Chapter 1: Azalea
Wind whispers through the snow-covered trees, their naked branches adorned with a dusting of freshly fallen snow. I’ve spent so long bouncing from one big city to the next that I’d forgotten how peaceful mother nature is on her own, without the crowds of people and the constant din of city life.
The crisp mountain air still soothes my aching soul, even after all this time. I take a deep breath in, the earthy autumn scent of the surrounding trees enveloping me in a welcome home hug. Six long years ago, we lost Mom in the exact spot I’m standing on this winding stretch of mountain road. And it’s been six years since I’ve been back here.
My long raven hair dances around my face, the sunlight catching on the streaks of blue painted throughout the strands. Mom always hated my colourful hair. She said it made me look like a groupie. And when I got my first tattoo at sixteen, she complained I was the wildest of my sisters, living up to our family name in more ways than one.
A smile spreads across my lips at the memories of her rolling her eyes at my antics, pretending to be annoyed, yet smiling all the while. Of my three sisters, I was definitely the wildest—a whole other kind of chaos amid the teenage mayhem. But I know Mom loved that about me, even if she did always tell me I was going to be the death of her.
I kick at a stone on the roadside, laughing bitterly at the irony of that thought. We were together the day of the accident, driving up this twisty road in the middle of an unseasonable blizzard. I had been yelling at Mom about something stupid and insignificant when the car hit a patch of ice. We slid sideways into the guardrail, landing on the roof at the edge of a cliff.
I’ll never forget the moment I looked over at my mom to see her unconscious. What I didn’t know then was that she would never open those hazel eyes, so much like mine, ever again. It broke me irreparably that I survived, and she didn’t. Her death destroyed me, shattering me down to the very core.
Even though everyone said it wasn’t my fault, I knew the truth. I was the reason she was so distracted that day. I forced her eyes from the road at the wrong moment, screaming that she was the worst just seconds before she was gone from my life forever. I never even got the chance to tell her how much I loved her.
Funny how life turns out so different from what you expect. Things really can change in the blink of an eye. Losing Mom splintered our family in ways I could never have predicted. Now, here years later, forced back home, about to lose the only parent I have left.
As kids, we see our parents as invincible. Our little minds live inside a glass bubble, protecting us from the harsh realities of life, of loss. But when the glass ceiling shatters and that bubble bursts, the cruel truth hits like a kick to the face; the people we love aren’t immortal, they’re human. And they hurt, bleed, and die long before we’re ever ready to let them go.
Sadness overwhelms me when I see my dad through the observation window of his hospital room. He looks so frail, and I can’t bring myself to go inside. Seeing my manly, burly father look so small and weak hurts more than I expected.
I’ve been a daddy’s girl from day one. While my other sisters were busy playing house with Mom and doing girly things, I was out working the farm, restoring old classic cars, and learning my way around an engine. Dad loved it. Although I’m sure he always wanted a son, he never made me feel any less because I was a girl.
Instead, he nurtured me and taught me it’s okay to be different. That being a woman in a man’s world was the definition of badass, and I should own it. The things I learned from him are what helped me survive these last years on the road.
I worked in garages across the country, getting down and dirty with the guys. I know they hired me at first glance based solely on my looks, but when they saw what I could do with a car engine, it was game over. I became one of them.
Yeah, I had my fair share of perverts trying to get in my pants, but most men in the industry learned to respect me for my skills, not my appearance. Dad taught me my worth, and because of that, I learned to let no one fuck with me emotionally or professionally. That’s not to say I didn’t have a little fun between the sheets with a few of them along the way, but it was always just that—fun.
I sigh, hesitating outside Dad’s room with my hand hovering over the door handle, too afraid to touch it. My chest feels tight, my breathing constricted. This is all too much.
My emotions are all over the place. I feel defeated. Pissed off. Weak. All I want to do is punch something. Scream, yell, anything. I’ve become so good at stomping them down, forcing myself to feel nothing, that this is unfamiliar territory for me. I’m usually an expert at ignoring the hard shit.
And this... this is some hard shit.
After thirty-four years of marriage, Dad never recovered from the loss of our mom, retreating into himself until he was only a shell of the robust, working man we all knew. Seeing your father cry is the most gut-wrenching, heartbreaking thing.
In the weeks following Mom’s funeral, things were terrible. I was in a dark, dangerous headspace, and knowing I was the reason behind everyone else’s sadness was too much. I couldn’t bear to watch my family fall apart, so I ran off as soon as I had the money, packing up my things and leaving behind everything I’d ever known.
I gave up a lot. My relationship with my sisters, being there for my dad, the man I loved...I dropped it all. And it may have been a purely selfish decision, but how could I stay in a place that no longer felt like home?
“Azalea Lenore Wilde! Is that you?” My breath catches, and I turn toward the familiar voice, bracing myself against the force of my twin sister’s body crashing into mine.
It surprises me how much I’ve missed her dramatic affection as I settle into her tight embrace, laughing. “Shit, Rosie. I can’t breathe!”
“I just can’t believe you’re here, Azzy.” Rose pulls away from me just enough to look at my tired face before wrapping me up in her arms again.
Younger by two minutes, Rose is a mirror image of me, aside from her suntanned freckles and dyed blonde hair. When I left, Rose was the only one who didn’t judge me. She called me every day, leaving me message after message, begging me to come home. It took me a month, but when I finally answered one of her calls and told her I couldn’t come back, she understood, no questions asked.
That’s what I love about her. About us. No matter our choices, where we go or what we do, we’ll always have each other’s backs. I can’t say the same about the other two. They’ve never forgiven me for leaving when I did.
And they weren’t the only ones.
My mind wanders back to the man I left behind. The bad boy with a heart of gold. His dreamy blue eyes, golden blond hair, chiselled body…
“Tell me everything!” Rose yanks on my hands, dragging me back to reality. She pulls me into Dad’s room, plunking us down on a crappy little sofa alongside his bed. “What was life on the road like? Where did you end up? Did you live in hotels? How did you make money? Spill!”
The laughter flowed easily between us as we fell into a comfortable conversation, almost like we’d only been apart for six hours instead of six years.
My unseasonably cheerful mood dissipates when I hear the unmistakable voice of my older sister snapping at a nurse in the hall. “Why are you just standing here? I told you to call me the second my father returned from neuro.”
I hold my breath, stiffening with tension as she walks into the room wearing her white doctor’s coat like some badge of honour and superiority, all rounded out by the sour look on her otherwise beautiful face. Typical.
At thirty-three, Iris was the firstborn, and the proverbial golden child; the only one to stay on the straight and narrow out of the four of us. She graduated a year ahead of her peers, got into med school, and became a trauma surgeon in our hometown, all while the rest of us were screwing around trying to figure out the meaning of life.
With a last name like Wilde, you’d think Iris would be less uptight, but nope. She’s a stone-cold, lay down the law kind of woman. She’s not a bad person, she just isn’t my kind of person. We’re total opposites, and growing up, I wouldn’t say I liked her, even though I loved her.
“Azalea. Nice of you to show your face after all these years.” Iris stops dead in the doorway when she spots me, her face softening for a brief second before turning back to stone.
My eyes narrow and the metallic taste of blood settles on my tongue, the force of my teeth biting down the only thing keeping me from saying something I might regret.
“Iris. Nice of you to crack a smile after all these years.” I keep my voice syrupy sweet, but sarcasm drips from my every word. I can’t help it. She brings out the snarky bitch in me.
“Hilarious.” She rolls her eyes and scowls. “I see you haven’t lost your terrible sense of humour since I saw you last. What was it? Five years ago?”
“Six, actually.” Even though I shouldn’t, I play into her snide little game, too stubborn to apologize, and too proud to admit I messed up by leaving.
“Why do you have to be such a bitch, Ris? Azzy’s home. You should be happy.” Rose stands up for me, and I let her. I’d be up for a fight any other day, but I can’t bring myself to engage while our dad is lying unconscious in a hospital bed.
“Whatever.” Iris waves her hand dismissively at Rose before turning to me. “Poppy will be here soon, so why don’t you two go grab some coffee or something until then?”
This is her not-so-subtle way of telling us to get the hell out, all because she’s butt-hurt over my six-year-long absence. “Why? We just got here. I haven’t even said hi to Dad.”
“Dad’s in a coma, Azalea. He won’t know the difference.” The way she says my name, like it’s a dirty word, makes my blood boil.
I know she’s worried, but these past years of being a trauma surgeon have changed her; taught her how to seal off her emotions when things get painful. I want to be understanding, but her cold demeanour sets off my matchstick temper. Inhaling deeply through my nose, I clamp my lips shut to keep from snapping at her.
Don’t engage, Azzy. Count to ten. Breathe in, breathe out. Dad would want you to be the bigger person. I talk myself down, pretend to channel inner peace, as if that’s something I’ll ever possess. “Fine. But call us as soon as Poppy gets here.”
Iris nods, barely giving me a second look before sitting by Dad’s bedside. I tug Rose from the ratty old sofa and stomp off toward the door, smashing face first into something warm and unyielding.
Strong hands grip my bare shoulders, enveloping my small arms almost completely. My nose tingles with familiarity at the smell assaulting my senses. I know it. It’s sublime, like leather, spice, and pure, unfiltered male.
I linger a little longer before I look up, already aware of what my eyes will find when I do. That addictive scent, all mixed up in a tall, tanned, tattooed body, can only belong to one person: Merrick Hayes.
My favourite weakness, and my biggest regret.