And how I was still letting them control me in the most silly, indirect ways. Skinny jeans, I said, suddenly feeling the absolute urge to buy them. Maybe more than one pair.
Based on the number of girls who came up to us, Roland’s popularity extended beyond our high school. A couple of girls flirted blatantly with him and a few others – who had already dated him – attempted to act casual, hoping he’d notice them again. Sometimes their attempts to catch his eye seemed a bit ridiculous to me and I wanted to tell them all to stop behaving like idiots. If I ever got this stupid over a guy I hoped someone would slap some sense into me.I did feel bad for one of the girls who gave Roland a forced smile when he said hello to her. Cassidy Downs was the last girl Roland dated just before school started and she still had a ‘what did I do wrong’ look that made me want to sock my best friend. The tall brunette tossed her hair and tried to look unaffected when Roland flirted playfully with other girls but I could see the hurt in her eyes. Cassidy and I were not friends but I hated to see someone hurting, which is why I finally pulled Roland aside.
Stop being a douche, I scolded him when we were out of earshot of everyone.He looked genuinely surprised. I’m being a douche?I shook my head and groaned. Roland, I know you think girls are okay if you only date them once or twice but not all girls are the same. Can’t you see that Cassidy still has a thing for you?
She does? He looked over my shoulder at the group of girls we had just left. But we only saw each other twice and that was weeks ago.I guess you made a bigger impression on her than you thought.
What am I supposed to do? I can’t help how she feels.
I had to stop myself from shaking him. Boys could be so dense sometimes. I know that and I’m not saying you have to stay away from other girls. Just try not hook up right in front of her face.My daddy always tried to fix my problems. But he hadn’t been able to mend my broken heart when Asher had turned away from me. And now, he would not be able to fix what I had to tell him, either. The problem was standing right before him. I was the unfixable mistake. I heard Asher Sutton was home. Is this about him? Daddy asked, his voice laced with anger. He’s a man now and I don’t have a problem beating the hell outta him. Daddy, I said, interrupting his angry tirade about Asher. Did you know . . . did you . . . I . . . How did I ask my father whether he knew his wife was unfaithful? I couldn’t do this. Could I do this? God, this was too much. Did I know what, baby? What’s bothering you? he replied. His words were gentler as he pulled me closer to his chest like he was protecting me. And he didn’t even know from what. My . . . mother . . . did she . . . I stopped, swallowed hard, because I felt sick. Hearing this was one thing, but repeating it was another thing altogether. You said this wasn’t about Mom, he whispered with concern, gazing again at the house. He didn’t understand. I shook my head. No, the woman . . . my real mother, I replied, his body immediately tensing. We never talked about her, ever, not once. I didn’t know why she had left. Had she left because of an affair? Did he not know that I was the product of that affair? Has someone contacted you? he asked, his voice strained and quavering. I shook my head. I’d once planned on finding her. Now, I never wanted to see her. She’d ruined my life, leaving lies behind that destroyed everything. Did you know she had an affair with Vance Sutton? I asked before I could stop myself. Closing my eyes tightly, I immediately wanted to take those words back. I did not want him to know this. I loved him. He was my daddy. I couldn’t lose that. Ever. Honey, mentally, she wasn’t well. But yes, I knew. How did you find out about this? His words surprised me. I hadn’t expected him to know that much, if anything. Do the Sutton boys know? I nodded. Yes, Asher found letters that Millie wrote to Vance. They said some things . . . tears were now spilling free down my face. I couldn’t hold it in any longer. I’d faced this fear and now I had to wait, see what happened next. Daddy stared down at me frowning with worry on his face and then slowly understanding lit his eyes. He closed them tightly, muttering a curse, before pulling me against him and squeezing. Oh, no, baby, I know what Asher must have read. It’s not what you think, buttercup. You’re my princess. You hear me? You’re mine. I got proof of that. Those letters were from a mentally unstable woman. A woman who hurt others as if life was a game. Millie’s beauty was something she used as a weapon against people. I pulled away from him to search his face. I’m not Vance Sutton’s daughter? I repeated it, said it again, making sure I wasn’t hearing him wrong. No! Daddy yelled angrily. Hell no! You’re all mine! Although Millie tried to destroy me and Vance Sutton with her lie. I had a paternity test done when you were born because Vance demanded it. He wanted proof you weren’t his. But understand this, from the moment they handed you to me, minutes after you were born, you became mine, right then and there. You stole my heart, a heart I didn’t think could heal, but you healed it the moment I looked into your eyes and no piece of paper could have taken that away from me. I wouldn’t have cared what that paper said, you were my baby girl. I was willing to fight for you. I wanted you. Yes, Millie had broken me, but you, Dixie Monroe, you saved me from the darkness. You were my miracle. You lit my life. I let my Daddy hold me and cried. My biggest fear was that, one day, Asher would grow to resent me. Years from now, when we were married with children, when I had to drive them to ballet, football practice or soccer, and sex was something we’d have to find time for, when the washing machine was broken, and the car needed new brakes, that Asher’s decision not to play football for Florida and have a chance to go pro one day would haunt him for the rest of his life. That being a husband and dad wouldn’t be enough for him. That he would wonder every day what his life could have been like and I would be the one he’d blame for taking his dream away from him. I’d only dreamed of one thing in my life and that was to have Asher Sutton’s love. I had that. My dream had come true. I was living it, but Asher was giving up his, for me, and that was scaring me. As much as I begged him not to withdraw from Florida, he swore he couldn’t be happ, without me close and in his life. Momma said that it was his choice and I had to stop worrying about it. But I did. It kept me up at night. Asher was the reason the football team won state two years in a row. They even talked about him on the news—where he’d sign, whether he’d lead an undefeated college football team, just like he’d done in high school. He was important. And I would be the girl who kept him from achieving all this. Selfishly, I wanted him close. I couldn’t imagine not seeing him daily. Distance wouldn’t make me love him less. I’d loved him since I was thirteen and that wasn’t going to change. We’d stopped going to Jack’s and now we did things without his brothers and friends. We went to the lake or sat out on the football field at night, instead, talking about high school. How it was almost over for him and how my time here seemed endless. Some nights he’d take me to dinner and a movie, normally on the days he got his paycheck. He gave half to his momma to pay the bills, all the boys did and the other half he spent on us. That made me feel guilty because I wanted to help out, but Asher never let me. When his old blue truck pulled into the drive and his brothers weren’t in the back, I knew tonight we’d be discussing this again. We’d talked about it repeatedly, but now that his final decision needed be made next week, I had one last chance to convince him to go to Florida and play football. The days were warmer now, but the nights were still cool, the heat of summer still two months off. My arms were bare, so I pulled the white sweater I was carrying over my shoulders and went out to his truck. He was grinning. I got paid early. Want to see a movie? What I wanted was for him to save his money. I’d rather do something where we can talk. He frowned. That sounds like something serious. It was, so I replied, I want to spend time with you. No movie. Just us. Alone. He gave me a crooked grin. Okay. I can live with that. Then tell me what you’d like to do. Can we ride out to Hillview Peak? I asked. Asher’s eyebrows shot up and I knew why. That was where people went to park. It was known for its dark, secluded location. On any given night, you could find sweaty couples having sex in cramped back seats. No one ever talked about it, but everyone knew what happened on Hillview Peak. I watched as a million different thoughts flashed through his expressive eyes. Dix, uh, baby, if you’re ready for that . . . I mean, if you want it . . . trust me, I want the very same thing. But I’m not having your first time be at Hillview Peak. Give me some notice and I can come up with a better place than my truck. His truck. He’d lost his virginity in his truck. There’d been a lot of girls in there. Now, there was just me. I knew that. I trusted him completely. I was ready and although I’d always imagined losing my virginity in Asher Sutton’s truck, I didn’t really want it to happen there. I wanted us to be different. I didn’t hold all the girls he’d been with, the ones that came before me, against him, because I wasn’t jealous. I just didn’t want our first time to be the same, or even similar, to anyone else he’d been with in the past.
I’d intended to talk him into going to Florida and now we were somehow talking about sex. This wasn’t exactly how I meant for it to happen. I wanted to convince him to live his dream. We could still be together, though it would be hard on both of us. Part of me, a part I wasn’t very proud of, thought that sex would bind him to me, keep him from going off and realizing that I wasn’t the one for him. Then there was that other small voice in my head that said I wanted him to be my first and there was no reason to keep waiting. But the biggest part of me wanted Asher inside of me, to have that kind of connection with him. I just wanted to talk at Hillview. It seemed secluded and the stars there are beautiful. When have you seen the stars at Hillview Peak? he asked with a scowl that made me laugh. I snuck up there with Scarlet when we were thirteen to see if we could spy anyone having sex . . . mostly it was curiosity. Asher seemed relieved. What? Scarlet wasn’t having sex at thirteen? Not yet, I replied, laughing. There was no reason to defend my best friend. She’d been boy crazy since ten. And it was exactly one month after she turned fourteen that she happily lost her virginity. I don’t want anyone seeing us going there. They’ll talk, Asher said. You’ve been there many times. It won’t be a big deal. He reached down and laced his fingers through mine. You’re a big deal. My big deal. And I don’t want anyone thinking I’m screwing you in my damn pickup truck. Especially at Hillview Peak. Asher rarely cursed around me. The fact he did it now only made his words sweeter. He was protecting me. Asher cherished what he had. All the things my momma said I was supposed to expect from a guy and should never settle for any less. Asher would always be more. More than any guy could ever be. Asher Sutton YOU BETTER EAT them biscuits. I didn’t get up and fix them for you to just look at them, Momma said, as she stared at my plate and the food I’d barely touched. My appetite was gone. Vanished. Yes, Momma, I replied before I forced a bite into my mouth and chewed. Steel had hurried up, finished his breakfast, then left. Didn’t even look me in the eye, not once. That was good. He needed to keep his distance until I was able to calm down. Can I have another? Dallas asked like a damn five-year-old. Go get it yourself! She’s not your waitress! I snapped at him angrily. His eyes got big as he stood up with his plate and headed to the stove. Okay, what’s got you all tied up in knots? You weren’t here this morning and Bray was out looking for you while the rest of them tried to distract me. I raised every one of you. I know when you don’t come home at night and I know when Dallas is trying to charm me so that someone else can get away with something. Dallas smirked as he sat down with another plate of biscuits smothered in tomato gravy. Figures, he laughed. I refused to tell Momma what was wrong. There was no reason for her to suffer that kind of pain right now. She had good memories of my dad and it needed to stay that way. Telling her wouldn’t make it any better. Hurting her for no reason was unnecessary. I’m adjusting to being home again. Steel broke it off with Dixie and I’m not gonna lie, I’m glad. Dixie needs to move on and not with one of my brothers. I hoped my voice didn’t betray me. Damn, it sounded like it did. Momma cocked an eyebrow and sat down across from me with a cup of coffee in her hand. I call BS, she just said. She sipped her coffee and studied me. BS, you hear me. I don’t buy it, making her point now more aggressively. Momma, let’s just leave him alone, Bray said. He was the only one brave enough to say something like that to Momma. Except for me, and I wasn’t speaking. Momma turned to glare down the table at Bray who was now looking like a little boy with his hand in the cookie jar. I would’ve laughed, if I wasn’t so fucked up. Dallas and Brent both snickered. They knew what was coming next. I don’t recall asking you what to do. I carried him for nine months and through ten hours of labor. Then I cleaned his nasty butt, nursed him when he was sick, held his hand while he got stitches, and let him puke all over me whenever he got food poisoning. So do not tell me what I can and can’t do. If and when I want to know about one of my boys, I will ask and get an answer. And you might be next, so shut your mouth and eat your breakfast. You’re in my house. Bray dropped his head and replied meekly, Yes, ma’am. Momma swung her attention back to me. Now, last time I checked, you kicked that sweet Dixie Monroe to the curb, without even a backwards glance. Wouldn’t say a word or look at her. I was worried about you getting too serious. You were young, so I didn’t push it. But three years have passed and when you should be attached to some girl you’ve met at college by now, you’re back here still looking heartbroken. Ain’t right. Don’t make sense to me. When a man looks like you, he has women beating down his door. But you’re alone. Explain that to me! It has to be you pushing them away. Steel loves that girl. He’s bought her a ring God knows he can’t afford, and now he’s broken up with her two days after you get home. I smell shit. S.H.I.T. I glanced down the table at Bray, but he was eating and not looking our way. Momma had put him in his place. Brent was watching us with worry in his eyes. He knew I couldn’t tell Momma the truth. They all did, but not one of them was trying to help me out. Suddenly, they were all mute. Maybe, he didn’t love her enough. Enough to fight for her and make sure she was protected from everything that could hurt her. Maybe, he wouldn’t sacrifice his happiness for hers. Maybe . . . I stopped and stood up. Momma, I love you, but I can’t talk about this. Not right now, I said, leaving my plate on the table and heading for the door. If Steel could run out, so could I. Facing Momma right now wasn’t the best idea. You found them letters . . . now, didn’t you? Momma’s words stopped me as my hand touched the screen. I froze. The letters. If she knew about the letters, then she knew . . . What the fuck? Turning around, I looked at her and saw the sadness in her eyes. What letters? I needed her to spell it out. If she was referring to the letters I found, then she shouldn’t have allowed Steel or me anywhere near Dixie Monroe in the first place. The letters from that woman to your daddy. I didn’t know where he hid them. But three years ago, you found them, didn’t you? She nodded as if I’d confirmed this. I wondered once back then when you looked so miserable, but then I thought, no, surely not. If you found something like that, you’d ask me about it, but you never did, so I figured it was something else. Now I see I made a grave mistake. I stared at my mother. She knew. But she . . .Why would you let us, let me be with Dixie that way if you knew? I was trying to grasp the fact that my mother knowingly had allowed Steel and myself to commit incest. The fucking world that I knew was warping before me. Momma stood up and shook her head. I’d have never let such a thing happen. That girl ain’t your daddy’s child. Luke Monroe has a paternity test that proves Dixie is his. Millie Monroe was the most beautiful woman in the county and probably the state, too. She could seduce a man like nothing I’d ever seen, but that woman, she was insane. Mentally screwed up, I tell you. She set her sight on your daddy and that meant she eventually got him. Your daddy was a man, that’s the only excuse I got for him back then and now. I forgave him a long time ago. Understand this, he never stopped trying to make it up to me. He did love me, he just let temptation get the best of him. Not the first and definitely not the last man to do that.If my daddy were still alive, I’d go kill him right now. Listening to my momma talk about him being seduced by another woman pissed the hell out of me. When I was gone to the doctor one day, Millie came to the barn and, well . . . she did some things any man would have a hard time refusing. Your daddy made a mistake. Then, she sighed and added, Millie came back and did it again a few more times after that. Your daddy was weak, so when Millie got pregnant, we didn’t know if it could be your daddy’s child. He admitted it to me right then. Everything he’d done. I was pregnant with Steel at the time. I had three babies I was taking care of and money was tight, you see. Your daddy used Millie as an escape from the troubles we were going through. I thought I’d leave him for a while, but he was so pitiful, and I loved him very much. It took a couple of years, but I finally forgave him. Anyway, when that little girl was born, I wanted a paternity test. So did your daddy. If that baby was his, we needed to know, but it wasn’t. Dixie was Luke’s. Period. Holy fuck, Bray swore, reminding me we weren’t alone, my brothers were still sitting there and listening to every word. Can’t believe I was even born. You shoulda killed him, Dallas muttered. Momma turned around and faced them all. I loved that man. He loved and adored all of you. He was a good man who had weak moments. He made a mistake and I forgave him. It don’t change the fact you were his whole world. He loved each of you. Her tone was determined and it showed she meant what she was saying. I wasn’t sure I could ever forgive the man, but he was gone and being mad at him was pointless. In the end, he’d left us all anyway. Momma looked back to me. Where were those letters? she asked. Loose floorboard in the attic, I told her. She nodded. I should have checked that place out before I let you move up there. I knew you were sweet on that girl. She looks just like her momma, but she ain’t a thing like her. She’s got her daddy’s heart and Luke Monroe is as good a man as you’ll find. He tried to make it work with Millie, even when he knew she was crazy. Millie ran off and left him with that little girl, and it was the best thing that could’ve happened, both for Dixie and Luke. She didn’t need that woman in her life. She turned out to be a fine young woman. The day I heard Millie had dropped dead out in California, I didn’t even feel pity. I felt nothing but some relief that she’d never try and come back into Dixie’s life. Dixie is a beautiful woman inside and out. Momma paused, then reached over and squeezed my arm. A woman your brother loved enough to propose to. Remember that, okay, Asher? Remember that. There was no forgetting. I couldn’t sleep. Dixie’s face and the sounds she made while I’d been inside her the first time replayed over and over in my mind. It was a memory that would never grow old. I also wanted to do it again and again until neither of us could walk. I thought being with Dixie couldn’t get any better. I’d been wrong. The sex was life-changing. Feeling her naked against me, her thighs open, their insides pressed against my hips had felt like heaven on earth. Nothing that felt that good could ever be wrong. I’d had sex with eight other girls in the past, all of them older than me and with tricks that I hadn’t known until they taught me. I appreciated those lessons. I enjoyed every one of them. I was a guy, so I won’t deny it. That sex was amazing. But none of those experiences had prepared me for how it would feel sliding inside Dixie for the first time, knowing I loved her. I didn’t want to hurt her, I wanted it to be a memory she could cherish forever. I’d been about to explode inside her when her nails dug into my back and she cried my name with a scream. Dixie’s head was thrown back, her body trembling with release, and I could feel her pleasure churning through her body like a twister. I knew from Bray’s stories that virgins didn’t orgasm the very first time, and even though I’d wanted that for Dixie, I didn’t expect it. I just wanted her to enjoy it. While standing in the middle of my bedroom, I decided to move the furniture. I wanted to bring Dixie up here one evening, maybe next week when Momma was at church and my brothers were all gone. I wanted to be with her, here in my room. The squeaky floor under the bed would be an issue if we ever did it late at night when everyone was here and asleep. I wanted to be with her in a bed and not in the grass for once. She didn’t seem to mind the blanket on the grass by the lake nor did she mind my truck. But she deserved more than that. It had been three weeks since we made love the first time, but we’d managed to do it as often as we could since then. Dixie was sore the first few times and I’d been taking it easy with her. But the more we did it, the wilder she was getting. The memory of her begging me last night was giving me a boner. I had those a lot lately just thinking of Dixie. The shower would ease me some, but that was always just a short-lived release. I couldn’t seem to get her off my mind even after thrusting my cock into my hand in the shower. I was going to need to wear myself out. I could move furniture, then clean. My room needed it, especially if I was going to bring Dixie up here and make love to her in my bed. I moved the bed away from the wall. Then I stepped into the space to make sure the headboard didn’t break because I’d yanked it sideways from the wallboard. The floor beneath my left foot moved and made a soft clunking sound. That had to be the source of the squeak. I looked down at the loose board now catty-cornered under my foot. I hadn’t noticed it when I first moved up here. But then I’d had my bed sitting over this spot all along. I squatted, grabbed the board to see if it could be nailed down, but my eyes found something else. Something that had been hidden there for a very long time. I didn’t know that yet, but I was curious. I picked the old shoe box up, anxious to open it, the idea of it being a family heirloom exciting me to no end. I sat on the edge of my bed and slowly opened the box. Several letters were inside, folded neatly one on top of the other. I lifted one from the pile and wondered if I should open it, if I had any right to do it. If they contained secrets, maybe those secrets were meant to stay hidden for a reason. My curiosity got the best of me. I carefully unfolded the pages. The words were handwritten and as I read them slowly, my world as I knew it began to change. Darkness engulfed me and any joy, any happiness I felt was ripped from me one word at a time. I wanted to stop reading and burn the whole box, watch it catch fire and pretend I ever read any of it . . . but I knew I couldn’t. Every single word was seared into my brain forever. I read every letter, every page. I knew I had to break the heart of the only girl I’d ever love, even if that love was all wrong. Dixie Monroe SCARLET’S WHITE CAMARO came down my long driveway. I sat in the porch swing watching as she made her way to the house. We hadn’t talked much in the past two days. She seemed to understand that I needed some distance with Asher being back. She had no idea how crazy things had gotten. When she stopped and her door swung open, I realized that Scarlet might be my best friend, but there were things I just wasn’t ready to talk with her about. I wasn’t telling anyone about this until I got myself mentally prepared to tell Asher that we weren’t related. Once I realized that my daddy was my daddy and that he loved me even more than I’d known, I was left knowing that this horrible secret that made Asher leave me three years ago no longer stood between us.
Running to him had been the first thing I wanted to do, but then I remembered Steel. I had to deal with Steel first and see where we stood. I had to think about this, think it all over and decide on the right thing to do, so I sat on my porch and listened to my mom humming as she cooked lunch, knowing that I was safe. My life wasn’t about to be pulled from under me. So I had to give myself time to be able to make the right decision. Scarlet spoke as she approached, Since my best friend couldn’t pick up a phone and call me, or heck even text me, I figured I better check on her. The Suttons got you in a tangled web? She walked up the steps onto the front porch that wrapped around our house. I replied, Sorry. I’m spending a bit of time with my thoughts, before patting the empty spot on the swing beside me. Sit and talk if you’d like. Scarlet flicked her red hair behind her shoulder, smirking and shooting back, Fine, but only ‘cause you’re sexy, she teased, before sitting next to me. She gave the swing a big push with her legs, then tucked her knees beneath her chin. Brent said there’s been some drama. I confirmed, Yep, you could say that. But right now I want to stay away from it. Try peace for a day or two. I have to talk to Steel, but not just yet. Scarlet sighed. Please don’t tell me you’re gonna break it off with him. He loves you. Don’t mess it up because of Asher’s sexy ass. He ain’t worth it, Dixie. She didn’t know any of it. But hearing her talk about Asher like he wasn’t worth the fight was hard. Because he was. Well worth it all. Steel did love me and I had to figure out if what I felt for him was love. I knew I was in love with Asher. I adored him. He was everything I wanted. But he was also dangerous, could hurt me so easily, and now he might not want me at all. Steel did. At least I thought he did before he found out about the letters. Now he and Asher would have to know the truth. You talked to Brent today? I asked wanting to change the subject. Yeah, she replied, then looked out at the yard. I also talked to Bray. If she’d talked to Bray, that wasn’t a big deal . . . or it wouldn’t have been if she hadn’t said it like she felt guilty about something. I studied her face for a moment and wondered if I’d been so wrapped up in my own life that I’d missed something important happening in hers. Why did you talk to Bray? I asked, trying to sound casual. She didn’t look at me, but the way her shoulders tensed wasn’t good, not good at all. Scarlet, I said, look at me. Do you ever wonder what Bray’s thinking? He’s so guarded. He rarely smiles. She paused and a small smile touched her lips. But when he does smile, it’s really something. Whoa. This was not good. Scarlet, um, is there something you need to tell me? She released a long sigh, then turned her head toward me and rested her cheek on her knees. Probably shouldn’t. It’s bad. I’m bad for even thinking it. What kind of person does that? He’s Brent’s twin brother, but they’re so different. Bray’s moody and mysterious and he’s got this sexy, angry look about him that makes me feel funny in my stomach. Do you get what I’m saying? The Sutton boys were trouble. Beautiful trouble. Lots of stinking trouble. And Bray was the worst of them all. Bray isn’t like Brent and that’s a good thing. Brent loves you, while Bray likes all girls, and he especially likes getting blowjobs from them. You’ve heard the stories on how he gets off. Having girls drop to their knees before he gets rough with them. Remember what Jenn said about Bray? How he gagged her and called her names, while he held the back of her head? Scarlet grinned and pressed her lips together. Yeah, but she also said it was sexy and then she went back for more. What? Scar, please tell me you’re kidding, I replied. Nothing about that sounded sexy. Scarlet lifted a shoulder and gave a little shrug. The idea of Bray talking dirty to me while getting off . . . well, it kind of excites me. She then squeezed her eyes tightly together. That makes me a slut, doesn’t it? I sound awful just saying that. I had no answer. No right response to give her. I didn’t think that sounded exciting at all. The rumors about Bray and his sexcapades were rampant, not just in Malroy, but throughout the entire county. Girls loved him, but they said he wasn’t sweet and easy. Bray took what he wanted, when he wanted it, and how he wanted it. If Asher, she said, lowering her voice, pushed you down to your knees in front of him and shoved his dick down your throat, telling you that you had a dirty little mouth and called you his bad, naughty girl, saying that you needed to be punished, maybe even spanked, you . . . that wouldn’t turn you on? I couldn’t respond. The idea of being on my knees in front of Asher and being able to bring him pleasure made my heart race and my body feel feverish. Okay, maybe she had a point. But you love Brent. Why would the idea of Bray doing these things excite you? She turned her gaze back toward the yard. She wouldn’t look at me. What wasn’t she telling me? Had I completely missed something important happening in her life? He’s different. I like it when I can make him smile. He doesn’t smile enough. We were two peas in a pod. Both torn between two Sutton boys. Maybe our reasons were different, but who was I to judge? I wrapped my arm around Scarlet’s shoulders and rested my head against hers. With a shove of my feet, I got us swinging again, then pulled my feet up under me. Bray can’t be trusted with your heart. You know that, right? I reminded her. She didn’t reply right away. We listened to Mom humming and the sound of the tractor way out in the field. It was peaceful. Until Scarlet replied, Just like Asher can’t be trusted with yours. She was right, but I hated hearing that. The front door then opened, Mom sticking her head through it and twisting her face toward us to speak, I have peach cobbler hot from the oven and vanilla ice cream for the top. Y’all want me to bring two bowls? She then came out the rest of the way and waited for our response. Seeing her smiling blond head, slightly wide hips, and makeup-free face beaming at me with such love and adoration made me want to get up and hold her for hours just because she was there. She wasn’t what the world would consider beautiful, but to me, she was the most beautiful woman in the world. Especially where it counted the most. She’d loved a little girl who wasn’t hers and made all her bad dreams go away. She’d been there the day I got my period and got scared out of my mind, and she’d held me when Asher left me. I was the luckiest girl in the world to have her as my mom. She was the kind of woman I hoped to be one day. We’ll come inside and eat some with you, I told her before standing up. I need some cobbler, Scarlet agreed. I walked over to my mom, wrapped my arms around her and said, I love you, swallowing the emotion in my throat, and pushing back the tears what were threatening to come. She gave me a quick squeeze, kissed my cheek and replied, I love you more, princess. Never forget that. That had always been her response whenever I told her I loved her.Asher Sutton I HADN’T SEEN or spoken to Steel in two days. I knew Bray had told him everything that Momma told us. He let me know that Steel knew the truth about Dixie and the letters, and once I got my emotions under control, I had planned on going to Dixie and telling her everything. It was the only thing I’d been able to think about. But then I realized it wasn’t my place to tell her. Steel had proposed to Dixie. Momma had been sure to remind me of that. I waited for something to happen, but Steel never came to find me. I was getting tired of waiting on him to do something. He’d left early this morning to go mend the south fence. Bray said it was Steel’s turn to pull wire when I asked where he was during breakfast. I had to talk to Steel because I wanted to go to Dixie, but I couldn’t. I wasn’t free to do that. The idea that I could hold her, that I could love her freely again was taunting me. The way I felt about her wasn’t wrong or messed up, it was allowed. I was allowed to worship Dixie, to tell her that she owned my soul, that she was everything to me. But I was waiting on my own little brother to do . . . something . . . anything. When I got down to the barn, I could see the farm truck headed toward me, knowing Steel was in it. The posts and wire he hadn’t needed were clanking around in the bed, the diesel engine rumbling to an idle, then to a stop behind the barn. Steel climbed from the truck and slammed the door without looking at me. The anger on his face wasn’t what I’d been expecting to find. I hadn’t done anything to piss him off. He was the one who’d hurt Dixie. What? I asked, forcing him to look at me and meeting his glare. He let out a hard laugh. What, he repeated, I’m waiting on you to tell me you’re going to see Dixie today. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? To tell me you’re going to talk to her. To warn me you’re about to swoop in and give her what she wants. What she’s wanted all her life. He pulled off his work gloves and threw them down on the ground. What the fuck do I do with that? I can’t compete. So go get her, Asher. Go fucking take her away from me. He then spun and stalked toward the barn. Steel loved her, maybe not the way I did, but he loved her all the same. And I loved him, he was my little brother and I’d always been there whenever he needed me. I’d taught him how to throw a football. Where to hit a baseball on the barrel of your bat. How to tackle with your head across. I loved Dixie. But my lost chance with her. Steel was there for her when she needed someone to comfort her after I’d walked away from her without a word. I didn’t deserve her. Steel was the better man. Deep in my heart, I knew that as I called his name and he stopped. He turned just before entering the barn. The anger in his eyes was now gone, replaced by the kind of pain that further cemented my decision. What, he replied, what, Asher? Go get her! She was yours until now. She hasn’t been mine in a long time. I’ve lived three years believing what I had with her was wrong and disgusting. You only lived that hell for a day. Your love for her is still pure. It’s you she needs right now, not me. I’m pretty sure I’m broken beyond repair and won’t ever be whole again. The tension in Steel’s shoulders loosened, his eyes then becoming those of a worried brother. You’re not broken. You’re a good man, Asher. A great one if you ask me. He was wrong, but he loved me. His love was special, exactly the kind of love I wanted for Dixie. She wouldn’t ever be faced with the dark demons that had taken over my life, demons I wasn’t sure would ever go away. Finding out the truth didn’t magically fix me. It freed me, but it didn’t fix me. That required something I wasn’t willing to take—Dixie’s love. I couldn’t have it. It would never be mine again. Thanks, I told him, but I’ll be leaving next month. She needs a man who’ll be here for her. One who will show her the sunshine every damn day. I have too much darkness in my soul to give Dixie the light she deserves. Steel stood there staring at me. Finally, he nodded in agreement. Okay, he replied. I do love her, you know. I know, I quietly assured him. He wiped his hands on his jeans, then flashed a small smile, before jogging down to his truck. Watching him go wasn’t easy, but it was the right thing to do. The barn door opened and I glanced back to see Dallas standing there wearing nothing but a pair of white shorts and a set of boxing gloves. I hadn’t known anyone was inside the barn. Dallas was just staring at me. I love all my brothers, but just to clarify, Asher, you’re the best one of them. We all know it. Even Steel. Dallas spoke, giving me a sad smile. He then lifted his chin toward the inside of the barn. Come on in and beat the shit out of that heavy bag. I just finished and I’m about to lift weights. The bag is all yours if you want it. Hitting something sounded really fucking good. I walked up to the barn as Dallas pulled his gloves off and slapped me in the stomach with them. Here you go, old man, he teased. I grabbed the gloves and felt a genuine grin tug at my lips for the first time in a really long while. This old man could beat your ass. Dallas chuckled and pointed at himself, before flexing his impressive arms. Dude, you looked at me lately? I’m a beast, he replied. A monster. In return I laughed, really laughed, all the muscles one used to do that finally coming to life again. They’d lain unused for years. Yes, you are, little brother. Both a beast and a monster, I said. The surprised expression on Dallas’s face was quickly replaced by a big grin of his own. Steel Sutton While pulling onto the dirt road that connected our driveway with Dixie’s, I noticed Bray’s truck parked in the field. Slowing down, I checked to see if he needed anything. But when I saw a red head and a pair of tits rising and falling like the sea, I shook my head grinning and kept driving toward Dixie’s house. In broad daylight, the bastard had a girl out there, fucking away without a care. Dude was crazy. My brother was nuts. Dixie and me hadn’t had sex. We’d been together now for eleven months. It was my longest stint of celibacy since I was fifteen and Brenda Vickers first showed me her eighteen-year-old tits, then how good it felt to slide my dick into a hot, wet pussy. Sex became as important as oxygen to me. But then I’d fallen in love with Dixie and waiting on her becoming even more important. Turning down willing women wasn’t easy sometimes, but Dixie was worth the wait. She was better than a meaningless night with some easy lay. Dixie was worth it all. Seeing Bray getting some made me a little jealous. I was tired of masturbating. But what he had was cheap and would be over soon. I had something more with Dixie, something worth the sacrifice, and the long wait that went along with it. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw Dixie’s Jeep parked outside, so I hurried to her door. I didn’t want to wait any longer. For two days, Dixie hadn’t called or texted me. I was so damn sure that Asher would come and take her away from me anyway, so I didn’t try to contact her either. I believed Dixie loved me. She’d told me she loved me, but then again, I wasn’t sure she loved me as much as Asher. Their history was longer than ours, longer and more complicated. I always felt like second fiddle to him. But now that he wasn’t planning on coming for her, she would be mine again.