hard not to show how his cold greeting and mere presence hurt me. Bob was wrong. Lucas wasn’t trying to protect me from his friends. He was hiding who I was from them.

Two girls I’d seen with Candice took a drink from the tray I was holding and openly discussed how plain I was. I smiled remembering Bob’s warning, but mostly, I smiled because no matter how hard life had been for me the last few years, I knew I was a better person than any of them. I didn’t have money. I had something much more. I had character.

I made three more trips back into the kitchen for more drinks. Each time Bob had one ready to shove into my hand. I worked as swiftly as I could through the crowd and started to enjoy the rhythm of the night. I’d even stopped looking for Lucas in the room, letting the flow of the group lead me instead.

Too bad it didn’t lead me away from the dance floor. Lucas’s smile was breathtaking.

The idea Annie would be working had played on every nerve I had the whole day, but it still didn’t prepare me for the sight of seeing her in a server uniform while I stood there in a high-priced tux. I didn’t even attempt to smile the whole night. It had already taken too much effort just to pretend that my more wasn’t in that very room waiting on everyone’s arrogant ass.

I’d made my way over to a table against the wall and looked at the clock hanging at the top of the stairs, marked the time I had left in the night — three hours and twenty-five minutes to be exact — and watched Annie move around the room with an ease and grace that contrasted with her role in society.

She always looked classy and sexy, never slutty or uptight. I loved how she looked. The whole room lit up when she was in it. I noticed most of the older men had stuffed her tip glass with dollars. I wanted to throw the money at them and tell everyone of them she was mine and I would take care of her. Annie didn’t want me taking care of her. She wanted to take care of herself. She didn’t know what it was like to have someone care for her. I planned on teaching her what that was like.

I pulled my eyes from Annie long enough to see my parents commanding the dance floor. I should’ve been a master of pretending after watching those two all my life.

“Lucas, come on, you have to dance with me some. It’s part of the escort job.” Candice pulled me out of my seat and across the room to the dance floor.

What the hell! If my parents could convince a whole town they were happily married, I could convince Candice and myself that I was happy for a few songs.

Faking wasn’t my thing, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t play happy.

“You can at least pretend to smile,” Candice whispered in my ear. “She’s having no problem smiling.”

I scanned the room until I caught the sight of Annie beaming. It probably didn’t even bother her that I was there as a guest as she served the likes of me.

For a second, I lit up with pride and smiled. Annie had given me hope that admirable people did exist. I hadn’t even realized how little faith I had in people until her.

I led Candice around the ballroom one more time before excusing myself to find Annie. There was no way I would let her go another second and not realize I wanted her with me.

I did the gracious thing and saw Candice to our table before I went to the kitchen to find Annie. She was standing in front of the swing doors leading into the back. Bob was laughing as he placed that damn tip jar onto a new platter. The money was a needed necessity for Annie so why the sight of it caused me to come unhinged was an irrational response.

Grabbing Annie by the waist, I flipped her around until she was facing me. “Hey, precious.” I cleared my throat, swallowing back a rush of emotions — it went down as smoothly as a football-sized ball of gloom.

Annie broke free from my grasp and took a few steps back. She was pissed. Rightfully so.

“Sure you don’t want to step into the kitchen? Someone might see us talking out here,” she said and moved to walk around me. I stopped her with my hand.

“What are you talking about?”

“Lucas, you either know me or you don’t. At this point, I don’t even care.” She shrugged and looked defeated.

“I don’t care who sees us together.” I held onto the side of her tray. I told myself to help her balance the heavy thing, but in reality, it was to stop myself from grabbing her … and running.

“Funny, because you were doing your best to ignore me in there. Hell, even your dad said more to me tonight than you have.”

Her stubborn little self jerked the tray from my grasp and placed it on a nearby table then smacked her hand firmly across my face. Not hard enough to really hurt but enough to get her point across. It actually hurt a lot less than I thought it would. Not that I thought about some girl hitting me often.

“Feel better?” I asked.

“No! Maybe, ole’ Wes will dance with me, because I’m sure as hell not your dancing queen tonight.”

I backed up two steps as the air exploded out of my chest. She smirked. I let it go, knowing I kind of deserved her misplaced anger.

“I’ve got to go. I have a job to do, something you know nothing about.” My eyes followed her as she crossed the hall into the kitchen without once looking back at me. She pounded her small hand against the swinging doors then disappeared through them.

I stood there, frozen, not knowing which way was up and which way was down.

My dad appeared behind me and placed a hand on my shoulder. “What was that about?”

“I love her.” The words hit me with a blunt force so hard I literally doubled over. I braced my hands on my knees and stared at the floor as I counted each breath I exhaled.

She should have heard those words first.

Shit, did I even mean them?

I’d wanted more with Annie but love was a word I didn’t even think was in my vocabulary.

“Do you know what you’re saying?”

“No, I don’t. I have no idea.” I held my hand up. I couldn’t talk to him about Annie.

“She’s special, just like her mother was. But Lucas, we don’t get to keep girls like her. You need to leave Annie alone. She’s not the one for you.”

The scurry of feet interrupted us before I had a chance to reply. Annie was standing in the hall with that same sad expression she wore the first time I ever saw her, but it wasn’t life that put that look on her face, I had.

Seeing her brought every single feeling I ever had to the surface. The good and the bad. Hell, there was no bad … only good had ever came from Annie.

“Annie, hold up,” I called out, trying my damnedest to make it over to her. My heart beat so hard I thought it was a possibility it could explode.

“Listen to me, son.”

“I’m tired of listening,” I said and ran after Annie, stepping around people. I grew frustrated as another couple stepped in my way. I finally broke through the crowd and made eye contact with Annie.

She stopped walking and I let out a breath of relief. She was still willing to listen.

“I hate this,” I said when I finally stood in front of her. “You think I even want to be here. I’m just trying to make my mother happy. I want to be with you on the back of my bike, or dancing with you at the bar, anywhere but here.” Shit, this is all wrong. She had to know I loved her. Surely, I’ve shown her. “But I wasn’t ignoring you in there. Hell, I couldn’t if I tried. Anytime we are in the same room, you take over everything. Shit, you don’t even have to be in the same room. You’ve just taken over my life.”

She braced the tray she held on her hip before running her free hand over her hair. I hated seeing her like that. I hated how my insides felt ripped open.

She smiled, but it was all wrong. “Let’s just get through the night.”

“I have to escort Candice for that damn presentation in about thirty minutes, but precious, please, can we leave after that?”

“I can’t. I have to work for my money.”

Annie didn’t even give me one more backward glance as she left me standing there without her.

Chapter 23

Annie Prieto

Why the hell did tonight finally truly hurt me? It opened my eyes to who Lucas and I really were.

Going through the motions and finishing the night had been hell, especially the part when Candice was presented and her dad talked about the special relationship Lucas and her had shared throughout their life.

Lucas couldn’t even look at me as he stood on that stage. He knew what Candice’s father said was true, and she was the type of girl he would end up with. I was simply the girl to have fun with. All I would ever be was the girl he looked back on when he talked about his wild days.

I felt too much for him, and if I gave him any more, I’d never be able to walk away. He had left a note for me with Will to meet him at his treehouse. I didn’t go. I’d wanted to go to my mother’s grave but it was only a short hop from the treehouse, and I had enough sense to know I would have never be able to stay away from him if I went.

I would’ve gone and told him I loved him. Possibly the dumbest thing I’d ever done was fall in love with Lucas Carter. A one-sided love was the worst fate in the world.

I stumbled out to Bob’s car in the comfort of the darkness of the night, ready to sleep the night away. As soon as Bob parked in my driveway, I hopped out, afraid the emotions of the day would break free.

I skipped a shower, not the brightest of ideas, crawled into bed in the clothes I wore to work, and cursed myself because I couldn’t get the image of Lucas and Candice dancing out of my head. I knew had no right to be angry, but it still didn’t help numb the pain.

My eyelids weighed a ton when I finally gave over to the day and closed them.

I wasn’t even aware I’d fallen asleep when a creak at the door cause my eyelids to pop open. I was still fully dressed and reached around toward my back to unlatch my bra when I was immediately stilled upon hearing the sound that had pulled me from my sleep. The door clicked shut. I was too scared to move; much less look to see who it was.

I heard someone kick off their shoes and creep over toward the bed. I know I should’ve screamed, at the very least think of a way to protect myself. Instead, I remained frozen, knowing whoever it was, I was totally defenseless.

Great, I’m going to die and I didn’t even change my underwear. Mimi will be proud.

The bed concaved under the weight of a body, my breathing ceased for a moment then calmness washed over me. I let out the breath I had been holding, it was Lucas. Only he had ever stopped my heart and made me feel that everything was right.

Crap, I fooled around and fell in love.

He placed a single white rose on the bed beside me.

Lucas Carter, a rose from the centerpiece on the table you shared with Candice is not an appropriate peace offering. I refuse to accept your leftovers.

I squeezed my eyes tightly shut, and broke. I literally could have picked up the pieces of my heart scattered across the bedsheets.

He shifted the covers and his lips moved along the shell of my ear as he climbed under them. He gripped me around my waist and dragged me against him, lacing his fingers with mine. I was conscious I was still wearing the old sweats I’d worn the day before, but Lucas had never seemed to care what I had on. He judged me by who I was on the inside. That was the Lucas I needed to see. Not the high-priced Lucas I’d witnessed all night.

He didn’t speak, simply clutched me as tight as he could. His finger traced over the waistband of my pants.

Why the hell can’t I scream?

It felt like every cell in my body was moving so fast that my veins were nothing but a blur. I wanted to ask him so many questions, but more, I wanted him to hold me and never leave, because there was no other place I belonged more than in his arms. The idea of it all scared me … I’m pissed.

Everything around me turned to feelings, and I was experiencing all of them at once. As if he could sense the emotional turmoil ripping through my mind, he never released his grip on me not even for a mere second. He finally freed his fingers from around mine and cradled my head with his arm. He pressed his lips to the back of my head then buried his face into my hair.

“I do work,” he whispered and moved his mouth to my ear and nipped my earlobe. “I don’t have to. My grandfather left me enough I could party through my college years and still have plenty left over, but I don’t want to be that kind of person. I flip houses and I’m good at it. I have a good mind for business. I’ve almost doubled what money I have the last two years alone in buying fixer-uppers, remodeling them, and selling for a profit. I’ll show you the houses I’m working on if you want me to.”

I ached from his words as if a flame had burnt through everything I believed in and demolished all I knew to be true. Everyone viewed him as the rich kid who didn’t give two flips about anything, and he didn’t care what the world saw, but he cared about the man I knew. He wanted me to know who he truly was.

I wrapped my hand around his arm that was holding on tightly to me and I squeezed it, hard. I wanted to crawl inside of him so he could feel how deeply my heart ached, to let him know I wanted the man he was.

His mouth parted over the bare skin on my shoulder, and the feel of his tongue against the throbbing vein in my neck sent a surge of heat and lust coursing through me.

“They know, all of them know, you are all I want. The only person I ever care to escort anywhere else again is you,” he said, slowly exploring every inch of exposed skin his mouth could reach. “I want to hold your hand in this life. If you’ll have me.”

The sound of his thick, gravelly voice made my head spin.

I reached back and pushed my fingers through his long hair, pressing him closer against my neck. The tickle of his hot breath as it washed over my neck became more frantic and his kisses harder.

He pressed his forehead against the side of my neck as I shifted onto my back. He rolled over me then leaned down to put his weight on his elbow. His hands came up to grasp the side of my face and whispered, “You’re beautiful,” so lightly I wasn’t sure he meant for me to hear him.

I wanted to imprint the moment into my memory so I’d never forget it.

I had a hard time putting the man I saw earlier that night on that stage refusing to even look at me and the man looking down at me with such reverence in his eyes in the same box. However, right at that moment, I knew he felt what I always felt when I looked at him … only confusing me more than I already was.

“What did I do to deserve you?” he asked, looking down at me. “You’re what is precious in my life. You can call me on all my shit but please want me more than you hate me.”

His words were a steel anchor placed on my chest causing each breath harder to take in than the one before.

I nodded my head because if I spoke, the tears would flow, and the only control I had was of my emotions. I had to hold onto what I could.

He rubbed his forehead against me. I took his face in my hands and thanked God again for bringing us together.

“What have you done …?” Then immediately, he closed his eyes and lowered his lips to mine. He started to move his lips around mine, first kissing around the corners of my mouth, then he took my bottom lip between his and gently sucked on it. Ever so softly, he parted my lips with his tongue. When our tongues met, I knew we were working as one. Damn, he could kiss. Forget remodeling, he would make a killing if kissing was his profession.

He worked his tongue over mine as his kiss grew more demanding.

Maybe what I read in books wasn’t hogwash, because for once I could literally see fireworks going off behind my eyelids. In only one kiss I felt more emotions than I’d felt before. The word for the day was most definitely feelings.

Every moan, thrust, movement I made, Lucas matched with his own. My new favorite pastime had become kissing Lucas.

After only a few minutes of kissing, I’d become so horny. Every touch sent tiny jolts of lust through my body. Her scent was as subtle and alluring as a field of honeysuckles. I wouldn’t take her like this. She warranted cuddling and romance, not a quickie of pent-up emotions. I pulled back and pressed my head to hers.

“I can’t do this now,” I whispered.

“Please tell me you want this too? Please tell me you’re not really gay?” she asked and laughter escaped her Cupid’s-bow lips.

A slight press of my midsection against her leg informed her I’d wanted everything she had to offer. “Definitely not gay. But tell me no, because you deserve more than I’m able to give you right now. I’m already about to come in my pants. I’m giving you more than a few minutes.”

“Okay,” she simply said.

I was a heaving pile of hormones and the best she had in her was an okay. “Okay?” I repeated.

“Okay, but I won’t wait forever.”

My Annie wouldn’t have to wait forever.

She pressed her lips to mine one more time before I rolled off her and tucked her under my arm, and that was precisely how she went to sleep in my arms.

Chapter 24

Annie Prieto

Alone was how I found myself. There was no doubt Lucas had crawled into my bed — I could still smell his scent on the sheets. I sat up and looked at the clock. It was already past noon. Shit, I’m scheduled to be at work at one.

I leaped out of bed and scraped my foot over a note lying beside my opened sketchpad.

My Annie,

I like waking up next to you, because you’re kind of cute when you snore. I hope I get a chance to wake up beside you again and again.

I found your portfolio and have never been more touched. I really do look hot especially with the magic you work with a pencil.

I had to go to a jobsite to do that thing called work. I’ll call you when I get done.

Yours, Lucas

I blushed immediately at the idea Lucas had found my stash of drawings … all of him.

Late was my middle name but I’d never showed up for work late. I raced in the backdoor and grabbed the apron off the hook.

“Annie.” Will stopped me before I even got it over my head.

I blew out a puff of air, waiting on the butt chewing I knew I deserved.

“I’ve been trying to call you.” Will took my shoulders in his hands and turned me until I was facing the backdoor.

“Crap, I overslept. My cell is still on the charger in the kitchen. Sorry, I promise I won’t be late again.”

“I don’t care about you being late. I’ve already called Lucas. It’s going to be okay.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Don’t go out there.”

I stormed through the kitchen doors.

The dining room was overfilled with every friend Lucas had. They had to have taken up at least ten tables. Everyone was staring and laughing except for the one older couple in the corner. A blonde who I’d often spotted with Candice walked over and handed me a picture.

“Nice, I didn’t know you had all that going on under your work uniform.”

Someone had photo-shopped my head onto a full-body layout of, according to the stats in the corner, Miss Playmate March 2015.

It all played out as if I was watching a movie. I could feel my pulse beating in my ears, blocking out all other sounds except the breath that was raggedly moving in and out of my lungs at irregular, gasping intervals. Everyone had a copy in their hands. I couldn’t take my eyes away from the others across the room. Nothing else mattered. The thoughts of when I was fourteen and what my foster brother did came rushing back. I could no longer control my hands; they were shaking in an odd trembling rhythm as the color drained from my face. Yet, still I stared, willing myself not to run.

I was positive they all expected my reaction to be more volatile; maybe an outburst of tears, throwing the picture across the room, screaming some cuss words.

There were only three issues they didn’t expect: I vowed never to let anyone see me cry, I viewed acts of rage child-like and I was no longer a child, and I couldn’t form the words to speak.

All I could hear were the words of the woman the foster system forced me to live with after Mimi died, “Of course it’s your fault. You’re a whore.” I turned to flee and ran straight into Lucas’s arms.

He held me for a moment. “This is about me, okay. I’ll take care of it.”

He walked over to the biggest table where Candice and Troy were sitting. Troy stood up and pointed to the picture. “She likes long bubble baths, old movies, and lollipops. No wonder you’ve been hanging around. So, tell me, how great is it in those bubble baths?”

Lucas stood, relaxed and unaffected as if it was simply another night out with friends. It was more terrifying than if he had shown the emotions I was sure he was experiencing. He leaned in and whispered something in Troy’s ear. Lucas’s expression turned murderous; Troy looked torn between crying and puking. Lucas took three steps back then rammed his fist into Troy’s face. Troy’s body bent in two.

“You’re not worth it. None of you are,” Lucas said as Troy wiped blood from his nose.

He grabbed my hand and led me out onto the parking lot, wiping Troy’s blood off his knuckles.

“I’m sorry, precious. So, damn sorry.”

If life had taught me anything, it was the sad fact that very few things were going to go my way and hardly anyone got a happily-ever-after. Life was hard, real, and even uglier. That was life, but it wasn’t one I could accept when it was those same hard facts effecting Annie.

I paced back and forth. My hands automatically balled up into a fist at my side.

“Calm down, it was a stupid prank. I’ve had worse things to happen to me.”

So, damn sweet. It wasn’t the prank. It wasn’t even the idea that someone took the time to hurt someone like Annie. It was the fact they hurt her because of me. The very reason I swore I would never care for anyone because I could only cause them pain. But now that I had Annie in my life, I couldn’t let her go.

“They hurt what is precious to me. How can I let that go?” I looked at Annie, forcing myself to calm down.

“It was a stupid picture, not your bike,” she said and laughed the most artificial laugh.

Really, she said that. Did she really believe that my bike even came close to her and the way I felt?

I jerked her hand and pulled her over to the bike, dangling the key in my hand. “Drive it.”

“I can’t drive this. I’ll wreck it.”

“It’s only a piece of metal that will one day rust anyway. The only thing that matters is you.” I slung my leg over the seat and scooted back to give her room to hop on in front of me. “Plus, if you kill me, you have all those drawings to remember me by.”

A small smile touched her lips. Damn, I’d put that smile on her face. She understood what I was trying to do. She was what I cared about. She was my precious. My more.

Chapter 25

Annie Prieto

Lucas wrapped my hand around the lever on the Harley’s left handlebar. “The clutch,” he informed. The heavy bike wobbled underneath me. Lucas grabbed the handle, trying to steady the bike and me.

“Are you sure? What if I kill us both?” I asked.

“I could think of worse ways to die than having you between my legs,” he said and nestled my body tightly between his thighs.

“Chill, I really don’t look like that picture.”

He drilled over those words in his head. “No, you’re better.” He wrapped his hand around mine. “Ready, precious?”

My stomach contorted strangely, and I was unaware if it was because of the fear of driving an inanimate hunk of metal or the way he was holding me. His arms were sealed around my waist as he worked his thumb back and forth over my hip.

“Hold down the clutch.” Lucas caressed his fingers over mine and placed our joined hands over the clutch. “Don’t let go of the clutch, squeeze it as if our life depends on it because it does.”

Then suddenly, he slammed his foot down on the pedal. There was a short howling sound, and the force of the bike thrust under me. The bike started to rock, but Lucas caught the handle bars before we fell to the ground. “Lightly, let up on the throttle but not the clutch.”

The bike rumbled like an angry woman in heat beneath me. I let out a breath I’d been holding for the last few minutes and twisted the right handle. The bike jerked forward slightly. “You got this, precious.”

He used his left foot to adjust the bike into first gear. “Now ease up on the clutch.”

“I’m not ready to die.”

“Me either, but I’m ready to move.”

I loosened my grip and was shocked to feel how free it felt to move along the streets with a lot of assistance from Lucas.

I pulled into the empty field his treehouse was located, and for the life of me, I couldn’t even tell you how we got there.

“See, you didn’t do too bad. I only thought you were going to kill me twice,” Lucas said as he slid my helmet onto the handlebars.

I slapped him across the chest. “It was your idea.”

Then I brushed my fingers through his long hair, gathering it together at the nape of his neck. He growled in approval.

“My idea was to get to hold you, not to get killed,” he said. His voice so heavy it came out barely above a whisper. “I want to show you something.”

He grabbed my hand, and after he squeezed it a couple of times, pulled me, leading me up a small hill. He continued until we came to the edge of the field to a clearing of grass and wheat.

We then walked another good two acres. I glanced around me. His house had recently gone out of our view, but my mother’s grave still stood prominent in my sight.

We moved around a couple of trees when he lowered himself onto the ground and tugged on my arm to have a seat next to him.

“What are we doing?” I asked and slipped off my shoes.

“Look around.”

I glanced around and took in a sharp intake of air. There was a vast opening of nothing. No houses, no people, no animals, nothing but Lucas and I were within sight.

It was peaceful and haunting at the same time. “Why here?” I asked.

“When I was little, my mom brought me back here. She told me it was her happy place. The place where she could be herself, be with who she wanted to be with, escape the pressures of the world. I didn’t understand why she would like a place like this. It was lonely to me. That was, until I thought about coming here with you.”

Lucas reached over and took my hand in his. I felt an inner peace like I’d never experienced before. A nirvana almost. Every few moments, he stroked his thumb over the base of my hand.

“It’s serene,” I said.

“Lay down,” he said and reclined in the tall grass. “Trust me.”

I leaned back next to him and laid my head on his shoulder. The sky was a prism of a thousand shades of blue and full of fluffy white rain clouds.

“This world is bigger than any of us, yet all we do is compare our lives with the stranger next door. And what’s the point, we’re all just trying to make it to the next day. Life is a fleeting moment. You have to take each second and live it to your fullest. To love every moment and every person you’ve been blessed us with,” Lucas said.

He didn’t bring me out to the middle of nowhere to make out, but to share a part of himself that wasn’t physical but spiritual. I wanted to be what he needed. Lucas Carter was it for me. The ‘it’ I didn’t deserve. The ‘it’ I never thought I would find, because I sure as hell wouldn’t go looking for it. He called me precious, but it was his heart that was precious. Not me, I was dirty.

“That was a mean punch for a guy who recently needed a cane to walk.” It was an abrupt and stupid change in subject, I know, but I had no idea how to express how his words made me feel. I wasn’t even sure if I knew how I felt.

“Don’t,” he hissed through his teeth. “That’s why I didn’t want you or anyone to know. I’ve only needed the cane a few times. Usually for only a day or two. I’m still quite capable of taking care of myself and you.”

“Lucas, I was just kidding. I’m fully aware that you’re capable of taking care of anything you put your mind to.” Even someone like me. I paused and let out a breath. “I’ve never felt safer than when I’m with you.”

“Always, safe,” he said then rolled onto his side to face me. He tucked his arm under his head and watched me. He was way too close for me to even glance in his direction, and the way my heart was pounding in my chest I knew what we had was more than I ever experienced before.

I needed to let him know about the hidden secrets of my past especially after his willingness to share a part of himself with me.

I traced her profile as she stared up at the clouds in her own little dream world. Her nose had become my newest fascination. The slope of it, the upturn of the tip, the way it perfectly emphasized the pout of her lips. Everything about her called to me. Then she turned to her side and brought those green eyes in line with mine. Damn, I would always keep her safe.

“I know I’m not one of your whores, but I am a whore.”

I wiggled my finger in my ear. I had to have heard the wrong words come from those plump, kissable lips. My life had been a never-ending revolving door of sluts and whores. My Annie was neither of those things. She might no longer be a virgin but she carried herself with a modesty and self-respect no whore would ever do.

“If this is about that picture … Precious, that was about me. Not you. You’re no whore,” I said and paused. I wanted to add the most important part, if any girl had ever been mine it was her. She possessed my dreams, and had slipped into every corner of my heart. I bit my lip. Maybe, she was right. She wasn’t mine. I was the one owned by her.

“It’s not about the picture. It’s about me.”

Not sure how I should have responded, I stared unapologetically, not the least ashamed that I couldn’t stop watching her.

Her hand grazed against mine, and I couldn’t let the movement go to waste. I placed my hand over on top of hers and pulled it onto my chest.

She threaded her fingers between mine and our palms met, then I was pretty sure I hummed. I wished we were something more, much more.

“This feels better than anything else,” she said. “With you, everything feels better.”

I froze. She said what I’d thought a million times when I was with her. Everything was against us. The words of my mother rolled over and over in my head and cut me to the core. How could the one person who saved me also destroy me?

She shifted on her side and accidentally kicked my leg with hers. We both laughed, letting the tension of the day leave our body.

“How did you learn you had MS?”

I squinted my eyes to study her. There was no look of pity on her face, no trace of fear flickered in her eyes. She simply cared.

“I was driving and my legs went completely numb. It caused me to wreck. So, I ended up in the ER. Long story short, they performed a MRI and turned my life upside down.”

“Is it safe to drive?” She rolled over onto her back, as if she knew it would be easier for me to talk without any meaningful eye contact.

“Probably not. I think that is the main reason I got the bike. It has both a hand and foot brake. Mom also had a hand break installed on the steering wheel of my Jeep. She has an unnatural fear of car wrecks.”

Annie looked back at me. Her eyes were dark pools of doubt. “Do you hate yourself because of the MS?”

Never thought of it in those words. I hated when my legs didn’t cooperate, I hated when I dropped things because my hands refuse to close, I hated walking into walls, I hated the pain, I did hate myself and the body I was locked in. I nodded.

“Then you’ll hate me, because I’ve been broken beyond repair.” She squeezed her eyes shut and turned her head as if it hurt to even look at me.

Hate and Annie were two words I couldn’t connect in my head. No matter what she was hiding nothing would have caused me to hate her. I didn’t even like the train of thought.

She didn’t wait for a response. She took three deep even breaths and then shattered me. “I already told you about Mimi and Pawpaw, and how my life had been magical. I’d known nothing but love and security. Then it was ripped away. My Mimi died, and three days later they took me to live with this family. Cruel doesn’t begin to describe them. The mother was vindictive and controlling. Narcissistic might be the correct word to use in describing her. The father was a workaholic and pretended to not notice what his wife and son did. Their son was the worst. He was a drug dealer. I was a source of income for the family.”

She paused long enough to move closer to me and placed her head on my chest. I blew out a breath of air and wrapped my arms around her. I shivered at the realization she was finding comfort in me.

The only calming effect I could hold onto was when her fingertips played with my fingers before intertwining hers and mine together. Her grip was snug. I closed my eyes, bracing myself for what she was about to say.

This is going to be bad, this is going to be very bad, the voice in my head repeated again and again. The air around us changed. In an instant, her breath had become my breath, and I found myself counting each breath we took in, ensuring she got the oxygen her body craved. It terrified me.

“The son wasn’t only addicted to drugs but also porn, and I was the lucky girl who happen to share a room with him.”

Her tears came and pooled onto my shirt. It pulverized what was left of my heart. I leaned forward to kiss each eyelid that were coated in tears, trying to ease some of the hurt. It was a useless gesture. She was right when she said we could be broken together.

“Did he force you?” I asked, wincing from the ache that was wrecking my body. I hated the fact she saw her past as a fault in her character.

She shook her head as she buried her face against my chest. My hand went directly to her hair. I’d dreamed of holding Annie like that more times than I would had ever admitted and was torn. Part of me wanted to live in that moment forever, and the other part wanted to escape from all the shit in our lives. I wanted to take every ounce of pain she had suffered away.

“Not really. He played those movies over and over again on this big TV that hung on the wall. It was on a constant loop. I didn’t know things like that really happened. They fascinated me, and quickly became an escape from my reality. His addiction had become mine. “

The shame and hurt in her voice was undeniable. She was crying again. Sobbing would’ve been a better term to use. The word heartbroken played in my thoughts. A word I heard all my life but a phenomenon I didn’t really believe in had become a reality. My reality. My heart ached to the point, I wanted to reach inside my body and rip it out of my chest. Anything to keep from feeling like this ever again. The fact I didn’t even know if she wanted me, the fact I would have such a reaction to her in such a short amount of time scared the shit out of me. I banded her to my side because I needed it. I couldn’t stand to see her upset and not do whatever I could to take it all away.

“I’d been there for four months. It had been hell. At school, I knew no one and I was just the poor foster kid that was to be watched because surely if my parents didn’t want me I had to be a bad seed. At home, if you could even call it a home, the man was always at work, the son entertained a different girl every night, and the woman pretended to not care. Then one night, the son came home and turned on one of his movies. I guessed he noticed I was watching the movie because he came over and sat down on the bed I was on. He pushed my hair behind my ear and told me I was pretty. It dawned on me that no one had purposely touched me in four months.”

The grip she had on my shirt tightened, it was as if she was trying to release the pain building inside of her. The pain of her grip couldn’t even touch the pain in my heart. I kissed the top of her head, trying my hardest to speak with dry eyes. I failed.

“Precious, you don’t have to say anything else.”

“He called me beautiful.” Her angelic voice was soft and weak and was a knife to my heart. “I wanted to be beautiful and wanted. He made me feel that way. He quit bringing home girls. He didn’t have to. He created his own whore that happen to sleep in his room. That went on for a few months then one night he brought home three of his friends and they decided I should act out one of the scenes in his favorite movie. Lucas,” I heard her say through muffled tears, “I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to at all.”

She went from whimpering to sobbing to crying convulsively. It was too much. It was too damn much. I felt her in every cell on my body. It was a new feeling. It was intense and heavy. Tears stung the back of my eyes. I was on the verge of crying like I did when I was eleven and fell out of the treehouse and broke my arm. Her embrace was the only thing keeping me together.

“I blamed myself. I told the mom. She blamed me too, but thank God, they had me removed from their home.”

The words brought about instant nausea. No one deserved to have someone force themselves on them. No always means no. I was a bastard, but I’d never forced anything on anyone ever.

“It wasn’t … It wasn’t your fault. Nothing you could’ve done would make that your fault. You can never believe another thing I say, but believe that, precious.”

Please, God, let her believe that. I didn’t even know if I was making sense, but the idea she was carrying around that grief hurt worse than any physical pain I’d ever suffered.

“I know that now, but I was just fourteen. It hurt like hell at the time. Eventually, it just numbed. Now, I go days without it even crossing my mind.”

My hand involuntarily formed into a fist. I had to work to keep my temper in check. The metal image of shoving that dude’s head in a box helped. But not near as much as Annie’s sweet voice did.

“But the next three homes were not much better. One was a single mom who worked sixteen hours a day and viewed me more of a nanny to her two-year-old and six-year-old. She didn’t realize I needed someone to take care of me too. But the guys could sense it. They figured out real fast that if they made me feel special I would screw them. I learned as long as I spread my legs some guy would tell me I was beautiful. Over the next four years, I went from home to home and bed to bed. I slept with twelve different guys not including the three who raped me.”

I hated myself, and it had nothing to do with the MS. She didn’t simply describe her life but mine. I was one of those guys who told a girl what she wanted to hear to get her in the bed of my truck. I didn’t take the time to see if there was anything special about them. I didn’t care. I just wanted my dick wet. I took their body and used it and then threw it away like a piece of trash. One day every one of those girls were going to become the most precious person in the world to some guy, and I wondered if they were going to want to kill me like I did every boy that had ever touched Annie. I twisted my body and wrapped myself around her and lowered my forehead to the side of her head.

Annie sat up and started to remove her shirt. I gripped her hands. “What are you doing?”

“I need to show you something,” she said and pulled the shirt over her head.

I almost swallowed my tongue when I took in her chest, and stroked my finger over the soft skin of her breast. She froze except for her shoulders that moved with each sharp intake of air.

Smattered around her upper body were faint, round scars. I would say they were chicken pox scars except for the ones that formed a perfect cross over her left breast. It became clearer they were scars from where some jackass had been putting out cigarettes on her delicate skin.

The raw emotions pumping through my entire body were a mix of searing pain and a burst of rage. “Who did that to you?” I asked and scraped my fingers over her chest.

Fear radiated off her skin in stark, rolling waves as I moved my fingers across each scar. I wanted to kiss each of those scars and pray I would wipe away some of the pain.

“Those boys. It was part of that scene. I’d let him tie me up before, they thought I wouldn’t care.” Her arms wrapped around her torso, covering her breasts. “I’m sorry,” she murmured.

She was apologizing for what those monsters did to her.

Hell, she was making excuses for them.

“I don’t know how people have made you feel about this in the past, but never apologize for this again. You have nothing to be sorry for.”

“No one has ever said anything. I’ve never let anyone see my chest before. I didn’t want to broadcast I was a slut.”

“You said you’ve slept with other guys. How did they not see them?”

“All they cared about was getting in my pants. They didn’t care that I left my shirt on.”

I bolted to my feet and paced a foot-long patch in front of Annie. My body radiated with fury. Had no one ever showed her what a treasure she was? What a precious gift she was?

I looked at Annie and she had her head held down and was embracing her body as if she was trying to hold herself together. “I’m going to kill them,” I snapped, vibrating with pent-up rage. “I’m going to hunt them all down and destroy them.”

And I meant it, too. She wore that damn t-shirt when we went swimming to hide those damn scars. She had been hiding for six years.

Annie was on her feet and had her arms around me in an instant. “They’re not worth it. You said you told your friends last night we were a couple. I need you spending time being with me, not letting them turn you into a monster, too.”

Fuck,” I screamed and turned away from her. I couldn’t look in her eyes and bring my anger under control. She needed love and acceptance, not me daydreaming about ripping someone’s head off.

I turned back around and Annie was sitting on the ground holding onto herself. Her back was facing me and I saw three more of those damn scars over her left shoulder.

Count to three … 1 … 2 … 3 … Hell, make it ten.

I fell down beside her and brought her back against my body to kiss each of the marks on her shoulder. My hand snaked around to the flat planes of her stomach. Damn, she was beautiful, and I was completely humbled I was the one she chose to share it with, but it wasn’t the time to ravish her body — though my aching dick highly disagreed. She had to know I cherished her first. “Damn, I want you so bad, but not like this. Put your shirt on before my lower brain takes over and overrides my upper brain and I release those beautiful breasts from that bra.” I stroked a finger back over the top of her breast for one more touch before she covered them back up.

She shrugged her shirt back on and frowned. “I wish I hadn’t showed you. Hell, I’m the only girl you won’t sleep with.”

Was she serious? “First of all, I haven’t slept with that many.” I placed my hands on either side of her body and leaned into her to linger my lips inches from her full, sensual mouth. Her breath was hot and heavy against my skin. She clamped her eyes closed as a lone tear slid down her face. I brought my fingers to her cheek, lightly stroking it. I could barely feel the touch, just the warmth and tenderness. She was something different than I’d ever experienced. The warmth I’d always felt from her was somehow sharper and stronger than ever before. I shook my head to refocus my thoughts. “Second and most importantly, I’ve never met a girl I want to sleep with more than you, and I’m talking about the naked-body kind of sleeping. But you deserve something special and I plan on giving you just that. Even if my ever-present hard-on busts every zipper in every pair of jeans I own.”

“So if I ask for roses and candles, you would make it happen.”

“I would figure out how to give you the stars.”

She rubbed her hand over her chest. “I understand if it’s too much. But in case you cared, I haven’t been with a guy since I turned eighteen. I only wanted to sleep with you the first night because when you called me beautiful I believed you meant it. Not like all those guys who lied about it.”

Beautiful didn’t begin to describe how I felt about Annie and the way she looked. When I first looked into her eyes, I was put under some kind of spell.

“Are you Aphrodite, or simply a witch?” I asked. “You don’t perform voodoo in the back at work, do you?”

“No,” she said and laughed through the tears. “But one of my foster moms practiced Wicca.”

“Some of it must have rubbed off on you, because I think you have put some kind of spell on me.”

“Is it that bad?”

“Oh, precious, it’s bad. Real bad.” I emphasized each word with a rise of my eyebrow.

The tears morphed into full-blown laughter, and a tightness formed in my chest as her eyes danced with a mixture of tears and giggles. Those emerald green eyes had a spark in them that was familiar. Her laughter spoke to me as if I’d heard it all my life. It was as if she had touched a part of my past, and as much as I wanted to know every one of her secrets, her laugh made me want to do nothing but kiss her.

Then the most magical words in the world came from her lips. “Kiss me.” I’d never heard that tone in her voice before, it was pure unadulterated lust. “That is, if you want to kiss me.”

I wanted to kiss her so damn bad. I’d wanted to kiss her every minute since I walked off in the back of the Downtown Café and locked eyes with a pair of green eyes so haunting they had possessed me ever since. I’d never wanted anything more then to kiss her. I shifted until I was over her and propped on my elbows, looking down at her angelic face. Damn, no one ever lied and said she was beautiful. No one could look at her and deny she was ravishing.

I leaned in closer until my lips were nudged against her ear. “Does my precious want a kiss?”

She didn’t have to answer. The bashful smile playing on her lips told me she was feeling everything I was. Nerves took over. I’d never cared before. I was a Carter — they were just lucky to be with me. Annie was different. I was the one lucky to be with her.

I stroked a hand over her cheek and thanked God in heaven for sending me an angel. And then I lowered my lips to hers, closed my eyes, and kissed her. Her hand rubbed against my forearm as she moaned into my mouth. Each unexplored corner was better than the finest wine. I could get drunk simply from her taste. Her ample breasts lifted to meet my chest; her nipples were like tiny pebbles. Punctuation marks, separated only by the material of two thin cotton shirts.

For the first time ever, I became unhinged. Sex had been my craft form. A craft I mastered. Watching a woman become undone with pleasure as a direct result of my touch was a favorite pastime of mine. But sex was sex. Quick and dirty. Plain and simple fucking. In and out. Women only served the purpose of satisfying a need. However, everything I thought I knew about sex changed when I finally kissed a girl I cared about. Annie had changed everything.

I needed more. More of her touch, her taste, her smell, the sounds coming from her lips. I needed more Annie.

Hell, I was a dirt bag and didn’t deserve to taste her sweet lips. Too late, I would never let her go again.

Chapter 26

Annie Prieto

My life had been an ever-revolving merry-go-round. I’d been holding my breath for months, waiting for what was to come, never believing it would be Lucas.

His tongue traced over my lips, forcing them open. I’d never been more aware of touch, and how it set every other sense in motion. I wanted to take in every movement he made, the way our bodies moved as one, but I wasn’t sure what to focus on first.

He pulled back and inhaled as if he hadn’t taken a breath in forever. He tightened the grip he had on the back of my head. I clamped my eyes tighter, unable to look at him. His breathing slowed into shallow, quiet breaths.

I stilled not knowing what to expect next. Was he going to kiss me more? Was that it? Did I do something wrong?

“You are unbelievably perfect,” he whispered. “I could look at you forever.”

I started to open my eyes but Lucas stopped me with a gentle kiss to each eyelid. “Keep them close. Let me look at you for a few more seconds.

I sucked my trembling bottom lip into my mouth with my teeth to keep from smiling, but I refused to move and open my eyes.

I couldn’t hold it back any longer and laughed. The laughter poured from my lips. However, I managed to keep my eyelids sealed together.

Lucas took my face into his hands and lowered his lips to mine. The laughter ceased immediately as he parted my lips with his tongue. When our tongues met, I knew we were working as one.

I’d dreamed about this moment more times than I could count. Lucas simply kissing me. And a kiss had never affected me like that before. I was falling hard for this guy. I was falling in love with every last thing about him.

Lucas’s mouth grew more demanding, he sucked my tongue deeper into his mouth. The jolt from my lips vibrated all the way to my toes. It was kissing, but it was more than that, too. It was two people feasting after starving for what seemed like a lifetime.

I read a line in a book once or maybe it was some meme, but anyway, it said, someday you’ll meet a person and you’ll just click – you’re comfortable with them, like you’ve known them your whole life, and you don’t have to be anyone or anything but yourself. That person is your person.

Lucas was my person.

Lucas pulled back from me, and I concentrated on each ragged breath he took.

“Can I confess something?” I nodded and he closed his eyes. “I don’t believe in the whole God thing. And even if he was real, I don’t want any part of him. After all, he let someone like you get hurt.”

“The only person who has never let me down was Jesus. He has been the one good in my life.”

“You really believe that.”

“How could I not? He saved me when I was still in my mother’s stomach, gave me the most magical childhood, loved me when I was a teen and no one else did, and just when I was about to give up on life, he sent me you.”

Lucas’s arm gave away beneath him and he dropped down, pressing his weight on me. “Let’s go dancing,” wasn’t what I expected him to say.

The music echoed in the room and pulsated in my ears, but all I could think about was how her body would feel naked and under me. The very thought was more intoxicating than any drug. Annie Prieto had proven she wasn’t a girl I could bag and throw to the side. She owned me in a way that boggled the mind. The strategy at that point was to take it one step at a time and see where she led me, and focusing on the end result could easily screw up the whole process.

Annie’s hand was in her hair again. Each time she removed her hand, it left her hair a little messier, only making her more arousing.

“I need to use the little boy’s room,” I said and adjusted her shirt collar.

“I felt a big boy earlier,” she said and placed a kiss on the base of my neck.

I would gladly show her my boy if she wanted me to, but at that second, I had to step away.

The aches had only been getting worse and I’d waited until it was too late. The throbbing pain had been building all night into a deep, intense throb but I was having too much fun.

By the time the song had finished, the pain had reached unbearable limits. It was the kind of pain which brought about nausea and blurred vision. But I never wanted Annie to see this side of me.

I’d only excused myself to take a few pain pills and pray it would not turn into this fiasco.

Each step I took, an excruciating pain shot up my legs and straight to my head. As I walked through the bathroom door, I pulled a bottle of meds from my pocket and unscrewed the top when a sudden jolt of pain shook me to my knees. I tried to scream but I didn’t even have the oxygen in my lungs to make a noise. I gasped for a breath, inducing a stream of bile to erupt from my lips. An entire smorgasbord of the food I had eaten the last twenty-four hours and an entire bottle of medicine exploded over the room.

Great, just what I needed.

I leaned back against the wall screwed. My life had come down to lying on the bathroom floor in a rundown bar, covered in my own vomit and unable to even make myself stand up.

A bouncer came in mumbling something about Annie. Then Annie dashed through the door, and I panicked.

Annie kneeled beside me and had me and my vomit-covered body in her arms. “Why didn’t you tell me you felt like this?” Her face contorted, and a teardrop fell down her left cheek.

“I’ll be okay. Just give me a minute,” I said, and smiled through the pain still ripping apart my body.

Her grip intensified as she pondered the room around us. “I’ll be okay,” I said to reassure her.

She glanced back down over my face. I nodded my head in unison with hers. After a kiss on the head, she released me and left me alone to gather my thoughts. I scurried to gather the pills off the floor when I noticed Tammy standing over me. “Sorry about the mess. I’ve just been getting muscle cramps. I would never want to leave this mess behind,” I said, trying to get rid of the heaviness settling into every nerve in my body.

“Quit the bullshit,” Tammy said and stomped her foot over the last remaining pill on the floor. “Lucas, you promised me you would never get wrapped up in this shit.”

“It’s not what it looks like.” The overwhelming fear of what Annie could be thinking radiated from my face and burned my eyes.

“I won’t have this going down in my bar,” Tammy snarled in a decibel too loud.

I gripped the edge of the sink to help me stand, and the floor swayed under my feet. Tammy’s hand shot out. I thought to steady me but instead it clasped around my lower arm, digging her nails deep into my skin.

“Tammy, I know what I’m doing. And you need to get off your high horse, because it is you that has let me drink at your bar since I was eighteen.”

Tammy’s eyes bulged out of her head, and I wasn’t positive that she wasn’t ready to slam the fist she was making at her side against my face. My instincts told me I should’ve been scared, but after the day I’d had I didn’t care anymore.

“I deserve an explanation.” Anger flashed in Tammy’s eyes. She was pointing at me, and it was threatening.

I was force to walk away but not without one last statement. “The only person who deserves anything from me is Annie.”

Annie was waiting right outside the restroom door, and by the way she was appraising me I was sure she heard every word said between Tammy and me.

I raised my chin a fraction as I pulled my baseball cap down.

Annie smiled and the tension started to ease away. I realized just how much the pain was growing inside of me. I needed to hit the sack, ASAP, but first, Annie needed an explanation.

I could no longer deny the feelings I had for her. They went way past friendship, and the way she was staring at me, I knew it did for her, too. But I wasn’t a selfish person and hated the fact I’d brought her into my chaos. But I’d never wanted anything more than Annie, and I could never sever any ties with her. That was a pain I couldn’t endure. And I knew pain all too well. Trying to function and carry out my daily routine was becoming a chore I found more difficult with each passing day, and it did nothing to ease any guilt I felt when I thought about what I wanted with Annie.

“Annie,” I started to say when I fell over and into her arms.

“Are you okay? You need me to take you to the ER?”

I’d never been one to look for sympathy and surely didn’t want any from Annie but the days of hiding were coming to an end.

“I need legs that work, my tiny dancer.”

“I need to use the little boy’s room.”

I’d felt Lucas’s manhood more than once that night and little wasn’t a word I would’ve used to describe it.

“I felt a big boy earlier,” I said and nipped my teeth into the base of his neck.

Lucas didn’t respond as he turned to rush across the dance floor. I took a seat at our booth in the corner and followed his ass with my eyes all the way to the restroom. It was a superior ass, and I wasn’t wasting the chance to stare at it.

I finished off a wine cooler and had ordered a second one and still had no sign of Lucas emerging. Worrying was becoming an understatement.

I threw back my second drink and motioned for Tammy. “Can you check on Lucas? He’s been in the bathroom for about twenty minutes.”

“Sure thing, sweetie.” Tammy winked and motioned for a bouncer. “This worried look is quite attractive. I can see why Lucas is crazy about you.”

Compliments were not what I was fishing for, I wanted Lucas. My heart was racing. I couldn’t shake the feeling something was very wrong.

Unable to sat there another second, I bolted to the restroom when the bouncer came running out.

“Lucas, what’s wrong?”

I harshly urged the door open, meeting resistance. “Don’t come in. Please, Annie.”

Lucas was on his hands and knees. Pills were scattered across the floor. The wall and floor was coated in vomit. It looked like a frat party had exploded in the room. Lucas had a wad of paper towels in his hand, trying to clean the space.

I didn’t even take a breath before I had him in my arms. “Why didn’t you tell me you felt like this?”

“I’ll me okay. Just give me a minute,” he said and faked a smile laced in excruciating pain.

I didn’t want to give him a nanosecond much less a minute but I was fully aware if Lucas and I were to ever work, time was the least of what I had to be willing to give.

Needing to feel the softness of his skin, I placed a kiss on his forehead and reluctantly walked away but waited right outside the restroom door to hear him, not even caring I was using my bad eavesdropping skills on Lucas.

My heart melted when I heard him say, “The only person who deserves anything from me is Annie.”

Lucas stumbled out the bathroom door and pinched the bill of his cap. The stupid grin on my face was all too real. I tried suppressing it because Lucas’s pain was nothing to smile about, but what was were his words. They made me happy, I felt my heart explode in a happiness I haven’t experience since I was a little girl dancing for my biggest fan.

“Annie,” Lucas started to say when he fell over and into my arms.

“Are you okay? You need me to take you to the ER?”

“I need legs that work, my tiny dancer.”

Chapter 27

Lucas Carter

Shit, Annie’s my tiny dancer.

My granny once told me that every human got an act two in this world. Some even got three or four acts. She forgot to mention that those acts could come about by the lies of others.

I took two steps back from Annie. The past few months played over in my head like an old B-rated movie. All the unintended innuendos my granny made about Annie’s past, the way my father acted when Annie’s name was said, the irrational anger my mother had at seeing us together all made sense. Annie didn’t need to look any farther. I knew exactly who her dad was … mine.

I had no choice but to leave. So, I turned my back on her wide-eyed stare and left her standing in the middle of that dance floor.

The heavy wood door slammed behind me, blocking out any connection I’d formed with Annie. Outside, the skies had opened, and the rain poured down my face. I needed fresh air and the ability to control the panic settling into every cell in my body. It hurt everywhere. She may never be mine, but I would always take care of her.

I took out my cell to text Will to come pick up Annie.

Me: I had to leave Annie at the old bar out on Route 41A. Can you pick her up? The idea of her being alone there terrifies me.

Will: You ass, why did you leave her?

Me: Please, I’ll explain later.

Will: I’m doing this for Annie. Not you. And your excuse better be good.

For an early June day, it was unseasonably cold and the rain was no longer simply falling, it was pummeling me. Raindrops stung my face as I raced down the streets, making it hard to even keep my eyes open.

I focused on the road ahead of me to turn off all the random thoughts running through my mind.

Why did my dad not just tell me, instead of just saying I couldn’t keep her?

How could my granny not stop me from falling for a girl who was off-limits?

Hell, why didn’t anyone tell me I had a sister?

Annie, Annie, Annie, my tiny dancer, will always be everything good in my life.

I fished the cell out of my pocket and speed-dialed my granny. She answered on the third ring.

“Lucky,” she said in the jolliest voice. She was happy while my world was crumbling around me.

“Do you promise to tell me the truth?” I asked, feeling the air leave my lungs empty.

“What’s wrong?” she answered. Her voice grew serious, showing she knew I wasn’t playing around anymore.

“Is Wes Carter Annie’s dad?” Just the sound of the combination of those words coming out of my mouth was a stab to my heart.

“Lucas,” came out of Granny’s lips. It had been years since she had said my given name. “Come by the house and let’s talk.”

“Just answer my damn question.”

“Yes, but …”

I never gave her time to finish before tossing the cellphone over my shoulder — I wasn’t even sure if I pressed end — and sped down the highway to leave behind the feel of Annie’s touch.

A touch I couldn’t forget even if I wanted to try.

Forgetting her touch meant I would’ve forgotten how it felt to truly be alive.

The feeling of complete loss surged through my veins.

She had shown me that I could be with just one girl and be damn happy about it. She had completed me. Annie had been no more than a pipe dream. Pain sliced through me again.

My eyes stung. I blinked back the few unshed tears, refusing to cry. I didn’t cry. I fought, but I had nothing to fight for. Annie was untouchable. She was my damn sister.

First, a smile faded on his face then it turned into a view of his back as he walked away, leaving me all alone. A feeling I should’ve known how to process, but Lucas stirred a whole newfound loneliness in me.

My phone buzzed, alerting me I had a new text message, and I grabbed it out of my pocket praying it was Lucas.

It was Will.

Will: Will be there in about ten minutes. Lucas sent a message. Sorry for whatever happened.

What happened was a mystery even to me. It was making me anxious and nauseous every second I didn’t hear from Lucas.

I glanced back down at my phone and decided to text Lucas. Would he ignore my text?

Me: What happened? Are you okay?

I never shifted my eyes off the phone as I waited. With each minute that ticked by on the clock without a word from Lucas, my stomach twisted into a tighter knot. I knew what we had wasn’t forever, but I thought it would last longer than a minute. I tossed a beer bottle in the nearest trashcan. I was pissed.

Will walked in and found me sitting in the corner. I slipped my phone in my back pocket. Lucas had simply walked out of my life. No explanation. No goodbyes. Just walked away. At least he sent Will to pick up the pieces. I didn’t want Will, though. I wanted Lucas.

A hot tear slithered down my face. I was no longer crying for the past I’d lived, but the future I would never have.

“You don’t look happy to see me,” Will said and reached for my hand to help me stand. “But I better get you out of here before the wolves descend.”

When we climbed into Will’s old Ford pick-up, the conversation suddenly shifted to Lucas. “So do you have any idea what’s up with Lucas? He doesn’t normally leave a girl alone in a bar. Much less the one he has completely changed for.”

“Lucas hasn’t changed for anybody especially me. At times, I’m not even sure what he wants from me.”

Will looked straight ahead, but laughed like what was coming out of my mouth was totally ludicrous.

I rolled my eyes and stared out the passenger side window. “Whatever. You’re going to tell me differently. He just left me in a bar full of drunk, horny men.”

“Well, when you word it that way, it does sound bad. But I saw Lucas go ape-shit crazy on everyone after that gala at the club ended. He made it clear that he was with you and they can all suck it.” Will twisted his large hands around the steering wheel and clicked his tongue. “I don’t know, but I do know he always does some stupid shit when he gets too close to someone. It’s an annoying little tic he has.”

“Why would he do that?” I asked.

“To see if you are willing to fight for the real him, not the person everyone thinks he is,” he said, unapologetically.

My chest felt like it was going to burst. I wanted to find him. I wanted to scream the words I care.

“When did you become a Lucas Carter virtuoso?”

“My mom has worked for his parents all my life. We’ve grown up with each other. Has he carried you to the infamous treehouse yet?”

I nodded.

He raised one eyebrow. “I was his first guest there.”

“If you were so close, what happened?”

“I wouldn’t climb over his wall,” he answered, smiling as he slammed on the gas.

“Well, I happen to know there’s a long line of girls willing to climb any wall to get to Lucas.”

Will shook his head. “Yeah, but there is only one girl he wants getting close to him.”

I smacked Will’s arm and attempted a laugh. I failed.

Will stroked a finger under my chin and refocused my attention back onto him. “When we first met, you told me you came to town to find someone. Have you ever thought Lucas was the person God meant for you to find? I’m a firm believer in the whole things-are-meant-to-happen-for-a-reason maxim. Think about it. Lucas hasn’t even been in town for six or seven months, but he showed back up about the time you did, he could have his pick of the litter but it’s you that he wants, and you have more than your share of options but he’s the only one you opened up to.” He let go of my chin and shrugged his left shoulder. “I don’t know. It’s just something to think about.”

Three days and still not a word from Lucas. I’d taken Will’s advice and thought about Lucas continuously. Too bad he didn’t give Lucas the same pep talk.

I placed a water on the table and couldn’t miss the sneer on Candice’s face. She had to know he had left. Possibly for her bed. I hated to admit defeat, but I had to know if he … if he was okay.

“Seen Lucas lately?” I asked Candice, not even caring she was sitting at a table with a majority of Lucas’s real friends.

“I tried to warn you. He never keeps the trash around long. You were no more than another way to piss off the parents. Count yourself lucky it lasted as long as it did.”

“But we all know he likes to recycle. How many times has he passed you off to another? Yet, he did say he feels sorry for you. Maybe he just has a thing for easy.”

I refused to cry, my pride was worth more than a wasted tear on him. So, I plastered on a smile and finished the night without showing a hint at how bad I hurt.

If this was what it felt like to finally care about someone, I didn’t want it.

The envelope held the only goodbye that mattered. I placed it on his desk as I clocked out for the night.

When I turned to leave, Bob walked in, his eyes spotted the letter instantly. “What’s that?”

“My two-weeks’ notice,” I said and picked up my backpack off the ground.

“Why? Did someone do something to you?”

I blinked back a tear. Lucas only took my heart, stepped on it, and laughed as he walked away.

“Tell me, Annie. I can get you on at the club if that would help.”

No, I’m trying to escape Lucas not get buried farther into his world.

“It’s just time to move on.” I shrugged a shoulder as if nothing mattered.

“I thought you were wanting to settle down and find a home. Have you found out anything about your mother?”

Only the fact her life intertwined with the Carters’ too. Wonder if one of them broke her heart?

“No, not really.” I twisted a strand of hair around two of my fingers, simply to give me something to do with my hands. “It’s time I find a place to make my home. I already have a bus ticket to Utah.”

“Utah?”

“My foster parents took me when I was little. I was only a child, but it felt spiritual there. I think I’ll like it.” And it’s almost 1700 miles from Lucas.

“Annie, I can’t tell you what to do, but think about it. Your mom made this place her home. Maybe you should too.”

This placed killed her. I’m hoping to have a different outcome.

Chapter 28

Lucas Carter

Another second, another hour, another day has passed, and I can’t stop thinking of Annie and what she is doing. MS had its moments of ups and downs, but turning my back on Annie was a furious, vicious circle I’d been unable to escape.

My head spun as I waited for some barmaid to pour me a drink, but the walls were no longer lined with bottles of liquor. They were covered in small sombreros. Each one like the one in Annie’s home and my dad’s office. A matching salt and pepper shaker separated by time and place.

The barmaid opened the cooler drawer under the bar, hoping to find liquid gold. Instead, it was boxes and boxes of sombrero salt and pepper shakers.

Where did all these damn salt and pepper shakers come from?

It enraged me. I was thirsty, tired, and not drunk enough.

I twisted on the barstool to face the dance floor and saw her.

I rubbed my fist onto my eyes to erase the image but when I opened them she was still there.

Annie’s beautiful body was moving in unison with the song playing in the room. The other patrons crowded around her, taking in the graceful way in which her body flowed. It was as if she had captured the lines of Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night and displayed them in dance.

I went to call out her name but she was no longer there. In her place was the little ballerina my granny and dad took me to watch as a child.

I couldn’t speak, move, or even breathe as the little ballerina laughed and chanted, “We are going to be best friends.”

I screamed but I was no longer at the bar but in my clubhouse, covered in sweat and gasping for oxygen.

Shit, Lucas you’re losing it.

I sat up and pulled the earbuds from my iPod that had been on a constant loop of Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris” for the last three days from my ears. Dammit! When I’d come across that song it put into words perfectly the way I felt when I was near Annie.

And not only did she see who I really was but she liked me for me.

“I thought I would find you here,” Candice said as she pulled herself up into the treehouse.

What is she doing? I told them all to go to hell in a handbasket.

“I didn’t know I was missing.” I leaned back on the couch and laid my arm on the sofa back, hoping she couldn’t see how torn up I was inside.

“You’re the only one. Your parents have everybody but the National Guard out looking for you.” Candice sat down beside me. “Lucas, why are you letting her get to you. She’s a nobody.”

Nobody, she’s Wes Carter’s daughter.

I jumped to my feet, feeling the anger blister up and overflow in me. Candice yanked on my belt loop hard enough that I was standing in front of her. “I’ll make it better.”

She stroked her hand over my groin, trying her damnedest to bring my uninterested dick to life.

What the hell? The way my life is going I will probably end up standing at an altar one day as she walks down the aisle.

I made the mistake of looking down at the top of Candice’s head as she easily undid my pants. Her blonde hair bounced as she licked the tip of my dick.

Holy shit! I didn’t want this ever.

It would never happen again with Candice. I only wanted one girl touching me. A beautiful brunette who was definitely not a nobody … she was my damn sister.

Shit, that even sounds wrong.

Fuck, this is sick and twisted.

The only thing keeping me away from Annie was the fact she could never truly be mine. When she learned the truth, she would turn to someone else for comfort. I would be nothing but the half-brother. The brother who got the father. The father I didn’t even want.

I zipped up my pants and told Candice once and for all it was over and showed her the door … or ladder.

Damn, being without Annie and having her near was hard.

Luckily for me, I’d learned at a very young age that self-preservation was the only way to survive with your heart intact.

Even I didn’t believe that lie — my heart couldn’t stay intact anymore. The biggest part of it was left with Annie.

I left it with her when we were small children and have dreamed about her smile ever since. Hell, my last thought every night when I closed my eyes had been her mouth.

I chucked my iPod across the treehouse and watched it slam against the wall, scattering a line of plastic and metal around the room. The treehouse used to have been my escape but if the last few days had taught me anything, it was there was no escaping the hell my life had been in.

I caught my reflection in the mirror on the other side of the room. It mocked me. My self-control went completely out of whack, I reared back my fist and slammed it into the glass. Shards embedded into my knuckles, leaving behind a trail of my blood.

I didn’t even attempt to wipe the blood from my hands as I tossed everything back in the duffle bag I’d packed three days earlier when I was ready to run. It was time I faced the truth, but first I needed a shot of liquid confidence.

Rejection had been the name of my game since birth, starting with my father and ending with the latest of the rejections — Lucas. I couldn’t stand it any longer, and needed to numb the pain.

I’d talked John into letting me borrow his Honda for the night. It wasn’t hard to get him to agree to the loan. I believe he would’ve done anything to make me smile again. Even the fake one I planted on my face all day.

I pulled into the gravel lot behind Fast Jack’s and parked. Tammy had allowed me to drink all I wanted with Lucas, and despite my solo status, I was hoping she would be as accommodating. I needed to feel numb and forget life for a few hours. Alcohol was the only sedative I could think of that would work.

I’d worn the same sundress I wore that night Lucas first brought me here. The only difference was the red, six-inch heels I’d added to the ensemble.

I was going to drink until all my inhibitions were quelled, and then find a warm body to dance with. Never once had I had any trouble finding the companionship of a number of men.

I jerked the door open and stumbled backward. A broad hand caught me.

“Oh, God,” I screamed as he pulled me tight against his body.

“Not God, but close.”

Holy shit, my mouth went dry as I took in the brick wall holding onto me. A man on the edge of turning thirty dressed in a sharp dark suit held me as if I belonged to him. I squirmed to release myself from his grip and would have yanked his hair for added effect but the only hair he had was buzzed.

“Excuse me,” I said as I was freed from his arm. “I’m meeting a friend.” I pointed over to a girl sitting alone at the bar and prayed he didn’t know her.

I headed in the girl’s direction to escape but mostly to order my first shot of the night.

“Didn’t expect to see you anytime soon after Lucas’s little stunt the other night,” Tammy said and popped a top of a beer bottle.

I took the bottle from her hands and after gulping back a few ounces, I said, “Lucas is full of stunts.”

“So, I take it that you haven’t forgiven him for leaving you alone,” Tammy said and pulled a bar stool over to sit down behind the bar.

“I haven’t seen him to be able to forgive him.”

“Well, if you’re looking for him, you’re shit out of luck. He hasn’t been here, either.” Tammy leaned her elbows on the bar, studying me with an unknown look in her eyes.

“No, I’m looking more for the blue-collar type of guy tonight.” I slid my empty bottle over to her. “Please,” I said.

Her wrinkled mouth cracked open into some resemblance of a smile as she pushed a beer bottle in my direction. “Don’t get trashed and be careful. Something tells me that Lucas would have my ass if I let something happen to you.”

I flipped around on the barstool, unwilling to let her see how much those words hurt. Lucas didn’t care. He was what hurt me.

I poured back my third beer and the numbness had started to sit in. Lucas Carter seemed less important with each sip. I raised my bottle over toward Tammy who was waiting on my little greeter from the front door, Mr. Buzz Cut. If it wasn’t for the fact I didn’t want to be within touching distance from him, I believe I would’ve walked over and kissed her. For the first time in days, I felt some relief and my I-don’t-give-a-damn-attitude slipping back into place.

I didn’t need anyone except myself. I stood up and the floor shifted under my feet. I quickly regained my balance and walked over to the dance floor and started dancing, alone.

The song picked up speed. I lost my footing trying to keep up and fell over onto a couple dancing. The man had my dress bunched in his hands, trying to keep me from plummeting to the floor. When I regained my footing, he released me and started back dancing, never looking back once to see if I was okay.

“Beautiful,” was slurred into my ears and I twisted around to come eye to eye with Mr. Buzz Cut from the front door himself.

Overcome with terror, I leaned away from him, checking for a path in the crowd to escape through. I took a step to pass him as he stroked a finger down my arm and clutched my wrist.

“Nice heels, I love a girl with long legs in heels,” he whispered against my face. His breath reeked of whiskey and tobacco.

“Watch it, I know how to use these heels as weapons,” I warned, jerking my arm away, causing him to spill his beer down the back of my dress. I smelled with the stench of cheap beer. “Shit, dude.”

He didn’t know how to take a hint and went right back to stroking my arm again. “Kinky and gorgeous. My type of girl.”

I shook my head, promptly removed his hand from my body, and started to walk away. Buzz Cut couldn’t take a hint. His fingers dug into my hip, pulling me back against him.

“I’m not through with you,” he said and pushed his mid-section against my back.

I pried his hand off my hip and yelled, “Stop.”

No one heard my pleas over the music pounding in the room, and they only managed to grant a laugh from Buzz Cut.

I scanned the room looking for help from anybody and trying to push him off me all at the same time. The room became a chaos of bodies, neon-lights, and booze. I couldn’t distinguish the workers from the party-goers, and no one seemed to notice me scuffling with Buzz Cut.

He leaned in, wrapped his arm around my waist, and lifted me off the ground. “I bet you would be fun to bag,” he said then licked a trail down the side of my cheek, washing the scent of stale beer across my face.

I squirmed and screamed and kicked until he released me enough to let my feet touch the floor.

A bouncer standing in the corner finally took notice and started pushing through the people on the dance floor to get to me. I shoved against Buzz Cut and reached out for the bouncer all while simultaneously digging one of those heels into the top of his foot. Buzz Cut’s arms grew heavy and tight.

The bouncer made slow progress through the crowds. People started to step aside when the bouncer tossed someone to the floor in his attempt to get to me.

Buzz Cut never took notice of the commotion around us.

“You’re fucking unbelievable. I could stare in those eyes of yours all day.”

I closed my eyes when I felt his mouth close around the base of my neck. Rage boiled to the surface. I’d let someone use my body once before and vowed to never let it happen again. I twisted around and brought my knee up, ramming it into his groin.

He instantly released me as he doubled over, his hand automatically gripping the source of his pain. “You little bitch.”

Buzz Cut lunged toward me but was blocked by the bouncer. He yanked Buzz Cut by the collar and shoved him against a free-standing speaker. The speaker crashed to the ground as the bouncer nailed him with his fist repeatedly.

I stood by, watching, mesmerized by the sheer power of the bouncer’s arm as he came down again onto Buzz Cut’s face.

I couldn’t even divert my attention as Tammy escorted me back to a stool at the bar.

Chapter 29

Lucas Carter

I had pulled into the parking lot of Fast Jack’s and had started to climb off my bike before I even came to a complete stop. It had been the first time I’d rode it since I’d left Annie at that very place and all of it together made me sick to my stomach.

The accumulation of a lifetime of lies and delusions had finally killed the last of my black heart.

The heavy wooden door slammed at my back, and some blonde I was sure I’d been with in a past lifetime stumbled over in a pair of stilettos to greet me.

“Lucas,” she mumbled.

Her determined eyes met mine, causing me to doubt my decision to come. Even this place had become a tomb of what should’ve been.

Why did Annie even have to come into my life?

I pushed past the blonde and maneuvered around several more sorority girls and one very drunk cowboy on my way to the bar where Tammy was glaring at me. She slapped a towel on the bar as I mounted a bar stool. “I’ve got something you might like in the back room.”

I tapped my knuckles on the bar twice. “Already had what you have to offer. Not interested.”

“Oh, I think you might want this. That sweet little brunette you’ve been bringing in here has been making a spectacle of herself tonight.”

I bolted from my seat, my feet propelling to the back before I knew what I was doing. Tammy was on my heels every step of the way. As I reached the office door, she had gripped my arm. “Wait a minute. She’s had a rough night. Some guy tried to attack her on the dance floor then she got drunk and cried until she passed out.”

Instant rage consumed me. I pushed through the door. Annie had been through enough hell in her life, and the thought someone was trying to hurt her again was too much. I promised her I would protect her. Yet, I failed her and knew I would continue to fail her. I couldn’t stop the past from destroying our future.

A lamp on the desk illuminated the soft profile of Annie’s face. She was curled up on a faded sofa in the corner. Her nose made the slightest, cutest, whistling sound. My heart ached in my chest. She was beautiful, and I’d once had the honor of holding her when she had slept like that.

I raised my hand to signal for Tammy to give me a minute then closed the door. I stood over her for a few seconds simply to take in the moment before kneeling to brush her hair off her face. Her eyelashes fluttered a couple of times before they finally popped open. Her puffy eyes were glassy and sleepy but spoke volumes to me. I reached my thumb over to wipe a tear away and smudged the mascara down her cheekbones. She had been living in the same hell that I had been in. I had promised myself I would never let a girl break me. I’d lied because as I lifted Annie into my arms I realized MS wasn’t the flaw that had broken me. It was loving the wrong girl. Lucas Carter was broken beyond repair.

“I didn’t like him touching me. I just came to forget. I wanted to forget the pain for one night.”

Hearing her sweet, innocent voice utter those words were the nail in my coffin. She had come to forget the pain of me leaving her and was hurt. I had to get us both through this nightmare. She was a living testament to the fact we could survive anything.

“I’m sorry, precious. I’m here now.”

I stroked a finger down the side of her face. Her warm hand encapsulated around my lower arm, and she scraped her palm around the gauze bandage wrapped tightly around my wrist.

“What happened,” she slurred and wobbled her head next to my chest.

“A moment of weakness,” I said and went to kiss her forehead, but paused; I didn’t have that right anymore.

“I think I could love you,” she whispered groggily and laid her head against my shoulder.

“I know I could love you.”

I squeezed her against my chest and imagined for a moment that I didn’t know the truth. But I did, and when she learned it, I would never get a moment like that again. I would always love her. Just not the way my heart wanted to.

My head ached like the pulse of blood behind a bruise, throbbing one second and lingering pain the next. I slowly opened my eyes and stared off at the far wall. I was in my bed, but had no recollection on how I got there. I pivoted my head to read the clock on my bedside table and caught a glance of a note propped up against a glass of water.

Precious,

I never wanted to hurt you. Anybody but you. I have to finally face the truth. I’ll be back as soon as I can to tell you what’s going on. I left you a couple of acetaminophen and some water. Take them. YOU WILL NEED THEM.

You look peaceful when you sleep, Lucas

I wrapped my arm around my torso to hold it in one piece. Bits and pieces of the night came floating back. That man treating me like an object not a person. The bouncer pounding his face in. Tammy sitting with me at the bar as I released the tension of the last few days. Not one memory of Lucas came to my mind. He had been there, though. The sheets smelled of his cologne. He had saved me; he had brought me home. I inhaled deeply to take more of him into my lungs and was hit with the stench of stale beer and cigarette smoke.

I quickly jumped out of bed, stripped, and sank down in the tub, hoping to wash away the stench of the night before. The warm water, the overflowing bubbles — nothing could keep my mind from wandering over the words of that letter in my head.

The truth, what’s going on, the truth, what’s going on, you look peaceful when you sleep

Lucas watched me sleep while debating a lie.

I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to quiet the screaming in my head, and cupped my hands over my mouth and nose. I needed answers. I needed to find Lucas sooner rather than later.

I drained the water from the tub, positive I couldn’t take a bath long enough to sort out the cluster-fuck in my head.

I changed quickly, not even sure I matched, sat back in the recliner, and switched on the television to fill the empty vacuum in the room. I didn’t watch it or even hear it. I simply sat and stared at the blank space above the fireplace. The doorbell chiming throughout the house was the only thing that brought me out of my trance.

I laid the remote on the coffee table and stood up when Lucas barged through the front door. I took a step toward him. He had his hands cupped around my face and his forehead pushed against mine before I was able to get a breath out.

“Precious,” he whispered.

Chapter 30

Lucas Carter

Being close to her was torture. So, close yet a million miles apart.

I’d spent the last two hours with Wes Carter, having my whole life turned on its axis. All I wanted to do was inhale Annie’s very essence and tell her what she meant to me. But first, I had a lifetime of lies to unravel.

“What did I do? Why did you leave me?” she asked.

It hadn’t even dawned on me that she would’ve thought I left because of her. Had she really spent the last few days thinking I walked away because of something she did? Damn, in my attempt to run from the truth, I’d forgotten the most important detail of them all — Annie.

“I … I didn’t leave you. I realized something and needed to figure it all out. I sent Will to get you.”

“Gee, thanks. I only sit there for an hour scared.”

“I was scared and confused,” I confessed.

Annie let out a hard laugh. “Well, I understood perfectly. You left me. Luckily, there was a nice man there that kept me company.”

I cringed and stared into her expressive eyes as my heart fractured in my chest. If she was trying to hurt me, she succeeded.

I inhaled deeply to take her smell into my lungs before leading her to the couch. Annie didn’t hesitate when I guided her onto my lap. She straddled me. I moved my hands to cup her face like the treasure she was.

“It’s tearing me up inside that you could honestly believe that I didn’t want to be with you, or that every moment I’ve spent with you wasn’t the best time of my life. Because every second I’ve been with you has been the greatest.” I encompassed the base of her neck with my hands and stroked her jawline with my thumbs. “You mean so much to me and no matter what you always will.”

Annie twisted my t-shirt in her hands and her eyes met mine. “Why then?”

I didn’t deserve her understanding. I’d never deserved the time I’d spent with her. I also didn’t deserve to have my heart breaking, but it was. Then again, life had never been fair.

I licked my dry lips and realized my mouth had gone dry too. “I remembered you were my tiny dancer.” It came out more as a raspy whisper than anything else.

“Huh,” she said and placed her head on my shoulder.

Her warmth sipped into my cold heart. “When I was about eight or nine, my granny and dad.” I paused and shook my head. I shouldn’t have called them by that term but what else did I call them and get Annie to listen? “Took me to see some dance recital. There was this little ballerina in it. She had this big white bow in her beautiful brown hair and a smile that made my heart flip in my chest. I called her my tiny dancer.”

Annie’s brows pulled together and her lips twisted into the cutest pout. Damn, I love her. Paying for a father’s sin had taken on a whole new meaning to me.

A flicker of light popped on in her eyes. “My biggest fan. You gave me those roses. I’d totally forgotten.” She started to slide out of my lap, but I gripped her hip, shifting her closer to my body.

“I haven’t. I’ve dreamed about your smile more than once, but I didn’t put the pieces together in my head. I don’t think I wanted to admit it to myself. But when I did and thought about the way Granny acted around you, how the sound of your name made Wes tear up, it clicked. Wes is …”

I had let my clasp of her lessen enough to give her the leverage to jump out of my lap. “Lucas, don’t tell me. If he’s mine. If you’re mine.” Her hands started shaking and her eyes filled with tears. “That’s how I know him. Your dad … he came to all my recitals.”

The tears flooded my eyes, and immediately, I regretted hashing out this crap sober. I glanced up at the ceiling, trying to hold myself together. I couldn’t even imagine what was going through her head, but I was sure I knew how she was feeling.

I pulled her back onto my lap, but she shoved against me. I couldn’t allow her to run until she knew the whole truth.

“Stay. I’ll tell you everything I know.” Annie settled against me, soothing my raging nerves. I pulled a folded picture out of my pocket.

“What’s that?” she asked.

I brought the picture into her direct line of sight. She looked down at the picture, back up at me, and back down at the picture. It was a picture of Wes Carter and Evie Prieto taken only one week before Annie was born. Wes and Evie had their forehead pressed against each other’s and Wes was cradling Evie’s swollen stomach.

Annie opened her mouth but nothing came out. She ripped the picture from my hand, her face dropped like her heart was breaking. “That’s my mom.” The instant the words were spoken, her eyes filled with tears. “I’ve never seen a picture of her.” Her voice cracked and was hardly audible.

“She’s beautiful. Just like you.”

I swept Annie’s hair off her shoulder and went to kiss her behind the ear when I remembered she was no longer mine.

Annie’s lip trembled as she asked, “He’s my dad?”

“Yes.”

Annie didn’t budge. She didn’t utter a sound, and I waited for her too as I prayed my heart would start beating again.

My life had never followed the script of a fairy tale, and that had been perfectly fine with me. It was real. It was nitty and gritty, and I was fully aware people like me didn’t get to keep the girl.

But even if I never got to have the happily-ever-after, I wanted Annie to experience it. I loved her enough to let her do that.

“Why didn’t he want me?” She raised her head slightly and wiped at her eyes with the back of her hands. “I’d always tried to reason it out in my head. My dad was the guy in the wreck with my mom. He didn’t know about me.” She flicked the picture. “Both of those weren’t true. He could afford to keep me. There is no reason other than he didn’t want me.”

My life had been a lie too, but none of it mattered. All I cared about was easing the pain in Annie. Wes Carter had let her down her whole life, but I would prove I wasn’t him and would never leave her.

“The worst of it all is, if Wes Carter is my father then that makes you my brother.”

I flattened out the picture of Wes and Evie to reveal the folded side. Even through the tears it caught Annie’s attention instantly. It was my mom and Miles Blankenship, the man killed in the accident with her mom. She didn’t know who he was only that he was a carbon copy of me or I was of him. It was all still new to me, and I was as confused and baffled as she was.

“Who’s that?” she asked and stroked a finger over the image on the paper. Miles’s hair was curlier than mine but he still wore it longer, and his jaw wasn’t as squared as mine but other than those two difference it was as if we were looking at a picture of me sans 1990 something.

“Miles Blankenship, or as I learned just an hour ago, my father.”

That throbbing in my chest had not stopped since Wes and Jennifer informed me of that fact in a well-rehearsed and planned speech. All the times my mother yelled I was just like him made sense to me now. She wasn’t talking about Wes Carter but my real DNA-contributor, Miles Blankenship.

Annie wrapped her hand around my jaw, bringing my attention from the picture to her. She smiled a sympathetic smile, then looked down at my trembling fingers that were massaging deep into her thigh. She laid her hand on top of mine and smoothed soothing strokes over the top of it.

“He was in the wreck with my mom. I don’t understand.”

I cared more about Annie than I had about any other person ever. Something about her clicked with me when I was only a child, then finally being able to hold her as an adult had brought about a slew of emotions I was unaware was even possible.

When Wes told me about being Annie’s father he always referred to Evie as My Evie. I understood what he meant because Annie was and would always be My Annie. I only hoped she agreed.

It wasn’t until she looked back at my face that I realized she was feeling what I felt and I felt as lost as she did, and for a moment, it felt good to at least have that.

“I only know the basics. Dad … Wes is coming over soon to explain it all to us.”

I traced the line of her jaw with the back of my hand for no other reason than I needed to touch her. As my fingers stroked over her skin, chill-bumps appeared on her arms. I smiled for the first time in days, knowing it was my touch that caused that reaction.

“Please, don’t leave. I want you here when he is,” she said.

I sucked in another breath. All she had to do was ask.

“I’m not going anywhere. Plus, I think he wants to talk to both of us.” I wrapped my arms around her and placed my chin on top of her head. “He has something he needs to tell us. He said it is bigger than just who our daddies are. As if anything can be bigger than that.”

She immediately squeezed her eyes shut, remembering that everything that had happened to her was a direct result of the man who raised me. She had to realize I was nothing like him.

I started to speak when the doorbell startled us both.

The world as I’d always known it had exploded with facts and images I wasn’t prepared for. The world wasn’t black and white or even shades of gray anymore but a rainbow of colors.

The doorbell rang again.

“Wes is my father but not yours?” I tasted the words on my lips. It tasted wrong but right too. All the puzzle pieces were finally in place. Except the most important one, where Lucas and I fit together.

Lucas nodded just as the doorbell buzzed through the house for a third time and Wes Carter stepped through the door.

Despite the tip-hammer beating of my heart, I slipped out of Lucas’s lap and greeted Wes — my father — with a smile. Lucas made it known he wanted to maintain a connection with me by the way he eagerly and quickly grabbed my hand.

Wes walked over and sat down on the chair across from the sofa I was sitting on, but he didn’t seem comfortable. He looked around, taking in the house I recently started to call home.

Was my dad trying to learn something about my life?

My dad. I wondered if I would ever call him “Dad”, or did I even want to?

I toed off my sandals then tucked my feet under me and stared down at the picture of my mother. I really did favor her.

Wes slipped off his sunglasses and twisted them in his hands. “Princess,” spilled from his lips as if I was actually special to him. “I see Lucas has told you.”

I traced a finger over the picture of my mother. He didn’t deserve us. “Don’t call me that.” I fervently shook my head. “You didn’t even want me. Don’t act like you care now.”

Unable to speak, he swallowed, rather it was fear, regret, or saliva. I didn’t care, he had turned his back on me.

Lucas let go of my hand but quickly wrapped his arm around me to pull me closer to him. Again, Lucas proved that precious wasn’t some flimsy pet name he made up to give me a false sense of hope, but a name he called me because I truly was precious to him.

While I heaved onto Lucas’s shoulder, Wes started talking. “You’ve been my princess since I first held you in my arms, and I did want you. I wanted and still want you more than life itself. You have been my first thought every morning and the last one every night.”

“What the hell are you talking about? The only thought you’ve had the past twenty years is which whore you’re going to run off to see next,” Lucas said.

“The only woman I ever left your mother and you for is Evie,” Wes replied.

My head darted up as he spoke, and Lucas squeezed my shoulder. He understood me. No one had ever taken the time to understand me but Lucas did. He understood because his world was being ripped apart at the seams too.

“What the hell are you talking about?” Lucas spit out between gritted teeth then pulled me even closer to him.

“Annie,” Wes said to me, ignoring Lucas. Lucas held me skintight—I needed it. I’d never needed anyone since Mimi died but I needed Lucas and not just at that second … always. “I love your mother, and will do anything to keep her safe. I failed her once and will never do that again.”

I nodded. The foreboding tone in Wes’s voice is all I could focus on.

“What do you know about your mom’s wreck?”

Not much.

Miles Blankenship and her were on a mountain in Grundy County picking up horse feed for Wes’s father when the brakes on the truck failed causing the truck to roll off the side of a large embankment. Miles died instantly, but my mom was able to hold on long enough to have me.

“That my mom and Miles,” I said and watched Lucas visibly shake at the sound of Mile’s name. “Died, but luckily, I didn’t.”

Wes leaned forward and twisted his hands around and around each other. He clicked his tongue twice before saying the words that would forever change not only my future but my past too. “Miles did die instantly, but, princess, your mom didn’t die.”

I glided off the couch and fell to my knees but no tears came. My whole life had been one gigantic lie. Lucas dropped down beside me and held me, ignoring his own pain. His world had become unraveled too. “I’m here, precious. I’m not leaving,” he whispered in my ear. Those words gave me the courage to look into the eyes of Wes who was crying.

“I’m sorry, baby. I wanted to be your daddy. I’ve always loved you, but I had to take care of my Evie. She held on for you. She was still conscious when she got to the ER but she knew she was slipping fast. She was begging the doctors to get you out. They told her they needed to get her stable first if not she could die during a C-section. She didn’t care. All that mattered was that you were safe. Evie did die on the table during the C-section. They brought her back with CPR and placed her on life-support.”

Wes stood up and walked across the room with his hands in his pockets. He positioned himself toward the wall and stared at a pencil drawing of an old Ford truck parked beside a beautiful pond bank. “She was talented and beautiful. She didn’t deserve this. You didn’t deserve to have her ripped out of your life.”

Wes turned around to face Lucas and me. His eyes held more misery than I’d ever experienced. It was suffocating.

“For a week, I was torn between taking care of you in the NICU and your mom in the ICU. Evie had no family, the doctors had no one to consult about disconnecting her from life support. I know it was selfish but I was happy about that. She wasn’t my vibrant full-of-life Evie anymore but I could still hold her hand and kiss her forehead. I could still tell her about you and how much I loved her. Her spirit was gone, but she was still living.” Wes slouched back into a chair and raked his fingers through his hair. “Then what was left of my world got shredded. My father cornered me at the hospital first with a DNA test stating I wasn’t your father but Miles was.”

I jumped to my feet. “So you’re not my father?”

Wes shook his head. “It was a lie and I knew it. I was it for Evie. Nothing would ever convince me otherwise. Dad then pulled out the documents giving him the right to oversee Evie’s medical care. He wanted her dead and out of my life. We could never prove it and hell, I tried, but I believe with all my heart he caused the wreck. Jennifer’s dad and mine found out about us and wanted them out of our lives. They jacked-up the brakes and sent them to purchase the horse feed.” Wes glanced over at Lucas. “That’s why we have only allowed you around Granny Ann.”

What the hell?

My mind had trouble processing everything he said. I took several slow breaths and basically went numb.

I didn’t know what possessed me, but I walked over and sat on the arm of the chair Wes was sitting in. My mind screamed no, but my body short-circuited and had a brain of its own around Wes. He took my hand in his, and a slight smile lit up his face. “I love you. So, does my mom, your grandma. She figured out what was going on and it was all her idea how to save you both. Ruth Anne had been her childhood best friend.”

“Mimi and Ann were friends?”

“Best friends, except I never knew it. My father didn’t think Ruth Anne was good enough and didn’t allow mom to talk to her.”

Lucas hovered, shadowing his large body over us. “Shut the hell up, don’t make Granny part of your lies. She wouldn’t have stayed married to a man like that. She wouldn’t have turned her back on a granddaughter.”

Lucas’s face contorted into an unsurmountable amount of pain and confusion as he mumbled “no” over and over again. His blue-eyes flared as he shook his head. He was breaking, and my heart crumbled at the idea.

Wes looked up and bored his eyes into Lucas’s. “Mom would do anything for you and Annie. She stayed to protect first me then you two. Thanks to my father, she has lived in hell but she gladly did it for us. She would do anything to keep us safe and happy. We faked Evie’s death. The doctor in charge of her care was a friend of my parents and always had a soft spot for mom. She never told me what she did to convince him to go along with us, and to be honest, I was too scared to ask, but she did whatever it took. He got Evie placed in a skilled nursing facility, and told my dad she passed.” Wes looked back at me. “Then there was you, my princess. My dad turned the DNA test in and they didn’t allow me to visit you anymore. It was hell knowing my baby was in that little room all alone. Mom introduced me to Ruth Anne and Charles. They were like angels. They couldn’t have children of their own and offered to take care of you. So, I made a deal with my father, I would let you go into foster care and not fight it, if he would just leave you alone and safe. I wanted you safe, and I wanted someone to hug you. I wanted to hug you myself, but it was to the point as long as someone held you I could cope. Again, Mom worked her magic and you were placed in the Williams’s home.”

Lucas rocked back and forth on his heels, I could feel him trying to keep his temper in check. “How did I come into the equation?”

Wes glanced back up at Lucas. “Jenn had been my best friend forever, but we were only ever friends. She loved Miles as much as I loved Evie, and she was devastated. She didn’t know she was expecting you yet. She had walked out of her parents’ house. She was lost and alone.” Wes choked up. “I just wanted the pain to stop. When Jenn discovered she was pregnant, I married her to protect her, and she accepted that Evie and Annie were my heart and would always be.”

“I don’t believe you.” Lucas’s vein was throbbing in his neck; his breathing was coming in sharp burst. “This is all shit. First off, Granny would never lie all these years to cover up a murder. And if Mom loved Miles so much, why did she hate his son?”

“She doesn’t hate you. Just scared of losing you. You’re just Miles. So much so, you make me almost believe in reincarnation. Losing Miles almost destroyed her, and she is scared if she allows herself to love you that something will happen to you, too. And she would lose it all.” Wes picked up our enjoined hands and kissed the top of mine. “Granny would do anything to keep you two safe, include cover up for a murderer.” Wes looked back at me. “Do you want to see her. Your mother, that is?”

Those were the words that finally broke through the last of the numbness, causing a storm of emotions in me.

I jerked away from Wes and leaped to my feet. Lucas gripped me around the waist. I pushed myself off him too. I stared at the far corner of the room and counted my breaths.

A life of lies twisted and tilted everything, it was all upside down and inside out. I doubled over from the pain and clutched my knees. The lie the hurt the worst was from Pawpaw. He let them jerk me away from the only home I’d ever know … from him, and never thought to tell me the truth. A scream bubbled to the surface when I turned to face both Wes and Lucas — it was a gut-wrenching wail.

Lucas was the first one to me. He placed one of his hands on the back of my head and softly forced my face against his shoulders. This time his arms didn’t calm me. “I know, precious. It hurts,” he whispered.

I did hurt. I hurt for myself, Lucas, but most of all my mother. Her life was stolen before it even started, because she fell in love with the wrong person.

“I need to see her.” I broke free from Lucas’s embrace and scratched my forehead, unsure of what exactly I did need.

“You don’t need to do anything, precious.”

I did need to see my mother. I needed to be strong and do it on my own, too, without any interference from Lucas. I loved how he cared and protected me, but I wanted to prove to myself I was strong all by myself.

Wes started toward me, and I held up my hand to stop him. “I’ll go with you. Only to see her. But you will never be my father-figure. Got it?”

Wes nodded his head in defeat. I shifted to kiss Lucas on the cheek. “I need to do this alone.”

Lucas grabbed my upper arm but still slightly nodded. “I’ll be waiting on you.”

Chapter 31

Annie Prieto

I had the entire ride over to process this … everything. Too bad it was a short trip and my mind was foggier than when I walked out of the house.

I had used my time in the car to study Wes trying to see some resemblance in him to me. Our eye color was definitely the same, but my eyes were more almond shaped. He was much shorter than I figured my father to be. I would’ve, however, considered myself blessed to have a touch of his auburn locks. It would have contrasted nicely with all my brown.

I had finally found my father, but it didn’t feel like the blessing I thought it would’ve been.

Wes parked the car and stared ahead. “I talk to her about you. She’s always seems happier when I’m talking about you. I do love you, always have, always will, but I’m all Evie has. Understand that. I never wanted to hurt you. Hell, I’ve wanted to love you, but I had to keep my Evie safe.”

I rubbed a fist over the tee-shirt covering my scars. At least, he kept one of us safe.

Wes got out of the car and never even looked back to see if I was following him. He led me down a long hallway and into a sterile room. I glanced around the room and stopped dead in my tracks when my eyes landed upon a woman in a hospital bed. Her long, mahogany hair feathered out over a pillow, her face was turned to the window and the small sliver of her profile showing appeared as if she was enjoying the view. It would have been a peaceful and beautiful sight if the view wasn’t of a brick wall.

Wes walked over to the woman and kissed her on top of the head then wrapped a strand of hair around one of his fingers.

“Evie, sweetheart, you look beautiful.” A smile appeared on Wes’s face and a softness washed over every line of his body. “But you’re always beautiful. I brought you a surprise today. It’s Annie. I told you she would come back one day. She’s grown now, and too big to crawl around on your bed anymore.”

All I could do was stare. My feet planted firmly to the floor. Never once in any of those sappy romances I loved to read was a love more apparent then what I was witnessing in front of me. It was the real kind of love, not some fantasy in a fairytale.

He glanced over at me, a hint of worry glistened in his eyes, and shifted my mother around to face me. My heart slammed in my chest as ice coursed through my veins. I wanted to run away from my body but I couldn’t. Swallowing, breathing, speaking became impossible. Total panic sit in. It was all too much. My mother was alive and in front of me.

My eyes roamed over her face as I slowly took in the woman in front of me. I had never even seen her picture until that morning but I could tell it was the same woman in the picture Lucas had shown me.

She was plumper than the picture but other than the vacant look in her eyes and numerous machines hooked to her body, she appeared well taken care of.

I carefully took a few steps, unsure if I could even stay upright, and approached her bedside. “Hey.” I paused, wondering if I should address her as Mother, Mom, or Evie. She was still a stranger to me. “I’m Annie. Your daughter.” The words sounded odd coming from my lips.

Her eyelashes batted quickly as she focused in on me. It sounded like she tried to grunt but it was hard to hear over the swishing sound of the numerous machines connected to her body.

“I told you she was a mirror image of you. Lucky for her, she only inherited my eyes. Who would ever believe that something from me would make her even more beautiful?”

I glanced up and noted the familiar shade of Wes’s eyes. They were carbon copies of my own.

Wes took Evie’s hand in his, and I swear Evie’s head leaned toward him. It was hard to tell if she simply slipped or if she deliberately moved herself. “I love you, too.” Wes smiled and shifted the pillow under Evie’s head.

Did she need him as much as he wanted her to?

Wes’s head dipped down and the tip of his nose grazed the skin of Evie’s neck. “Having her here makes you happy, doesn’t it? It makes me happy to have my girls together again,” he whispered in her ear and kissed her cheek as if she was the most precious person in the world.

What the heck? The man who the small town of Carterville said had it all was sitting there holding a woman’s hand like she was all that mattered. A woman who could no longer return the love. How did he do it? Knowing she will never be more than … a living vegetable. Death no longer looked like the worse fate a person could have.

The tears wielded up in my eyes. It all made sense. All the lies weren’t because of me. Wes didn’t abandon me as a baby, he did what he needed to do to protect my mother. The bitterness and ache I’ve had for the man who had fathered me all my life faded into sorrow and understanding. The tears poured down my cheeks. The devotion and love Wes Carter had for Evie Prieto was obvious and breathtaking. Wes wasn’t the only one breaking in two anymore — I was too.

I caught a glimpse of the mirror hanging on the closet door. It framed the image of my mom, Wes, and me perfectly. A portrait of a family. My family. I no longer saw the broken girl without a family anymore but a grown woman accepting her new path.

“I used to bring you here when you were a baby,” Wes paused to take a deep breath, drawing my attention back to him. “You would crawl on her bed. It was the happiest time in my life. I know it sounds crazy, but to have you and Evie together.” He shook his head and stroked a hand over Evie’s hair. “I never cared about the money, anything, but you two.”

I walked over to him and wrapped my arms around him. He hesitated before tightening his grip around me. “I’m sorry about those four years. I should’ve let Ruth and Charles adopt you, but that would’ve required the courts deeming your mom as unfit. I know she will never be able to be a mother to you, but I couldn’t let anyone call her unfit.” Wes kissed the top of my head. “I love you, but I’ve never loved anyone like I do your mom. She will always be the most important person in the world to me.”

I couldn’t be mad at Wes. He was stating the truth, and I was glad my mother had that kind of love in her life.

It was hope that I would have it too one day.

The GPS led me straight to the address Granny gave me and a building so utilitarian I felt I needed to take a bath in bleach simply to walk inside. It was only twenty-five minutes from my front doorsteps to its front door. The place that housed Evie Prieto. A woman whose grave I’d seen with my own eyes. It was still hard to wrap my head around the whole thing. My entire life had been a lie but so had Annie’s, and she was the only one I gave a damn about.

I fell back on the bench directly in line with a bank of elevators. I had no intention of going up. I just wanted to be here when Annie came down.

It had already been a full hour since I showed up. I rolled my head against the stone wall. The picture of Miles Blankenship kept playing in my head. Damn, it was no doubt he was my dad. We were almost a mirror image.

The bing from the elevator signaled the doors opening. My eyes snapped open to see Annie exiting it. She was holding my dad’s hand, or her dad’s. Hell, I didn’t know what was up or down anymore. The only thing I was sure of was that Annie was all that mattered, even if she was now my step-sister. Damn, just the thought made me want to slam my fist into the wall. Annie released Wes’s hand and wiped her nose. She had been crying. I stood up. Wes noticed me first.

“Lucas,” he said.

Annie lifted her eyes and found mine. They widened, and she smiled behind the tears. She ran to where I was standing and threw herself in my arms. Wes walked up behind her as Annie buried her tear stain cheeks against my chest.

“I’m sorry,” Wes said. “I don’t know what else to say. Except that Jennifer and I did what we thought was best for the both of you.”

“Because the foster system is always best,” I said through gritted teeth. He did what was best for him not Annie. That was going to change. Annie would come first from that moment on.

“Lucas, don’t. Please, for me.” Annie never lifted her head from my chest.

Wes placed a hand on Annie’s shoulder and squeezed. Annie used both of her hands to grab a fistful of my dress shirt as her body flinched under his touch. Wes never noticed but I did.

“Sweetie. I’m going back up to make sure Evie is okay. Today had to be hard on her.”

Hard on Evie. What about Annie? Did he even care about Annie?

Wes punched the button on the elevator without even a backward glance at us. I never hated anyone more than I did him. I wanted to somehow make everything okay. I wanted to do something, but how the hell did I fix this. It turned both of our worlds around.

“He … he loves her. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Annie said with a small whimper.

I might’ve never seen it, but I had felt it every time I looked at Annie. “I …” I started to say, “I love you”, but it wasn’t the right time. I didn’t want her memory of hearing those words to be intertwined with the memories of all this shit.

“He treats her like she was still able-body and they’re a couple. I don’t even know if she understands anything, but he doesn’t care. She is still his Evie. Wes is broken. He needs us to forgive him.”

The emotion in my chest wasn’t something I wanted to examine. He gave away his daughter to total strangers, and she said to forgive him. The destroying of our lives wasn’t easily forgiven.

“He holds her like she is the only thing that can save him. My heart was broken but in a good way.”

I stroked a hand over Annie’s hair and watched the dial over the elevator move higher and higher. I tried envisioning the hard man who raised me acting like that. I couldn’t.

“He did visit me when I was little, and even brought me here when I was a baby.”

That wasn’t the revelation I was expecting, but it still didn’t change the fact he let Annie live in hell for four years. Forgiveness wasn’t something I would freely give any of them. I hid my face in her hair, wishing it was her I could hide from all the pain.

Annie let loose of my shirt and smoothed her hand over the wrinkles. I lightly grabbed her hand and held it. I didn’t give a damn about my shirt. The wrinkles only added to it because it showed that Annie needed me.

“Let’s get out of here,” she said and finally looked up at me. Her face was wet with her tears.

I reached over and wiped the last of her tears away. “Where does my girl want to go?”

“Wes called Evie that same thing.”

“What, my girl? Well, if he feels for her like I do you than she is his girl.”

Her jaw dropped to her chest and small wrinkles appeared across her forehead. She was breathtaking, and I felt like a superhero for putting that look on her face. That might have been better than me saying I love you.

I laced my fingers with her. “Ready?”

She glanced at the elevators then turned back toward me. “Ready.”

Chapter 32

Annie Prieto

I switched the radio again. For the first time, music couldn’t numb the feelings I was experiencing. Lucas hadn’t said a word since we climbed into his Jeep almost ten minutes before. He was allowing me the time to process but I was tired of thinking.

I peeked over at him. The tight grip he had of the steering wheel, the stiff posture of his shoulder, firm line of his lips spoke louder than any words — he was terrified or pissed or both.

I pulled my legs up onto the seat and hugged them with my arms. The measly attempt I made at trying to stay calm couldn’t kept the tears from welling up in my eyes.

“I’m not going to break. It’s still hard to comprehend it all, but it is what it is.”

If the pain Wes was experiencing was even one-percent of than the pain I experienced when those boys hurt me, I didn’t know if I wanted to have a love like that.

Lucas took my hand, and I knew it was already too late; I’d already found a love like theirs.

“Do you want to talk about it? We can discuss your amazing step-brother.”

Step-brother! That word hadn’t even entered my thoughts. I knew it was hard on Lucas. I wasn’t the only one going through this. His life had been a lie, too. How hard was it to learn that the man who raised you wasn’t your father at all, but a man who died in a car wreck? A wreck your grandfathers masterminded.

“I’m pissed, not just about my life but yours, too. We both lost something today, but our parents lost something years ago. I’m glad I never have to meet their fathers, though.” I clutched the handle on the door and glared out the windshield, trying to regain my composure. “I don’t want things to change between us. You’re not my step-brother, or even my friend, you’re more, and you know it.”

Lucas skidded to the side of the road and slammed on his brakes, bringing the car to a screeching halt. The seatbelt tightened, crushing me into the seat. Lucas moved toward me as I clamped my eyes shut. The close proximity was excruciating. He moved his nose down my neck. I arched my head to give him access. His skin only centimeters from mine never made contact. “I don’t know what I am. But I can’t have the only girl I ever wanted because the world is going to view her as my sister.”

Lucas looked completely and utterly lost. It was as if I’d sucker punched him. His eyes widen with pure, undiluted horror.

“No one will know. Wes is not going to tell anybody. It’s best.”

Lucas fell back into his seat and slammed his fist over and over onto the steering wheel. “That bastard is still not going to claim you, and you tell me to forgive him.”

“I don’t want him too. I’d rather have you than him as a father.” I closed my eyes to avoid his stare which was burning into me. “I’m tired of pretending that we don’t feel anything for each other. I shouldn’t ask you for this, but hell, I want to be your girl, not your friend, and surely not your sister, but your girl.”

How was it possible on the same day my world was shredded that every piece fell into place?

I stared out the windshield but saw nothing and prayed I heard her right.

Annie Prieto wasn’t letting me in because she wanted something from me or even needed me. Annie had stopped needing anyone a longtime ago. She truly wanted me, and that was the purest gift I’d ever been given.

“Lucas,” came from Annie’s soft lips. I twisted in my seat to cup her face in my hands. A line of tears streamed down her face I swiped at them with my thumbs. “If you don’t want me, I understand.” It wasn’t right that words from such a sweet mouth could hurt so damn painfully.

No, no, no. I wanted her, she had to have understood that.

Her bottom lip trembled. It was so damn cute. Everything about her was perfection. She had claimed my heart, and truthfully, I thought that was an impossible feat.

I lowered my lips to her to show her with actions what I couldn’t find the words to say.

I wouldn’t hold back any longer. She needed to know what she meant to me. No one or nothing had ever been more important. I knew that this one kiss would altered my life forever.

The warmth from her breath washed across my face, awaking every part of me. My tongue peeked out and traced her lower lip. Annie hummed. I licked over her mouth again. I would have done anything to hear those sounds come from her. “I want you. You’re all I’ve ever wanted.”

Not giving her time to respond, I covered her mouth with mine. Sweet perfection. My precious one.

She not only smelled of strawberries, her mouth tasted of strawberries and honey as our tongues danced as one. Nothing could be sweeter than … her.

I pulled back a fraction of an inch. Enough not to lose contact with her, but to tell her, “I love you.” I had never spoke those words before, but I’d never felt them before either. She noticeably inhaled, then let a long-drawn out breath, attempting to not look blindsided.

“Don’t say that if you don’t mean it. I can’t handle it.”

I leaned back unsure if I heard her right and caught a glimpse of the bandage on my wrist. If that wouldn’t prove my love to her nothing would.

Annie caught me studying my wrist before asking, “What happened?”

I slowly pulled back the tape that held the gauze in place to reveal … my heart thumped wildly in my chest. It had been a weak moment. The moment I thought my world had crashed around me. It hurt like a motherfucker, too.

She gasped when she got her first look at the black script tattooed in Gothic-style. The word Precious was scrolled across the underside of my wrist. The name I’d given Annie without even realizing it. It was a natural nickname for the only thing ever precious in my life.

She picked up my arm and brought the tattoo closer to examine it. “Lucas Carter, what did you do?” I saw her lips moving but the voice sounded like it belonged to someone else. She let go of my arm, letting it flop against the gearshift.

“The other night when I realized why you were familiar,” I said the kissed the temple on the side of her head. “I called Granny,” I said with a shake of my head. “Ann, and when she confirmed who you were, I panicked. I didn’t give her time to tell me anything else. I threw my phone.”

Annie raised up and looked over at me. “You threw your phone.”

I smiled. “Yeah, it’s out on route 41 somewhere.”

“At least, I know why you never text me back.” She smiled. Oh, I loved that smile.

“Pay attention and quit being a girl.”

“Being a girl?”

“Yeah, getting pissy because some guy didn’t text back ASAP. Now listen.” I pulled her over against me. “I thought I’d lost this. It never dawned on me that Wes wasn’t my father. I was dying inside. The only girl I ever wanted turning out to be my sister was nauseating.” I traced over the word precious on my wrist. “I might not have been able to hold you anymore but I wanted a reminder that once I got to hold precious in my arms.”

Annie dragged her thumb from my ear to the base of my chin, forcing me to look at her. A simple touch shouldn’t silence my demons. Annie’s did, though.

She came into my life when I thought there was nothing worth living for. I’d given up on life … hell, myself. I thought I didn’t have the strength to live any longer She showed me the strength I had inside of me to fight. She showed me I wasn’t the only person who had lost something. She had also given me a reason to fight for the one thing I never wanted to lose … her.

“I’m here. You’re here. That’s all that matters. I want to learn more about the past, but I want to be in your arms more,” Annie whispered.

My arms would always be open for her. I would move heaven or hell to have her in them. I would do whatever she needed.

Chapter 33

Annie Prieto

Lucas’s eyes were more guarded than anyone I’d ever come across. No matter how much you study them your expectations were left unmet. There was a veil covering every emotion. He let the veil drop for me. He no longer hid his feelings. He finally allowed every wink, stare, widening, narrowing, scrunch, and eyebrow raise finally tell a story. He let me in. It was a strange connection, and one I’d never had with anyone else before.

“I’m probably overstepping my bounds, but will you take a short trip with me?”

“Where?” I pushed some hair behind my ear and smiled.

“To a house I purchased at the river. The foreman needs me to check out a few things … Annie, no one’s there, we can talk.”

“Talk?” I let out a breath, causing my bangs to feather along my forehead. He kept watching me. If he was waiting for me to flip out, the only thing he would achieve was disappointment. I’d gone long passed reactionary into numbness again. “That’s actually a good idea. I need a break from all of this. I need a break from everything but you.”

“How are you feeling? Honestly?”

“I have no idea how I feel. I’m racing through the entire gamut of emotions right now. It is full-steam ahead. I just want it to stop. I just want to go back to being the girl who is praying you want more than a friendship.”

Lucas placed the car in park, and turned to lay his arm on the headrest behind me. “It’s just me and you today. No family drama, no who we really are. Just Annie and Lucas. Let’s just pretend that this is not our story. Let’s write a new one.” He picked up a strand of my hair. “We can go back to the drama tomorrow.”

I plastered on a frown and did my damnedest to look concerned. I would’ve sucked at poker because I couldn’t keep the face splinting grin from ripping my cheeks apart.

“Kind of like a re-do of night one?” I teased.

Lucas slid closer and placed his lips against my forehead. “Better, that night it was just a lot of lust. Now it’s love.”

I opened the car door and leaned away from him. “Whoever said I lusted after you?”

I hopped out and rushed to the cabin door with Lucas only one step behind me. Before we got to the porch, he wrapped his arms around my shoulders and leaned his chin against the side of my face. “Lucas, do you see us having a future? Can we make this work?”

“Our future is the only thing keeping me sane. What about you?”

“We’ll have a lot of tales to tell our grandchildren one day.”

“This moment can be one of them. One we’ll tell our grandkids; it was when their grandfather whispered to you that he loved you.” He took a small nip of my earlobe. “I love you.”

Having heard those words come out of his mouth, my heart swelled in my chest again. If Lucas wasn’t careful, he might be the cause of me having a premature heart attack.

I turned and twisted the end of his hair around my hand then pulled his mouth to mine to kiss him. I kissed him to show him I loved him too.

I ran my tongue over his lip before reluctantly separating my mouth from his, and on one of the hardest and strangest days of my life, I smiled and said the three words that had been on the tip of my tongue for weeks, “I love you.”

“You have no idea, precious.” He slipped his hand down my arm and placed my hand in his. “Welcome to jobsite number four,” he said in what I was sure was another awkward but deliberate change of subjects.

He walked me up a sit of steps onto a deck leading into a small, alluring cabin. It looked like it had come straight out of a fairy tale. The entire right side was covered in wisteria. The warm, summer breeze brushed through the trees around us. The smell of pine tickled my nose. I could almost taste the freshness of the crisp summer air. Through the glass picture-window, I could view the large family room. It was obviously unfinished, but the charm was still present. It already felt homey.

He wiggled the key into the lock and pushed opened the door with his shoulder. “Number one on the list, get a new door.” He cocked his head to the side. “Come on, I came here to do a little work. I got this place for a steal. I only paid $136,000 and the comps in the area are as high as $300,000. With only a $90,000 estimate, I could make $50,000 in and out in less than six weeks.”

The only part of that statement I understood was that it was more money than I could wrap my mind around, and it made Lucas extremely happy. He took my hand and led me around the cabin. Our first stop was in the family room. The entire left wall was made of glass and overlooked a private canal in the river. On the wall to my right, a fireplace was stripped back to the studs. Lucas pointed to the far wall where six samples of stone lean against the drywall.

“Which is your favorite?”

I twisted my mouth. I had no idea what look he was going for, or what would even sale. “Lucas, I’m not the one you need to be asking.”

“You’re exactly the one I need to be asking,” he said and I let out a breath. “Relax, it’s just an opinion. I’m not asking you to operate or actually build it.”

I kneeled to inspect the samples closer. I pointed to a gray-tone stacked stone. “That one.”

Lucas grew happier as we moved from room to room. He wrote down each choice I made from paint colors to countertops like he actually considered my opinion valid.

We had spent well over an hour selecting every small detail of the place when we came to the last door in the long hallway. Lucas threw open the door to expose a room empty and unfinished, except for a king-size bed sitting center stage in the room.

“Lucas,” I whispered and walked over to run my fingers over the softness of the white downy comforter.

“I arranged for my decorator to sit this up.” He shrugged his shoulder, but did not look the least bit sorry.

“Wasn’t it a waste of time having me pick out finishes if you have a decorator?” I asked and tried to laugh, but the seriousness of his stare stopped me.

“No,” he said and shook his head. “I’m actually thinking of making this my home, your opinion means a lot to the process.” His eyes got big and he held up one finger. “Hold on.”

He raced out the door and down the hall. I heard the screen door on the porch swing close as I plopped down on the bed.

Taking in the bed, I knew exactly what was about to happen. This had been prearranged and planned. I involuntarily shook my head. He didn’t plan this in a few hours.

Had he always meant to bring me here, even before he realized who I really was?

He jogged back through the bedroom door and held up a gift bag. I quickly ripped it open to find four books; Flowers in the Attic, The Scarlet Pimpernel, White Oleander, and The Perks of being a Wallflower.

“You wanted flowers,” he said and pulled out the bag he was hiding behind his back. “And the stars.”

Inside the bag were the books; The Fault in Our Stars, The City and the Stars, and Number the Stars.

“Why?”

He winked then laughed before saying, “I’m really hoping to get into your pants today.”

You could’ve gotten in my pants without working half this hard. But my stubbornness would never let him know that.

“I’ve written a vow of celibacy. I can’t break a vow now, can I?” I asked, and toppled back down on the bed.

“Maybe, I can talk you into a new vow.”

“I might be compelled to see things your way.”

His eyes drifted from my face and scrolled over my body. Everywhere his eyes wandered, I could physically feel it. I like the way he studied me as if I was the most interesting thing in the entire world — I was the test he was determine to ace.

“Why you? Why you, Annie? I’ve never wanted to be close to anyone before. Only you. Something about you has gotten to me since the first time I ever laid eyes on you.”

Holy Hell! The oxygen had been sucked from the room. Lucas was so close our breath had synced into one single breath.

He took the books from my hand and placed them back in the bag before tossing them across the floor.

“I want to kiss you,” he said and pulled me up to stand. His fingers spread mine apart, his grip was tight. “I want to kiss you really bad.”

“Then kiss me.”

His hand slipped from mine and moved to the side of my face to hold me still.

His warm, wet lips moved over mine. He tasted like peppermint and Listerine. I made a mental note to pick up a bottle of Listerine on my next grocery store run.

He groaned against my mouth bringing my full attention back to Lucas and those lips. His kiss was slow and calming, a complete contrast to the pounding of my heart.

I love this man more than I should.

Lucas twisted his body until his legs backed up to the bed and he sat on the edge of it. He cupped the back of my thighs with one hand, then used the other hand to slightly raise my shirt. He placed a line of kisses over my stomach. My hands kneaded into his shoulder, and he looked up at me with a lust in his eyes that was completely contagious. I moaned as the blood rushed to my groin.

His hand slid up over my hip and around to the front of my jeans were he effortlessly unsnapped the button and slowly pulled down the zipper.

“I’ve never felt like this,” he said as he worked my jeans down. When they were finally around my ankles I stepped out of them. He pressed his lips to my lower stomach. “Only you, precious.”

I clamped my eyes shut as he went to lift my shirt, and grabbed his hand to remove it from my body. I panicked. My shirt was the only barrier I had between my scars and the world. Removing it would be giving him a part of me I wasn’t ready for.

He leaned back, his eyes leveled with mine. He was hurt. “This is different for me too. I’ve never made love to anyone. Sex, yes, but I’ve never wanted to worship someone before. Let me worship you.”

He had seen my scars before. I nodded. I could give him what he needed. I lifted my arms for him and he swiftly removed the last of my covering. My hands moved to my chest to hide my scars. He tossed the unwanted garment across the room and looked up at me with a smile. “Let me love you.”

I bit my lip to keep from grimacing as I dropped my hands to expose the scars. He stood and leaned his head against mine then sucked my bottom lip into his mouth, causing me to forget my scars all together.

Damn, it felt good.

While feasting on my lip, he slid his fingers in me, first one then two then three, and I suddenly found it hard to focus only on his lips. I clasped my eyes shut and fell against him. The rhythm of his fingers as he moved against me was as trance inducing as the moist, intoxicating air his sensual body emitted. This wasn’t merely breathing; it was communicating with a warmness deep within each of our bodies.

The fireworks went off and he wasn’t even naked yet.

I squinted my eyes as the light poured into the room via a large picture-window.

A boat drifted by in the distance but the most alluring sight was Annie snuggling her head onto my shoulder. She was so damn beautiful.

Her morning breath warmed the pillow. I never intended on spending the night here, but I didn’t know I was capable of making love for hours.

I’d always been selfish in the bed, but I relished in loving her and watching her explode in ecstasy. Almost afraid if I stopped I would wake up alone and realize it was all a dream.

Her body was a work of perfection only marred by those fucking scars.

I traced over the curve of her breast, paying special attention not to focus on her scars. She squirmed in her sleep. I thought I was going to have to beg her to expose herself to me. But she did it because she wanted to share herself with me in a way she had never shared it before.

I brought her arm to my mouth and kissed her wrist, her palm, each individual tip of her fingers before kissing a line down her arm to her elbow. I hated waking her up and facing the problems in our life. As long as she was sleeping in my arms, I could pretend that this was forever, but we both knew the world would have a say in that.

I kissed over each of her eyelids, never being more afraid to see the green of her eyes.

She stretched. “Good morning, sunshine,” she said against my mouth as I moved my lips over hers. I could get used to morning kisses. A statement I never thought I would utter.

I continued kissing various spots on her body, hoping to convince her to stay as she learned all the lies of her past.

“What’s wrong? You’re panicking,” she asked, flipping until she was over me, mounting a leg on each side of my hips.

“Thinking of what we are having to do today.”

“Yeah, what’s that?”

I stopped kissing her body, and focused on my response. “Facing the family drama. Learning all the lies.”

She bent down to lightly kiss my lips. “Not here, here I’m the good girl from the wrong side of the track who fell in love with the bad boy.”

I put both hands on each side of her face and kissed her back. “So I’m the bad boy and you’re the good girl?”

She smiled against my lips. “You want to disagree?”

No, I didn’t.

I never believed being with a girl could be like this, she was everything I ever wanted. But once again life taught me that I didn’t get to have what I wanted. However, I would give her the answers she needed, including answering her questions about the past.

And would love her unconditionally.

Chapter 34

Annie Prieto or was it Annie Carter

The best sex of my life was the only way to describe the night I shared with Lucas. But nothing I said or did took the doom and gloom from his eyes.

My breath faltered, and I wiped back a tear as he packed the last of the samples in his trunk.

“Where is our first stop on our trip down memory lane?” I asked as Lucas glided into the driver seat.

He didn’t respond, simply put the car in drive and slowly pulled back onto the road. He had put back up his constant veil of armor between his emotions and me. I had no idea what he was even thinking. I hated it. He remained silent until we were almost in the center of town. He picked up his phone and started to scroll his thumb over it.

“Dad, Wes, whoever the hell he is, told me once that this was his and the love of his life’s song. I thought he was talking about my mom, but I guess I was wrong, and it was your mom. But anyway, I thought you might want to hear it. It describes how I feel about you, and if Wes loves your mom like this, he worships her.”

The sounds of Bryan Adam’s “(Everything I do) I do it for you” drifted out of the car speakers and fill the interior of the Jeep. The song came to an end as we pulled into Granny Ann’s drive. There was still a lot of mystery surrounding Lucas … us, but I had figured one thing out, Lucas left clues in the form of music. He chose his songs carefully and let them speak when he couldn’t find the words to say.

“Your granny’s is our first stop?” I asked, spotting Ann on the porch.

“I guess technically yours.” He cocked his finger to come closer to him. I happily obeyed. He brushed his hand through my hair and inhaled a shaky breath. “I’m here. Lean on me.” He punctuated his words with a kiss. His lips melted over mine with a softness I didn’t know was possible. I would never want to rid myself of him.

Ann stood on the front door step. She had her arms crossed and I could tell she had been crying. Not just a few tears, but days upon days of crying.

“I think I need to take care of my other lady,” Lucas said and unbuckled his seatbelt. He got out of the car with his eyes on Ann. I watched in amazement as he walked up to her and she was immediately in his arms. She snuggled her face onto his chest as he hugged her. She had lied to him all his life but he held onto her as if he needed her more than breath in his lungs. She had to had been special to cause that reaction in him. I unbuckled my seatbelt and joined them. Ann had me in a bear hug before I stepped on the top step all while never letting Lucas go.

“I love you so much, you’ve always made me so proud,” Ann said, all while pushing me against Lucas’s side.

Lucas wrapped an arm around my waist and glanced down to stare at me. “Are you okay?” he mouthed.

He was worried about me. I’d never been better. Ann said the words I hadn’t heard or even felt in years, someone was proud of me.

“I’d dreamed about having you two together for years.” Ann hugged us hard, I felt like conjoined triplets.

“Granny, we might need to get off the doorsteps; we’re attracting the neighbors,” Lucas said and pulled away from us both. I didn’t have time to miss his warmth before he had his hand wrapped tightly around mine.

“I’ve spent my whole life worrying what others think, I’ll be damned if I care now. You two are all that matters to me anymore.” Ann turned to go inside and we followed. She led us down a long hallway and into a small bedroom covered in boxes, packed ceiling-high.

“Plan on moving and not telling anyone?” Lucas asked.

Ann flipped on a light switch and said, “Before Annie moved into the house, I spent all day clearing out Evie’s and Wes’s personal stuff.”

“What?” Lucas asked and pulled on my hand. I stood as if my heart and body had turned to stone. A strange sensation barred down on my chest; my lungs were unable to inflate. I gasped for air, causing Lucas to twist around. His eyes widen as if he could sense the panic in me. My heart churned in my chest. It pounded in unison with each ragged breath I fought for.

Lucas took my hand and lowered me on the bed. “Breathe, precious.” He kissed my forehead. I glanced around at the magnitude of boxes lining the longest wall.

“That’s my mother stuff.” I peeked up at Lucas. “I’ve been living with her stuff all this time.”

“Granny?” Lucas said, pleadingly.

Ann wrung her hands and perched down on a rocker in the corner. “Wes bought that house for Evie. Alan, your grandfather, controlled everyone, but Wes wouldn’t listen to him. He loved Evie. It was unreal how much he loved her. They use to sneak out to the field behind the house with Miles and Jennifer, but Wes wanted more. He bought that house so they could form a life together. Evie had so much fun decorating it. They planned on bringing you home there.” Ann brightened and seemed to slip farther into the past. “Wes was happy, so was Evie.”

I wanted her to tell me more, I wanted her to stop talking too. I tried voicing my thoughts … I couldn’t. My throat refused to make a sound.

“If that house was purchased for Evie, why in the hell does Dad — Wes keep it for his affairs?” Lucas asked, the confusion and sadness in his voice caused my heart to pound harder against my chest. Lucas sat down beside me, and I didn’t waste a second before placing my head on his shoulder.

“The only person he has ever allowed in that house was Annie and Evie.” Ann stood up, completely out of nerves. “The first two years of Annie’s life, every Sunday, Wes would take her to see Evie. Evie would cheer-up every time Annie was around. I thought at first it was all in Wes’s head, but it wasn’t; Evie’s health blossomed when Annie was near. But time was slipping by, and you,” Ann said, pulled a ladder-back chair in front of me, took a seat, and held my hands, “you were so smart. You already knew who your daddy, mommy, and even I was. We knew if we were to keep you safe from Alan we had to walk away. No matter how much it hurt. Evie was off life-support by that point. She couldn’t eat and drink on her own or even speak, but she knew. You could see it in her eyes. She knew who Wes was and you. Wes hired a nurse and had Evie brought to the house to spend one weekend as a family with you.”

“You were twenty-three months old. It was the perfect weekend.”

All three of our heads snapped up in unison at the sound of Wes’s voice. He was leaned against the door jamb; his head tilted as he watched me.

“Sorry to interrupt, the front door was unlocked,” Wes said and pointed over his shoulder toward the front of the house. He started walking toward me, his eyes never leaving mine. “Your mom will always be paralyzed. Her brain was traumatized in the wreck beyond repair. Her body is no longer hers, but her mind is. Locked somewhere in there, she knows. You, me, everything.” Wes reached out and rubbed a piece of my hair between his fingers. “You really do look like her.”

“Here, I have some pictures.” Ann jumped up and pulled a photo album out of one of the boxes.

Not only the album but the boxes were filled with my mother’s memories. When Wes took her to the house to spend one last weekend with me, she did so well, he arranged for her to live there for the following thirteen years. Pawpaw and Mimi had sent them records and documents of every aspect of my childhood. Ann informed me as long as the videos and pictures came, Evie flourished. She had even started making sounds. Then everything stopped.

“Why didn’t you try to find me?” My voice was barely audible. “When they took me away, why didn’t you stop them?”

“Charles didn’t know they were taking you until the day they showed up to get you. It was too late. When we arranged for you to live with Charles and Ruth Anne, I had your records sealed to keep Dad from finding you.” Wes stoked a finger down my cheekbone. It felt better than I wanted to admit. “But in the big scheme of things, it kept us from you. We had hired some private investigators to find you. But we had no idea where you were until the day Bob called and said you were in his office. It was possibly the happiest day I’d ever had.”

It was more like I was hearing some plot for a Lifetime movie than anything directly related to my actual life.

“Bob knew?” I interrupted. “He said he didn’t know her. Who all knows?”

Life only gives you one great girl. It might offer other good girls, too, but only one great one. One you could never forget. If you didn’t find a way to capture her, her memory would follow you for the rest of your life. The problem was my one great one was the catalyst of every insecurity I’d ever had about my own life.

I stood and started to back out of the room. Her eyes went large and blank. It had amazed me how she had stayed calm throughout the whole day … My God, I love this girl. My mind had turned every which way but up. She could handle it all but me walking away. “I’m sorry,” I whispered and turned to bolt to the front yard.

As I descended the front doorsteps, I heard the screen door open and swing shut behind me. I twisted on my boot-heel but wouldn’t allow myself to look at her. Annie reached out and wrapped her hand around my right bicep. That was when I couldn’t hold back any longer and looked into her eyes. She wasn’t mad at me, the only thing I saw was love and concern. Two of the things, I never got growing up. I needed to learn why my mom never gave that to me.

Granny and Wes had been crying and explaining their love to Annie. It had been a damn lovefest in there. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted Annie to have that. She deserved it. But hell, so did I.

I shook her hand off my arm. “Let me go.”

“Why? What happened?”

“I’m sick of all the damn lies. I’m going to see my mom.”

“I’ll go with you.”

“No, you won’t. I don’t want you to.”

“Lucas, this is about us both.”

“This isn’t. This is about me and the bitch who gave birth to me. This is about the fact I will never know my real dad because he’s dead. I’m glad you got your happy ending, but I never will.” I glanced over her shoulder and saw Wes standing on the porch. “Daddy Dearest will take you home.”

I turned my back toward her. The hardest damn thing I’d ever done.

“If you walk away, don’t come back,” she said, and the way her voice cracked sent a shockwave through my chest.

I couldn’t do this.

I waved her off but didn’t turn back around, because if I looked at her, I was positive I wouldn’t leave.

I climbed in my Jeep and almost stripped the gears as I roared out of there. My words had hurt her, but they destroyed me. I wanted her with me, but I never wanted her to see this side of me.

She couldn’t see the person, who doesn’t even know who he was, or even where he belonged in all this shit. I’d never been more alone in my life. It was disturbing. There was no one who I could trust, especially not my mom.

I skidded onto the front lawn of my home and raced through the front door. I laughed to myself. Home. I’d never consider that box of bricks home again. Jennifer Carter was on her cell. Not a care in the world. Not even an inkling of caring that her son’s world was falling apart.

“I need to let you go, Jana,” Jennifer said and clicked end on her cellphone.

Great, Candice’s mom. Can I ever have a day without one of them in it?

I fell back into a nearby chair and tossed my leg over the arm of it, for once relaxed in the presence of my mother. “Just got through hearing how much everyone loves Annie and I can’t blame them, she’s pretty damn wonderful. I thought I would give you the chance to explain how much you grovel at my feet. Tell me how hard it was all these years to act like I didn’t matter.”

“Have you been drinking?” Jennifer asked and perched on the edge of the couch in front of me.

“No, Mother. I’ve never been more sober. Just waiting to hear how unbelievably loved I am.”

She sighed and then stood. “I can’t love you. If I loved you, I would lose you. You are him. You are my Miles. I couldn’t survive if something was to happen to you too.”

So, I was the china hidden in the cabinet as long as I didn’t get used I wouldn’t get broken. The problem with that was; I also never got to be enjoyed, useful, or even loved.

“No, Mother, I’m not. I’m Lucas. If you ever took the time to love me, you might know the difference.”

Her eyes protruded out of her head until they appeared to be popping out. I laughed.

Was she for real?

Mom started to pace the floor in front of the couch, back and forth, but not a word came from her lips.

“Cat got your tongue? Maybe I should call Jana back. You love running your mouth off to her.”

“You think this has been easy for me. I lost the only person I ever loved, the only person who ever loved me. My own parents had him killed. And I was told to smile and act like it never happened. I didn’t even know I was pregnant. I never got a chance to tell Miles. So, don’t come in here acting all high and mighty. You have no idea what it’s like to have no one.”

I slammed my feet to the hardwood floor and stood so fast the ground vibrated under me. “You had me. You’ve always had me.” I stumbled then fell back in the chair. “I love you, damnit.”

My mother’s eyes locked with mine, there was an ache in her heart clearly seen in those baby blues. I’d prayed so many days to have those eyes look at me with the devotion I was finally seeing in them. “You honestly think I don’t love you? That it hasn’t killed me to act like you are not the most important thing in the world to me.” The snot smeared over her cheeks was streaking with her tears. For the first time, I finally saw what a shell of a person my mother was. She had been dying a slow death all these years. “My father arranged that wreck. Wes and I could never prove it, but it was him and Alan. I’d lost everything than I found out that Miles left me with one last miracle. You.”

My breath caught as I watched her fall to her knees, and collapsed into my lap, gripping me with both hands.

It wasn’t that my mother didn’t love me, she couldn’t love anybody. Her ability to love died the day she lowered Miles Blankenship into the ground.

I couldn’t take it, and pushed her off me.

MS would one day put me in a wheelchair. Annie wouldn’t love a damn broken-down crippled. Even if she stayed now, she would leave me one day.

The pain seeped into the marrow of my bones. It was indescribable. If loving someone meant I might have to live with that amount of pain, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t afford to love Annie.

Shit, it was my only option. I had to walk away.

Chapter 35

Annie Prieto

Wes held me as I stood stunned on the front porch of Ann’s. He was bracing me for a fall. I didn’t fall, but Wes never stopped holding me anyway. He seemed to enjoy our physical closeness.

Wes wasn’t running.

Lucas’s modus operandi was to run and hide to process when life got hard, but he always came back. Something told me he wasn’t coming back this time.

“He’ll be back,” Wes whispered in my ear as if he could read my thoughts. “He always believed we built that treehouse to get rid of him, but we didn’t. He’s like Miles, they both had to be by themselves to process stuff. Lucas needs space to think, but he will always be there for the ones he loves.”

Wes kissed me on the forehead.

My daddy kissed me on the forehead.

I liked the sound of my daddy.

“Lucas is a very determined person, very capable, and you might not know this because he’s very humble too, but he’s a genius. There is nothing he can’t do if he puts his mind to it. He’s always been focused on the future, never took time to be a kid. He’s different with you. He’s carefree. He’s been happy. Try, he needs you more than either one of you realizes.”

“Come back in. I have something to show you.” He tugged my hand, and before I knew it, I was in a small office right off the living room.

Leaned against the couch was a large pencil drawing. Wes picked it up than sat down on the couch, staring down at the picture with a look of longing that was captivating.

“This was the last piece Evie drew before the accident.”

Wes swiped at a single tear rolling down his cheek. I wanted to keep my distance, but my heart had a different idea. In a single movement, I was sitting beside him. He leaned the picture in my direction where I could have a better view.

“My mom drew this?” I asked.

I discovered drawing when I was alone in my room as a teenager. A distraction from a bumpy world. Mine was a hobby. Evie Prieto had true talent. She had the skills of impressionism like a Monet and the smooth lines of someone in the line of a Renoir. The ethereal tranquility of the landscape was both peaceful and familiar. It was the field Lucas had recently taken me to. His mother’s happy place. The people were a little more abstract, making it hard to tell who they were, but I quickly put two and two together. On a blanket having a picnic was four young adults, Wes, Jennifer, Miles, and my mom.

“I’ve had this hung over the fireplace at your house for years. Mom removed it when she cleared out Evie’s and my personal stuff. I liked to put it back up as a reminder to us both that true love really exists. Lucas runs, he builds walls, it’s hard to love someone like that but fight for him. I’ve never seen him care about anything like he has you. He needs you, and something tells me, you need him too.”

Wes’s eyes locked with mine, and he refused to look away. I was the first to crack. I shifted my sight from him to the drawing and noticed my mother’s signature in the corner. I traced my pinky over it. It all felt too surreal.

Not knowing what to say about Lucas, I ignored the subject and focused on my mother’s memory instead. “I want all her stuff back in the house. It’s her home.”

“I want it back there too,” he whispered.

We spent the next two hours sorting and loading my mom’s stuff into Wes’s truck. We made two piles. Her personal stuff we were taking it back to the house and all the medical equipment we were donating to the nursing facility she was in.

Wes and I made a final sweep through the room when I saw one last drawing of a cross. I sat back on the bed and motioned for Wes to sit by me. He took my hand and held it tightly in both of his.

“Would you have prayed with me when I was little?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Pawpaw, Charles, would come to my room every night to pray with me. We would kneel down by the bed and I would bless everyone in the world. Even you. Often, I would ask God to bless my real daddy. Then Pawpaw would pick me up, swing my legs up on the bed, then lay down beside me until I fell asleep. I loved it, it was some of my happiest memories. But I was stupid and a week before Mimi died, I told him I was too old to be tucked in by him. So, he stopped. I would give anything to have him tuck me in one more time.”

Wes tucked my hair behind my ear. “He knew you loved him. He loved you too.” He paused and swallowed. “I would have given anything to have been able to tuck you in. And in case you were wondering, I prayed for you every night. The best part of my week was getting an email from Ruth Anne telling me about your week. I know I’m going to have to prove it to you, but I do love you.”

Ann walked in the room and handed me a letter, she started wringing her hands together instantly. The tension in the room was palpable.

“Lucky just dropped this off then left. He wouldn’t even talk to me. He said it was his goodbye.”

My Annie,

When you woke up in my arms, I thought I couldn’t handle if you left me, and I was right.

You taught me what it feels like to love and to be loved. It’s a feeling like no other. At times, it’s hard to catch my breath.

But my mother, she taught me the pain of losing that love. I can’t love you knowing any day I could lose you.

My real father’s family lives in Texas. It’s kind of funny when I was in rehab, I only lived 20 minutes from them. They don’t know I exist. So, pray I don’t give them a heart attack, but I’m going and introducing myself to them. I need to know what kind of man Miles was.

I’m not coming back. I refuse to hurt like my mom and Wes do. I won’t allow myself to love you.

Precious, live life to the fullest, spend time with Wes, go shopping with granny, take my Jeep for a spin, find some lucky SOB and tell him every day how blessed he is because he gets to hold you, and lastly, forget about me. I don’t want this anymore.

Lucas

You told me you loved me. It made me relax. I guess it was a lie.

Ann had to love Alan at one point; she married him than he turned her life to hell. Wes’s love for my mom was so strong that it should’ve saved her. Yet, it didn’t. Happily-ever-after didn’t happen to real people in the real world. Why should it happen to me?

Chapter 36

Annie Prieto

It had been three hours, twenty-two minutes, and some odd seconds post-Lucas, and each moment had been longer than the last.

“A little to the left,” I said and bounced my finger in that direction.

“Sweetie, we’ve been hanging this picture for over an hour. I think it’s perfect,” Wes said, and climbed down off the ladder.

My mother’s drawing hung over the fireplace where it belonged, and it was perfect, but I wasn’t. Tears glossed my eyes.

Wes ran his fingers through his hair before placing his hands on his hips. “Sundays are my day with Evie. I go by and check on her almost every day, but on Sundays, I spend the whole day with her. It’s our time together. I’ve only missed two Sundays, both times it was when I was sick. Once with the flu and the other time I had a stomach virus. I know it sounds crazy, but both those times she had a horrible week. She was in distressed and had to be placed back on the vent. I promised her, I would always be there. When Lucas was about nine, he entered his first dirt bike race. It was a Sunday, and of course —” Wes shrugged. “—I didn’t go. He was so hurt that he ran away from home. Actually, he went to his treehouse. He stayed there for an entire week. He even made this little basket on a pulley system, we could put food in it and he didn’t have to see us.” Wes smiled at the memory. “He was always so smart and just as stubborn. But after he calmed down and processed everything, he came back and was completely over it.”

Lucas told me about Wes missing his race — he wasn’t over it. He had just buried the hurt.

“Lucas loves you. I know because he told me so. Let him discover who he is, who his father was, then he’ll be back. He just needs to take a timeout.”

I fell back on the couch, and covered my face with my hands. The air around me grew colder and colder. The hole in my chest was massive and bleeding.

I understood why the house I was living in meant so much to Wes; it was the place he shared a brief moment in time with my mom.

Each day, Wes Carter had gotten up, put on a suit and a fake smile, then died a little bit more. Wes Carter’s home was wherever my mom was. My home had become being in the arms of Lucas Carter. The curse of the Carter’s was not lack of money or notability, but the lack of a true place to call home.

I hugged myself with a straightjacket tightness, to conceal the nerves convulsing throughout my body. I wanted the numbness to set in, but it didn’t — the pain had rooted too deep into the cracks in my heart to allow it too.

The sound of a cellphone buzzing caught my attention. I jerked my phone off the coffee table. No calls, no missed messages, nothing.

“Hey,” Wes said with his cell pressed to his ear.

“Have you called them?”

“I’ll be home in a few.”

“We’ll get through this.”

“Lucas needs to do this. It’ll be okay.”

Wes clicked END on the phone and sat down next to me on the couch. “It was Jennifer, she’s beyond upset. Lucas is going to visit Miles’s family in Texas. This is really messed up.”

“Why haven’t they been a part of Lucas’s life? I mean, Miles was their family, didn’t they want to know his son?”

“They never knew about him. Jenn was scared they would try to take him away. I know she hasn’t been the best mother, but she does love Lucas, she just always been terrified of losing him. Just now on the phone, I was afraid she was losing it anyway.”

“Do you want to go check on her?”

“Yeah, I do. I mean, I want to be here with you. I just got you back, but Jenn has been my best friend all my life.”

“Go, I’ll be here.” I glanced up at my mother’s drawing. “I think I’m going to try making this place home. I want to know my mother. I want to know you.” I picked up my cellphone. “Now, what’s my daddy’s number?” I asked, needing him to leave, simply to give me room to fall apart.

The smile on his face didn’t appear fake, actually, it was the sincerest emotion I had witness from him yet. “501-9092.”

I punched in his number and sent a text. “Now, you have mine. Text me sometime.” I gripped his lower arm. “Let me know when you hear from Lucas.”

Six hours later, I finally received a text.

Wes: Lucas is there. Jenn said it was going good. They are glad to finally have him in their life. I really do love you. Dad

A sad smile appeared on my face. I was happy it was going good for Lucas. He deserved it. But deep down, it made me sad too, because I wanted his home to be with me, not with them.

I nearly laid my bike over as I came to a halt too fast and missed rooting the kickstand entirely on the first try.

Rather it was standing in the yard Miles Blankenship grew up on, or the reel of memories I had of Annie playing rapidly over and over in my head, I had felt more disorientated as the days went by.

I showed up a week ago on the doorsteps of Carl and Angela Blankenship, and after a very awkward come-to-Jesus moment, they accepted me without a second thought.

They were finding it hard to forgive my mother though. She had spent every anniversary of Miles’s death with them and never once mentioned me.

I had tried explaining my mother’s frame of mind, but I had found it hard to understand Wes’s and her decisions too.

“You are your father’s son. He was always reckless too.” Angela swept at some unseen dirt on the front doorstep. Angela was a tall, robust woman. She stood six feet tall without the help of any shoes. Her once flaming red hair was now tempered with a hearty mix of shades of salt and pepper. Her crystal-clear blue eyes still danced with a mischievous gleam I had often seen in my own. “Your mother called.”

“And you took the call,” I said with a sneer.

I hated Wes for hurting not me but Annie, but as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t find it in myself to hate my mother. However, there was a festering wound between us, and I felt the jaggered edges ripe open a little more every time I pictured her face.

Angela propped the broom against the porch railing and sat down on the top step. “She’s shipping us all the videos she has of you growing up. She’s trying, and I’m trying to understand.” She patted the spot next to her. I sat down and took her hand. “So many days, I wake up and wish I could have one more day with Miles. Having you here, I feel like I’m getting that chance. I’ll never forgive your mom from keeping you from us all these years, but I do understand her fear of losing you. I lost a part of myself when Miles died and wouldn’t wish that pain on anybody.” Angela stood up. “Come on, I’ve fried some potatoes. They were your daddy’s favorite.”

I had walked the halls of that home for a week, and still found I was suffocated by the shadow of a man whose name I had never even heard until I learned he was my father.

Carl was already seated at the table, cutting into a roast, when I turned the corner into the kitchen. “Come on in, boy. This was Miles’s favorite meal. I talked Ang into making it for you this morning.”

Carl was once a tall and powerful man, but time and hardship had left him frail and a shell of his former self. The millions of pictures that lined the walls had shown he once had a head full of blonde curls, but all that was left was a few stray pieces around the base of his neck. But despite the physical changes his body had went through over the years, his spirit was still free and rowdy. He would make lewd remarks about the women on Fox News, that he watched incessantly, and then hold Angela in his arms and looked at her with hearts in his eyes, proving she was his biggest treasure. He would move mountains for any member of his family, including me. He still dragged raced at the local motor speedway every Saturday. I smiled. He was a picture of the man I had hoped to become.

Angela placed a platter of corn on the cobb on the table and winked over at me. “It was all for your benefit too,” she said and then turned to kiss Carl on top of his head. “It’s not like its Carl’s favorite meal too.”

I had stepped into a family and life that still felt strange to me, but it was a life I belonged in.

“So, tell me a little more about this Annie. Do you miss her?” Carl asked. “Because if you miss her out of the sack, she’s earned a place in your life.”

“Just pass the peas and shut up, Old Man,” I said behind a fabricated laugh, attempting to hide the anguish of losing Annie.

Chapter 37

Annie Prieto

The past two weeks seemed endless as my life fell into a pattern of The Downtown Café, Morning Pointe to visit my mom, sleep, and the treehouse.

Yes, the treehouse.

When the hole in my chest got too big to bear, visiting the treehouse made it a little less painful.

Wes had kept me updated on Lucas. I didn’t know what was worse, having no idea if he was even breathing anymore or the two degrees of separation we had going on.

However, thinking about never seeing Lucas again was not an option, I decided to heed Wes’s advice to give Lucas time and wait for him to come back.

“I’m really sorry,” Bob said as I slid my timecard into the timeclock.

I jerked an apron off the hook by the clock and looked down at my feet. Bob had opened up to me and was completely honest when I questioned him about knowing me. He not only knew who my mother was, but at one point in time, he was in love with her. Yes, Bob admitted he loved Evie with all his heart, but she only ever loved Wes Carter. He never questioned who my real father was — he never doubted the love Wes and Evie had for each other.

Bob knew everything, including the fact Evie was still alive but he couldn’t bring himself to tell me.

I was finding it hard to forgive him, but since I wouldn’t accept any of the Carter’s money, I still needed a job. So, I plastered on a pretty convincing fake smile and said, “I already told you I understand. If Wes couldn’t tell me, I could understand why you couldn’t.” I picked up a bottle of bleach and a clean dishcloth up off the counter. “Thanks again too for telling Wes I was in town. I like knowing I’ve been in my mom’s home all this time.”

Bob had arranged for me to live in that house, and for that, I was grateful. It was the only reason I could begin to forgive him.

I pushed open the kitchen door to escape before I said something I would later regret.

The place was busy, but not overrun with customers. The perfect time to free my mind with some light cleaning.

I bent over to wipe off the corner booth when I heard, “Annie!”

I recognized the voice immediately … even though I had not seen her in over two weeks. I twisted around to see Candice walking through the side door at The Downtown Café.

Candice sauntered over to where I was standing and licked the corner of her lip. If she was trying to appear sexy, her attempt was misplaced on the wrong person.

“What are you doing?” I asked and slapped the wet towel I was holding down on the table.

“Just seeing if you were using that nun act on a new victim like Lucas’s dad?”

“Nah, Wes has different taste than Lucas.”

My nerves were getting the best of me, provoking my weight to shift from my left foot to my right foot then back to my left. I had heard the rumors spreading around town that since I couldn’t weasel myself into Lucas’s wallet, I had moved on to his father. I shouldn’t have played into her game, but I really didn’t care what she thought. She would’ve believe the lies over the truth anyway. Lies were always more fun. Except for our truths, kind of like the one about Lucas and me being step-siblings — that one was sort of juicy.

“Wes will play, but he’ll never leave Jennifer, if you think you’ll get any of his money, you’re wrong.” Candice shrugged and took two steps to stand chest to chest with me. “Leave, no one wants you here.”

“Fuck off, Candice. You know truth is often stranger than fiction.”

I slung the towel and bit my lip to keep from laughing when the nasty towel water splattered across Candice’s face.

I laughed as Candice stormed off, and I realized it was the first time I had laughed since Lucas had left town. Maybe screwing with Lucas’s friends was just what I needed.

The cellphone vibrated in my pocket. I slipped it out and saw I had a text from Wes.

Wes: Can I show you something? I love you.

Me: Sure, I get off at 3

Wes always signed his text with I love you. Those were not words I could tell him back, but I did pray I could one day.

John was standing by the grill, grinning when I walked back into the kitchen to prepare for the lunch shift.

“There’s that pretty smile. I was beginning to believe I would never see it again,” John said then went back to flipping the burgers on the grill.

I tucked a pen and pad into my front apron pocket, vowing to myself I would spend more time smiling and less time dwelling on what I’d lost.

The swing doors scraped over the concrete floor as I walked back out into the dining room. The only guests were a few men in the back room preparing for their Lyon’s Club meeting and a group of ladies having a bite before their bridge game. I took their orders and poured them a glass of sweet tea, or as Bob called it the wine of the South.

John had a tray filled with seven salads when I walked back into the kitchen. He held up the tray and said, “Can you take these to the men in the back? They wanted salads as they wait for the other men to get here.”

I took the tray from his hands and smiled. “Sure thing, good looking.”

I delivered the salads and even managed to laugh at the men’s harmless flirting, then refilled the bridge ladies’ tea before heading back into the kitchen.

Bob was stepping out of the back when I barged through the doors. “I just got a call from Wes. He’ll be here in about ten minutes. He has a surprise for you.”

“I’ve still got four hours left on the old timeclock.”

“I’ve got it covered,” Bob said, and reached for the pitcher of tea I was holding. “You need some fun. Now go have it.”

Wes pulled his Mercedes onto a grassy hill by the cemetery Charles and Ruth Anne Williams were buried at. I had visited the place once a year since I had been discharged from the foster system and found out Pawpaw had died too.

“This is where Mimi and Pawpaw are buried.”

“I come here about twice a year. I don’t know why; I just feel like I own them. They loved you like you were their own. It’s always bothered me they didn’t have a proper tombstone. I bought them one and had it delivered yesterday. I thought you might want to help me check it out.”

It was hard to envision Wes being the kind of man who gave his only daughter away to strangers, and at times, I had to force myself to remember that detail. Especially when he told me he loved me or even when he honored the people who raised me. It was at those times that my heart surged with a newfound love for him.

I glanced out over the massive graveyard and in the direction of Pawpaw and Mimi’s grave, then saw the image of a black marble tombstone.

Charles and Ruth Anne were of modest means and their closest family members were a few cousins who lived in Little Rock, Arkansas. There was no money or family to purchase them a proper grave-marker. They deserved more than a small metal stand marking their grave, but it was the world they lived in; the world they raised me in.

I scurried out of the car and walked over to their grave site with Wes following close behind me.

Charles Douglas Williams

June 5, 1948 – May 16, 2010

Ruth Anne Williams

December 12, 1950 – May 4, 2010

Together Forever

Pawpaw and Mimi to Annie

Wes held his head down and read over the tombstone. When he finally looked up, our eyes met. His eyes spoke louder than any words. My breath got caught in my throat and I gulped back oxygen to relieve the ache in my chest before falling to the ground and tucking my legs under me.

“Thank you, Dad,” I said, uttering the word Dad for the first time, but the moment called for it. Wes had been visiting their grave for six years and never saw the need to purchase a tombstone before. Wes Carter was trying to make me happy. He did it for me.

“Care to guess what the worst day in my life was?” Wes asked.

I glanced over at Wes, not quite sure where that question came from, and by the look in his eyes, came face to face with a wound, I wasn’t even sure Wes knew was still there.

“The day of the wreck,” I said, sure I had it right.

Wes knelt beside me and placed his hand on my knee.

“That was horrible, but the worst day was the day I knew I was going to have to tell you good-bye. The first two years of your life, I spent most holidays with you, and every Sunday, I took you with me to see Evie,” he said and wiped back a tear. “Then I had my day of reckoning. I was at a small steak house with some lawyers from my dad’s law firm. We were waiting to be seated when the Williams’ and you walked in. You were twenty-three months old, and knew exactly who your daddy was. Your little eyes lit up and you squirmed out of Charles’s arms. Before Charles could catch you, you were standing in front of me with your little arms held up, saying, ‘Daddy’.” Wes looked away, I assumed to regain his composure before continuing. “I reached over to touch one of your curls and smiled, but all I wanted to do was cry as I denied knowing you. I remember those painful words every day, ‘I’m not your daddy, sweetheart, but whoever he is, he is one lucky man because you are such a pretty little girl’.” You looked confused and kept saying, ‘Daddy’.” Charles came over and picked you up. He apologized for bothering us, but you knew you were right, and that look you gave me was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to endure. I barely made it through that meal. The men I was with, laughed and joked about me being too ugly to have a daughter as pretty as you. I wanted to scream to everyone in that restaurant that you were my little girl, that you were my heart. As I was leaving, I glanced over to the little highchair you were in and you were waving bye to me. You had this big crocodile tear running down your cheek. I cried all that night, and realized I couldn’t keep visiting you every week. I had to give you up. What other choice did I have? Take you with me every Sunday and then tell you how much I love you, but oh, yeah, if you see me anywhere out in public act like you don’t know me?” Wes wiped away a tear I hadn’t even realized was falling down my face. “Jenn couldn’t love Lucas enough, because she was afraid of losing him, and I loved you so much, I almost couldn’t let you go. I’m sorry, Princess. Lucas and you both deserved much more than you got.” Wes looked back at the headstone. “Evie and Miles both would be ashamed of the way we handle things.”

“Mom would be happy you tried keeping me safe.”

Even if you didn’t always keep me safe.

My grip tightened on the shirt I was wearing, taming my nerves. I wanted to run. I also wanted to lean over closer to my daddy. “We can’t change the past, only work on making the future better. Can I ask you for one favor, though?”

“Anything.”

Since the whole truth came out, there was one thing that bothered me.

“Will you remove the tombstone where my mom was supposed to be buried? Your dad is no longer living, and I hate it. She’s not dead; she is very much alive.”

“I didn’t put that gravestone up to fool my father, but to have some concrete proof of the life I was meant to have. It was a reminder that for a few fleeting moments I had it all.”

I pulled down my orange ball cap as a jet-black Honda Gold Wing pulled up alongside my bike. The biggest highlight I’d had in the last two weeks was meeting Miles’s twin brother, Mike. If I had to describe him, I would say imagine me with crow’s feet and you have Mike Blankenship.

Mike killed his engine and leaned up, resting his elbows on the handlebars. “Remember, I’m the king in this joint, but I’ll throw you a few of my leftovers.”

I laughed, and it felt forced. “I’m good. Just here for a buzz.”

“Still holding out for the cute little brunette you’ve been going on and on about?”

“She’s special.”

“They’re only special when they are in your bed for the night,” Mike said.

I took a long, drawn-out breath. At times, I wondered if Mike wasn’t a glimpse into my future without Annie. Mike made it seem like a great life — a great and empty life.

I swung my leg over the seat, and adjusted my package. Mike unfolded the cane he had hidden in the saddlebag on his bike.

Oh, yeah, did I mention the fact Mike had MS too.

When I got my diagnosis, the doctor said it was inherited a majority of the time. I thought I was one of the few who didn’t have it in my family. Boy, was I wrong. My uncle, great-granddaddy, and a great-aunt all had it too.

Mike rattled on about some blonde and redhead he did the last time he was there. He didn’t stop talking until we took our stools at the bar of some dive in Downtown Austin. It was seedier than my usual hangouts, but the main bartender had grown up with Mike and Miles, and loved sharing stories with me from when they were little.

“Buenos días, muchachos,” a lady who was obviously Mexican and appeared to have been rode hard and hung up wet said.

“Hola,” I said with a small salute.

She wiped down the counter before setting a beer in front of both of us. “My niece is working in the back if either one of you fine-looking gentleman need any company tonight.”

I twisted on the bar stool and tossed back a gulp of beer. The last thing I wanted was some harlot, especially with mahogany hair, keeping me company.

The new view didn’t help. Thanks to the growing Hispanic population in Austin, half the customers on the dance floor had the same shade of brown hair I’d dreamed about every night the last two weeks.

Damn, I miss Annie Prieto.

“Mike.” The owner, Bill, held out his hand to shake Mike’s. “Victoria, table two needs some assistance.” Bill shook his head as Victoria walked over to a table of rowdy men. “Dependable, but a little too slutty.”

“Have you heard about her niece?” Mike asked, and immediately threw back his beer bottle.

Didn’t know how or when, but Mike arranged for the beer and whiskey to flow all night. The second I had one finished another one magically appeared in its place until my body was numb.

I started to stand, needing to piss, and couldn’t feel my lower body. It was as if my upper body no longer had a connection to my bottom half.

“Mike,” I said as I fell face first onto the concrete floor.

I woke up in a hospital bed with a killer headache and stitches under my left eye. Carl was snoring in the chair by the window, and Angela was sitting on the foot of the bed.

She took a deep breath and said, “I’ve never been more excited about seeing a pair of blue eyes before.”

I scraped my hand across the stitches on my upper left cheek. “What the hell happened?”

“You’re having a MS flair and the booze didn’t help it any.”

“I guess you’re going to say I’m like my dad again.”

“No, this is all your uncle Mike. The doctor has already started the steroid drip, and said you need to be on it for three days. Just think of it as a mini vacay at Hilton General.” Angela patted my leg. “I want to show you something before Carl wakes from the dead.”

She glanced lovingly over to Carl before standing up to grab a small laptop off of a rolling bedside table.

“Your mother overnighted those tapes of your childhood, and there was one I thought you might want to see,” she said and flipped open the laptop and pressed the spacebar.

The screen flashed with a video of my mother holding me near a Christmas tree; it was my first Christmas; I was somewhere around ten months old. I was clapping my hands and smiling at something or someone. The camera spanned to the left and Wes said somewhere in the background, “Annie, who do you love the most?”

A little girl around a year and a half lit up with the brightest smile. It was Annie. Her head was covered in thick, dark curls and her emerald-green eyes danced in pure joy. “My wub Ucas,” she said and skipped over to where I was sitting to kiss me on top of my head.

“Boy, you’re already stealing the girls’ hearts just like your daddy,” Wes said, still somewhere in the background, I assumed behind the camera. “But Annie is off-limits. She’s not allowed to date ever.”

Then I heard a sound I had only heard a handful of times in my life, my mother genuinely laughing. Even as a baby in the video, I paused to look up at the unfamiliar sound. The camera with janky and wobbled from side to side before landing on a solid surface and evened out. Wes fell down into the camera frame and swooped Annie up in his lap.

“Jenn, I haven’t heard you laugh since the accident.”

“I was thinking about Miles, and how he would be making some snarky remark about his boy already capturing the girls’ attention.” My mom bent down to kiss me only to have Annie push against the top of her head.

“My Ucas,” Annie said with a lisp.

My mom laughed some more, before saying, “Miles would get a kick out of them being so crazy about each other.”

Wes’s eyes glossed over. “I only wish we could keep her. God, I hate not having her here in our lives.”

Jenn reached over and touched Wes’s knee. “Miles will bring her back to us. Something tells me that Miles would have wanted nothing more than to have these two together.”

With a flick of her wrist, Angela closed the computer and the image of Annie and me as babies disappeared. “This is the Annie who you’ve been telling me about?”

I nodded, still too stunned to speak.

“Miles loved your mother. He always believed in true love, and when you find it, you don’t throw it away for any reason. If Miles would’ve known what the future would bring, he still wouldn’t have changed a moment with Jennifer. I wish you could’ve known him, but in a way, you do, because you’re just like him. He used to run too, when he got upset. Be careful when you run, because sometimes you can’t go back.” Angela twisted her hand around to expose a small ring box. “The morning your dad died in that wreck, he called and asked if I would ship him this ring. He was going to ask Jenn to marry him. It was my mother’s. Your great-grandmother’s. He would want you to have it. I’m not saying you found the one, but if you have, don’t lose it because you inherited the Blankenship’s tendency to be hard-headed.” She placed the box in my hand. “Thank you for coming into our lives. You have no idea how happy having you here makes me.”

I heard footsteps and turned to see a nurse come in the room. Angela hopped off the end of the bed and placed the laptop into a small computer bag.

“Someone finally woke up, I see. I need to get your vitals,” the nurse said in a singsong voice.

Pain sliced through my head. I moaned and pinched my forehead with my middle finger and thumb.

“I’ll get you a pain pill for that headache too. Whiskey and MS flairs normally don’t make good bedfellows,” the nurse said in a sarcastic voice.

“No shit, Sherlock,” I wanted to argue with her but I had another more pressing goal on my mind … Annie.

I felt the blood pressure cuff get tight on my arm. The nurse worked over me, checking each pressure point on my body. I peered off in the corner and saw that Carl had woken up and was mimicking the nurse. If the pain wasn’t so severe, I would’ve laughed.

“I’ll be right back with that pain pill,” the nurse said as she left the room.

I examined the box in my hand. There was only one thing that made sense — I needed Annie.

“Ang, can I borrow your cell?”

“Sure.” Angela bent over and started fumbling in her purse. Carl smacked her butt before rubbing a hand down her thigh.

Damn, I love my new family.

But there was someone missing. Someone I didn’t want to live without.

Angela handed me her phone and I realized I didn’t know Annie’s number. I had programmed it in my old cell phone, but never memorized it. I slammed my head against the pillow. I wouldn’t lie in that bed for another day without telling her how I felt.

I scrolled through the contact list until I came upon the name of the one person I wasn’t ready to talk too. I pushed the name and the phone started ringing. I held it to my ear and heard her say, “Hello.”

“Mom, is Wes around?”

“Lucas, baby, how are you? Ang said you were in the hospital. I miss you, baby.”

Mom sounded panicked, but I didn’t care. I’d find a way to forgive her, and would have her be a part of my life again, but at that moment, I wanted to spend any energy I had on getting Annie back.

“Mom, give Wes the phone, now,” I demanded.

She didn’t say anything, but I heard noise in the background. “Lucas, we miss you,” Wes said into the phone.

“I need Annie’s number.”

“I’ll get it for you.” I heard some more background noise than Wes breathing into the phone. “Got a pen?”

I motioned for a pen and paper on the bedside table. Carl handed it to me. “Shoot.”

“501-7661. Lucas, she misses you, we all do.”

My heart leaped in my chest and the pesky warmth in my chest blazed back to life. I said a simple prayer, and sent a text.

Me: I need you, Love Lucas

I waited and waited for a returned text. The nurse pushed some pain medicine into my IV and I drifted off to sleep, dreaming of a little girl with brown curls, saying, “My wubs Ucas.”

 

 

Chapter 38

Annie Prieto

My body forgot what it felt like to be fully rested, and the joy of simply sleeping in. It had been the only day I’d had off in days, and the fog over my life had finally started to lift.

I pushed back the covers, aching for a shower. It was early July, and the heat and humidity had my pajamas sticking to my skin.

I had taken my time, letting the water bead down my skin while trying to not think about all life had laid at my feet the last few weeks.

I walked through the house, towel still clung around my body and a turban holding up my wet hair. I reached in a kitchen cabinet for a coffee mug when on the counter, I spotted the cellphone flashing. I picked it up to see four missed messages.

Two were from Wes.

Wes: Lucas has passed out. The ambulance is taking him to the hospital. I will let you know when I hear something. Love you.

Wes: Lucas is having a MS flair. They are keeping him for three days for some IV steroids. Call me when you get this.

Another text from Will.

Will: Where are you? Wes called looking for you.

The fourth and final message was from an unknown number.

Unknown: I need you, Love Lucas

Everything faded around me. Lucas was suffering and I was the one he needed. My fingers trembled as I tried to remember how that stupid phone worked so I could call back the unknown number Lucas texted me from.

After two rings, “Hello,” came from a woman’s voice. I pulled the turban off my head, and held it to my mouth. I was going to be sick.

Why did he need me when he had her with him?

“Is … Lucas there?” My throat tightened as I said those words, never more unsure of myself.

“Annie?” the lady asked, almost excited. “Is that you?”

“Yes, can I speak to Lucas?”

The phone sounded like it was dropped then I heard mumbling but couldn’t make out what was being said, then I heard the voice I had wanted to hear every moment since Lucas turned his back on me. “Precious, thank God, I need you, baby,” Lucas said on the other end of the phone. His voice still heavy in sleep was the most calming sound I had ever heard.

“How are you feeling? Are you going to be okay?” I asked. “Who was that girl?”

He laughed — it was beautiful, but was it hiding the truth of who she was. “I feel like shit. I’m going to be okay. It’s all part of the MS gig. That girl is Ang … she’s my … she’s my grandmother.”

I slid down the wall, letting my wet hair trail a pattern across the wallpaper, until my butt hit the floor. “Your grandmother.” I sighed. “You found your family. How are they?”

“They’re wonderful, but I’m ready to come home.”

“Your mom and Wes will be happy to hear that.”

“They’re not my home, my home is with you. You’re my home. Can I come home?”

My breathing ceased as everything in my life combined into one big cluster of chaos — learning who my father was, that my mother didn’t die in that wreck years ago, the ache of what I felt for Lucas. Everything had been thrown into the large blender called life and set to shred. And the only person who could make the pieces whole again wanted to come home to me.

“Talk to me. I’m scared,” Lucas whispered so low I wasn’t sure the words were meant for my ears.

My chest pained as I jumped to my feet and started to throw stuff into a purse. “Where are you? I’m coming.”

Lucas laughed again and the sound was music to my ears. “Damn, I love you. I’ve got two more days in this damn hospital taking this steroid drip than I’m flying home. Will you pick me up at the airport?”

My heart raced in my chest and I fought back a smile. I missed him more than I would’ve ever admitted. “I love you. I’ll come there … if you want me too? I’m a pretty good nurse when I want to be.”

I let the towel slip down my body as I walked down the hallway to the bedroom to change. I wasn’t sure how I was going to get to him, but I was going.

“I could use a sponge-bath. Did I mention all I had on was a hospital gown?”

I know it sounds crazy but I could hear his smile through the phone.

I pressed the speakerphone button and toss the cellphone onto the bed before pulling some clothes out of the dresser.

“Lucas Carter, I’m sure you can find a few nurses around there more than willing to sponge you off.”

“Yeah, I know, but I enjoyed the first three so much, I thought I would go for a fourth one.”

I laughed hard, missing the harmless flirting Lucas mastered in.

“What airport do I need to fly into? And can you have someone pick me up?” I asked, tugging a cotton t-shirt over my head.

“Precious, as much as I would love to see your face, I only have two more days in this joint. By the time you get here, I’ll be coming home. Will you pick me up? I’ll get you the flight information as soon as I get a flight booked.”

“Of course, I’m sure Wes will drive me,” I said and then wiggled my jeans up over my hips.

“I don’t want Wes there.”

The tone of his voice threatened to suffocate me. A heavy weight crushed my chest and I fell back on the bed, debating on what to do.

“How do you suggest I get there then? It’s a little far to walk.”

Lucas sighed, and I could physically feel time and distance stretch between us before he finally spoke again. “I’ll figure it out, if you just promise to be there.”

“Promise.”

We talked on the phone for another two hours. His voice seemed to lighten as he talked about Miles’s family. The more he talked, the more I could tell he was accepting his newfound family a lot better than I was. Maybe, I was a tad jealous that the only way I could ever learn who my mother was, was through stories Wes and Bob told me. She had no family I could turn to.

“I’m hanging up now, so I can book a flight and sleep. These meds are getting to me. I love you,” he said, and before I had a chance to respond, he hung up.

As soon as the called ended, I went to the grocery store and purchased a month’s worth of junk food, sent a text to Bob telling him I was taking two weeks off, and then checked into a state of hibernation.

I changed into a pair of lounge pants and Lucas’s high school football jersey that I had never returned after we went swimming, and crawled into the corner of the sofa for a marathon of Gilmore Girls on Netflix.

The day turned into night, and still not a word from Lucas. I did receive a text from Bob stating he was glad I was taking some time for myself.

The doorbell buzzed three times, I stretched not realizing when I went to sleep or even what time of day it was. I glanced at the clock above the T.V. and saw it was 10:56. I was hoping that it was AM and not PM.

Who the hell? Was my thought as I kicked a crocheted afghan off me. I had just started toward the door when I heard the doorbell again. I huffed, wondering again who it was. I had only had two visitors since I had moved in — Lucas and Wes. Lucas was still in the hospital as far as I knew and Wes had a key. I pulled back the door without even checking the peephole.

Jennifer Carter was standing on my front porch. The last and only time I had ever seen her, she had practically thrown me out of her home.

She handed me a key and a Verizon bag. “Lucas told me to bring these to you. Well, I have a friend waiting on me.” She turned and started walking down the porch-steps but on the bottom step she turned back around. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry for how I treated you, I’m sorry I didn’t find a way for Wes to keep you, I’m sorry you didn’t get the life you deserved.” She paused and hit the palm of her hand on the porch railing. “I’m glad it’s you that makes Lucas happy. Having you two together would make Miles and Evie happy.” She flipped around without even a look back at me and climbed into the passenger seat of some high-priced car.

Could Jennifer Carter be anymore strange?

I spotted Lucas’s Jeep in the driveway and then glanced down at the key in my hand, sure enough it was for the Jeep. I slammed the door shut and shook my head as bile rose in my throat.

What the hell was Lucas up to?

I fell back on the couch and let out a breath before taking a box containing an iPhone 7 out of the bag.

The phone was already turned on with several texts messages flashing on the screen.

Lucas: I had Wes get you this phone when he replaced my “lost” one. And before you start arguing, he owes it to you. At least, he didn’t have to pay your cell phone in your teen days when you didn’t understand data limits. But I digress. I wanted him to buy you a car but he said you wouldn’t accept it. So, I hope you at least got the keys to my Jeep. My plane arrives Wednesday morning at 10:58. I’ll be on flight 5286 and it’s expected to arrive at gate B7. I wrote you a text and needed more characters than one text would allow. Read from the first text down, and I hope you understand my frame of mind a little more. I love you and can’t wait to hold you. PS I don’t have my phone yet, I’m using Angela’s. Be careful when you text back, she’s great, but kind of nosey too.

I thumbed through the phone and saw two more lengthy texts. When I started reading the first one — there are only twenty-six letters in the English alphabet, and who would believe that Lucas Carter could heal every wound my heart ever attained without even using half of them.

Lucas: I gave a piece of my heart away when I was little, but the odd part was I never understood what was missing in me until I met you. The deep ache I often felt vanished when I was near you. The sadness that had plagued my childhood turned to unbelievable joy with a simple touch of your hand. Your whispers were louder than my demons’ screams. From day one my heart knew you were precious, even if my head wanted to argue with it. I thought I might’ve wanted you, but the truth all along was I needed you. I NEED US!

Baby, all my life, I shut down when I knew the pain was going to set in. It was easier to run than to feel. But not anymore, I want to feel everything with you. The good and the bad. Teach me to be like you, teach me how not only to bask in the sun, but also to dance in the rain. Let me hold you so tight, I’m incapable of running.

Lucas: I’m slowly sorting out all the shit in my head, and learning it is a bigger job than I can tackle alone. The past two weeks, I’ve thought about my mom and real dad and wondered if they had what I feel with you. My mom use to watch this movie with a passion I couldn’t understand. She told me she would watch it with my dad when they were dating. I asked her earlier, and yes, she was talking about Miles not Wes. I decided to watch it to get a glimpse into their life together. Then the last scene caught my attention. It is my feelings toward you. I’ve had the time of my life and it’s all because of you. You are my home and I love you. Never running from you again, Lucas

Lucas: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l9BbUqHrWFI

I clicked on the link and it took me to the final scene in Dirty Dancing. Again, Lucas had music talk for him.

Epilogue

A Year Changes Everything

Lucas Carter

She’s 21, I’m 20, I could start fires with what I feel for her. I still remember the day my soul whispered, “She’s the one.”

Our luggage is strapped in on top on the Jeep, two half-empty soft drinks sit snug in the cup-holders between us, and Annie thumbs through the songs on her iPhone as we cruise down the interstate to see my family in Texas.

Annie’s hair is down and ruffling around her face as she leans her head slightly out the open car window. A soft smile flirts with her lips. She is calm and peaceful, just the way I like to see her.

She’s talking about the paint colors she had chosen for one of my newest flips when the sun caught the diamond on her left finger, the diamond my father had wanted to place on my mother’s finger, and I couldn’t stop smiling at the idea she had finally decided to take our relationship to the next step.

In the backseat, I hear a cry, my baby’s cry. Annie twist around to place a pacifier back into her mouth. Blakely quiets immediately. I glance over at Annie to take in the soft profile of her face. Annie rocks the car-seat and sighs when Blakely drifts back off to sleep.

Sometimes, it screws with my head to see Annie tending to Blakely. Those sparks shoot out again, and surround my heart. I wasn’t a man who deserved that little angel in the back seat, and sure didn’t deserve to have Annie as my wife.

I was not only broken, but selfish and all too familiar with screwing up. Annie didn’t give a flip about my mistakes — she loves me despite them.

Annie loves not only me but Blakely too.

And that would be enough for now.

But I couldn’t wait to finally …

Have a family with Annie and see her belly grow with my child.

True Love doesn’t have a happy ending …

True Love doesn’t end.

Thank you for reading Tiny Dancer. If you enjoyed a little piece of my imagination, please go to https://swoonreads.com/m/tiny-dancer/ and rate my story.

Happy Reading, JM Worthington


Tiny Dancer

Sometimes the truth can leave you feeling alone more than the lies ever will... The new girl in town, Annie Prieto, was trying to discover the past and rewrite her future when she came to Carterville. Annie soon learns that she can never distance herself from the darkness of her past when her path crosses with the Golden Child of the town. Lucas Carter is everything Annie needs to avoid, but the only thing she has ever wanted. Tall, blonde, handsome, finely dressed ... and rogue, Lucas arrives back in town after a brief stint in rehab, ready to rebuild a life he never asked for in the first place. Fascinated by Annie, he starts a friendship that will lead them both down a path that has the possibility to shake them both to their core.

  • ISBN: 9781370300624
  • Author: J.M. Worthington
  • Published: 2016-11-13 20:20:26
  • Words: 87283
Tiny Dancer Tiny Dancer