n the seat and closed my eyes. I was exhausted. Maybe Brady was right and I wasn’t safe to drive. “It’s probably Ms. Ames. You know she works late most of the time,” I replied, stifling a yawn.
“Hasn’t changed much since you left. Go ahead and unpack. Settle in. I got more work to do up at the house. We’ll go in the morning and get you registered for school,” Nonna said as the pinched frown on her face that had been there since she picked me up at the bus station an hour ago, only grew more intense. “Don’t go nowhere. You hear me? Stay put until I get back.”
I managed a nod. I hadn’t been able to say more than “thanks” to her since I’d seen her. The last time I’d seen my nonna was two years ago when she’d saved up enough money to come visit us in Little Rock. She was a large part of my life. There had been times in my childhood that when I thought no one else loved me, I knew she did. Nonna never let me down.
Seeing the obvious disappointment in her gaze now was hard to swallow. But I hadn’t expected anything different. It was a look I had gotten used to. I saw it in everyone’s eyes these days when they looked at me.
No one believed me. Not my mother, certainly not my stepfather, or the police officer who’d arrested me. Not even my brother. No one. Which meant my nonna wasn’t going to believe me either. Sure she’d agreed to take me in when my mother packed my bags and left them for me on the front porch the day I was released from the correctional center I’d spent the last six months in. I had nowhere to go, and calling my mother’s mother was the only thing I knew to do. I’d lived with Nonna until the summer I turned eleven. Her home was the only real home I’d ever known.
My mother had finally decided she could take care of me, the child she’d had at fifteen and left with her mother the day she graduated from high school three years later. When my brother, Chance, had been eight, his father had finally married my mother. She wanted to bring me into the family. Problem was, I never really fit. My younger brother was adored by his father, and I seemed to always be in the way. I kept to myself until I turned fifteen and everything started to change.
“Answer me, Willa,” Nonna demanded, snapping me out of my thoughts.
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied quickly. I didn’t want to upset her. She was all I had left.
Nonna’s expression softened; then she nodded. “Good. I’ll be back soon as my work at the big house is done,” she added, then turned and walked away, leaving me in the bedroom that had been mine for the first eleven years of my life. I had been happy here. I had felt wanted here.
But I’d messed that up, too. I was good at messing up. If there was a wrong decision to be made, I managed to make it. I intended to put that in the past. I wanted to get back the girl I had been once. The girl whose grandmother was proud of her. The girl who didn’t act out for attention. The attention I had gotten from my mother hadn’t been the kind of attention I wanted. In the end I’d lost her. She wanted nothing to do with me. I’d killed any love she had for me.
Once the door closed behind Nonna, I sank down onto the twin bed that was covered in a quilt I knew my nonna had made herself. She loved quilting in her free time. Which wasn’t very often. She worked six days a week for the Lawtons. They let her off on Sunday so she could go to church and clean her own house. Which happened to be a cottage on the edge of their property. She’d been the Lawtons’ housecleaner and cook for as long as I could remember. My mother had grown up in this house. This room I was in had been hers once too.
Even though I’d been the product of a mistake my mother had made, my childhood here had been a happy one. My nonna had given me the love and protection my teenage mother hadn’t known how to give. And then there were the boys. Gunner Lawton and Brady Higgens had been my two best friends. Gunner lived in the big house with his parents and older brother, Rhett. From the time he and Brady had caught me in his tree house playing with his army men when we were four, we had been inseparable. I had been watching the boys for weeks go up into that tree house from my front yard at the cottage. I’d wanted to know what was up there. My curiosity had given me my first real friends.
When I had left with my mother, it was at the time things had started to change with all three of us. I wasn’t just one of the guys anymore. I was a girl, and things had begun to get awkward. Back then I had thought I was in love with Brady. He’d been popular and had a smile that once made my heart flutter wildly when directed at me. I thought then he’d be the only boy I’d ever love. I’d left soon after my feelings had started to grow. Now I could hardly remember what either boy looked like. There had been other boys in my life since them. Only one made a mark on me. Only one of them I had loved. Carl Daniels. I thought he’d be my forever. Until he decided that sleeping around with other girls was acceptable when I wouldn’t give him my virginity in the back of his car.
He had proven to me that I really couldn’t trust anyone. Loving someone meant getting hurt. My mother and Carl had both shown me how vulnerable love could make you. I wouldn’t make that mistake again.
It seemed like another lifetime now. Gunner and Brady were the safe-and-happy part of my past that I often dreamed about at night when I needed to escape my reality.
My life here would be very different from the way it had once been. I had made a mistake that I would never truly pay for. The guilt and regret would be my companions throughout my life. And being rejected by your own mother wasn’t easy to accept. It was a wound that went so deep I doubted I’d ever get over it.
I stood up and walked over to the mirror and studied myself. My mother’s dark blue eyes looked back at me. The straight blond hair that hit just below my shoulders was nothing like her red locks. I imagined I got my hair color from my father. A man I didn’t know. She would never even tell me his first name. She never even told my nonna. Once she had said it was because he couldn’t be a father to me. She was protecting me and him with her silence. I never understood that. I still didn’t.
I reached up and ran my fingers over my bare earlobe. The piercings that once framed my ear were almost all gone now. I’d not been able to wear them in the correctional center. I had gotten used to not having to deal with them, and I didn’t desire to put them back. Even without them, I was so different from the girl who had left here six years ago.
The Rest of Them Could All Go to Hell
I continued to glare out the passenger window of my own damn truck. I had drunk two beers. That was it. If Brady hadn’t been so busy with his hands all over Ivy Hollis, then he’d have seen I was sober enough to drive myself home.
“How’re you getting home? I sure ain’t letting you take my truck,” I told him, glancing over to see Brady smirk. Asshole.
“West is picking me up. He’s gotta take Maggie home anyway,” was his obnoxious reply. Since West had hooked up with Brady’s cousin Maggie, he’d become a do-gooder like Brady. It could drive a guy to drink.
“You completely messed things up for me with Kimmie. Can’t get a girl in my truck alone if you’re driving it.” And I was pissed about that.
“You should be thanking me. Do you not remember the drama Kimmie caused you last time you got her alone in your truck?”
He had a point. Shaking her loose wasn’t easy. I’d had to make out with Serena in front of her to get her to leave me alone. I just grunted a response. I didn’t like it when he was right.
“Whatever,” I mumbled.
Brady chuckled, and I didn’t have to look at him to know he was grinning. “Who is that?” he asked, all the humor suddenly gone from his voice as he slowed the truck down.
I glanced over at him to see which direction he was looking. Following his gaze, I saw someone walking toward the back of the property. It was so dark outside that I couldn’t make out who it was. They were nothing more than a shadowy figure from here.
Shrugging, I leaned back i
“Ain’t real safe for Ms. Ames to be walking in the dark like that, is it?” he asked.
Brady was a perpetual good guy. I swear sometimes it drove me batshit crazy. “She’s been doing it for longer than I’ve been alive. I think she’ll be fine.” Ms. Ames was our housecleaner and cook. She was also my mother’s stand-in mother in a way. When my mother needed advice or help, she always asked Ms. Ames. I liked her better than my own parents. But then I figured she liked me better than my own parents did, so it was mutual. Since my older brother, Rhett, was my parent’s favorite child, Ms. Ames had made it clear I was hers. She was also one tough old lady, and I knew anything that encountered her out in the dark better be prepared to be taken down a notch. She could be fierce. I’d seen her take on more than one battle for me when I was a kid, and she always won.
“Maybe I should stop and go check on her. Make sure she gets home safe.” His voice still held that tone of concern.
“If you stop this truck, I’ll drive my own ass the rest of the way,” I warned him. He was the one who was insistent on driving me. We were almost there now, and my bed was so close. I just wanted to get home. Besides, by the time he got to Ms. Ames, she’d be in her house. Safe. Like she always was.
“You’re a little shit,” Brady grumbled, and continued on his way to my house. I didn’t take offense at his comment. Wasn’t the first time I’d been called that. My father referred to me as a little shit often. But when he said it, I knew he meant it. And abhorred it. Abhorred me. Because although I carried the last name of Lawton . . . I wasn’t his son. I was just the offspring of one of my mother’s many affairs. The man I called Father wasn’t my biological father. When my older brother was eighteen months old, my dad had gotten prostate cancer, and although the tumor had been removed, his junk never worked again.
Brady pulled into my spot in our six-car garage and turned off the truck, then tossed me the keys. “Go to bed. West just sent me a text, and they’re right behind us. I’m going to go walk out there and meet them.”
I wasn’t stupid. He was going to go check on Ms. Ames. I nodded and thanked him begrudgingly for getting me home in one piece before heading into the house. Walking past my father’s office door, I could hear him on the phone. It sounded like business. He was always working. That had once hurt when he hadn’t had time to give me. That all changed the day I overheard him call me a bastard, when I was twelve years old. It had been more of a relief than anything. I didn’t want to be like him. His pointless life full of anger and bitterness. Concerned with how the world saw him and the appearance of this family. He was everything I never wanted to be. I hated that man.
I never once blamed my mother for cheating on him. I’d never seen him show her any affection. She was a trophy on his arm, and that was all. Nothing more. He traveled more than he was home.
Where guys like West thought it was okay to love a girl, I knew better. Love wasn’t real. It was a fleeting emotion that confused you, then destroyed you in the end. You couldn’t trust people. The moment you loved them, they had the power to hurt you.
No woman would ever touch my heart. I was too damn smart for that. I had loved my mother once, but she’d managed to ignore me—unless she wanted to show me off like a prize pony—most of my life. I had loved my father, too, and sought his approval until I realized one day I’d never earn it. Rhett was his golden child. The son who he bragged about. The son that was his. I knew I was better off without all of them, but that still didn’t stop my heart from sometimes aching at what I had missed out on.
My life would be full of adventure. It was my life plan. I would never stay tied down to one girl. I’d travel, see the world, and get the hell out of Lawton. Never love anyone and never get hurt again.
When I reached my room, I glanced back down the hall to my mother’s bedroom. She and my father didn’t share a room. They never had. At least in my lifetime. Maybe once, when the house was new, they had. I wasn’t sure nor did I care to know. Her door was closed, and I knew she wouldn’t check to see if I was home safely. Because she didn’t care. Neither of them did. The only person who cared about me was me. Sure, I’d like to think Ms. Ames did, but the older I got, the more I disappointed her. It was only a matter of time before she hated me too.
I was okay with that. I knew I could always trust myself. That was all I needed. The rest of them could all go to hell.
I Was on a Sinking Ship
I was almost back to the cottage from my evening walk to go see if the tree house was still there when I heard leaves crunch behind me. I froze.
“Hey,” a male voice called. “What are you doing here? This is private property and that house isn’t yours.”
My heart sped up as I tried to put the faint memory I had of a young boy’s voice to the deeper voice I was hearing behind me. Could it be Gunner? And was I ready to face him?
“You better speak up or I’m calling the police,” the guy warned.
I’d seen the headlights coming down the mile-long drive that led to the Lawtons’ house a few minutes ago. They had slowed, and I thought then that I might have to explain myself. I wasn’t sure who knew I was back here. Had my nonna told anyone yet? From the sound of his voice, I was thinking my presence was still a secret.
The door opened to the cottage and my nonna appeared. Our eyes met, and then she glanced over my head to the guy behind me. I saw her face soften before she smiled. “Thank you, Brady, for watching out for me, but Willa belongs here. She’s moved back to live with me for a while. You remember Willa. Y’all played together as kids.”
Brady Higgens. I wished I could remember his face more clearly. The only feeling that I did remember was the flutter in my stomach when he was near me. Slowly I turned around to see the kid from my youth who had played such an important part.
The soft glow from the porch light touched his face, and my breath caught a little. The beautiful boy I’d left behind was tall, muscular, and even more perfect than he’d been when we were eleven. His gaze was locked on mine, and I couldn’t seem to form words. I wanted to look away, but then I never wanted to stop looking at him either. It was completely confusing.
“Willa?” His voice was a husky sound that made me shiver.
I nodded. I didn’t trust myself to speak just yet. All those silly butterflies he’d caused as a kid were back and more intense.
A smile broke across his face as he took a step toward me. He looked happy, pleased, and something else. Something that I understood. Something that as much as I liked it, I knew I couldn’t act on it—he looked interested.
“Willa, come on inside, now.” Nonna’s voice was stern and held no room for argument. “Thank you again, Brady, for checking up on me. You get yourself home now so Coralee don’t worry about you.”
I tore my gaze off him and hurried up the steps, keeping my head down so I wouldn’t have to meet my nonna’s eyes. She had noticed that look in his eyes too. And she didn’t trust me. No one did.
If Brady only knew, he wouldn’t have looked at me that way.
“Anytime, Ms. Ames. Y’all have a good night,” he called out. I kept walking to the bedroom that belonged to me.
I didn’t want to hear the lecture to stay away from Brady that I knew was coming. When the front door clicked shut, I cringed and grabbed for my bedroom door.
“Not so fast.” Nonna’s voice stopped me, and I wanted to growl in frustration. I didn’t need her to tell me what I already knew. “Brady Higgens is a good boy, Willa. He’s turning into a fine young man. He is quarterback of the football team, and college scouts are already trying to recruit him. He’ll make this town proud. You’ve seen more than that boy has. You know more about the world than he does. He sees that you’ve turned into a beautiful
young woman. That’s all he knows. I don’t intend on telling folks what happened with you. Ain’t their business. But until . . . until you heal from this—until you’re better—boys aren’t something you need to be spending your time on.”
It was hard to hear. Nonna had taken me in when no one else wanted me, but she didn’t trust me or believe me either. That hurt. So much so that my chest ached. All I could do was nod. “Yes, ma’am,” I replied before hurrying into my bedroom and closing the door to any more hurtful words that she might say. I just needed someone to ask me what had really happened and believe me when I told them.
Just like every night since the accident that changed my life . . . I didn’t get much sleep.
• • •
Registering for a new high school your senior year was intimidating. Nonna reassuring the principal and counselor that I would cause no trouble had only added to it. I was required to go to the counselor every Tuesday and Friday during my last-period class to discuss how I was feeling. I knew I should be thankful that was the only thing I had to do, but I dreaded it all the same.
Nonna had squeezed my arm and looked me firmly in the eyes while she told me to work hard and make her proud. If she only knew that was exactly what I intended to do. I’d lost too much at this point to lose her, too. I was going to earn her trust. I had to.
The first bell had already rung while I was meeting the counselor and Nonna was explaining my situation. Which meant I was going to have to walk into my first period of the day late. Everyone would stare at me. The teacher would stop talking, and he would also stare at me.
I glanced down at my schedule. Mr. Hawks was my US Government teacher, and I’d be facing him first. I walked down the empty hallway lined with lockers until I found room 203. I could hear who I assumed was Mr. Hawks talking through the door. Taking a deep breath, I reminded myself that I had faced things far scarier than this. I had lived through six months with girls who deserved to be in a correctional facility. That had been truly terrifying. This was just a classroom of kids who would never understand me. Who didn’t matter. All that mattered was that I made the best grades I could and stayed completely out of trouble.
My hand touched the cool metal of the door handle, and I twisted it before I could delay this any longer and entered the room. Just as I predicted, every eye swung toward me. I didn’t make eye contact though. I kept my gaze on the balding older man in the front of the room with a button-up shirt on that barely covered his belly.
“You must be Willa Ames,” he said with a smile that didn’t meet his eyes. “Please take a seat, Willa. We were just going over last week’s notes. There will be a test on them two days from now. I will expect you to ask a fellow classmate for a copy of their notes and prepare yourself. No time like the present to get caught up with the lessons. Just be careful whose notes you ask for. Not everyone in here is a passing student.” He finished that last bit by scanning the room as he looked over his half-moon glasses.
“Yes, sir,” I replied before turning to go to the only empty desk in the room. I didn’t look at anyone around me. I kept my gaze focused on that desk like it was a raft and I was on a sinking ship.