I had been told to stay out of sight. I’d only upset her. Pastor Williams had been kind when he’d instructed me to keep to my room when I’d come home from school, but it’d still stung. I’d waited until I was sure they were asleep most nights to sneak downstairs and fix me something to eat for dinner. The endless supply of food had made it easy.
To Colleen Hoover and Jamie McGuire. I wouldn't want to travel this road with anyone else. Knowing I have the both of you to talk to is priceless. I love your faces.
I need to start by thanking my agent, Jane Dystel, who is beyond brilliant. The moment I signed with her was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done. Thank you, Jane, for helping me navigate through the waters of the publishing world. You are truly a badass.
My amazing editor, Bethany Buck. She makes my stories better with her insight and always seems as excited about the Sea Breeze stories as I am. That makes it so much easier to create. Anna McKean, Paul Crichton, Mara Anastas, Carolyn Swerdloff, and the rest of the Simon Pulse team for all your hard work in getting my books out there.
The friends that listen to me and understand me the way no one else in my life can: Colleen Hoover, Jamie McGuire, and Tammara Webber. You three have listened to me and supported me more than anyone I know. Thanks for everything.
Natasha Tomic for always reading my books the moment I type “The End” even when it requires she stay up all night to do it. She always knows the scenes that need that extra something to make them a quality “peanut-butter-sandwich scene.”
Autumn Hull for always listening to me rant and worry. And she still beta reads my books for me. I can’t figure out how she puts up with my moodiness. I’m just glad she does.
Last by certainly not least: My family. Without their support I wouldn’t be here. My husband, Keith, makes sure I have my coffee and the kids are all taken care of when I need to lock myself away and meet a deadline. My three kids are so understanding, although once I walk out of that writing cave they expect my full attention, and they get it. My parents, who have supported me all along. Even when I decided to write steamier stuff. My friends, who don’t hate me because I can’t spend time with them for weeks at a time because my writing is taking over. They are my ultimate support group and I love them dearly.
My readers. I never expected to have so many of you. Thank you for reading my books. For loving them and telling others about them. Without you I wouldn’t be here. It’s that simple.
“Go to bed, Blythe. And don’t forget to say your prayers,” Mrs. Williams’s voice broke into my thoughts. I turned around from the window I was perched next to and looked at the woman who was my guardian. I didn’t refer to her as “Mother” because I had made that mistake once and she had hit me with a belt.
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied, and climbed down from the window seat I loved so much. It was the only thing that I felt was truly mine. I had asked for a window seat like this when I saw one in a movie once. Mrs. Williams had called me selfish and materialistic. I had been beaten for making a request such as that one.
But her husband, Pastor Williams, had surprised me with one on Christmas morning. It was worth the secret punishments I later received from Mrs. Williams for making her husband sin by giving me a gift.
Mrs. Williams continued as I stood by that seat. “Remember to thank God that you’re alive and not dead like your mother,” she snapped. The tone in her voice was especially nasty tonight. She was angry about something. I hated it when she was angry. That meant she was going to punish me if I wasn’t extra good. Even though I was not the cause of her anger.
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied again. I had cringed when she spoke of the mother I had never really known, and of her death. I hated hearing the sordid details of how my mother suffered because of her sins. It made me hate God even more. Why he was so mean and full of vengeance, I didn’t understand. But then over the years I realized that the kind heart I saw in Pastor Williams was what God must really be like.
“And,” Mrs. Williams went on, “thank him for the roof over your head that you do not deserve,” she spit.
She often reminded me of how I didn’t deserve the goodness extended to me by her and Pastor Williams. I was used to this as well. They were the closest things to parents I had ever known all my thirteen years here on Earth. My mother had died giving birth to me. She was sick with pneumonia, and it was a miracle I had lived. I had been born six weeks early.
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied again, walking slowly over to my bed. I wanted her to step out of my room before I got too close to her. She liked to strike me, but I didn’t like to be hit.
She stood with her shoulders straight and her nose tilted up so that she had to look down at me. Her red hair was long and pulled back in a tight bun. The black-rimmed glasses she wore made her squinty brown eyes seem even more sinister.
“And, of course, thank the good Lord for your health. Even though you are exceptionally ugly and have no hope for any beauty, you should be thankful that you are alive. That you are healthy. Because you do not deserve it—”
“That’s enough, Margaret.” Pastor Williams voice interrupted her. It wasn’t the first time she had told me how ugly I was. How the sin of my mother had made me unappealing in looks. How no one would ever love me because I was too hard to even look at. I had accepted my life a long time ago. I didn’t look in a mirror if I could help it. I hated seeing that face stare back at me. The one that made Mrs. Williams hate me, and Pastor Williams pity me.
“She needs to know.”
“No. She doesn’t. You’re just angry and taking it out on Blythe. Leave her alone. I’m not warning you another time. This has to stop,” he whispered to his wife, but I could still hear his deep voice.
Whenever he caught her telling me how ugly I was or reminding me of the sin that would forever haunt my life he, would correct her and send her away. I let the relief come because I knew for the next day or so he would be watching her. She wouldn’t come near me. She would pout and stay tucked away in her room.
I didn’t thank him because I knew that he would ignore me and turn and walk away like he always did. He didn’t like looking at me either. The few times in my life he actually looked at me, I could see him wince. Especially lately. I was getting uglier. I had to be.
One day I would be old enough to leave this place. I wouldn’t have to go to church and listen about the loving God these people served. The one who made me so ugly. The one who took my mother away. I wanted to escape all this and hide away in a small town where no one knew me. A place where I could just be alone and write. In my stories I could be beautiful. The prince would love me, and I would know how it felt to belong. I loved my stories. Even if right now they were all in my head.
“Go to bed, Blythe,” Pastor Williams said as he turned to follow his wife down the hallway.
“Yes, sir. Goodnight, sir,” I replied.
He stopped, and I waited to see if he would say more. If he would turn around and smile at me. Or if he would just look at me. Maybe assure me that my mother’s sin wasn’t going to control my life forever. But he never did. He just stood there with his back to me for a moment before his shoulders sagged as he walked away.
One day . . . I would be free.
I was as ugly inside as I was outside. It was the only explanation for the fact I hadn’t been able to cry one single tear. I hadn’t even squeezed out one fake tear at Mrs. Williams’s funeral. I knew the church people thought I was evil. I could see it when they looked at me. But they had all gotten to witness it firsthand when they’d watched me not show one small streak of emotion when I’d stood beside Pastor Williams as they’d lowered his wife into the ground. She had been diagnosed with a brain tumor only five months ago. It had been stage five, and there had been nothing they could have done.
The congregation had stopped by to check on her daily, and the parsonage had been flooded with casseroles, pies, and flowers.
When she had finally taken her last breath, the hospice nurse had come and knocked on my door to inform me. I had been asked to call Pastor Williams at the church and have him come home. I hadn’t felt anything. Not one emotion from the news. I’d realized then that she had been right all those years. I was evil. Only someone truly evil could be so indifferent to death. Mrs. Williams had been only fifty-four. But then, that was much older than my mother had been when she’d died—she had been only twenty.
That was all behind me now. That life was over and in my past.
I stood outside the apartment building that overlooked the Alabama gulf coast and let it sink in that this was now my home. I was far away from the life I’d lived in South Carolina. I would have a new life here. One where I could sit and write my stories and attend the community college.
Pastor Williams had wanted to get rid of me. I was thankful for that because I needed a way to get free from that place. He had called a friend of his and had gotten me into a community college ten hours away from the town full of people who hated me. He had bought me an apartment on the beach and even managed to get me a job working as a church secretary. He had a friend who pastored a church in Sea Breeze, Alabama. It was one of the reasons he had sent me here. He had had someone help set me up while he remained in South Carolina.
I had heard Pastor Williams on the phone explaining to the man who would be my boss that I wasn’t good with people and I was sheltered. Which wasn’t exactly true. I had gone to an all-girl Christian academy, and everyone there had pretended that I hadn’t existed. It wasn’t my fault their mommas had told them about the evil inside me. I had never had a chance to actually be around people who wanted anything to do with me.
Before I took my boxes out of the truck, I wanted to check out the apartment. Pastor Williams had given me a truck, too. Grabbing my purse and the keys he had placed in an envelope, along with one thousand dollars in cash, I jumped down out of the old truck and headed for the stairs. None of the apartments were on the street level. They were all on stilts above the ground. I figured this was for times when the water got high . . . or during hurricanes. I wasn’t going to think about hurricanes. Not now.
I slipped the key into the lock and turned before pushing the door open. It swung wide, and I took in the pretty pale yellow walls and white wicker furniture. It was all very coastal. I loved it.
Smiling, I walked inside and spun around in a circle with my arms opened wide. I tilted my head back and closed my eyes and let myself bask in the solitude. No one knew me here. I wasn’t the evil girl who the pastor was stuck taking care of. I was just me. Blythe Blakely. And I was a writer. A recluse eccentric writer who didn’t care what she looked like. It didn’t matter. She was free.
Loud male voices laughing and throwing insults in the hallway interrupted my quiet moment of joy. I dropped my arms to turn and lock gazes with . . . with . . . a guy. Blue. Like the sky on a clear sunny day. That was all I could focus on. I had never seen eyes so blue. They were so startling, they were almost breathtaking. His friends’ voices were fading away, but he was still standing there. Then I noticed it. . . . Was he wearing black eyeliner? I dropped my eyes to take in the rest of him.
The pierced eyebrow and colorful tattooed skin I saw covering his arms had me jerking my gaze back up to his face. Seemingly windblown platinum-blond hair finished the wild look.
“You done, love? Or is it my turn?” The teasing lilt to his low husky voice reminded me of warm chocolate. It made me feel almost giddy.
Not sure what he was talking about, I looked back at his amused eyes. “I, uh . . .” I what? I didn’t know what to say. “I don’t know what you mean,” I finally told him honestly. Should I apologize for staring at him? Had I been?
“Are you done checking me out? Because I’d hate to interrupt you.”
Oh. My face heated, and I knew my cheeks were bright red. What was I thinking, leaving my door open for the world to see me? I wasn’t used to this. Keeping my distance from men in general made me extremely inept at talking to one. However, this one didn’t stare at me with that leer that made me nervous. I was used to the look men gave me because they thought I would do bad things with them. The ugly they saw didn’t seem to deter them from wanting to see if I was as evil as they had heard.
“It’s just some tattoos and a couple piercings, love. I promise I’m harmless,” he said this time with a smile on his face.
I managed to nod. I should say something. I just wasn’t sure what to say. He was waiting on me to speak. “I like them,” I blurted out nervously. That sounded stupid. He raised an eyebrow, and a smirk touched his lips. “The tattoos—they’re nice. Colorful. Uh . . . I . . .” I sounded like an idiot. There was no saving myself from this disaster. Closing my eyes so I didn’t have to see those blue eyes watching me, I took a deep breath. “I’m not good at talking to people—guys, people, anyone really.” Had I really just told him that?
If he would just turn and leave, then we could forget this moment forever. I forced my eyes open and caught him studying me with that grin still on his lips. He was going to think I was nuts. Maybe he was visiting someone here and didn’t live in this complex. I really didn’t want to face him again. Ever.
He pressed the pad of his thumb to his bottom lip and bit the tip of it before chuckling and shaking his head. “Not sure I’ve met anyone quite like you,” he said before letting his hand fall back down to his side.
I was positive he hadn’t.
“Krit, dude.” a male voice called down loudly from what sounded like the second floor. “We got, like, thirty minutes until we gotta be there. Go fucking shower and change.”
“Shit,” he muttered, glancing down at his phone as he pulled it out of his pocket. “Gotta go. But I’ll see you around, little dancer,” he said with a wink, then stepped back out of the doorway and walked down the hall.
Little dancer? Oh. I covered my face with both hands. He had seen me spinning around like an idiot. I sure hoped I didn’t see him again. I just wanted to live life without drawing attention to myself. I was leaving that life—the one where people saw me and huddled together while laughing and glancing at me—behind. I didn’t want to give anyone here ammunition to make fun of me. Being invisible couldn’t be that hard.
Unless you try to talk to guys, genius, I thought to myself. Walking over to the door, I closed and locked it. Next time I wanted to do something like spin in circles, I needed to close my door first.
Tonight we had a gig at Live Bay. It was a club in town that drew both tourists and locals. We had become a crowd favorite over the past two years, so the three nights a week we played at the club equaled four hundred and fifty dollars for each of us. Live Bay, along with the bar we played at an hour away in Florida, and another club in Mobile, Alabama, both weekly gigs, allowed each of us to clear over a grand a week just performing.
Green, my best friend and bass guitar in our band, Jackdown, and I shared an apartment. However, we always had people crashing there. We were a family. We had been since we started this thing. Other than my older sister, Trisha, I hadn’t had family, really. Our home life had sucked growing up. Now Trisha had her husband, Rock, and the three kids they’d adopted. She managed to make it most Thursday nights to listen to me play, but that was it now. Used to be that she wouldn’t miss even one of my shows.
I got it though. I was good with it. She finally had the family she’d always wanted, and she was happy. That was enough. She was a damn good mom, and those kids were lucky she was theirs now.
We had a good show even though Trish wasn’t there. But the redhead I’d decided to bring hom
e that night was tugging on my arm, needing attention. I hadn’t had enough to drink, and I was lost in my thoughts instead of focusing on her tits, she so wanted me to notice her. I’d noticed already. It was one of the reasons she was going back to my place.
“You’re ignoring me,” the girl pouted, sticking out her lips, where were painted a deep red. I liked red lips. Another reason she was with me.
“Easy there. He has an easy trigger after a gig,” Green called back to us from the driver’s seat. He knew how annoyed I could get with clingy needy girls. I just wanted them willing and easy.
“I’m just making sure he hasn’t changed his mind,” the girl replied.
“When I change my mind, love, you’ll know it,” I told her, then leaned down to take a taste of her red lips. They had the flavor of the candy she had been sucking on earlier, and beer. It was a good taste. I wanted a little more.
Green chuckled from the front seat as the car came to a stop. “See, he’s all fun and games if you just let him be,” he said.
I broke the kiss and got out of the car. I was ready for a drink and some music. And a lot of people. I needed the crowd. “They all coming?” I asked Green as I held out my hand for the girl to take. She quickly scrambled out of the car and clung to me.
“Probably already here,” he replied. The band liked crashing at our place on nights we played at Live Bay. We kept an open door for any neighbors. Seeing as they were all college students, they never complained. They came and joined the party.
“What’s your name?” I asked the girl on my arm.
I glanced down at her to see the pinched frown on her lips. She’d told me earlier, but I hadn’t cared then. I hadn’t been sure I’d be spending the night with her yet. Now I wanted to know. I didn’t fuck a girl if I didn’t know her name.
“Jasmine,” she replied, then flipped her red hair over her shoulder.
Jasmine seemed to have a bit of a temper with that red hair of hers. Normally, I was amused but not tonight. I was moody.
The music was already going when we started up the stairs. There was no doubt it was coming from our apartment. Matty, our drummer, always grabbed a girl or three quickly and left the club after we finished our gig. But most of the time he got to the apartment first if his females didn’t slow him down.
“Looks like the party has already started. I’m gonna step out early and go find somewhere to study,” Green said as he slowed to walk beside me.