Just a note to regular readers: I will be putting this book up on Kindle on August 12. I’ve lowered the preorder price to $.99 so my blog readers can get it cheap and then once the book goes on sale I’ll be raising the price. I can also send a mobi or ePub version to you through Bookfunnel for free so if you are interested please let me know and either leave me your email here in the comments or send one to me at firstname.lastname@example.org so I can send it along August 12.
Bookfunnel will have you upload the book yourself to your reading app so if you prefer not to do that, you can do the option on Amazon. If you want a paperback, please order through me and I will mail you one. It will be cheaper than what Amazon charges for books (I only make about a $4 profit from what they charge).
If you are a new reader here, I share a chapter from my WIP each Friday, and sometimes Saturday, on my blog. There are typos, grammatical issues and even plot holes at times because this is a first, second, or third draft that hasn’t gone to my editor (eh, husband) yet. If you see a typo, feel free to kindly let me know in the comments. Sometimes the error has already been fixed on my copy, sometimes not.
Catch up with the rest of the story HERE. Don’t feel like reading the book in a series of chapters each Friday? Preorder the book HERE. Do you want to read the first book in the series? Download it HERE.
What was he even doing here? His head was pounding from a persistent headache that hadn’t let up since yesterday. The loud music coming from the band up front wasn’t helping. And he wanted to be back at home, talking to Ellie, telling her how sorry he was for how he’d acted in Pastor Joe’s office. No, he didn’t want to be talking to her on a phone. He wanted to be at her apartment, talking to her face-to-face. She was most likely dealing with a drunk Judi, though. She didn’t need even more to deal with.
Jason rubbed a knot at the back of his neck and grimaced, hoping to massage the tension away.
He knew the guys from the department wanted him to unwind but the bitter smell of alcohol, the cloud of cigarette smoke and the mass of people bumping against each other on the dance floor was only adding to his tension.
He stepped up to the bar to refill his glass of ginger ale. His friends from the fire department and Alex were sitting at a table across the bar, laughing and cutting jokes. He was glad that Alex had asked for a refill on his soda as well. Bars and Alex weren’t the best of friends and Jason hadn’t wanted to watch his friend slide backward into his old life. So far, that wasn’t happening thankfully.
“’Nother ginger?” the bartender asked, taking his glass.
Jason nodded. “It’s hitting the spot tonight.”
The man slid the glass to him, grinning. “Fine by me. One less drunk person I have to deal with tonight. Enjoy.”
Jason decided a break from the conversations would also hit the spot. The guys meant well but he wasn’t ready to walk back into life again, act like everything was fine and John Weatherly wasn’t dead and Ann a widow because of his failure. He sat on a stool and leaned his arm on the bar, scanning the room, seeing who he recognized and who he didn’t.
He’d gone to high school with the new owners of the establishment, but didn’t know either one of the couple, Jake and Mallory Leonard, well. Back in one corner was the captain of his high school football team, chatting up a petite blond who was definitely not his wife. On the dance floor was Jimmy Hurley, owner of the local supermarket, his arms around his wife Nancy, her head leaning against his shoulder.
At a table near the door Lanny Jenkins was nursing a beer while Jessie Landry chattered away and touched his arm for the thousandth time, obviously desperate for attention. Jessie reminded him a lot of Lauren, both of them in and out of relationships, seeming to base their worth on if a man paid attention to them or not. Jessie had been in the middle of an almost-situation with Alex last year. Thank God Alex had walked away before it got out of hand. It had been the incident that had woken him up to how far he’d fallen. Not long after, he was confessing his feelings to Molly and Jason was agreeing to help him straighten his life out for his own sake and Molly’s.
Still wrapped up in his thoughts, he moved his gaze around the room, away from Jessie to the woman next to him. His heart rate increased.
What was she doing here? This wasn’t the kind of place he’d ever expected to see her.
A slender finger pushed a strand of dark hair behind a delicate ear as the woman stepped back between two bar stools four down from him. She hugged her arms around her middle like she was trying to protect herself from the rest of the world, or the rest of the room at least. Her eyes scanned the dance floor, looking for someone. She hadn’t noticed him yet and he took the time to study her, or, more accurately, enjoy the view of her.
Small, pert nose, perfectly shaped chin, full lips begging to be kissed. He’d kissed them so many times before he’d memorized the taste of them, and it was a taste he ached to experience again.
As if she felt him looking at her, she turned her head, caught his gaze. Surprise registered in Ellie’s eyes, quickly replaced by an emotion he couldn’t pin down. Was she upset at the sight of him? Happy? Or simply indifferent?
He pushed himself off the bar and moved toward her, stopping at the stool next to her and sitting before leaning back against the bar again. “You don’t usually come to places like this. How did you even —”
The previous stoicism she’d held morphed into annoyance, eyes tilting briefly toward the ceiling then back to him. “Judi.”
The name of her sister slipped out with a sad sigh.
She rolled her eyes. “And Brad.”
Brad. Again. Great.
Had Brad invited Ellie, or had he invited Judi and Ellie had tagged along? Like before.
What was Brad’s game anyhow? To see if he could bed both Lambert girls?
Jason followed the path of her gaze to the other side of the bar, to Brad talking to Judi, his hand against Judi’s thigh. “Oh.”
She sighed. “Judi is furious at me, but she was drunk when she came back to the apartment to change, and I didn’t trust her when she said Brad hadn’t been drinking. Turns out he actually hadn’t but, after my last experience with him, I wasn’t taking any chances on what would happen by the end of the night. I’m their designated driver, I guess you would say.”
Her last experience with him? What did that mean? Should he ask?
He chuckled softly to drown out the worried thoughts racing through his mind. “That makes sense.” He tapped his fingers on the top of the bar and thought about how he should have stopped her that night after Franny’s party, told her not to go anywhere with Brad.
“The guys talked me into coming.” He cleared his throat. “Said I needed to unwind a little and get my mind off things.” He shook his head and sipped the ginger ale. “When have you ever known me to unwind?”
She tipped her chin up and smiled. “Plenty of times.” It looked like she was trying not to smile but couldn’t help it. “Plenty of times.”
He looked at her, a knowing smile turning his mouth upward. “Times you were part of, of course.”
Warmth flushed across his cheeks, and she bowed her head, her own cheeks flushing pink. She shifted herself onto the stool and crossed one leg over the other, resting her hands on top of her knee, watching the band while he watched her.
“Can I buy you a drink?”
She shook her head. “I’m fine.”
“You can get sodas here.”
“Thank you, but I’m good. Really.”
The band changed songs and her eyebrows raised at the same time his did. They looked at each other and he spoke first. “Mickey Gilley? Really? Who even knows his music anymore?”
She cocked an eyebrow questioningly. “Did you —”
“El, I didn’t even know you were here up until a few minutes ago.”
They listened to the song a few minutes, him leaning back on the bar, her sitting on the stool, before he heard her humming along and then softly singing the lyrics under her breath.
In seconds he was back eight years, standing in front of a pair of headlights in an empty wheat field, his hands on her waist, her hands on his shoulders. The only radio station that would come in on his truck was the oldies country station. This song had come on, and they’d stood to dance and sing along, though neither knew why since they’d never heard it before. They’d paused their swaying when he tilted her face toward his and kissed her softly. How was it possible it had been eight years ago, when it felt like it had only been yesterday?
His chest constricted at the memory, at the emotion stirring there now. He didn’t want to simply be standing near her, their arms a few inches from each other. He wanted her against him, his arms around her, holding her like he’d done so many times before. It was where she belonged. He knew it and he had a good feeling she did too.
He glanced at her, then looked away.
Get it together, Jason. The worst she can say is ‘no.’
He lifted his chin toward the dance floor. “We could — I mean — If you want to. For old times sake.”
His heart and breathing stopped while he waited for her answer. A small smile was playing at her mouth and his gaze traced the shape of it, drifted to the nape of her neck, then back to her eyes, which had focused on his. Her eyes had a way of changing shades with her mood, a phenomenon he’d admired many times before. In this moment, flecks of gold darted out from her light brown irises, and he wanted to bottle those flecks up and pull them out anytime he was down.
She nodded and slid off the stool. He exhaled slowly and his heart came to life again. He took her hand and led her to the dance floor, among the other dancers swaying close together.
His arms slid around her easily. When her hands slid up to his shoulders his muscles relaxed and he was at ease for the first time in months, other than a few butterflies fluttering in the center of his chest. She pressed his cheek against his shoulder and curved an arm around his side and up his back.
This was as it should be. Her, here in his arms, right where she belonged. He hoped her willingness, maybe even eagerness, to be so close to him was a sign she felt the same way.
Swaying to the music he closed his eyes, thinking only of the feel of her against him, the smell of her shampoo, the softness of her hair against his cheek, the way the curve of her body fit perfectly to his.
His voice was almost a whisper as he tipped his head, spoke into her hair. “The irony is not lost on me that the name of this song is Talk to Me.”
She laughed softly, her breath rumbling against his chest. He felt her lift her head and opened his eyes. His heart lurched up into his throat, forming a lump he couldn’t seem to swallow away. She was looking at him the way he remembered her looking at him so many times before, the way he’d wanted her to look at him for the past eight months.
Her lips parted and her gaze drifted to his mouth then back up to his eyes. Was she sending him silent signals? Did she want him to kiss her as much as he wanted to kiss her? He was hoping the answer was yes because he was taking the chance.
He cupped his hand behind her head, intertwined his fingers in her hair and she closed her eyes. He traced her lips with the palm of his thumb and took a deep breath.
They’d kiss thousands of times before. Why did this feel like the first time all over again?
As he lowered his head toward hers, he felt a sharp thump on his shoulder.
The quick thump turned into a tight grip on his shoulder, near his neck.
“Hey, buddy, you stealin’ my date?” Brad’s laughter grated like the jake brakes of an 18-wheeler. He clutched Jason’s shoulder in one hand, a beer bottle in the other. The smell wafting from him signaled he’d drank more than that one beer.
He shook Brad’s hand loose. “I don’t recall her saying she was here with anyone. I seem to remember her saying you were here with Judi.”
Brad’s laughter faded and his smile switched to a tight-lipped grimace. “You know what, Jason. You had your chance. You screwed it up.” He shoved his way between Jason and Ellie, breaking their hold on each other. “So why don’t you just move over and let a real man step in.”
In seconds Jason had the front of his cousin’s shirt clutched in his fists and his body shoved up against the bar. “Don’t you ever touch her again.”
The edge of the counter dug into Brad’s back, and he winced, but the smirk never left his face.
He laughed again, wrapped his hands around Jason’s and tried to pry them off his shirt. “Touchy. Touchy. Calm down, cuz, I’m just messin’ with you.”
Judi stepped next to the bar and clapped her hands together. “Is there going to be a real bar fight? Cool! I’ve always wanted to see one!”
Jason glanced at Ellie’s sister and decided she’d had more than a couple beers as well. The band was in between songs and an odd hush had settled over the bar as people turned to watch the drama.
“Everything okay over there or are we going to need some good ole bar fightin’ music?” The band’s lead singer called out the question with more than a twinge of amusement in his tone.
Jason shook his head, keeping his eyes locked on Brad’s. “Nah. We’re good.” He glared at Brad, not letting him go. “Right, Brad? We’re good.”
Laughter skittered across the bar from the onlookers, many of them returning to their drinks and conversations.
Jason was relieved when the band began another song. He figured enough people knew about his private life these days. He didn’t need to add more to that list.
Ellie reached out quickly, grasping her sister’s wrist. “Let’s go, Judi. Time to go home.”
Judi wrenched herself free. “Shut it, Ellie. I’m a big girl. I don’t need big sis to take care of me.”
Anger flashed in Ellie’s eyes, something Jason was glad to see directed at someone other than himself.
“You’re making an idiot out yourself,” she hissed at Judi. “It’s time to go.”
Jason let Brad’s shirt go and grabbed him by the upper arm instead, his hand wrapping around Brad’s bicep. “Both of them need to sleep this off. I’ll take Brad? You take Judi?”
Ellie didn’t look exactly thrilled with the idea of taking her sister home, but she nodded. “That sounds like a good plan.”
Judi looped her arm in Brad’s. He was sitting on a stool now, leaning back, scowling. “I will take Bradley home,” Judi slurred. “I came with him. He’s my resp—responsible — teee.”
Jason had felt Ellie’s rage before, and he could feel it coming off her now.
“I drove you here, Judi.” Her words clipped out hard and fast. “How do you think you’re going to get him home?”
Judi tightened her grip on Brad’s arm and pushed her lower lip out. “I’m not going anywhere without Brad.”
Ellie tipped her head back and growled in frustration. “Fine. I’ll take both of you home then.”
Brad slid an arm around Judi’s shoulder and pulled her against him. “You can drop her off with me, I don’t mind.”
Jason tightened his grip on Brad’s arm and dragged him off the stool, out of Judi’s grasp. “You’re going with me. Let’s go.”
In the parking lot Jason shoved Brad hard toward the passenger side door of his truck. “Get in, idiot.”
Brad climbed slowly, head first, struggled to turn around for several seconds, then finally slumped back against the seat.
Judi leaned her head out of the passenger side window of Ellie’s sedan. “Call me later, Braaaaad!”
Jason caught Ellie’s wrist before she slid behind the steering wheel. “Hey, talk later?”
While the brief kiss on his cheek from her wasn’t the kiss he’d been hoping for earlier, it sent his heart rate slamming against his ribcage at least ten beats faster than normal.
“Yeah, I’d like that.”
He hated watching her drive away; wanted to call out, tell her to stay and leave Brad and Judi to fend for themselves. They couldn’t do that, though. If one of them decided to drive themselves home and killed someone while driving drunk, neither he nor Ellie would ever forgive themselves. He slid behind the steering wheel and didn’t look at Brad. If he did, he might grab him by his shirt and slam his head off the dashboard.
“You know what, Jase?” Brad pointed a finger at Jason’s chest and pressed it there. “You’re boring.” It was obvious Brad hadn’t hit the level of alcohol he needed to be unconscious. Unfortunately.
Jason thought about going back for another beer to top him off, so he’d shut up, but instead he smacked Brad’s hand away, shifted the truck into gear and pulled out of the parking lot. Brad propped a boot-clad foot on the dashboard and snorted a laugh. “It’s sad that Ellie still loves you so much. I couldn’t ge-ge-get anywhere with her. Tried to get her to go to lunch with me and all she wanted was for me – for me – to drive her to a Bible study.” He scoffed. “Maybe that’s why you broke up with her. She doesn’t give it up easy, right?” He smacked the back of his hand against Jason’s bicep and laughed derisively. “Not like her sister. I bet Judi would give it up in a second flat. That girl is ripe for the picking.”
Jason bit the inside of his cheek, tasted blood. He desperately wanted to yank the truck to the side of the road, drag Brad out and pummel him until his face was a bloody mess. More than beating the living daylights out of his cousin, though, he wanted to throw him out the door in front of his parent’s house, drive off and call Ellie. Let Walt and Marsha deal with their wayward son. He wanted to hear her voice again, remind himself of the look she’d give him that one that said she’d wanted him to kiss her; the one that said she still loved him.
Forget the call. He wanted to drive back to town, run up the stairs to her apartment and kiss her until both of them were gasping for breath. He wouldn’t, though. She’d have enough to deal with trying to wrangle Judi. The kiss would have to wait, but only until morning. After that, all bets were off, siblings and cousins or not. He would kiss her until she was weak in the knees, and he had to hold her against him to keep her from falling to the floor.
The sound of vomit hitting his truck floor pulled him from the daydream and his jaw tightened. If he got Brad home without killing him, it would be a miracle.
Judi slumped heavily against Ellie’s side, barely able to walk on her own, no longer giggling, but instead mumbling something Ellie couldn’t decipher.
Pulling her from the car had been an ordeal in itself. Dragging her up the stairs to the apartment had been even more of a challenge. Once inside the door Ellie shoved her hip into Judi’s and leveraged her toward the couch. Judi flopped onto her back, her eyes closed, her feet still on the floor. Ellie pulled off her shoes and flipped her legs up onto the couch. Stepping into the guest room she snatched the blanket off the bed and returned to the living room, covering a clearly unconscious Judi.
Her foot bumped against Judi’s hot pink purse as she stepped back, tipping it over and sending the contents skittering across the floor.
Lipstick, a brush, a makeup, case, a set of keys, a piece of paper with a number scrawled on it, and a cellphone. Ellie snatched each item off the floor and shoved them back in the purse.
Her finger bumped the screen of the phone as she slid it in the purse and a message popped up on the lock screen. Without thinking, Ellie read it.
Jeff: Are you serious, Judi? Go ahead and tell anyone you like what happened that night because no one is ever going to believe you. They’ll know you were asking for it. That’s who you are and who you will always be. A first-class slut.
A cold chill shot through Ellie as she straightened, holding the phone. Her hands trembled. Slut?
What had Judi been asking for? Who was Jeff? Wait. That was the name of the guy on that social media account. The one with his hand on Judi’s thigh and with the photo description that had made her blood run cold.
My God. What did he do to my sister?
Tears stung her eyes as she looked at Judi. The trembling spread from her hands to the rest of her body and tears gathered on her cheek and chin and dripped off. She wiped her hand across them and tried to hold in a sob, though she didn’t need to. Judi was so intoxicated she probably wouldn’t wake up for hours. Ellie sat on the metal chair next to the bed and cried for several minutes, holding the phone against her chest, praying it wasn’t true.
Please, God. Please don’t let him have hurt my sister the way I think he did.
She tipped the phone back, stared at it, considered calling this Jeff guy and giving him an earful, threatening him, but she couldn’t. Not until she talked to Judi and found out the truth. She couldn’t risk violating her sister’s privacy the way this man may have violated her in other ways.
A knock on the apartment door brought Ellie out of her thoughts. She shoved the phone back in Judi’s purse, turned out the light, and gently closed the door behind her. She needed to talk to someone about what she’d read, and she knew who that someone needed to be. She hoped to God he was the one standing on the other side of the door.
The smell when she opened the door burned her throat, made her eyes water.
“Heeeeey, sexxxxxxy, lady.”
“Brad.” She waved her hand and pinched her nose with her finger and thumb. “Go home. You reek.”
He swayed in the doorway like a tree branch in the wind. “But I want to see, Judi.”
Ellie leaned against the doorframe, arms folded across her chest. “Did you drive yourself here? I thought Jason dropped you off.”
He laughed. “You think I’m drunk.” He swayed backward then straightened himself. I’m not drunk, El. I’m just —” He tossed his arms out to the side — “happy.”
Taking the old adage to heart and literally biting her tongue was the only way she kept from screaming. She was glad she’d never acquired a taste for alcohol. The beverage was transforming her night into a complete disaster.
“Well, Judi’s dead to the world so you need to go home.”
Brad sighed and the stench of alcohol and vomit made Ellie gag again. “Ah man. Okay, then. Ho-ho-hommmmme it is then.”
She wanted him to leave, but the idea of him on the road in the condition he was in terrified her. How many people would he kill on the way back to the Tanner’s farm?
She held out her hand, palm up. “Give me your keys. I’ll drive you home.”
“Nah.” Brad turned and staggered down the first step. “I — I got it.”
Ellie tipped her head back and groaned softly. “You can’t drive, Brad. You’re going to kill someone. Give me the keys. Now.”
He dropped the keys in her palm and she grabbed her phone on the table next to the door. By the time she closed and locked the door behind her, he was sitting on the top step with his elbow on his knee, his chin in his hand and the wall supporting his weight. His eyes had drifted closed.
She hooked a hand under his arm and pulled upward. “Come on, let’s go.”
It had taken a great deal of self-control to not say, “Come on, idiot.” It was an applicable term for him right now.
Ten minutes down the road with a grinning, semi-conscious Brad next to her she regretted not telling him to sleep it off on her couch instead.
“How come you Lambert girls are so pretty?”
She rolled her eyes.
He lurched toward her side of the seat. “And so nice. Both of you so nice.” He patted her shoulder gently. “You didn’t have to do this, Ellie. It’s late. I shouldn’t have come to see Judi.” He hiccupped and followed it with a burp. “She just seems so sad, you know.”
Even though she could still hear Judi screaming at her earlier in the night, she knew he was right. There was definite sadness underneath Judi’s anger. And that sadness might have something to do with this Jeff guy, whoever he was.
Brad reached toward the steering wheel. “Let me drive, El. You shouldn’t be driving. You’re too nice to a drunk a drive idiot like me.” He paused, frowned, then grinned. “I mean you’re too drunk to drive an idiot like me. No. Wait. I’m drunk. You’re driving and nice.”
Ellie slapped his hand away. “Brad. Stop it. Just sit back and rest. We’ll be at your parents soon.”
And I’m going to kick that door open and roll you out into their front yard. God bless Walt and Marsha. They’d have their hands full tonight.
“No, no. I can’t let you do this.” Brad reached for the steering wheel again. “Move over. I’ll move over there, and I can drive you back home.”
Ellie pushed her arm against his chest. “Brad! Knock it off!”
Brad’s hand curled around the steering wheel. He started to fall back but he kept his hand tight on the wheel. The car jerked to one side and off the road then back again.
Ellie slammed her elbow down hard onto his wrist and knocked his hand loose.
It was too late.
The car left the road and careened into the darkness.
The deafening cacophony of shattering glass and crunching metal was the last thing she heard before the darkness consumed her.