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Sylvie

By Author K Langston All Rights Reserved ©

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Published by K. Langston

Copyright © 2016 K. Langston

Print Edition

Cover Design: Kari March

Editing: Wild Rose Editing

Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this

publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into retrieval system,

or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical,

photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission

of the author of this book.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and

incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used

fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark

owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been

used without permission. The publication and use of these trademarks is not

authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.

WARNING: This book contains subject matter that may be sensitive for some readers. For mature audiences only (18 and older).

SYLVIE

Broken.

Shattered.

Destroyed.

Will she ever find a way to overcome the guilt?

The anger.

The pain.

Healing seems impossible.

Moving on…

Unbearable.

Until him.

He’s the only one who can save her.

But it comes with a heavy price.

PLAYLIST

“Roots” by Parmalee

“Hurt” by Johnny Cash

“Fly” by Maddie & Tae

“Work Song” by Hozier

“Burning House” by Cam

“All I Need” by Radiohead

“The Dance” by Garth Brooks

“The Promise” by Sturgil Simpson

“Can I Be Him” by James Arthur

“Into the Mystic” by Van Morison

“If I Told You” by Darius Rucker

“Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond

“That Don’t Sound Like You” by Lee Brice

“Wanna Be That Song” by Brett Eldridge

“Fade Into You” by Nashville Cast (Feat. Sam Palladio & Clare Bowen)

“Sober Saturday Night” by Chris Young (Feat. Vince Gill)

Dedicated to all who have loved and been loved.

“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but - I hope - into a better shape.”

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

PROLOGUE

I can’t breathe.

I can’t see anything but red.

Crimson eats up the hardwood floor beneath his head, slowly inching toward my feet. A scream shreds the hollow of my throat, sharp and thick. The foreign sound penetrating the eerie silence as the unbearable pain in my chest threatens to buckle my knees. My hands and body tremble uncontrollably as I find the courage to look at him.

His eyes are slightly open, but they are hauntingly still, lifeless.

Dead.

My heart plummets to my stomach. The urge to vomit is strong, but throwing up would require air, and I still haven’t found any yet.

My eyes travel to the gun, gleaming from his right hand, taunting me with grave finality.

I fall to the floor next to him. A sob racks my body, sadness and darkness staking their final claim on my soul.

“Dean.”

His name is a desperate plea. A painful prayer I know will never be answered.

He’s gone.

Forever.

And it’s all my fault.

My heart shatters into a million tiny pieces, never to be whole again.

CHAPTER 1

Present

“Order up!”

Retrieving the plates from the window, I exhale a ragged sigh. I’m tired as hell and my feet are killing me. I shouldn’t be so tired at twenty-six, but I feel like my body could give out at any second. The double shift is beginning to take its toll. This entire week has been exhausting but I still have a few more hours to go.

Then I can fall apart.

“Club for you, and a BLT on wheat for you, Carl. Can I get you boys anything else?” I force a smile, brushing my hands down the front of my apron before clasping them sweetly in front of me.

“Think we’re good here, Sylvie. Looks great.” Sheriff Griffin tosses me the same sympathetic smile he always does before sinking his teeth into the thick sandwich.

I take quick inventory of my other tables, noting customers’ drinks are all full, mouths moving. No one in need of anything at the moment. So I head for the ladies’ room in desperate need of a break.

I’ve been working at the Blue and White Café for nearly two years now. The tips are good and they let me take on as many shifts as I want. It’s not the most glamorous job in the world but it makes ends meet and keeps a roof over our heads.

It’s a quaint little spot located right across the railroad tracks on the edge of town. A popular stop for tourists who travel to Grandeur, Georgia to visit the famous Dawson’s Brewery just up the road.

Grandeur is one of those places you read about in books or hear about in songs. Where everybody knows everybody and people don’t even bother locking their doors at night, tucked away safely in the heart of the south, miles from nowhere and open space as far as the eye can see.

I grew up in this town.

I fell in love in this town.

Now, I hate this town.

It holds too many memories, harbors too much pain. I hate the way the people here look at me. I hate the pity and sympathy I see in their eyes. They all look at me like I’m some poor, pitiful woman who’s barely hanging on to what’s left of her life.

Which is mostly true.

If not for Caroline, I probably would have given up by now. Because Lord knows the guilt is enough to eat me alive every day.

But I press on.

I have to.

For her.

Despite the looks and the hopeless feeling that weighs heavy on my heart. Because regardless of how bad I’m hurting, my little girl needs me.

The light in the bathroom is bright, revealing the dark shadows coloring the skin beneath my eyes. Even good makeup can’t conceal what I’m trying to hide, the pain that is locked away with the mountain of regret. My worst enemy is my memory, reminding me every single day of the chances I didn’t take and the decisions I waited too long to make.

The knot in my throat is tight, and I just can’t seem to swallow past it today.

God, will I ever be able to go a day without crying?

Turning away from the mirror I press my back to the wall, trying to stifle a runaway sob. But they rack my body in relentless waves of grief and despair. I ride it out, until I feel a little bit of the weight ease from my shoulders.

But it’s only temporary. The heaviness is back with a vengeance when I look in the mirror once more. I can’t escape it. No matter how hard I try.

Wiping my nose, I dry my eyes. Grateful my small breakdown hadn’t been worse.

Usually once I start, it’s nearly impossible to stop.

I stand facing the mirror as I release my blonde hair from a ponytail then pull it neatly back in place, a meager attempt to conceal the evidence of my consuming misery.

It’s a wasted effort.

I’m still a mess.

Feeling only slightly better, I make my way back out front, refill several glasses and serve another table before noting the hostess has seated a new customer in my section.

I retrieve my pen and pad from my apron as I make my way over. “Hey there, what can I…” I blink, my brain and heart still trying to play catch-up while a flock of butterflies take flight in my belly.

Am I dreaming?

“Linc?”

He smiles.

A smile I haven’t seen in a long, long time, and it’s such a welcome sight. Tears burn behind my eyes, and I swear my heart damn near stops altogether when he stands from the table.

“Sylvie.”

My name is like a solemn vow, wholesome and pure, tugging at the strings of my stumbling heart. Without hesitation, he pulls me into his strong arms, and I immediately sag against him, soaking up his warmth.

It feels like it’s been a lifetime since I could breathe without it hurting.

I steal a moment of comfort in his arms and his familiar scent has me struggling to let go.

“What are you doing here?” I ask, forcing myself to release him.

Guilt gnaws at my stomach, remembering the hateful words I’d said to him the last time we saw each other. Linc and I were once best friends. We told each other everything. But we haven’t spoken in over a year and even though there was still so much left unsaid, it was as if he never really left.

His brown hair is a little longer but it looks good on him. A light dusting of scruff covers his sharp jaw, making him appear rugged and hard, but his soft green eyes remind me of his kind heart and kindred spirit.

His warm smile slowly fades, and that’s when I notice the pain in his eyes. “Mama has cancer,” he says softly.

I fall to the chair next me, my knees unsteady from the blow of this devastating news. “Oh God, I’m so sorry, Linc.”

He takes the seat across from me. “Doc says her chances are really good. They caught it early, but her treatment will be aggressive, so she’s got a long road ahead.”

I cover his hand with my own, a sharp pang piercing my chest. He lost his father when he was seventeen. His mother is all he’s ever had; it would kill him if he lost her, too. “Please let me know what I can do to help. I had no idea she was sick. I…I haven’t seen Gwynn in a while. I should go visit.”

He smiles again, but this time it’s weak, sad. “She’d love that,” he says. “She misses you and Caroline.”

I miss you, too.

He doesn’t say the words out loud but he doesn’t have to. Those eyes of his tell me more than I care to know. We’ve always had a way of communicating without speaking.

A smile.

A touch.

A look.

He knows me in ways no man does. Or ever will. There’s a heavy amount of comfort in that but there’s also an incredible amount of guilt.

I stand, eager to put some distance between us. “What can I get you to drink?”

He clears his throat. “Sweet tea.”

“Comin’ right up.”

I feel his eyes on me as I move through the tables. I cash out one of my customers and refill a few glasses before eventually pouring his glass of tea.

My skin prickles all over as I approach. “Have you decided what you want yet?” I pull my order pad from the pocket of my apron.

Linc pins me with his sharp, unforgiving eyes. “Yeah, I know what I want, Sylvie.”

“What’ll it be?” I ask, my voice just as shaky as my hands.

“You.”

CHAPTER 2

Past

I’ll never forget the day we met. Linc walked into Mrs. Martin’s fifth grade classroom with a big smile on his face, so confident and sure of himself, wearing a pair of square-toed cowboy boots and a button-down plaid shirt.

“Class, this is Lincoln Matthews.”

“Linc,” he corrects.

Mrs. Martin gives him a warm smile. “Linc. Welcome him to the class, everyone.”

We all give our obligatory welcome as Mrs. Martin points to the empty desk next to mine. “You can follow along with Sylvie today until we can get you a textbook assigned.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

He slides into the vacant desk closest to mine, pulling a notebook from his backpack. I turn my attention back to Mrs. Martin as she continues her lesson. I don’t want to look at him, but my stupid eyes keep shifting to the left.

“Hey,” he whispers, scooting so close the tops of our desks are now touching.

“Hey.”

“I’m Linc.”

“I know.”

“And you’re Sylvie.”

My eyes shoot to his. “Figure that out on your own, did ya?”

He smiles and it’s different than the one he entered the room with. That one was full of confidence mixed with a smidgen of arrogance.

This one is brimming with curiosity.

Reaching for my textbook, he pulls it closer to the center of our joined desks. “Where are we?”

With my index finger, I point to the problem Mrs. Martin is currently working out on the board.

But he doesn’t look at the problem.

He touches my wrist.

Electricity zings through my body, discovering nerves I never even knew existed.

“I like your bracelets.” His voice is barely a whisper as his fingers move to inspect several woven bracelets lining my arm. The friendship bracelets are something my best friend, Rachel, and I like to do when we’re bored.

We’re bored a lot.

“Thank you,” I whisper.

“Does it take you long to make them?”

“Linc, no talking please,” Mrs. Martin scolds, her eyes darting back and forth between us. “Sylvie, you know better.”

I grit my teeth, quickly returning my attention to my work. I hide behind the curtain of my long, blonde hair, my cheeks burning with embarrassment and something else I don’t quite understand. This stupid boy has been sitting next to me for less than five minutes and I’ve already been in trouble.

I ignore him. Refuse to acknowledge him. That is until a piece of notebook paper is placed in front of me.

I’m sorry.

It proclaims in scribbly, stupid boy handwriting.

Okay.

I write back.

Don’t be mad.

Okay.

Can we be friends?

No.

Why not?

Because.

Because why?

Please leave me alone. I’m trying to learn.

Me too.

Then leave me alone.

Not until you agree to be my friend.

Fine, I’m your friend. Now leave me alone, bully!

He flips the sheet of paper over now that most of the front is filled with our hasty scribbles.

I’m not a bully!

You just bullied me into being your friend.

I charmed you into being my friend. There’s a difference.

Whatever.

I smile, finally lifting my eyes to his.

Who is this boy?

This sweet, happy boy with a smile as bright as the early morning sun and eyes like the green grass of late spring? He’s definitely charmed me. I’m not sure if I find that annoying or cute.

He looks away, back to our paper, and writes something else. My eyes follow his hand as he pens his final words…

Friends forever.

After I read it, he balls up the piece of paper and tucks it inside the front pocket of his backpack.

I have no idea how very true those words would be.

CHAPTER 3

Past

“Linc, I’m scared,” I whine as he drags me closer to the ominous contraption.

“It’ll be fine. I’ll be with you the whole time.”

“Yeah, I don’t think that’s gonna keep me from throwin’ my guts up.” I try to tug my hand from his, fear clawing at my chest, but he only grips it tighter.

Spinning to face me, he brings his free hand to my shoulder. “Listen to me, you can do this. It’s all in your head.”

“I’ve been afraid of heights since birth. Please, let’s go ride the tilt-a-whirl or something,” I beg, trying to reason with him, but I can see it in his eyes, he’s determined, and when Linc Matthews sets his mind to something…there is no stopping him.

“No, we’re doing this, and we’re doing it together. Now quit being a baby and c’mon.”

Linc’s firm voice conveys what I already knew. One way or another, I’m getting on this stupid thing. My heart races furiously in my chest as he hands the carnie our tickets.

He can be so freaking annoying sometimes.

In the three years we’ve been friends, he’s made me do a lot of things I didn’t want to do. He loves pushing me outside of my comfort zone. Like the time he talked me into riding on the back of his dirt bike even though they scared me to death. Or the time he made me go swimming in a pond even though he knew how much I hated not being able to see the bottom.

He knows my deep fear of heights. I can’t even ride an elevator to the third floor of our doctor’s office without hyperventilating.

But Linc has a way of talking me into just about anything. He brings adventure and fun to my simple world, and just like the scribbled words on the sheet of wide rule paper had promised, Linc and I had undoubtedly become friends.

Friends forever.

I trust him. Tell him things I don’t dare tell anyone else, not even Rachel.

But I’m not so sure about this.

As the controller closes the cage, locking us in, I begin to panic. My vision blurs as we move upward, only to stop a few feet above the ground so he can lock some other poor soul into the cage behind us.

“Relax, Syl.” The endearment rolls off his lips like a balm, soothing me instantly.

But then the damn thing starts moving again.

I hold my breath as he continues to talk, offering encouragement as we steadily climb. I try to listen to his voice, get lost in the gentle tone, but the further we climb, the more frightened I become. I close my eyes, refusing to look down or anywhere for that matter.

His hand squeezes mine.

He hasn’t let go of it since he told me we were doing this.

“Just breathe. You’re doin’ great.”

“I wanna get off, Linc. Please,” I whisper, my body trembling with fear. My belly dips as the Ferris wheel begins to fully rotate.

“Look at me.”

I shake my head. There’s no way I can open my eyes. If I do, I will hurl for sure.

“Sylvie, look at me,” he demands.

His fingers find my chin as he turns my face toward his. I keep my eyes mashed tight, terror crippling my mind and making me nauseous. All I can think about is falling or being flung off this thing and hurdling toward imminent death.

But then I hear his voice again, penetrating the haze of my anxiety and fear. It starts out low and builds. I have no choice but to pry my eyes open.

It’s the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard.

Linc’s voice began to change earlier in the year. It’s always been deep with a unique rasp to it, but as more time passed, the inevitable awkwardness that came with puberty had started to wane. Now, his voice sounds more solid and deeper than I’ve ever heard before. The words coming from his mouth are all too familiar. I recognize them instantly.

One of my favorite songs.

This is the first time I’ve ever heard Linc sing. I know he loves to play guitar with his dad, and has even played for me a couple of times. He’s really good, especially for a beginner, but I had no idea he could sing, too.

Now here he is, singing to me, and it not only calms my uncertainty and makes me forget how high up we are but it also has me completely captivated.

“I didn’t know you could sing,” I say, in awe of him.

His voice is truly beautiful.

He shrugs, his cheeks flaming red. “Whoa… Linc Matthews, are you blushing?”

“I’ve never sang to anyone before,” he admits, and a surge of pride swells in my chest, grateful that I’m the first person he’s shared his talent with.

“You’re really good.”

“Nah.”

“No, I mean it.” I sigh. “You’re amazing.”

“Thanks. Worked, didn’t it?” He nods over my shoulder, and for the first time, I feel brave enough to look.

We’re stopped at the top again. I can see the entire county fair below. We are at least a hundred feet in the air, but there is no more fear. No more anxiety. He’s taken it all away with nothing more than his hand wrapped around mine and the sound of his extraordinary voice.

He presses his lips against my forehead. Something he started doing more often lately. Part of me wonders if he means more by it, but the other part knows crossing that line could ruin our friendship, and I would never be willing to take that risk.

“See, I knew you could do it,” he says.

I throw my arms around his neck, hugging him tight. “Thank you.”

I still can’t believe I did it. With him, I overcame one of my greatest fears, and he revealed to me a part of himself no one else knows about.

It goes down as one of the best nights of my life.

CHAPTER 4

Past

My feet dangle from the bed of Linc’s pickup, parked near the railroad tracks. We spend almost every Saturday night here. Usually we come with Rachel and Will but tonight it’s just the two of us.

“What are your plans after we graduate? Do you ever think about that?” Linc asks, looking up into the star-filled sky.

“Yeah, I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. It feels like my parents are constantly on my ass now, and I just don’t know. There was a time when I thought I wanted to be a nurse. I love to help people, but I don’t think I can ever get over my fear of needles.”

“I bet I could help you,” he says, nudging my shoulder with his.

“I’m pretty sure that’s one thing you can’t help me overcome, Linc. And if you even think about tryin’ I’ll do some serious damage to your junk.”

He winces, cupping himself. “Calm down, girl, no need for violence.”

We both laugh, filling the silent night with the comforting sound. Our friendship is effortless. There is never anything we can’t talk about, even the scary stuff.

“I don’t know. My parents want me to go to college, but I have no idea what I wanna do. I’d love to travel. See the world.”

“Me too,” he agrees, staring off into the distance.

“What do you wanna do?”

He shrugs but I can see that determination glimmering in his green eyes as he looks up into the darkened night. “I wanna write music. Sing. I don’t know. It’s a long shot but it’s what makes me happy. My dad wants me to join the Marines. He says there’s stability and discipline there.” Linc scoffs. “He thinks I need more discipline.”

I try to stifle a giggle but it sneaks out anyway. I can’t imagine Linc in the Marines. He has a hard enough time following instructions in school. He just seems to always find his own way of doing things. It drives the teachers nuts but they all adore him.

Hell, everyone does.

Linc is an only child so he gets away with a lot at home, too. His father is a sergeant in the Marines and is deployed ninety percent of the time, leaving his mother at home to enforce the rules, but Gwynn can be a big pushover when it comes to her son.

In her eyes, this boy can do no wrong.

“What’s so funny?”

“I’m just trying to imagine you with a buzz cut,” I say, running my hand over his head. “And taking orders from someone else.”

He playfully swats my thigh. “Smart-ass.”

“Have you told your dad you don’t wanna join?”

“Yeah, but he won’t listen. He thinks music is a hobby, not a career. I think he’s just pissed he never went for it.”

“What do you mean?”

“My mom told me that he was in a band once. When they first met. It was a hillbilly rock band and they were really good. She even showed me pictures and some old videos. She told me they could’ve been huge. Even had a record label offer them a deal but he turned it down.”

“Why?”

“They got pregnant with me. Changed everything.”

“That sucks.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“You know what I mean.” I nudge his shoulder. “I cannot picture your dad in a hillbilly rock band, that’s for sure. He’s always so serious.”

“I know. He was such a badass, too. I tried to ask him about it once but he refused to talk about it. The only thing he’d say was he never regretted his decision. But I’m not so sure he’s telling the truth. He’s like a completely different man with a guitar in his hands.”

“Well, maybe he can live that dream through you.”

He’s not convinced. “Maybe.”

“I believe in you, Linc. I think you could go all the way. Your voice and the way you sing some of those songs…it’s breathtaking.”

Ever since the first time he sang to me on the Ferris wheel, I’ve become his biggest fan. He is modest about his talent and still only shares it with me. I don’t think he believes in himself as much as I believe in him, which is crazy to me because Linc is confident about pretty much everything.

“You’re my best friend, you’re supposed to say that.”

“Do you really think I’d blow smoke up your ass?”

He lifts a brow, a gift apparently, considering I’ve tried countless times to execute the move and can never do it. “I don’t know…would ya?” he asks.

I punch his arm. “Lincoln Cole Matthews, you should know me better than that.”

“I know you wouldn’t. You’re the most honest person I know.” Then his eyes flash with excitement. “Oh shit, I’ve got it,” he says, hopping down from the tailgate to stand in front of me, placing his hands on my knees. “Let’s move to Nashville after graduation. I can work on my music, and you can find a job, I don’t know, somewhere cool. We can be roommates. Maybe save some money and travel. We can go anywhere we want.”

He’s grinning from ear to ear but his words are completely sincere. Thinking of the possibilities makes me giddy inside.

“You’re serious?”

“Hell yes, I’m serious. I want us to stay close. Just like this. I don’t ever wanna lose what we have. I don’t ever wanna lose you.”

My heart flutters in my chest, his words burrowing themselves deep within my soul. “You’ll never lose me. I’ll always be here for you, Linc. You know that.”

The thought of not seeing him every day saddens me deeply. I can’t remember a time when he hasn’t been a part of my life, and I don’t ever want to consider what it would be like without him.

“I know, it’s just…” He steps away, shoving his hands into the front of his jeans. “Never mind. It’s a stupid idea anyway.”

I remain silent for a moment, contemplating what he’s asking. We have another two years before we graduate. A lot can change between now and then but this is obviously something he wants. Whether I end up going or not, I’m not going to be the one to destroy his dream.

“Nashville, huh?”

“Yeah, maybe you could be my manager,” he teases.

“Manager? That means you’d have to do what I say. Think you can handle that?”

“As long as you’re there with me, yeah, I’ll do whatever you say.”

“Hmmm…I find that hard to believe, but it sounds too fun to pass up. Besides, I’ve always wanted to go to Nashville.”

His eyes light up and they are brighter than the stars twinkling in the sky above us. “So you’ll go?”

I nod. “Yeah, I’ll go.”

Under a blanket of stars, on the tailgate of his Ford, we make a pact to go to Nashville. To spread our wings and fly away from Grandeur.

Together.

CHAPTER 5

Past

There are moments that mark our lives. Moments when we realize nothing will ever be the same and time is divided into two parts.

Before and after.

The day Linc found out his father died is one of those days. Linc is sitting on my front porch, waiting for me when I get home from school. He didn’t show up today, and when I texted him to ask why, he never replied, but I know by the devastation in his eyes.

Losing his father has been one of his greatest fears.

He knew his father was a strong man, a tough man. But he was also a brave soldier who fought for his country and Linc knew that he would lay down his life in an instant if it meant saving the lives of others.

Which is exactly what had happened. His unit had been ambushed and Sergeant Cole Matthews took on most of the gunfire, protecting his men.

I’ve never seen Linc cry before.

Come to think of it, I’ve never seen any man cry before. But today he breaks down right there in my arms, weeping for the loss of his father and all the days they would never have.

I hold him tight, trying to absorb every ounce of his pain as my own. It’s hard to think about either one of my parents dying. I don’t know what I would do. I only know the ache would be deep and impossible to forget.

This will change his life forever. His father is his hero. He looks up to him, and in many ways wants to be just like him—honorable, loyal, and courageous. Even though they don’t agree on much, especially Linc’s plans for the future, the man loved his son. I saw it in his eyes every time he looked at him.

He was proud of him.

After a while, he finally lifts his red, swollen eyes to mine. “He’s gone forever, Syl. He’s never comin’ back.”

I don’t respond. What should I say? I should probably say what people normally say when someone dies. Things like I’m sorry, or he’s in a better place, or this is God’s plan, but none of those things sound right. None of those words will give Linc comfort right now, and anything less than acknowledging how much he’s hurting seems like a slap in the face to me.

So I remain silent, reaching up to cup his cheek. Something inside of me shifts as I look into his deep, sad eyes. I can’t define it and I’m afraid to acknowledge it but it’s there, and I swear, I think I see it reflecting back at me.

I long to take away his pain. To ease the grief that is consuming him. But I have no idea how to do that.

Linc stands abruptly, pulling a forearm across his wet face. Once he finds his composure, he looks at me again. Those beautiful green eyes that are always so full of life and bursting with happiness are now darkened with sorrow and despair.

The sight makes my heart twist with agony.

“I need to go,” he says. “I left Mama alone with Aunt Shirley. I just…I needed to see you. I needed to hear your voice.”

“Want me to come with you?” I offer.

I don’t want to leave his side.

I don’t want him to face any of this alone.

Of course he has his mother, but he will be strong for her. He will never allow his mother to see him fall apart like that. That’s why he came here. He knows he can’t keep it bottled up.

That’s not how Linc is built.

He feels every emotion with full force, and he knows he can let it go and feel it all with me. Whenever we are afraid or hurt or happy or sad, we always find what we need in each other.

“No, I need to be with Mama for a while.” He presses his lips to my forehead, the gesture filling me with warmth like it always does. “I’ll call you later,” he promises, his voice soft.

I watch helplessly as he walks to his pickup truck and climbs inside. Then I stay rooted to my spot on the porch until he disappears into a thick cloud of dust, taking my heart with him.

CHAPTER 6

Past

Butterflies dance in my belly as I stand in front of the mirror. Twisting from side to side, I smooth down the front of my dress.

Mama is right, lavender is my color. My blue eyes pop against the silky fabric and complement my pale skin. The floor length gown has a beaded bodice and a somewhat revealing slit. It nearly gave my father a heart attack when we brought it home to show him, but I love it, and as usual, my mother talked him into letting me wear it.

Rachel and I spent hours at the salon today. My updo is a delicate knot at the base of my head with blonde tendrils framing my face. I can’t remember ever being so nervous in my life. Even though I have no reason to be. I’m not going to prom with just anyone.

I’m going with Linc.

Tonight is the night. I’m finally going to tell Linc Matthews I’m in love with him.

God, I can’t believe I’m going through with this.

Nausea bubbles in my belly each time I think about it.

“Syl! Get your butt down here,” Linc hollers.

I smile, my heart fluttering in my chest.

Standing at the top of the stairs, he’s there waiting for me at the bottom. A big, goofy grin smothering his handsome face while he chats with my mom and dad.

They adore him, of course.

Everyone does.

Especially me.

His smile is contagious and anytime he’s in a room it’s full of light. Even after losing his father, Linc didn’t let it dampen his spirit. Of course he misses him very much, and some days I can still see the sadness in his eyes, but his father would not have wanted him to dwell on his death. So he finds ways to celebrate and remember his life through his music.

His hair has been trimmed for the occasion, but there are a few unruly pieces that always escape his attempt to tame the wild locks, a gift from his father, he always says. His tux fits his athletic body nicely and he’s wearing a lavender bow tie and vest to match my dress.

His gaze lifts to mine, and I have to hold onto the rail to keep my knees from buckling beneath me.

Those green eyes have become my weakness.

My addiction.

He hasn’t always had this effect on me. Which makes me realize just how much my feelings have grown over the years.

I have to fight every day to keep it from him.

I have no idea how to tell my best friend that all I can think about is what his lips taste like. How I dream about his touch, and not just his friendly, polite hands when they find the small of my back or tuck a piece of my hair behind my ear, but what it would feel like to have them roam my body and explore the places I only want him to discover.

So, tonight, I am putting it all on the line.

I hope and pray he feels the same way. When he looks at me like this, like I am the only girl in the world, like he can’t see anyone else but me, I think for sure he feels the same way.

But I’m also scared to death.

Terrified of what will happen if he doesn’t feel the same way. A rejection from Linc will definitely change our relationship.

We would never be the same.

I take the first few steps down and he shuffles on his feet. He seems nervous but he’s not going to let me see it. Linc has a way of making me feel calm even when he’s wound up. His strong confidence is just one of the many things I love about him.

“You look beautiful, Sylvie,” my mother says, standing next to my father, who has a pained look on his face.

When I reach the bottom of the steps, Linc gifts me with one of his breathtaking smiles, eyes flashing with something I hope is real and not just something I’ve imagined.

“Hey you,” he says, and my insides melt.

“Hey.”

He takes a step forward, reaching for my fidgeting hand. He can sense when I’m nervous. He knows me better than anyone. “You look…wow.”

My heart slams against my chest as he bends down to retrieve a clear plastic box from the bottom step.

“Hold on, you two, I need to grab my camera,” my mother says, scurrying to the other room.

“I should not let you out of here in that dress. You do not look seventeen, you look twenty-three.” My father runs a hand through his hair. He’s frustrated with me, and I’m pretty sure it has nothing to do with the dress anymore.

He wants me to make a decision about my future.

But I’m just not ready to decide yet. He has no idea about my plans to move to Nashville with Linc after graduation. Because even I’m not sure if that is still going to happen. We talk about it more and more the closer we inch toward grad, but my decision will be based on tonight and how this all plays out.

“I won’t let anything happen to her, Mr. Dawson.”

The conviction in Linc’s voice satisfies my father, and he finally smiles, landing a hand to Linc’s shoulder. “I know you won’t, son. You better behave yourself, too,”

“You don’t have to worry about that.”

I press my lips together, trying to suppress my disappointment. This is why I keep holding back. Each time I get the nerve to tell him, he always says something that makes me believe he doesn’t feel the same, or wouldn’t acknowledge it if he did.

Our friendship is too precious.

Will love destroy it?

Is he afraid to express his true feelings because deep down he knows it could end up ruining everything? That’s another reason holding me back for so long, but with graduation slowly creeping upon us, I can’t hold back any longer. There are too many what-ifs, mainly being what-if I let the love of my life get away?

When my mother returns, we are bombarded with her need to document every single second. She continuously snaps shot after shot as Linc slips the corsage on my wrist, a small smirk tugging the corner of his lips as I pin the boutonniere to his lapel. Standing in front of the fireplace, he wraps his arms around my waist as I press my back to his front, the warmth and safety I feel inside of these arms cannot be described.

I belong here.

It is as simple and complicated as that.

After thirty minutes of photos, and a small lecture from my father about drugs and alcohol, and how they can have dire consequences on a night like tonight, Linc leads me out front.

“Linc, you didn’t!”

He squeezes my hand. “Told you I would.”

The driver opens the door with the tip of his hat as we climb inside the long, black limousine. “This is so cool, but you didn’t have to do this. I would have been more than happy to ride in your truck or your mom’s car. How much did this cost?”

“Don’t worry about that stuff, Syl. I’ve got this. Besides, I wasn’t gonna take you in my beat-up truck, or my mom’s Taurus. That would not be cool.” He settles in next to me, the faint smell of his familiar cologne filling the small space. “We’re pickin’ up Rachel and Will, too.”

“They knew about this?”

He nods, a boyish grin curling his lips. “I wanted to surprise you. You surprised?”

“Definitely surprised. Thank you, Linc.” I lean over to kiss his smooth cheek. “This is going to be the best night ever.”

Linc reaches for my hand, lacing my fingers with his, and he doesn’t let go until we get to the hotel where prom is being held.

***

Tonight is not going the way I planned. Matter of fact, it’s not going well at all. From the second we walk in, Linc is pulled in every direction. It is normal. Everywhere we go he has people wanting to be near him. It’s as if he is the only person in the room. And usually I’m not bothered by it, but tonight I want his full attention.

“Will you stop being a chickenshit and tell him already?” Rachel says.

While Rachel and I sit at the table, the guys go grab us some drinks.

I’ve tried several times to tell him but I just can’t seem to find the right time.

Or the courage.

“I’m going to. I’m just…”

“Chickenshit,” Rachel finishes.

She’s known about my feelings for Linc for a while now and has been doing her best to convince me to come clean for months. She even worked through what to say with me so I didn’t sound like an idiot. And all of it sounds really good, in theory.

Now…not so much.

“You’re not helping you know; you should be giving me words of encouragement.”

“Okay, fine. If you don’t tell him, I will.”

I glare at her. “You wouldn’t.”

She challenges my stare. “Oh, I so would.”

“Would do what?” Linc asks, placing a clear plastic cup filled with Coke in front of me.

Will takes the seat next to his girlfriend with a knowing look on his face. I could kill Rachel for telling him but apparently when you’ve been together as long as those two, there are no secrets.

She promised me he wouldn’t say anything.

“Nothing,” I say before putting the straw between my lips, sucking down half the drink. My mouth is so dry. My nerves frazzled. I need to relax and take a deep breath.

The DJ puts on a familiar song and Linc reaches for my hand, pulling me onto the dance floor. “C’mon.”

His arms wrap around my waist, holding me close, while mine find their place on his shoulders.

“Remember this song?” he says after a few turns.

I remember.

How could I ever forget? It’s my favorite song in the whole wide world, especially when he sings it.

“Ferris wheel,” he reminds me with a smile, even though I already knew. “You were so damn scared. Kind of like you are now. What’s up with you? You’ve been on edge all night.”

I have the sudden urge to flee, to run away and hide. Fear sits like a heavy stone in my belly, and I find it difficult to speak around my tight throat.

“Talk to me, Syl.”

Nothing’s wrong.

Yet.

But that all might change the second I open my mouth.

I’m in love with you.

It’s right there on the tip of my tongue. It tastes of hope and desire, and a million other emotions I can’t define. It is every dream and fantasy I’ve ever known all rolled into one beautiful moment.

But I can’t say the words. Fear outweighs courage and just as quickly as it appears…

My chance is gone.

“I’m just scared about graduation is all,” I lie.

“Why?”

I shrug, avoiding his eyes. I’m afraid if I look at them, they will see everything I’m hiding inside. “You’re still comin’ with me, right? Have you heard back from Vandy yet?”

Shaking my head, I lie again. I received the acceptance letter two weeks ago but I haven’t told him yet.

Yet another secret I am keeping from him.

“You’ll get in. And if you don’t, you can go to community college until you do.”

“I still have no idea what I even wanna do with my life.”

“So what. We’re young, Syl. You don’t need all the answers right now.”

“True, but I still need answers to the most pressing ones, like finding a job and figuring out how I’ll pay my part of the rent and—”

“Hey, I told you not to worry about any of that.”

I press my lips together, suppressing my insecurities. This has been a constant argument between us. He has his inheritance from his father’s life insurance so he doesn’t need money, but he doesn’t understand how important it is for me to pay my own way. I can’t depend on him for everything.

Yes, I am in love with him. And yes, I want to be with him, but there’s absolutely no way I will let him pay my way. And then I have to wonder if I would just be in the way. He’ll be busy pursuing his music, and I have no doubt he will make it big once the right person discovers him.

“I don’t wanna talk about this right now. It’s too depressing.”

“Our future is depressing?” he asks with a raised brow.

‘Our?’

Hope flares in my chest.

“Listen, you’re comin’ to Nashville with me. We’ve been plannin’ this for too long and I can’t do it without you. I won’t. So stop being so damn stubborn.”

“Me? Stubborn? I could say the same about you.”

“That’s why you’re my best friend,” he says, pressing his hand to the small of my back, effectively molding me to his body. “I could never be anyone but myself when I’m with you.”

Resting my head on his shoulder, I close my eyes, my heart cracking in two. It screams to tell him, to confess every secret and fantasy my soul carries, but I just can’t bring myself to risk what we have. If we don’t work out or worse, he doesn’t feel the same way, our relationship will never be the same again.

So I settle on what we are instead of what we could be.

CHAPTER 7

Past

A few weeks later, Rachel and I are getting ready for a party at her house. I’m still mourning my lost chance to tell Linc how I feel but I continue to remind myself that it’s for the best.

“C’mon, Rach,” I whine again, stomping my foot.

She’s been teasing her hair to high heaven for more than thirty minutes now. The brown locks are more than perfect. The barrel curls falling flawlessly down her back.

“Hold your horses,” she says, smearing on some of her favorite nude gloss. She gives her hair one final coif before grabbing her purse. Then we hop inside her Honda Civic and drive to the edge of town.

“You’re tellin’ him tonight, right?” Rachel asks.

“Rachel,” I warn.

My hope has been crushed, devastated by fate’s blow. I’d decided being just friends is best for both of us. It’s safe. And the only absolute guarantee that I won’t lose him.

Rachel disagrees.

“He’s a guy, Sylvie, not a mind reader.”

“I don’t want it to change things between us.”

“Things have already changed. Ever since prom there’s been tension between you two, and it’s a little awkward. It’s upsetting the dynamic of the group.”

“Oh, my bad,” I say with a sarcastic laugh.

“You know what I mean. Have you seen the way he looks at you? You can see it all over his face. One of you needs to bite the bullet and just say it already before I lose my damn mind.”

Looking out my window as we arrive, I see cars parked everywhere. Field parties happen often in Grandeur, there’s not much else to do with time to waste and lots of open space. Usually, it’s just people we go to school with, but it’s my birthday, and Nelson, the guy responsible for planning these things, used that as an excuse to have a blowout. There are cars parked everywhere when we arrive. Some from three counties over.

“Holy shit!” I gasp when I spot a tag from Clarke County.

That’s an hour away.

“Nelson wasn’t bullshitting, was he?” Rachel is as shocked as I am. “Who are all of these people? And why would they come to a birthday party for someone they don’t even know?”

“They know Nelson, that’s enough I suppose.” Rachel shrugs. “You ready?”

I give her a nod and a smile as we exit the car.

Jeans are mandatory attire if you want to survive the mosquitos out here, but tonight I paired them with a tank top and flip flops to ward off the heat.

We greet people on our way to the circle of tailgates. There are probably twenty or more pickup trucks here tonight, whereas usually there is only about ten or less. And there must have been at least a hundred people standing around.

This is insane.

We spot Linc’s Ford right away.

“Ladies!” Will shouts as we approach, hopping down from the truck.

As usual, Linc is surrounded by people. Mostly girls. One girl in particular. She is constantly flirting with Linc. The other girls don’t stand a chance when Adele Hiller is around.

But then his eyes lift to mine and that incredible smile of his makes my belly dip as he abandons them all, including a sulking Adele, to come to me.

God.

And he looks ridiculously hot in my favorite pair of worn-out jeans, dirty boots, and a gray T-shirt that has been washed so generously.

“I didn’t think you’d ever get here.” He wraps his arms around me, blessing my body with the warmth of his embrace. I’d never be able to explain what his mere presence alone does to me but his hugs are like a warm blanket that was just pulled fresh from the dryer.

“Happy birthday, Syl,” he says in a deep, sexy tone next to my ear, sending a shiver down my spine.

“Thanks.”

He pulls back but doesn’t release me right away. “I got a surprise for you later.” Green eyes shimmer with mischief.

“Oh God, I’m afraid to even ask.”

“Trust me, you’re gonna love it.” He finally lets go, and I have to refrain from sagging with disappointment. “Nelson managed to get his hands on a few kegs. You want a drink?”

“Sure.”

I don’t drink a lot. Actually, I can count on two fingers how many times I’ve been drunk, and neither occasion was pretty. But it’s my birthday and I need something to ease this tight knot in my belly.

“Be right back.”

I glance over to find Rachel and Will, who are wrapped in each other’s arms, whispering quietly in the back of the truck. I am so envious of their relationship, and how good they are for each other. They’ve been together since the sixth grade. What started out as friends became something beautiful and it has always given me hope that I could someday have the same with Linc.

I look away, no longer willing to bear witness to their excessive groping or entertain my stupid dreams.

My eyes scan the crowd, the glow of the fire illuminating a few faces I know, most I don’t. I spot Nelson and some of his buddies standing a few feet away, but there is one guy who immediately captures my attention.

He whispers something in the ear of the girl standing next to him and she giggles, dipping her chin in a flirty way. I smile, wondering what he could have possibly said to make her blush so furiously. She presses a hand to his chest, shoving him away, and he laughs, shaking his head before his eyes lift to catch mine.

His dark, curious gaze holds me hostage as an odd feeling washes over me. Those dangerous eyes frighten me.

Excite me.

No one has ever looked at me with such intensity before. Like I’m a woman. Like he wants me.

Like I’m already his.

The girl says something else, and his imprisoning gaze finally sets me free. I spin away, heat invading my neck and cheeks. Then I turn my attention back to Rachel, who has thankfully let go of Will long enough for me to ask, “Who’s that guy in the black shirt, over there with Nelson?”

They both stretch their necks to get a better look. “Damn, don’t make it obvious, y’all,” I scold, heat blazing beneath my skin.

“Don’t know. Never seen him here before,” Will answers.

“Shit, he’s walking over here,” Rachel says, hopping down from the tailgate. She opens her mouth to speak but it’s too late.

The mysterious guy is already standing in front of me.

His dark brown eyes swing to Rachel before he grins and then brings them right back to me. “Sylvie, right?”

I nod.

How the hell does he know my name?

“Happy birthday,” he says, stuffing his hands into his pockets and rocking on his heels.

Rachel and I share a look before I mutter a polite, “Thank you?”

“I’m the one who should be thanking you, actually.” His voice is warm and deep, causing my belly to dip.

“Thank me for what?” I’m completely confused now.

“For taking care of my baby sister a few weeks ago. Nelson told me.”

“Dani’s your sister?”

She transferred here from New York last year. We met once at a party a few weeks back and she was drunk off her ass, puking behind a tree. I held her hair back for her until the guy she was with finally stepped in to take care of her.

But it hadn’t been this guy.

He lifts his chin, and when he does, I take a moment to appreciate his sharp jaw and scruffy face.

“Oh, it was nothing. I didn’t mind at all,” I say, waving my hand back and forth. “We’ve all been there.”

Why am I so nervous? I never get nervous around guys.

Well, except one guy.

But this is different.

His brown eyes seem hauntingly familiar, but I know we’ve never met. I would remember meeting someone as good-looking as him.

The grin holding court on his face won’t let up, but I want to see his teeth. See if they are straight or as crooked as his smile.

Linc returns, handing me a blue solo cup full of foamy beer. “Why are your cheeks so red?” His brow wrinkles in the middle as his curious eyes roam my face.

I flush again, fumbling for my words. “Oh, um…Linc, this is…I’m sorry, what’s your name again?”

The stranger finally smiles, a full on smile showing me a row of white teeth. But, as suspected, they are not perfect. There’s one that is kicked in to the side just a tiny bit and it only adds to his alarming appeal.

“Dean.” He extends his hand. “Dean Winters.”

Linc steps forward, giving him a firm shake. “Linc Matthews,” he replies, then retreats back, draping an arm around my shoulder and pulling me in close to his side.

Dean cocks his head, the confused look on his face matching mine I’m sure. An uncomfortable silence hangs between us before Dean clears his throat. “Well, thanks again, Sylvie.” His eyes hold mine. “Hope you have a great birthday.”

Linc grunts and I elbow him in the ribs. “Nice to meet you, Dean.”

With a nod to Rachel, Dean completely ignores Linc and walks away.

“What the hell was that about?” I ask, shoving Linc’s arm from my shoulder.

He has the nerve to look surprised. “What?”

“You know what.” I snap.

“I’ve heard about that guy,” Linc says. “He’s trouble.”

“You know as well as I do you can’t believe everything you hear in this town.”

“Yeah, well, everything I’ve heard is nothin’ good. Stay away from him, Sylvie.”

I blink at the demanding tone of Linc’s voice and open my mouth to tell him off but I’m interrupted. “Hey, Matthews, grab your guitar. Let’s crank this party up,” Nelson shouts.

The crowd raises their drinks in unison and the music blaring from a nearby truck fades out.

Linc grabs his old Gibson from the cab of his truck. It’s scarred and discolored because he carries it everywhere with him, but it is tuned to perfection.

Pushing aside my annoyance with him, I smile. I love hearing him sing. It’s my favorite sound in the whole wide world. He props half of his behind on the edge of the tailgate and rests the base of the guitar on his upper thigh.

He tosses me one of those special smiles he only reserves for me before addressing the crowd. “What’ll it be?”

“‘Waylon,’” Nelson bellows.

And the crowd cheers in agreement.

Linc nods, strumming his guitar. He makes a few minor adjustments before he begins to pick the familiar melody. The crowd loves this one. Linc first started singing at these parties last year. Said he needed to practice singing in front of people if he’s ever going to stand on a big stage and do it for real. He was nervous at first but it didn’t take him long to get comfortable.

He’s a natural.

The crowd lets him have the verse but they always join in at the chorus. This is a fun one to sing, but I love it best when Linc sings ballads. His deep, mesmerizing voice has a way of bringing me to my knees.

He closes his eyes, losing himself in the words.

Music is his life.

His passion.

I want to be that passionate about something.

Anything.

I still have no idea what I even plan to do after graduation. I want to go to college, but I have no idea what I want to study. I want to travel, but I have no means to do so.

He finishes the song and everyone goes nuts. He’s already a star. A wheat field star, but a big, bright shining star all the same.

His mischievous eyes swing to mine. “So, today’s my girl’s birthday,” he announces, and the hoots and hollers ensue. I love it when he calls me that, even though I’m not really his, not the way I wish I were anyway.

“Happy birthday, Sylvie!” Nelson hollers, and everyone echoes his sentiment. My cheeks flame with embarrassment as I shuffle on my feet, tucking a piece of hair behind my ear.

“Whatcha wanna hear, Syl?”

I shrug, hating when he puts me on the spot like this.

“I think you know this one,” Linc says with a wink, finding the chords he needs. A gasp falls from my lips when he begins to play the song he sang to me on the Ferris wheel. The song we danced to at prom.

But Linc’s version is so much better.

The crowd doesn’t dare sing along with this one, the powerful words paired with Linc’s voice leave everyone in awe of him.

Once he finishes, everyone goes crazy. I stand there with my mouth gaping, completely blown away.

Laying his guitar down on the tailgate, he wraps me in his warm arms, my cheek to his chest. “Happy birthday, Syl.”

Moments like this give me hope. Maybe someday he will want to be more than friends. Maybe someday he will finally tell me how he feels, if he feels anything more at all.

But what if someday never comes?

I open my eyes, seeking a distraction from my confusing thoughts. And there it is, standing just a few feet away, arresting brown eyes and a tempting smile only add to my inner turmoil.

CHAPTER 8

Past

Fate happens when you least expect it, and in the oddest, most peculiar ways.

At least that’s what Mama always tells me.

She met Daddy when she was twenty. Ran out of gas on her way to a friend’s house and he just so happened to take a different route to work that day.

Fate, she’d said.

Divine intervention.

Destiny.

I’m not so sure I believe in her philosophy.

At least not until I experienced it for myself.

This morning, my father asked me to take the suburban into town and have the oil changed. He usually handles this chore himself but he’s been too busy at work. Our family business, Dawson’s Brewery, is growing and he simply doesn’t have time to mess with it.

I’d been all too willing.

Anything to get me out of the house and out of my head for a while. Because between Linc and Dean, my mind is a mess.

Pulling up to Greasystix, I hop out and head inside.

“Hi, Mr. Jim.”

“Hey there, Sylvie. What can I do for ya today?”

I lean over the counter, reaching for the bowl of suckers he stashes there for vultures like me. “Oil change.”

Mr. Jim smiles. I’ve known him all my life. He’s been friends with my dad for years.

Unwrapping the grape Dum Dum, I slide him the keys.

“It’ll be about half an hour, dear.”

“Sounds good. I’m gonna run across the street to the dollar store. I’ll be back.”

Forty minutes later, when I return, Mr. Jim is not in the front office. After snagging a cherry Dum Dum this time, I walk back out and wander over to the last open bay door where the suburban is. The smell of grease and rubber assault my senses but the man standing beneath the vehicle is what halts my steps.

Those dark eyes lock on mine, stunningly fierce and electric. “I was wondering when I would get to see you again.” The hope in his voice sends goose bumps racing across my skin.

The grin on his handsome face is unmistakable. So is the look of intention. I can’t help but return his smile. It’s hard not to when he looks at me like this.

Flustered, I toss the rest of my uneaten sucker in the trash nearby. “I-I didn’t know you work here,” I mutter, walking closer.

“Jim hired me a couple of weeks ago.”

His eyes never leave mine as he walks over to the button on the wall, lowering the suburban. “Sorry it took so long.”

“Oh, no worries. I’m not in a hurry.”

Once the wheels are back on the concrete floor, Dean saunters over. He is covered in grease and oil. His hands are filthy; the black nails making me wince as he wipes them with an equally dirty red rag.

“There was a leak.”

I blink up at him. “A leak?”

“Oil leak. I think I fixed it but you’ll need to keep an eye on it. If you see any fluid on the ground, just bring it on back.”

Tucking my hair behind my ear, I rock on my heels. “Okay. I’ll be sure to tell my dad.”

He nods, tucking the rag in the back pocket of his jeans. “Have fun the other night?”

“Yeah, I did. How about you?”

“I spent the entire night looking at you, so yeah, it was a good night.”

I blush at the honesty in his words. He’s not lying. Every time I looked in his direction, his eyes were on me. And he was completely unapologetic about it.

My entire body buzzes with curiosity just like it did in the field the other night.

Who is this guy?

And why is he looking at me like this?

Like I am all he could see.

He makes me feel so beautiful.

Wanted.

Shifting on his feet, his dark eyes hold mine. “My friend is having a party tonight. I want you to come.”

I swallow hard, nervousness settling in my belly. It isn’t a request. He isn’t asking me to come, it’s more like a demand, but I have to admit I like his forwardness. “Sounds fun. Where?”

“Give me your hand.” With a gaping mouth, I do as he says. He pulls a pen from the pocket of his work shirt, clicks it with a devilish grin before writing an address and phone number across my palm.

When he lets go of my hand it tingles from his touch, and my heart thuds with excitement in my chest. “Be there around seven,” he says softly.

My body sags on a long exhale, anticipation building in my veins at the thought of seeing him again. I still haven’t figured out what it is that draws me to him, but whatever the heck it is, it is far too powerful to resist.

CHAPTER 9

Past

I call Dean to let him know I’m coming. He is pleased that I called, excited even.

I’m nervous as hell.

I’ve never done anything like this before.

Ever.

But something about Dean makes me want to take that risk. Dares me to take a chance.

Pulling into a small cove, I park behind a beat-up Volkswagen Beetle before killing the engine. A crowd of people stand beneath the street lamp about several feet away. Mostly guys, a few girls. They all look much older than me and appear to be really drunk.

I reach for the ignition, second-guessing my decision.

“Going somewhere?” Dean appears out of nowhere, his mischievous smile a mere shadow on the other side of the glass.

Clutching my chest, I roll down my window. “Dean, you scared me half to death.”

His soft chuckle eases some of the tension in my shoulders. “I’ve been waiting for you,” he says with that crooked grin I am growing to like so much.

“What were you doing, hiding in the bushes?”

“Nah, just needed to step away for a minute.” He nods toward the crowd.

“Those your friends?”

“No,” he replies with a grimace.

“Oh.”

An awkward silence descends but Dean doesn’t allow it to linger. “I’m glad you’re here.”

I smile nervously, gripping the bottom of the steering wheel tighter. “Me too.”

His eyes hold mine.

Dark.

Haunting.

Harboring something I need. Only, I can’t figure out what. I keep trying to come up with something to say but I have nothing.

I’m too nervous.

And he is way too calm.

Finally, he lets go of my gaze and rounds the front of the truck, climbing into the passenger seat.

“Are we not going to the party?” I ask as he closes the door.

He stretches out, making himself comfortable. “Nah…I kind of just want to be alone with you. If that’s okay.”

I gulp twice as warning signals begin to fire off in my brain. Linc’s voice blares with insistence from the back of my mind.

He’s trouble.

However, my morbid curiosity outweighs the risk. Dean is mysterious, yes, and definitely intimidating, but he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would hurt me.

Not intentionally anyway.

“Sure. Where do you wanna go?”

“You tell me. I’m not from around here.”

I put the truck in drive and head toward the tracks. “So, how’d you end up in Grandeur of all places?”

“You don’t like it here?”

“It’s only the smallest town on the planet. And there’s absolutely nothing to do here.”

“Well, I can think of one thing I want to do right now.”

His words are deliberate, meant to tempt and entice. I let them hang between us, waiting for him to elaborate, but he doesn’t.

“My parents died in a house fire two years ago. Dani came to live with my aunt so I moved down here to be closer to her.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be. They weren’t very nice people.”

I wince at the coldness in his tone. I want to ask more but I have a feeling it’s not something he wants to talk about right now, so I tuck it away for later.

“How old are you, Sylvie?”

I want to lie. Tell him I am much older, thinking that will impress him for some reason, but I know in the long run the truth is best.

“Seventeen.”

“Shit.” He pulls a pack of cigarettes from his pocket.

“What?”

“You do not look seventeen, babe.”

‘Babe?’

Babe.

He called me babe.

I like that.

A lot.

“How old are you?” I ask, hesitantly.

“Twenty-one.”

From the corner of my eye I watch as he lights up his cigarette, and I try not to think about what my father will say when he smells smoke in here tomorrow.

“How long have you lived here?”

“All my life, but I’m planning my great escape after graduation.”

“Oh yeah, where to?”

“Nashville. My best friend, Linc, who you met the other night, is moving there and wants me to come with him. He’s gonna be a star someday.” I smile thoughtfully.

“And what do you want to be, Sylvie?”

That is a good question. A damn good question. A question I still don’t have the answer to. “I don’t know yet.”

He nods as if he understands my dilemma. “So your best friend is a guy? Should I be worried?”

“Depends.”

“On?”

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

“Nope.”

My heart surges with relief. “Linc and I are just friends.”

“You wish it were more though?”

My stomach dips with nervousness. “What?”

“I can see it on your face. You want to be more than friends.” I shrug, not wanting to have this conversation with him. “Want to know my opinion?” I don’t respond, but he continues on anyway. “He’s fucking crazy. If I were him, I would have made you mine a long time ago. And I’m kind of glad he’s a blind idiot, because then maybe I have a shot after all.”

My mind spins while my heart pounds against my chest. The knot in my throat is tight and it’s hard to swallow past it as I turn down the dirt road that leads to the tracks.

When we pull to a stop, I let the engine run. It’s already ten forty-five. I have to be home by midnight. We can’t stay long. My sweaty palms grip the steering wheel while blood rushes to my ears, anxious to know what will happen next.

The alternative rock station we’re listening to switches songs and “All I Need” by Radiohead pours from the speakers, the dark sound setting the tone as he catches my eye, turning it up.

“Love this song,” he says.

“It’s one of my favorites, too.”

He continues to smoke his cigarette casually and damn it all to hell if he doesn’t look hot doing it. Then he swings his eyes to mine once more as the dark lyrics fill the space between us, his gaze bringing me down to a level of need I don’t understand.

But the need is not within me.

It’s in him.

With a sense of resolve, he drops out of the truck and rounds the front, flicking what is left of his cigarette into the night before opening my door.

Reaching for my hand, he pulls me out. “Dance with me.”

“Here?”

“Yeah…here.”

There, on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, with nothing more than the low beam headlights guiding our way, we dance. His arms wrap around me and so does his scent, intoxicating and new.

Different.

He pulls me closer, our cheeks touching, breaths meeting warm skin while my heart races in my chest. I want him to kiss me. He’s probably kissed tons of girls, good-looking as he is.

Girls who know how to kiss.

Girls who know how to do lots of things I don’t.

He is a man, after all. And I’ve never kissed a man before. I’ve only kissed two boys and their sloppy tongues and groping hands were nothing to write home about.

His fingers press into my lower back before his warm mouth whispers in my ear and my body tingles.

“I’m going to kiss you now, Sylvie.” A rough thumb works back and forth across my fevered skin as he pulls back to gaze down at me, my heart thunders so hard in my chest I think I might pass out. His face is but a shadow in the still of the night, however, there is no mistaking the want in his eyes.

It tugs at something inside of me, calls to me in a way that I cannot fathom.

Then his mouth descends on mine, paralyzing me. I’m not sure what to do with my hands so I let them hang loosely by my side, but the moment he backs me into the front of the truck they gain purchase, fisting in the sides of his shirt.

He tastes of smoke, fire, and desperation. It’s overwhelming, frightening, and addictive—his need for me.

The kiss begins to slow but my blood rushes faster, eager for more.

“Sylvie,” he breathes against my lips.

My panting heart grows sluggish and weak as he brushes his thumb across my swollen lips. His forehead drops to mine, his shoulders tense and tight beneath my hands. Something flickers in his eyes, something dark and mystifying, luring me in.

“You’re going to make me fall in love with you, aren’t you?” Warmth sings in my blood while resolution settles in his eyes. He breathes the words against my lips, a whisper of possibility that has me flying across the star-covered sky.

CHAPTER 10

Past

I don’t want to fall in love with Dean but it happens anyway. Or perhaps it is the idea of falling in love that has me tumbling fast and hard. Either way, it happens.

In a single heartbeat.

A blistering moment in time.

Deep down I know loving him will inevitably change me but it will be a long time before I truly understand just how much.

“I need you, Sylvie. I can’t wait anymore.”

Neither can I.

This has been our routine for the last two months, skating the edge of temptation, drowning in a sea of insistent desire.

“Make love to me, Dean.”

Parked on a dead-end road, I straddle his lap in the backseat, rocking against him. I’m past the point of caring anymore.

I want him.

His strong hands move to my hips, holding me in place. “Sylvie.” His brows pinch together, concern etching his face. “I need you to know that—I’m not like other guys.” His hands move to my neck, eyes holding mine. “What I feel for you, it’s not like anything I’ve ever felt before. The thought of losing you.” The tortured look on his face has my chest clenching tight.

“I get a little caught up in the head sometimes. Sometimes things don’t make sense, and I have a hard time working through my emotions. So if I ever lose my temper, or say crazy shit, just remember, it’s not you…it’s me.”

A rush of fear trickles through me but the sincerity in his eyes soothes it away instantly. “Okay.”

“I just—I don’t want to lose you.”

My hand cradles his rugged face. “I’m not going anywhere.”

He remains silent for one heartbeat.

Two.

Three…

“I love you. I love you so fucking much. You make my world better. You make me better.”

The words roll off of his tongue in an avalanche of heat, slamming into my chest, ripping through my heart like a freight train.

Tears well up in my eyes as my body floods with warmth. “I love you too, Dean. Always.”

“You love me?” he asks, in awe of my confession.

Biting my bottom lip, I nod. Mama says love doesn’t need a reason, it speaks from the irrational wisdom of the heart.

What Dean and I have is irrational all right. Nothing about us makes sense. Our age difference. Our personalities. Our directions in life. We were headed down two completely different roads, yet somehow, my path has changed course, merging with his.

His mouth is back, hungry.

Hot.

A cyclone of destruction meant to claim my heart and soul forever.

Removing my shirt, he plants soft, reassuring kisses across my collarbone before he shifts, laying me down on the cool leather seats. Then he unbuttons my jeans, slowly peeling them from my shaky legs, dropping more kisses along the way.

The sound of denim hitting the floorboard is just as thunderous as my pounding heart, letting me know we are that much closer to being connected as one.

Which is what I want more than anything right now.

His desire is palpable as well as my own and the need to answer it pulses wildly in my veins.

I am naked sans my bra and panties and he’s still fully clothed. Heat rushes my cheeks but I stomp down my apprehension as my trembling fingers move to his sides, lifting his shirt up his torso and over his head, breaking our kiss.

I’ve never seen a man naked before and the sight of Dean looking down at me right now is intimidating. His eyes are dark pools with glimpses of moonlight reflecting in their depths. I want to bathe in its pale light. But I also want to dance on the other side, where no one else has been.

And I want to go there with him.

“You okay?” he asks.

I nod, squirming beneath his intense gaze. Sitting back on his haunches, he pulls me with him then snakes his hands behind my back to unclasp my bra, releasing it in a quiet snip but the significance is deafening as the fabric whispers down my arms.

I cross my arms over my chest as I lie back down. Dean pulls them away. “Don’t hide from me. I want to see all of you.” Snip

Holding my eyes, he takes off my panties, dragging them down my legs slowly before unbuckling his belt and unbuttoning his jeans, situating his body over mine.

A shiver races through me, realization of what is about to happen penetrating every nerve. He nudges my opening.

I tense. “Wait…shouldn’t we use a condom?”

His mouth touches mine. “I’ll pull out. I need to feel all of you, Sylvie.”

I can feel him pressing against me, my heart pounding like a loud drum in my ears. I find it impossible to swallow and even harder to speak so I nod my consent.

He begins to move, easing inside of me slowly. I cry out, the burning sensation almost too much to bear as he fills me one painful inch at a time.

Oh God, it hurts so badly.

I can’t catch my breath as I try to hold back the tears. Dean stops, stroking my hair with his hands as he lands kisses on my lips and cheeks.

“It’s okay,” he whispers.

I take in a few calming breaths, telling myself that if I can get past the worst part of it then I can enjoy the good parts.

“Ready?” he asks.

I nod again, words impossible right now.

He drops his forehead to mine and pushes all the way inside of me in one hard thrust. Burning pain like I’ve never known invades my body. Tears leak from the corners of my eyes as I attempt to breathe through it.

This is awful and nothing like I expected it to be.

“Dean, it hurts,” I grit.

“I know, baby, I’m sorry. It won’t hurt next time, I promise.” I want to believe him but I’m not so sure. I’m not sure I ever want to do this again. Dean rocks back and forth, going deeper with every thrust. I almost tell him to stop, but the more he moves the less pain I feel. My fingers dig into his back as I pray for it to end but eventually, the pain ebbs into a dull ache.

Then Dean tenses, a look of pleasure smothering his face as he quickly pulls out of me. A sense of loss washes over me, my innocence abandoned here on a dead-end road in the middle of the night. I feel like a different person, yet still the same. Either way, I know my life has changed forever.

Though, I have no idea just how much truth those words would carry.

CHAPTER 11

Past

My mother’s eyes are filled with unshed tears as she adjusts my veil. This is my mother’s veil. I’m also wearing her wedding gown, the same one she wore the day she married my father almost twenty years ago.

Although, we had to have it taken out a little around the midsection so my tiny bump wouldn’t be quite so obvious.

I guess you can say things moved pretty fast with Dean. His need for me only intensified and I fed off of it like a starved child. We got careless, and six weeks later, I took a test that changed our lives forever.

Standing in front of the full-length mirror, I twist from side to side. It’s not too noticeable, but everyone knows, or at the very least suspects I’m pregnant. Why else would a seventeen-year-old girl get married, unless she’s absolutely crazy?

“I can’t believe my baby is getting married and having a baby.” My mother dabs the corners of her eyes with a tissue, smiling weakly back at me. She’s been crying all day. And while I couldn’t really blame her, I didn’t want to cry on my wedding day.

She wraps her arms around my waist, hugging me close as tears fill my own eyes. “You don’t have to do this. We’ll help you take care of the baby while you go to community college. You can live with us forever if you want.” I’m pretty sure those weren’t my father’s sentiments. He couldn’t even look at me without disappointment in his eyes.

“Everything will be okay, Mama. I promise.”

“But do you love him?” she asks, and my troubled heart aches.

Answering quickly, I give her the reassurance she’s seeking. “Of course I do.”

I do love Dean. Very much. But this is not how I imagined my life would be. I haven’t even graduated high school yet and here I am, pregnant and about to get married. Dean promises me he will take care of us and I believe him, but the truth is I’m scared to death.

I have no idea how to be someone’s mother much less someone’s wife and the pull Dean has on me feels like it’s impossible to escape, his need for me too powerful to fight. The more time we spend together, the more I begin to realize that darkness inside of him runs deep.

Much deeper than I thought.

A week after I found out I was pregnant, he came to pick me up from school, arriving just as I was walking out with Linc. You would think I was making out with him the way Dean reacted. He was so angry. If I hadn’t gotten between them…there’s no telling what Dean would have done.

Fortunately, I was able to calm him down. However, his possessiveness and jealousy has only grown stronger since. Anytime I even mention Linc’s name, I can expect a fight. To the point where I avoid mentioning him at all. I know it has a lot to do with Dean’s insecurities. The way his parents treated him and his sister growing up and how they pretty much abandoned them both before they died.

So in an effort to reassure Dean, I distanced myself from Linc.

I hate it.

I hate not being able to talk to him whenever I want and share my life with him. It’s killing me inside, like a part of my heart is slowly dying.

A knock sounds at the door, forcing me to step away, and I am relieved when I hear Linc’s voice. “Is it safe to come in?”

“Sure, c’mon in, sweetie,” my mother says.

A gasp tumbles from my lips as he walks into the room, looking devastatingly handsome dressed in his tux. I wasn’t sure if he would show up today because he’s been so distant lately. I know he’s disappointed about me not going to Nashville with him. To be honest, I am, too.

Linc kisses my mother’s cheek, never taking his eyes off of me. “Mind if I have a moment alone with my girl, Mrs. Dawson?”

My chest tightens, knowing soon I won’t be his girl anymore. Soon, I will belong to someone else.

Looking between the two of us, she smiles. “Sure. I’ll send your father back in about ten minutes, sweetheart.” My mother hugs me once more before leaving the room.

The second the door closes, Linc clasps my hand in his, the warmth of his touch gifting me with a small measure of comfort. “How’re you feeling?” he asks, his voice a little shakier than usual.

I shrug, unsure if he’s asking about my mental condition or physical one. “No nausea today, so that’s good.”

He nods and takes a step closer, bringing an extreme amount of heat with him. My face flames and my body reacts the way it always has.

Guilt smothers me.

I’m about to marry another man. I’m pregnant with his child for heaven’s sake, but the feelings I have for Linc are still prevalent. Being with Dean hasn’t diminished that in the least. And I think that’s what terrifies me the most.

That these feelings will never go away.

“There’s…there’s something I need to tell you.” The hand holding mine squeezes before he closes his eyes and exhales a long breath. “You can’t marry Dean.”

I jerk my hand from his and turn to face the mirror. I can’t look him in the eyes right now, because if I do he might see right through me. “Don’t be ridiculous, Linc. We’ve talked about this. This is the right thing to do.”

His eyes hold mine in the mirror, looking into the deepest part of my soul; he speaks softly but with underlying conviction. “I’m in love with you.”

My hand flies to my throat but it does nothing to stop my heart from trying to pound its way out of my chest. He reaches for my arm and spins me in place. His warm hands cradle my cheeks, desperate eyes locking with mine. “I’m in love with you, Sylvie. I’ve always been in love with you. I was just too damn scared to do anything about it. I didn’t want to ruin our friendship, or worse, lose you. I can’t lose you. Please, don’t marry him. Please. Because someday, I want you to marry me.”

I bathe in his words. The ones I have longed to hear from him for so long. But just as quick as they invade my heart, they destroy my soul completely. Anger gnaws at my gut as blood heats in my veins.

Why is he doing this now?

Now that it’s too late.

Reaching for his wrists, I pull his hands away from my face, but his touch obliterates my resolve. He holds me steady, and before I can protest, his lips seize mine.

In my head I scream no.

I know I should not be kissing Linc just minutes before I am to marry Dean, but my heart selfishly takes everything it can from this kiss.

Because, deep down, I know this can never happen again.

Slipping my hands between his arms, I clutch his smooth face, pulling in a deep breath through my nose, inhaling every single breath of him. His tongue tangles with mine possessively as he wraps his arms around my waist, holding me close.

I never want him to let me go.

I want to lose myself in this moment forever.

My mind finally catches up with the moment and what we’re doing. My hands shove at the wall of his chest but he doesn’t budge.

“Sylvie,” he pleads against my lips, and my heart crumbles.

Tears clog my throat as I push at his arms, twisting my head away from his seeking mouth. “Linc, please.”

His forehead rests on my cheek, both of us searching for air.

After a few moments, I take a step back, attempting to regain some shred of composure. Then I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror once more. Taking in my bloodshot eyes and my swollen lips.

Shame swallows me whole.

Linc continues to hold my hand. “Please don’t do this. I can’t leave this room without you,” he says, pain embedded in his voice.

“It’s too late, Linc.”

He squeezes my hand tighter. “No, it’s not. It’s never too late.”

I bring my free hand to my lower belly, knowing damn well it is. I will never regret this child. I plan on being the best mother and wife I can be, but I will always regret not telling Linc how I feel about him.

I shake my head; unable to find the words I need to let him go.

He takes a step closer. “Do you love me?”

“Linc, don’t do this to me, please.”

His hand shoots to the side of my neck, bringing my eyes to his. “Answer me, Sylvie. Do you love me?”

He can see it. I know he can. My heart is screaming so loud inside my chest; my ears are ringing with the truth. But if I confess my true feelings for him, it will only make it worse.

For him and for me.

“No.”

He stands silent, hope dying in his eyes right before me. It is too painful to watch so I close my eyes, tears flowing down my burning cheeks.

“You’re a liar,” he says. “You’ll regret this. Just because you made a mistake doesn’t mean you have to marry the guy.”

My blood heats as I grit my teeth and jerk his hand away from my face. I walk toward the door, determined to prove I am indeed making the right decision.

I snatch my bouquet of white calla lilies from the vase, remembering my mother’s request to choose another flower.

These always make me think of funerals, Sylvie, not weddings. You should go with roses instead.

Well, I made the right choice about that, too. They couldn’t be more appropriate, considering my youth will die at the altar today, along with all the love I harbor inside for Linc. But hidden deep within the confines of my soul, I know only one of those is the truth.

CHAPTER 12

Present

Besides photos, memories can be the only evidence the past ever existed. Some of my memories have faded with time, content to lose their color and shape because they were neither important nor significant enough to hold on to. But most of my memories are still so fresh and vivid, flashing through my mind constantly, spinning on loop like an old record. They feed from my grief and sadness, forcing me to remember.

Seeing Linc again stirs up a lot of emotions, and I’m drowning in the memories of our past.

This is why I haven’t seen or talked to Linc in over a year. Not since the day of Dean’s funeral. It hurts too much to remember, and I know now that he’s back he won’t allow me to keep them buried any longer.

I ignored his proclamation that after all these years he still wants me and went straight back to work. There’s no way I would have been able to finish my shift otherwise. Because I know, as well as anyone, that once Linc sets his mind to something, he follows through with annoying determination.

And I don’t want to take a walk down memory lane. The wreckage I’d left behind is just too devastating to witness. The wounds are too raw and fresh. Revisiting it is like peeling the scab off a wound that wouldn’t heal.

It hurts like hell every time.

I ask Eliza to take his table and finish cashing out the rest of my customers before starting my side work. After rolling up the last of the silverware, I grab my purse and walk out the back door into the employee parking lot, and there he is. Waiting for me.

Just like he’s always done.

Linc shoves off the driver’s side door; hands shoved in his front pockets, that confident grin smothering his face. “Did you think it would be that easy to get rid of me?”

“I can’t talk right now. I need to go pick up Caroline,” I say, trying to sidestep him to get to my car, but he steps in front of me, his heavy gaze pinning me in place.

“So this is how it’s gonna be?”

I swallow thickly. “How what’s gonna be?”

“You can’t shut me out forever, Syl. We made a promise, remember?”

“We were in the fifth grade.”

“So, still counts.” His face softens further and he reminds me of that little boy who stole my heart all those years ago. Before it was hijacked by a thief in the wheat field.

“How’s Caroline?” he asks. I relax my stance and lower my arms. He knows my weak spots.

He knows everything.

I take a moment to really look at him. It’s hard to see every line but I can clearly make out that his sharp jaw is set; sporting a five o’clock shadow and an intensity I’ve never seen before. I can see it in the way he looks at me, the way he’s standing, just out of arm’s reach but close enough to let me know he’s here. And he’s not going anywhere. Now that I really look at him, he looks tired. The crinkled skin fanning the corners of his eyes has grown deeper, worry buried within the lines. Pretty sure I’m the cause of some of that.

That’s why it’s just best to steer clear of him and everyone else for that matter.

“She’s okay. We’re fine,” I reassure him, trying to suppress the deep ache re-emerging in my chest.

“I miss her, Syl.” He collects a step forward, cupping my elbow. “I miss you.”

I sigh, dragging my eyes to the ground, because the selfish part of me wants to throw myself in his arms and fall apart. Let him figure out how to put the pieces back together, but I can’t do that. I’ve caused him enough pain. He deserves better than that. “Linc, please don’t.”

“Don’t what? Don’t fuckin’ care? Stop asking me to do that. It’s pissin’ me off. It’s time to face this, Syl. You can’t keep hiding from everyone.”

“I’m not hiding.”

“You forget who you’re talkin’ to here. I know you. Better than anyone. I’ve given you time to work it out on your own, but you gotta let me back in, Syl. Let me help you through this.”

I turned that longing into anger. It was the only way I could keep from giving in to my greedy heart. “I’m not doing this right now. I just pulled a double, my feet hurt like hell, and now you’re making my head hurt.”

His jaw tics but his voice remains calm. “Then when?”

When will I be able to pour my heart out and tell him everything left unsaid?

Probably never.

I don’t say that though. Instead, I shove past him, seeking refuge from his expectant stare. Thankfully, he lets me in my car and I think I’ve made my escape, but once I click my seatbelt into place, his knuckle taps loudly on the window.

“I’ll be by the house tomorrow,” he informs me as I begin powering down the glass.

“I have to work tomorrow,” I snap, putting the car in reverse.

He lowers his head, seeking my eyes. “It’ll be before your shift.”

I don’t even bother asking how he knows what time I come in, because knowing Linc, he’ll be there at dawn. I drive off into the night, sparing him one final glance as I pull out of the parking lot, then I continue my journey down memory lane.

Alone.

CHAPTER 13

Past

My daughter came into this world with a healthy set of lungs and a head full of jet-black hair, just like her daddy. She already possesses my stubbornness, it seems. I had to be induced two weeks after my due date because she absolutely refused to come on her own.

My mother told me giving birth would be the single most painful, beautiful experience of my life and she was right. But this angel is worth every ounce of pain. I’ve been so scared in the months leading up to her birth, but all of my fears evaporated the moment I laid eyes on her.

She is the light of my life.

She gives it color and meaning.

I’ve finally found my purpose and it’s swaddled in a tiny pink blanket, sleeping soundly in my arms.

Dean hasn’t left my side. He’s been overly sweet and attentive. He held my hand the entire delivery and even cut the cord. It was so precious watching him hold his baby girl for the first time, and he’s just as enamored with her as I am.

“She has your nose,” he says, smoothing his index finger across the bridge.

I smile down at her. She does have my nose. I’ve spent hours staring at her. Even though I’ve only known her for two days, I can describe every line and curve of her face. How many wrinkles in her tiny fingers.

How many breaths she can take in a single minute.

She consumes my every thought. My need to love and protect her is immense and overwhelming. Something I think only a mother can truly understand.

Dean rises from the bed, stretching his arms above his head. “You hungry? I’m sick of the cafeteria food.”

“Yeah, a burger sounds really good right now.”

He leans down and kisses me on the cheek then the lips. “Need anything else?”

Smiling up at him, I shake my head. “I think we’re good. Take your time. Get some fresh air. You’ve been cooped up in here for two days straight.”

He kisses me again. “I’m so proud of you, baby. I’m the luckiest man in the whole goddamn world. I love you both very much.”

“We love you, too.”

“Be back soon.”

When the door finally shuts behind him, I breathe a sigh of relief and reach for my cell to text Linc and see where he is. I hate going behind my husband’s back but I’ve become desperate.

When I called Linc to let him know when I would be induced, Dean went crazy. He doesn’t want me talking to him at all. He’s always been jealous of my relationship with Linc. Anytime I talk about him, his whole demeanor changes, but it’s gotten to the point where I won’t mention him at all in order to avoid a fight, and I hate that I have to do that. But it’s hard not to talk about him when he’s sometimes all I think about.

The guilt eats at me because of it. I know I shouldn’t long for another man, especially my best friend, but I can’t help the way I feel inside.

I read somewhere once that it’s impossible to love two men at once, that your soul can have only one counterpart.

One true love.

That may be true but both of them own a piece of my heart. And each have the ability to tear it apart.

Linc quickly replies, letting me know that he’ll be here soon. He moved to Nashville after graduation. It was bittersweet. He was finally going to live his dream but it meant seeing and talking to him less. He came by the day before he left to tell me good-bye. It broke my heart all over again. We never spoke of what happened the day of my wedding.

I swept it under the rug along with all the dirty feelings I continue to hide.

He promised he’d be back when the baby was born, giving me another reason to look forward to that day.

I’m ashamed at how many times I’ve fantasized about the kiss we shared. Even standing in front of Dean, exchanging our vows, it was all I could think about. Sometimes I wish he hadn’t told me how he felt. It only added to the deep longing in my heart.

A longing for something I can never have.

Looking down at my daughter, I know I made the right choice. My feelings for Linc are irrelevant, because all that matters now is her happiness.

The knock at the door startles me, pulling me from my deep thoughts. “You decent in here?” Linc shields his eyes with his hand as he enters the room.

“Yes, goofball. Come in.” I laugh.

Lowering his hand, he walks over to the side of the bed. “There’s my girls.” He’s holding a bouquet of pink calla lilies with a big smile on his face.

God, I’ve missed him.

My hands tingle to touch him, to make sure he’s really here. It’s been six long months since I’ve seen his face. The longest we’ve ever gone without seeing each other since the day we met and he already looks so different.

Older.

There’s a scruff lining his jaw and his hair is longer but it suits him.

He leans down, pressing a kiss to my forehead, lingering there. I close my eyes against the deep ache in my chest. “Sorry I couldn’t get here sooner. I had a gig last night, and I couldn’t back out.”

“It’s fine. I’m glad you’re here now.”

He looks down at Caroline cradled in my arms and his eyes light up in wonderment. “She’s so tiny.”

“Yeah well…she’s not. She weighed in at eight pounds twelve ounces.”

“Holy shit.”

We laugh and it’s still so comfortable.

Easy.

I’ve been so afraid things would be awkward between us but I’m relieved to discover they’re not.

“Do you want to hold her?” I ask.

“Is it safe?”

“She not a bomb, Linc. Of course it’s safe.”

“I…I’ve never held a baby before. I don’t wanna hurt her.”

“You can’t hurt her. There”—I nod to the chair next to the bed—“sit down first.”

He places the flowers on the table next to the bed and takes a seat, scooting the chair closer. Once she’s safely in his arms, I relax against the pillows, gazing at two very important pieces of my heart.

“I can’t believe you gave birth to a human,” he says.

“I know…it’s so weird.”

“How’re you feelin’?”

I shrug, avoiding his searching eyes. “I’m fine. The actual giving birth part sucked, but now that she’s here, I couldn’t be happier. She’s perfect.”

“Of course she is…she’s a part of you.”

Warmth invades my limbs, centering in my chest. His green eyes hold mine. So many truths. So many things left unsaid but impossible to deny. I realize it will always be there.

This unspoken bond between us.

This undeniable longing.

No matter how deep we try to bury it.

I clear my throat, shattering the moment. “How’d the show go last night?”

Linc has been busting his hump to get noticed on music row, playing every place he can to get his name out there.

But, apparently, everyone wants to be a star.

When we spoke last week he was feeling discouraged. That he might not have what it takes to stand out.

I know better.

His eyes are back on Caroline when he shrugs, dipping his forefinger beneath her tiny ones. She wraps them tightly around his digit, and I smile as Linc bonds with my daughter.

Of all the times I imagined my future, I never saw it leading me here.

But that’s okay, because right now, in this moment, here is perfect.

“It went okay. There was supposed to be a producer there from an indie label, but I have no idea if he came or not. I hit the road as soon as we finished our last set, and I haven’t heard from the guys so that’s probably not a good sign.”

“It’ll happen, Linc.” I place my hand on his knee. “I know it will.”

The corner of his mouth lifts but I can see his doubt peeking through. “What’d you end up naming her?” he asks, diverting the subject like he always does.

“Caroline Rose.”

“‘Sweet Caroline.’” Linc begins to hum the old Neil Diamond melody, and I close my eyes, lost in the deep timbre of his voice.

A sound I desperately miss.

Linc stops humming and I open my eyes to find Dean standing next to me. I didn’t hear the door open or close because I was so immersed in the moment, but I can feel every ounce of anger and bitterness pouring off of him now.

Linc’s brows pinch together in the center of his forehead and his jaw tenses.

“’Sup, man,” Dean greets, extending his hand.

Linc stands up. “Congratulations,” he says, taking his offered hand.

“Thanks.”

Leaning over, Linc gently places Caroline back in my arms. Then he instinctively kisses my forehead before moving away.

Dean says nothing but his pressed lips and hollow eyes do not require words.

I can hear him loud and clear.

“I’ve gotta run. I promised Mama I’d take her out for dinner tonight.”

“How long are you in town for?” I ask with hope in my voice. I’m not ready for him to leave me yet.

“Just tonight. I need to be back to work by Wednesday or Jeb will have my ass. I wish I could stay longer.”

Me too.

The stab of disappointment is painful. I desperately want to spend more time with him but I know he has to get back and my husband is not going to stand for it. “Thanks for coming.”

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Leaning down, he kisses Caroline’s forehead, too. “She’s beautiful, Syl.” He gives Dean a terse lift of his chin then turns to face me once more. “I’ll call you soon.”

“Okay,” I whisper. “Bye, Linc.”

“Bye, Syl.”

A heavy silence descends once he leaves the room and my heart sinks with dread. I feel his eyes upon me, burning through me like a raging fire. He sets the bag of food down on the table next to me and crosses his arms over his chest.

“You really expect me to believe you two are just friends?”

Avoiding his gaze, I look down at Caroline. “We are just friends, Dean. I’ve hardly spoken to him,” I say, holding my baby girl tighter.

That ever present guilt niggles in my gut, knowing that while I speak the truth—we are just friends—in my heart I still long for him. I need to find a way to move past that. Make it go away.

But I have no idea how.

“Bullshit. I see the way he looks at you. And if he ever kisses you like that again, I’ll fucking kill him.”

I hate it when he speaks to me this way, and I don’t like that I am intimidated by him.

He leans forward, holding on to the rails with both hands. His face is inches from mine. I can smell the remnants of his last cigarette and taste the panic in my mouth.

“You are my wife,” he says. “I don’t want him coming around anymore or you talking to him on the phone. That shit’s not right.”

I raise my chin in an act of defiance. “You can’t tell me who to be friends with.”

“The hell I can’t.” The tone of his voice straightens my spine.

“You’re being ridiculous, Dean. He’s…”

“He’s what?”

I look down at my sleeping angel, avoiding his accusing glare. “He’s my best friend.”

Dean’s fingers grip my chin firmly as tears fill my burning eyes. “Well it’s time to decide if you’re his friend or my wife.”

I nod, submitting to the anger residing in his dark brown eyes.

He carefully gathers Caroline from my arms and cradles her against his chest. “Now eat. Before it gets cold.”

In the short time I’ve been a mother, I have found strength I didn’t know I had and discovered a fear I never knew existed.

CHAPTER 14

Present

I tossed and turned all night. Not that sleep has ever been a friend of mine, but last night I couldn’t seem to fight off the memories long enough to squeeze in an hour. Before Linc strolled back into town, I was doing a good job of keeping them away.

Especially the bad ones.

But now they roll in like thunder and strike like lightning, a raging storm of pain and regret. The only regret I don’t have sits in the passenger seat next to me. She’s the only reason I made it through the last few years.

She’s the only good piece left of my shattered world.

And I’m trying like hell not to break it, too.

“Mama, please don’t make me go. Why can’t I just stay home with you?” Caroline pleads as I drive her to school.

This is almost an everyday thing. She hates going to school. She hates interacting with people. Probably because they all know what happened to her father.

Everyone in this damn town knows.

“Sweetie, we’ve been over this. You have to go.”

“I don’t want to be around those kids.”

“Why not?”

“Because they all look at me weird,” Caroline says quietly, looking out the passenger side window.

Kids can be so cruel sometimes. I’ve thought about homeschooling but the counselor said that would only make it worse. My heart clenches in my chest as tears clog my throat. I have no idea how to help her because I still don’t know how to help myself.

“Baby, it’ll get better with time,” I tell her gently.

That’s my answer to everything.

I tell myself that over and over but even I don’t believe it. It’s been a year and we’re still stuck in the same place.

My Caroline is not like other kids. She’s endured far more in her seven years than most kids her age. She’s so strong.

Far stronger than me.

When she leans over to kiss my cheek, I place my hand on her arm. My heart aches for her. She’s been to grief counseling. We both have. But she’s still distant and it’s killing me. She wants to deal with it on her own and part of me wants to let her, but I know it’s not healthy. But how in the hell are we supposed to move past this if I can’t even talk about it? I don’t know how to help her move on because I’m still stuck in the past myself.

“I love you, Caroline.”

“Love you too, Mama.”

The last year has been hard on her, and I’m doing my best to pick up the pieces and find a sense of normalcy but it’s just so hard. I want to be able to talk about Dean without all of this anger and resentment bubbling up from inside of me but it’s still impossible to do. And even though Caroline saw and heard more than I ever wanted her to, she loves her father very much. Since I’m uncertain with how I should be coping with his memory, much less honor it, I have, instead, buried it.

It might not be fair but it’s the only thing I’m capable of at the moment.

I’m just doing what I can to survive.

After dropping Caroline off at school, I rush back home so I’m not late for my appointment. I have someone coming to look at the roof to give me an estimate on the storm damage from last week. The last thing I need is another bill on my table but what else am I going to do? I have to get it fixed or else we’ll be swimming in the living room with the next storm that rolls through.

I only have ten minutes to spare by the time I pull into the driveway. Enough time to brew a pot of coffee and clean up the dishes from breakfast. I remember Linc’s promise to come by this morning, but I ignore the flutter in my belly at the thought.

Just as I turn the knob to start the dishwasher, there’s a knock at the front door.

Making my way through the tiny foyer, I stop to adjust a crooked picture of Caroline the day she turned four years old. I close my eyes against the memory and the heartache the day brought with it.

Not now, Sylvie.

When I open the door, I come face-to-face with Linc. “Mornin’.” His voice washes over me like an old familiar song, evoking a million emotions all at once.

I swallow hard but it doesn’t prevent the heat from soaring through my body. “Can I help you?” I ask, sarcasm dripping from my words.

A smile tugs at the corner of his lips as he steps forward. “Yep, I’m looking for my girl, Sylvie. Have you seen her? Vibrant woman, full of life, with a smile that could bring a man to his knees.”

“Nobody lives here matching that description. Maybe you should check down the street.”

He looks over my shoulder, stretching his neck. “Where’s Caroline?”

“School. I just dropped her off.”

“Damn, I wanted to see her. But I’m glad we’re alone,” he says, stepping further inside and shutting the door behind him.

Grinding my teeth, I walk away from him. “I didn’t invite you in.”

“Why are you being like this?”

“Like what?”

“So…I don’t know…hard.”

“What do you want me to say, Linc? Life made me this way. There, is that what you came here for?”

“No, I came here to look at your roof.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“You called Greg for a quote.”

“You’re working for Bradley Construction again?”

Linc worked for him all throughout high school, and as I recall they did stay in touch over the years. But I never would have expected him to go back to work there.

It’s not like he needs the money.

“Not really. Just picking up a few odd jobs while I’m here.”

While he’s here? Guess that means he’ll be leaving again once Gwynn recovers. The thought depresses me. Even though I’m fighting him at every turn, I can’t deny that I’m happy he’s here. I’ve missed him terribly. I just didn’t realize how much until he showed back up.

“Must be quite a change from touring on the road.” Linc not only became a country music star but he also set the bar for other artists in the industry as well, with his bluesy sound. Some say it isn’t even country. But it doesn’t really matter what the critics think. He sells out every arena. He’s sold millions of albums, won multiple awards, and has traveled all over the world.

He became everything I knew he would be and so much more. Linc Matthews can do whatever the hell he wants.

His familiar eyes meet mine, deliberately holding them longer than necessary. “You know I could never sit still for long.”

I clear my throat, uncomfortable with his penetrating gaze and the truth behind his words.

“Well then, follow me,” I say, my voice a weak version of itself. Heat creeps up my neck as I walk him through the kitchen and out the back door.

I have a ladder propped against the back of the house from when my father climbed up to take a look. Linc stands close to me. Our arms barely graze one another, but you would have thought his hands were all over me.

It’s been a long time since a man has touched me intimately.

“Dad says there’s no damage to the front, just the back.” I try to maintain control of my voice but it’s tough. I’m drunk off his scent and further weakened by the longing and desire flickering in his eyes.

Folding my arms across my chest, I brace myself for the inquisition I fear is coming.

He stands there with a grin on his face, looking at me like he knows exactly what I’m thinking because, damn him, he probably does. After a few agonizing moments, he finally proceeds to climb the ladder. I try my best not to admire his long legs eating up the rungs or how good his butt looks in those worn out jeans but it’s hard.

And I’m a woman starved for affection.

Sue me.

I cup my hand over my eyes to shield the sun and watch as he walks back and forth, assessing the damage. After about ten minutes of that, he climbs back down.

“You need a whole new roof. There are some soft spots up there that really need to be fixed, too.”

My shoulders sag, remembering my father said the same thing. He even offered to pay for it but I can’t let him do that. He’s done enough for me over the years. A quick fix will just have to do.

“Well, I can’t afford that. So if you could just quote the damage, that’d be great.” I pat his shoulder and turn to leave but he catches my wrist. The heat of his touch is enough to rob me of a gasp, and a whole lot of other things.

The burning flame in his eyes infuriates me. I’ve spent most of my life trying to resist this, and now that I can have it, I can’t bring myself to take it.

I don’t deserve it.

I snatch my wrist from his hand. “What are you doing?”

“I just want to help, Syl.”

“You can’t save me, Linc. No one can,” I whisper.

“I’m not here to save you. I’m here to love you. Because I never fuckin’ stopped.”

His words wrap around my heart, reminding me of my own truth. One I’ve carried around for as long as I can remember.

I never stopped loving him either.

CHAPTER 15

Past

When you’re in love, you don’t care about anything except holding on to the feeling. You can’t see their flaws. You can’t see the hard ground beneath you or how bad it’s going to hurt when you finally do land. That’s how it is with Dean. That’s how it always is with him.

Like flying.

But what goes up…must come down.

Over the next three years, I slip into my role as mother and wife. I stay home and take care of Caroline while Dean continues to work for Greasystix. He also does side jobs for extra money. He loves to work on motors, engines, anything you can take apart and put back together. He’s good at it, too. Working for himself also gives him more confidence, something I’ve learned Dean has very little of. Which makes it hard for us to find a balance in our relationship. We are constantly up and down. His temper flares at the mention of Linc, and I resent him for forcing me to pull away.

I never told Linc what Dean said the day Caroline was born. I just pretend everything is okay. Linc is always busy so it’s really hard to talk to him sometimes. Not only does he have a day job, where he works ten to twelve hour shifts, but he also spends every chance he can playing his heart out, trying to pave his way.

At first I felt guilty for going behind my husband’s back, but now I don’t. Linc was there before Dean ever came into the picture, and I told Dean early in our relationship that I would never give him up.

I meant it.

Caroline occupies most of my time so I’m not able to dwell on Linc not being here too much, but I still feel the void. Like a gaping hole in the center of my chest.

Once Dean leaves for work, Caroline and I eat our breakfast. Then I pack us a lunch and load up the car to head to the park.

Rachel is meeting us there today. I am excited to see her. We don’t get to spend a lot of time together these days because she is always so busy. She works as a receptionist for her father’s landscaping company and she is also going to community college to study business. She and Will finally found a place together. The two of them are planning on getting married next spring, but babies are a long ways off, she always says. I think that has a lot to do with me. She’s heard enough about my struggles to know having a baby so young will halt any of her future plans.

Because, unlike me, she’s always known exactly what she wants to do with her life.

I find our usual spot, a picnic table near the swings. Once I have everything settled, I unfasten Caroline from her stroller and put her in the toddler swing.

She swats the front of the seat with excitement, eager for me to push her. “Sing, Mama. Sing!” she squeals and I smile.

Giving her a gentle push, she gasps with delight as her tiny fists cling to the chains. “Is that fun?”

“Pun!” she replies with a giggle.

We spend the next couple of hours playing before I settle Caroline on a blanket with her toys. Then I take out my notebook and begin to write.

I have no idea what possessed me to start a journal. But I’m so glad I did. I find solace here. A place to fly, because there are days I feel like I’m trapped in a cage, clipped wings with no song to sing.

Desolate are the skies so gray.

They only turn blue when I see your face.

Every hour of every day I think of your kiss.

And all the ones I’ll forever miss.

It is without fear that I accept this fate.

For I will find my way someday.

I slam the notebook shut when tears begin to sting my eyes. I’ve written hundreds of passages and poems. Some are shallow and don’t even begin to scratch the surface of the turmoil I am fighting inside. But some…some of those words bare all of me. Words that strip away all of the armor and resentment and anger.

Those are the ones that scare me the most.

The ones that harbor the most truth.

I glance up to see Rachel heading my way so I quickly tuck my small notebook inside the side pocket of Caroline’s diaper bag. Her long brown hair is pulled back in a smooth ponytail. Wearing stylish jeans, a cute blue top, and a smile that lights up her entire face, she leans down to give me a hug then she reaches for Caroline.

“Ray Ray!” Caroline squeals with pure joy as Rachel scoops her up.

“Well, hello there, sweet girl.” Peppering her chubby cheeks with kisses, Caroline giggles. “I’ve missed you.”

When she’s finished giving her all the lovin’s, as she likes to call it, she sets her back down on the blanket and we both take a seat on either side of her. I begin unpacking Caroline’s snacks and refilling her sippy cup.

“So how’s the new place?” I ask, anxious to hear all about the good things happening in her life. We speak on the phone a few times a week but it is hard to find the time to catch up face-to-face.

She sighs. “I’m so damn tired. We finally got everything unpacked but it’s funny, now that we live together, we hardly see each other. I work all the time and go to school and he’s been pulling double shifts at work. It’s been stressful but we’re trying to find time for each other. Even if it is in the middle of the night,” she finishes with a wink.

It’s amazing to me, after all of this time, how much in love they still are with one another. I’m envious of her sometimes, not only of her freedom but because she gets to be with the man she truly loves.

“How’ve you been? I bet this little munchkin is keepin’ ya busy,” she says, giving Caroline a belly tickle.

“Lord yes, she’s into everything.”

We both laugh.

“She definitely keeps me on my toes,” I say. “The other day I found her coloring on her bedroom wall. Thank goodness for magic erasers.”

“How are things going between you and Dean?”

I’ve confided in Rachel some, but she doesn’t know everything. She knows Dean hates Linc but I haven’t told anyone about his terrible mood swings.

He says it is stress. He does work a lot. There are days when I won’t see him at all except when he climbs in bed at night and even there, the connection between us is strained. But I keep telling myself that is normal. It’s hard to balance family and work and still make time for each other.

“We’re doing our best to make it work.”

Her brows bunch together as she studies me carefully while Caroline jumps and climbs all over her lap. “Are you happy?”

“Most days.”

Caroline brings so much joy to my life and she makes the lonely days and nights bearable, but sometimes I find myself wondering what could have been. I feel ashamed for even thinking it because I wouldn’t trade my daughter for anything in the world, but there are moments I ask myself if this is where I am meant to be.

“Have you talked to Dean about going to Nashville with us? Linc talked to Will last night and he’s so excited for us to come. This show is a big deal. It sold out in less than an hour.”

I shake my head, agony squeezing my heart. “No, not yet.”

“Sylvie, it’s two weeks away. You need to talk to him.”

“I will,” I lie again.

There’s no way Dean will let me go even though I desperately want to.

“You better. It won’t be the same without you, and Linc will be heartbroken.”

That will make two of us.

We move on to other topics and before I know it…it’s time for her to go back to work.

“Listen, I better go. I need to run by the post office for Dad before I head back.”

“Okay.”

After smothering Caroline with hugs and kisses, we get to our feet and she pulls me in for a hug. “Talk to him tonight, Sylvie. I mean it.” She kisses my cheek then smiles. “Call me later.”

I sigh, wondering if it’s even worth the fight. I know Linc is worth it but I also know my husband, and I know what he’ll say. I just need to find a way to tell Linc I’m not coming to what could be the biggest night of his life without him hating me for it.

Once I have Caroline settled for her nap, I sit staring at the phone for the next half hour before I finally work up the nerve to call him.

“Syl,” he answers in a low, husky voice, dragging out the L. His familiar greeting slips into my heart with great heat, depositing an ache almost impossible to contain.

“Hey,” I say quietly, lying back on the couch with a throw pillow clutched to my chest, but it does absolutely nothing to staunch the longing I feel.

“How are my girls today?”

I smile. “Good. Caroline finally fell asleep.”

“Long morning?”

“Yeah, we just got home from the park. We had lunch with Rachel and Miss Priss threw a fit when we left so she ended up crying herself to sleep on the way home. She wears me out.”

Linc chuckles. “I can’t wait to see her. I bet she’s grown so much since Easter. You need to bring me some recent pictures when you come visit.”

My heart races as dread settles like an anchor in my stomach. I knew it was coming. I’ve even planned out exactly what I am going to say, but now that I can hear the hope in his voice, my courage falters.

“How’s your day been?” I ask, sidestepping his comment.

He exhales a long breath. One I can feel all the way down to my bones. “Tired as hell. They got me on the dozer so it’s not too bad but it’s hot as hell here and I’m workin’ twelve-hour days. The damn humidity is gonna kill me.”

“You better stay hydrated,” I tell him with a nervous laugh.

“You better pack light clothes when you come see me in two weeks.” The sound of hope in his voice crushes my soul. “I can’t wait to show you around and introduce you to my band. They are so sick of me talkin’ about you and Caroline.”

Silence fills the line and he lets go of a long sigh. “You didn’t talk to him, did you?” The weight of his disappointment is not spared with this question.

“I was going to but…”

“But what? I haven’t seen you in months. Your mom already said she’d help out with Caroline. I don’t see what the problem is.”

“Linc, please.”

“I need you here. I’m not sure I can do this without you. This is the biggest night of my life.”

My heart aches. I want to be there for him. I know how important this is to him. He’s snagged a coveted spot on open mic night at the Bluebird Café, which is huge for a singer and songwriter. It is his first real chance at being discovered.

“Linc, of course you can do it without me. You’re gonna blow them all away. Trust me, you don’t need me to be there to accomplish that.”

“Yeah, but it won’t mean shit if you’re not here.” Another long sigh and his pained voice grows harder. “Why can’t you just tell him you’re going and that’s it?”

“Because he’s not going to let me come.”

“Why?”

“Linc.”

“Goddamn it, Syl. Why?” he barks.

I tense at his demanding tone. He’s never spoken to me this way and it pisses me off.

“Because he doesn’t want us to be friends anymore,” I toss out carelessly.

And the second I say the words, I immediately want to take them back.

I hate that I’m hurting him but I need to start being honest with myself, even if that means upsetting him. The dynamics of our relationship has changed and we must start accepting that.

“You were mine first, damn it!” I hear a loud crack in the background, and I squeeze my eyes shut against it, trying not to think about what he just hit.

Might as well have been my heart though, because Lord knows it’s in a million pieces right now.

“He’s my husband. I chose this, Linc.”

“No, you didn’t choose anything. You accepted it. There’s a big fuckin’ difference. I gave you an out. You wouldn’t take it.”

“Oh right, so you can pursue your career with a girl you kissed once and another man’s baby in tow. Give me a break, Linc. That’s not how you saw your life playing out.”

“No, it’s not. But I would have happily taken it. If it meant havin’ you here with me.”

“Why do you say these things to me?”

“Because I don’t want you to ever forget how I feel about you. You’re not supposed to be with him. You’re supposed to be with me.”

My heart aches so much, knowing how much I’m hurting him. He doesn’t deserve this. He deserves so much more. Just because I’m miserable doesn’t mean he should be, too.

“Don’t you get it? I can’t be with you!” Digging deep for courage, I say the words I hope will push him away for good. “You need to move on, Linc.”

“Move on from what? The only girl I’ve ever loved. Impossible. You need to grow a backbone and tell your husband you’re in love with me.”

I gasp, his words inflating my heart but draining my soul. “Stop saying shit like that to me.”

“Why? Because it’s the truth?” he grits. “You know what, just forget it. I don’t want you here anyway.”

“Fuck you, Linc,” I scream, my voice raw with pent-up emotion.

“Fuck you!”

CHAPTER 16

Past

If I thought, for one second, that not having Linc in my life would be any easier, I was seriously fooling myself.

Because this hurts far worse.

Not being able to talk to him is pure agony. But I only have myself to blame. I’m the one who pushed him away. And while deep down I know it’s for the best, it does nothing to help with the pain.

After dropping Caroline off to spend the day with my mother, I head to the Blue and White to meet Rachel for lunch. She and Will arrived back from Nashville late last night and I’ve been dying to know how the show went, how Linc is doing, and if he asked about me at all.

It has been two weeks since that phone call but the hateful words spoken are still raw and fresh in my mind.

We are halfway through lunch before I even have the nerve to broach the subject. But nothing could have prepared me for the words that come next.

“He’s seeing someone,” Rachel says, and the words prick at my heart.

“What?”

Rachel bows her head, shoveling the remains of her chicken salad around her plate. “Her name is Charlotte. She’s really nice. Very pretty. Disgustingly polite. They’ve only been talking for a few weeks. Linc says it’s nothing serious, but you can tell they are comfortable around each other.”

God, I’m so glad I didn’t go. Because if seeing him with someone else was half as bad as hearing about it, I would have broken down on the spot.

“She asked about you,” Rachel continues. “Said you’re all he talks about and she can’t wait to meet you.”

“I’m not sure how I feel about that,” I tell her honestly, because I truly don’t.

A part of me is glad he found someone and is moving on, but the selfish, much larger part hates her and we’ve never even met.

“Maybe this is for the best. I mean…I wanted you two together more than anyone but it’s clear fate has other plans.”

I’ve told myself that very same thing a million times but for some damn reason, my heart refuses to believe it.

“How was the show?” I ask, trying to move on to a less painful subject.

Rachel’s eyes light up. “Oh, Sylvie, he was amazing. I’ve never seen him sing like that. He was so passionate and energetic. Will and I were both blown away. He’s written some new songs and the crowd…wow…they really love them some Lincoln Cole.”

My smile grows bigger, pride swelling in my chest. “I wish I could have been there.”

“Well,” she starts, reaching for her bag. “He did ask me to give you this.”

It is a plain white envelope with my name written in Linc’s messy scribble across the front. My breath stalls and the urge to rip it open is strong, but I quietly thank her and tuck it inside of my purse to read later.

Rachel continues to tell me about their trip, but the only thing I can think about are the words waiting for me.

After we finish lunch, I don’t even make it to my car before I retrieve the letter from my bag. I hold it in my hand for what seems like forever before I finally rip it open. There is a crisp piece of paper and a crinkled one.

I read the neat one first.

Syl,

I’m not sure where to start. I usually have no problem putting my feelings into words but I’m struggling today. Mostly because I would prefer to say these things to you face-to-face rather than put them on paper, but every time I try to do that, it either comes out the wrong way or at the wrong time. But then again, I guess there will never be a right time for me to feel this way, because whether I like it or not, you belong to him.

It kills me to say that out loud.

Seeing it in black and white is even more painful. Because it makes it real. I guess in the back of my mind I’ve been holding on to the hope that this wouldn’t last. I know that sounds selfish but it’s the truth. I love you. More than you will ever know, and I regret every single day that passed by without me telling you just how much you mean to me. I’m holding on to something I never had and deep down I know I have to let it go.

I know that.

But I can’t.

I don’t know how.

You are the most important person in my life and I don’t see that ever changing. So, for now, I accept what we are.

Friends.

I’m sorry for the way I spoke to you on the phone, but I’m not sorry for what I said. I meant every word. Even though we can’t be together, I’m not willing to give you up. I don’t give a shit what he says. You’re my best friend and that will NEVER change.

Never.

But the fact remains that you are married, and as much as I don’t want to, I must respect that. But make no mistake—I’m not going anywhere. I won’t allow you to push me away and neither will he. I love you, Syl. I always will. I’ll call you in a few days. Give Caroline a kiss for me.

Love,

Linc

It is impossible to contain my emotions. They stream down my face, landing on the paper in my lap, coursing through my veins and instilling relief inside my heart. No matter what happens, Linc will always be there, and the knowledge leaves me with an immense amount of comfort.

And pain.

Remembering the crinkled up sheet of paper behind his letter, I gasp when I realize what it is. It has faded with time but the words that had started our lifelong friendship are still there, written with swift determination on a piece of paper, marking a place and time I will never forget.

Friends forever.

CHAPTER 17

Present

The late afternoon sun beats down on my back, causing sweat to bead across my forehead. I dig into the soft dirt, placing a bulb into the hole and covering it with a firm pat. I wish it were this easy to bury my past. But just like the flowers that bloom in the spring, so do my memories.

Trying to push Linc out of my life for good has been one failed attempt after another. He’d been just as relentless then as he is now. I’m surprised he’s stayed away this long.

Down on all fours, with my hands covered in dirt, his voice washes over my heated skin, making me even hotter. “Got anything cold to drink? My helper forgot to load the water cooler this mornin’ and I’m all out of Gatorade.”

I straighten, bringing a cupped hand over my brow.

Tall and imposing, the noon sun beams brightly behind him, casting a shadow across his face, but I have no problem taking in the rest of him. Broad shoulders stretch the fabric of his sweaty T-shirt, clinging to him like a second skin. My eyes fall to his waist where dirty blue jeans hang from his hips in such a way I’m forced to swallow back a sigh.

“Dyin’ here, Sylvie.”

My God, me too.

Dropping my shovel, I push to my feet and dust off my knees. “Sure, follow me.”

The other two bids I had for the repairs were much higher than Bradley’s Construction. So against my better judgment, and in favor of my budget, I’d gone with his quote. I’d politely requested someone else to do the work. I knew Linc and I would be forced to deal with our past eventually, but I’m still not ready.

Unfortunately, these two are all he has available right now. I know he is full of shit but what can I do.

This is Linc’s way of making me deal with him.

They’ve been here the last three days working on the roof. I’ve been at work the majority of the time but with it being Saturday, and my day off, it’s unavoidable.

I can feel his eyes on me as we make our way into the house.

Close.

Close enough to smell the sweat mixed with dirt and hard work. Close enough to feel the heat of his presence mingling with mine. Close enough to feel the pull that has always been there, hidden beneath the surface, dragging us both under.

I open the refrigerator door, grateful for the cool air greeting my warm skin. Reaching for two bottles of water, I set them on the counter. “Just use the back door and help yourself if you need more.” A chuckle, low and throaty, rumbles from his mouth, and I lift my eyes to his. Amusement crinkles in the corners, making him look older.

Wiser.

“What?” I ask.

He shakes his head with a soft laugh this time. Twisting the cap off, he tosses it onto the counter and lifts the bottle to his lips. His throat bobs with each swallow, sweat rolling down his tan neck before disappearing underneath his damp T-shirt. My mouth waters to taste him. My hands itch to touch. I reach for the cross around my neck, closing my eyes on a small sigh.

His deep laughter fills the room. It vibrates against my skin, electrifying my blood. “You okay?” he asks, and my eyes fly open.

He’s standing right in front of me now, a reckless smile showing off a row of perfect white teeth. That smile has my knees wobbling so I bring my hands behind me to brace myself.

“Fine,” I say, but it comes out all breathy and wrong.

I am so not fine.

“You’re nervous.” He takes a step closer, as if this kitchen weren’t small enough. I hate how easy it is for him to read me. I can’t hide anything from him; no matter how hard I try.

“How much longer do you have on the roof?” I shove out, nearly breathless. His closeness has such an effect on me, and it’s not only exhilarating but also completely unnerving.

“Eager to get rid of me?” He reaches out to touch me, and I flinch. His hand hangs midair while his eyes hold mine then he pulls a small leaf from my hair, bringing it in front of my face to show me before leaning forward. I stand motionless, completely overwhelmed by him. The smell of sweat and desire swirling like a tornado between us, bound for destruction. He dips his head, inhaling deeply. My nipples tighten in response.

“Linc.”

His eyes hold mine, captivating me. “Why are you fightin’ this so much? I know you want this. I know you want me just as much as I want you.”

“Because I don’t deserve it,” I whisper.

I’ll never deserve this man in front of me. I’ve dreamed about our one and only kiss so many nights, praying someday my lips would have the pleasure of knowing his again.

Of being his.

The thought brings on so much guilt and shame it’s nearly suffocating.

He looks deep into my eyes; searching the parts of me only he can see.

“Mama?”

Caroline’s voice breaks our heated stare as Linc spins in place. “Sweet Caroline,” he breathes, setting his bottle down on the counter and rushing over to her. He hasn’t seen her in over a year but time stands still in my kitchen as she reaches her arms up to him, a look of pure joy radiating from her face.

“Linc!” He kneels in front of her, wrapping my baby in his strong arms. A small sob forces its way out of my mouth even though I do everything I can to hold it back.

“God, I’ve missed you,” he says, my heart aching at the softness in his voice.

“I’ve missed you, too,” she says into his neck.

“You’ve grown a foot taller since the last time I saw you.” Caroline pulls away, still beaming.

I haven’t seen her smile like that since…

“I’ve actually grown a foot and a quarter,” she states proudly. “Why haven’t you been to see us?” She frowns.

Linc tenses as he looks over his shoulder at me then back at her. “Your Mama needed some time for just you and her. But I’m back now. And I’m not goin’ anywhere this time, sweetheart.”

Caroline’s smile is so bright and so big; I have a hard time containing my own. After another hug, he stands up. “I gotta get back to work, but we’ll catch up soon, okay?”

“Okay,” she replies.

Linc doesn’t even spare me a second glance before he walks out the back door.

“Mama, are you okay?” Caroline asks, taking my hand in hers. I stare out the window, watching him brace his hands on the side of the truck, his head hanging between his rigid shoulders. The sight of him hurting is a familiar one. This is what we’ve become.

Pain and heartache.

Longing and need.

“Yes, baby, I’m fine.”

I hate lying to her but what am I supposed to say? The only man I’ve ever loved with all of my heart is here to stay, and I’m not sure how to feel about that. Right now, I want to run into his arms and forget the past seven years ever even happened, but when I look down at my daughter, the real love of my life, I know that will never be possible. No matter how bad the last few years have been, I can’t regret a single day of my life with Dean, because without him, I wouldn’t have her.

CHAPTER 18

Present

The rain had set in following our intense moment in the kitchen, preventing Linc’s return to work on the house the following day. I’m grateful. It gives me the chance to regain control over my emotions. Which are all over the place right now. The way they’ve always been when it comes to him.

As I pour myself a cup of coffee, I hear the crunch of gravel on my driveway. He’d sent a text message last night saying he would be back today, weather permitting, and the early morning sun shining down on his pickup tells me the rain has finally taken leave.

Coffee in hand, I make my way out onto the back porch.

“Mornin’, Syl,” he greets, retrieving his tool belt from the cab of his truck and buckling it around his waist. I try hard not to admire the way the worn leather hangs from his hips, but it’s awfully hard.

I take a tentative sip from my mug. “Where’s your helper?”

He reaches inside his truck and grabs a mesh hat from the dash that has Dawson’s written across the front, pulling it down low on his brow.

“It’s his day off.” He grins. “Don’t worry, I brought water today.”

Well, that’s a relief.

“But I forgot my lunch.”

Shit.

I spin on my heel and hightail it inside. His chuckle sneaks through the screen before I slam the door.

When I get to the kitchen, Caroline is pouring juice into a cup. “Good morning, sweet girl,” I say, kissing the top of her head. “Sleep good?” She nods and takes her juice to the table. I get the griddle and the pancake mix out as well as a pack of bacon. “So what do you want to do today?” It’s Memorial Day so no school for her and I’m off work. I thought it would be good for us to get out of the house and spend some time together.

I look over my shoulder when she doesn’t answer and find her nose buried in her new book. “Caroline?”

Her brown eyes meet mine. “Ma’am?”

“I asked what you would like to do today.”

“Can’t we just stay here?” she asks softly.

I stop what I’m doing and take a seat at the table next to her. Her bare feet dangle from the chair and her dark hair is a tangled mess as she sits quietly reading her book. She’s so withdrawn. And I fear it’s only getting worse. Not only from me, but also from everyone. She doesn’t even like to leave the house anymore.

“I think we should get out and do something fun today. We could go see a movie,” I say, brushing the hair from her eyes with my hand.

She shakes her head, her tormented eyes meeting mine. “I just want to stay here, Mama, please.”

I give in. Because it’s easier, and right now we both need easy. “Okay. We’ll stay here. Would you like to help me in the garden later then?”

With a nod and a small smile, she returns to her book, and I get up to finish making her breakfast.

***

A few hours later, my hands and knees are covered in dirt and mud. Caroline and I have spent most of the morning weeding the beds around the back of the house and planting new seeds in our small vegetable garden. Gardening has become somewhat therapeutic for me. There’s something about planting a seed, watering it, nurturing it, and watching it grow into something beautiful or bountiful that fills my heart with a happiness I can’t quite describe. Mama says it stems from my need to take care of everyone around me. I just feel like it’s the only thing I’m good at besides being Caroline’s mother.

And even some days that’s questionable.

Caroline is always inquisitive about what we plant. How much sunlight it will need to grow, how much water it will require to sustain fruitful life. It took me a long time to master my green thumb. But she seems to enjoy it as much as I do and even checks out books at the library about plants and flowers and anything else she can get her hands on. She’s such a smart little girl.

Far smarter than I ever was.

She went inside a few minutes ago to get us both something to drink but she hasn’t returned. My little helper has gone AWOL. I smile, thinking she probably picked up her book, unable to put it down for too long.

Once I have the plants potted and situated, I gather up my garden tools and head for the shed to put them away but stop abruptly when I turn the corner to round the back of the house.

The air in my lungs flees on a gasp as I focus on the sight before me.

Linc and Caroline are sitting on the tailgate of his pickup, her dirt-covered feet swinging back and forth. She has the biggest smile on her face. I clutch the items in my hand closer to my chest as warmth invades my heart and a smile smothers my own face. I take a step back, hiding behind my rose bush so I can savor this moment.

She hasn’t smiled like that in so long. I swallow around the lump in my throat, my ears straining to hear their conversation, but all I hear is laughter before, finally, Linc’s deep voice asks, “So how’s school?”

Caroline shrugs. “It sucks. I hate it. The kids all look at me like I’m from another planet.”

He nudges her shoulder. “Ever think they just look at you because you’re beautiful?”

A shy smile tugs the corner of her mouth. “No, they look at me like that because they feel sorry for me, because of what my daddy did.”

Linc’s face falls but he doesn’t falter. “You know, you should never let anyone make you feel bad about your dad. He loved you very much.” Caroline toys with the hem of her shirt, rubbing her bare feet together nervously. Linc reaches for her hand. “It’s okay to talk about him, with me or your mom.”

“Mama doesn’t like to talk about him,” she says, so quietly I almost don’t hear her.

I cover my mouth to trap the sob threatening to escape.

“It’s been hard on her, it’s been hard on you both, but it’s okay to talk about him. It’s okay to be sad and angry, that’s normal. But you need to remember all the good things, too.”

“That’s what the counselor said.”

Linc scoots closer. “If you ever need to talk to anyone, you can always talk to me,” he says.

Caroline looks up at him, her eyes wide and hopeful. “I’m so glad you’re back. Don’t ever leave again, okay? We need you.”

My heart twists and turns in my chest.

Linc clenches his jaw. “I’m not going anywhere. Not ever again. I promise.”

She nods, content with his response, and surprisingly, so am I.

“Linc?”

“Yeah?”

“Can you sing me a song?”

“You want me to sing you a song?” He laughs.

She nods. “When I’m sad or when I want to smile, I always listen to your songs.”

Like mother, like daughter.

Pride washes over his face as he leans down to kiss the top of her head. The walls around my heart struggle to keep my emotions at bay. “Well, I’ll do anything to keep that smile on your face.” He hops down from the truck.

“Where are you going?” she asks.

“Just so happens I have my guitar with me today,” he tells her with a wink.

Caroline beams at him as he reaches the cab of the truck. After retrieving his old guitar from the backseat, he takes his place again next to her.

“Any requests?”

She taps her chin as if she’s trying to decide, but I know what song she’ll choose before she even says it. “‘Sweet Caroline?’”

“I was hopin’ you’d say that.” He grins.

He strums the strings, finding the melody easily. He’s sung this song to her a million times. She never grows tired of hearing it and honestly, neither do I. It never fails to bring a smile to my face or light a fire in my heart. Finally finding my feet, I walk toward them, no longer able to stay away.

Just as Linc reaches the chorus, Caroline jumps up in the back of the truck, dancing and stomping her bare feet.

Laughter erupts from my chest, my heart swelling with happiness. Something I haven’t felt in a really long time. Linc’s eyes find mine and he gives me wink, a wave of warmth enveloping me. I mouth thank you before turning to face Caroline.

“C’mon, Mama! Dance with me,” she squeals, reaching out her arms to me.

I shake my head but when she brings her clasped hands beneath her chin and pokes out her bottom lip, I can’t deny her. Dropping my tools to the ground, I climb in the back of the truck and dance with my baby girl while Linc sings his heart out just for us.

***

The remainder of the day has been one of the best I can remember in a long time. We went in for lunch after Linc’s mini jam session where he took request upon request from Caroline, even humoring her with a few Taylor Swift songs. The man never ceases to amaze me. His ear for sound and his ability to pick up on a melody so quickly is a remarkable gift. The tension between us eased up with Caroline around, and when the time arrives for him to go, we have found our comfort zone with each other once more.

It’s nearly dark when I wander out onto the porch and find Linc packing up his tools and loading up his truck.

“I won’t be here tomorrow so make sure you bring water and your lunch.”

He chuckles, the sound soothing and warm. “I will.”

Slamming the tailgate of his truck, he walks to the foot of the steps. The porch light illuminates his face as a smile teases the corners of his lips.

I fold my arms across my chest.

I’ve never had to fight so hard at it. When Dean was here it was easier to mask. But now that he’s gone, it’s taking everything I have to cover it up.

He props a booted foot onto the bottom step. “We’ll be finished tomorrow.”

“Good.”

Step.

“Doesn’t mean I’m finished with you though.”

Step.

“Told ya I ain’t goin’ nowhere.” Linc plants his feet on the porch, standing directly in front of me, eyes gleaming with affection. The green irises set my body on fire and build an inferno of heat, raging in my heart and between my legs.

“What’s for dinner?”

I smile because, damn it all to hell, when it comes to him, I can’t help myself. “Fish sticks and macaroni and cheese.”

He smirks. “You know that’s my favorite.”

One minute I’m standing on my front porch, trying desperately to resist him. And the next minute, I’m in his arms…

Giving in.

His lips claim mine, soft yet hard paired with unmistakable determination. His warm tongue tangles with mine, tasting of deep longing and strong desire.

The kiss of that desperate boy long ago pales in comparison to that of this unyielding man.

I throw my arms around his shoulders as he backs me into the door. “I’ve waited a fuckin’ lifetime for this,” he whispers across my lips before seizing them once more, renewing his passion.

I’ve dreamed of this moment for so long, to feel his touch, to taste his lips once more. The possessive manner in which his fingers brand my skin, the way his tongue greedily slides against mine.

Linc begins to slow the kiss but I’m not ready for it to end, so I dig deeper and pull tighter, in my vain attempt to soar higher.

I don’t want to let this moment go.

Ever.

His hands cup my face and I can sense him trying to pull away, so I let him, because otherwise I’ll beg him to take me right here and now. His forehead rests against mine, and I take this opportunity to breathe him in.

“God, I’ve missed you so much.”

“I’ve missed you, too,” I say, still trying to grasp the reality of what is happening. “I still can’t believe you’re here.”

His eyes meet mine as confusion settles on his face. “Why?”

“Because of everything that’s happened between us. Because of everything I said to you. I thought you would hate me forever. It’s what I wanted.”

“I could never hate you.”

“I would hate me,” I whisper.

His hands move to my back, pulling me into his chest. “Know what I hate? I hate what he’s done to you. I hate what he took away from us, and most of all, I hate that you’re still letting him.”

God, I hate it, too.

“It’s time.”

“I know.” I agree, because even though I don’t deserve him, I need him in order to survive this.

CHAPTER 19

Past

The first time I met Charlotte Covington I hated her right away. Not because she’s incredibly beautiful or ridiculously sweet, but because she has him.

A philosophy major at University of Tennessee, she is ambitious and smart. I can tell Linc likes her and it’s obvious he’s attracted to her but I still notice the way he looks at me.

It’s the only thing that is helping me get through this torturous moment.

I shouldn’t be sitting here thinking about how much I wish my hand were in his, instead of hers. Or what it would feel like to have him make love to me when my life is falling apart. These thoughts have no business taking root in my mind, but they do. They always surface with a vengeance anytime we are together.

He asked me to meet him for lunch at the Blue and White so he could introduce me to her and tell me the news that he’d been asked to open for Firelight. A trio of siblings who are blowing up the country music charts. I am so excited for him. He can’t stop smiling as he tells me about them seeing him play then asking him to join their tour.

“Sylvie, Linc tells me your family owns a brewery,” Charlotte says, reaching for her drink with her free hand because I’m pretty sure her other one is still clasped in his beneath the table. She can’t keep them to herself apparently. She’s always touching him, and it is starting to annoy me.

Jealousy is something I’m not accustomed to, except when it comes to Linc, and it shouldn’t even be present now, considering I’m supposed to be happily married.

I nod with a fake smile. “Yep.”

“That’s so neat. I went on a tour of the Budweiser Brewery once with my family while on vacation in St. Louis years ago. It was quite an experience.”

I shrug, lifting my own drink and wondering who on earth uses the word neat anymore. “It’s nowhere near that scale, but we do well enough. I just started working there actually,” I announce, putting my drink back on the table.

Linc’s sharp eyes shoot to mine as he raises a brow. “When?”

“Well, I technically don’t start for another week but I’ve been spending time there a few days a week. Dad hired me to be the event coordinator. He thinks it will bring in more income and he’s always getting requests for weddings and parties, so why not?”

“You’re gonna be really good at that,” he says, pride brimming in his tone.

“Thank you. I’m excited. Now that Caroline is in preschool, I’m anxious to work.”

“Gosh, I don’t know how you did it for that long. I could never be a stay-at-home mom. And at your age…I would go crazy.”

I blink several times but it does nothing to suppress my anger. I’m still trying to figure out if she’s intentionally being condescending, or if she’s completely clueless. I don’t think she’s ever had to make a hard decision in her entire perfect life.

“I have to pick Caroline up soon. I better go,” I say, reaching for the check before Linc’s hand covers mine. His seeking eyes are tight with confusion and concern, in a standoff that Charlotte clearly doesn’t understand or dare to question so she excuses herself to the ladies’ room.

Linc takes the check from my hand and reaches for his wallet. After laying three twenty-dollar bills on the table, he grabs his coat from the back of his chair and I do the same. Then he leads me out into the parking lot like he is about to help me escape the hell I’ve endured for the last several months.

Closing my eyes, I pull the crisp winter air into my lungs, enjoying the taste of freedom. I can breathe again. For this tiny second, with his hand clasped in mine, I feel like I can fly. And if I close my eyes tight enough, I can fly away for good.

As we come to a stop near my car, Linc turns to face me and releases my hand. The loss is a heavy one and I exhale a defeated sigh. “What’s wrong? Talk to me.”

God, I really want to. I want to throw myself in his arms and tell him everything. Tears prick the back of my eyes but I manage to hold them back.

I’m getting quite good at that.

“I’m fine, she just…I shouldn’t take things so personally.”

“I’m sure she didn’t mean anything by it,” he says.

“She seems really neat, Linc.” The sarcasm is thick in my voice, and I feel bad after I say it but I can’t help myself.

“Stop.” He laughs, and I can’t stop my own smile despite my dark mood.

“What does Gwynn think of her?”

“She asked me if she knew what a broom was.”

I don’t even try to cover my laugh and he joins me. “She does seem a little…”

“High maintenance?” he tosses out, shoving his hands into the front of his jeans.

“Well, she’s different, that’s for sure.”

“She’s not you,” he whispers on a cold breeze but his words settle like a warm blanket over my soul.

His eyes hold mine in a silent standoff, the one we always seem to share now anytime we are near one another.

“Linc,” Charlotte calls out with a sugary voice as she takes up residence next to him, interrupting our stolen moment. He pulls his hand from his pocket to wrap an arm around her waist.

I extend my hand to her, anxious to leave. “It was nice to meet you, Charlotte.”

“You too,” she says sincerely. “Maybe you can come see us in Nashville sometime.”

Us.

How can one word be so devastating?

“That’d be great.” The words taste like sandpaper on my tongue.

After I give Linc a hug good-bye, I get inside my car as they walk to his truck parked a few rows over. I stick the key in the ignition but I don’t have the strength to turn it over. All I want to do is fall apart, along with everything else in my life.

I nearly give in when a soft knock taps the glass.

As the window rolls down, Linc pops his head in. “What’s up with you?”

Shaking my head, I hold back my tears. I have so much to tell him but now is not the time nor the place. Linc studies my face, knowingly, sensing my inner turmoil.

“Mom and Charlotte are going shopping. Wanna meet me at the tracks around noon tomorrow so we can talk?”

I nod, unable to speak for fear of losing it all together.

“Whatever it is, it’s gonna be okay,” he promises.

Slipping his hand to the back of my neck, he pulls me forward so his lips press against my forehead. They linger there and my heart begs for him to never let me go.

***

From the beginning, I vowed to see this through. I have a responsibility to Caroline, and keeping my family together has always been my first priority.

I’ve thought about leaving him more than once, but each time I remind myself that it will not only be me and Dean who will be affected by that decision, but Caroline will suffer most of all.

Then again, Dean and I were young. We made a mistake. Do I have to punish myself for the rest of my life? Or should I be fair to us both and end this before Caroline is old enough to understand?

Maybe if I leave now, it won’t be so hard on her.

I feel so lost.

I don’t know what to do.

These thoughts continue to roll through my head as I turn onto the dirt road leading to the tracks. Since today is Saturday, I left Caroline with my mother. Dean is at home sleeping off another all-nighter. He came walking in this morning and in order to avoid another confrontation, I didn’t say a word. But I’m at my breaking point, and I’m not sure how much more I can take.

Linc is already there waiting when I pull up. I kill the engine and take in a deep breath before I get out of my car and climb into his truck.

“Hey,” he says as I shut the door.

“Hey.”

He leans over to hug me, and I nearly fall apart right then but I manage to keep it together. “You look tired.”

I exhale a long sigh. “I’m exhausted.” Pretending everything is perfect on the outside can wear a person down, and I’m so tired of pretending. “I think Dean is on drugs.”

He remains silent for a long time. Maybe a lifetime. It feels like forever before he finally speaks again. “Leave him.”

“Linc, that’s not the answer. I have to help him.”

He leans forward, invading the space between us with purpose. “To me it is.”

“I really need you to be my friend right now, okay?”

His green eyes hold mine as he contemplates my request. Then he nods. “Why do you think he’s on drugs?”

I swallow hard in an attempt to prepare my troubled heart. “He’s been more aggressive lately. Agitated.” I look down at my fidgety hands, tears welling up in my eyes. “He’s been calling out sick to work, sleeping during the day then staying out all night. He’s losing weight, and I can tell something isn’t right. I don’t know what to do.”

Linc’s face pinches with pain.

“Has he…has he ever put his hands on you?”

“No,” I reply, unable to look at him.

Dean hasn’t hit me but his anger and fits of rage are terrifying enough. Last week, he pushed me hard against the wall when we got into a heated argument about money. Hard enough to make the sheetrock crack. Then he was on his knees, crying, begging for me not to leave him. I didn’t know what to do. I could see in his eyes, how much he needed me and how sorry he was, but it didn’t change what he did.

I’d never felt so lost or unsure, and I’m afraid that if I don’t do anything now it will only get worse.

“How long has this been going on?”

“About six months.”

“Fuck, Sylvie. Why didn’t you say something sooner?”

“Because I keep hoping it will get better. Despite how you feel about him, he is a good father. He may be jealous and a little possessive but he just does it because he loves me.”

He scoffs. “Do you still love him?”

“Yes, I love him. I love him very much.” I release a defeated sigh, sagging back into the seat. “I just don’t know how to help him. He won’t open up to me and now he’s starting to shut me out completely.”

Silence consumes the air between us but the way he’s looking at me says it all, it has my heart breaking and yearning at the same time.

“You need to confront him,” he says, his jaw locked down tight. “Give him an ultimatum. Either he gets help or you’re gone. You deserve better than this, Sylvie. You both do.”

The pain that’s been locked in my chest erupts like hot lava. I bury my face in my hands as sobs rack my body. “I’m so scared, Linc.”

He says nothing as he lifts the console between us and pulls me into his arms attempting to glue my broken pieces together.

After several long moments, I lift my head, and his rough thumbs wipe away my tears. “You’re the strongest person I’ve ever met. You’ll get through this.” I nod, bringing my hand to cover his. “I’m here for you, Syl. No matter what. Until the day they put me in the ground, I’ll always fuckin’ be here.” His lips press the promise to my forehead and my heart cries out in relief.

Clinging to his strong body, my gratitude is a whispered ’thank you,’ because there is no other possible way for me to express what this man means to me.

“No need to thank me for something I was born to do.”

CHAPTER 20

Past

“Where the fuck did you find that?” Dean asks, his fists clenched at his sides. The wooden box on the table is filled with syringes, a rubber strap, empty plastic bags, and a bunch of other garbage I know he uses to get high.

“Where do you think I found it?”

His eyes flare with rage, his pupils the size of pins. A shiver sneaks down my spine, fear causing my hands to tremble. “Why the hell were you in my shop, Sylvie? You have no fucking business being in there.”

Dean paces the floor, running a hand frequently through his dark hair while taking long pulls from his cigarette.

I’d taken Caroline to my parents’ house to spend the night so I could confront him. This is our relationship, no one else’s. And I had a feeling confronting him in front of anyone else would only make him angrier and less willing to be honest about his problem.

So yesterday I started digging around the house, looking for something.

Anything.

I didn’t want to walk into this without some kind of proof. I can point out the other things, like his diminishing appearance and erratic behavior but I wanted, needed, something more concrete.

I came up empty-handed at first, checking the usual places…drawers, closets, but only after I wandered out to his shop did I hit pay dirt.

Dean spends a lot of time out here working on his side jobs. I never bothered to come out here. I’ve always respected Dean’s space. But, apparently, he’s been doing more than just working. And he’s been doing this right under my nose. I didn’t have a damn clue.

How could I be so blind?

“I have this under control.”

“How? How do you have it under control? Look at yourself. You can’t even stand still.”

“Look, until you start bringing in some money around here, I don’t want to hear shit about what I do.”

That got me to my feet. “I have never asked you for more than I deserve. I take care of our home and our daughter so don’t you dare throw money in my face because that is not what this is about. You have a problem. You need help. So you either do something about it or you won’t have to worry about bringing home money for me because we won’t be here.”

It only takes him two strides before we are standing face-to-face. His eyes are wide, wild, and a haunting shade of brown. I know he has demons he’s never shared with me. Things that plague him. The only family he has a relationship with now is his sister, Dani, and I am convinced it is just as toxic as the shit he’s pumping into his veins.

He’s trying to make sense of my newfound confidence and it only takes a minute before he realizes I am not backing down.

Not from this.

He has one hell of a fight on his hands.

His jaw ticks mercilessly. “Don’t you threaten me, Sylvie. We both know you’re not going anywhere.”

Lifting my chin, I dig deeper than I ever have before. I love him. I want to help him but he has to help himself, too. “I’ll take her, Dean. I don’t want to keep your daughter from you but if you don’t get help we’re out of here,” I tell him with resolve.

Anger sweeps through my blood, adrenaline pounding in my ears as I shove past him and grab the keys sitting on the bar, but I don’t even make it to the door before he is in front of me again.

“You’re not fuckin’ leaving,” he grits, terror ripping down my spine.

“Yes, I am.”

His hand curls around my upper arm. “Where the fuck are you going to go? You going to run to him?”

“Dean, you’re hurting me.”

His eyes grow more wild, desperation heavy in their depths. His fingers tighten, and I know there will be a bruise there tomorrow.

“Dean, I can’t talk to you when you’re like this.” I try to wiggle from his hold and avoid his knowing stare.

“Tell me, Sylvie. Tell me you love me. I need to hear it.” The plea in his voice slams in my gut, a direct contradiction to the maddening look in his eyes.

“I—I can’t live like this anymore.”

He jerks my body hard against his. His fingers digging in deeper as he grits his teeth. “I can’t live without you. Do you understand? I won’t.”

It feels like I’ve just been hit in the stomach with a baseball bat. “Dean.”

“I’ll kill myself before I let you go.”

“Please don’t say things like that.”

“I mean it. You leave me you might as well dig a goddamn hole before you walk away and put me in it. I’m nothing without you.”

It isn’t his words that knock me backward but the conviction behind them. The desperation.

The need.

It wraps its unrelenting fingers around my heart, squeezing tight.

“You have to get help, Dean. That’s the only way I’ll stay.”

“I’ll do whatever it takes not to lose you. Whatever it takes.”

CHAPTER 21

Past

Just because you marry someone doesn’t mean you know them. You may think you do, but you don’t. Not the stuff that matters anyway.

Their past.

Their secrets.

The demons they keep locked away inside.

But honestly, does a person ever really know someone? I mean, there’s what they say out loud, then there’s what they feel inside.

Only they know the truth. What’s hurting them. What eats them up at night. What plagues their soul.

No matter how many ways I try to twist it, I am living a lie. And denial has become not only my best friend but also the key to my survival. I think the day I realized that was on Caroline’s fourth birthday.

“How are you?” Rachel asks after everyone has left, leaving us alone in the kitchen to clean up.

I’ve told her about Dean’s addiction and that he is getting help, what I didn’t tell her is that he’s been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and things are getting worse. No one knows. Not even Linc.

“I’m fine,” I answer, shoving the discarded paper plates into the garbage.

I’m fine.

I’m fine.

I’m fine.

Those two words run on loop constantly in my head. I keep thinking that maybe if I convince myself, everyone else will believe it, too.

“He looks better,” she comments, looking out the window.

“He is.” I smile but it’s lie.

Dean agreed to rehab but only if it was outpatient. I agreed, thinking anything was better than nothing. At first it seemed like he was getting better. He went to all of his counseling sessions and the doctor prescribed him Suboxone to slowly wean him off the heroin.

But then he was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder.

Which explains his extreme mood swings. And so many other things. It was hard to find an antidepressant he could take with the Suboxone but his doctor finally found one they thought would work with his other medication.

However, Dean refuses to take it.

He says he doesn’t like taking them. That they make him feel helpless and weak. He doesn’t like feeling dependent on them to function, and I understand that. Who would want to be dependent on a pill to make you happy, but the truth is he needs them.

The Suboxone helps with his addiction but it does nothing to alleviate the darkness that continues to plague him.

The darkness that has begun to consume me.

What concerns me most, aside from him not taking his medication, is his relationship with Dani and the influence she has on him. She insists Dean doesn’t need to be medicated either. That the doctors are crazy and there is nothing wrong with her brother. She is a constant threat to his stability and it has gotten so bad I told Dean I didn’t want her coming around anymore. I didn’t want to do it. No one should ever have to make a choice like that, but the last thing he needs is someone dragging him back down the same black hole he’s trying to climb out of.

He’s tried to distance himself, but after all, she is his sister, and sometimes no matter how hard we try to eliminate the toxic people in our lives, they always seem to find their way back in. Because we love them and it’s just too hard to let go. Especially when you want to do everything you can to help them.

It’s been incredibly hard to be the mother I want to be as well as Dean’s wife. Both are exhausting and a full-time obligation. Not to mention I’d started working for my dad full-time because Dean quit his job in order to focus on getting better. He’s still doing side jobs but they are few and far between.

I walk over to the kitchen window, joining Rachel to watch Dean as he pushes Caroline on her new wooden swing set. He spent hours putting it together last night. He was up until well after midnight and nothing could stop him from completing the task. He was so committed to making it perfect for her, and it is in these moments I can see the man he so desperately wants to be.

He wants to get better. He’s trying so hard, but every time he takes a step forward, something or someone comes along and knocks us a step back.

We continue cleaning up then a few moments later, Dean walks in the back door carrying Caroline, giant tears streaming down her sticky face. “Oh no, what happened?” I ask.

“She fell. Charlie tried to get her Popsicle and he took her to the ground,” Dean explains, talking about the new puppy he got Caroline for her birthday.

Caroline sniffles. “Daddy, it burns.”

Dean sits Caroline down on the counter and tears a paper towel from the holder, wetting it beneath the tap while I examine her wound. “It hurts, Mama.”

“I know, baby,” I soothe, blowing on the small patch of shredded skin.

Dean presses the wet paper towel to her knee and Caroline hisses as he applies a little bit of pressure.

Once we get her bandaged up and get another Popsicle in her hand, Dean takes a seat at the kitchen table, bouncing Caroline in his lap. “You’re such a big girl,” he praises, and my heart floods with warmth when a huge smile spreads her tiny red lips.

My heart swells but quickly deflates when Dean’s phone rings from his pocket. I know right away who it is. He has a special ringtone just for Dani. Dean ignores the call the first time, avoiding my gaze and playing with Caroline, but after the second call he gives in and stands up from the table, lowering Caroline to the floor. He walks into the living room to take the call. I’m trying to make out what he’s saying, but I can only hear the sound of his voice.

When he walks back into the kitchen, I know something is up. He tilts his head for me to follow him back into the living room. “Rachel, can you keep an eye on Caroline for a sec?” I ask.

“Sure.”

Dean is standing by the front door with a pinched look on his face. “Dani’s in trouble,” he says nervously. “I have to go.”

Folding my arms across my chest, I frown. “What kind of trouble?”

“She’s at some guy’s house and she’s scared out of her fucking mind. I could hardly make out what she was saying. I need to go pick her up.”

“Call the police. Let them go get her.”

“Sylvie, I’m not calling the police. She’s my sister and she needs my help. I’ll be back soon. I promise.”

“I don’t have a good feeling about this, Dean. You shouldn’t go to someone’s house you don’t know by yourself. Where is she anyway?”

“South side.”

“Dean—”

“I know. I promise it’ll be fine. I’ll call you as soon as I leave,” he says, kissing my cheek before walking out the door.

And just when I think things can’t get worse…

They do.

CHAPTER 22

Past

Today is my day off. So after breakfast, Caroline and I spend a few hours outside on her swing set. After I lay her down for a nap, I hear my phone ringing from the kitchen. Thinking it’s Dean calling from work, I don’t even pay attention to the name on the caller ID before I answer.

“Hello?”

“Sylvie?”

“Linc?”

“Are you okay? Why are you whispering?”

I laugh, returning to my normal voice. “Sorry. I just laid Caroline down.

“Oh, so she’s asleep,” he says, disappointment coming through the line.

“Yeah, why?”

“I wanted to see her.”

“What the hell are you talking about, Linc? Are you drunk?”

“Come to your front door, Syl.” I can hear the smile in his voice.

I stop in my tracks, my heart racing at the prospect of him really being here.

“You’re joking.”

“I’m waitin’.”

I rush to the front door, flinging it open, and the sight makes me weak in the knees. “Well, are you just gonna stand there or are you gonna get your ass over here and give me a hug?”

It’s been almost a year since I’ve seen him. The longest year of my life.

Squealing, I launch myself into his arms and he swings me around, holding me tight. “God, it’s so good to see you.” He inhales deeply, burying his face into my neck.

Tears burn my eyes, the weight of the last several months settling like an anvil of truth. I’ve missed him so much. He couldn’t have known how much I need him right now. How just being in his arms makes it all seem so much more bearable.

My chest fills with warmth. “What are you doing here?” I ask as he lowers me to the ground.

“I had the bus drop me off in Delmar and I rented a car. I have to leave for the airport no later than four a.m. if I’m gonna make the show in Fort Worth tomorrow night, so this will be a really quick visit but I had to see you. I needed to make sure you’re okay.”

“You drove three hundred miles out of the way just to see me?”

“Three hundred fifty-six to be exact.” He smiles.

“Linc, you didn’t have to do that. But I’m so glad you’re here.”

“Me too.” I lead him inside where he sets his guitar case next to the door and closes it. “Nice place,” he comments, looking around.

I realize he’s never been here before. Every time he comes to visit I meet him somewhere else, and now I’m glad that I had.

He looks uncomfortable here.

He picks up one of Caroline’s dolls he’s sent her, turning it over in his hand.

“Thirsty?” I ask.

“Do you have a special brew?”

“Matter of fact, I do.” I smile. “C’mon.”

We walk through the living room and into the kitchen. “I wish I had my own place,” he says.

“What happened to your apartment?”

“I bought out the last two months of my lease before I went on the road. I’m going to be living on a bus for the next six weeks anyway so I put all my stuff in storage.”

Opening the fridge, I reach for the special brown bottle. “This one’s called Lumberjack. It’s selling like crazy right now. I even like it and you know how I am about beer.”

Linc examines the bottle with the new Dawson’s Brewery logo. “This is cool as shit. When did y’all do this?”

“You like it?”

“Yeah, looks really great. It’s like the old one but…better.”

“I designed it.”

“Really?”

I nod.

“I love it,” he says again, taking a long pull from the bottle.

“Thanks. I finally talked Dad into giving the brand a face-lift. Their design was simple and effective but I thought we needed something a little more modern and eye catching. He wanted to hire a design company to do it all, but after I convinced him to invest in some graphic software and doing a bit of research, I was able to create what he wanted and still remain true to the original logo. Needless to say, he was very pleased with the results.”

“Well, look at you, graphic design, huh? Might have to get you to design my new album cover.”

I gasp. “Shut up.”

“Yep, head honcho from Milestone Records came into the Bluebird a few weeks back and offered me a deal I couldn’t refuse. We go into the studio after we come off the road.”

“Oh my God, Linc! I can’t believe it. That’s so great. I’m so happy for you!”

“I’ve been dying to tell you but I wanted to do it in person.” His arms wrap around me. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”

“Without me? Linc, this is all you. God, I can’t believe this is happening. I mean, I can…but I can’t. Oh my God! You’re gonna be on the radio!”

Linc gazes at me longingly before interrupting the silence by clearing his throat. “I’ve been working on some new songs. Wanna hear ’em?”

“Are you kidding, of course I do!”

***

We’ve been outside for the last two hours. Linc has played me several songs he’s been working on for the new album. Each one different and unique but laced with Linc’s signature sound.

God, I love his voice. I’ve missed his voice. There is nothing else like it.

Lazy yet powerful.

Hard with a smooth edge.

Like a shot of whiskey.

It’s easy to get drunk off of it, just let it pull you under and drown you. You can’t help but get lost in the sound, the lyrics.

There is one in particular I want to put on repeat.

“Play it again,” I say after the third time.

We are sprawled out on a blanket I had outside for Caroline earlier, shielded from the sun by the weeping willow out back. I have the baby monitor with me so I can hear Caroline when she wakes up.

“Sing it with me.”

Linc’s head is propped up on a throw pillow next to mine, our feet pointing opposite directions. He begins to strum the melody; the bluesy acoustic sound makes my belly dip every time he leads into the song. After Linc sings the first two lines, I join in.

I’ve been down this road a million times

Tempted to cross that line

Not sure how much more I can take

There’s a damn good chance I might break.

I know it’s been hard on ya, baby, just give in to me

My heart can’t take one more night without cha, baby, give in to me

I know you wanna do what’s right but, baby, I can’t wait

Give in to me.

Every night I close my eyes, I see you there

Baby blue eyes and long blonde hair

The years slip by and you’re still not mine

When will it ever be our time?

I know it’s been hard on ya, baby, just give in to me

My heart can’t take one more night without you, baby, please give in to me

I know you wanna do what’s right but, baby, I can’t wait

Give in to me

Give in to me

Give in to me.

As the last chord fades out, Linc twists his head, the heat of his breath fanning my face. “We sound pretty damn good together.”

I laugh. A deep belly laugh that has me rolling over. “You’re so full of shit.”

His smile falters when his eyes land on my lips. “I think you’ve written your first hit, Linc. It’s beautiful.”

The silence hangs between us like a dark cloud. Deep down I know whom that song is about, but I am too afraid to acknowledge it.

Linc’s hand drifts up to cup my cheek, brushing his thumb back and forth across my fevered skin. I close my eyes, trying to fight the urge to give in to him but it’s too hard and my body betrays me, leaning in to his touch. “Every song. Every lyric. My heart only sings for you.”

Opening my eyes, I part my lips. My heart burns in my chest. His mouth moves closer until I am drowning in his scent, his eyes, his unforgettable words. They swirl around me, twisting and knotting until my heart is a tangled web of hope and despair.

Caroline’s voice crackles over the baby monitor, sharply yanking me back down to reality. With a shaky sigh, I pull his hand from my face and push to my feet.

But my steps falter quickly when I run into a pair of dark brown eyes.

But it may as well have been a brick wall.

Dean is standing just a few feet away. His eyes narrowed, punching me in the gut with his knowing gaze. My heart thumps hard against my chest, desperate to run away.

What did he see?

Just as quickly as the anger steals his face, it’s gone. Almost like a trigger being pulled.

Cocked one minute.

Unloaded the next.

But the anger isn’t what he gives us. It is another side of Dean that frightens me even more.

The unnerving calm.

“What the hell is going on here?” he asks, folding his arms across his chest.

“Nothing, um…Linc just stopped by on his way through town. What are you doing home so early?” I ask, trying to keep the fear out of my voice. I can’t imagine what this must look like. By the look on his face, he’s seen and heard everything.

He slowly closes the distance between us. “I had a doctor’s appointment at two, remember?” He lifts his eyes behind me.

Shit, I’d forgotten. Once Linc arrived, I’d forgotten everything but him and me.

Linc gets to his feet.

Caroline babbles a broken sentence into the baby monitor. “Go take care of Caroline, Sylvie.”

“Dean, please.” I don’t know what I am begging for.

Forgiveness?

Mercy?

His eyes snap to mine, his voice deep and low. “Now.”

“Don’t fuckin’ talk to her like that,” Linc shouts, walking closer.

“I can talk to her any way I want. She’s my goddamn wife.”

“You don’t have to put up with this shit, Sylvie.”

“Linc, please,” I beg, turning to face him. I don’t want to have this conversation now and especially not in front of Dean. This is our marriage and when I decide to walk away would be up to me, not him.

The space between them ripples with hate, anger, and years of resentment.

All because of me.

“Motherfucker, I told you she’s mine. You stay the hell away from her,” Dean grits.

Linc smirks and dread settles in my belly.

“She may be your wife, but I’ll always own her heart.”

“Linc!”

Dean’s eyes swing to mine, rage burning in their depths. I shake my head, denying Linc’s claim.

Dean returns his hard gaze to Linc. “As long as I’m standing here breathing, she’ll never be yours.”

Linc’s pleading eyes find mine; silently begging for me to say something, but there is nothing I can say that will fix any of this.

No matter what happens, someone gets hurt.

Caroline’s crying puts my feet in motion as I turn away and bound up the back porch. Entering her room, I nearly fall to my knees, the pain of it all almost too much to bear. As I scoop her up, I hold her close, clutching to her for dear life as she cries.

But I hold it together for my baby girl. I don’t want her to see her mama upset so I carry her to the kitchen, placing her in her booster seat at the table for her afternoon snack.

After I have given her a few crackers and her sippy cup, shouting begins, but their voices are garbled and muffled by my own despair. I’m standing in front of the sink, trying to pull myself together, when Dean walks through the back door. His fingers curl around my arm as he hauls me into the living room. “I don’t ever want to see him near you ever again. You understand me?”

“Dean, calm down.”

The monster is back and he’s more vicious than ever.

He pulls me close, rubbing his nose up and down my cheek. “Jesus, you fucking smell like him,” he says, giving me a hard shake. His fingers are cruel vices against my skin while his entire body vibrates with anger.

“Look at me,” he orders, the cold sound of his voice freezing my blood.

Slowly, I lift my eyes to his. Pain and anguish darken his brown irises, turning them almost black. Leaning in, he draws in a deep breath, hovering near my chest and neck, nostrils flaring with disgust. “Do you know what it feels like to smell another man’s scent on my wife?”

I remain silent, my heart racing with anxiety. I don’t even have enough spit to swallow when he whispers, “Violent.”

“Dean, please, let me—”

“I don’t want to hear your excuses,” he barks, making me jump. “I know how wet you get for him. You think I don’t know you but I do. I know everything about you.” Panic blooms in my chest when he nuzzles my neck. I want to shove him away. Being this close, while he’s this angry, this unhinged, terrifies me.

“You dream about him, call out his name in your sleep.”

Oh God!

Sharp air vibrates through my lips on a gasp of shock. My subconscious has betrayed me. Shame stains my cheeks and my heart sinks. I hold his eyes, trying to hide what I feel inside, but Dean knows.

He can see it.

“I—”

“Why can’t I be enough? Why can’t you look at me like you look at him? Don’t you understand how much I love you? How much I need you.”

His words level me; bring me down to a place I’ve never known before. Where the light fades and darkness reigns, and I wonder if I will ever find the courage to walk away. I might be his cure but he is my disease. He thinks I can save him, but he is killing me.

CHAPTER 23

Past

Each day that passes is more daunting than the last and I find myself stuck in an endless cycle of denial and regret.

I keep thinking he’ll get better.

That I can somehow save him.

But now I realize saving him means sacrificing myself, and I’m not willing to do that anymore.

The last few months have been painful. I’ve all but alienated my family and friends in an effort to make him happy, and I can’t do it anymore.

So I took off half a day to pack our stuff so I could be gone by the time Dean gets home. Whenever that may be. I know he’s back on drugs. I’m not stupid. He continues to deny it but I’m not blind.

My heart sinks when I turn on our street and the Mustang is in the driveway. I reach for my phone to call my dad or Rachel to come over to help me but realize I left it at work.

Shit.

I know he’s not going to let me go easily, and I should wait until someone can be with me to do this but I put on my brave face and go in to battle anyway.

Besides, if he’s as messed up as I think he is, he’s probably incapable of putting up much of a fight.

The house is eerily quiet when I walk in. The hairs on the back of my neck stand as I make my way down the hall to our bedroom. But he’s not there.

My gut tells me something isn’t right, twisting in a tight knot of dread as I push open the door of our bathroom. The scream that rips from my throat is raw, cutting through the silence with deep agony.

I fall to my knees, sliding next to him on a gasp. “Oh my God, Dean, what have you done to yourself?”

Eyeing the used syringe in his hand, my heart cracks once again.

It all feels like a bad dream. Any minute I’ll wake up and this will be someone else’s life. His face is pale, ashen, and there’s a little bit of foam coming from the side of his mouth.

I lean forward, pressing two fingers to his neck to check his pulse. “Thank God.” I breathe a small sigh of relief.

I fish Dean’s phone from his pocket, along with a cellophane wrapper of four white pills and small baggie of heroin.

“Jesus, Dean.”

How could he do this to himself?

To Caroline.

To me!

“Aw fuck,” Dani’s panicked voice echoes around me and I twist my head to see her pale, sunken face.

She looks almost as bad as he does, only she’s conscious.

Shuffling inside the small space, she kneels down next to me. “I fucking told him to ease up.”

“Wait, you’ve been here with him?”

“Yeah, I had to run out real quick.”

I grow suspicious as her eyes fall to my hands, raising one brow then licking her lips as she shifts in place. “He had that on him?”

“Yes,” I answer, tucking it inside my pocket. “We have to call an ambulance.”

Her hand slams down on mine, snatching the phone from my hand. “No! He could go to jail.”

“Are you crazy? He could die!” I shout, reaching for the phone.

She holds it away from me. “He probably just got a hold of some pure. Chill the fuck out.” She places a thumb on his chin, tugging his mouth open before lifting his eyelids. “He’ll be fine.”

“How do you know that?”

“This ain’t the first time he’s pulled this shit.”

Oh my God.

She unties the shoestring wrapped around his bicep, carefully removing the syringe from his hand. “Give it to me,” she says, getting to her feet.

“Give you what?”

“Sylvie, I’ll get rid of it, just give it to me.”

Does she think I am stupid?

That I am some dumb ass little girl who doesn’t have a clue what is going on here?

“Absolutely not,” I say, tossing the cellophane into the toilet and quickly pulling down the handle.

“You stupid bitch, why did you do that?” she shrieks, her hand diving into the bowl after it.

“Because you need help. Both of you do. Give me the damn phone now, Dani.”

She jerks her hand from the toilet, slinging droplets of water on my face. “We’re not calling a goddamn ambulance. He’s fine! I should kick your ass for doing that. Do you realize that was over three hundred dollars worth of shit you just flushed down the toilet?”

“I don’t give a damn how much it was. You’re destroying him. He’s sick and all you care about is getting high. He wouldn’t be here right now if it weren’t for you.”

“Me? Wake up, Sylvie! Who do you think made me this way?”

I blink several times. Dean loves his sister, went out of his way to protect her, how could he have introduced her to this poison? Taking in her gaunt appearance, I frown. “Dani, we can get you help. I...”

She collects a deep breath before sliding Dean’s phone in her back pocket. “Just forget it. Help me get him to bed.”

Grabbing one arm, she lifts him to sit up and he groans, his eyes fluttering open. Anger swiftly replaces my concern. His eyes attempt to focus but they are too glassy and heavy and eventually fall shut again.

We finally manage to get him into the guest bedroom. After Dani removes his shoes and pulls the blanket up over his chest, she pulls his phone from her back pocket and hands it back to me.

“It’ll be hours before he wakes up and he’ll probably be pissed when he finds out you flushed his shit.”

“I really don’t care how pissed he is.”

She moves to leave the room and I wrap my arms around my middle, attempting to alleviate the nausea but it is useless. The front door slamming informs me that she isn’t sticking around to witness the aftermath.

CHAPTER 24

Present

The pain seems to be unbearable today, digging into the center of my chest like a serrated knife, allowing memories to fester and bleed. I barely made it through my shift, and when my boss asked me if I wanted to fill in for a waitress who called in, I quickly answered no.

I couldn’t take one more order.

I couldn’t fake one more smile.

All I want to do is crawl into bed and cry myself to sleep. But I have to pick up Caroline soon. My stomach rumbles, reminding me I haven’t eaten a thing all day, but it’s a fleeting thought as I climb the stairs to my room.

I toe off my shoes and shimmy out of my jeans, tears blurring my eyes while the knot grows thicker in my throat. Shedding the rest of my clothes, I bypass the bed, seeking refuge in the shower. Hot water rinses away the day but it does nothing to alleviate the heaviness in my chest. I sink to the floor, sobs racking my weak body.

Then, I let it all go.

I wail, allowing the pain to completely take over. Hopelessness grips my soul, dragging me back down into the dark and treacherous depths of my despair.

It’s slowly killing me inside.

A small part of me wants to be free…to find a way to forget Dean completely. Another sob racks my body. The rest of me wants to let him consume what is left.

The other night when Linc said it was time, I knew what he meant. It was time to tell him everything.

Time to let it all go. I’ve held on to it long enough, I know that, but a lot of what happened back then was my fault and accepting that has been difficult.

I barely notice when the door to the shower eases open. “Syl?” Linc breathes, deep concern etched across his face.

I don’t have the energy to stop him as he steps inside and shuts off the water. My teeth chatter, a chill settling deep into my bones.

A towel is wrapped around me, then he carries me into the bedroom. Drawers open and close while I sit shivering on the edge of the bed, my mind struggling to make sense of what is happening.

Dirty brown boots step into view, bringing an intense wave of heat. I sigh with relief, thankful for the comfort of his presence.

Once he has my T-shirt on, he grabs my hand and pulls me from the bed. My legs are wobbly and weak as he kneels down in front of me, holding out a pair of white cotton panties. I lift my foot, one at a time, without an ounce of humiliation.

If anyone has seen me at my worst, it’s Linc.

He stands; feathering his knuckles down my cheek as he stares down at me with eyes that promise everything will be okay.

God, I need that to be true.

But in order for me to ever be okay, I need something to drown this overwhelming guilt.

I should have loved him more.

I should have fought harder.

The regret is deep and troubling and all I want to do is forget.

Reaching up, I grip the back of Linc’s neck and pull him even closer to me. We land on the bed as my lips possess his in a singular quest to eliminate every emotion, every memory.

Every thought.

The taste of freedom is potent on his tongue. So is my shameless desire to claim it.

“Sylvie,” he mutters, one hand cupping my cheek.

I clutch the fabric of his shirt. “Linc, please, I need you.”

A noise rattles in his throat as I cling to him for dear life. “Let me hold you,” he whispers against my lips, bringing his hands to the sides of my face. His lips, the way they say my name, the way they kiss away the pain, I’ve finally found the relief I need.

“You need this. I need this. Let me give it to you.” I release an aching cry as Linc draws me even closer, wrapping me in his arms. “It’s no one’s fault. It’s not ours and it wasn’t his either. No one can be at fault for the way they feel.”

Instead of drowning in the suffocating guilt, I allow myself to be wrapped in the comfort, heat, and familiarity of Linc. Then I fall apart again. Only this time, when I’m finished, I don’t feel cold, empty, and alone.

I finally feel…free.

***

Blinking, I try to adjust my swollen eyes. My cheek is nestled in the crook of Linc’s shoulder and I inhale a long breath, his distinct smell enveloping me. His chin rests lightly on top of my head while my arm hugs his middle.

God, it feels so good here.

I don’t want to move from this spot.

His hand drifts up and down my back.

“What time is it?” I ask, my voice scratchy and raw as I rub my face against his shirt.

“Four thirty,” he answers softly.

“Shit!” Pushing against his chest, I try in vain to escape his warm embrace. “Caroline.”

He holds me tighter. “I already called your mom to pick her up. They’re going to get some ice cream then she’ll bring her home.”

He tucks my hair behind my ear, his fingers gliding across my cheek. “Thank you.”

“You’re exhausted.” His voice is soft, deep.

Knowing.

“You need to rest.”

“I don’t have time to rest. I have a daughter to take care of.”

“Well, who’s taking care of you?”

“I’m fine.”

“How is she supposed to get better if you don’t? You don’t talk about anything, Syl. Not with me, Caroline, your family, nobody. You’re closed off and you need to deal with this. It’s time to face it.”

I pull from his arms, and sigh gratefully when he releases me this time. I can’t look at him right now. It hurts too much. I’ll never be able to tell him the reason I sent him away or why I carry so much guilt over Dean’s death, because it would mean confessing my own secret and it’s too painful to even think about.

Sitting up in bed, I look down at the floor instead. Soft sunlight falls across the beige carpet in golden streams, so pure and warm, the exact opposite of how I feel inside.

“I don’t want to talk about him.”

I feel him scoot in behind me, the bed dipping as he moves closer. “I don’t wanna talk about him either. I wanna talk about you.” He presses a kiss to my lower back, and even with my shirt as a barrier between his lips and my skin it still causes goose bumps to ripple across my flesh. “You used to talk to me about everything.”

“Why didn’t you ever marry Charlotte?” I ask, diverting the attention from me.

He’s silent for a moment before he finally responds, “She’s a good woman. She deserves a man who will love her with his whole heart. Cherish her. Give her the life she’s always dreamed of. I couldn’t give that to her.”

“Why not?”

“Because the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was hold her and love you. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I was lying to her, to myself. There’s only one woman I’ll ever want and that’s you.”

A spark of happiness flares in my chest with his words and the selfish part of me is so incredibly grateful for this man’s unrelenting loyalty and love, but then I’m reminded of the severe reality that I’m not what he needs, and I’m definitely not what he deserves.

“I need to get dressed before Caroline gets home,” I say, standing up, trying to mask my feelings.

He doesn’t say anything else as I go into the bathroom and shut the door, sliding down the hard wood to a heap on the floor, praying for the day when it doesn’t hurt so goddamn much.

***

When I finally emerge, I feel somewhat better, and deep down I know it’s because of him.

Because he’s here.

Regardless of if I want to admit it or not, I do need him. Linc has always been there, for every single good and bad moment in my life. Whether he was hundreds of miles away or right here, he’s always been there.

This is no different.

Linc is in the kitchen on the phone when I come down. His back is facing me as he leans forward on the counter. “Are you still nauseous?” he asks, and I surmise he must be talking to Gwynn. There’s a long moment of silence before he finally speaks again. “When is that appointment again? I haven’t asked her yet but I will. I know, Mom, I know. All right, I’ll be home later. Get some rest. I love you, too. Bye.”

He shoves the phone into his front pocket and spins around. “How is she?” I ask, my stomach twisted in knots.

“She’s been real tired lately but she doesn’t let it slow her down. I have to stay on her constantly to get rest. She only agreed to take leave from her job because I threatened to go up there and haul her ass out myself. That woman is as stubborn as you are.”

“I am not stubborn.”

Linc bursts into laughter, the sound deep and familiar, tickling my spine.

I love his laugh. It’s so genuine. Contagious. It never fails to elicit my own, no matter how hard I try not to.

“You’re the most stubborn woman I’ve ever met.”

“I can say the same about you. Well, except the woman part.”

He laughs again.

“She wants you and Caroline to come over for dinner Saturday night.”

Shame washes over me, reminding me of the time I’ve lost with her. There are so many things I’d change if I had the chance to do it all over again. I just hope Gwynn has found it in her heart to forgive me.

“I’d love that.”

He frowns, walking toward me. “You okay?”

I shrug, my eyes falling to the floor. “I don’t know.”

Closing the distance between us, his soft green eyes hold mine. I feel so raw beneath his gaze. He can see all the things I try to hide so there’s no use in even trying. His fingers lift my chin, forcing me to meet his eyes once more. I find comfort and understanding there, and something I thought I lost a long time ago.

Myself.

“You’ll get through this, and what’s waiting for you on the other side will be worth the climb. Trust the journey, baby, and trust me to help get you there.”

“I do trust you. I always have. It’s just…it still hurts so much. I’m tired of hurting, Linc. I’m just so tired.”

“I know, baby. I know it hurts. There’s nothing I can do about the pain. You have to feel it, Syl. You have to feel it so you can live it and move on. But you have to try. Avoiding me and avoiding life isn’t gonna make it go away. You have to face this.”

“I know,” I whisper, my heart squeezing with agony in my chest.

He lowers his mouth to mine and all of my sorrows seem to melt away. He’s a whisper of hope upon my lips, steadfast and true; giving me the one thing I need the most right now—his love. His hands move to my hips while his tongue wars with mine in a quest to brand me in some way but he doesn’t have to.

My heart has always belonged to him.

I sigh into his mouth, tilting my head to deepen the kiss. His groan of pleasure prompts me to fist the fabric of his shirt, pulling him closer. Those hands digging into my hips move to cradle my face as he begins to slow the kiss. “To know I can kiss you anytime I want is something I’ll never get used to.”

I smile, opening my eyes to find his staring back at me with great intensity. “Who said you can kiss me anytime you want?”

He kisses me again with even more possession. “You sayin’ I can’t?”

“We need to be careful around Caroline. At least until we figure things out.”

“I won’t rush you. I want you to heal, and I’ll spend the rest of my life making sure that happens but you’re mine now. I don’t know any other way to say it. I just know I can’t go another day without you by my side. Life is too damn short for that. We’re in this together, Syl. We always have been.”

This is so far away from the boy who was once afraid to tell me how he felt all those years ago. This is a man who knows exactly what he wants, and he isn’t wasting any more time.

“I come with a lot of baggage, Linc. A little girl who lost her father, and then there’s me. There’s not much left but a few broken pieces. I’m not the girl I was back then.”

“That’s not true. I know exactly who you are. You’re the girl who could always make me smile, even on the shittiest of days. The girl who stole my heart in the fifth grade and never gave it back. That’s who you are. Life may have shaped you to be the woman you are today, but all of those parts are still there. Every memory we ever shared, they’re all still there. And I plan on reminding you of every single one.”

CHAPTER 25

Present

He’s been over every night this week. We haven’t delved into the past much. It’s hard to do that with Caroline around, but the memories just continue to come.

Mostly we’ve talked about what he’s been up to. His third album, titled Grandeur, will drop in a few weeks. When I asked him why he named it after our tiny little town, he told me most of the album’s songs were all about coming home or enjoying the grander things in life. I haven’t had a chance to listen to them all yet. I’m nervous about it actually. Linc’s music has always been special to me. I can relate to it. I don’t know if it’s because we’ve always been so close or because we come from the same place but every song he’s ever written has some kind of lifeline to my soul.

Tonight we’re going to Gwynn’s for supper. I’m excited to get out of the house and so is Caroline. I even made a big deal about getting dressed up. Well, not too dressed up. Just enough to make it girlie and fun. I put on one of my old sundresses and spent a little extra time on my hair and makeup, something I haven’t done lately. Caroline is wearing a pink shirt, her favorite floral skirt that hits just above the knee with a cute little ruffle along the hem, and her baby pink chucks. I braided her dark locks into two French braids on each side. She’s been anxious to get here all day and as soon as we step on the porch, Linc opens the front door.

“There’s my girls.”

Per her usual greeting, Caroline throws her arms around his waist. “Hey, Linc.”

“Hey, sweet girl.”

“Where’s Gwynnie?”

“She’s in the kitchen. Why don’t you go run in and say hi,” Linc says.

Once she’s out of sight, he steps out onto the porch, closing the door behind him.

He’s dressed in his customary threadbare jeans and a navy blue Dawson’s brewery T-shirt.

“Nice shirt,” I comment when he takes me in his arms.

The palm of my hand balances the plate of peach bars I made for dessert as his mouth moves to my ear. “I’ll let you wear it later if you want,” he mutters, and I can feel the hidden meaning of his words tingling down below.

He presses a kiss to my burning cheek, intensifying the tingle to a hot ache.

“Did you bring me treats?” he asks, pulling away.

“Peach bars.” Taking the plate, he clasps my hand with his own, leading me inside.

“Oh wow, it smells incredible in here.”

“I made roast.”

You made roast?” I ask suspiciously.

“Hey, I’ve improved on my culinary skills.” He winks over his shoulder. “With Mama’s help of course.”

“Of course.”

It takes everything I have not to cry when I walk into the kitchen. It’s been nearly six months since I’ve seen Gwynn, when she came into the café to have lunch. She would call from time to time to check up on Caroline and me but I wasn’t very talkative, especially when she would bring up Linc. How could I have been so selfish after all she’s done for me?

Gwynn doesn’t miss a beat, immediately taking me in her arms and hugging me tight. It’s impossible to hold back the tears.

“I’ve missed you and that sweet girl so much, Sylvie,” she whispers.

“I’m sorry I haven’t called or come by, Gwynn. Things have just been so…”

Her hand cups my face as she gives me a knowing smile. “No apologies. You’re both here now and that’s what’s most important.”

I nod, envious of her forgiving heart and strength. She doesn’t look sick at all. She’s as vibrant as ever with a colorful paisley scarf wrapped around her head and her cheeks a rosy shade of rouge. Linc told me she lost all of her hair because of the chemo, but it clearly hasn’t stolen her beauty.

No medicine in the world can rob her of that.

“My boy has been hard at it all day. He won’t let me lift a finger to help so why don’t we go out on the porch and have a visit while he finishes up.”

“That sounds lovely.”

***

I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much. There are people in our lives that no matter how much time we spend apart, you can always pick back up right where you left off. That’s the way it always is with Gwynn.

And with Linc.

I’ve forgotten what it feels like to live outside of the darkness I allowed to consume me. It feels good to step into the light. We sit on the porch for the next hour, reminiscing about our younger days.

“Dinner was delicious, Gwynn. Thank you for having us,” I tell her as we sit at the kitchen table sipping coffee. Linc and I cleaned up then he and Caroline retreated to the living room to watch America’s Got Talent, one of Caroline’s favorite shows.

“Well, Linc did most of the work.”

Every now and then, a burst of laughter trickles into the kitchen, tickling my soul.

“That’s a beautiful sound,” she murmurs over her cup before taking a tentative sip. I nod, smiling back at her. “He’s missed you both so much. The last year has been really hard on him.” Tears burn the back of my eyes and clog my throat. “I’m not saying that to make you feel bad. I’m pretty sure you do a good job of that all on your own. I’m telling you because you need him. Just like he needs you. I know what you’re goin’ through, Sylvie. I may not have lost my husband the same way you did, but grief has one common denominator. It’s a heavy fuckin’ load.”

I’ve never heard her use that word before. Matter of fact, I’ve never heard Gwynn Matthews utter a curse word.

Ever.

She can clearly see the shock written on my face. “Sometimes life requires the “F” word, sweetheart.”

Laughing, the tightness eases in my chest. She appears to be reflecting on a memory before she finally begins again. “Best way for me to describe it, grief is like a suitcase. You have to get out of the bed every single day, pick it up, and take it with you wherever you go. Some days it feels like it’s filled with rocks, other days, light as a feather.” Her open hand reaches for mine. “But you don’t have to carry it alone.”

I think about her words carefully, allowing them to seep into my heart and mind. Sharing the grief I carry requires more than a little courage and whole lot of strength. Two traits I’m sorely lacking. My body sags with defeat.

“You’re stronger than you give yourself credit for, darlin’.” She continues squeezing my hand. “You always have been.”

“I’ve made so many mistakes, Gwynn. I’m not sure how to overcome them.”

She waves her hand between us. “The past is where you learn the lesson, the future is where you apply it. We all make mistakes, dear. We learn from them and move on.”

“That’s good advice, Gwynn.”

She gives me a soft smile. “I speak the truth, child.”

After filling me in on her diagnosis and treatment plan, we move onto lighter topics when she tells me about a date she had with Greg Bradley a few weeks ago. “Don’t say anything to Linc. I’m not sure how he’d feel about it, but I really like Greg. He’s funny. He makes me laugh, and you know what they say, laughter is the best medicine.”

We both laugh as Linc enters the room. “Shh!” he says as he walks toward us. “You’ll wake her up.” His hands meet my shoulders, giving them a gentle squeeze.

“She fell asleep?” I ask.

Linc chuckles. “One minute she was talkin’ my ear off and the next she was out.”

“We should go,” I tell him, standing up.

“Why don’t you let her stay the night? You can come pick her up tomorrow afternoon,” Gwynn offers.

“I don’t know. We haven’t been apart since…”

Gwynn reaches for my hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. “Let her stay. She’ll be fine. We have a lot of time to make up for.”

I look over at Linc who’s looking right back at me with the same purpose that beats inside of my chest.

Indeed, we do.

CHAPTER 26

Present

After we get back from Gwynn’s we settle on the living room couch. Me with a bottle of wine and Linc with his Lumberjacks. We spend hours talking. Sharing memory after memory until we gorge ourselves on the past. There’s something to be said about someone who knows everything about you. All of your embarrassing moments, your dark secrets, every undeniable truth.

The tension crackling between us is so potent I think I might burst into flames, seduced by every smile and word that falls from his lips.

“Remember when we were fifteen and we rolled Mr. Whitehead’s yard with toilet paper.” Linc chuckles, his green eyes sparkling with mischief.

“He was so pissed when he walked outside.”

“We almost got caught because of you,” he says.

“Because of me?”

“Yeah, you squealed like a girl when he flipped on the porch light. If I hadn’t covered your mouth and dragged you to the woods, we would’ve been busted for sure.”

“It would’ve been worth it. Mr. Whitehead was such an asshole.”

He was our high school history teacher, and I swear he had it out for Linc and me. We couldn’t even look at each other without getting into trouble.

We spent a good part of our sophomore year in the hallway.

“That was the first time I ever wanted to kiss you.”

My lips part as he slips the wine glass from my hand and sets his empty beer bottle on the coffee table next to it. He scoots in closer, bringing a new wave of heat with him. His closeness is more intoxicating than ever, more potent.

“When we were crouched down, hidden behind the trees, my heart was racing.” He gently picks my hand up from my lap and places it on his chest, feeling the thundering beat of his heart as he holds it in place. Then he brings his fingers to my cheek, grazing my skin with his knuckles. “Not because I was afraid of gettin’ caught, but because you were so scared. And all I could think about was kissing you, so you wouldn’t be afraid.”

My heart beats harder. “Why didn’t you? Kiss me, I mean?”

“I don’t know, but I regret it every goddamn day of my life.”

He drags a finger beneath my bottom lip, leaving a trail of fire in its wake. His eyes dart to my mouth, and I watch in fascination as his body grows tense and his breathing picks up.

Beneath my hand I feel his heart gain speed, leaping with abandon toward mine.

“No more regrets, Sylvie,” he whispers just before his lips cover mine.

His kiss is full of promise and strength, unlike anything I’ve ever known. His kisses before were breathtaking, heart stopping.

But they all pale in comparison to this one.

This one is built of salvation and love.

Longing and desire.

Moving one hand to the back of my head, he lowers me to the couch where he positions himself on one side. His other hand roams the outer lines of my body, skimming over the parts I desperately want him to touch. His tongue dances with mine, in a tango of heat so hot I’m certain I’ll burn up from it.

“Jesus Christ, is this really happening?”

“Yes,” I breathe.

His hand moves to my neck, angling it so he can kiss me deeper. My hands clutch his shirt as I pull one foot to dig into the couch. I feel like if I don’t ground myself I’ll float away.

“Linc,” I plead. “Touch me.”

He grins against my lips before nipping the bottom one. “I’m touchin’ you.”

I groan. “Please.”

Smiling, he pulls back to look into my eyes. “I don’t know where to start. Part of me wants to take my time, so we don’t miss a damn thing, but the other part wants to ravage you, rip your clothes off, and show you once and for all who you have always belonged to.”

“Yes, I want all of that.”

I barely get the words out of my mouth before he’s doing just that. His hands drop to the hem of my dress, pulling it up and over my head before tossing it onto the floor.

He caresses each breast, giving them a hard squeeze while placing a worshiping kiss on each swell. Dropping hot kisses down the center of my belly, my hands skate through his hair, gripping the strands to encourage his journey. His fingers hook the sides of my panties and his lips follow them all the way down my trembling legs. It’s hard to concentrate on everything at once.

Because all I can think about is how each brush of his lips and touch of his hands fills my soul with redemption.

“Breathe,” he whispers the command softly.

I release his hair along with an imprisoned breath. He rests back on his haunches, pulling his t-shirt over his head, his green eyes roaming up and down my body appreciatively. I squirm beneath his heated stare.

Now that the moment is here, I thought I would be more nervous, more…apprehensive.

But I’m not.

Nothing has ever felt more right.

Linc stands up from the couch, removing his jeans and socks, then with his eyes locked on mine, he slides down his boxer briefs. I never break eye contact as he drops one knee, taking his place once again between my parted legs. The couch is large enough to accommodate us thankfully, because I don’t think I could move from this spot even if I wanted to. My knees are trembling and my heart is racing with anticipation of what’s to come, wreaking havoc on all of my senses.

I feel him, all of him, settle between my thighs, the weight of him drawing a heated gasp from my lips. He catches it on cue as he swiftly covers my mouth with his. His hips begin to move slightly, with each dip of his delicious tongue, thrusting against me, creating an insane amount of friction. Our skin is melded together, grateful for the contact that has been denied for so long. Linc reaches between us, dragging his fingers slowly through my wet, hot flesh.

He rests his forehead to mine as he pushes one finger inside of me. My breath is short and sporadic, silently begging for more. “I love the sounds you make.”

“Linc,” I beg.

He smiles, closing his eyes as my hands drift to cradle his face, and just as my lips find his, he centers himself and pushes inside of me.

Not until he is fully seated inside me, and his hands move to cradle my face, do I finally feel complete.

Whole.

Like my heart finally possesses its other half. The man I’ve always loved. The one person I’ve shared every other part of myself with. More than I ever shared with anyone else. Now he has all of me. And the thought is so overwhelming, so comforting, a single tear escapes from the corner of my eye.

Linc doesn’t miss it. He kisses my temple before bringing his salty lips back to mine.

“It’s okay, baby. I’m here,” he whispers. “I’m here.”

I nod, unable to speak as he begins to move in and out.

Slow.

Steady.

Sure.

The way our bodies fit together, the way they answer to one another is so perfect, so flawless, so achingly beautiful, I immediately question how I ever lived without him and know without a doubt I’ll never let him go.

Deep desire takes over and his thrusts become more powerful, measured. Like he’s trying to tell me something only his body can convey.

I move my hands to his back, scraping my nails along his skin as he drives into me harder and harder, staking his final claim. In a blaze of passion so bright, so incredible, we are both completely consumed by it. I find my release in a kaleidoscope of colors, a thick haze of heat that drowns and revives me. Linc follows and we plunge into an oblivious state of bliss.

The culmination of what just happened can only be described as a dream.

But it’s not.

I know this to be true when his mouth finds my ear and in a breathless whisper he says, “I love you.” Linc has said these words to me a million times but they have never carried more weight than they do right now. They settle, taking root inside of my heart and my mind, wrapping around my soul. “No one has ever loved another human being as much as I love you.”

The smell of his skin is intoxicating. I’m pretty sure I could lie here in this drunken state all day. Just like this. I’m completely and utterly lost to him, and it feels so damn good. Better than I ever imagined. It’s hard to believe, after all of this time, we’re here.

In this moment.

“I love you, too.” His fingers draw content, lazy sighs from me with each brush across my feverish flesh. I never knew making love could be so beautiful, so passionate. Every touch, every breath overflowing with so many years of deep longing, I don’t think I will ever get enough of him.

Linc’s warm lips press against my forehead and my eyes flutter closed as a new beginning unfolds. His forehead kisses will never be the same again. Now they are so much more precious than they ever were before.

“What are you thinkin’ about?”

“Us.”

“Us,” he whispers, thoughtfully.

He’s still inside of me, the weight of him bringing me so much comfort. “I can’t believe we’re here together. Like this.”

His smile is as content as I feel, washing over me with the promise of love beyond my wildest dreams.

“I’ve been waiting my whole life for this moment,” he says, tucking a piece of hair behind my left ear. “And I’m not talkin’ about the sex, which turned out to be far better than anything my mind ever worked up. But I’ve been waiting for this. To hold you, to fall asleep with you in my arms every night and wake up next to you every mornin’. To know you’re finally where you belong, with me.”

“Every night and every morning? What makes you think I want you to even stay tonight?” I tease, but I’m silently hoping he will.

“You don’t think for one second you’re gettin’ rid of me now, do you?”

“What are you saying?”

“What do you think I’m sayin’, Syl?” he asks, narrowing his eyes.

“Linc, I think we should take this slow. I mean, we just…I’m as happy as you are right now. I never thought this would happen for us and now it’s happening so fast and effortlessly really. It’s a little bit overwhelming to be honest, and I don’t want to do anything to mess it up. And I don’t want to rush Caroline either.”

“Caroline is not going to even bat an eye at this. She knows, Sylvie. That kid is smart. Besides, she loves me.”

I smile.

She adores him.

“Still…I need to be careful with her. I want us to be together as much as you do, Linc. I’ve wanted it for as long as I can remember, but I need to make sure she’s ready.”

“You’re incredible, you know that?”

Heat invades my cheeks as his tense jaw relaxes into a pleased smile. When his lips find mine, my heart surges with heat, as does the rest of my body. I can’t remember ever feeling this loved.

Safe.

It’s so new and exhilarating and it takes everything I have to beg him not to ever leave this spot. I never want to lose this feeling. “I’ll give you all the time you need, Sylvie, but this is it for me. You’re all I’ve ever wanted, and I’m never lettin’ you go again.”

His words are like a balm, soothing the wounds that life has so irrevocably inflicted. Would they ever be healed completely? With a love like his, I refuse to believe anything different.

He pulls the thick quilt from the back of the couch and moves to situate himself next to me, wrapping his arm around my middle and pulling me close. His eyes hold mine.

“Sylvie.”

“Hmm?”

“There’s something else I need from you.”

“What?”

Lifting my hand to his mouth, he places a kiss on my wrist then my lips.

Tender.

Soft.

“I need to know what happened that day.”

I blink, my heart rate spiking with anxiety and apprehension.

I swallow. “Why?”

“Because I wanna know your pain. All of it.”

Tears spring to my eyes. “I don’t think I can,” I tell him honestly. I’ve never told a single soul what really happened that day, because if I do that means it really happened, and I’m not sure if I’ll be able to handle that.

“Try.”

Try.

Does he even understand how hard it is for me to do that? My eyes fall closed as my body tenses all over, memories of that day playing over and over in my mind.

Images I’ll never forget.

But Linc deserves to know, and telling him is the only way I can move on.

CHAPTER 27

Past

Sometimes, the most important lessons in life are the ones we learn the hard way.

I finish stuffing the rest of Caroline’s clothes into my suitcase and zip it up as hot tears roll down my burning cheeks.

I can’t keep putting myself through this. I’ve tried everything to make it work. To get him help. To fight for him. But he’s given up, and if I don’t leave now, he’ll drag Caroline and me to hell with him. I know running to Linc’s arms might not be the right answer but I need him. I need someone to help me for once, because right now, everything seems so hopeless. Dean refuses to take his medicine. He refuses to go to rehab. The final straw came last night when I gave him an ultimatum.

Get help or we’re gone.

He became so enraged he began throwing things and tearing up the house and Caroline saw it all. I can’t continue to live like this.

I won’t.

And even though I’m terrified about what he’ll do if I leave, I’m afraid of what will happen to us if I don’t.

Lugging the suitcase down the stairs, I stop cold when I find Dean waiting for me at the bottom.

“Where are you going?” he asks.

Swallowing hard, I lift my chin, trying to stomp down the fear. “We’re leaving.” I finally manage to get the words out once I reach the last step.

He paces the floor, frantically sweeping his free hand through his disheveled hair. “No.”

“Dean, I just think—”

“No!” he roars. “I won’t let you go.” There’s desperation in his voice and it almost has me caving. I don’t want to hurt him any more than he already does but I have to remind myself that we’ve been down this road too many times before.

It’s over.

I have to end this.

Otherwise, it will end us both.

“I just can’t do this anymore.” I hold his gaze, his eyes wide and unfocused.

He reaches behind his back, revealing a revolver. I freeze in fear. “I can’t live without you.” His dark brown eyes peer down at me, his hard gaze cold and unforgiving.

“Dean, please don’t do this.”

A single tear slips down my cheek. His eyes are on fire, pain and anger swirling together in a devastating storm destined for destruction. I feel like I’m trapped inside of a burning house with no one to save either of us and no way out.

CHAPTER 28

Past

Dean

What have I become?

When did ending it all become my only option? My only way out? I’ve thought about it hundreds of times, but never with this much resolve. Never with so much determination. But I can’t take it anymore.

It’s too much.

And Sylvie.

I am nothing without her.

Gripping the sides of my head, I beg the voices to stop but they won’t shut up. They never will. They constantly battle with my heart and soul, begging to end it all.

I focus on the pain.

It’s the only thing that is real anymore.

“Dean, please. We can get help if you’ll just—”

I laugh at her ridiculous plea. “There’s not a goddamn pill or doctor that can cure me. You know that. What does it matter anyway? I’m nothing without you.”

Her tear-filled eyes hold mine as fear causes her body to tremble. “Don’t say that. You matter.”

The cold steel feels heavy against my skin but it’s nothing compared to the burden I carry inside.

She’s sobbing now, tears of pain rolling down her cheeks in rivers of grief. Pain I know is there because of me.

I’ve never been able to figure it out. The poison that lives inside of me eats away at my mind like a starving vulture. All I know is that I can’t fight it anymore.

I don’t have the fucking strength.

I grab ahold of the back of her neck, pulling her forehead to mine, then I press the barrel of the gun underneath her chin. “I want to take you with me,” I whisper, looking into her deep blue eyes.

The only place I find any semblance of peace is when I look into those eyes or hold her in my arms, but I am slowly killing her, sucking the life from her, and I can see it every time she looks at me.

The insistent need to pull the trigger is growing stronger by the second. I long to bury the pain once and for all. To suffocate the voices that whisper truth and lies.

Her eyes flicker with pain, corroding the remainder of my lifeless heart.

I have to save her.

She swallows hard, licking her lips. “You don’t have to do this. Think about Caroline. Think about what this will do to her.”

Caroline.

I don’t want to leave her behind either, and I silently thank God she’s not here. I’m afraid of what would happen if she were.

She’ll be better off without me.

They both will be.

“Why are you doing this?” she begs, her voice raw and weak.

“It’s the only way I can set you free.”

I’m not stupid. I know my wife, better than anyone. And I know why she wants to leave. I can’t blame her. But I’ll never be able to let her go and live in this world without her.

I squeeze my eyes shut for a brief moment, battling with my intense need to end her life before I take my own. I think of my precious Caroline and for once in my life, I try not to be the selfish bastard I’ve always been.

Pushing her away, she falls to the floor, then I press the cold tip of the barrel to my temple.

There is no hesitation.

No fear.

Only peace of mind knowing that I’ll finally be free.

And so will she.

Sylvie frantically shakes her head, fear heady in her bloodshot eyes. “Please. God. Please don’t do this.” But her whispered prayer falls on deaf ears for I can’t hear anything but the final beats of my tortured heart.

A lone tear leaks from the corner of my eye before I utter my final words, cocking the hammer with a resounding click. “I love you.”

CHAPTER 29

Past

Calla lilies rest upon his shiny black casket, adding a breath of life to the death that fills the room. They are perfectly sprayed, fanning out in every direction. I focus on the flowers, the curve of the white petals, their pureness.

Their beauty.

The irony does not escape my morbid mind. My mother helped me make arrangements, which was a feat in itself considering I’ve been dealing with my own inner turmoil.

It could have been both of us being buried today.

Caroline squeezes my hand, pulling my attention from the flowers. Her eyes find mine, seeking comfort and understanding. But how can I offer her either when I don’t even understand it myself.

I am empty.

Numb.

Blocking out the pain takes all of my strength so I have none to spare.

I couldn’t save him.

I let her down.

I let him down.

I gave up on him when he needed me the most.

Now he is gone.

And it’s all my fault.

The next few hours slide by in a haze, a block of time that I will never forget; yet, I can’t remember a single detail aside from the flowers. They are all I see every time I think of Dean and it’s almost comforting to me because they seem to shield me from the other gruesome images haunting my mind.

Time passes in a haze.

I accept hugs, offers of condolences, but nothing can ease the pain I feel inside.

Caroline finally fell asleep hours ago, snuggled up with the ragged lion Dean bought her at the zoo a couple years back. I wanted to lie down with her. I haven’t slept at all the last few days, but I am afraid I won’t have the strength to get back up.

Everyone has cleared out, my parents reluctantly left a few hours ago. Rachel offered to stay but I insisted I was fine.

Now, I am not so sure.

I lean my head against the cool fridge, trying to fight off the deep ache in my heart. A hand lands on my shoulder, offering a gentle squeeze.

“Syl.” I turn around, wrapping my arms around my middle, but it does nothing to ease the excruciating pain.

Linc reaches out for me but I turn away, leaving his hand hanging midair. Hurt flashes across his face, adding even more guilt to the ever-growing pile of emotions. I don’t want his comfort even though I desperately need it.

And I sure as hell don’t deserve it.

I shift my eyes to the floor, evading his gaze.

With a long sigh, he shoves his hands into the pockets of his black slacks. “Talk to me.”

I remain silent.

What is there to say? I can’t very well tell him what really happened. I told everyone that I came home and found Dean that way. I couldn’t lay the burden of truth on him. It’s not his fault.

It’s mine.

I drove him to it.

He lets go of a wounded sigh. “Please.”

I sidestep him and head for the sink while my heart cracks open a little more. They say God never gives you more than you can handle, but right now, I think God is out to punish me. Probably because I love a man while married to another. Or maybe because right now I want nothing more than to fall into Linc’s arms and forget about Dean altogether.

What kind of person does that make me?

“Sylvie, look at me.”

“You need to leave, Linc.”

“Syl.”

Clutching the edge of the sink, I fight back the tears. “Please.”

“I’m not leaving you again. Not ever.” He rests his hands on my shoulders, and I sag with despair. “Let me help you.”

“You can’t help me, no one can.”

“Let me try. I know you’re hurting. Let me be here for you.”

I shove at his chest. “I said no! I don’t want you here.”

His eyes flicker with pain. “You don’t mean that.”

“Yes, I do. I can’t look at you without thinking about him.”

“How can you say that?”

“Get out. Go live your life and stop worrying about trying to fix mine.”

“Please, don’t push me away. I need you.”

“You don’t need me. I’m broken, Linc, can’t you see? Just leave.”

“Sylvie, please—”

“Just fucking leave!” My throat is raw, so are my insides.

I don’t want to feel anything, not ever again. It hurts too damn much.

CHAPTER 30

Present

As long as I live, I’ll never be able to carve the image of Dean, lying on the floor in a puddle of blood, out of my mind. Nausea rolls in my belly and I spring from the couch, barely making it to the bathroom. This is why I hate talking about him. Not only is it emotionally crippling, it’s physically debilitating as well.

Linc’s hands caress my clammy skin as I dry heave into the bowl. I lift my head to find his eyes. “I don’t know how to deal with this, Linc.” He reaches for a washcloth, running it under the cool tap before wiping my mouth. Brushing the loose strands of hair from my face, he kisses my damp forehead. “I hate that I couldn’t help him. That I couldn’t love him enough.”

Linc’s fingers lift my chin, bringing my eyes to his. “It’s not your fault, Syl.” Shaking my head, I try to pull away. “Look at me,” he demands, his hands cradling my cheeks to hold my face in place. There is no judgment in his eyes, only love and understanding. “He was sick. Even if you had stayed, the end result would have been the same. You did everything you could to save him. But sometimes, we have to save ourselves.” His lips meet mine, reverent and sweet. The tenderness of his kiss makes me whimper. “You have to let go of the guilt,” he whispers.

“I’m trying,” I say, dropping my head to his chest. “I just don’t know how.”

“I’ll show you.” There’s strong promise in his voice, it fills my heart with hope.

Hope that one day I will be able to look back on the past and find reason. There are so many things I would have done differently but like Linc said, would it have really changed the outcome? I can’t continue to wonder.

Regret is exhausting.

His hand slides up my neck into my hair, his gaze holding mine. “I’ll put the pieces back together, baby. I promise.”

He kisses my forehead then stands, letting go of me long enough to turn on the shower. Steam fills the air around us and so does his ever-present comfort. He takes my hand, leading me under the hot spray. There is no place in the world I would rather be than right here. With his hands roaming my back, his lips press against the skin of my shoulder, peppering a trail to my neck, erasing the tension one deliberate kiss at time. I suck a deep lungful of air and then let go on a long exhale. His mouth finally reaches mine in a single quest to eliminate every bit of sadness from my soul. He devours each moan with vigorous need and I let him have it all, sharing every ounce of pain and grief I carry inside. He wants it.

Demands it.

His warm tongue slides against mine, deepening the kiss, strengthening our bond. “I love you,” he whispers upon my lips.

“I love you, too.” As the words roll off my tongue with ease, a few of those broken pieces slide back into place.

We spend the rest of the night making love. Linc is attentive, passionate. His deep exploration of my body leaves me a quivering mess of skin beneath him. There is not an inch of me that has been left untouched by his sure hands. Wrapped in his arms, we drift in and out of sleep for the next few hours, content to take advantage of our time together.

“You awake?” he asks, his voice deep and groggy with sleep.

I flip over to face him, wanting to look into his soft green eyes. “Barely.”

He moves one hand between us, cupping my breast before sucking my nipple into his mouth. “We have lots to make up for, baby.”

“At this rate, we’ll be caught up by morning.”

He laughs, the sound vibrating across my chest as he moves his lips up my neck. “I’ll never get enough of you.”

Smiling, I thread my fingers through his hair, holding him to me, smothering myself in his warmth. I never want to let him go. “I never thought I would get to have you like this. It’s surreal.”

He lets go of a long sigh, kissing my forehead. “I always knew.”

“How?”

“Because when two hearts are meant to be one, they always find a way.” His words burrow deep inside my soul, mending another broken piece. “Mama always told me there’s a reason for everything. That sometimes we have to go through things, bad things, we don’t understand in order to get to where we’re supposed to go and become the people we’re meant to become. It pissed me off when she’d say that because I could never understand why God would take my father from me or keep me from the woman I love. I struggled to understand for years. But now I realize what she meant. I didn’t see the reason then, but I see it now.”

I lean in to kiss him, savoring his signature taste, a mix of earth and wind.

Life.

“What do you see?”

Looking deep into my eyes, he smiles. “All that pain and heartache led us here. To this very moment. And there’s not a damn place in the world I would rather be.”

Cupping his stubbly cheek, I scoot closer. We are practically molded together as it is but I can’t seem to get close enough to him. I’m afraid this is all just a dream, and when I wake up, he’ll be gone. “I’m scared.”

“Of what?”

“Losing you.”

“Never gonna happen.”

Pressing his forehead to mine, he licks his lips. “Nothing will ever come between us again, Sylvie.”

I believe him, but part of me can’t help but wonder what a single mother, a widow, can offer a man like him. He’s famous. He has the world at his feet, and I’m still trying to figure out how to put mine back together.

CHAPTER 31

Present

After dropping Caroline off at school, I come home to find Linc’s truck in my driveway, but he’s not in it. He’s on the riding lawnmower, making his way around the front of the house as I step from the car. My heart thrums wildly in my chest when he catches sight of me and detours from his path, lifting the blades of the lawnmower to head my way.

Switching off the engine, he hops off the seat. “Mornin’,” he says huskily, wrapping one arm around my waist and pulling me to his damp chest.

“I don’t recall asking you to mow my yard,” I say, my hands braced on his sweaty biceps.

“Needed it.”

“Yes, I know. I was going to get to it today or tomorrow.”

He shrugs unapologetically. “Almost done now, you can grab me a bottle of water though. Sure is hot out here today.”

“Don’t you have to work today?”

“Took the day off.” Air becomes nonexistent as he caresses my lips with his. Both hands fall to my ass, giving it a hard squeeze. “You taste so fuckin’ good,” he murmurs between kisses.

Even though my cheeks burn with embarrassment at his dirty words, the rest of my body flames with desire. I moan and he swallows it appreciatively, rewarding me with a deep swipe of his tongue, delving into the cavern of my mouth with renewed passion.

He pumps his hips, pressing the hardness between us against my belly. My entire body trembles with need, desire building like a hurricane inside of me.

“Is this real? Are you real?”

“I’m real. You’re real. This is real.”

“I need to taste you,” he pleads against my wet lips.

“Isn’t that what you’re doing?”

“No.”

One hand leaves my hip, sneaking beneath my dress. I should be embarrassed by how wet I am, but I’m not. I want him to know what he does to me.

“Fuck,” he grits, rubbing back and forth.

I feel a vibration against my leg.

“You’re vibrating,” I tell him.

“With goddamn need.”

I laugh. “Linc, I think your phone’s ringing.”

He digs in his pocket, retrieving his cell. His brows furrow in the center of his head and the look on his face tells me it’s not his mother.

“Hello.”

I can faintly hear a female voice come across the line, and I move to walk away so I can give him some privacy but he grabs my arm and presses the phone against his chest. “We’re not finished,” he informs me, kissing my swollen lips. I turn away and walk inside the house.

A few minutes later, Linc walks into the kitchen, slipping his phone back into his pocket. “Now, where were we?”

“Who was that?” I ask, filling a glass with ice.

“My assistant, Kacey. The new album releases soon and she needs to go over the promotion schedule with me. Told her I’d call her back tomorrow.” He wraps his arms around my waist, pulling me close.

Hot stones of dread settle in my stomach. “You’re leaving?”

I don’t know why I hadn’t thought about it until now. Of course he would be leaving again. His life is his music, and I would never ask him to give that up for me.

“Just for a couple of weeks.” His fingers lift my chin to meet his eyes.

We’ve been apart for so long. Now he’s back and I’m so scared of losing him again. “Don’t worry. I told you already I’m not going anywhere. I’m never leaving you again.” He tucks my hair behind my ear and kisses my forehead softly. “But I do have to promote this album. I have an obligation to my fans and my band.”

“I know. I just—I don’t want to be someone who holds you back.”

His head tilts as he eyes me carefully. “Hold me back?”

“Besides ruining our friendship, it’s one of the other reasons I never told you how I felt all those years ago. I didn’t want to hold you back then and I don’t want to hold you back now.”

“Jesus, Syl. Don’t you get it? My home is wherever you are.” He points to my chest. “Here, my home is here.”

“What about your career?”

“What about it?”

“You can’t just walk away from that life.”

“I’m not walking away from anything. I’m slowing down. I’ve been working nonstop since I was fifteen years old. I deserve a long ass break. I’ve paid my dues. Ten times over if you wanna be honest. Now it’s time to reap the rewards.” He kisses me with tender care, gently caressing my lips with his own before he continues. “I poured my heart and soul into this album. I know it’s going to be a hit. Even if I don’t take time to promote it myself. But I can’t do that to my fans. I know you of all people can understand that.”

“I do. Of course I do. It’s just…”

“Stop trying to come up with excuses for us not to be together. That ship has fuckin’ sailed, babe.”

His clipped tone irritates me. “I’m not making excuses, Linc, I’m being realistic. We are on different ends of the spectrum here. I’m just trying to figure out where Caroline and I fit into your world. I mean, what are fans going to think about you dating a single mother who works in a café in Grandeur?”

“I really don’t give a shit what anyone thinks. If they don’t like it, they don’t have to buy my records.”

“What if this doesn’t work? What if you and I…what if we don’t work?”

“Impossible.”

“Anything is possible, Linc. We have to be smart about this. We can’t get caught up in our emotions. I have Caroline to think about. And what if all of this turns out to be nothing more than wanting something we couldn’t have? It could all fall apart before it even begins. What if we end up hating each other? Then where will that leave us?”

“Goddamn it, woman. Will you listen to yourself? You’ve been my best friend for over fifteen years. You’ve pissed me off countless times and basically told me to get the fuck out of your life and stay out. You shattered my heart over and over and still…here I am. I don’t think there is anything in this world that could ever make me hate you.”

“You should,” I choke out, drowning in all of my emotions.

He pulls his keys from his pocket. “Let’s go. There’s something I want to show you.”

***

When Linc pulls onto the gravel driveway, leading up to a vacant lot, I gasp at the view. Unbuckling my seatbelt, I open the door to get out and Linc follows.

“Well, what do you think?” he asks, rounding the front of the truck. I take a few steps forward, taking in the beautiful scenery.

“Nice dirt,” I tease.

Linc swats my behind playfully. “Smart-ass.”

He takes a stance next to me; hands perched thoughtfully on his hips, overlooking the massive expanse of land.

“The view is killer, huh?”

“Yeah.”

That comfortable silence Linc and I live in, thrive in, it settles in as we gaze at the gentle peaks of Blue Ridge Mountain, offering a breathtaking view of the cobalt sky.

“Know what I love best?”

“What’s that?”

“The possibilities.”

The summer wind whips the strands of my hair, licking my face with its sweet southern heat as I consider his words. My mind begins to conjure up images of the future. All of them involve the man standing next to me.

He threads his fingers with mine, weaving them together in a tight bond before bringing our joined hands to his chest. With a sigh, his other hand caresses my face before coming to a possessive rest on the side of my neck. “I want to build a life with you, Sylvie. Here, on this dirt. I want to grow old with you and love you the way you deserve to be loved.”

“I don’t deserve it,” I say, tearing my burning eyes from his.

His fingers lift my chin, eyes burning with fierce determination. “You deserve the world, and I’m gonna do my best to give it to you. My career, my music, was just getting me by. It means nothing without you by my side. There will be times when I’ll have to leave but I’m always coming back. Back to this dirt, back to this life, back to you and Caroline. You’re my home, Sylvie.”

***

Linc suggests grabbing a bite to eat before we head back. His hand clasps mine, leading me into Emilio’s but my good mood quickly vanishes the moment we run into Dani, who is walking out. Her mouth is pressed into a hard line as she looks at our clasped hands, eyes snapping back to mine. They widen then narrow before she folds her arms with a disgusted huff. “So this is why you’re not returning my calls?”

No, I haven’t been returning her calls because I’m not ready to deal with her yet. She’s always been a source of negativity and dealing with her is so emotionally exhausting sometimes so I’ve been avoiding her.

“I’m sorry, Dani. I’ve just been really busy and—”

“So what? Are you going to keep me away from my niece like you tried to do with Dean? I’m her family too you know.”

I grit my teeth, trying to stomp down my anger bubbling just below the surface. Dani has always been flighty and unpredictable. I don’t feel comfortable letting Caroline go anywhere with her so each time she’s asked I always find some excuse not to let her go. I’ve told her numerous times she can come to the house anytime we are home and visit but that doesn’t seem to be good enough for her.

“I’ve told you plenty of times that you are more than welcome to see Caroline anytime you want.”

“Yeah…as long as you are there to supervise. I don’t need a babysitter to spend time with my niece.”

“It’s not that,” I lie. “The past year has been hard on her and she’s still adjusting.”

“Looks like you’re adjusting just fine though,” she says, snarling her lip.

Linc hasn’t said a word but I can feel his ire when he shifts his feet, squeezing my hand. He’s never cared for Dani either. They’ve only met once, but that single encounter was enough to put a bad taste in his mouth forever. And right now I can tell he wants to say something but he’s biting his tongue for me.

“My personal life is none of your business.”

“I can’t believe this. This is bullshit and you know it.” Dani takes a step forward, her fists clenched at her sides.

“All right, that’s enough,” Linc growls, pulling me toward the entrance.

“This isn’t over,” Dani snaps just as the door closes shut.

“I’m proud of you, baby. You did the right thing.” I nod, taking a seat in the booth.

I know I made the right choice, keeping my guard up around her, but it doesn’t make it any less painful. Dani is the only link to Caroline’s father besides me, and I pray that Dani will work toward a positive relationship with her.

CHAPTER 32

Present

It’s been a week and I still can’t wipe the smile off my face. Linc is here every day when I get home from work and I have to practically shove him out the door each night. He doesn’t want to leave my side and I love him all the more for it, but we both agree we need to ease Caroline into this.

Each night, long after Caroline falls asleep, we spend an obscene about of time making out on the couch.

Which is what we are doing now.

Linc is on his side with my heated body plastered to his front, our legs tangled together like vines. One hand has made its way beneath my shirt to cup my breast while he worships my mouth. The man is a phenomenal kisser. We should both be experts by now, considering we’ve spent hours upon hours practicing.

He’s leaving in a couple of days and he’ll be gone for two weeks, so I’m trying to absorb every moment I can with him.

“I don’t want you to leave.” I feel selfish saying it, I know he has to go, but I can’t help it. I’m going to miss him terribly. Now that he’s back, I’m not sure how I survived this long without him.

Removing his hand from my shirt, he cups my cheek, dragging his thumb back and forth across my skin. “You can always come with me.”

This has been an ongoing conversation all week. I was tempted to say yes when he asked the first time. I would love nothing more than to spend the two weeks with him and see what his life is like outside of here. But I can’t bring myself to leave Caroline for that long. Besides, he’ll be working most of the time, giving interviews and performing.

I would only be in the way.

“You know I can’t do that.” Lowering my head to his chest, I sigh, wishing I could.

“I have a surprise for you.”

I smile, lifting my eyes to his. “You do?”

He nods, kissing me once more before rising from the couch and walking out the front door.

A few minutes later he returns holding two boxes. They are both wrapped in black paper with hot pink bows.

I sit up and he places them in my lap. Then Linc situates himself behind me, his hands resting on my hips.

“What’s this?”

Looking over my shoulder, he grins. “What’s it look like?”

“Smart-ass,” I say, elbowing his gut playfully.

He grunts.

I examine the pretty boxes, excited to find out what’s inside. He removes the smaller one, leaving the larger box in my lap. He’s giddy, his boyish smile making him look even more handsome.

If that’s even possible.

Smiling, I tear into the paper to reveal a rose gold MacBook Pro.

“You don’t have a computer and this is a good way for us to keep in touch while I’m gone. We can FaceTime every night,” he says.

“Linc, you didn’t have to do this. I can FaceTime you from my phone.”

“True, but the way I plan on utilizing this, you’ll need to be hands free.” His deep, husky voice seeps through my veins, wrapping itself around my heart as he pushes my hair off my shoulder and kisses the crook of my neck.

The implication makes me blush. Linc is not shy at all in the bedroom.

Unlike me.

Setting the box on the coffee table I turn around, throwing my arms around his neck. “Thank you. I love it.”

He hugs me tight before bringing the next box between us. “This one’s next.”

I look down at the rectangular box, wondering what on earth it could be. I twist my head to kiss him on the corner of his mouth. There’s a wicked grin on his face as I begin opening the next gift.

Nervousness flips my belly when I see Victoria’s Secret written on the top. Inside, there’s a satin, lace trimmed baby doll nightie with matching panties in a stunning shade of ruby—the same color my cheeks are right about now.

“Go on, there’s more.”

I set the silky garments aside and dig through the white tissue. A pink, satin camisole with matching shorts are tucked inside. “These are beautiful, Linc. I love them. I’ve never worn lingerie before.”

Linc runs his fingers up and down my arms, causing me to shiver. Pressing his mouth to my neck, he rains down kisses on every inch of my heated skin, stopping just below my ear. “You don’t know how happy that makes me.”

My head falls back, giving his hot mouth more room to explore. “Thank you for my gifts,” I rasp between breaths.

“You’re welcome.” His voice is thick with desire.

Taking the camisole from my hands, Linc lifts the baby doll nightie. “Go put this one on.”

“Linc, we can’t. What if Caroline wakes up?”

“I promise not to make you scream. Too loud.” His hands find the hem of my T-shirt and drift up my stomach to find my breasts, his mouth still devouring every inch of my neck. “Two weeks. I won’t be able to touch you for two weeks. I need to be inside of you for the next two nights.”

The insistent throb between my legs agrees, and I nod my consent. That’s all it takes to put him in motion. Grabbing my hand, Linc leads me to the bedroom. I go inside the bathroom to change, quickly divesting my clothes and slipping on the seductive garment. I’ve never considered myself sexy or even seductive but looking in the mirror right now, I see both. I pull my hair from the messy bun on top of my head and run my fingers through it, allowing the strands to rest on the swells of my breasts. Then I lick my lips and suck in a deep breath.

When I open the door and walk into the dimly lit room, I find him naked, resting against the headboard, waiting for me. The nervousness fluttering in my belly quickly evaporates once his beautiful green eyes meet mine, putting me at ease.

He sets my body on fire with just one look and wipes away all of my insecurities.

“Come here,” he rasps, desire thick in his voice.

Slowly, I walk toward him and stop right next to the bed. His hand moves to my waist, guiding me onto the bed to straddle him. “You look beautiful.”

The way he’s looking at me, with so much love and desire, makes me feel beautiful.

Sitting up, he brushes my hair from my shoulder, pressing his warm lips to my collarbone. A rush of heat floods my body and my nipples tighten in response.

Linc is more sensual than anything.

Tender.

Sweet.

But each time we make love he brands me with something new, something exciting and mind blowing.

Something special.

He’s hard beneath me and with each kiss he delivers to my skin, I rock my hips, seeking the friction that will alleviate the insistent burn between my legs.

One hand moves between us to pull my panties aside, his fingers sliding back and forth through my wet flesh. Lifting my hips, he centers himself and I take him inside with a heated sigh.

“Jesus.” The glow of the bedside lamp makes his green eyes sparkle and he fuses his mouth with mine as he fills me completely.

There’s one hand clasping the back of my neck while the other grips my right hip, guiding me up and down his hard length. I can handle his hands on me like this. It’s what he does with them between my legs that drive me out of my mind.

He holds my hip in place, thrusting up inside of me on a toe-curling glide. I bite into his shoulder to keep from moaning. This is so hard, trying to be quiet. It’s next to impossible when he’s inside of me. “That’s it, baby, give me that sweet cum, I need it for what I have planned next,” he says, reaching around to gather my arousal. His finger is warm and slick, dragging back and forth in the hidden valley, creating an unspeakable burn in the pit of my belly.

His brazen fingers circle the pleated skin of my ass and I tense. “Please tell me I’ll be the first to take you here.” His breath is hot in my mouth, robbing me of my apprehension.

I close my eyes on a deep sigh and nod my head.

His response is a growl in my ear, inspiring full-body goose bumps. “Fuck.”

The strain in his voice sends me hurdling over the edge the moment that single digit breaches the tight barrier. My body trembles, shaking violently as the powerful orgasm rolls through me.

Unable to hold back any longer, a throaty cry erupts from my lips. But before it has a chance to punch the air, Linc catches it, rolling me over to pin me to the bed with the slam of his hips. “I love fuckin’ you,” he says between each of his thrusts. “The way your hungry pussy grips my cock. The way you cling to me in every way. I love you, baby. I love you so goddamn much.”

It only takes a few deliberate strokes before he’s grounding out his release, pulsing inside of me. His colorful confession sends me flying right along with him.

My breath is shallow and frantic.

His is not much better.

Lifting up on his forearms, his hands cradle the sides of my face. Soft, tender lips caress mine. “What the hell am I gonna do without you for the next two weeks?”

I’m wondering the same thing.

CHAPTER 33

Present

He pried himself from the bed around five this morning, just as the sun was beginning its ascent. With a heavy heart, I walked him out to his truck where we spent a good amount of time kissing one another good-bye, struggling to let go. He promised to return around three this afternoon so we could spend our final few hours together before he leaves.

Caroline and I spend the majority of our day in the kitchen. She wanted to bake him a going away cake, and I needed to keep myself busy so I wouldn’t think about him leaving.

I help Caroline pan the mix and set the timer before we walk out back to pick out some flowers to decorate the dinner table with. Shears in hand, I snip a yellow Gerbera daisy while Caroline patiently holds the large Mason jar firmly in her hands.

“Mama, can I ask you something?”

“Sure, you can ask me anything.”

“Why was Daddy so sad? Didn’t we make him happy?”

I pause, hesitating to go this far with her. She’s just a child, how much of this can she really comprehend and will it do more harm than good?

“Of course we made him happy, but sometimes, when he was sad, it didn’t have anything to do with the people around him, it was just something he couldn’t control. And sometimes, that sadness would drown the happy. Does that make sense?”

She shrugs. “Kinda.”

I try to think of the best way to explain it without scaring her and helping her better understand him.

“Pretend you’re flying a kite, it’s a clear, beautiful day and you have just enough wind to make it soar. Everything is going great. You think the day couldn’t be any better when suddenly there’s a crack of thunder and the sky turns dark. You checked the weather to make sure there wouldn’t be a cloud in sight but now dark clouds are all you see. Then the winds pick up, knocking your kite back and forth, threatening to ruin your perfect day. Then the rain sets in, sending your kite crashing to the ground. How would that make you feel?”

“Sad.”

“Was it anyone’s fault?”

“No,” she says, tilting her head. “You can’t control Mother Nature.”

“Exactly.”

Realization soothes her troubled face and she nods in understanding before wrapping her arms around me. “Do you think he’s still sad?”

“No, I think he’s finally kissed the sun.”

She draws back, giving me a big smile. “That makes me very happy, Mama.”

“Me too, sweet girl.”

I slip the jar from her hands, and set it on the ground, cupping her cheeks. “Listen, I want you to know that your father loved you very much. Never forget that, okay? He wouldn’t want you to be sad. He would want you to be happy. For him. Can you do that for me?”

She nods, and I kiss her head.

“Come on, let’s go check on that cake.”

We gather the jar of flowers and walk back inside hand in hand; my heart lighter than it has ever been before.

***

“Of all the times I’ve had to leave, I think this one will be the hardest.” Linc’s voice is deep and gravely, raking over my heart in the most painful way. His mouth meets the skin of my neck, a greeting I’ve grown accustomed to, but today I don’t like the worry it brings. He’s just returned from spending the day with his mother. He’d wanted her to come for dinner but she was more tired than usual, having completed a chemo treatment yesterday.

Tension rolls beneath my fingers as I place my hands on his shoulders. “We’ll be fine,” I assure him, even though I’m silently dying inside.

I need to be strong for him. Be there for him like he has been for me.

“I know. I just…you’ve spent your whole life taking care of everyone else. I just want to take care of you. It’s all I want to do. I wish I didn’t have to go.”

“You do take care of me. I wouldn’t be where I am right now if it weren’t for you.”

Tucking a stray hair behind my ear, he leans down to drop a kiss to my forehead then my lips. “I’m so proud of you.” His palm caresses my face and I turn my mouth in to place a kiss there. “I’ll call every night,” he promises.

“Don’t you mean FaceTime every night?”

“You’re really looking forward to that, aren’t you?”

I blush. I am looking forward to it. It’s the only way I’ll be able to see his face and that brings me a small measure of comfort. “Why would you say that?”

He gives me a pointed look, raising one lone brow. He’s so sexy when he does that. “Because you’re curious.”

“You’re so full of shit.”

“Am I? I bet if I touched you right now you’d be wet.”

“Jesus, Linc. You have no shame, do you?”

“Not when it comes to you.”

He kisses my lips again, twirling his tongue with mine in a single quest to drive me out of my mind. God, I’m going to miss him terribly. I’ve grown addicted to his kisses, the soft and gentle ones, the possessive ones.

All of them.

He pulls back abruptly, throwing me slightly off balance. “Oh, I almost forgot. I gave the builder your cell phone number just in case he can’t get in touch with me for any reason. You have permission to make any decision on our behalf.”

“Uh, I’m not sure I feel very comfortable with that, Linc.”

He looks affronted. “Why not?”

“Because it’s your house. You should be the one making those decisions.”

He chews the inside of his mouth before clearing his throat. “This is our house, remember? Besides, you know me. You know what I like. I have complete confidence you can handle the task.”

I shrug. “Okay, but if you come home to claw foot tubs and bead board ceilings, I don’t wanna hear a thing.”

Kissing my lips firmly, he inhales deeply through his nose. “I’m fine with that as long as you are the one naked in that claw foot tub.”

“I’m sure that can be arranged.”

“So what’s for dinner?”

“Chicken pot pie.”

“My favorite.”

“I know. Something to remember me by.”

“Baby, there’s no way in hell I could ever forget you.”

After dinner and gorging ourselves on Caroline’s going away cake, I find myself in the only place I want to be, wrapped in his arms.

Caroline went to bed hours ago.

I’m not sure what time it is.

I don’t want to know.

I know it’s late and I don’t want to think about when he’ll be forced to leave me. All I want to do is lie here, my head on his chest, inhaling his masculine scent, counting the beats of his steady heart. We’ve already made love once but it wasn’t enough, even though it was one of the single most beautiful moments of my life.

But each time seems to be better than the last.

The minute we were alone, his hands were on me with an incredible sense of urgency. Worshiping my body while branding me with his touch. Then once he was inside of me he slowed down, reveling in our time together. I never wanted it to end. And the second it was over, I wanted to start all over again.

His fingers skate up and down the center of my naked back, electrifying my skin, grounding me. I lift my cheek, propping my chin on my hand that’s planted on his chest.

Kissing his chest, I press my cheek back down on his warm skin. “Thank you.”

“For what?”

“You’re the only reason I’ve been able to face any of this. I don’t want to even think about where I would be right now had you given up on me.”

Looking down at me, the corner of his mouth lifts before he places his warm hand over mine. “I’ll never give up on you. Ever. What we have, I can’t explain it. Not even in a song.”

“I know. I’ve tried to put it to words too but the closest I could get was rambling thoughts scribbled in a journal.”

“Is that what I always see you writing in?”

I nod, looking away. “It’s the only place I can speak my truth. What is really inside of my heart.”

“I wouldn’t mind looking inside of your heart someday,” he says, pulling me closer, I kiss his chin then his mouth.

“You already have.”

“Yes, but not the way I want to.” His large hand fans my face. “I want every single part of you. Just like I want to give you every single part of me.”

“Linc.” I kiss his shoulder, scraping my teeth along his skin. Goose bumps ripple across his flesh and I smile.

Dipping my hand between us, I wrap my hand around him, earning myself a long, deep groan.

“I love it when you touch me.”

One hand cups my breasts before he playfully tweaks my nipple. Pleasure shoots between my legs as his mouth travels down the center of my chest while his fingers dip into my wet slit.

He shifts, taking up position between my thighs. “Tell me what you want.” He spreads my legs wider, putting me on full display.

I gasp.

“Touch me.”

He grins. “Touch you how?”

Leaning down, he kisses the right side of my thigh then moves his hot mouth higher. My warm blood runs hot, desire singing in my veins. Linc eases one finger inside of me, then two. “Answer me.” His hooded gaze remains focused on his task; need swimming in those deep green eyes.

“With your mouth,” I tell him, fisting the sheets beneath me. He’s driving me mad and dizzy with want.

“So you want my mouth…” His thumb moves to the bundle of nerves that is screaming for his attention, swirling the pad of it around and around. “Here?”

Now I’m really embarrassed. I’ve never experienced this level of intimacy before. And I don’t know what I like enough to say it out loud.

“Sylvie,” Linc prompts, lowering his mouth to blow cool air on my burning flesh. “I’m waiting,” he says with a teasing lick.

I moan when his tongue leaves me, desperate for more of him. “Yes, please!”

His tongue dips low, taking a long swipe before settling to lapping at my swollen clit. I cry out, fisting my fingers in his hair. His fingers drive in and out of me at a steady pace while he devours me, dragging me further and further to the edge of insanity. I thrash on the bed, the impending pressure building at a feverish rate.

Then it happens.

I explode, trembling and shaking beneath his relentless mouth.

He releases me on a loud suck after drinking every last bit of pleasure from me. “What else?” he asks, moving up to cover my body with his. “What else do you want me to do?”

“I don’t know,” I pant, unable to think properly now that he’s rendered me completely mindless.

The head of his cock nudges my slick opening.

I smile against his curved lips.

His hand threads through the back of my hair, gently tugging to expose my neck. He pushes inside of me, one glorious inch at a time, burying himself to the hilt while scraping his teeth across my collarbone.

“Ah…yes!”

Resting his forehead to mine, he holds my eyes. His slow and steady strokes dissolving into solid, powerful thrusts. “Is this what you wanted?”

“Yes.”

He drives into me harder.

Faster.

Displaying a fierce, primal side of him I never knew existed, he shows me what it’s like to be loved in a way I’ve never known.

Totally.

Completely.

And without apology.

CHAPTER 34

Present

“I’m sorry,” he says, holding my hand as we stand in front of the security gates at the airport.

I cup his scruffy jaw. “You have nothing to be sorry for.”

“I’m sorry for leavin’ you.”

Bringing my other hand to curl around his neck, I pull him closer. “Never be sorry for being you. This is part of your job. It’s part of who you are. One of the many reasons I love you.”

“I will never get sick of hearing that,” he says, resting his forehead against mine then pressing his lips there.

“You better go,” I whisper around the knot in my throat.

His knuckles drift across my cheek before his lips meet mine in a tender kiss. “Please think about coming next weekend,” he pleads. “There’s no way I’ll make it two full weeks without holdin’ you in my arms.”

We discussed this on the way here. He wants me to come up for the weekend for dinner with his label and to help him pack up some things at his house since he’s moving back to Grandeur permanently. I really want to go but I don’t want to leave his mom or Caroline.

“I’ll think about it.”

He nods, clasping my hand with his. “You’re coming. So make plans.”

Ignoring his demand, I kiss him once more. “Have a safe flight.”

“Stubborn woman.” He finally releases my hand. “I love you,” he nearly shouts as he makes his way past the gate. He’s walking backward, an adorable grin smothering his handsome face.

“Love you, too,” I mouth.

I stay rooted to my spot until he’s out of sight. Sucking back a deep breath, I mentally prepare myself for the days ahead. I’m going to need to keep myself extra busy so I don’t think about this deep ache in my chest.

I almost make it back home when my cell begins ringing from the console. I smile, thinking it’s Linc but it’s not, it’s Dani.

My smile falters as I think about our last encounter.

“Hello?” I answer, hesitation thick in my voice.

“Hey, Sylvie.”

“Hey.”

“How are you?”

“Good. How are you?”

“I’m okay.”

Painful, awkward silence fills the line, making me feel uncomfortable. Dani and I have always kept it civil, but there is an underlying truth that she’s never really liked me. I was never good enough for her brother and she made that clear more than once while we were married.

It was my fault I got pregnant.

My fault he turned to drugs.

And we all know she blames me for his death.

“What’s up, Dani?” I try to keep my voice calm when inside I’m anything but. She always puts me on edge, and I’m eager to get to the reason for her call.

“I wanted to apologize,” she says quietly.

I can hear the sincerity in her voice but I’m still on guard. Manipulation is her game and I’m not playing.

“It’s just…it’s hard to see you with anyone other than Dean.”

“Dani, you know Linc and I have been friends for a long time.”

“Yeah, and I also know how my brother felt about him.”

I bite my tongue to refrain from snapping at her. I know she’s still hurting. Dani and Dean were really close and he confided in her a lot during our marriage. But she’ll never know what it was like to be married to him. She’ll never understand the hell he put me through and how hard I fought to save him. And she’ll damn sure never understand my relationship with Linc.

No one will.

“Thank you for your apology,” I say.

“I was wondering if Caroline could come spend the night this weekend?”

I tense, feeling uneasy. “Dani, you’re more than welcome to come to the house and visit but I don’t think it’s a good idea for her to come spend the night.”

“Why not?”

Aside from the fact that she hasn’t bothered to contact either of us in the last year, I don’t trust Dani. Not when it comes to my daughter.

Then she hits me square in the chest. “Sylvie, please. Caroline is the only family I have. She’s all I have left of him. I…I know I haven’t been around much the last year but it’s been so hard. I’m struggling to pick up the pieces but I’m trying. I finally got clean. Sober now for seventy-two days. But I have very little support and a long road ahead. I need something to hang on to. I think spending time with her will help.”

Tears sting my eyes and my fortitude crumbles. I want to believe she’s changed. That she’s not the bitter, dramatic girl I once knew. And that she’s not a slave to her addiction. How can I fault her for trying?

“Come by the house tomorrow night and we’ll go from there.”

“Thank you, Sylvie. This means the world to me.”

I can hear the relief in her voice and it brings me a small amount of comfort that I’m making the right decision.

CHAPTER 35

Present

“Was that all she said?” Linc asks, his concerned face filling my screen.

I’m sitting cross-legged in bed, my new laptop sitting in front of me. We’ve been chatting for a little more than half an hour and I’m silently thanking whoever came up with the innovative idea of FaceTime. I don’t know what I would do if I had to go two weeks without seeing his handsome face.

He’s caught me up on his day and how the second he landed he was whisked away to his first of several interviews and one performance to promote the new album. Tomorrow and the day after will be packed full so this might be the only chance I get to talk to him like this until Thursday.

“I don’t like the idea of you two being there alone with her. I want you to call Rachel and Will over. It would make me feel better knowing someone else is there.”

“She’s not going to do anything, Linc. She would never hurt us.”

“You said the same thing about him and he almost…” He clears his throat and leans closer to the screen, his eyes swimming with pain. “It fuckin’ kills me to think about it. Ever since you told me what happened I keep wondering what-if. What-if he would have…”

I swallow back the guilt but like always, it still lingers. “Linc, don’t. Don’t do that to yourself.” I’ve thought about it enough myself. It’s frightening to know how close I came to death.

“Forgive me for being a little protective. I understand you want to trust her, and I’m not here to dictate what you do, but I do not want you or Caroline alone with her. Period.” His stern voice forbids me to argue.

“I’ll call Rachel in the morning.”

He sighs in relief. “Thank you.”

“You look tired.”

“I am. And I’ve got an early morning. Long day tomorrow.”

“You should get some rest.”

“Yeah, but there’s no way I could go to sleep without talkin’ to my girl. I wish I were in bed with you right now.”

I smile. “Me too.”

His eyes become hooded, desire swirling deep in their green depths. “Is your door locked?”

I nod.

He lowers his voice. “Take your shirt off.”

I can see his arm moving slightly and I wonder if he’s touching himself. Instead of asking, I do as I’m told and remove my thin T-shirt to reveal my white bra.

“Beautiful. Now your shorts.”

Getting up from the bed, I shimmy out of my shorts, my heart thundering in my chest as I climb back onto the mattress. I feel self-conscious and awkward but that all fades away when he says, “Relax, babe. It’s just us.”

“I don’t know why I’m so nervous.”

“You have nothing to be nervous about. You trust me, right?”

That’s the stupidest question ever.

“Completely.”

He smiles, satisfied with my answer. “Lie back, spread your legs, and put the laptop between them. Close. I wanna see everything.”

Swallowing hard, I summon my courage and situate the laptop between my legs, tilting the screen.

“Perfect.”

He reaches behind his neck to take off his shirt, then tilts his screen so I can see all of him, too. He’s sitting in a big leather chair. I can see numerous awards displayed on the lighted shelves behind him and several large picture frames scattered about.

“Sylvie.” My name brings my eyes back to his, dark pools of green flaming with need. “Lean back.”

His voice is like silk, slithering down my spine to center between my legs. “Yes, now pull those pretty panties aside and show me how wet you are.”

He’s still stroking himself, mouth parted, muscles strained. He looks absolutely stunning. My body relaxes, desire filling my blood, discarding all of my inhibitions. Starting at my stomach, my hand slowly drifts down between my legs. I feel sexy beneath his heated stare.

Beautiful.

Brave.

He watches my hand closely, licking his lips when I pull the fabric aside, holding it there, showing him what he wants.

“I’d give anything to lick you right now. I can still taste you on my lips from this morning.”

His words intensify the throb beneath my fingers as I slide them back and forth teasingly. “Linc,” I moan, bringing my other hand up to cup my breast, but it’s not the same.

I’m desperate for his touch.
Desperate for him.

“Look at me while you touch yourself, Sylvie. Tell me how it feels.”

“It feels…good, but not the same. I need you,” I pant.

“I need you too, babe. I need you to slip one of those fingers inside your pussy.” He grins and I blush, hesitating. I’ve never done anything like this before. It’s embarrassing and exhilarating all at the same time. “Finger, Sylvie.”

Biting down on my bottom lip, I push one finger inside of me on a gasp. My body warms and my breathing accelerates. I close my eyes, listening to his deep, sensual voice. “That’s it. Just like that,” he grits, his control hanging on by a thread. “Another. Push them deep, Sylvie. Fuck yourself like I would.”

Adding my ring finger to join my middle, I open my eyes to find his blazing with hunger. His mouth is in the shape of a small O, mirroring mine. Then I drop my eyes between his legs. My thrusting fingers and his stroking hand sends me hurdling over the edge. Arching my back from the bed, I clamp my thighs around my hand and turn my head into the pillow to stifle my moans.

He groans and I know he’s right there with me.

Once I’ve floated back down from my pleasure-induced high, I become conscious of where I am and what’s just happened. I quickly remove my hand from between my legs and slide my panties back into place, shifting to sit up.

“Jesus, that is the hottest thing I’ve ever seen,” he says.

I agree.

In all the times I’ve touched myself, it has never felt like that. I begin to put my T-shirt back on when his voice stops me. “You okay?”

“Yeah…I was just…I’ve never done anything like that before.”

“Good. I like knowing I get to share this first with you. I wish I were there right now so I could hold you.”

“Me too.”

“I better get some shut-eye. Four a.m. is gonna come early as hell in the morning.”

“All right.”

“Sweet dreams. Love you, baby.”

“Love you, too.”

I close the screen and turn out the light, crawling beneath the covers. With a smile on my face, I snuggle the pillow he slept on last night to my chest, inhaling his familiar scent. Then I fall into a deep, deep sleep with the sweetest of dreams.

CHAPTER 36

Present

“What time did she say she’d be here?” Rachel asks, sipping her glass of sweet tea.

“Around six.”

“It’s ten to. Think she’ll show?”

Peeking around the corner, I make sure Caroline is not within listening distance before I answer. She’s sitting on the couch watching Goonies. One of Linc’s favorite movies. I smile to myself. She told me earlier she already missed him.

To which I replied with a rapid ‘me too.’

“I had a talk with her earlier about Dani coming by. She was curious why she hadn’t seen her since her father died, and I tried my best to explain to her that people just grieve in different ways. Hell, I’m just now starting to come to terms with it.”

Rachel’s hand covers mine. “I’m so proud of you. I knew it would take some time but I also know how strong you are.”

“I’m not that strong. If it hadn’t been for Linc, I would probably still be a mess.”

“You should give yourself some credit, Sylvie. After all you’ve been through, most people would have given up, found a way to numb the pain or bury it forever. But instead, you carry it. You get up every day and find a way to go on. To live. To take care of your daughter. To me that takes a lot of courage and strength.”

“I guess I never thought of it that way. Finding a way to get through each day without falling apart had become a challenge for me, one I faced with fear and hope in my heart, praying that someday I would wake up and it wouldn’t hurt so much anymore. I’m just so grateful those days have finally found me.”

“You deserve to be happy, Sylvie.”

A lump forms in the back of my throat. “Thank you for always being here for me, Rachel. I know I haven’t always been able to do the same for you, but I hope you know how important your friendship means to me.”

She leans forward, pulling me in for a hug. “I’ll always be here for you. No matter what.”

A few moments later, after we’ve wiped away our tears, the doorbell rings.

When I open the door, Dani bursts through in a flurry of movements and frantic words. “I’m so sorry I’m late. I got hung up at work. Stupid boss. I told him I had somewhere to be but he just wouldn’t listen. Where is she? I can’t wait to see…” A gasp falls from her mouth as she rushes inside.

Caroline is standing next to the couch. Dani drops her bag and falls to her knees in front of her. “Oh my God, you’ve grown so much.”

Dani doesn’t say a word as Caroline’s eyes flicker to mine with uncertainty. “Dani, why don’t you have a seat so you and Caroline can visit. Can I get you something to drink?”

Shaking her head, she begins to cry. “I can see him in your eyes,” she says, gathering Caroline into her arms. “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”

Rachel is standing in the entry of the kitchen, concern etched all over her face. When Dani finally releases Caroline, she stands up and takes a seat on the couch, wiping the corners of her eyes.

I hand her a Kleenex. “Thank you,” she whispers.

“Why are you sad, Aunt Dani?” Caroline asks, taking a seat next to her.

“Because I miss your daddy so much.”

“I miss him too, but I don’t cry when I think about him anymore.”

“Oh yeah? Care to share your secret with me?” A small smile curls Dani’s lips.

“Because Mama says he would be sad if we were sad. I don’t want Daddy to be sad anymore, so whenever I miss him a lot, I just think about all the good he gave me while he was here.”

Sniffling, Dani gives her another hug and shifts her eyes to mine. “Your mom is right. He wouldn’t want us to be sad.”

I retreat back to the kitchen to give them a little privacy. Their faint murmurs follow me and I smile, thinking about what Caroline said to Dani. I’m sure there will still be moments of sadness.

For both of us.

But we are finally dealing with it in a healthy, positive way. By being honest about who he was and honoring the good things about him. Dean will always be a part of our lives, the best part of him sitting in the living room.

I close my eyes on a silent prayer, thanking God for putting him in my life. Despite the pain and heartache I’ve endured, it was worth every bit to have that angel by my side.

***

A few hours later, Dani grabs her purse to leave. She gives Caroline a hug, telling her she will be back to see her soon and asks me to walk her out. Once we’re outside, her whole demeanor changes. Those brown eyes of hers that were twinkling moments ago are now filled with disgust. “He’s only been dead a year. I can’t believe you’re already moving on. How could you do this?”

“Dani, I’m not trying to be rude, but my personal life is, again, none of your business.”

She takes a step forward, folding her arms across her chest. I can see the anger building an arsenal in her dark eyes. I want to take a step back but I don’t want her to think I’m intimidated by her, even though I am. My body is trembling with fear but I hold my stance. “I should have known this would happen. I’m just surprised it didn’t happen sooner. I tried to tell him for years you two were more than friends but he was convinced you loved him.”

“I did love Dean.”

“No, you didn’t. You drove him to kill himself. It was the only way you could be with Linc.”

Spinning around, I reach for the screen door but she steps around me and kicks it shut, propping herself against it.

“I’m done with this conversation,” I tell her, trying to keep my voice calm.

“Well, I’m not finished yet.”

“Listen.” I soften my voice more. “I know you’re hurting, it’s been hard on us all, but I’m not going to wallow in my grief anymore. I can’t. I have a little girl to raise.”

“So that means letting Linc take my brother’s place?”

“I would never do that.”

“With the way Caroline talks, she thinks Linc hung the fucking moon. I’m pretty sure it won’t be long until she’s calling him daddy.”

“Linc has been a part of her life since she was born. They share a special bond but he’s not her father and he would never try to replace Dean.”

“Right,” she spits with a scoff.

“What am I supposed to do? Never find happiness again?”

“He’s dead because of you. You don’t deserve to be happy.”

I feel like the wind has been knocked out of me. I stagger backward.

She shoves past me, clipping my shoulder with her own, and without another word, climbs into her car and drives away.

I shouldn’t give her this much power over my feelings but it’s hard not to. Maybe she’s right; maybe I don’t deserve to be happy. I couldn’t love her brother enough to save him, so why do I deserve someone to love me enough to save me?

CHAPTER 37

A couple days pass and I can’t seem to let go of what Dani said. Her words are stuck on repeat in my head. Even though I know how sick he was, I can’t help but wonder if my attempt to leave pushed him over the edge. Maybe I should have stayed instead of being so selfish. Maybe I should have tried harder.

Then maybe he would still be alive.

I’ve wanted to confide in Linc about what Dani said but I don’t want to burden him with my problems. He’s got enough on his plate right now. We haven’t been able to FaceTime the last few nights, only talk over the phone for a few minutes before bed, which has been a relief actually. I fear he would be able to see the turmoil written all over my face. I certainly feel it festering in my heart.

In order to get my mind off of everything, Caroline and I are staying over at Gwynn’s tonight. I whip us up some spaghetti and garlic bread and after we eat, the three of us settle in the living room. Gwynn picks up a cream blanket that she’s been working on, along with her crochet hook, and goes to town. Caroline sits next to her, studying her every move and asking a million questions. Gwynn answers each one thoroughly and with extreme patience. My phone rings from my bag, I motion to Gwynn that I will take it in the other room. She gives me a warm smile and a nod. Swiping the screen, Linc’s handsome but tired face pops up.

“Babe,” he breathes, relief heavy in his voice. “So damn good to see your face.”

I step into the bedroom, shutting the door behind me and taking a seat on the bed. “God, I’ve missed you. How was your day? How’s the promo going?”

“Good, I’m tired as shit though. I’ve been running around all day. How about you? Are you at Mom’s house?”

“Yeah, we’re staying with her tonight. I made spaghetti for dinner and now she’s in there trying to teach Caroline how to crochet.”

Linc smiles. “Thank you.”

“For what?”

“Helping me take care of her.”

“You don’t have to thank me, Linc. I want to do it. I should have done it a lot more before but…” Tears sting my eyes.

“Hey, what’s the matter?”

“Nothing. Why?” I say, swiping away an escaped tear.

“Don’t lie to me. I know you. I can tell when something is bothering you. What is it?”

I should have known he would be able to see right through me.

I sigh. “Dani. When she left the other night she said some pretty nasty things to me. I’m just…still trying to process it all.”

“I thought you said everything went fine.”

“It did. Until she got ready to leave.”

“What did she say?”

I let go of a deep breath; her cruel words still cutting me deep. “She expressed how unhappy she was that you and I are together and that I drove Dean to kill himself in order to be with you.”

Linc pulls a hand down his face. “Christ. Why didn’t you tell me this the other night?”

“I didn’t want to bother you with it. You have enough going on right now.”

“It doesn’t matter how busy I am. I want you to talk to me. You can’t hold this shit in. It makes it worse, you understand?”

I nod.

“You take what she says to heart, Syl. She’s still hurtin’ and people in pain do things that they might not realize hurts someone else. You know what I’m saying?”

I nod again; reminded of the pain I’ve caused him and so many others without even realizing.

“Have you thought any more about what we talked about?”

“Linc.”

“You better get your ass on that plane. I need you here with me, Sylvie.”

When he begs like this, I can’t help but want to give in. “What about Caroline?”

“It’s already been taken care of. Your parents already said they would keep her. You have no excuse.”

“Okay, I’ll come. But just for the weekend.”

He smirks. “I’ll take whatever I can get.”

CHAPTER 38

Present

Linc greets me in baggage claim with the biggest smile on his face. He can hardly contain himself as he sweeps me off of my feet with a full spin, my hands releasing the hold on my small bag in favor of his cheeks. His handsome face is covered in two days’ growth, ticklish beneath my palms. My enthusiasm is rewarded with a bone-melting kiss and firm squeeze to my behind. I allow myself to drown in his arms and this warm kiss without an ounce of shame or care in the world to who might be watching our public display.

“God, I missed these lips.”

“I missed you,” I say.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” he whispers between kisses, kneading my ass once more before lowering me to my feet. My heart floods with warmth at his words and the underlying need laced within them.

We’re in our own little world, his eyes holding mine in a way that should only be reserved for the bedroom. When he finally releases me, I look around to find we have garnered an audience. I smile up at him sheepishly.

“Excuse me, Lincoln Cole?”

Linc reluctantly drags his eyes from mine to land on a stunning brunette with a star struck look on her face.

He smiles at her, and I swear she dissolves into a puddle at his feet. Hesitantly, she holds out a pen and the latest copy of a popular music magazine with his gorgeous face on it. “Ca—can I have your autograph please?”

With a short nod and a wink, he scribbles his name across the glossy mag.

She blushes fifty shades of red before gathering enough courage to ask for a picture. “Would you mind?” she asks, handing me her phone. Linc gives me an apologetic look as he drapes his arm around her shoulder.

“There ya go,” I say, handing her back her phone and reaching for my bag on the floor.

“Thank you so much,” she squeaks out before scurrying off.

I blink, wondering how often he’s bombarded with such requests. But then I mentally shake myself. He’s famous for crying out loud. He probably gets this all the time.

“Well, that wasn’t weird at all,” I tease.

Linc shrugs, crimson staining his cheeks. He tries to hide his embarrassment by turning away from me. “I’m used to it.”

I don’t think anyone could ever get used to that.

He collects my luggage from the carousel and threads his fingers with mine, leading me out to the parking lot.

“I guess I’m gonna have to get used to women drooling all over you, huh?”

He keeps his eyes focused forward. “They’re just fans.”

“Pretty sure guys don’t gush like that when they meet you.” He doesn’t respond. I tug his hand, making him stop. “Hey, it’s okay. It’s just gonna take some getting used to is all.”

He pulls my hand to his mouth. “There are a lot of things about me you don’t know, Syl. Who I am in Grandeur is not who I am here. But only you know the real me.” He looks almost scared. “I want you to always remember that.”

Raising my other hand to touch his face, I rise up on my tiptoes to kiss his lips. “I know.”

His forehead touches mine. “What did I ever do to deserve you?”

“I ask myself the same question every single day,” I whisper, kissing his lips.

Linc’s mouth is warm and tender. “Meant to be,” he murmurs, and I melt all over again. “C’mon, I want to get you somewhere private so I can show you how much I’ve missed you.”

After several more feet, we come to a stop in front of a souped-up King Ranch. It’s a sparkling pearl white with shiny chrome wheels and blacked-out windows. A far cry from his old pickup back home.

“Nice truck.”

“Shit, this old thing?” He grins. Linc is not the type of person who would ever let money go to his head, so I’m not surprised by his modesty.

He can’t stop smiling as he maneuvers through rush hour traffic, that roguish smile doing wonderful things to my heart.

Holding my hand, he lifts it to his mouth. “I’m so damn happy you’re finally here.”

“Me too.”

After everything that happened with Dani, I was ready to get away. The hardest part was leaving Caroline.

“She’ll be fine,” he assures me, placing another tender kiss on top of my hand, knowing how hard it is for me to be away from her.

I nod. “Have you checked on your mom?”

“Yes, Greg says she’s having a really good day. He’ll make sure she’s taken care of.”

I smile as relief settles my tense muscles. I relax in my seat, ridding my mind of my worries. I just want to spend the weekend with Linc and focus on us.

A short while later, we pull onto a single lane road. It’s a long winding road lined with sycamore trees on both sides. When the house finally comes into view, I gasp.

Linc tenses next to me and releases my hand to put the truck in park. “My head was a little swollen when I bought it.”

“Oh my God.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen a house so big. “It’s huge.”

“That’s what she said.”

I slap his arm playfully. “Shut up.”

On a lazy smile, he gets out of the truck and walks to my side, opening the door. “It’s a little bit—”

“Over the top?” I ask, raising a brow.

He grabs my hand, leading me to the ornate wooden doors. “Yeah, but I’m getting one hell of a return on my investment.”

“You sold it already?”

“Yeah, I closed last week. Sam Hunt and his fiancée bought it. They move in next month.”

I’m pulled to a halt in front of the double door as he unlocks them. I blink up at him, my mouth gaping. “Where will you stay when you’re here?”

“The label will just have to foot the bill for a hotel.” He wraps one arm around me, pulling me close. “I only have one home now, and it’s wherever you are.”

My legs get a little wobbly at his declaration. He dips his face to claim my lips, drinking tiny kisses from my mouth like a starved man. Then his tongue demands entry, devouring what’s left of my inhibition. I hop up to wrap my legs around his waist, allowing him to carry me inside. He kicks the door shut as I drive my fingers through his messy hair. I pull him close while his large, firm fingers flex and grip the skin of my thighs.

“I’m taking you here,” he says when my back meets the wall, then he lets go of my legs long enough to peel my jeans and panties off then hoists me up again. His lips claim mine once more as I reach between us, frantically undoing his jeans to release him.

“Fuck,” he growls, tearing his mouth from mine.

Stroking him up and down, I gasp when he drives into me.

“Oh God,” I pant.

“I know, I wanna scream his name, too.”

I laugh, finding his lips. “You feel so good.”

“So do you. Too damn good. This is gonna be quick.”

“I don’t care. We have all weekend.”

“We have forever.” He thrusts harder.

Deeper.

I close my eyes, lost in his words, this moment. He slams into me on a hard groan, increasing the pressure between my thighs.

“Yes, Linc, God.”

I climb higher with each deliberate thrust, pleasure soaring through my blood. I splinter, shattering into a million tiny pieces around him, my body going limp as he draws in and out of me slowly.

He rains kisses over my entire face, my cheeks, my forehead, my mouth.

Once I’ve caught my breath, he picks up his pace again, holding my eyes while he moves in and out of me, both hands digging into the skin of my ass as he holds me in place. “I can feel you gripping me. Every time I leave,” he says, drawing out.

I involuntarily clench around him again, my body holding on to his in the most intimate way. “That’s it, I’m almost there, come with me.”

His fingers dip lower, renewing their grip, pulling me apart for the deepest penetration possible.

That’s all it takes.

We explode together, a euphony of moans and sighs. It’s beautiful the love we make. I’m lost in the harmony our bodies make, the raw beauty of it, struggling to recover from this intense moment. His breath is hot on my neck. “So this is the foyer,” he says.

I laugh, taking a look around the opulent space. “Nice.” Lifting his head, he grins. “Wanna show me the rest?”

“Sure.” He slowly pulls out of me, lowering me to my feet. “If I can keep my hands off of you long enough.” Kissing my lips, he buttons himself up then reaches for my hand.

After we get ourselves cleaned up, Linc shows me the remainder of the house. I’ve never seen anything like it. Rachel and Will told me it was nice, but they’d been modest about it. They never told me it had a small recording studio, a media room, and an Olympic-sized swimming pool and sauna. The place is massive and decorated in a sleek, modern style that is nothing like Linc at all. When I point that out he says the previous owners sold the house and contents as is after a nasty divorce, and he never got around to changing it since he was on the road so much.

There are a few boxes scattered throughout each room. He’s had movers packing all week.

“What are you thinking?” he asks once we settle in the kitchen.

“How much I don’t know about you.”

He lifts me to sit on the stool, moving between my legs. “You know all the important stuff.”

“Yeah, but I feel like I’ve missed a lot.” All I can think about is how many times I ran to him with my problems and all the times I never asked him about his life here.

God, how selfish can I be?

“Water under the bridge, babe.” His words do nothing to eliminate my guilt. Besides his music, I never asked about his personal life. I didn’t want to hear about how happy he was. I didn’t want to hear about his life with Charlotte. I was under the delusional notion that if I didn’t know I wouldn’t care, but now it’s all hitting me square in the face.

“So what’s the plan for this weekend?” I ask, quickly changing the subject.

“Well, tonight I plan on spending as much time as possible with you. Then we’ll sleep in until the last possible minute before we head on over to the meet and greet at the Stage. Sign a few autographs, perform my new single, then I’m taking you shopping.”

“Shopping?”

“I wanna spoil you.”

“You don’t have to do that, Linc.”

“I know I don’t have to. I want to.”

“But I don’t need anything.”

“When was the last time you went shopping, Sylvie?”

“Yesterday?”

“What’d you buy?”

“Why?”

“Just tell me.”

“I bought Caroline three new books, Skittles, and a box of Popsicles.”

“Did you buy anything for yourself?”

“Deodorant. Oh and a pack of gum so my ears wouldn’t pop on the plane.”

His mouth curls into a smirk. “When’s the last time you bought yourself something nice?”

“I don’t need anything,” I whisper.

He kisses my lips. “I know what you need, baby.” He knows he’s got me now.

With every kiss he draws from my mouth, he weakens my resolve. I’ll give him this. He needs it. I don’t know why but he’s always had this insatiable need to take care of me. But now it’s my turn to take care of him, to love him, to make him as happy as I possibly can. He deserves more than I can ever give but there’s no way I could ever let him go.

I wrap my arms around him, pulling him in close. “Okay, shopping, then what?”

“Dinner with my agent and a few big wigs from the label then the rest of the week I’m all yours.”

“You mean half the day on Sunday?”

“No, I mean until Friday when we fly back together.”

“My flight leaves Sunday night at six.”

“Not anymore it doesn’t.”

I tense, anger swiftly stealing my good mood. It was enough to get me to come for the weekend, now he wants me to stay the whole week. “I can’t stay until Friday. I have to work.”

“I already took care of it.”

“You took care of it?” I ask, raising my voice. “What do you mean you took care of it?”

“I called your boss.” He looks completely unashamed.

Shoving him aside, I hop down from the stool. “I can’t believe you called my boss.”

He laughs. “Mitch is a nice guy and he was more than happy to give you the time off. Said you deserved a long vacation.”

I huff in frustration at Mitch’s generosity and Linc’s blatant interference. “Is Mitch gonna pay my bills while I’m off for an entire week?”

“No, I am.”

Folding my arms, I gape at him, thinking he cannot be serious. But by the smug look on his face, he totally is.

“Linc, you’re not paying my bills for me. And what about Caroline? I can’t leave her for a week. I just can’t.”

My chest constricts and tightens. It took everything I had to leave her this morning.

Linc takes a tentative step forward. “She’ll be fine. Your parents were more than happy to have the extra time with her.”

“You called my parents too? I can’t believe you did all of this behind my back.”

“I didn’t do anything behind your back. I wanted to surprise you. And I was afraid if I told you earlier you wouldn’t come.”

“Well, you would’ve been right,” I snap. “I’m so pissed at you right now.”

“I can tell.” He smirks.

He moves closer and I try to look anywhere but his eyes. They are sparkling with amusement, and I know if I look I’ll cave. Knowing that he’s gone to all the trouble to spend more time with me all but eliminates my anger.

But I refuse to tell him that.

Reaching for my hand, he uses it to pull me into his open arms. “Don’t be mad. I just want you all to myself for a little while longer. Is that so bad?” I try to hold on to my anger but when he drops a kiss to the top of my head, I soften completely.

“No, I guess not. But I need to call Caroline and you are not paying my bills.”

His deep laugh vibrates beneath my cheek, causing me to smile. “Whatever you say, babe.”

CHAPTER 39

Present

Linc’s fans come out in droves today to meet him. He signs countless autographs, and promises to sign more once he finishes performing his new single, “When We Break.” We found out on the way over here that it’s currently sitting at number one on the charts. I can’t contain my excitement, much less the smile smothering my face. He’s trying to play it cool but deep down I know he’s dying inside. This is the first single to ever hit number one within the first week of release.

I am so damn proud of him.

“He’s incredible.” His personal assistant, Kacey, stands next to me as we both watch Linc perform. He owns the stage, his fans echoing his every word.

Kacey has been his assistant for a little over a year now. Apparently, his last assistant couldn’t keep her legs closed. Linc told me the girl slept with half the road crew and got pissed when he wouldn’t sleep with her.

That made me smile.

Thankfully, Kacey is the exact opposite. She’s soft spoken but professional and firm when she needs to be. She definitely keeps Linc’s butt in line, making sure he stays organized.

Wearing black-framed hipster glasses, skinny jeans, Vans, and a Johnny Cash T-shirt, she looks like every bit of a twenty-four year old but when I look into her dark brown eyes, I can sense an old soul. One that has no doubt experienced a strong dose of life.

“He is,” she replies. “He talks about you constantly. I feel like I’ve known you all my life.”

I smile, wondering just how much Linc has shared with her. Then I nod toward the stage. “He’s lucky to have you.”

“I know. He’d be lost without me. I don’t know how he made it this far,” she teases. “But I love his goofy ass. He’s like the brother I never had.”

The crowd erupts as Linc brings the song to a close, pulling my attention back to the stage. They are all chanting for more as he leaves them with his signature two finger salute.

He strides toward me with purpose, a mischievous smile on his handsome face. “C’mon.”

I take a step back. “No, Linc, what are you doing?”

“I wanna sing you a song,” he says, tugging on my hand.

“Well, go sing it.”

“I can’t. I need you out there with me when I do.”

“Um…no, you don’t.” I tug on my hand but his grip only tightens.

He stops pulling and steps closer to me, his face hovering above mine, flooding me with his soothing presence. “I need to do this. Please, come with me.”

Blood pumps through my veins anxiously as he leads me to the center of the stage. The bright spotlight doesn’t faze him a bit. I squint my eyes, trying to adjust to the blinding light. “I can’t believe you,” I say, covering my face. I can’t see their faces, but I know they’re there and they are all focused on me.

Nervousness swamps my belly as his deep voice settles the excited crowd. “No matter where I’ve been or where I’m goin’, this woman has always been right here,” he says, placing his hand over his heart while his eyes stay locked on mine. They all cheer, their high-pitched screams causing my ears to ring. He tosses them one of his heart-stopping smiles before turning his eyes back to me. His confident gaze immediately calms my nerves and my fears. It feels like it’s only the two of us on this stage or in the entire world.

Tears burn my eyes and throat.

The roar is deafening, cutting through our intimate moment. Linc gives my hand one final squeeze then lifts his chin, motioning to a stool being placed behind me. With his help, I take my designated seat. “You know, sometimes in life we have to trust that fate will lead us to where we’re supposed to be. I’m just glad it led me back to you. I’ve never played this one live before. It’s brand new. Hope you like it.”

He strums his guitar, tweaking the strings until he finds the right melody.

Loving you has always been easy

Something I was born to do

Simple as breathin’

My heart belongs to you

Life has a way of knowin’

Which way we’re goin’

But all roads lead back to you

Back to you

Back to you

Every road I take leads back to you

There ain’t nothin’ I wouldn’t do

To find my way back to you

Some want fortune

Some want fame

I just wanna give you my last name

Gaze up at a sky so blue

Me right next to you

Fate has a way of knowin’

Which way we’re goin’

Love has led me back to you

Back to you

Back to you

The road’s been hard, ever true

At last, I found my way back to you

The crowd explodes as he plays the last remaining chords and my heart soars, his beautiful words resonating deep within my soul. Everything we’ve been through, together or apart, has led us here.

Back to each other.

I’m on my feet, throwing my arms around his shoulders and burying my head into his neck. “I think that’s my favorite song of all time.”

“You’re my favorite song,” he whispers before kissing my forehead.

My feet are light as Linc bids his fans good-bye and thanks them again for coming out. He leads me from the stage on a content sigh. I have never felt so high or been happier than I am in this very moment.

“You killed it, dude,” Kacey says, giving him a fist bump before offering him a bottle of water.

“Thanks, Kace.”

Linc hands his guitar off to one of his crew before downing the entire bottle.

“Jack wants to move dinner to eight instead of seven. Are you cool with that?”

Linc scoffs. “Do I have a choice?”

She gives him a sympathetic smile before returning her attention back to her phone. The more time I spend with her, and the more I watch her and Linc interact, the more I like her. She takes care of him. And while there’s an unjustified hint of jealousy that I haven’t always been there to do that, it makes me feel good to know she does.

Tapping her forefinger on the bottom corner, she pushes her glasses back up her nose. “Don’t forget you have a phone interview with KWEZ at four tomorrow. I set a reminder on your phone. And that’s it,” she says, pocketing her phone. “For now anyway.”

“Sounds good. See you tonight?”

“I’ll be there. Someone has to stand between you and Jack when the punches start flying.” She leans in to give me a hug. “Later, y’all.” With the wiggle of her fingers, she’s gone.

I furrow my brow. “Who is Jack again?”

“Manager,” he says.

“Do you two fight often?”

“Only when he’s being a pain in my ass.” I nod, still not understanding, but I suppose I’ll find out tonight when I meet Jack.

“Don’t worry, his bark is worse than his bite.”

Well, that’s not very comforting.

***

Linc pulls up in front of the restaurant around seven and hands his keys off to the valet. Opening the door, he places his hands on my hips to help me down then he takes my hand and leads me inside the fancy establishment. Everything is so modern and sleek.

Expensive.

I lift my chin and straighten my spine, pretending I belong here when I clearly don’t. “Have I told you how beautiful you look tonight?”

“Only about ten times since we left the house.”

He smiles.

Our host recognizes him right away and leads us to our table where the party has already arrived.

“I can’t stop thinking about what you have on underneath here,” he whispers, placing his hand on my lower back, guiding me through the rows of tables.

I blush, smoothing my hand down the front of the little black dress Linc bought for me today. It hugs all of my curves perfectly along with the black bra and panty set I’m wearing underneath. I’ve never worn something so fitting or revealing before, and I was a little self-conscious at first but when I tried it on for him at the store, the smoldering look he gave was all the approval I needed.

He’s wearing dark jeans, boots, and a white button-down with the sleeves rolled halfway up his forearms. More than a few patrons gasp as we pass by and one lady even clutches her chest.

“Oh my God, it’s Lincoln Cole.”

I hear someone say.

“Every man in this room wants to be me right now.”

His words send more heat to my face but I think the exact opposite. Every woman I see has her eyes on him.

“That dress is killin’ me, by the way,” he says when we finally reach the table.

Two men in suits stand to greet us while Kacey remains seated. “Linc, my man. How the hell are you?”

“I’m good, Bill.” He shakes hands with the taller gentleman before turning his attention to the shorter one. “Jack.”

“This must be Sylvie,” Bill says with a warm smile.

“Syl, this is Bill Gardner, CEO of Milestone Records and one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet.”

“Pleasure is all mine, dear.”

Linc turns to the other man. “And this is—”

“Jack Easton,” Jack interrupts, earning a scowl from Linc. “Nice to finally meet the woman he writes all of his songs about.”

I think I hear Linc mutter ‘asshole’ beneath his breath, but I can’t be too sure because my nerves are all over the place.

Why am I so nervous?

“Nice to meet you both.” I smile politely.

Linc pulls out a chair for me then once we are sitting, scoots in closer, draping an arm across the back of my chair.

The waitress takes our drink order and leaves us to look over the menu. Kacey hasn’t uttered a word since we arrived, only lifting her eyes from her phone long enough to shoot me a reassuring smile.

Bill brings his tumbler of amber liquid to his lips, draining the glass before he speaks. He’s an older man, about mid-fifties with an easy smile and kind blue eyes. “Linc, how’s your mother?”

“She’s recovering. It’s a slow process. Doc needs to run some more tests to be sure they got it all, but she should be all clear and in remission soon.”

“That’s good. Glad to hear that.”

“Gwynn Matthews ain’t gonna let a little cancer take her down. She’s strong. Like someone else I know.” Linc tosses me a knowing smile before dropping a kiss to the side of my head.

He lifts his beer for a sip but stops halfway to his mouth when Jack says, “Good, then you’ll be all set to head out on the road in two months.”

Linc tenses next to me, clenching his jaw in irritation, then calmly sets his beer back on the table. He keeps his eyes focused on Jack, bringing the arm behind me to join the one on the table. “I told you, I’m not going back on the road right now.”

“Well, if your mother is doing better, then there’s no reason not to.”

Linc ignores Jack and looks at Bill. “I’m sorry, Linc. I know we said we would give you more time but sales are through the roof with this release. Better than we ever expected and you’ve just hit number one in the country. The demand is there and we need to jump on this opportunity.”

“We agreed,” Linc urges.

“I know, and again, I’m sorry. But this is business. Nothing personal.”

“And if I say no?”

“You’ll be in violation of your contract,” Jack speaks up.

I look to Kacey for confirmation and she gives me a weak smile. I knew he’d go back on tour eventually, but I was hopeful it wouldn’t be this soon.

“Now we need to discuss the next album and what direction we’re going to go,” Jack says.

“I already told you, I’m taking a break after this. A long break.”

Jack smooths down his tie, leaning forward to rest his forearms on the table. “Linc, how many times do I have to tell you. Slowing down will ruin you before you even have a chance to make a name for yourself. Artists burn out quick in this town.” He snaps his fingers. “You might be here today, but tomorrow, you could be a puff of smoke. A vapor.”

“Then I guess I’ll have to be relevant enough not to be forgotten. I have a huge fan base. They’ll be there when I get back.”

Jack scoffs. “Don’t be so sure about that.”

Kacey clears her throat. “He has over twenty million Facebook fans and thirty million Twitter followers. He’s played the Opry twice already and continues to sell songs to other artists. I think he’s pretty relevant.”

Jack glances at Kacey with disdain while Linc smiles at her appreciatively. “So you’re going to throw away your entire career for her?”

“Careful, Jack,” Linc warns, and Bill pats him on the back. That seems to be enough to shut him up.

They avoid the subject for the remainder of the meal, except to say that they will announce tour dates and cities next week and that Linc will leave in approximately two months. He is not happy when we leave the restaurant.

He’s quiet on the ride home, and I willingly give him his space. But once we make it back to the house, I can’t hold it in any longer.

“Why are you so upset?”

“Because Jack’s an asshole, that’s why. The only reason he’s pushing this is because he’s a money hungry fucker who wants to exploit me as much as he can.”

That thought doesn’t sit well with me at all. I can’t stand the thought of someone taking advantage of him like that. “Why don’t you get rid of him?”

“Weren’t you listening? I’m under contract. And the last thing I need right now is a legal battle on my hands.”

“I’m sorry, I’m just trying to help.”

He remains silent.

“I still don’t understand why you’re so angry. Isn’t that what you love to do most? Touring and performing?”

He shakes his head, running a frustrated hand through his hair. “You don’t understand. I love performing. I love my fans and that connection I feel with them when I’m on stage, there’s nothing like it. But the road is filled with miles and miles of loneliness. And it’s just too fuckin’ hard sometimes. And now that I have you, I don’t wanna live that life anymore.”

“Linc, don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.”

“But I do worry about you. Every day of my life. You’re all I thought about out there on the road. And now that some of those daydreams are coming true, I don’t want to give it up.”

“You can have both,” I tell him, circling my arms around his waist. “And you won’t be lonely. I have my laptop and you have a great imagination. We can do this. I know it won’t be easy, but I’m willing to do whatever it takes to make this work.”

He lets go of a long sigh, content with my response. “I wish there was a way you could go with me.”

“We both know that’s not possible.”

“I know.”

“But maybe I could come to a show or two, and bring Caroline with me. She’d love that.”

“I would love that.” He kisses me but it’s not long before our tender kiss turns heated and we are shedding our clothes and falling into bed. His handsome face hovers mere inches above mine, complete love and adoration etched in the lines fanning his soft green eyes. I could stare into those eyes forever.

There is so much love there.

More than I could ever ask for and more than I will ever deserve.

His fingers skim my cheek, drawing a trail of fire down my neck. He slowly thrusts inside of me. Our bodies moving together as one while our eyes remain locked.

“Marry me,” he whispers upon my lips, and I catch the words in a deep kiss. My heart sings along with the blood rushing through my body.

His words do not require a response. He already knows my answer. I tell him with my mouth, my hands, and my body whom my heart belongs to. There is not an ounce of hesitation.

No need to think it through.

Married or not, I know without a doubt I will love this man with every breath of my being until the day I die.

CHAPTER 40

Present

Bright sunlight filters in through the plantation blinds, rousing me from my peaceful sleep. Rolling over, I find the star of my sweet dreams lying on his stomach, hugging his pillow, three days’ worth of stubble covering his jaw as he snores lightly.

I smile to myself, slipping from the bed and reaching for one of his shirts.

Floating on a cloud of pure bliss, I make my way to the kitchen and start a pot of coffee then call my mother to speak to Caroline.

“Hey, sweet girl. How was your weekend?”

“Hi, Mom, it was great! We went to the movies and Nana took me to the bookstore.”

The excitement in her voice is contagious. “Wow, that all sounds wonderful. I wanted to let you know that I’ll be staying a little longer than I planned.”

“I know. Nana told me. That’s okay, Mama.”

“I miss you so much, sweet girl.”

“I miss you too, Mama.”

We spend the next ten minutes chatting about her weekend and what activities she has going on for school this week before she lets me go. I don’t want to hang up. It’s only been a couple of days and I miss her like crazy. I’ll be a mess by the end of the week.

When I hang up, I turn around to find Linc standing in the doorway of the kitchen wearing nothing but his boxer briefs. He walks toward me, scratching his chest, his bedhead making him look incredibly sexy.

“Morning, baby,” he greets in his sleepy voice, taking me in his arms.

“Morning.” I smile, melting into him.

After a long hug, he drops another kiss to my head before picking up one of the mugs sitting in front of the coffee maker. Then he pours himself a steaming cup. “How’s Caroline?” he asks quietly, his voice still thick with sleep.

“She’s good.”

He takes a drink from his cup before setting it down and rounding the counter. He wraps one arm around my waist, pulling me close. My hands rest on his chest, warmth invading my entire body. “You okay?” he asks, concerned.

“Yeah, I just miss her, that’s all. I’ve never been away from her this long.”

Tucking a strand of hair behind my ear, he kisses my forehead. “I know it’s hard for you but you need this time for yourself. We need this time. For us.”

“I know. I just feel so selfish taking it.”

“Don’t. You’re an amazing mother. You’ve dedicated your life to her. There’s no reason to feel selfish about this.”

“You’re right. I shouldn’t. I’ll try not to dwell on it too much.”

“How about I keep your mind and body so occupied you don’t even have time to think?”

“That sounds lovely.”

His hand drifts down to my backside and he groans when he finds me bare underneath. “Jesus, woman. You tryin’ to kill me this morning?”

“Maybe.” I laugh and he captures it with his mouth. After a long, sensual kiss, his eyes find mine once more. “So when can we get married?”

“I don’t remember saying yes,” I tease.

His lips are still feathering mine. He tilts his head from one side to the other, dropping tender kisses to my lips, his hand still gently kneading my heated flesh.

“Hmm…you are a good kisser,” I tell him and he plunges his tongue deep into my mouth.

He walks me backward until I bump into the table where he lifts me to sit. Nudging my legs apart, he takes up residence between them, never once breaking our kiss. I wrap myself around him, clinging to him as he devours me. “When we get home next week?”

“Huh?” I ask, confused by his words.

“We’ll get married when we get back home.”

“You haven’t even given me a ring yet.”

His lips morph into a mischievous smile. “I thought you’d never ask.”

Lifting his hand between us, he wiggles his pinky at me before slipping the small vintage ring off and reaching for my hand. I gasp, wondering how I didn’t notice it there before. It’s perfect and looks oddly familiar.

“This was Mama’s ring.”

Tears sting my eyes. “Linc.”

“Dad took her to the top of the water tower in town, where he spray-painted her name and got down on one knee. I thought about doing something romantic like that but I couldn’t come up with anything that I thought would impress you so here I am, a man standing in front of a woman”—he slips the ring on my finger then looks deep into my eyes—“asking her to marry him.”

My heart flip-flops in my chest as my eyes fill with tears. “Yes! Of course I’ll marry you.”

“I knew this would seal the deal,” he says, sliding it onto my trembling finger.

His hands frame my face before his lips brush mine. “God, I can’t believe we’re finally starting our life together. I wanna marry you before I go on tour.”

“Linc, we have plenty of time. I think we should wait.”

Pulling back, he tilts his head. “Haven’t we waited long enough?”

“Yes, but I want to make sure Caroline is okay with this. We need to give her time to adjust.”

“Babe, I’ll be on the road for months at a time. I don’t wanna wait. I’m tired of waiting. I’m ready to build our life together. I wanna make you my wife.” His hand drifts to my belly. “And if you’re not pregnant already, I want you carrying my child as soon as possible.”

“What makes you think I would be pregnant already?”

“Because we haven’t been using protection and you haven’t mentioned birth control.”

“I have an IUD. I had it put in a couple years back to make sure Dean and I wouldn’t have any more children, and I could never remember to take my pill.”

His brows furrow. “Do you want more?”

I smile. “Of course. I would love nothing more than to be the mother of your child.”

Children, babe. I want more than one.”

“Wait…how many are we talking about here?”

“At least two more.”

“Two huh?”

“Yes, a boy…so he can carry on the Matthews’ legacy.” He dips his head, bringing his lips to rest upon mine. “And a little girl who looks just like you.”

My heart swells, bursting at the seams with so much love and adoration. “I want that, too.”

His arms wrap tighter around me, holding me close. “I can’t believe you’ll be gone for six months.”

“I’m gonna fly home every chance I get and you’ll come out to see me. Then, after this tour, I’m done.”

“Linc, you can’t quit.”

“Not quit, but do things my way. I think I’ve earned that. I don’t want to be away from you, Caroline, or our babies when they come along. If I weren’t tied to this damn contract I would tell them to shove it up their ass, but I’m a man of my word and I have to see this through. This is the last bend in the road for us though. Then it’s all downhill from there.”

“Sounds like you have it all planned out.”

Linc’s face turns serious when he brings my left hand to cover his heart. I can feel the thundering heat beneath my palm, so strong and steady. “You are the most certain thing I’ve ever known.”

“I’m just as ready as you are to begin the next chapter of my life, of our life together, but I have to consider Caroline here, too.”

“So if we talk to her and she’s okay with it, can we get married next week?”

“Next week? Like elope?”

“Not necessarily, but I’m open to that if you want to skip the formalities. I was thinkin’ something quiet, simple. Just us, our family, Rach and Will, maybe even Kacey.”

My heart flutters in my chest. “You’ve given this some thought.”

He shrugs, a shy grin tugging the corner of his mouth. “A little.”

The question isn’t whether or not I will marry him but when. We have two months together before he goes back on the road. This is not how I wanted to do it. I thought we would have more time, but nothing about us has ever been easy, except well, loving him.

Loving him is the easiest thing I’ve ever done.

It’s as simple as breathing.

“Give me a month. That will give Caroline time to get used to the idea and time for me to plan.”

His smile is brilliant, brighter than I’ve ever seen. “You know what this means, don’t you?”

“I’m going to be Mrs. Lincoln Cole Matthews?”

“Damn, that sounds good coming out of your sweet mouth,” he says, kissing my lips. “But I was thinkin’ more along the lines of our honeymoon. Someplace warm, with white sandy beaches and lots of privacy.”

I smile against his mouth, draping my arms around his shoulders and pulling him in closer. “Sounds like heaven to me.”

CHAPTER 41

Present

Over the next couple of days I attend most of his commitments, standing off on the sidelines with Kacey while he does his thing. I like being able to see him in his element. He’s so relaxed and confident. Everyone he meets is so enamored with him and it’s no surprise. The man just has something about him that puts people at ease and lures them in. It’s fascinating to watch yet a part of me feels special knowing that I get to have a side of him no one else does. Kacey and I have become good friends as well, and I’m comforted knowing that he’ll have her to take care of him out on the road.

He took me to lunch at the Bluebird Café yesterday and showed me where he pinned his song “Roots to the wall. It was one of the first songs he wrote when he got to Nashville. It’s about remembering where you come from but not being afraid to spread your wings and fly. It’s surreal to see where he got his start. Where he struggled to get recognized among the countless singers and songwriters that graced the infamous small stage. And unlike so many others who have traveled the same path, he still remains humble. His loyalty has always been to the music. He even goes back from time to time to play. To remind himself where he started.

Today, I’m helping Linc finish packing. He didn’t have much left to box up. The movers had done most of the heavy stuff already, but there was some personal stuff he didn’t want them touching. Like his father’s things. Most of which he kept in his office. His father’s medals from the war were displayed in a glass case, along with the folded, framed American flag from his funeral. I remember when he died, how devastated Linc was. It took him months before he would even talk to me about it.

It was music that helped him through that dark time of his life. It’s what kept him going.

Carefully, I wrap up the remaining photos in his office. There are several of him and his father when he was younger. One where they are camping. Linc’s father was a real outdoorsman, loved wildlife and nature. They were always going on camping trips. When we were younger, I even tagged along a few times. There are a few shots of his mom and dad together over the years. It’s so obvious by the look on their faces how much they love each other, and I silently wonder, as I tuck another newspaper-wrapped frame inside the large cardboard box, if people say the same thing about us.

Do they see it written all over our faces? How much we love each other, how deep that love runs?

When I turn around to grab the next picture from the shelf, my breath catches in my throat. I blink, not really sure of what I’m seeing. It’s a picture of me, taken when I was about sixteen. I’m sitting on the bed of his truck, my bare feet dangling while my hands cup the edge of the tailgate. I’m leaning forward, a half smile on my face and my hair blowing on a slight breeze. The edges look to be crinkled and worn, as if someone has spent a lot of time looking at it. Tears prick my eyes.

If I only knew then what I know now.

“Beautiful, isn’t she?” His deep baritone voice sends a shiver down my spine.

I gasp and look over my shoulder at Linc. “Jesus, you scared me.”

Linc softly kisses my cheek before slipping the picture from my grasp. He looks at it thoughtfully, a wistful smile playing on his lips as he rounds the desk to sit in the big leather chair behind it.

He holds the photo close, as if seeing it for the first time. “There are certain days that stand out the most in my mind. Like the day we met. The day I sang to you the first song I ever wrote. The day we went swimming at the lake and you lost your top. Prom.”

Exhaling a long sigh, he continues. “We didn’t do anything special this particular day. We’d been to the lake, then shared a pizza at Emilio’s, then we hung out at my house while my mom was at work. We sat on the tailgate and I played around on my guitar. It was a day like so many before, yet so different. You kept telling me how proud you were of me and how someday I would shine brighter than any of the stars in the sky. But all I could think about was how the setting sun would catch your eyes just the right way and how they would sparkle every time you smiled. How the summer wind whipped your hair across your face, the delicate strands kissing your porcelain skin. I knew I had to capture the moment or it would be lost forever. So I ran inside and grabbed my mom’s digital camera. You called me a dork, among other things, and refused to smile for me. But I did manage to get this one. Then the very next day I had it developed.” I stand in front of him, my eyes filled with unshed tears. “I’ve carried this around in my guitar case ever since. Every time I opened it you were right there, smiling at me, encouraging me. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to give up, but every time a door would slam in my face I would look at this picture and remember this day. You’re the reason I kept going. You’re the reason I never gave up.”

I climb onto his lap, draping my legs over the arm of the chair while tucking myself into his arms. “You’re not the kind of man who gives up on anything.”

“I came pretty damn close a few times, with my music and trying to make it in this crazy fuckin’ business, but I could never give up on us. There were times I wanted to, fuck I prayed for my heart to let you go and move on. But it just wouldn’t. It’s like it always knew that someday we’d end up here, that there would be an us.”

I can’t speak around the knot in my throat so I snuggle closer to him. His arms tighten around me. “Here is where I find peace. Here is where I find the best version of myself. That only happens when we’re together.”

Lifting my head from his chest, I find his eyes. “I love us, Linc,” I manage on a whisper, my heart overflowing with emotion. “I love you more than you will ever know.”

One hand cradles my face while his lips brush mine, tender and sweet, but it’s not long before our kisses become more heated.

Urgent.

Each stroke of our tongues is a battle of need, fighting for possession. Neither one of us can get close enough, deep enough. If it were possible to love him more, I wouldn’t think it likely until this moment.

His love heals, binds, and fills me with immeasurable peace.

His love makes me whole.

His fingers dip beneath the elastic of my shorts, gliding through my slit while his mouth dominates mine. “I love you, too,” he mutters against my lips, his fingers working back and forth. “Always.” Removing his hand, he urges me to stand up. I reach for the hem of my shirt and lift it over my head, baring my breasts to him. He leans forward and catches my hips, pulling me closer to claim one of my hard nipples in his hot mouth. I stand between his open thighs, his warm breath fanning my skin while his fingers tuck into the sides of my shorts, sliding them down my legs along with my panties. “So beautiful.” He drops hot kisses along my stomach, inching lower and lower until he’s right there. My head falls back and a gasp tears from my mouth when his tongue darts out with a teasing lick. “Spread your legs for me, baby.”

I widen my stance, my body eager to have his mouth on me. Linc kicks my discarded clothes aside. I can see the outline of his erection straining the loose denim and I lick my lips, desperate to have him inside of me. His hands grip my thighs, kissing and nipping at the sensitive skin in a quest to completely incinerate my blood. My fingers thread through his disheveled hair, gripping the strands to steady myself and guide him closer. His mouth covers me, tongue pressing hot and hard against the sensitive spot as he proceeds to thrust not one, but two fingers inside of me.

I sway on my feet, gasping for air.

With his mouth moving against me and his fingers working in and out of me, he takes me to the edge, teetering on the cliff of pleasure, sharp and steep. I’m almost ready to fall over. Hell, I’m ready to leap off the damn thing, but before I can, he pulls away.

I moan in frustration as he stands up and spins me around, sitting me down in the chair he just vacated. Once the warm leather embraces my skin, I sigh, grateful he had the forethought to get me off my feet before he sends me hurtling into what is sure to be a mind-blowing orgasm. He kneels down in front of me, reaching underneath to lower the chair.

I smile. “Here?”

Desire swirls deep in his eyes when he situates my right leg over the arm of the chair then leans in to press a bone-melting kiss on my trembling lips. “Yes, here.”

Heat flares beneath my skin at my exposed position but my embarrassment evaporates when Linc flicks the button of his jeans and draws down the zipper.

The flaps of denim offer a peek of the hardness that lies beneath. My blood heats with anticipation. “I’m gonna fuck you until you’re a screamin’, sticky, hot mess.”

I suck in a thin breath of air, squirming closer to the edge of the chair.

His smile is victorious and filled with pleasure. “I thought you’d like that,” he says, shoving his jeans down his toned thighs before rolling the chair closer.

He teases my wet slit, stroking back and forth with his length, each glide driving me closer and closer to release. Fisting the base of his cock, he thrusts forward on a pained groan, filling me fast and hard. A thick moan vibrates in my throat with the unexpected force. “Let me hear you, baby.” He withdraws slowly before slamming into me once more, harder this time. Gripping my knees, I spread my legs wider, desperate to take every single inch of him. “Yes, that’s it. Open wide for me. Fuck, you look so goddamn beautiful when I’m inside of you.”

Rolling the chair back and forth, he drives into me as I struggle for air and sanity. I’ve never felt anything so intense. His hooded eyes hold mine hostage the entire time. There are no words being passed between us but words aren’t necessary. He’s telling me everything I need to know with his body. And even though he’s taking me with raw, primal strokes, it feels like he’s marking my soul, branding me with his body and with his fierce, unyielding love.

The sounds pouring from my mouth are as foreign as the white-hot flecks that dance along the edges of my vision but I welcome them both, losing myself in him completely. We explode together in a kaleidoscope of heat, leaving us both a screaming, sticky, hot mess.

Leaning forward, he places a warm kiss between my breasts, then rests his cheek upon my heaving chest. “Wow.” I manage between my recovering breaths.

“I know,” he whispers.

The shrill ring of his phone penetrates our intimate moment.

“Don’t you dare move,” I tell him, not wanting to break contact whatsoever. He chuckles before the offending sound stops only to start once again. He lifts his head with a huff and pulls out of me before digging into the front pocket of his jeans.

His brows furrow with concern as he looks down at the screen. “Hey, Rene.”

Dropping my feet to the floor, I reach for my clothes but stop in my tracks when I hear a frantic muffled voice on the other end of the line. Linc’s face drains of color, causing panic to flare in my chest. “Hold on, she’s right here.”

“What, what is it?” I ask, taking the phone, but I don’t give him a chance to answer before I press it to my ear.

“Mom?”

“Sylvie!” She’s crying hysterically. I can hardly understand what she’s saying but when I hear Caroline’s name and the word missing, my heart sinks like a heavy stone in a sea of panic.

“Mom, slow down. What do you mean she wasn’t at school when you picked her up?”

“She wasn’t there. I waited half an hour and when she didn’t show I went inside to see what was keeping her. Her teacher said she was dismissed with the rest of the class as usual, but she never came out.”

“Did you check the library?”

“Yes, we’ve checked everywhere and called everyone we know.” she sobs. “The police have issued an Amber Alert. We didn’t know what else to do.”

“Oh God.” My heart pounds frantically against my chest. I try to remain calm but everything inside of me wants to fall apart. Instead, I tell her to keep me posted and that I’ll be home as soon as I can before I end the call.

“Caroline’s missing,” I croak, my voice not cooperating with my brain. I can feel his questioning eyes on me as I finish slipping my panties and shorts in place. Reaching for my shirt, I move to step around him but he grabs my arm.

“I have to go, Linc.” My lip quivers and I can feel the emotions building like a tidal wave inside of me, but somehow, I hold them at bay.

Linc cradles my face, offering me what little comfort he can. “I’m coming with you.”

***

Linc makes a few phone calls, and thankfully, we’re able to board his label’s private jet within the hour. Aside from making the arrangements, and the occasional reassuring squeeze of my hand, he hasn’t spoken a word. Which is good because I’m afraid of what I’ll say if he does speak to me. I’m riddled with guilt and fear and the combination is wreaking havoc on my frantic heart.

I call my mother as soon as we land but there is still no word. Caroline has been missing for exactly six hours now and in those three hundred and sixty minutes I have prayed a thousand prayers.

Please let her be okay.

Please let her be okay.

Please let her be okay.

When we finally pull onto my parents’ street there are two squad cars parked in the driveway. I rush from the car before Linc even has it in park. Dread curls its cruel fingers around my heart and lungs, suffocating me with each step I take toward the house. My feet are heavy as I cross the threshold into what I am sure is my certain hell, and follow the voices coming from the kitchen.

Deputies Carl Burns and Ricky Bolton are there, along with both of my parents. Sheriff Griffin holds a recent school photo of my Caroline. My knees buckle beneath me but Linc is there to catch me before I hit the floor.

“Anything?” Linc asks. Thankfully, because I don’t have the courage to.

My mother steps forward, her hand resting on my arm. “Not yet.”

“We’ll find her, Sylvie,” Sheriff Griffin says softly.

I try to find comfort in his words, but until I know she’s home and safe with me, there is nothing he can say that will ease my worried mind. “Do you know anyone who would want to take Caroline?”

Since my mother’s phone call, I’ve rolled the very same question over in my mind at least a dozen times, and there’s not a single soul I can think of that would do this.

“No,” I whisper.

“Can you think of anyone who has a vendetta against you? Have you had a falling out with anyone at work? Or perhaps Dean had enemies you were unaware of.”

The moment he mentions Dean I sag in Linc’s embrace. “Dani.”

My mother gasps and Linc tenses. Why the hell didn’t I think about her before? Would she actually take Caroline? I know she wouldn’t hurt her, but would she take her just to hurt me?

“Dean’s sister?” the sheriff questions.

“Yes.” I swallow hard, trying to find the words to speak instead of falling apart. I can’t believe this is happening. “We…we got into an argument recently when she came to visit Caroline. She was upset…about Linc and I being together, and that I won’t let her be alone with Caroline, but I don’t think she would hurt her.”

He nods to Deputy Bolton and he steps out of the room with his radio close to his mouth.

“We’ll check her last known address then go from there. I think you should go home and wait there. I’ll keep you posted, but just in case she comes home, someone needs to be there.”

“No.” I shake my head frantically. “I can’t leave. I need to be here. I need to know what’s happening.”

Linc pulls me against his chest. “There’s nothing you can do here, baby. The sheriff’s right. Let’s go home in case she shows up there.”

I nod, burying my face in his chest, praying nothing happens to my little girl.

CHAPTER 42

Present

There is only so much a person can take before they break. Before they lie down and let the pain and despair consume them completely. I’ve overcome a lot. I got married and had a baby at seventeen. I watched the father of my child take his own life. Found the courage to face his death and began to pick up the pieces.

But losing Caroline…

Words cannot describe what losing her would do to me. Even right now, not knowing where she is, if she’s hungry or worse, if she’s hurt, my heart feels like it’s being carved out of my chest. There’s a hollowness in the pit of my stomach that tells me I won’t be able to go on without her. She’s the reason I breathe, the reason I live.

Without her, I’m nothing more than an empty shell.

Standing on the front porch, I look out into the dark night. Caroline has been missing for close to seven hours. My house is full of my friends and family, Rachel and Will, my parents, Gwynn, but I can’t be around them right now. I’m too upset, too angry. All I want to do is scream up to the star-littered sky.

Why?

Haven’t I endured enough?

I hear the door open but I don’t turn around. I know who it is when his firm fingers massage my tense shoulders. “You okay?”

Shaking my head, I swallow past the permanent knot in my throat.

He exhales a long sigh. “Mama made some soup, you should come inside and try to eat.”

“I’m not hungry,” I say, shrugging from beneath his comforting hands.

I don’t want his comfort. Not when my baby girl is out there all alone with no one to comfort her.

“You need to keep your strength up. Caroline will need you when she gets home.”

“How do you know she’s coming home, Linc? God knows where she is or who she’s with. I’m going out of my mind right now. I have no idea if she’s hungry or hurt or…”

I can’t even finish the sentence. I can’t allow myself to go down that road. Panic claws at my throat, strangling me.

Linc reaches for my hand but I jerk it away and attempt to go back inside but I’m spun around and pulled against his chest. I fight the urge to wrap my arms around him but once I’m enveloped in the warmth of his embrace, I give in to the need.

Linc strokes the back of my head. “She’s gonna be okay. I promise.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Yes, I do. She’s strong, just like you. She can survive anything.”

“I shouldn’t have left her. This never would have happened if I had been here.”

“Syl, don’t do that to yourself. This isn’t your fault.”

“Yes, it is. I wasn’t here to protect her. God, I don’t know if I can do this. I can’t lose her.”

He leans back and takes my tear-stained face between his hands, wiping away the moisture beneath my eyes. “Listen to me, you’re not gonna lose her. They’ll find her. They will.”

My forehead falls to his chest on a silent prayer, hoping he’s right.

I’m not sure how long we stand locked together. It feels like hours. Maybe days. It’s only when my cell phone rings from my back pocket that I pull away. Dani’s name lights the screen and relief floods my body briefly before dread steals it away. I’ve tried to call her nonstop for the last two hours but couldn’t reach her. I hold the phone to my ear with a shaky hand. “Hello?”

“Mama?”

I grip Linc’s shirt, my knees weakening beneath me. “Caroline? Oh my God, baby, where are you? Are you okay?”

“Mama, Aunt Dani won’t wake up,” Caroline cries out and my heart slams against my ribcage.

“Where are you?”

“With Daddy.”

Fear sweeps through me, knocking the wind from my lungs. It takes me a few precious seconds to find my voice. I keep it low and calm, trying not to frighten or upset her more than she already is. I feel so helpless right now. “Are you at the cemetery, Caroline?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

I nod to Linc and he releases me long enough to dash inside and get Deputy Bolton, who has been here since we left my parents’ earlier. I tap the screen for speaker as Linc comes back out, Deputy Bolton following behind him. The three of us head toward his squad car. “Mama, I’m scared.”

“I know, sweetie. We’re on our way. Do you know why Aunt Dani won’t wake up?”

“She said she missed Daddy too much. She took a lot of medicine, Mama.”

Oh God, this can’t be happening.

I haven’t been here since we buried him. Not even when they put his headstone in place. Guilt tries to overtake me as we make our way toward the back, but I stomp it down.

My only concern is Caroline right now.

“We’re here,” I tell her as we pull through the wrought iron gate of the cemetery where I buried my husband. Before the deputy has the car in park, I bolt and barely register Linc calling after me, but I refuse to wait. I’ve kept Caroline on the phone the entire time, trying to talk about anything but the fact that her aunt may or may not have taken her own life, but mostly I just reassured her that Dani would be okay, even though I have a sinking feeling she won’t.

The wail of sirens can be heard off in the distance as I make my way toward his grave. I frantically search for her but my eyes are full of tears, and I can’t remember which way to go.

Then I spot her.

She’s running toward me, tears streaming down her face in rivers of fear.

I fall to my knees the second she reaches me and take her in my arms. “Thank you, God.”

It’s all I can say. Over and over the words fall from my lips in a desperate and gracious prayer. I finally find enough strength to release her. “Are you okay?”

She nods and by all appearances she looks perfectly fine. Not a hair out of place, but I can see the deep sadness buried in her dark brown eyes. She looks over her shoulder as the paramedics run toward Dani as well as several other deputies.

Her tear-filled eyes return to mine. “Is she gonna be okay, Mama?”

“I don’t know, sweetie. They’re gonna do their best to help her.”

“She was so sad,” she whispers, her lip quivering. “I tried to make her feel better. I tried to tell her Daddy was in the sky. That he was in a better place but she wouldn’t listen. She just kept saying how much she missed him. I miss him too, Mama.” Her tiny arms wrap around my neck tightly. “I miss him, too.”

“I know.”

Linc crouches down beside me and cradles her face. “You sure you’re okay, sweet girl?” I’m already on the verge of tears but the emotion in his voice sends them falling down my cheeks.

She wraps her arms around his shoulders as she buries her head in the crook of his neck. The sounds of her cries are all too familiar. They’re the same ones from one year ago.

The sound of a child’s heart breaking in two.

CHAPTER 43

Present

Two months later

Dani survived. Even though she was barely alive by the time they got her to the hospital. While her only niece helplessly looked on, she’d taken a handful of antidepressants, mainly to rid her mind and heart of the demons that plagued her, but ultimately to ease the pain of her brother’s death.

She was charged with kidnapping and child endangerment. After pleading no contest to the charges due to her mental illness, she was sentenced to three years in Parkhaven, a psychiatric hospital in Savannah. I haven’t been to see her yet but I call to check on her once a week. I’m listed as her closest living relative. Part of me is still angry over what happened. Caroline is still coping with watching her aunt attempt to take her own life and it’s been a difficult road for her. But the other part of me feels sorry for Dani. I’m certain had her parents given a shit about her or Dean, neither one of them would have ended up this way.

Then again, who’s to say?

Mental illness is unpredictable and oftentimes, incurable. And no matter how much a person is loved and cared for, sometimes it’s just not enough. Sometimes there are just things in life they simply cannot overcome. They feel cornered and defeated and see no possible solution other than death.

I often worry if Caroline will suffer from the same disease that plagued her father and aunt. After an extreme amount of research, I’ve discovered that mental illness is hereditary and normally symptoms do not occur until later in adolescence or early adulthood, so it’s hard to tell but I pray it skips a generation. However, I can’t shield her from the trauma that has already been bestowed upon her in her short life.

Which is why we are both back in counseling, something I feel we will need for a while.

It scares the hell out of me but I don’t let her see my fear. I just take it one day at a time and pray that my child can conquer what her father and aunt couldn’t.

Life.

The one thing we can both count on though is each other. And Linc has also been an anchor of comfort for us. He hasn’t left our side in the last two months, but once again, our life is about to be flipped upside down. Linc leaves to go on tour in three days. He had them push the dates back as far as he could with everything that’s been going on but they can’t put it off any longer. The selfish part of me doesn’t want him to leave. I need him here. I need his strength and his love. His guidance. Aside from Caroline, it’s the one thing I can depend on.

The one thing I trust and believe in the most.

Us.

But this is his career. And no matter how much I hate him leaving, I have to support him.

We’re on our way to check on the progress of the house today. It’s nearly finished. We’ll be moving in while he’s away and the thought saddens me he won’t be here to share it with us. I remind myself that there are worse things in life, like not having him at all.

His hand clasps mine, pulling it to his warm lips. “What’s on your mind, babe?”

I shrug, not really wanting to share my depressing thoughts. I don’t want to be sad. I don’t want to dwell on the negative.

“I’m gonna miss you,” I say.

“I’m gonna miss you, too.” He places a kiss on my knuckles before settling our clasped hands on his thigh. “Both of you.” He steers the truck up the inclined road, up to our mountain in the sky. I’ve grown to love this place. The way the late sun kisses the peaks and ridges with its glorious golden rays. The vast land and trees and the peace they offer.

“Have you thought about what we talked about?” he whispers, and looks over my shoulder to see if Caroline is listening. She’s engrossed in her book, not paying the least bit attention to us.

“I still think it’s too soon.”

He’s quiet for a moment, and I almost think he’s pissed but then the house comes into view and a big smile smothers his handsome face. I drag my eyes away from that satisfied grin and gasp at the sight before me.

Our home.

The front is covered in windows, no doubt offering a generous amount of natural light inside. The three-story cabin is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before with its wraparound deck hugging the entire second floor and stone chimney, promising comfort and peace. The house is perched up on a massive hill, the mountain offering the perfect backdrop. It looks like something you’d see in a painting.

“It’s beautiful.”

“Wait until you see inside,” he says, pulling to park in front of the four-car garage around the side. Caroline pokes her head between our seats, her mouth agape in awe of it all.

“Wow,” she whispers.

Linc lands a kiss on her temple. “Welcome home, sweet girl.”

We make our way around front. Linc looks like he did on his eleventh birthday when he got his first ten-speed. “There’s a little bit more touch-up painting that needs to be done but other than that, they’re finished with construction,” he says, opening the door.

“I thought it wouldn’t be finished for another month.”

“Surprise,” he whispers close to my ear as we walk inside.

“Oh my God.”

I’m speechless. Probably because there’s not enough air in my lungs to speak. The vaulted ceilings are breathtaking with vast wooden beams stretching across the top. Just as I had suspected, the natural light filtering in through the windows is stunning but not overwhelming. I can see now that the glass has been tinted so the light filtering in isn’t harsh, but soft, offering a warm, cozy feel.

Linc steps out in front of me and grips my hand while Caroline darts off upstairs. “I’m going to find my room,” she shouts, her feet eating up the stairs with excitement.

“C’mon. I wanna show you the rest.”

“I can’t believe they got it done so fast.”

“I know people,” he says with a wink, pulling me toward the kitchen, which is even more impressive than the living room.

“Oh, wow. This is amazing.”

The floors are all wood and polished to perfection. There are cabinets galore and the appliances are all state of the art. The countertops are an exquisite dark granite and there’s an island in the center equipped with a wrought iron pot rack hanging low from the ceiling.

Linc wraps his arms around my waist, kissing my neck. “I see you barefoot and pregnant, cooking up a storm right over there.” He points to the six-range stove.

“That’s a little sexist, don’t you think?” I tease, although nothing would make me happier.

“A little.” I give him a pointed look over my shoulder and he kisses my nose. “Okay, a lot, but what can I say, this is like a dream come true for me. The woman I love, making a home for us, taking care of me and our children.” He sweeps my mouth in little kisses. “You, naked, wearing nothing but an apron and a smile.”

Laughing, I swat his arm. “I won’t be doing that while I’m pregnant, I’ll tell you that.”

“Okay, maybe not while you’re pregnant but soon, very, very soon.”

I turn to face him completely. “How is it possible to love someone as much as I love you?”

“Easy, it’s me and you. Us, baby. It doesn’t get any better than this.”

He takes my mouth in a hard kiss, conveying everything I feel.

Love.

Devotion.

The burdens of life I carry melt away when his lips are pressed against mine, when I’m wrapped in his arms. I forget about all the bad and bathe in the good.

“Mama, Mama! Come look,” Caroline squeals from above.

With his hand holding mine, he leads me up the stairs. The house has five bedrooms and three baths but the entire third floor is one large bedroom, and it’s clearly been designed for Caroline. It’s open and bright and the far wall is nothing but built-in bookcases filled with books. Tons and tons of books. In the center there’s a reading nook equipped with a big pink oval cushion and what looks like dozens of throw pillows in every shade of the rainbow. And written above it, in big scrolling letters it says…

Read to live…live to read.

This is obviously the cause of her excitement because the smile on her face is priceless and it makes me wish I hadn’t left my phone in the car so I could capture this moment forever, even though I know I’ll never forget it. “Look at all the books, Mama!” she exclaims, tugging me toward the center of the room. The walls are painted a soft yellow and the bathroom a soft pink. I twist my head to get a look at Linc and find him kneeling down on one knee. When I look back at Caroline, she smiles mischievously as if she’s in on it, too. I turn my attention back to him. His hand reaches for Caroline’s and mine.

“I want to make a promise to each of you right here, right now. No matter what happens in my life, you two will always come first. Always. You both mean the world to me and you’ve made me happier than I could have ever thought possible. I’ll spend the rest of my life making sure I do the same for you, too. I’ll tell you each and every day how much I love you. How much you mean to me, and I’ll never let you down. Never.” My eyes sting with tears as I look down at the man who undoubtedly owns my heart.

Who has always owned my heart and fought like hell to keep it. The fact that he not only promises to love and care for me but Caroline as well only cements my deep love for him. I’ve said before there’s no way I could ever love him more but like so many times before…

I am wrong.

CHAPTER 44

Present

Linc left to go on tour, but it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. Of course I miss him terribly. His kiss, his touch, and all the little ways he loves me each and every day, but he left me with an immense sense of security and he still finds little ways to show me how much he cares from afar.

We speak on the phone every single day, usually before his shows, because by the time they are over Caroline and I are in bed. We talk via FaceTime every other day or try to anyway. Some days are harder than others. Caroline has school and I am busy preparing a home for us.

Linc designated me the daunting task of decorating, a project I wasn’t very sure of when I first began, but once I committed myself, I gave it my all. Gwynn helps a lot, too. She is in remission now. Most of her hair has grown back and she seems to have more energy than ever before. It’s hard to keep up with her sometimes. She visits often, as do my parents and Rachel and Will. It helps having my friends and family here for support, but nothing or no one can replace what he gives me.

Nighttime is the hardest. When it’s time to climb into our empty bed alone, I try not to cry. It’s not like he’ll be gone forever but still…I want him here now. It seems like my whole life has been nothing but one sacrifice after another. But isn’t that what life is all about?

Sacrifices.

My loneliness is a small price to pay to know the man I love is coming home to me in a few short months.

The tour has been a huge success. Sold out shows all across the US. The label has been hounding him to re-sign, offering a whole lot more money and creative freedom, but he continues to refuse. He says he wants to take a break. He wants to spend time with us and focus on songwriting for a while. Part of me wonders if he’ll regret his decision not to continue on his path to stardom. He’s released two more songs off his latest album and each one has hit number one within a week. They say he’s the next legendary star with a sound that rivals any artist before him.

Linc laughs every time he hears it. He’s still so humble. And that makes me love him even more.

He has a break in the tour next week and he’s scheduled to come home for two days. Two days doesn’t seem like very long but when you haven’t seen each other in a little over two months it seems like a lifetime. He’s tried to talk me into coming to a show but I can’t bear to leave Caroline right now and with her in school it makes it difficult to travel. But to tell the truth, his timing couldn’t be more perfect. With spring break starting next week, we’ll all be able to spend time together. And I plan to make the most of it.

Once I drop Caroline off at school, I head to my doctor’s appointment. I haven’t told Linc yet but I’m having my birth control implant removed today.

I go through the motions just like every other visit. The nurse weighs me then I pee in a cup. She puts me in a room where I’m told to strip down and put on the paper gown. I think about texting Linc while I wait. Butterflies flutter in my belly at the thought but before I can the doctor comes in holding my file.

“Hello, dear. How are you today?”

Dr. Foss has been my doctor for as long as I can remember. She delivered Caroline and has such a good bedside manner. She’s in her late forties and beautiful but she has a weird sense of humor.

“I’m good, Dr. Foss. How’ve you been?”

“Good, good. I see you’re here to have your birth control implant removed.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You do understand that once I remove it, the possibility of getting pregnant increases by, oh say…a lot.”

I chuckle. “Yes, ma’am, I’m well aware. That’s kind of the point.”

She tosses my file on the counter and takes a seat on the short, rolling chair, clasping her hands in her lap. “Ah, I see. Well, the implant expired five months ago. So it’s a good thing you want to get pregnant because um…you are,” she says, patting me on the knee with a wide smile.

I gulp for air.

I’m pretty sure I look like a fish out of water, and right now I guess I am because that is the last thing I expected her to say. “Uh, I didn’t realize it had expired.”

I swallow against the knot in my throat, emotion building in my chest. Linc and I haven’t had sex since the morning he left to go on tour, and I haven’t had any symptoms. I can’t believe I’m pregnant.

My hand moves to my belly. “Are you sure?” I ask, not wanting to get too excited unless she’s one hundred percent positive.

“I need to do an exam and some blood work to be sure but your urine test was positive.”

Tears of joy spring to my eyes. I’m going to have a baby. Linc’s baby.

Our baby.

After Dr. Foss completes her exam and blood work, she confirms that I am approximately ten weeks. She removes the implant, writes me a prescription for prenatal vitamins, and schedules a follow-up visit for four weeks from now.

My face hurts from smiling so much, and I feel like I am walking on air. By the time I pick Caroline up from school, the news has really sunk in. I’m nervous about telling her but I don’t know why. She’s always wanted a little brother or sister. I guess I just don’t want her to feel like it will change anything between us, and I don’t want her to feel left out.

I debate whether to tell Linc over the phone or in person and decide to wait until he comes home next week. It just might kill me, but I want it to be special. I want to see his face when I tell him he’s going to be a father for the first time.

Linc calls later that night but his phone call is short and sweet. He tells me how he can’t wait to see me next week along with a few other naughty things and then he talks to Caroline briefly before letting us go. I try not to be disappointed. There are days when he’s so busy with radio interviews and other obligations that he doesn’t have time to sit and chat, but I was kind of hoping today would be different.

Just a few more days.

Later that night, as I’m lying in bed caressing my belly, I notice for the first time how hard it is and appreciate the delicate life growing inside of me. I can’t believe I haven’t had any symptoms. I was sick as a dog the first three months with Caroline but Dr. Foss did tell me that every pregnancy is different. And life has been chaotic the last few months. I guess I just never really slowed down long enough to realize. I’m actually kind of glad I quit my job at the Blue and White now. I was hesitant at first. I knew I needed to be home. To spend as much time as possible with Caroline. But I didn’t want to have to rely on Linc to take care of us. I wanted to contribute. But arguing with him about it was like trying to reason with an angry bear. It just wasn’t happening. This will give him even more reason to gloat about him being right but I don’t care.

I’m more than happy to let him have his moment.

***

The following day is a haze of daydreams. Between wanting to tell Linc and wondering if the baby will be a girl or a boy, I can hardly contain my excitement.

In an effort to keep myself busy and resist the temptation of telling him now instead of in person, I find myself in the garage where I’ve stored a bunch of things I need to go through.

There’s a lot in here that I need to get rid of but haven’t really put forth the effort. I think because some of the boxes are filled with Dean’s things. I donated most of his stuff but there were some things I wanted to hang onto for Caroline. Like his wedding ring, his birth certificate, some old coins he’d collected over the years.

Digging through the boxes I find several tiny onesies from when Caroline was born and the precious little smock dress we brought her home in, setting it aside to hold onto for her, too.

I notice, for the first time in a long time, it doesn’t hurt so much to remember. The pain is a reminder of where I’ve been but the love and joy in my heart helps me remember where I am going.

I find two large boxes and begin tossing out things we no longer need. As I get to the bottom of one filled with junk, I find that small wooden box at the bottom. My heart clenches in my chest. It’s the one he used to keep all of his drugs in. I’m about to toss it in the discard pile but open it up to make sure there is nothing in it.

And there’s not.

Minus a small white envelope with my name written across the front in Dean’s handwriting.

My breath freezes in my lungs as tears prick my eyes. Setting the old box aside, I hold the envelope in my hand for what feels like an eternity before I finally summon enough courage to open it.

Dear Sylvie,

The first time I laid eyes on you, I knew you were the only “good” I was ever going to get out of life. I was also fully aware that making you mine meant stealing your happiness. A better man would have walked away, but I was never that kind of man. I’m selfish. I always have been. I’ll never forgive myself for all the pain I put you through. The things I’ve done. The things I’ve said.

You deserved better than I could ever give.

I tried so hard to be what you needed but every day that monster inside of my head pulled me further and further into the darkness. My mind has always been warped and twisted but it has reached a point where I can no longer—no—where I cannot wait any longer. I refuse to wait for the final twist where it snaps all together.

I’ve lived on this earth for twenty-seven years and there is not one day I would want to relive except for two. The day I married you and the day our daughter was born. Those two days were worth every day I fought for my sanity. But even those moments of pure happiness do not silence the monster, and I have come to realize, nothing ever will.

Death is my only salvation, and I accept my fate willingly if it means setting us both free.

I wish you nothing but happiness, even though it requires my absence in order to find it.

Please tell Caroline that I love her more than I ever loved myself and that every time the sun kisses her face, that’s me, watching over her.

Dean

My hand trembles as I lower the note and fall to my knees on the cold concrete floor. I sob into my hands, relieved to know that he’s finally at peace. That even though he chose death as his escape, it gives me comfort knowing that he’s no longer suffering or in pain.

Once I pull myself together, I fill the small wooden box with the note and the things I want Caroline to have of her father’s and put it in my chifforobe. I will share this with her when she is old enough to understand. Until then, I will hold them close and never forget the man who loved me with everything he had.

It may not have been the kind of love I needed but it was the kind of love that changed me forever.

That kind of love never dies.

Life can be full of sorrow and grief but there can also be sunshine after the storm. There can be joy and happiness and light. But in order to fully appreciate that light, we have to walk through the darkness.

We have to hold hands with pain and dance out in the rain.

It’s the only way our heart can comprehend what love truly is.

CHAPTER 45

Present

Linc’s body moves with mine, a soft melody of love and desire. The notes strung together in a rhythm of time, creating a sound that echoes within the confines of this room and our hearts. A love like ours doesn’t exist in books or movies or the pages of some glossy magazine.

It exists right here.

In the breaths exchanged between us.

His body is slick with sweat. Shifting his legs to spread mine wider, pushing himself deeper. The weight of him on top of me paired with the stark need in his eyes is a reflection of my own soul.

Unfortunately, Linc’s flight home had gotten canceled so he had to take a red-eye and he didn’t crawl into our bed until three a.m. and let’s just say that I didn’t waste any time welcoming him home.

“This,” Linc whispers, his trembling lips hovering above mine. “Nothing compares to this. Nothing. Only with you, I am home.”

His forehead presses to mine as he surges forward once more, claiming his release. I explode around him, my body fading into his as my mind drifts away on a collective cloud of bliss.

“Tastes like home, smells like home.” He pushes inside of me once more, driving home his point. “Feels like home.” His mouth moves to my neck, the whiskers on his face tickle my skin, causing me to laugh.

“I’m so glad you’re back.”

“Me too.”

“Because there’s—there’s something I need to tell you,” I say between breaths and his endless kisses.

Linc freezes and his eyes find mine. I gaze up at him, wondering if he can see it in my eyes. The dim bed lamp offers enough light to see the right side of his face and if that smile is any indication, he’s figured it out.

Pushing up, he looks down at my belly, then back up at me. “Really?”

All I can do is nod because the words are trapped somewhere behind the knot in my throat. He kisses me long, deep then he moves down my body and pushes up my silk teddy to press his lips to my abdomen. “How long?”

Running my fingers through his hair, I can’t stop the tears that escape the corner of my eyes. “Eleven weeks. It’s been killing me not to tell you.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Because then I would have missed this,” I tell him, pressing my palm to his jaw. The look on his face right now is worth every agonizing second. Reaching over, he pulls my wrist to his mouth and presses a kiss there.

“Does Caroline know?”

I shake my head. “I thought we could tell her together.”

Tears well up in his eyes and he presses his face to my belly. “I have spent my entire life waiting for this moment. To have this. To have you. It’s not just what I feel for you. It’s what I do not feel for anyone but you. I swear, every time our lips touch I can taste the next sixty years of my life.”

“You always have such an amazing way with words.”

“Still trying to write that song about us.”

“How’s it coming along?”

Dropping another kiss to my belly, he moves to lie next to me, pulling me into his arms. “Pretty damn good.”

CHAPTER 46

Present

Standing in front of the floor length mirror, I twist from side to side, taking in my reflection. I hardly recognize the woman standing before me.

Looking back, I think of all the battles I’ve fought. Some that left me broken and shattered.

Hopeless.

But love saved me. Love mended the pieces of my soul and brought me back to life.

Love gave me hope.

“You look beautiful, Mama!” Caroline says, standing next to me in her pretty lavender dress.

“Thank you, baby. So do you.”

“You ready?” Rachel asks, and I nod, tears pricking my eyes.

She gives me a hug then I lean down and embrace my daughter. Her tiny arms wrap around my neck before she pulls away, pressing a kiss to my cheek. “I love you, Mama.”

“Love you too, sweet girl.”

“Come on, Caroline. Let’s go get your grandpa and tell him your mama is ready.”

Once they leave the room, I reach for a Kleenex and dab the corners of my eyes.

There’s a knock at the door. “Come in,” I answer, thinking it’s my father but Linc enters the room.

“Linc! It’s bad luck to see the bride before the wedding.”

He smiles.

The smile he always saves just for me. The smile that lets me know he’s mine forever. “I think we’ve already met our quota in bad luck.”

He’s right about that.

“Jesus, you look fuckin’ gorgeous. Are you sure I’m in the right room? There’s no way the good Lord blessed me with someone as beautiful as you.”

I laugh, even though I’m on the verge of tears. I can’t believe this moment is happening. That I get to spend my life with this man.

My best friend.

My everything.

He loved me at my best. At my worst, and even when I didn’t love myself. A love like this only comes along once in a lifetime. It might not be perfect but it’s ours.

“You don’t look half bad yourself.”

He’s devastatingly handsome in his khakis, white collared shirt, navy tie and suspenders. That smile he only reserves for me eats up his scruffy face. One hand behind his back, he walks closer until he’s standing in front of me. “I wanted to give you something before we start this forever thing.”

I laugh and he reveals a small, baby blue box with a white bow, he lifts my hand to place it in my palm then kisses my lips.

Tender.

Soft.

Like a cool summer breeze.

It leaves me breathless by the time he pulls away, long enough for me to open the box. Black and white diamonds sparkle, curling around one another to make the shape of a treble clef.

“From this day forward, you will never walk alone. There may be dark roads but my heart will be your shelter and my arms will be your home.”

Tears stream down my face as I wrap my arms around him. “I love you.” Those three words don’t seem nearly enough but it’s all I can say, my heart is lodged in my throat and my emotions are overwhelming. There is no greater gift than love and he gives it to me so selflessly.

Pulling back, he takes the dainty chain from my hands and spins me around to put it on my neck. When he has it clasped in place, he presses a kiss to the nape, causing a shiver to ripple through me. Then he wraps his arms around my waist, resting both hands on my growing belly. “You’ll always be my life, Sylvie. My reason. My song.”

Closing my eyes I lose myself in his embrace, knowing that, for the first time in my life, I’m exactly where I belong.

Spinning in place, I wrap my arms around his neck, reaching up on my tiptoes to kiss his lips. “I have something for you, too.”

His hands cradle my face as he deepens the kiss.

Linc releases me and I walk over to retrieve the gift from my chifforobe, hand wrapped in brown paper with twine tying it off. He reads the small tag on the front out loud.

I saved the best of my heart

for the heart that understands the worst of me.

As soon as he tears the paper he realizes what it is, his wide eyes lift to mine. “Your journal.”

I nod.

“Are you sure?”

“There are things in there I could never say out loud. Everything that ever broke me and healed me is written within those pages. The words of my heart.”

“I promise to take good care of it, baby.”

“I promise to take good care of yours, too.”

Curling his hand around my neck, he pulls me in for a long, sensual kiss. “You ready to start forever with me?”

“Forever never sounded so good.”

Epilogue

Linc

The moon hangs low,

Taunting the earth with its gravity and light,

Finding comfort in the rise and fall of the tide.

But when the sun rises again, stealing the night,

A new day will dawn.

Bringing with it a promise of hope

That the moon shall return

But only after the sun has had its moment to shine.

Closing the journal, I let her words sink in. I’ve read them dozens of times since she gave it to me on our wedding day ten years ago but every time I read them, they find new meaning.

A window to her heart, I eagerly climbed inside, devouring every word and thought, gorging myself on her longing, her grief, and her despair. It was one of the greatest gifts she’s ever given me, besides her love and our children.

Lifting my guitar to my lap, I strum the chords, searching for a tune that matches the one thrumming in my heart.

“Good morning, baby,” she says, wrapping her arms around my shoulders from behind. “What are you doing up so early?”

I lean my head close to hers, inhaling her sweet scent. “I was feelin’ inspired.”

“Still working on that song?”

“I was trying to.” I set my guitar aside and pull her around to sit on my lap.

“How’s it going?”

I think this is much more inspiring,” I tell her, nuzzling her neck.

A laugh tumbles from her perfect mouth, floating on the cool breeze around us.

“Behave, the children will be up soon, I don’t want them to see just how inspired their father really is this morning.”

I kiss her long and deep, losing myself in the moment, breathing her in. I cherish each and every one with her, taking nothing for granted, knowing that life is far too short to waste on petty words.

I show her every day what her love means to me.

How it’s changed me.

How it’s made me the man I am today.

Things finally slowed down about a year and a half after we were married. Once my contract was up with Milestone, I retreated back to Grandeur permanently to start my life with Sylvie. I still performed at small venues, the Ryman, and Bluebird from time to time, but mostly I spent a lot of time writing in my home studio. I sold a lot of my songs to big names, several even topping the charts, but I held on to a precious few, saving them for when the time was right.

Our daughters are older now. Stella will be ten in a few short months and our daughter Audrey will be five this winter, both of them just as beautiful as their mother and have me wrapped around their little fingers.

Caroline is already talking about college and has a boyfriend, which gives me a mild heart attack every time I think about it. It’s unbelievable sometimes to think how much our family has grown. It’s tough being in a house full of strong, beautiful women but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I just need one more song and the album will be complete.”

“Took you long enough,” she teases, the sunlight catching her blue eyes, making them sparkle. My chest floods with warmth. “So have you decided on a name?”

“I think I’m gonna call it The Long Way Home.”

“It’s perfect,” she says lovingly, pride shining in her eyes. “Think the world is ready for our story?” she asks.

“A story like ours has to be told.”

“But first, it has to be lived.” Her words strike deep inside my heart, in the place where only her love dwells.

My lips take hers, the taste of forever potent on her tongue.

I move to stand us up and take her hand while pulling her body flush with mine. Then I start to hum a familiar tune, one that has been the soundtrack of our life. The one that no matter how many times I sing it, or how much we hear it, it never gets old.

Her body sways with mine in perfect harmony, a dance built with years of love and devotion.

A dance only time can perfect.

We have no idea what the future may hold, or where the road may take us, but we know we have each other and we have love.

That will always be enough.

The End

FROM THE AUTHOR

This story would have never been possible without the help of the amazing people in my life. When I first started writing this book (August 2014) I never anticipated it would take this shape. There was a time when I didn’t think I would ever be able to finish because some of the elements of this story were so personal to me, but Sylvie refused to lie wasted. She arose from the ashes and flew, teaching me that it’s okay to hurt.

To let go.

To heal.

And to love.

I hope that you are able to take something away from this story and if not, thank you for giving her a chance.

Means everything to me.

THANK YOU, READERS!

To my husband, for always standing by me and supporting me.

You pushed me to finish.

You pushed me to be my best.

I’m a better me because of you.

I love you.

Always.

To KC, I don’t know what I would do without your endless words of encouragement and support. Every time I wanted to give up, you were always right there giving me the shove I needed to keep going. Thank you for always believing in me. And this story.

To Kirby, I could not have finished this without you. Thank you for pushing me beyond my limits, cheering me on, and loving Sylvie as much as I do.

To Alycia, thank you for always being Dean’s champion. For always reminding me just how vital his role was in this story. I love you dearly.

To Heather, thank you for listening to me whine about this book and dragging me out of the house when I needed it the most. You keep me in check and I love you for it.

To my family and dearest friends, thank you for your continuous love and support.

Find out more about K. Langston’s other books and upcoming

releases by visiting her at www.authorklangston.com

CONNECT with K:

Facebook: http://bit.ly/2i0xADi

Instagram: http://bit.ly/1wgXtOF

Pinterest: http://bit.ly/1CwcYWO

Twitter: http://bit.ly/1sVXx9n

As always, thank you so much for reading!!!

Write a Review Did you enjoy my story? Please let me know what you think by leaving a review! Thanks, Author K Langston
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fellipxx: I loved this novel, it was very sweet and big on the emotions I really enjoyed it and could not stop reading not even for a second, I even cried a little bit at a few touching moments too. And overall I found this book sweet, realistic and cheesy (I like the cheesy stuff).

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