She knelt next to him and spoke gently. Nate, what happened to Delphine was an accident. It was my fault for bringing her to the dock in the first place. But she’s doing better. She’s going to be okay. You’ll see for yourself when I take you to see her. These dolphins are healthy. They’re used to people visiting them. Here, it’s okay for us to swim with them. We can get close to them. That’s why I brought you here. So you can understand the difference between dolphins that live in a facility like this one and dolphins in the wild. Okay?
Steel pressed a kiss to the top of my head. He’ll be okay with this. Once he sees how we feel, it’ll all be good, I promise. I knew that Steel completely believed this. And I let him. Maybe he was right? Really, what did I know? It wasn’t that Asher verbally ever said that he hated me. He just never acknowledged me again. When I went to his house, after calling several times and him never answering the phone, he’d looked right through me, and then he left town. He went to stay at his uncle’s in Texas for a month and no one had an explanation to give me. They all looked at me with pity in their eyes. When Asher returned, it was as if the man didn’t know who I was. The Asher who had loved me so fiercely was gone and in his place stood an emotionless, cold stranger. He then accepted a scholarship to the University of Florida and I never saw him again. I was left to claw my way out of despair all on my own, never knowing what I had done to lose him. Then just when I thought I had my heartbreak finally under control, Asher came back. I was now fifteen years old and I had one more year until I got my car. My body had finally started developing, giving me curves where I never had them, and even boobs I was no longer ashamed of when I looked at myself in the mirror. I knew all this wasn’t enough to get Asher Sutton’s attention, not in the way I so desperately wanted it. But it made me feel less like a child in front of him, less like a little girl he was protecting from bullies at school. That year, Steel Sutton had also begun talking to me in class, even more so since my body had started changing, and even though my infatuation with his brother was still consuming my every thought, I knew that at some point, I had to let myself date somebody else. Steel was probably not going to be that somebody because I’d not only have to be around Asher, but hiding my feelings for Asher while dating Steel would be hard. Impossible even. I needed someone else to date, but he would have to be a brave soul. Asher was around me more and more lately and since our little staring game in the dark, he was talking to me even more. I rarely walked to a class that Asher didn’t walk me to these days. He was slowly becoming a permanent fixture around me. Our strange night was never mentioned. I’d sat there on the step wondering if he wanted me to walk to him. If he was waiting on me. Finally, I’d decided he’d have to come to me. He hadn’t, of course. He was Asher Sutton. And I was just an inexperienced young girl with no idea how to handle him, or how he wanted me to react. Today though, I was older, and I finally looked my age. I had plenty to be happy about and I had decided that I didn’t need Asher to be happy. I was turning over a new leaf. Dixie, you have . . . uh, company, my mother called up the stairs. We were about to leave for school. Who was here and why? Was this another birthday surprise? I’d awakened to my favorite breakfast, chocolate cake on a plate, a tradition they began when I was four. I’d wanted my birthday cake so bad, I’d asked God in my prayers for my parents to let me have cake for breakfast on my birthday. They’d found that funny and not wanting me to think God wasn’t listening to me, they’d given me cake for breakfast. That wasn’t a surprise, of course, but during breakfast they had also given me a camera, though I’d only asked my dad to make a deposit in my car fund and nothing more. He’d done that, and then he bought the camera too, because he knew it was something I was into lately. Last summer, I’d found an old camera in the attic and ever since then, I’d been taking photos, mostly of people, the kind of action shots I’d seen in magazines. His voice stopped me as I hit the first step. Asher Sutton was in my house, talking to my parents, on my birthday. I glanced down at the skirt and top I was wearing. Secretly, I’d thought of Asher when I picked them out, hoping he’d see me in them and like the way I looked. Yes sir, I’m thinking of the University of Florida . . . Good choice, although Alabama’s my favorite, I’ll give them Gators a cheer, when they aren’t playing Bama, of course. Daddy’s reply was predictable, I thought. They were talking football. Asher was thinking of going all the way to Florida? That was so far. I’d have three full years left of high school while he was away at Florida, falling in love, maybe getting engaged, which immediately made my stomach feel sick. I slowly walked the rest of the way down the stairs and put a smile on my face. Asher was in my house and he was here to see me, not to bring Momma something his mother had made for her, or to borrow a tool from Daddy. Asher was here for me. Hey, I said, as I entered the living room. Asher turned, a sexy smile appearing on his face with ease. Happy birthday, Dixie, he replied. Thank you, I replied, beaming. I figured I’d give you a ride to school on such an important day. Was driving by and thought it would be nice to visit the birthday girl. He paused and looked back at my parents. That is, if it’s okay with the both of you? My mother’s eyes got that knowing light in them. I knew she was reading the wrong thing into this, but I couldn’t correct her in front of Asher. Reckon it is, if I can have your word that you’ll treat my girl like the lady she is. I’ve heard about that truck of yours. Dixie ain’t one of them girls. I blushed from embarrassment, wanting to crawl under the coffee table and hide there forever. Yes, sir. You have nothing to worry about. Dixie’s my friend, and I respect her. I like spending time with her, as a friend, only as a friend. Asher had just said I was his friend three times and that was all the wake up call I needed to stop me from getting silly ideas about him being here, picking me up for school on my birthday. He only saw me as his friend and that was all. Daddy didn’t look very convinced. But he nodded, indicating he was buying it. Known you since you were born. You’re a good boy, even if you’ve got a bit of a reputation with girls. I trust you’ll do right by my Dixie. Oh, good Lord, this was getting more embarrassing by the second. I hurried to the door saying, we need to go or we’ll be late, and opening it quickly. The cool morning breeze helped my heated cheeks, but it would take an ice storm to cool them. Have a good day, honey. Wear your seatbelt, Momma called. I nodded, and kept hurrying to his waiting truck. I feared that if we didn’t get away soon, dad would be asking Asher about his intentions and whatnot. I climbed in the passenger side of the truck and it dawned on me then that the other Suttons weren’t here. Asher shared this truck with the twins and they rode to school together every day. Asher got inside with a chuckle. Don’t worry about them, Dix. They’re just parents being parents. No need to be embarrassed. Where are your brothers? I asked, wanting to forget that scene inside. I wasn’t looking at him, I couldn’t do that yet. They got another ride. Why? Because I didn’t want them in here to see me give you this. I looked up from my lap to see a small silver box with a shiny pink bow on top. Asher was giving me a present. A boy had never given me a gift, not on my birthday at least, unless you count the white bunny Davey Miller gave me way back in first grade. It was the same bunny he napped with his entire kindergarten year which made me feel pretty special at the time.I reached for it. My hand trembled a little and I hoped he didn’t notice. I was excited, part of me wishing he’d left it on my doorstep so that I could open it privately. I knew that even if it were a rock, I would love it. It didn’t matter to me what was inside that box. It was from Asher and that made it precious. You gonna hold it like it might bite you or go ahead and open it? he teased. The wrapping is so pretty I hate to mess it up, I replied, no longer able to contain the big smile tugging at my lips. Thanks. I did it myself. I wasn’t sure I believed that. Sure you did. His eyebrows immediately shot up. Hell yeah I did, ask my momma. She supplied the wrapping paper and the bow. But I wrapped it. Honestly, I did. Now I didn’t want to ruin the wrapping even more. I’d keep it like this forever. Open it, Dix, he said, smiling. Fine. But I wasn’t going to tear the paper. I unwrapped it as gently as I could. Sliding out the small box, I realized I was holding my breath. I quickly inhaled before I passed out in front of him and embarrassed myself even more. I lifted the top from the box and my heart swelled even more from seeing what it held inside. It wasn’t because of the price of the gift or its beauty. It was because he’d remembered something about me that not many people knew. How did you remember this? I held The Little Mermaid sterling silver charm that would now complete my Princess bracelet. They discontinued it when I was nine years old, before I could complete my collection. I’d cried that day when Momma told me she couldn’t find one anywhere. Asher had been borrowing a saw from Daddy and he’d seen me in tears. When I told him why I was crying, he had hugged me, assured me that one day this wouldn’t be a big deal to me. I cried that it would always be a big deal because The Little Mermaid had been my favorite. I’d wanted that charm from the moment I got my bracelet, but it was always sold out everywhere we looked. I’d forgotten all about that, but he clearly hadn’t. That bracelet was still in my jewelry box, missing its last charm. Until now. Tears stung my eyes and I smiled as I held it in my hand like the priceless treasure it was to me. When a beautiful girl cries, a boy never forgets why, Asher replied softly. Asher Sutton DALLAS HAD LET his black hair grow long and it was now pulled back in a ponytail. When I came home for Christmas, he’d been tucking it behind his ears, but it hadn’t been pulled back yet. He had our mother’s green eyes and my grandmother’s Native American skin tone, also like mom. She always said Dallas was the prettiest of us all and we gave him hell about it. He was also fucking spoiled, being Momma’s favorite, her baby. I took a big drink from the milk Momma fixed me and noticed my baby brother’s grin. Dallas was clearly looking forward to Steel getting back because he thought we would fight. And Dallas loved a good fight and placed bets on underground fights all the time, thinking I didn’t know it. You want another pie? Momma asked, glancing over her shoulder as she dropped another pastry into the frying pan. No, thanks, I’m good, I replied. I want one, Momma. Fighting makes me hungry, Dallas drawled, Brent shoving him and causing Dallas to lean off, before he cackled with laughter. Ain’t no fighting going on around here. And you two stop rough-housing in my kitchen. Momma spoke, frowning at them both. Can I still have another pie? Dallas asked, seriously pouting. He was seventeen years old and pouting over a fucking fried pie. Of course. Go sit and be good, she replied, Dallas winking at her, and causing her to roll her eyes before going back to frying the pies. You’re a dipshit, you know that, don’t you? I said, as he pulled out a chair, turned it around and straddled it. Missed you, too, he replied, trying his charm on me, like he did on the rest of the world. He could be a smartass one minute and a charmer the next. Your pretty face don’t work on me, I said, taking another drink of my milk. He’s here, Bray announced as he walked into the kitchen. Just saw him drive up. You gonna play nice? He was looking directly at me. I wasn’t mad at Steel. I was angry because this shit was going to hurt him, too. He’d be changed forever, the same as I had been, and all I ever wanted was to keep them safe. But I’d failed. My leaving hadn’t helped anything. It had simply made it worse. I’m good, I replied when I realized all four sets of eyes were on me. The screen door opened again and this time it was Steel who walked in. He looked straight at me and stopped. He looked nervous. About time you finally got home, I said casually, rising from my chair. He took a step back, then froze, taking a deep breath. I’d eased him with my words. I haven’t seen you since Christmas, I said, closing the space between us and pulling him into a hug. Missed you, bro. The tension in his shoulders slowly relaxed as Steel hugged me back. Glad you’re home, he finally replied, and it sounded like he meant it. Awww, shi—crap, Dallas whined, catching himself before he cursed in front of Momma. I was hoping for some action. You two are gonna be all mushy and sh—stuff. Stop being a douche, Bray growled at Dallas. Momma spun and pointed her spoon at Bray. You say douche in my kitchen again and I’ll send you to the store to buy some. You hear me? Momma didn’t seem to care we were all men now. She still treated us like we were little boys. Bray nodded and mumbled an apology. Once, he’d called Brent a pussy in front of her. Momma took him to the grocery store and made him buy tampons. When they got to the checkout, she made Bray hand the tampons directly to the cashier and then take the sack once the lady bagged them. For a thirteen-year-old boy, that had been traumatic. Bray never called anyone a pussy in front of Momma again. In fact, he hadn’t used that word again until he finally got some actual pussy a few years after that. Since we’re all here together and everyone is good, why don’t we leave Momma to her television shows and homemade wine, and take this party down to Jack’s. It’s Karly Walsh’s birthday and everyone’s headed there tonight. Brent spoke, his eyes meeting mine. He still didn’t trust us to sit around with Momma present in case I decided to say something to Steel. Sounds good! I’d forgotten about Karly’s party, Dallas said, jumping up, his fried pie all forgotten. Watch him, Momma replied. He ain’t old enough to be going to one of them parties or Jack’s. Momma pointedly looked at me. The twins and myself had been going to Jack’s well before we were seventeen. She always expected me to keep them safe and out of harm’s way. And even with me being gone, she still relied on me to look after them whenever I came back home. I’ll keep him out of jail, I promised as we all headed for the door. Take this fried pie, momma called out to Dallas. He turned around and took the fried strawberry pie she’d wrapped in a napkin for him. Dallas kissed her cheek and she grinned, looking up at her six-foot-three baby and patting his face like an infant.
Some things never changed. Except that my baby brother was now as tall as me. Deep down, I never expected this. I knew that my walking Dixie to classes would keep most guys back. But I should’ve been prepared for guys like Sellers Brachen to be cocky enough to walk up to Dixie right in front of me. Heard it’s your birthday, Sellers drawled as I stood there and watched Dixie blush and stammer over her words. Sellers came from money. His dad was the head of the boosters and we had top of the line equipment on the field and in the locker room thanks to his contributions. Sellers was a good running back. And now he was pissing me off. Yes, she managed to respond. He clearly made her nervous and I wasn’t sure I liked that much. Well, happy birthday, Dixie. He then turned his attention to me for a second and I could see the challenge in his eyes. Dumbass. I wasn’t going to compete with him. Dixie wasn’t a prize to be won. What are you doing after school? She stammered again, then replied. Nothing. Going home. He gave her a crooked grin, stepping closer to her. That’s a shame. On your birthday, you should go have some fun. How about going to get a cupcake? Then I’ll take you out to see my new colt that was just born last week. I was sure she was going to turn him down until he mentioned the new colt. Dixie loved horses. Oh, really? Okay, yes, I’d like to see the colt. She was less awkward now, smiling brightly at him. Sellers’ smile changed too because Dixie’s smile did that to a guy. We’ve got practice, I reminded Sellers. Only till four. Dixie, can you wait until four for me? She briefly glanced at me. I had no time to react. What was she expecting me to say? Did she want me to stop her? Sure. I’ll, uh, do my homework, then come out to the parking lot. Shit. Not what I wanted to hear. I’ll be looking for you. Highlight of my week, he told her with a wink. He fucking winked. Like a douchebag. Once he was gone, I tried to collect my thoughts, decide what I was going to say. I didn’t know how to warn her away. He wasn’t good enough for her. This is my class. Thanks for walking me. I’ll see you later, Dixie said. She broke into my thoughts with her voice and then was gone before I could say anything. Shit. Fuck. I wasn’t okay with this. But what could I do to stop it? She was a freshman. Sellers was a junior. Not a big deal to most people. He hadn’t done anything I hadn’t done. My reputation was probably worse than his. I was the one she needed to be protected from. Goddammit. I just fucked up. You look like you’re about to go jump off a ledge, Bray said, snapping me back from my thoughts. Not today, I replied. Although pushing Sellers off a ledge didn’t seem like a bad idea. Dixie, was all Bray said. Just her name. Like it was all the explanation needed for my current demeanor. What? I was annoyed that the little fucker saw too much. He paid too close attention. Don’t act stupid. You’re the smartest one out of the five of us. Actually, Bray was the smartest. His grades just didn’t reflect it. He had an explosive temper that was hard to control. Since he was a little boy, we’d had to deal with it. Bray, I’m not in the mood for games. What do you mean by that? Bray sighed as if my question exhausted him. She’s fifteen today, older, but not old enough to make it alright for you. That’s what I fucking mean. Out of all my brothers, Bray was the one who didn’t let anything get past him. He was the one who saw it all, soaked everything in. And in moments like these, that insight might get him thrown from a window. Dixie is my friend. Just like she’s your friend. Bray laughed. Oh, no. I’m not whacking my dick while fantasizing of fucking her. Jesus! What the hell is wrong with you? I growled, knowing all too well that I couldn’t deny it. Lighten up. She’s grown up overnight. I’m not blaming you. Just saying you need to admit it and do something about it before someone else does. Because, believe me, brother, they will. What are y’all talking about? Brent interrupted. The twin I liked. The one who wasn’t a nosey ass fucker. Asher’s wanting Dixie. Time he did something about it. Admitted that shit. Oh, yeah, you really should. Sellers is already talking about her. Move fast, bro, or perish. Not what I wanted to hear. I’ve got literature, I think. Fuck, I don’t know for certain. Either way, I gotta go. Do something, Asher. Get on it. Those were Bray’s parting words as he turned and jogged toward the gym. There weren’t any classes that way. His lit class was in the opposite direction. Reckon he’s going to meet someone? Brent asked as we both watched him jog away. I wouldn’t be surprised. How does he keep his grades up? That was easy. He’s brilliant. Crazy as shit and a fucking genius. Brent nodded. Yeah, I guess you’re right. There was no guessing to it. I knew I was right. My brother was a force to be reckoned with. Can I ask you something, Asher? I turned to Brent. Yeah. He glanced at Bray’s retreating form, then looked back at me. Do you think he’s okay? Like, mentally stable? Yeah. Why? Because . . . sometimes he gets this darkness in his eyes. Like he’s not there. Like he goes somewhere else in his mind. Somewhere I never want to be. I knew the answer to that, but it wasn’t my secret to tell. Instead, I replied, he’s fine. Just Bray being Bray. Because that much was obviously true. Dixie Monroe AS WE WALKED into Jack’s, Steel’s hand tightened around mine. He’d texted me to meet him here. The only place in town to do anything, even though they didn’t serve alcohol to minors, or at least that’s what they told everyone. I’d seen a waitress bring a Sutton boy a beer more than once in the past three years I’d been allowed to actually come inside the front door. When I drove up and saw Asher’s truck, I called Steel and he came outside to meet me. He assured me Asher was fine with us being together and that he’d been all smiles. Was it wrong of me to feel disappointed that Asher was happy I was with his brother? Shouldn’t I want him to be okay with this? Steel loved me. Steel wanted to marry me. Steel wouldn’t toss me out like yesterday’s trash. But . . . now Asher was home. I scanned the crowd. I could lie and tell myself I wasn’t looking for Asher, but I was. I craved to see him and I had to get a handle on this. I was happy he was fine with me dating Steel, and it bothered me, too. Brent’s laughter caught my attention and I knew Scarlet was probably with him. But my eyes didn’t seek Brent or Scarlet. They sought Asher who was sitting on a bar stool, holding a cue, watching Brent taunt Bray. The smile on Asher’s face wasn’t the heart-stopping one I’d once loved so much. Instead, it was a sad one. Did coming home make him sad? Once, I would’ve been able to wrap my arms around him and ask him what was bothering him. He would’ve told me and we could’ve worked right through it together.Want a Coke? Steel asked as he pulled me in his brother’s direction. I wasn’t sure what I wanted. I shook my head and Steel bent his to kiss the top of mine. I swear, babe, it’s okay, he whispered in my ear. He thought I was worried about Asher being upset about us. But what really worried me was how I would react to being near Asher again, after all this time. Would I be able to breathe? Would my heart hurt too much? I looked for Scarlet, but I only saw Brent. He looked up from the pool table where he was watching Bray sink a ball, his smile wavering. He wasn’t sure about this. Great. Had Steel been wrong? Guess we’re all together again. About damn time. Scarlet’s on her way, Brent said with a genuine smile, before he winked at me and collected his stick, then walked over to the table. Bray straightened and glanced back at me. His frown told me he wasn’t on board. That this was a bad idea. I couldn’t help but agree with Bray. But this was something Steel wanted for us. Hey, Em, why don’t you come entertain Asher while I take his place in this game, Bray called to Emily James. Damn him. Was he doing this on purpose? I’d watched Emily paw all over Asher after he dumped me. I hated it then and it still made my skin crawl just thinking about it. What the hell ever, Steel said grinning. If Asher is out, then I’m in. You had your turn. I’m up. Steel left me to walk over to the pool table. I refused to glance over at Asher and Emily freakin’ James. I knew she was tall with long legs. She had big fake boobs her momma bought her when she was eighteen years old. I also knew she’d spread her legs for Asher more than once. Word had gotten around. It didn’t hurt any less now than it did back then. Emily of all people. Asher knew how she’d once treated me. And he’d done it anyway. He’s not paying Em any mind. Stop tensing up or Steel’s gonna notice, Dallas whispered in my ear. The youngest Sutton boy was the largest and the most perceptive by far. He studied crowds and body language like it was his chosen profession. Ash ain’t into fake titties anyway, he added, smirking all amused. I glanced up at him and he shrugged as if to say, what? You know I’m right. Nothing’s fake about her legs, I replied in a bitter tone that I hated myself for. Dallas’s gaze flicked over my shoulder in the direction of Emily’s lone voice. It came from where Asher was seated. Yeah, true, Dallas replied, but once a pair of legs have been wrapped around the hips of every male in the county, what’s between them ain’t the glory land that it was before all the wrappings. I couldn’t stop the laugh that burst forth. Dallas’s eyes met mine and he grinned, obviously pleased with himself for his comment. That’s more like it, he said. Don’t none of us want to see you all frowning. We love Ash and we’re thrilled he’s home, but we want the whole group to be alright again. To lay all the bullshit to the side. In other words, I had to get over Asher. I nodded and immediately replied. Yes, we do. Because there was nothing I wanted more in the world than not to feel the pain slicing through me every time I thought of Asher. For three long years, I’d been heartbroken. When would it end? Would it ever? Come here, baby, Steel said, drawing my attention over to him. He was holding out his pool stick. Show this smartass how it’s done. I’m sick of watching Bray beat the shit outta everyone at this table. Steel. I was here with Steel. He loved me. That was a truth I could count on. I walked to him, his hand sliding around my waist, pulling me close. We were always like this, but having Asher a few feet away from us, made it feel like I was on a stage, being watched, judged and accused. I hated that feeling. I’m gonna head out. I’ll see y’all at the house, Asher said, standing up, before walking away without another word. The silence that fell as he left made it all even more awkward. He hadn’t wanted me here. He never wanted me around. Guess I was pushing it. My bad. I shoulda eased him into this. Steel spoke, looking over at Bray. When Asher wasn’t around, it was Bray that the rest of the Sutton boys looked to, him being the second oldest, even if by only five minutes. Yeah, dipshit, Brent said. Probably shoulda not called her baby. He then slapped the back of Steel’s head and reached for his drink on the table. He was just starting to relax. Steel groaned and ran his hand through his hair: I’ll talk to him. Damn, this is fucked up. He shouldn’t care anymore. I didn’t want to be standing here listening to this conversation. I was the problem and I felt even more out of place and in the way than ever before. Maybe I should go home, I finally said, speaking up and reminding Steel that I was here, listening to it all. He looked up at me and grimaced. Sorry about this, but yeah, I need to go and talk to Ash. I don’t want him running off again. Momma would be heartbroken if he didn’t stick around for a while. And we all miss him. I nodded. I understood. I just wished it wasn’t this way. But then again, I’d been wishing for a lot of things for as long as I’d known Asher Sutton. Repeated wishes wear you thin. Especially when they don’t come true. I said yes to Sellers for one reason. And that reason wasn’t fair. Sellers was being nice, he was just flirting, but my using him to show Asher I was more than a little girl to protect had been wrong. Yet, I said yes knowing it was wrong. Now I needed to tell him no. Maybe even tell him the truth, as embarrassing as the truth was to admit. Asher hadn’t walked me to my last two classes. My plan hadn’t worked. Instead, it backfired in my face. Maybe now he thought I had Sellers to protect me, not that I needed protecting. Frustrated with the whole situation, I planned exactly what I would say to Sellers after his practice was finished. I even wrote it all down, read over it a few times, made sure I was completely prepared. Five minutes before packing up my things and heading down to the field house, the door to the library opened and a very sweaty Asher walked in. I was the only one in the library. Even the librarian had left for the day. She’d said I could stay and do my homework until after practice ended. Either Asher was here to see me or he had a book he wanted to check out so badly, he’d left practice early to do it. He stood inside the room, his large frame releasing an enormous amount of energy. My heart started beating faster, but then again, it always did around Asher. His gaze scanned the library, locked on me, before he approached with long, aggressive strides, and a determined look on his face. What are you doing? I asked, standing up and getting ready to leave. Don’t go out with Sellers, was all he said. I wanted that to mean more than it did. I wanted it to mean he didn’t want me with Sellers because . . . well, he wanted me with him. But I knew that was a fantasy I couldn’t allow myself to entertain. Do you not like Sellers? He shook his head no, but replied I like Sellers just fine. I just don’t like Sellers with you. Asher’s words were giving food to my fantasy world and I knew reality would soon slap me in the face again.Why? He stood there staring at me for what seemed like an eternity, but probably no longer than a few moments. Just meet me out at my truck. Is that okay with you? I need to shower and get my things first. I could have been strong here and said I was going with Sellers, even though I hadn’t been planning on doing that. Asher didn’t know that. I need to tell Sellers, I said, instead. His shoulders seemed to ease some, but not completely. He stood at a distance from me, his body wound, tense and alert. He just replied, I’ll tell him. I wasn’t okay with that. I should tell him, I said. Asher sighed. Fine. You tell him. But do it now. Then he turned and headed for the door. There was no other explanation. Nothing. Not a word. Asher, I called, needing something more from him. Any answer. Yeah? he asked, looking back at me, but holding the door with one hand. Why? That was all I could manage to say without showing him all I was feeling. I, he paused, looking torn over what to say exactly. Just . . . please . . . Dix. Somehow, that was all I needed to hear at that moment. I didn’t need anything more. Okay, I whispered. He smiled at me with relief in his eyes, then opened the door and left. Alone in the library again, the smell of books returned to my senses and the silence became almost deafening. But now those things would forever hold a memory for me. One I’d never forget. It may not mean much, but I couldn’t stop a small smile. I slipped my books back into my bag, placing Sellers’ speech in my pocket. I wouldn’t be needing it. I was going to be honest with him and tell him the truth, one that had suddenly changed in the last few minutes. There was a parking lot between the school and the field house. I spotted Sellers walking my way. He was already showered and dressed, in a pair of jeans and a football tee shirt, his hair still damp, but styled in that messy way he always wore. I knew that being honest with him was the best thing to do, but I still felt bad about it. You ready? he asked while grinning. Uh, about that, thank you for the invite. It was very nice and any other time I would have enjoyed going. But Asher . . . he’s . . . ah . . . asked me to go with him. I’ve wanted that for a very long time. It wouldn’t be right to go with you when my mind would be stuck on Asher. I felt like I stumbled on my explanation. Did it even make sense to anyone but me? Sellers gave me a crooked grin. So that’s where he went so quickly after practice. Again, thank you, and I’m so sorry. It’s okay, Dixie. I get it. Thanks, I repeated, quickly turning and walking away, eager to leave this awkward conversation. I hurried toward Asher’s truck. You’re welcome, Sellers called out. I turned back, confused as to what he was saying. Sellers chuckled, gave a small shake of his head before he walked away himself. Had he known Asher would do this? Was that why he asked me to go out with him to begin with? And if so, why would he do that? I stopped at Asher’s truck and although it was unlocked, I didn’t get inside. I waited. Just as I turned back to see if he was coming, I saw him headed toward me. Like before, he looked determined. His eyes locked on me. My cheeks heated up, again, the intensity of his eyes overwhelming me with trepidation. My body felt warm and I knew I was forgetting to breathe from the short rapid gasps coming from my mouth. I didn’t know how to control my reaction to him. When he got to me, I expected him to stop and open the door for me. Instead, the bag he carried in his hands dropped to the ground, his body crowding mine, as he pressed me up against his truck. Both his hands cupped my face before Asher Sutton’s lips met mine. Hard yet soft, demanding yet tender, Asher tasted me like I was his last meal, and I was sure if he hadn’t moved his hands to my hips and jerked me closer to him, I would have slid to the ground and blacked out. My legs were weak and my body trembled. Nothing had prepared me for this. Nothing had ever been this life altering. I felt like I was hit by a lightning. And my world would never be the same after that. Asher Sutton MY BEDROOM REMAINED the same. It had once been the attic, but when I turned thirteen and got tired of sharing a bedroom with both Brent and Bray, I made a deal with Momma. If I cleaned out the attic and turned it into a bedroom, she would get me a window unit so I would have air in the summer when needed. For warmth, I ran a cheap ceramic heater. It took a month, but when I had it all cleaned up, Momma kept her word. The other boys complained that I got my own room, but she reminded them I was the oldest. When I’d moved out, no one tried to take it. I’d expected the twins to fight over it, but surprisingly they didn’t. It was then that guilt tugged at me. Was it because they all hoped I would come back home? I threw my duffel bag on the floor and sank down onto my bed. I missed home. I loved it here. I loved having my brothers around me, working the same land my father had worked. This was my life, or it had been, until the day it all came crashing down and changed everything forever. I took the secret with me, but I wouldn’t be able to keep it a secret any longer. Steel had to know. His heart would be broken for a while, but mine had been shattered beyond repair. Steel would survive this, he’d move on eventually. I had to believe that. The nagging thought that Dixie had so easily fallen in love with someone else was driving me crazy. Just because I couldn’t fill the void she’d left in my life didn’t mean she shouldn’t move on either. I wanted Dixie to be happy and knowing I was going to hurt her again, only made what I had to do even worse. Heavy footsteps told me I had company. I was expecting Steel. I knew when I walked out of Jack’s that he’d follow me home. Yes, I’d gotten jealous when he’d called Dixie baby, but that wasn’t why I’d left. The real reason was so fucked up that it hammered in my head and I knew I had to tell him. I couldn’t sit back and watch this again. He had to know now. Lifting my gaze from the floor, I met Steel’s concerned yet determined expression. He was here to fight for her. To make sure I didn’t ruin his chance with her. I had to tell him. I love her, my younger brother said, breaking the silence around us. She’s easy to love, I replied. Steel’s lips tightened. He didn’t want to feel as if he had to compete with me. You crushed her and then you left her. Now she’s mine, Asher, mine. I’ll fight for her if you make me. I stood and watched as Steel tensed up. Did he think I would hurt him? I’d protected him and beat the shit out of more than one bully over the years. He was my brother. I wanted him to be happy. Had letting Steel have Dixie been our only problem, I would have walked away and let them be happy. But that was not the problem, as much as I wished it were. Walking over to a corner of the attic, I moved a loose board from the floor and bent down to retrieve an old shoe box. My world ended the day I discovered it three long years ago. Every good memory I’d had in my life up to that point had been centered around my Dixie. The contents of that box had taken all that away, ruining the memories, and leaving me a broken man. I dusted it off because it hadn’t been touched since the day I found it while moving some furniture around so that the bed wouldn’t hit the squeaky board directly over the living room. I’d been making plans to sneak Dixie up here that weekend, but that never happened.
Sinking back down on my bed, I held the box with care. It caused me agony just to touch it knowing what was inside. There was no doubt or question that what it held was true. Looking up at Steel, I knew that I wasn’t just going to end any hope he had of a future with Dixie, but that every memory he had of our father would also be altered forever. The same as mine had been. I never deserted her. Never stopped loving Dixie. I spoke, then lifted the lid. Steel, I found this three years ago. I didn’t intend to share it. But I also never planned on one of my brothers falling in love with my girl. I then shook my head. She’s not my girl. She can’t be my girl. Reaching into the box, I removed the letters, the paper folded and unfolded so many times, the edges were worn from the handling. This is why she can’t be your girl either, I said, holding the letters out to my brother. Steel was watching me with fear in his eyes, as if he’d understood the truth before he even looked inside. What’s this? he asked, his voice shaky, unsure. It’s the reason why I left her. The reason I can’t have her. Why you can’t have her either. Steel opened the first letter. I couldn’t watch him as he read it. I dropped my head into my hands and waited in silence. His world was going to be forever changed. Just as mine had been. And I was powerless to save him from the pain. All the letters, but one, were written by Dixie’s mother. In each she tells the man she is writing how much she loves and misses him. She begs him to take her away from her life so that they can start a new one together. The passion in her words would’ve been moving, if not for the fact that each and every one was addressed to my own father. A man I had once admired. A man whose name I had been proud to bear. A man I had mourned when he died. A man who’d deceived us all. This is . . . Steel said with effort, before I felt the mattress sink beside me, as Steel sat down with a sigh. I just can’t . . . he muttered and coughed. Keep reading, I told him as the acid in my throat burned. I’d memorized the last letter she had written to him. Every word was branded on my brain. Vance, I won’t keep writing these letters to you. Not if you’re going to continue ignoring me. I don’t agree with the words you said. I believe we can have happiness together. This child inside me deserves us both. It will be a part of you just as those boys are. You said you loved me. You said being with me made you feel young again. Complete. You said complete. But now, I’m carrying your child and you won’t speak to me. Is it because she’s pregnant again? I know she’s your wife but I have a husband too. One I’m willing to walk away from. One I’m willing to leave for you. Does that mean I love you more? Because I’m willing to tell him the truth? That I love you. That this child inside me is yours. Proof that the passion we have for each other is worthy of a chance. I won’t keep you from your boys. I know you love them as you should. But you don’t love their mother. You love me. I know that. Be with me, Vance. Fix the mistakes of our past. We messed up all those years ago by going our separate ways. My heart has been yours since I was fifteen. It will always be. Don’t leave me. Don’t turn your back on our child. That would destroy me. I love you forever and always, Millie My father cheated on my mother. Dixie was my sister. The sickness slammed into me again, the words in that letter replaying in my head. I’d made love to Dixie. I’d been inside her and it was like heaven. I’d never experienced anything like it again. Yet, it had been sick and wrong. Did you show these to Mom? Steel asked. His voice sounded strained. I understood what he was going through. No. And I never will, I replied, dropping my hands into my lap and looking over at my brother. He was staring straight ahead at the wall with the letters clasped tightly in his hands. He was a bastard. A lying bastard, Steel said, his pain heavy on each and every word, emphasizing what he was feeling. Yeah, he was, I replied. I wasn’t going to argue that. He had also allowed another man to raise his child as his own. These letters were all dated months before Dixie’s birth. Before Steel’s. How could he do that? The final letter was one from my dad. It had erased any doubt I might have had about the truth. Dad claimed Dixie was his, but he’d said he loved us more. He wanted my mother and his boys. He couldn’t leave us and he’d told her she needed to let him go. Her child would be Luke Monroe’s. The man I knew to be Dixie’s father. There wasn’t another letter after that. Not in this box at least. Dixie’s mother had run off when Dixie was a toddler, leaving Luke to raise her alone. When Dixie had been five, Luke Monroe remarried a woman named Charlotte, who adored and cherished Dixie, eventually becoming the mother Dixie never had, and although Charlotte loved her fiercely, Dixie had always wondered about her birth mother, even planned on finding her one day. She longed to know why she had left her. I never wanted her to find Millie Monroe. I hoped the woman was dead and had taken this secret with her to the grave. Dixie could never know. She’d had too much loss and pain in her life. It was why I’d suffered on my own. To protect her. Always to protect her. Why didn’t you tell her? Steel asked. I turned to Steel, studied his face, the hurt and disbelief visible in his eyes, as he realized his world was slowly crumbling. But I also saw that he wasn’t putting her first. He wasn’t focused on protecting Dixie from this ugly secret. Because I would die to shield her from this kind of pain, I replied. Because I love her more than you ever could. I didn’t say those last words aloud, but we both knew they were true. I can’t tell her, can I, Asher? You aren’t going to let me explain? I have to hurt her like you did? I stood and moved away from him. I needed some distance between us. He was thinking about himself first, and not her. That infuriated me the most. Steel had planned on making a life with her, yet he wasn’t willing to sacrifice his happiness for Dixie’s. The pain you’ll cause her by breaking it off with her is nothing compared to the kind of pain . . . Steel, I made love to her. I’ve been inside her . . . took her innocence . . . and, dammit, I’m her brother! That’s fucked with my head ever since . . . ripping me in two . . . sickening me . . . crushing me again and again. Because, I never stopped loving her. Steel sat and stared at me silently. Several minutes passed as he mused. I waited for him to argue with me, but he didn’t say a word. Finally, he rose, and held the letters out to me. I won’t tell her. I won’t tell anyone, he said, his voice thick with emotion. I love her, too . . . fuck, this is sick. Does Luke not know? He’s let us both date her. Hell, I’ve asked her to marry me. I shook my head. Of course he doesn’t know. He woulda never let us date Dixie. This whole fucked up shit happened because the only two people who knew are now gone forever. I took the letters and held them away from me, what they said so deplorable, it was hard to even grasp them. How am I supposed to hurt her? Steel sounded so torn. I’d been where he was. Wanting to explain it all to Dixie. Every time she looked at me with those big sad eyes, I wanted to tell her how much I loved her, but it was wrong, the entire thing twisted. This would only hurt her worse. She adored Luke Monroe. Not only would telling her mess her head up, but it would take away the security of knowing her daddy loves her. It would likely destroy Dixie.This will kill her, Steel. You know that, I said in a timid, lost voice. He shook his head and then buried his face in both hands as we both stood there in silence. I understood what he was feeling. I’d lived it every day. Missing Dixie with every breath I took. This wasn’t going to get easier for him. But Dixie would eventually heal and find happiness. That was all I had to hold onto. Knowing one day she’d get the life she deserved and all the fucking joy in the world. My girl belonged in the sunshine. This sick twisted darkness had been mine to suffer through, and now my brother would share it with me. Steel turned to leave. I didn’t stop him. I knew he needed time and space. Being alone was best for now. I stood there listening to his footsteps as he walked away from this room, these letters . . . knowing he would have to hurt her in order to save her from harm. Again, she’d suffer because of this sin, never knowing why it was happening. Be gentle with her! Please! I yelled, unable to stop myself. Steel paused at the top of the stairs. Nothing about this is gentle. I don’t know how I could be gentle. Once I knew, I hadn’t been able to even look at her. There were so many things I should’ve done differently. She deserved more from me than what I’d given her. Hold her when she cries, I said. More than anything else I wished I’d done that, instead of just walking away and letting her suffer alone. Kissing Dixie was the moment. That moment I didn’t know could exist. But sitting in my truck outside my house after taking her home made me realize I’d finally found it. She was it. I didn’t care about any other girls. Wasn’t interested in ever touching another one again. Not after that kiss and the way she looked at me, the same thoughts and feelings I was experiencing reflected in the depths of her beautiful eyes. Focusing on how right this felt was easier than thinking about the age difference. Or the fact her dad was probably going to beat my ass. Shooting me was also an option. But love made you crazy and fearless, and none of that seemed important to me right now. The driver’s side door jerked open. What the fuck you sitting out here for? I got a piece of ass waiting on me and I need to go. Get out! Bray’s usual annoyed look was plastered on his face. It’s past curfew, I pointed out. Yeah, well, Momma is in bed and you kept the motherfucking wheels all evening. How am I supposed to go get some pussy if you’ve got the truck? Jesus, Bray! He had very little respect for females. A sex addict through and through. He was also insensitive and harsh. I wasn’t sure why females loved him. Brent looked just like him, but was nice, kind, easy going. Yet, the women gravitated to Bray. I got out of the truck and leaned close to smell him. Had to make sure he wasn’t drinking. Get off me. I haven’t had anything to drink. Just making sure. It’s my job. He laughed. Ain’t your motherfucking job. Hey, have you nailed Liza yet? I shook my head. I was taken. A smile slid across my face at the thought of kissing Dixie. What I felt was pure euphoria. Good. Don’t like dipping my wick where you’ve already had your candle. Drive careful, I told him as the truck door closed. He was cranked up and pulling out before I even made it to the house. Stepping into the kitchen, I saw Momma in her housecoat putting away the clean dishes. She glanced over her shoulder at me. That hellion left, didn’t he? She asked, already knowing the truth. Yes, ma’am. He’s gone. Bolted. He’s gonna be my wild card. The one to make me go gray too soon. He thought you’d gone to bed. She laughed. No, he did not. Boy walked out that door knowing good and well I was in here washing the dishes. Son, that lie was for you. He better not knock some girl up. I’ll make him raise the baby. I might not be able to do a lot with him, but I’ll for sure make his ass be a daddy if he creates a life. We all knew that to be true for all of us. Bray was careful. We all were. Had to be. Where’ve you been all evening? she asked. With Dixie. She put her towel down and turned around. Well, it’s about time. That poor girl has loved you long as I can remember. She’s turned into a real beauty. That surprised me. Not sure why. Nothing much ever got by Momma. She’s young. Momma shrugged. Your daddy was five years older than me. We were just fine. Yeah, but you were seventeen when you started dating. Almost eighteen. Does she make you happy? Yes, I replied. That right there is all that matters. You will be good to her. Treat her with respect and love her the way she deserves to be loved. That’s what I know. That’s what she knows. You do that and the rest will fall into place. Most of the time anyway. What about her dad? I asked. Momma chuckled. Well, now you might have to run for cover before he takes a gun to you. Great. Even Momma thought that might be the outcome. Oh, Asher, don’t look so worried. Anything worth having comes with a price. This time it was me who laughed. My life may be the price. She shrugged. You got to figure out if she’s worth that or not. I left you a plate in the microwave. Eat something and get your homework done. She kissed my cheek, then headed to the living room to watch her evening shows. She’d stay up until Bray got home. Then he’d get an earful, before doing it again tomorrow. Dixie Monroe STEEL HADN’T CALLED last night and he hadn’t come by today. I could’ve gotten angry with him, but then again, yesterday I hadn’t been able to put the ring he’d given me back on after taking it off. Before seeing Asher again, wearing that ring wasn’t so hard. But now, it felt wrong. Like I was betraying Asher, even though he’d been the one to turn away from me. I walked out to my car and glared down at the Sutton house. Why’d I let Asher affect me so much? Would I ever stop caring that he tossed me away after I gave him everything? I jerked the door of my red Jeep open while at the same time my phone started ringing. I stopped and pulled my phone from my pocket. It was Steel. Finally. But I didn’t want to answer. It continued to ring. On the fourth ring, I gave in and said, hello. Hey, he said, then paused. With just one word I knew something was off. His tone was tense. Controlled. We need to talk, he said on an exhale. Asher. This was all because of Asher. Why? Did you talk to Asher? Is he not okay with . . . us? Steel didn’t reply. His silence spoke volumes. This was about Asher. But why? Why did Asher care? And why was I letting a sliver of hope into my heart? My knuckles turned white as I gripped the car door. He hadn’t spoken to me in three years, yet he still managed to rip me to pieces every time he was back in town. I needed my closure, some form of finality between us so that I could move on. Fine, we’ll talk later, but I have somewhere I need to be. I’ll call you? Is that okay? I said it not caring if it was okay or not. I wouldn’t talk to Steel again until I found Asher first.
Uh, okay, yeah, he replied, sounding nervous and uncertain. Good. I’ll call you later. I quickly ended the call before he could say more. Climbing into my Jeep, I chose not to think about what I was going to say. If I did, I would’ve talked myself out of this. I turned my Jeep down the hill toward the Sutton house instead of going to town. Asher had been running from me long enough. He needed to face this once and for all. He needed to face us. What he did and what he threw away. Steel’s white truck was gone when I pulled around the house. I made my way to the barn. Asher’s blue truck was parked where he had always parked it, just to the right of the pump house. He could see it from his bedroom window whenever he parked it there. That kept his brothers from sneaking off with it. I stopped beside his truck and turned off my Jeep, but that was as far as I could get. Facing Asher was terrifying. His rejection and refusal to look at me had always felt like a knife plunging right through my heart. I needed a moment to mentally prepare. I knew I couldn’t do this with him and walk away unscathed. I knew what lay in store for me afterwards. The knock on my window startled me. Bray was standing there frowning. Taking one more deep breath, I closed my fingers around the metal latch, opening the door and stepping down. Steel ain’t here, but then I’m guessin’ you know that, seein’ as how you’re parked next to Ash. Bray’s tone held a warning. He thought I was here to cause trouble. I wasn’t, not any more than Asher had caused when he drove into town and sent my heart into a tailspin again. Bray, it’s past time I got some closure. Back off and let me go get it. He’s had three years to get his head from his ass. Now I’m ready to move on and I need to finish this . . . thing . . . what was left unsaid between us . . . when it ended and your brother did the ending. Bray stood there a moment, then sighed, stepping back so I could get past him. You’re right. This shit needs cleared up. Momma’s gone with Brent to get some feed and some flowers for the front pots. Asher is . . . . . . right here, he said, that deep familiar voice that still taunted me in my dreams interrupting Bray’s. Asher had seen me drive up. I expected that. It’s why I parked here. I wanted him to know I was coming. Fix this shit, Bray said, glaring at his older brother, before turning and walking away, leaving us standing there alone for the very first time in years. I’d come to demand closure and now that I had his complete, undivided attention, I couldn’t move a muscle. I couldn’t form any words. I felt paralyzed. Asher stood a few feet away, only wearing a pair of worn jeans hung low enough on his hips that his v-cut lower oblique were in clear unhindered view. Where the hell was his shirt? As if he could read my mind, the black cotton fabric of his tee shirt suddenly draped over all those muscles, the same muscles I used to think were made for sex, back when I was the one Asher was having sex with. Lifting my eyes, I took in his wet locks and freshly shaven face, realizing he’d just showered. You talked to Steel? he asked, and my knees went weak. Why were my knees going weak? Why was being close to him like this as insanely all-consuming as it had been three long years ago? Before he tossed me out like trash. Not exactly. We’re meeting up later to talk. Before I talked to him, I wanted to talk to you. It had taken all my strength to speak calmly. I wanted to scream at Asher. Demand to know why he hated me. You need to talk to Steel, not me, he replied, then he turned to walk away. Just like before, he was blocking me out. Refusing to acknowledge me. I hated him again, how he used me, and then could so easily forget me. I hated that I still loved him. A scream tore loose and I lunged, grabbing Asher’s arm to stop him. He wouldn’t leave me again. This time I wouldn’t stand here and take it. I would tell him what a horrible person he was. I roared no! as my hands wrapped around his bicep, which once used to curl around my shoulder back when I was something precious to him. Pushing those memories aside, I squeezed his arm and jerked him toward me, as hard as I could. Asher stopped. His body tensed. Asher Sutton was not a small guy. He was all hard lines and muscles. Broad shoulders with a narrow waist. Thighs that made women drool. Yet, here I was screaming at him, and yanking on his arm like a kid, throwing a temper tantrum. Not this time! You won’t walk away from me again! I tried to fill my voice with determination but I was fighting back tears inside. Asher slowly turned. I let his arm go, suddenly realizing I was touching him. When his eyes met mine, I was unprepared for the pain I saw in them. It took my breath away and I had to take a step back to recover. Haven’t I done enough? he replied. Can’t this be all I have to endure? Do you want me to continue killing us both? Reduce us both to nothing? He didn’t try to hide his pain, that hateful mask of relaxed indifference he’d used with me for so long now replaced by unchecked, raw anguish. It took all I had in me to stop myself from taking him into my arms, to make that look in his eyes go away. Why? I need to know why, I spoke softly. I stood where I was because I knew Asher would push me away if I went to him. He wouldn’t let me touch him. There was too much emotion running through him. I can’t be who you need me to be. I can’t be who you deserve me to be. I thought once that I could, but I found out that I made a terrible mistake. One I can’t take back. He tightly closed his eyes, muttered a curse, before opening them again and leveling them on me. If I could erase the past, our time together, I would take it all back. Every single moment, Dixie. I would wipe out every goddamn moment. Then you could move on and forget me. You were never meant to belong to a Sutton boy. A week had passed since he first kissed me. Walking out my front door every single morning to find Asher Sutton standing at his truck, with his arms crossed and that smile on his face, still seemed unreal to me. Like I was living in a dream. But it wasn’t a dream. This was real. I was Asher Sutton’s . . . girlfriend? I then realized I wasn’t sure I should call myself that. We hadn’t discussed it yet. He kissed me. He walked me to my classes. Had me wait on him until practice was over so he could drive me home. But we didn’t go anywhere together. He wasn’t asking me out on dates. Maybe I was making more of this than was actually there. My heart sank at the mere thought I’d been imaging all this. Mornin’, Asher said as I reached him. He always waited leaning back against the passenger side of the truck. Good morning, I replied, trying to smile. The joy I’d felt at stepping outside and seeing Asher was quickly fading. Maybe I was misunderstanding this thing between us. Asher took a step closer. His hand cupped my face. What’s wrong? I’m used to seeing a smile. Not a big fan of that frown. I tried harder to force a smile. Dix, that ain’t a real smile, was his response. I shrugged my shoulders. Guess I’m not awake yet. Stayed up too late reading. He didn’t look convinced, but he bent his head and pressed a kiss to my temple, looking behind me before moving back. Not brave enough to kiss you the way I like with your daddy watching us. I can see his figure in the window.
That did make me smile a little. I knew Asher was being funny because Daddy wouldn’t be standing in the window. Then again, he was probably watching from somewhere. Asher opened the truck door and held out his hand. Like I always did, I slipped my hand in his and climbed into the truck. This part was real. He was here taking me to school. I should be happy about this. I was being greedy wanting more. When he was inside, he patted the seat right next to him. Why don’t you slide over here? I moved my book bag to the floorboard and slid over a little. This was a first. You know I don’t bite, Dix. Come on, get closer, up against me. I continued to slide over until Asher’s hand rested on my left knee. There. That’s better. I like that. I agreed, it was better. Much better. I got my smile back, he said, sounding pleased with himself. Tell me what you were reading last night. I didn’t imagine that Asher was a reader. Lord of the Flies for literature class. I have to write a report on it. Asher nodded. I remember that. My favorite book we read that year was The Old Man and the Sea. That’s next month’s required reading. You’ll have to tell me what you think of it. This conversation wasn’t one that people in a relationship had. Or was it? I had no idea. But I was sitting beside him with his hand on my knee, which was making my heart beat faster. I knew that had to mean something. After the game tonight, will you go with me to Jack’s? The team will be there because the food is free. I’d like to have you with me. That was a date. He was asking me on a date. Daddy wouldn’t let me go inside Jack’s. But I wasn’t going to worry about that. I would do it anyway and hope Jack didn’t tell, which was obviously a friggin’ long shot. Okay, I agreed. He squeezed my knee. Good. I’m glad. To me, it was more than good. It was wonderful. Stupendous. Groundbreaking. Even though I could end up being grounded for the rest of my life. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. When he pulled into his parking spot at school, I could see people, mainly girls, turning to watch his truck approach. They saw me sitting there close to him. Not a single female looked happy. It wasn’t my first day arriving in his truck, but it was the first time I ever rode right beside him. He parked the truck, leaned down, until his lips captured mine. He then kissed me. Really kissed me. The toe curling kind of kiss that made you forget to breathe. My right hand reached up to grab his shoulder. His face tilted and the kiss deepened. The minty taste of his toothpaste was the most delicious thing I’d ever had touch my tongue. A banging noise stopped us and Asher sighed, pulling back just a little so that he could look directly into my eyes. Ignore them. Anything they say. Especially Bray. He’s a smartass. Before the last word left his mouth, Asher’s door was jerked open. Bray and Brent Sutton were standing there grinning like we were the funniest thing they’d ever seen. I’m tired of having to get a fucking ride to school. You can do this shit with us in the truck. Dix don’t care, do you, Dix? Hell, I’ll even drive and you two can suck face the entire way to school. Bray Sutton was dangerous, sexy and dark. Very different from his friendly, good-natured twin. You’d think they were born on different continents, if they didn’t look exactly alike. Move out of the fucking way, Asher snarled. I’m serious, I’ll drive and make comments. We can throw the other three dipshits in the back and let them air. You two can then go at it. Just give me a warning before any sexy shit starts. I might have to pull over and watch. Jesus! Shut the hell up! Asher yelled, reaching over to squeeze my hand. I’m sorry, Dixie, but you already know there’s not an excuse for him. He has no filter. I was smiling. Giggling, really. These boys had been in my life for as long as I could remember. I knew them all. Every single one. Though I’d only loved Asher from the start. It’s okay, I assured him. Asher briefly kissed my lips. He got out of the truck, pushing Bray back, then held out his hand for me. Always knew it would be you two. Steel makes more sense, but she only noticed you. Ain’t that right, Dix? Brent asked, with his friendly smile in place. I blushed and Asher pulled me against him. If you two assholes don’t leave my girl alone, you’ll all be walking to school. They went back and forth with each other. I could hear them, but their words weren’t registering at all. Nothing mattered. Nothing but the fact that Asher Sutton had just called me his girl. I didn’t stop smiling all day. Asher Sutton HER BEAUTIFUL FACE crumpled from my words and I hated myself for that. I hated the air that I breathed. That all I knew how to do was hurt her. When all I wanted was to cherish Dixie. Love her. Make her happy. No, she said, shaking her head. No, she repeated, tears flowing freely down her face. I don’t believe that. You’re pushing me away. Trying to hurt me again. I won’t listen to you. You’re lying. This hurts you, too. I just can’t figure out why you’re doing this. Why you’re destroying us both. She then took a step toward me. I took a step back. I didn’t trust myself that close to her. I wanted to wrap her up in my arms. Tell her everything would be okay, which I knew it would never be. Please, tell me. Tell me why you left me. At least give me that, Asher. I gave you everything and you threw it all away like it meant nothing to you. I loved you and you just used me and left me. You were the only man I wanted. I thought we were forever. You said we were forever. That you would never want anyone else. That I was everything to you. She was crying uncontrollably now. You were! I roared. I couldn’t stand here any longer and let her keep believing she’d meant nothing to me. I knew I let her down. I knew I’d crushed her. I knew all that. But this had to end. You were it for me. Dammit, Dixie, you probably always will be. But we can’t be. There are things you don’t know that make anything between us impossible. Things I won’t tell you, things I’ll take to the grave because I can’t hurt you anymore. I did hurt you and I’m sorry. I will be sorry for the rest of my life. But you’ll move on and fall in love with a guy who can love you back. Stay with you forever. I paused as Steel’s white truck came around the house. He had to face her now. This had to be finished and done. And Steel can’t love you either. Steel loves me, Dixie replied, her voice cracking again. Of course he does. Anyone that gets a chance to know you loves you almost immediately. You’re . . . you . . . Dix. You’re you. I was going to say too much. I stopped talking and clenched my teeth as Steel parked his truck and climbed out. He looked pale. Like he’d been sick. He had to be stronger than this. Facing this shit was something no one should ever suffer. But we had to, thanks to the man we once thought hung the moon. He’d left behind a legacy of lies. One that would leave me soulless and hollow for the rest of my life. Steel, what’s wrong? Dixie asked. The concern in her voice made me jealous. I was being ridiculous, Dixie was my sister, and I was still being jealous over her. This disgusting, twisted, unfair life that our father had thrown our way was so fucking insane, I still couldn’t wrap my mind around it.Now wait a minute, Roland protested, coming around the car as I tried to pull away from Nikolas.
If Nikolas had hackles I swear they would have been raised at that moment. I’ll do whatever is necessary to protect her, even if it’s from herself.My own outrage boiled over. The hell you will! You don’t own me.
Surprisingly it was Peter who stepped in – figuratively from the back seat – to play referee. Hey, this is not helping anyone. Before you all go off half cocked, why don’t you let us tell you what happened?Nikolas nodded stiffly and released my arm but did not move away from me. Ignoring his towering form, I explained to Roland how I had met with David as planned and I was about to call Phil to pick us up when the man named Tarek showed up. I heard Nikolas’s sharp intake of breath beside me but I refused to look at him. When I got to the part about arrival of the witch, I saw comprehension dawn in Roland’s eyes and I knew his thoughts mirrored mine. Why were the men from the marina after me? I had been in such a panic to get away from the rest stop that I didn’t think to ask the witch that question.