by Juliana Haygert
Publication date: November 10th 2014
Genres: Contemporary, New Adult, Romance
It’s been four years since twenty-year-old Jessica Hayes has been home, but when she discovers her father is dying, she must return to her hometown in South Carolina and face her past. Jessica thought patching up her relationship with her father would be her biggest challenge, but when she runs into Ryan Dawson—the catalyst of all her problems—she wonders if coming home was a mistake.
Ryan knows he screwed up. Hell, he paid the price…with interest. But when he runs into his best friend’s little sister, Jessica, he’s reminded that his debt will never truly be paid. He may have turned his life around, but he can’t undo the damage. So, he does what he should have done all those years ago. He stays away from Jessica, and all the other personal demons that still haunt him.
Jessica thought she wanted nothing to with Ryan, but something is different about him and she needs to know why. When she discovers the truth behind his change, she puts her troubles aside and tries to help him. But is putting her heart back in the line of fire worth disrupting her stable life back in Ohio, or will the past repeat itself, leaving her brokenhearted once again?
Excerpt 01As Luke and Jason chatted about the next race, I leaned against the rail, looking at the stars. After that night under the stars with Jessica, the night she told me I could be anything I wanted to be, I never looked at the night sky the same way. It was like the stars and I shared a secret, as if the night sky knew something about me that no one else did.Ryan
Jason leaned on the rail beside me. “What’s up?”
“Nothing.” I glanced over my shoulder. “Where’s Luke?”
“He went to the car to grab a bottle of whiskey.”
“Oh.” Maybe it was time for me to leave. Seeing the guys drinking whiskey while I had to hold back was probably a bad idea.
I looked around, trying to remember where I had parked my car.
“She didn’t come,” Jason said. He must have misinterpreted me and thought I was looking for his sister. “Rachel and Sophie stopped by the house and tried to convince her to come, but since you told her about your past, she’s been quiet. Well, quieter.”
I frowned. “Why?” He shrugged. “I didn’t tell her so she would feel bad about it. I told her because I realized she would find out one way or other. Better if it came from me.”
Jason nodded. “I know.” He tilted his head at me. “Are you okay?”
I chuckled—a sarcastic sound. “Never been better.”
With a hint of pity in his eyes, he placed a hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “You know I’m here for you, man. Whatever the problem is.”
“I know, J-man.” I sighed. However, there was nothing to be done. My problem was with the past, and unfortunately, I couldn’t change it. Neither could I let it go.
Luke showed up with the whiskey bottle. “Dude, it took me a few minutes to find it. I thought I had forgotten it.”
I glanced at the bottle, then at Jason. Comprehension spread across his face.
“Luke, maybe we shouldn’t drink that tonight,” Jason said.
Luke’s face fell, but a second later, he nodded. “Right. Of course.”
“Nah, it’s okay.” I pushed against the rail. “I have to wake up early tomorrow, so I’m gonna go. But you guys should drink that whiskey and have a good time.”
“Ryan, you don’t need to go,” Jason started.
I shook my head. “No, I do.” I wasn’t kidding about waking up early. After all, I had to be at the Habitat for Humanity site at eight sharp. As much as I wanted to stay and drink—Coke—with them, I knew my mood wasn’t great for company. “See you guys soon.”
Jason and Luke smacked my shoulder as I walked past them. The party went on as I walked by. I smiled, but inwardly, I envied them. I still had a wild night here and there, but if I could help it, they happened rarely. Meanwhile, these people could drink and stay out all night long. They could have fun; they could enjoy themselves, guiltlessly.
With a long exhale, I slipped into my Mustang and pulled away before I gave in to temptation and joined them.
RyanShe stared at me with misty eyes. “I’m sorry … for what happened and for not being here for you.”
I took her hand in mine. “Jess, stop apologizing. It wasn’t your fault, and you didn’t know. Even if you knew, I wouldn’t have wanted you to see me that way.”
She squeezed my hand. “I’m glad you’re okay now.”
I wouldn’t say I was okay, but I was getting there. “Me too.”
The corner of her lips tugged up in a sad smile, and an urge to wrap my arms around her, pull her to me, and kiss her until she couldn’t breathe hit me. She was close, too close. Her gorgeous legs two inches from mine. All I had to do was tug her hand and catch her when she bumped into me. Fuck, I wanted it. I wanted her. Bad.
The desire took hold of me. I raised my free hand and brushed a strand of her hair behind her ear, letting my fingertips linger on her cheek. She took a sharp inhale and her eyes flickered to my mouth.
Fuck, that was all the incentive I needed. I leaned in.
And her cell phone rang.
Startled, Jessica stepped back and looked at her phone. Her brows furrowed, and she pressed the end button. Maybe it was her boyfriend, and she didn’t want to answer it in front of me.
Shit, she had a boyfriend. Why did I keep forgetting that?
Jessica picked up the cups from the counter. “I should take this to the girls.” Without another look at me, she rushed out to the backyard.
Fuck, what had I been thinking? I almost kissed her. I wanted to kiss her. She had a boyfriend. If he hadn’t called, I would have probably kissed her. What was wrong with me? Even if she was spending some time with me, she was unavailable and I would respect that. I would try to respect that.
Obviously, my feelings for her were still too strong, but I couldn’t go down that road again. It hurt too much. And, one way or another, I would end up hurting her. Because that was all I did. I messed up and hurt everyone who cared about me.
Grunting, I turned to the fridge, and instead of getting another Coke, I found a beer.
JessicaI drove to Lexington Square, the main park downtown, and the place where Ryan and I kissed for the first time. And many more times. This was the place where the magic had started, and where it ended. This is the place I last saw him before leaving town. This was the place everyone last saw me before I left.
I cut the engine of the truck in a parking space around the park.
The sun was setting. Its orange and reddish rays licked the graying sky, only a few clouds spoiling the beauty. It was a gorgeous view, which made me wonder, where was everyone? Oh yeah, at the bike show, silly me. Bike shows were always the main attraction whenever there was one.
I walked to the northern most point of the park, where a small circular plaza overlooked a fountain. I hid under the shadow of a tree around the circle and sat on the pavement, pulling my legs close.
I inhaled deeply, letting the air carry the memories to me. I needed to feel them, to see them, to swallow past them. But they hurt more than I remembered. They scorched their way into me, into my heart, and I gasped, fighting the tears.
I had been too young, too blind, too innocent. If I could, I would have skipped my teenage years. All of them. Nothing good happened until I went to live with my grandma. There, at my new high school, nobody knew me, nobody knew my past, and I was able to start over, to be someone else, someone stronger, wiser.
I wish I had been stronger and wiser before. Maybe then, things would have been different.
Did it really matter? I had already admitted to myself that I wouldn’t have done anything different, so why lie to myself? Yes, there were days I wanted to change the past, there were days I wanted to forget, but deep down I knew it didn’t matter. If I could go back in time, I would have done everything the same, down to my last mistake.
I just wished Ryan had done things differently. I wished my papa had done things differently too. Which was selfish. Ryan and Papa were guilty, but so was I.
Drowning in my thoughts, I startled when a car cut its lights in the parking spot behind the plaza. I didn’t notice it was dark already, and I didn’t even see it arriving.
Not in the mood to be found, by strangers or not, I squirmed closer to the tree, hoping the shadows would hide me.
The person skulked to the plaza, kicking some loose stones, hands buried inside jean pockets. I noticed, by the larger frame, it was a man, wearing a black baseball cap that covered his head. When he stepped into the plaza and looked at the fountain, I recognized that strong chin and that chiseled jaw.
My heart skipped a beat before hammering against my ribs.
Trying to be sneaky, I crawled backward, reaching for the tree trunk. I wanted to retreat, hide behind the tree, and tiptoe back to my car before he could even suspect he wasn’t alone in the plaza.
Instead, my foot rolled over a loose stone and I slipped, hitting my head and back hard on the cement ground. I let out a raw yelp and pressed my eyes shut as if the action would send the pain away.
“Jessica?” Ryan asked.
The girls stayed until four in the morning, and they only left because, according to our neighbors, we were making too much noise, which was true. We made chocolate popcorn, watched a tearjerker movie, and then sat on the back porch and talked—and laughed and yelled—for a long, long time.Jessica
“Thank goodness, Ryan told you about what happened,” Sophie said.
“Poor guy,” Rachel said. “He hasn’t been the same since you left.”
Slimy, thick guilt took over my heart. It hadn’t left me by Sunday evening or Monday morning, and it was because of that guilt that I called Mama in the afternoon and asked her to bake a special Devil’s Food cake. After work, I stopped by the house to retrieve it, and then drove back downtown.
I parked the truck behind the Mustang. As I expected, the garage was open and Ryan was leaning over the Harley in the same fashion he was a week ago. Damp hair, bare back, jeans, and boots.
I swallowed. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to come over after all. Before I could chicken out, Ryan turned around and saw me. His eyes widened at first, then narrowed into thin slits. He stood from his crouch as I opened the truck’s door and walked inside the garage.
“Hi,” I said, feeling incredibly lame.
“Hey.” He grabbed a towel from one of his toolboxes and wiped his hands.
“I-I brought you this.” I extended the cake toward him.
His eyebrows shot up. “Devil’s Food cake.”
“Yes. It used to be your favorite.
“It still is.”
“Good.” Seeing as he wouldn’t take it from me, I stepped to the side, and left the cake on one of the worktables.
Ryan stared at me, his hazel eyes completely lost, and I returned the stare. I wasn’t sure what I was doing, but I wouldn’t back down. I would be here for him, even if he didn’t want me to.
I sat down on a stool next to his bike. “So, why haven’t you finished this one yet?”
He picked up the black shirt over one of the toolboxes, hiding his incredible physique, then crouched between the bike and me. “I did spend quite some time away.”
Damn, couldn’t I have touched a lighter subject? “Sorry,” I whispered.
Ignoring my apology, he continued, “Besides, I like working on it. If I finish too fast, I’ll have to find another one to play with.” My gaze shifted to the other bike, to his racing bike, destroyed against the wall. “I didn’t fix that one after the accident. It’s a good reminder of how stupid I can be.”
“Sorry,” I said again.
He shot me a hard stare. “Stop apologizing, Jessica.”
While Juliana Haygert dreams of being Wonder Woman, Buffy, or a blood elf shadow priest, she settles for the less exciting--but equally gratifying--life of a wife, mother, and author. Thousands of miles away from her former home in Brazil, she now resides in Connecticut and spends her days writing about kick-ass heroines and the heroes who drive them crazy.
Co-founder and contributor at NA Alley (www.naalley.com)
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