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DIRTY SHAME CopyrightŠ 2016 by Tess Oliver

This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locale or organizations is entirely coincidental.

All Rights are Reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.




“I’ve been waiting for you, Kellan.” Lilly leaned back on her hands, bracing them against the table as she spread her knees wide. “Huh. Seems you forgot your panties, Lil” “Nope.” She lifted her hand off the desk and twirled the lacy panties around her forefinger. Lilly was one of those girls every guy had had wet dreams about in high school. Even now, seven years after graduation, she was still a master at the art of teasing. I scrubbed my hand through my hair and glanced back to make sure no one, especially Lilly’s homicidal boyfriend, had followed me into the room. The club owner had thrown a metal table, a metal bench and a few rusted lockers into a storage room and called it a locker room. Everything about The Hole, the local bar and front for a backroom gambling club, was makeshift. The whole place was a health inspector’s nightmare, the relics yanked out of the local dump to pose as furniture, the cracked beer mugs and wobbling barstools, the gritty sound system and the flimsy fight ring mat, which smelled like a mixture of blood, sweat and the dirty dishwater the owner, Scott Lowe, used to rinse off the sticky remnants of a night of fighting. But for some damn reason Dawson, Tommy and I spent half our spare time in the pieced together shit hole. “Lilly Upton,” I said with a sigh as I walked over to the lockers, “it seems you’re trying to get me killed before I even step into the ring with Jigsaw.” Lilly’s boyfriend, Jake, had earned the nickname Jigsaw because he tended to leave his opponents in pieces. I hadn’t stepped into the ring with him in months, but the last time we’d fought, it had been called a draw. We’d both been itching for a rematch.

“Now, that is not a nice thing to say. You know I always come to see you when I’m in town,” Lilly crooned. I shoved my phone and hat into the locker and grabbed out the hand tape. I walked over to the table where Lilly still sat with her thighs spread wide open in invitation. She reached up and rubbed her fingers along the beard stubble on my jaw. “I get hot just hearing your name, Kellan Braddock. And when I heard that you were fighting Jake tonight, well . . .” She licked her bottom lip, dropped the panties on the table and took hold of my wrist. Her green eyes glittered wickedly as she pushed my hand under her skirt and against her wet pussy. “Do you see what I mean? Now, why don’t you put me out of my misery, sweetie, and fuck me right here on this table Or are you afraid it will sap your energy for the fight?” I shook my head. “Got plenty of energy. But if Jigsaw walks in on us, I think we’re both going to see an early grave.” Lilly smiled. “Can’t think of a better way to go, can you?” I walked back over to the locker and yanked off my shirt. Lilly watched with interest as I kicked off my boots and jeans. Her laugh plinked off the tile wall. “Looks like you’re just as ready as I am.” I grabbed my fight shorts and a condom from my jeans before I shoved the pants back into the locker. I walked over to the metal bench. It scraped the rough cement floor as I shoved it in front of the door. Not that a metal bench would stop a monster like Jigsaw from coming into the room, but I figured it’d give me a few seconds to at least push Lilly safely out the back window. “Nice perfume,” I noted as I settled in between her thighs. “Thanks. Jake bought it for me.” She wrapped her arms around my neck and kissed me. Her hands smoothed over my shoulders. Her fingers stopped at the tattoo on my arm. She pulled her mouth from mine and sighed. “Do you know how many hearts you broke with this damn tattoo? Including mine?” She leaned over and ran her fingers along my arm. “I see you’ve added some ink to cover it.

Shame her name is still visible.” She clucked her tongue. “And off she went, clear across the country to get engaged to someone else.” I clenched my jaw, shoved my hands up her skirt and wrapped my fingers around her ass. I yanked her closer to the edge of the table and pushed my cock against her pussy just enough to make her suck in a long breath. “Do you want to reminisce about the past, Lil? Or do you want to fuck? Cuz I’m expected in the ring in ten minutes.” Lily wrapped her legs around my waist. “You always know exactly what I want, Kellan Braddock.”


An email came through from Bloomington Publishing House. An email was never good news. An email was never a job offer. I barely glanced at the first line stating how much they appreciated my interest in the position, but . . . There was always a but, it seemed. Sometimes it was followed by overqualified sometimes by under-qualified or the even less inspiring just not a right fit. That was my favorite as if I was interviewing to wear a tight spandex suit instead of to work as an editor. I’d left behind my perfectly wonderful editor position in Pennsylvania to follow my fiancé to New York. He’d gotten a job on Wall Street, the kind of job he’d been working his entire adult life to nab. I’d had no choice but to give up my own life for his. I shoved my phone back into my purse and headed through the tall sliding glass doors of the high rise. I had planned to surprise Chase for lunch but I was hoping I would have good news to share. This particular interview had left me feeling ridiculously optimistic. Obviously dozens of interviews had made me slightly delusional. Sparkling white marble and copper trim made the reception area of the Moore and Associates office anything but receptive. It was a cold, inhospitable place to work, but Chase got up every morning with a huge grin and his phone stuck to his ear making trades and deals. I badly wanted something I could wake up to with enthusiasm, other than the new pumpkin spice coffee I’d bought, which was, in dull morning terms, sheer delight. Margo or Margaret or whatever the heck the receptionist’s name was barely lifted her fake eyelashes as I walked past. Chase wasn’t exactly corner office material yet, but he had a good sized, nicely polished office near the hub of assistants and junior brokers working in the main room.

The constant ringing of phones and frenzied sales pitches followed me along the green tile floor to Chase’s office. The wooden blinds were down over the front window, which meant he was either on a conference call or out. I decided to wait inside tucked comfortably into one of his tufted chairs. It would give me a chance to wade through the million links Mom had sent me to check out wedding stuff. The wedding was eight months away, and I was already sick of it. Unfortunately, Chase, my mom and my future mother-in-law had scoffed at my suggestion of us eloping to Las Vegas. After all, I was just the bride to be and had no real say in the matter. I hoped Chase’s bottle of brandy was out for a quick sip. Chase wouldn’t care either way that I didn’t get the job, but I was feeling plenty downtrodden about the whole thing. Rejection was not great for self-esteem. I opened the door, and suddenly, being turned down for the job was the best thing that had happened all day. Chase stood over his desk with his pants around his thighs and his white ass staring at me, almost mocking me as it contracted and thumped against Cynthia, the pert little woman who Chase had hired as his assistant. Cynthia’s usually crisp pencil skirt was shoved up above her waist, and she groaned like a sick kitten as Chase slammed against her. His massive mahogany desk, the one he’d taken weeks to choose and that came with a three year payment plan, wobbled beneath them. I wasn’t sure what was making me move or breathe or stay standing on my feet. The whole thing was weirdly surreal. Shock. That’s all I could come up with. Shock was keeping me upright. The two were so engrossed in their office business they hadn’t even heard my footsteps or my stunned, disgusted gasp. I’d left the door wide open. Unfortunately, the clamor of phones and voices in the center room was drowning out the couple’s lovely sound effects. I walked calmly over to the blinds and pushed the button to lift them. The tall red head woman who worked at the desk just across from Chase’s office was the first to notice. Her mouth formed an O, and she immediately leaned out of her cubby to grab the attention of her neighbor. “Having a nice day at work, sweetie?” I asked, the waver in my voice was the first indication that I was about to come apart at the seams.

Chase swung around, his brown eyes wide with shock. A small crowd had gathered outside the window. My fiancé’s face went from the pink shade of wild sex to the chalky white shade of nausea. He yanked free of Cynthia. She fell to her knees in front of the desk. A string of long, high-pitched screams followed as she struggled to pull down her tight skirt. She nearly crawled on her hands and knees out of the office. I almost felt sorry for her. Almost. The expression on Chase’s face was somewhere between horrified and suicidal as he swung shut the door and lunged for the switch on the blinds. They rolled down at a snail’s pace. Impatiently, he reached for the bottom and yanked on it, ripping the blinds from the window. I wasn’t completely sure how I was holding it together, but the last thing I wanted was to break down in front of him. He grabbed roughly hold of my arm and dragged me out of view of the window. “Fucking hell, Rylan, you might have just cost me my job.” I laughed. “Me? I wasn’t the one bent over my three thousand dollar desk. How is that desk by the way? Holds up nice for a good afternoon romp, I see. I came by to ask if you wanted to have lunch and discuss some wedding plans. But since I’m feeling a little sick to my stomach now and since the wedding plans are pointless, I think I’ll just leave.” The first hint of tears burned the back of my eyes. I blinked them away. I tried to squiggle out of his grasp. His gray slacks and expensive Italian leather belt, a birthday gift from me, hung open. He was a man who I’d dropped everything for, my nice job, my friends, the cute little house I’d been renting. Now he’d pulled something so unimaginable, I was still trying to figure out if I was actually awake or stuck in some tawdry nightmare. I tried, again, to free myself from his grasp, but it only made him tighten his hold more. He seemed to be searching for words to explain away what had just happened. I was pretty sure no such words existed. And so the slick talking, big shot salesman was speechless and, from what I could tell, thoroughly embarrassed. But I was certain he was more concerned about how he’d face his coworkers and eventually his boss after the lascivious show he’d just put on for the entire main floor.

“If you think I’m going to run out of here in a big drama scene, you can stop worrying. I’m saving the drama scene for when I’m all alone. I won’t even give you the satisfaction of seeing me with a broken heart. Actually, interestingly enough—” I finally wrenched my arm free of his hold. I tapped my chest. “I’m not even sure I’m feeling properly heartbroken.” My mind unexpectedly floated back to my high school years and to Kellen Braddock and the way he used to make my stomach flutter just by walking into a room. He’d been a teenage infatuation, an infatuation that had ended in true heartbreak and disappointment and a hurricane of tears. What I was feeling right now, in Chase’s posh office that smelled of a mixture of wood polish and sex, was not heartbreak. Disappointment yes, but not heartbreak. And the disappointment fell more on my shoulders. I was disappointed in myself for becoming too dependent on the man standing in front of me with another woman’s coral pink lipstick on his disheveled collar. Chase flinched at my words. “Ry, just go home, and I’ll meet you there in a little while. I need to talk to Jasper. He’s a manager and has the ear of the owner. He’ll know what to do.” I watched with a layer of amusement as he calmly buttoned his pants and buckled his belt. “Yes, in this situation the most important person, the first person you should talk to, is, naturally, your boss. Because this affects him gravely, while this is nothing more than a missed lunch date and awkwardly bad day for me.” He reached for me, but I ducked out of the way. “No, you don’t get to touch me. When you get home, after you grovel at your boss’s feet to ask forgiveness, rest assured that you won’t need to rehearse any bullshit apology for me because I won’t be interested in anything you have to say. You’re not the man I thought you were, and another thing—the sex just wasn’t that mind-blowing. There were a lot of theatrics added in for your benefit. You seemed to need it.” I glanced at my engagement ring, a glistening two carat diamond that he’d insisted on buying. It had been far more showy than anything I would have chosen for myself, but stupidly, I’d gone along with it, just like I had gone along with everything else. “This rock, I’m keeping. I earned it.” I turned to leave. “You’re overreacting, Rylan. It was just a—”

I spun back around. “A midday fuck? I’m not overreacting. If I were, then I’d be screaming and crying and wasting tears on you.” His expression softened, and I was sure I was looking at Chase’s version of heartbreak. I was glad to see it. “Come on, babe, let’s talk about this later. It was just a stupid decision. It won’t happen again.” I stared at him. I thought about that first day I’d met him on campus. I’d been grumbling angrily at the vending machine that had swallowed my money and produced no coffee. He’d stepped in and saved the day with one solid smack on the machine. I thought he was brilliant and incredibly handsome. I hoped, then, that I’d found the person who could make me forget all about the boy I’d left behind in Bluefield. But considering my engagement to Chase had just come to an ugly, abrupt end and the first place my mind had gone was to Kellan, a person I hadn’t seen or talked to in seven years, it seemed I hadn’t found that person after all. Unshed tears made my eyes ache as I took a deep breath. “Don’t you see, Chase? I’ll never be able to trust you again. I gave up everything to follow you here, but I can’t stay. I don’t want to stay.” I hurried out before he could say another word. Curious onlookers quickly averted their eyes and pretended to be engrossed with the papers and computers on their desks. I stared straight at the tile floor as I scurried to the elevator. It felt as if a hundred pairs of eyes were boring holes through the back of my sweater as I waited the interminably long period of time for the elevator to arrive. I was relieved that Chase hadn’t followed. He might very well stay hidden in his office until the entire building cleared out for the night. I know I would. I jumped inside the elevator and crossed my arms tightly around myself, working hard to keep from falling apart. I hurried out of the building and ran for the small park on the street corner. Crisp fall weather was withering the tree leaves into papery yellow foliage, creating a perfectly autumn landscape. The colors reminded me of Bluefield. Homesickness tapped lightly at my chest as it often did. I’d left my hometown with hardly a glance back. My parents had viewed my life away from home as a vacation opportunity. They’d always traveled to me. I also knew deep down that

they’d come my direction to keep me away from Bluefield and from the boy who they’d considered an unsuitable match. Kellan had been the one giant source of discontent between my parents and me, and I’d fought and defied them every step of the way. But in the end, it had been Kellan who dropped me. No explanation or apologies for why he’d decided to ignore my existence. That had been true heartbreak. There couldn’t have been any other explanation for the bitter, sickening feeling that’d invaded my entire body and soul when Kellan turned away from me. It had made leaving Bluefield that much easier. Two pigeons eyed me optimistically for a lunch treat as I sat on the park bench. I pulled out my cell phone. There was only one person who I could think I wanted to talk to, and the second I heard his deep, confident voice I crumpled into a distraught, little girl. “Daddy, it’s me. It’s all gone to hell here. I’m ready to come back home.”


I scooted several feet along the rock floor. The ribs in the shaft were no more than four feet high leaving me little brow room to move without crowning my miner’s cap on the roof. On days like today, after hours spent hunched over and on my knees, the black dusty chamber felt suffocating. Occasionally, if I thought too much about the tons of earth surrounding me, if I let the impossible physics of it all get into my head, my work space would close in on me and a moment of complete panic, a grim sense that I’d been buried alive would grab me. During those fleeting moments of uneasiness, I had trouble facing the bleak reality that much of my adult life would be spent below the surface of the earth where sunlight was as foreign as fresh air. In other instances, when I’d finished securing a mined out section, leaving behind a safer vault for others to walk through, I would feel calmed by the solid feel of the underground passages, the maze of coal pillars, the sense that I was walking in the same footsteps as my dad and granddad, holding up the family tradition. A fine spray of black dust covered my safety goggles as the bolt twisted through rock. It was the final roof bolt of the morning. Dawson, my work partner and long time best friend, signaled that he was finished. He pulled off his knee pads and headed out to the gallery. The gallery passageway led to the underground station where the lunch tables were set up. Dawson and I had both grown up on the south side of town, although, technically, it wasn’t so much south as it was below the railroad tracks. The tracks moonlighted as a long border of steel and wood that cut the south side shabby neighborhoods apart from the wealthy end of Bluefield. Dawson had grown up with three sisters, an iron-fisted dad and little else. We’d managed to get into a fucking lot of trouble on our journey to adulthood, and we weren’t all that great at avoiding it now, even at the ripe old age of twenty-five. But we always had each other’s backs. Aside from the obvious choice of

a Victoria’s Secret model, there wasn’t anyone else on the planet I could think of who I’d want to be trapped in a mineshaft with, if that was an ugly fate I ever faced. A rock fall at this depth would make rescue difficult and survival for long unlikely. So I’d decided long ago that I was lucky to have Dawson with me. If I had to die a slow, agonizing death of suffocation, I wanted my best buddy to be right next to me cracking jokes until the end. Dawson and I were in charge of moving in behind the continuous mining machine and its operators to secure the roof of the cleared sections. A dangerous job but one I was glad to do next to Dawson. The light on my helmet glowed down over the dial as the torque wrench reached the proper pressure amount. The bearing plate was set. My machinery hissed and sighed as I shut it down. My stomach grumbled with hunger as I crouched beneath the brow and found my way to the gallery where I was able to straighten my legs and back for the first time since I’d stepped off the man trip, the low profile vehicle that carried the miners down to the work sections. I unbuckled my knee pads and tossed them over my shoulder. I traveled along the haulage way, the long underground corridor used to transport coal to the surface. Float dust, tiny particles of coal, circulated through the air like microscopic bugs as I made my way to the underground station, a series of subterranean rooms set aside for lunch break, first aid, storing equipment and charging batteries. Two headlights shifted side to side as a truck crawled toward me. I raised my hand to block out the blinding glare and saw it was Jason Meade’s vehicle. Like Dawson, I’d gone to school with Jason. But he was no friend. Being the son of one of the owners of Bluefield Mine, Jason had slipped conveniently into a managerial position. Since he hadn’t actually earned the position, the crew liked to call him Honorary Boss when he was out of earshot, or, when pissed at him, to his face. It usually made his nostrils flare wide like a raging bull. The light on my hard hat and the long reflective strips on my coveralls glowed back at the truck, but it continued rolling toward me. I waved to let them know I was on the path, but the asshole seemed to be playing a lopsided game of chicken with me. It didn’t take too much common sense to

know that the half ton truck would win the game. I pressed close against the wall. Loose debris sloughed off as my shoulder skimmed the wall. The fucker was obviously in a shitty mood, and if there was one person Jason hated, it was me. The truck had no side-view mirrors, making it more streamlined for narrow passages. It was just an inch from the same wall I walked along. I hurried my pace to the first man hole, a crevice dug into the wall so a worker could safely duck out of the path of the hauling vehicles. But this was no hauler, this was just one pig-faced, spoiled asshole getting his kicks for the day. Jason Meade, or Mean Meade, his well deserved high school nickname, had had it out for me since I’d defended a kid from his bullying back in high school. I’d laid Jason flat out on the hallway floor, an incident that had nearly gotten me expelled. Jason’s just as mean father had taken out his wrath on my dad by demoting him from hauler to the menial task of scaling debris from the mine walls, a job that’d ended up collapsing his already damaged lungs. I slipped into the crevice just as the truck reached me. I could see two heads in the cab. Meade never went anywhere without his thickheaded yes man, Sean Gilly. I waited in the crevice for the truck to roll past. Instead it stopped, wedging me tightly between the rock wall of the manhole and the passenger side of the pickup. After crawling on my hands and knees with tons of earth above my head all morning, the last place I wanted to be was wedged into the tight pocket of rock. The window rolled down and Gilly’s goofball smirk landed in the spotlight produced by my helmet. Meade held his hand up to block the light as he leaned forward. “Dim that light, bolt boy. Can’t see you hovering in the crack. You look just like a fucking lizard hiding in the rocks.” Meade always had a good time laughing at his own jokes. I reached up and dimmed the light on my helmet. The diesel smell of the truck was quickly filling the fissure. “Just heading to lunch, boss,” I said the word with enough emphasis to assure him that I thought of him as anything but a boss. “What do you want?”

Meade had a wide forehead with close set eyes that made him look just about as dumb as a person could look. His lips flattened to his infamous Meade grin. “How do you know I needed something, Kelly boy? Maybe you were just in my way.” In high school, Meade had decided it was much more fun to call me Kelly than my real name Kellan. I let him because I didn’t really care what came out of his mouth. He laughed again and chucked Gilly on the shoulder. “Told you he’d get antsy like a little girl if he was stuck in a refuge hole.” He lowered his fat face to get a better look at me. “You’re the only guy down here who gets wormy about being in a confined space. Kind of hilarious, since you’re, no doubt, bound for an early grave. It also proves that you have no right to wear a miner’s cap. You should be out shoveling manure on a dairy farm or something, just you and all the fresh air and shit you need.” I was hungry and my back was aching. Boss or not, I was done with him. “Seems like I’m already surrounded by a lot of shit just standing here.” Like any true born asshole, Meade only got a kick out of jokes when he was handing them out. “You fucking lowlife, Trog. I could have you kicked out of this mine with one phone call. Then you’d have to beg in the streets to feed that crazy mom of yours. How’s she doing, anyhow? Heard she’s getting old and forgetful already.” I stared at him and wondered briefly how easily I could just kill the fucker and drag his body through the shaft to the area that was slated for backfill. “I guess we better let you take your lunch break, so you can get back on your hands and knees again, bolt boy.” The truck moved an inch. I was ready to jump from the manhole when it stopped again. “By the way, figured you probably hadn’t heard this down below the tracks, but Rylan is moving back home.” He’d been working to get a rise out of me by insulting my mom and reminding me that he had the power to fire me, but his last statement was the one that knocked the breath from me. And because I

was never good at hiding the way I felt about Rylan, Meade picked up on it right away. “She’s left that fancy Wall Street fiancé of hers, and she’s coming back to stay with her parents. Not that it should matter to you because you’re going to keep your fucking distance from her.” He exchanged a smirking wink with Gilly. “I’m sure you wouldn’t want a repeat of that ugly little scene from graduation night. Trogs stay below the tracks, and Highlanders stay above. That hasn’t changed even if we’ve been out of school for seven years. Got that, Trog?” His stupid-ass warnings were barely registering past the idea that Rylan was coming home. Suddenly, all I could think about was that stubborn little curl on the side of her bangs that she was constantly tugging at to tame, or the way she would put on lipstick or the way she would peel an orange. And that glimmer of a smile that she always flashed to get whatever the hell she wanted from anyone. It was like her secret weapon that was anything but secret. “Hey, Trog, you listening?” I focused back on the two pillowy faces staring at me from the truck. Everyone else underground was covered head to toe with black coal dust, but Meade always managed to look fresh and pink like a newborn baby’s ass. During my grandfather’s generation, the kids on the north side of town came up with the label of Trog for the kids living on the south end of town, where most of the men worked down in the mine. At the same time, they’d labeled themselves Highlanders, a completely misplaced label if there ever was one. “Yeah, I’m listening. You just can’t let go of those glory days at Bluefield High, can ya?” The news that Rylan was coming back had stirred me plenty, but I forced a stone face. “If we’re done here, I need to get to the station. Unless you want me to piss on the side of your truck, which would be fine with me.” He grumbled something to Gilly. The truck inched forward and stopped. Gilly pushed open his door just enough to shove the edge of the door hard against me. I heard glass crack and the light on my cap went out. The door edge jammed into my chest and forced me against the back of the crevice. “You’ve been warned, Trog. Now get to the station and pick up another light, or I’ll cite you for a safety violation.”

Gilly pulled the door shut, and the truck rumbled down the passage. I stepped out of the hole and was faced with complete darkness. Most of the men were on break, and the haulage way was deserted and void of any light. I dragged my gloved hands along the rough, uneven wall as I stumbled blindly along trying to figure out how many steps I needed to reach the cross entry, the passage that would eventually get me to the station. Splintered light from different sections of the mine produced just enough shadows as my eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness. I felt my way to the end of the main gallery, then I turned left onto the crossing passage that would take me to the lunch area. I followed the low rumble of voices. Yellow light poured through the opening to the lunch area. Three foldout tables had been hauled down to the station for breaks and lunch. Dawson was reaching into his lunch box as I stepped into the clearing. He did a double take. “What happened to your light?” I took off my cap and shook my head, not wanting to waste any of my break time talking or thinking about Meade. I walked to the lockers at the end of the tables, grabbed my ice chest and returned to where Dawson was sitting. I plunked down across from him. The light in the lunch station was dim, and covered as we were in black dust, the only things visible were the whites of eyes and teeth as the crew scarfed down their lunches and bullshitted about things other than work. Dawson shoveled his sandwich into his face and chewed it slowly as he stared at me across the table. He knew me well enough to know that I was off. He swallowed. “Ten minutes ago you were your old self putting up the last support beam, and now you look like someone stole the pudding cup from your lunch box. And that cap light looks as if someone broke it on purpose.” He glanced toward the passage I’d just come from. “You walked all the way in the dark?” “No, little glow in the dark fairies lifted me up by my coveralls and transported me here.”

He lifted his hand. “Fine, you don’t want to talk about it. Got it. I’ll just finish my sandwich. Told you that new spicy mustard was going to be good. Fucking delicious sandwich. Wish I’d brought three. Two won’t be enough.” Dawson and I, along with our buddy, Tommy, had rented a house together just past the edge of town. It was less a house and more a primitively built cabin. The original owner, a crotchety old man who would yell at us if we rode our bikes too close to his place, had died, and someone put up a for rent sign. It was deep in the woods near a river and far enough away from town to make it a cool place to live, even if it was kind of a shit hole. I reached into my ice chest and pulled out my second sandwich. I tossed it to him. “Yeah? You don’t want it?” “Nah, you eat it.” I popped open a can of soda and drank half of it in one long, continuous gulp. The cold liquid washed away the microscopic grit that coated my teeth and tongue. “Well then”—Dawson unwrapped the sandwich I gave him—“this makes up for the lack of interesting conversation since my lunch mate is a fucking bore today.” He lifted his chin. “Hey, you playing poker on Saturday? Heard there’ll be plenty of cash flowing. Sure as hell could use a chunk of change. I already signed up to play. What about you?” “I might play.” “Think Lowe’s setting up a new fight list too.” Dawson glanced down at the new scar on my knuckles. The fight with Jigsaw had gone my way, but it had taken some cracked ribs, a fat lip and a deep cut on my knuckles that needed stitching. Apparently, Jigsaw resorted to biting when he thought his number was up. “Your hand is healed. You going to jump in on that? I heard Jigsaw has been stomping around Browning with fire shooting from his nostrils, boasting that he’s ready to show Kellan Braddock his fists again. Are you interested in a rematch?” Most of our opponents came from Browning, the next town over. That way we never faced a neighbor or friend on the mat. “You’re sure as hell are filled with questions today, that’s for damn sure.”

“Well, fuck you. Something sure has you in a knot, Braddock.” Something definitely had me in a knot, but it wasn’t the shitty encounter with Meade. Reluctantly, I picked up my sandwich. I stared at it a second. “She’s coming back,” I said quietly. Saying it out loud twisted my insides up even more. The whites of Dawson’s eyes glowed back at me as he chewed. “Who’s coming back?” “Rylan. Rylan’s coming back home.” Dawson stopped mid-chew. “Aw shit. Here we fucking go again.”


Seven years earlier Kellan squeezed my wrist tightly in his hand as he dragged me through the hallway behind the school gym. The rickety stairway to the roof of the building shuddered as his big black boot hit the first metal step. “Kellan Braddock, where are you taking me?” His smile, the one that he flashed at me in the hallway and in study hall when no one else was looking, sparkled back at me over his shoulder. “Told you we were going stargazing . . . and stuff.” I lifted my satin dress to avoid catching my shoe on the hem. My mom had had her seamstress sew it especially for the senior class graduation party. We reached the top step. I was out of breath, but it wasn’t from climbing stairs. Kellan always had a way of leaving me breathless, no matter what we were doing. He fished a key out of the pocket of his faded jeans. Mr. Trumble, the vice principal and a major numbskull, had nearly barred Kellan from entering the graduation party because of his shabby jeans. Kellan rarely got angry. He’d held his chin high as he told the ignorant man that they were his best pair of pants. Even in the dark shadows of the stairwell, Kellan’s eyes were crystal blue with mischief. Everything about him spelled trouble, and I loved him even more for it. He turned and pushed the key into the lock. “A prim and proper girl would ask why the heck you have a custodial key in your pocket.”

“Now where’s the fun in prim and proper?” The door lock clunked open, and he turned back to me. “I spent so much time in afterschool detention helping Mr. Gray clean the campus, I managed to snag an extra key.” He kissed me once, lightly on the lips, a whisper of what I could expect once we were alone on the roof. Even that brush of a kiss made my knees weaken. “I was probably better off not knowing that little slice of incriminating information.” Kellan pushed open the maintenance door. The cool, early summer night breeze ushered in, carrying with it the fragrance from the party below, a tart mix of popcorn, fruit punch and cheap aftershave. The voices and music were muffled, but the tar paper and gravel roof vibrated in harmony with drumbeats. Kellan pulled me into his arms. No aftershave fragrance. Just the bittersweet, earthy smell of coal, a scent that often lingered on the skin of the kids whose dads worked the mine. It was a residue of sparkling black dust that was always present, and no amount of soap, water and harsh scrubbing could take it away. And it was sometimes the thing I thought about most, after moments like this, moments that always had to be stolen. The coal dust, the faded jeans, the easy smile, they were all part of him, the boy who I had loved since the first day of high school when he’d walked cockily into history class wearing a ripped shirt and his dad’s worn out work boots. The teacher, Miss Mohr, a stout, perpetually angry woman had scowled in disapproval at him as he plunked confidently down in the first row. Kellan was never ashamed of being a Trog, the ugly nickname for the kids who lived below the train tracks. He wore the title proudly just as he wore the shredded jeans, tattered shirt and chalky coal dust. It had been several days since we’d spoken or, more importantly, since we’d touched. We were prisoners of forbidden love, just like Romeo and Juliet but without the poetic, old English double speak and Italian marble balconies. And while our families weren’t warring, our circumstances were so different it made us an unsuitable match, or at least that was what my parents insisted. But in my heart, I was certain they were wrong. All I knew was that standing near Kellan, even up on the flat

roof of the gym with its maze of air conditioning units and electrical boxes, made me feel as if we were the only two people on Earth. And that fantasy suited me just fine. Kellan pulled me over to the edge of the roof where you could look out over the east side of town. A ceiling of stars glittered above. Street lights and house lights flickered below like a massive forest of candles. The stripe of darkness in between the glow of houses and shops was the railroad that cut through Bluefield, the make believe border that separated the two vastly different parts of town. Beyond that was the huge stretch of empty blackness that was the Bluefield Coal Mine. My dad was one of its investors and a member of the board, which made him one of the most powerful men in town. Kellan took hold of my hand and pulled me around to face him. His large callused hand pressed against my cheek. It felt cool and soothing and completely right. The glint in his eyes had faded some, and his tilted smile had disappeared, the creases on the side of his mouth gone with it. “Couldn’t stand another second in that boring as hell dance watching you and wanting you and having to keep my distance. Hell, Lanie, I’ve been waiting all damn day to have you alone. I hate this. I hate having to see you across a room and pretend that I’m not completely fucking nuts about you. I hate that you’re just gonna drive away from here at the end of the week to go off to some faraway college. I’ll be back here in this shitty town thinking about you. You won’t give me another thought.” I pressed my body against his. “Not true. There’s no way I can ever stop thinking about you.” I took his hand and pushed it against my breast. “Feel that. My heart can’t even slow to a normal pace when you’re near me.” He rubbed his thumb over my breast and my nipple hardened beneath the satiny fabric of my dress. Kellan lowered his mouth to mine and kissed me. His kisses were always filled with an edge of urgency mingled with a trace of rage, as if he thought it would be the last time he ever kissed me. And every time his mouth covered mine and I melted into the static charged heat that always surrounded me in his arms, my chest would tighten with the love I felt for him and the horrible dread of not knowing how this could ever end happily.

Kellan pulled his mouth from mine. The lazy smile that I always saw in my dreams formed on his face. “I’ve got something to show you.” He lifted the sleeve of his shirt and pushed it up above his shoulder. He turned slightly. In the shadowy light of the rooftop, I could see puckered pink skin around black ink letters. “You’ve got a new tattoo?” I leaned closer to get a better look. Lanie was written down his arm in fancy script. Kellan had morphed my real name, Rylan, into the nickname, Lanie. He was the only person to call me Lanie, and I’d grown to love it more than my real name just because of the way it sounded when he said it. I covered my mouth with my fingers. I was filled with a mixture of surprise and heartbreak. My throat was too tight for the words to flow. He yanked the shirt down. “I had to have something of yours to keep with me. Shit, say something, Lanie, before I die of embarrassment.” I threw my arms around his neck but couldn’t speak a word. I was overwhelmed with how much he meant to me. We kissed until a brisk wind shot up the side of the building and slipped beneath the flimsy, satin fabric of my dress. A shiver coursed through me. Kellan leaned back and smiled down at me. “Guess it’s colder than I thought for stargazing. We could go back inside.” I shook my head quickly. Inside meant returning to our own corners of friends. Inside meant pretending not to be crazy about each other. Inside meant no kisses and no arms around me. “I’ll be fine. It’s just a little cold.” “I’ve got a sweatshirt in the truck. I’ll run down and get it.” He walked two steps and then swung back around and kissed me again as if we were parting forever. “Stay here. I’ll be right back.” I wrapped my arms around myself. “Hurry back. I’ll be waiting for you.” I watched his broad shoulders disappear through the stairwell door.


Music thrummed through the open doors of the gymnasium. Everyone was still inside dancing and celebrating the end of our school years. No more being treated like a kid. We were being tossed into the adult world to fend for ourselves, but I’d already been doing that for the two years since my dad had died of emphysema. A two pack a day cigarette habit coupled with years working in a coal mine, and especially in the early years of his life when profit had trumped safety, ventilation and the health of the miners, had taken him to an early grave. Even as working conditions below ground improved, his lungs deteriorated. The damage had been done, and there was no coming back from it. I glanced back toward the roof of the gym. Rylan was on the opposite side, and I couldn’t see her from the parking lot. Soon she’d be leaving me to start college and, eventually, a career, and I’d be pulling on my dad’s coveralls and steel toed boots and heading down into the mine. It was something I’d wanted to do since I was a little kid waving good-bye to my dad in the early hours of dawn as he climbed into his truck with his lunch pail and work clothes. It was what I’d been born into, and I was fine with that. But knowing that the one person in the whole damn town who mattered was leaving me to start a better life made everything feel cold and crappy. In a few short days, Rylan would be in a place far away from the constant haze of coal dust and clamor of coal laden box cars, and she’d be far away from me. I trudged across the asphalt to the truck, my inheritance along with a second mortgage on the little house my mom and I lived in. I pulled out my keys, opened the driver door and leaned inside to grab my sweatshirt. I caught the reflection of three faces in my driver’s side window as I shut the door. I swung around sharply. Jason Meade’s thick fist slammed my face before I could duck out of the way. I fell

back against the truck. The salty taste of warm blood filled my mouth, the gross taste of it, reviving me some. I spit at the ground as adrenaline filled every muscle in my body. But as I lunged for Meade, his two sidekicks, Gilly and Lowe, grabbed my arms. The skin around the tattoo burned as Gilly’s fat fingers twisted my arm back. Jason took the opportunity to nail me in the gut, forcing the wind out of me. I sucked in blood from my split lip as I gasped for air. I dropped to my knees, coughing and splattering Meade’s shiny, black loafers with red spit. “Fucking hell, Trog,” he complained, “these are hundred dollar shoes.” In my haze, I saw the toe of his shoe coming at me fast. My reflexes had been muted by the pain in my head and stomach. My teeth clacked shut around my tongue and more blood rushed down my throat. “Hurry and get him tied up. I see some people walking out of the dance.” Meade’s order rained down on the back of my head. I spit another lump of blood out and pushed to my feet. I managed to wrench free my arm from Lowe’s grasp, but in response, Gilly tightened his fingers around my arm and the sore skin surrounding the tattoo. I grimaced in pain enough to catch Gilly’s attention. He grinned as he grabbed the arm tighter and gave the skin an extra hard twist as he yanked my arm behind my back. I swung my fist out as Meade drew near, but my balance and aim were thrown off by the spinning in my head. “Get the car, Lowe,” Meade growled as he turned me around and shoved me hard against the side of my truck. A rough piece of rope was wound around my wrists and tied tightly enough to make it impossible for me to break free of it. Car lights flashed from behind, lighting up the road running adjacent to the parking lot. It was a quiet night, and the only real use of the road was to get to the high school. The car pulled into the lot, but the driver didn’t even look our direction. It was three against one, and I had no use of my arms. Meade and Gilly half-dragged me to the

car. The trunk popped open, and Meade shoved me hard. I fell against the open trunk and kicked out, managing to hit Gilly hard in the knee. Gilly bent over in pain. “Fucking Braddock.” He lifted his red face and shoved me hard with both hands. I fell back into the empty trunk. I struggled to climb back out, but Meade reached up and grabbed the edge of the trunk. His ugly grin appeared. “Better duck, Trog, or this trunk is coming down on your head.” He made good on his threat and pushed the trunk down. I dropped down to my side and curled up in the suffocating darkness of the trunk. I had a thing about small spaces, a stupid ass problem for a future miner. I usually knew how to get past it. But in the cramped trunk with my hands numb and motionless behind me and the pain in my head, I had to suck in long, deep breaths to keep from freaking out. Over the pounding of my head and heart, I could hear their mumbled voices and the tinny sound of the car speakers. I had no fucking clue where they were taking me or what they were planning to do, but something told me this all had to do with Rylan. And it didn’t fucking matter. They’d have to send the car into the lake and let the trunk fill with water if they wanted me to give her up. Meade had always hated me, and he’d had a big thing for Rylan. She’d always made it clear she wanted nothing to do with him, but thickheaded idiot that he was, he chose to ignore that little piece of reality. The car drove along smoothly for what seemed a mile or two. Then my body slid and my head smacked the inside wheel well of the car as it made a sharp left turn. The road beneath the tires crunched over gravel for a few minutes. I couldn’t get rid of the taste of blood in my throat, and the motion of the car was making me sick. We hit several deep ruts in the road that launched me against the top of the trunk. I wanted badly to stretch my legs and even more badly to move my arms. The rope was doing double duty by keeping me shackled and causing all feeling to leave my hands. The ruts meant we’d gone off the road. My sense of direction told me we were heading to the train tracks. A flash of terror went through me. Were they planning on ditching the car on the tracks with me in the trunk? It would be a fucking gnarly death and one I’d prefer not to experience. I had no idea how far Meade would take this or just what’d made him decide to go after me tonight.

The air inside the trunk felt hot and thick as if I was drowning in a pot of soup. My eyes drifted shut, and I was having a hard time keeping them open. Just as I headed toward unconsciousness, the car came to a sudden stop, startling me awake. The motor stopped. The car doors opened and slammed shut. The trunk popped open. Meade’s beady eyes stared down at me. He had a metal baseball bat leaned against his shoulder. “Great,” I said, groggily. “I always love a good game of baseball.” “Yeah?” Meade snarled. “Me too. Only we forgot to bring a ball.” Gilly got a kick out of his comment but then he was the type of guy to laugh if someone tripped and smacked their head on the edge of a wall. Gilly was armed with a shovel, and Lowe had a tire iron. The cool night air was filled with the semi-sweet smell of mossy water. We were near the river. The moon overhead illuminated the smooth arches of the Jackson Bridge. It was a railway bridge built solely for the purpose of running a train north and south. The Fulton River was as wide as it was deep, even when rainfall was below average. A bridge was the easiest and shortest route for the unit train, the long train that carried coal from the mine to other destinations. Meade handed Gilly his bat and used both hands to yank me from the trunk. I swayed on my feet. He shook me hard enough to snap my head back. “Wake up, Trog, we’re taking a little walk.” “Fuck, is this trick or treat session over, cuz I’ll take the treat instead. What the hell do you want from me, Meade?” Meade’s laugh was the kind that could make dogs howl. “Damn, you’re stupid, Kelly boy. Think it should be obvious. You’ve been warned to stay away from Rylan more than once, but you insist on being a dick about it.” He pushed his fat fingertip hard against my shoulder. “You’re a lowlife Trog. You stay on your side of the tracks and stay away from our Highlander women.” I stared hard at him and even though I was tied up, he fidgeted. “There’s nothing you can do to

keep me away from Rylan, so send me off that fucking bridge or tie me to the tracks. I’m not giving her up . . . ever.” He winked at Gilly, who laughed like the big goober he was. “Well, I was picked for this mission by someone who has a big say in Rylan’s life. Her dad is on the Bluefield Mine board of trustees. He wanted me to let you know that you are to stay away from Rylan. Don’t talk to her ever again.” Suddenly, the bat and shovel were nothing compared to the weapon he’d just drawn. I knew Rylan had been fighting with her parents about seeing me. I was sure she’d made up plenty of lies to cover up the times we met. The blood on my mouth had dried, but as I clenched my teeth in anger, the split reopened and the blood flowed again. It rolled down my chin and speckled my shirt. “From the look on your face, Braddock, I guess you understand my message. Your job or Rylan. Easy choice if you don’t want to be living with your mom in the back of your old man’s truck. Although, I think it would be pretty damn funny.” The fist to my stomach was nothing compared to the pounding my gut took with his last words. I hadn’t expected Rylan’s dad to stoop so low, but apparently, I was too fucking clueless or just too nuts about Rylan to have considered that her father hated me that much. Meade’s ugly laugh startled a squirrel from a nearby tree. “Look at that,” he said to his buddies, “guess we finally found a way to seal Kelly boy’s smart mouth for good.” The cold, moist air was doing little to clear the pain in my head. My chest felt as if it was caving in with the weight of the night. I was losing the only person I’d ever cared about. And her dad was behind it all. She’d be leaving Bluefield soon, and by the time she walked into her first college class, I would be brushed from her mind like coal dust on a windy day. “Get on with whatever sadistic fucking thing you have planned for me, Meade. I know you’re not just out here because Graham Merritt sent you to do his dirty work. You’ve been itching to pay me

back for laying you flat in the school hallway. Which, by the way, you fucking deserved. So, get on with it and then leave me the fuck alone. I don’t give a shit anymore.” “Ahh, poor brokenhearted Trog.” He laughed again. The sound of it made me want to puke. “You actually thought you were going to end up with one of our girls, didn’t you?” “She’s not your girl. That’s another reason you’re out here, isn’t it? She hates your guts, and you’re going to take out that stunning slap in the face on me. Let’s get this done.” “Now, where’s the fun in just beating the shit out of you?” Meade checked his watch and motioned for Gilly and Lowe to grab my arms. Gilly licked his thin lips with enthusiasm as he grasped my arm, the one with the name of the girl I loved tattooed permanently in ink. I was all right with it though because nothing would ever erase the way I felt about Rylan. They led me to the tracks, and we walked along the steel rails toward the bridge. The roar of the river grew thunderous, and cold water sprayed at us from below. It was a good twenty foot drop to the river. With the strong current and boulders and dead tree stumps hiding beneath the churning surface, no one had ever survived a jump from the bridge. Of course, the two people who had made the plunge had done it with the intention of killing themselves, so it had worked out fine for them. It was close to midnight, and a long line of empty coal cars would be returning to the mine. I’d walked across the bridge dozens of times, stopping to throw rocks into the river or just to stand and watch an angry storm surge roll beneath it after a big thunderstorm. But I’d never walked it with my hands tied while being led by three goons who believed that people who lived below the tracks were something less than human. We stopped at the middle pylon, the cement post that supported the center of the bridge. The flat top of the pylon stuck out about six inches from the edge of the steel rail. It was not a pedestrian bridge and it was as old as the town itself. There were no barriers or metal wires on the sides. “Step out on that pylon, Kelly boy,” Meade commanded. I looked at him in disbelief. “Just beat the shit out of me and leave me out here to rot.”

“That’s probably still going to happen, Trog. But I thought this would be more fun. I’m letting you have a chance to avoid the gauntlet of pain we’re going to set up for you on that side of the bridge. Now step on that pylon.” My feet were big enough that the toes of my shoes hung off over the edge. Looking down caused a wave of dizziness to pass through me, but I held myself steady. One wrong move and I would fall. In the distance, the chugging sound of an empty train was coming around the last bend before reaching the bridge. “Loosen the rope on his hands but not too much. See, Kelly boy, I’m not completely cruel.” The single headlight of the train was casting shadows in the surrounding landscape as it neared. “I take it back. I am cruel,” he sneered. Gilly loosened the knot some. Instantly, I began rubbing my wrists back and forth to loosen the binding and work my numb hands free. “Head back and wait for me at the end of the bridge,” Meade told Gilly and Lowe. They looked more than happy to get off the tracks. Once the train hit the bridge, there was no way to get out of its path. Even a six inch ledge on the pylon wasn’t safe. The train was close enough to vibrate the bridge. “We’ll be waiting for you at the end of the tracks,” Meade said as he started backing up. “Of course, you have two other choices if you don’t want to give me the satisfaction of beating the shit out of you. You could run toward the oncoming train or you could jump. But I guess those really aren’t great choices, are they?” I stared down at the river below. White frothy ridges glowed in the moonlight. The white foam marked where rocks interrupted the flow of the water. “See you in a few seconds, Trog.” With that, he ran back toward his friends. The three of them waited at the end of the tracks just off the bridge. I could run toward the train for a certain but quick death. I could jump into the river for an almost certain death. Or I could run toward Meade and his

lap dogs for a beating. Far as I was concerned, Meade had already had his fun for the night. The skin peeled away from my hand as I pulled it free from the rope. I quickly shook the binding from my other hand and nearly lost my balance in the process. Like a one-eyed, smoke breathing dragon, the train was barreling through the last stretch of flat land before reaching the bridge. It would sweep me up and tear me apart as it sped past. Meade swung his bat as if he was up at home plate. “Come on, Kelly boy. We’re bored over here.” The train was just five hundred yards from the bridge. The power and weight of it shook the bridge, nearly dislodging me from my narrow cement perch. “You’re not going to make it unless you run fast, Braddock.” There was a slight edge of panic in Lowe’s voice. Of the three, Lowe had always resembled a human being more than the other two. “Run now, you idiot,” Meade yelled. I watched as the train’s big black engine crossed onto the bridge. The long snake of empty cars rattled behind it. I searched in the shadowy water below for the darkest spot. I looked over at the three assholes. Their eyes were wide with fear. “Fuck, Braddock, what the hell are you doing?” Meade yelled. The light on the train illuminated the entire bridge and the turbulent water below. I held my breath to brace for the pain and the icy water. The train reached the center pylon just as my feet left the six inch landing. My arms swung around in a useless attempt to slow my speed. The fall was far enough for me to think about my position. Feet first. Let my feet break my fall. My body sliced into the cold water like a spear. My feet jammed against the rocky bottom. I pushed hard to break free of an icy current that was determined to hold me down. I sucked in a breath as my head shot through the surface. My limbs were already numb with cold as the wild river

quickly picked me up and dragged me away from the bridge and the road. A curve in the river slowed the force of the current. I swam like hell toward shore. *** There was a light on in Dawson’s window. My body was shaking almost uncontrollably by the time I climbed the fence into his yard. I knocked on the window. It took him a second to glance out through the ragged curtain. His eyes went wide when he saw me. “Fuck, Kellan, what are you doing out there?” He pushed open the window and reached out his hand. I grabbed it. “Shit, you’re as cold as an ice cube.” I half fell through his window. Under the dim light in his bedroom, he got a good look at me. His eyes rounded even more. I curled up into a shivering ball on the floor of his room. He grabbed the covers off his bed and threw them over me. He sat down next to me. “What the hell happened?” I shook my head. I was too tired and in too much pain to talk about it. “You gonna be all right?” he asked. I shook my head again. I’d been beaten, thrown into a car trunk and forced to choose between being obliterated by a train, drowned in an icy river or more beating, but all of that would fade away into an ugly memory. There was only one thing that would stick in my mind forever to make it the worst night of my life. I pulled the blanket tight around me. My teeth were chattering so hard it made the pain in my head worse. “I lost her, Dawz. I lost Rylan tonight.”


Present day Mom gave me a half-hearted hug. “My gosh, you’re skin and bones, Rylan. Well, we’ll get you fattened up soon enough.” I was always either too fat or too thin. I had yet to figure out what just right would look like. We’d hardly discussed it, mostly because I’d shut her down on the topic, but I knew she was upset about me calling off the wedding. While she had shown the traditional response of shock and anger about the incident, I also knew her well enough to be certain she was thoroughly disappointed that I wouldn’t be marrying a high power Wall Street man or, more importantly, having a big, glowing wedding. My sister, Angie, was two years older. She’d married Pete, a successful lawyer, straight out of college and had never looked back toward Bluefield again. She’d always complained that it was a dirty city where you woke up every morning to the sound of angry trains and with coal grit between your teeth. Mom was looking for the same suitable ending for her youngest daughter. “Let’s get you settled into your room, Rylan.” Mom had switched her hair color from tawny gold to a champagne blonde with bangs. She was trying hard to scare away the mid-fifties. She’d always been beautiful, and, in my opinion, a little too obsessed about her appearance. I’d been back home only for a few short visits, and each time I’d found it was hard to live under my parents’ roof again. Mom and Dad generally liked to immediately jump into their roles as parents and it made me feel like a little kid. Mom pushed open the door to my bedroom and glanced back with a smile. “Hope you don’t mind, but I’ve been using this as my exercise room.”

I followed her inside. My mom’s idea of a workout had always been chatting on the phone sipping imported water while walking at a leisurely pace on a treadmill until the first drip of perspiration formed on her face. Then she’d be done for the day and treat herself to a well deserved bloody Mary. I looked around the space that used to be my room. Apparently she’d been taking her workouts more seriously. Every manner of machine was set up around the room on spongy black mats. I definitely wouldn’t be wandering through the room in the cloak of night without some major toe stubbing. I glanced back at her. She shrugged her bony shoulders. “Well, Rylan, you were getting married. I never expected you to move back home.” “What about Angie’s room?” “That’s where I’ve set up my hobby and gift wrapping room.” Obviously, my mom had been waiting anxiously for the nest to be empty. She walked over to the drapes and drew them back. Sunlight poured into the room. A dark blue sky peered through the window pane. It was no longer a sky filled with high rises and the gray filtered exhaust from cars and buses. I wouldn’t miss the bustle and stress of the big city at all. I was still undecided on whether or not I’d miss Chase. But for now, I was glad to be home. My cell phone rang. I glanced at it, reluctantly, sure it was yet another call from Chase. He’d tried to come at me from many angles to apologize, even going so far as to concoct some weird, fake confession that he was a sex addict. There just wasn’t any way to wriggle out of the fact that he’d been caught with his pants down, both literally and figuratively. I smiled when I saw that the phone call was my friend, Becky. Mom stood looking expectantly at me as I answered it. I shook my head to assure her it wasn’t Chase. Her shoulders sank in disappointment as she walked out of the room. “Hey, Becky.” “Are the rumors true?” she asked before even saying hello.

“Which rumors?” “I heard you’ve dumped that fancy designer suit and you’re heading back here to coal country where the boys glitter in sparkly coal dust just like the vampires in that Moonlight book.” “I think you mean Twilight, and if you happen to run across Edward Cullen walking around in all his glittery glory in the forests of Bluefield, then please let me know.” “Now, Ry, you know me better than that. I’d tell no one and keep him for myself. I haven’t grown out of my need to be selfish and the center of attention. When are you leaving New York?” I looked at the clock on my nightstand. “About eight hours ago.” She fell silent. If I knew my friend, as I was pretty sure I did, then she was trying to figure out what that meant. “Wait. Do you mean you’re already home?” I glanced around at the display of silver and black exercise machines. My room looked like the workout room in a posh gymnasium. But my bed still had my favorite diamond pattern quilt. It had taken me years to wear it down to the perfect level of softness. I’d had to fight my mom to keep her from tossing it out. “Sort of.” “Huh?” “I’m home, Becky. What’s new in town?” “I’ve got gobs of stuff to tell you. We should go grab a drink at The Hole. We can catch up on gossip, and you can tell me why you left that hunk, Chase, and New York for our lopsided, completely warped town.” “Did you just say The Hole?” She harrumphed into the phone. “I only mentioned the place in about a hundred emails. Did you ever even read them?” “Of course I read them.” Of course, skim would’ve been a more accurate verb in this case. Becky tended to go on about bad hair days and new shoes more than I liked to read about. “I was glad

to get them,” I added, in a more ivory version of a white lie because I had actually looked forward to news from town. Becky had always, it seemed, taken the time to filter out stuff I didn’t want to hear about, namely Kellan and his extremely active social life. “The Hole, it’s the place that Scott owns?” My last words turned upward more like a question than a statement. “Yep and the place is booming. People up here in snooty snoot land thought Scotty was crazy for opening up a saloon on the other side of the tracks, but turns out he was genius.” “I guess things are still going strong between you two?” “We’re still together, but things feel slow, like we’re trudging through mud and not finding a way out. I guess maybe we’re just bored of each other. So, what do you say? I’ll pick you up at eight. Can’t wait to see you.” “I don’t know, Beck. I just got back. And I’m definitely not ready to talk about Chase yet.” “Got it. Chase is a no no on the topic list. Hey, have you talked to ‘you know who’? I was just arguing with Yoli—remember Yolanda from high school? We work at the pharmacy together. She’s friends with Dawson’s sister, Andi, and she insisted that you had not seen or talked to Kellan since graduation night.” Just the mention of graduation night sent an ache through my chest. I’d waited like a silly fool, freezing my butt off in a thin, satiny dress for my Romeo to come back with his sweatshirt. But he never returned. I’d gone back downstairs. His truck was still in the parking lot, so I waited for him to come back to the dance. But I never saw him again. I left the dance an hour later, shaking with tears and wondering if something had happened to him. On my way out, Jason Meade stopped to let me know he’d seen Kellan take off with Lilly Upton. Lilly had graduated two years earlier, and she’d always had a thing for Kellan. I waited for him to call me and explain what the heck was going on, but he’d never tried to contact me again. I left town with a broken heart and the solid notion that I would never come back to Bluefield or talk to Kellan again.

“Yoli is right. I haven’t seen or heard from him since then.” There hadn’t been a day that passed when I hadn’t thought about Kellan, but I decided to keep that to myself and not give Yoli and Becky and everyone else fodder for gossip. As much as Kellan and I had tried to keep our relationship secret, there was just no way anyone with any sense could’ve stood in the same room or hallway or lunch quad with both of us and not realized there was a huge connection between us. Sometimes we’d be sitting at opposite sides in the classroom and I would imagine this sheer, glowing cord stretching across the room, tethered between us. I rubbed my hand across the familiar quilt on my bed. I’d missed it. “So, do all the miners hang out at The Hole?” “Ah ha,” Becky said in a tone that assured me she knew my motive for asking, “and yes, he will probably be there.” “Would you stop with the he and the you know who stuff, Becky, you make Kellan sound like some not to be named monster in a book.” Her curt laugh shot through the phone. “Kellan Braddock is anything but a monster. I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but he’s grown even more gorgeous since high school. And he plows through girls like my chubby cousin, Dave, blows through a bowl of potato chips, indiscriminately and with no end to hunger in sight. I personally think he is just always looking for someone to replace you.” It was my turn to laugh. “He split up with me, remember? Although split up is too soft of a term for it.” There was an uncharacteristic pause from Becky’s end. She was always the first to fill in a lull in a conversation, but it took her a second to respond. “Yeah—well, I think some things are better left in the past.” A dramatic sigh rolled through the phone. “Anyhow, Kellan is such a waste of hotness. It’s just too bad he’s a Trog.” I cringed at the horrid nickname. “Jeez, Becky, speaking of leaving stuff in the past. We’re not in high school anymore. There are no Trogs or Highlanders.”

“Yeah? Tell that to the people on the north side of the tracks. You’ve just been away too long.” “In the real world, you mean? This town is always stuck mid century.” “Yeah, yeah, miss worldly, you’ll have to remember you’re back with us simple folk again. But I’m glad you’re back, Ry. I’m in need of some diversion. What about it? I don’t even mind if you’re just using me for a chance to see Kellan. I will sit and sip my beer and wait with you until he walks in just like the loyal friend I was in high school when I waited with you outside the school for Kellan to get out of detention. Plus, and this is just my professional friend advice, I think you should get it over with, you know? The first meeting and the whole rip off the bandage thing.” “I don’t know if I’m up for it, Becky. I’ll call you later on and let you know.” A quick knock was followed by my dad’s plump face. He was sporting a snow white beard and moustache, a new look for him. “Got to go, Becky. Thanks for calling.” I hung up as Dad stepped into the room. “Oh hey, St. Nick, it’s you. I thought it might be my dad.” He nodded. “That’s right, make fun of your old man just because every strand of hair has gone white.” “You look adorable, and I’m just as happy to see you as I would be to see Santa.” I walked over and threw my arms around him. He wrapped me in his warmth, and the familiar scent of pipe tobacco and his aftershave surrounded me. “I knew that guy was no good the first second I laid my eyes on him,” he said. “Of course, no one will be good enough for my little Rylan.” Reluctantly, I lowered my arms. “It’s done. I’m sort of relieved to be out of the big city.” Dad glanced around the room and shook his head. “Boy, when your mom gets an idea, she goes all out. I just hope all this heavy exercise equipment doesn’t fall through to the first floor.” He combed his fingers through the thinning white hair on his head. “You know, Rylan, the big cities have

a lot more opportunities than a small town like Bluefield. Chase was just one fish. There will be others like him.” I raised a brow at him. “You mean overly ambitious, obsessed with money and unfaithful? Now you sound like Mom, and it sounds like you’re already trying to run me out of town.” “Don’t be silly, Rylan. I’m thrilled to have you back home. You should always remember your roots, but just don’t let yourself get caught up in the silliness of this town.” I stared at him. He reached up and fidgeted with a tiny string on his sweater. I needed no interpretation, and the fact that he was avoiding eye contact made his point glaringly obvious. “Dad, I’m here under your roof again, but I’m not a teenager anymore. I know it’s hard for you to swallow, but you just don’t have any say in my life any longer.” The flicker in his expression was hard to read. It could have been a twinge of anger, or it might very well have been the hurt in knowing that his dad role had been greatly diminished. “I don’t want to argue about things, Rylan. You’ll make the right choices. I have complete confidence in you.” “I will, but they’ll be the choices that are right for me. They might not necessarily line up with the choices you and Mom want me to make.” He sighed, and it was definitely a sigh of irritation. “Your mother has a nice dinner planned. We’ll talk more then. I’ll let you get settled in.” He gazed at me with that kind, fatherly expression that I used to love to see over the breakfast and dinner table when he was asking me how my day had gone. “It’s good to have you home, Rylan.” “It’s good to be home, Dad.” He walked out. The second he closed the door I phoned Becky. “Did you change your mind about tonight?” “I think so, Becky. Just like you so eloquently stated, the bandage needs to come off.”


Dawson slapped down his hand, a full house, queens full. “I don’t just have lady luck on my side tonight. She’s down on her knees given me a fucking blow job with her lucky damn lips.” He embraced the pile of chips in the center of the table and swept them toward him. “I think I’ll go drown myself in beer,” Tommy huffed as he pushed his folded hand toward Roland, the dealer for the night. The other two players were bikers from the next town, Browning. It was a town that was economically parallel to the south side of Bluefield only instead of mining it was logging. A motorcycle club sort of ran the town of Browning so a lot of the town’s revenue was made in less than reputable ways. A lot of the MC members took part in The Hole’s gambling scene and fight club. “Come on, Huck, you can’t quit now,” Dawson complained. “Tired of giving you my money, Dawz.” Tommy, or Huck as we called him, had been folding every hand. The nickname came from his real name, Thomas Sawyer, named after his dad and not the famous literary character. Two days after Tommy’s tenth birthday, his dad slipped on some ice. He slid headfirst onto a pile of wood and died of a broken neck. Thomas Sr., a good dad as far as dads went, had survived a major roof fall and a mine explosion, but the ice outside his back door proved lethal. By the time Tommy Jr. had reached his fourteenth birthday, he’d fallen in and out of trouble so much, he was far more of a Huck Finn than a Tom Sawyer. The nickname stuck. In a desperate attempt to tame her out of control son, Tommy’s mom married Sam, a man who was as mean as he was big. Her good intentions backfired. Sam became abusive, and one day,

Tommy, trying to defend his mom, hit Sam so fucking hard in the face, Sam dropped into a coma for a week. Tommy spent some months in a foster home and came back with an even sharper edge than he’d left with. But the hard work and responsibility that came with adulthood had taken some of the anger and temper out of him. Sometimes it seemed that a lot of the Huck Finn spirit was gone too. A life filled with wrong turns and shitty luck did that to a guy. The crowd in the barroom sounded thick and drunk. Someone had cranked up the music, and the drumbeats pounding through the speakers were shaking the thin walls of the back room. The naked light bulbs strung up over the round table, the only light in the room, vibrated in rhythm with Aerosmith. Sasha sat on my thigh and wrapped her hand around my neck. Sasha lived with her ninety-yearold grandfather near the outskirts of town, just a few miles away from our cabin. She spent most of her nights hanging around The Hole. Occasionally, the owner, Scott, had work for her, but tonight she was watching the poker game, drinking wine and eating up our bowl of peanuts. She peered down at me through heavy mascara and made a point of pressing her tits against my cheek. “Just figured since Dawson has lady luck sipping at his cock, you might need me sitting on your lap.” “Long as you bring me a good hand, darlin’, you can sit here all fucking night.” I picked up the five cards Roland had dealt me. So far, adding Sasha to my lap hadn’t helped much. I was heading down the same path to loserdom as Tommy tonight. Dawson tossed three chips onto the pot. “Guess Andi really likes her new job at that city hospital.” Dawson had grown up with three sisters, including Andi, his twin. Andi had spent so much time fixing our cuts and bruises as teens that she’d decided to become a nurse. The topic of Dawson’s twin sister made Tommy sit up straight in his chair. Tommy had loved Andi since he was old enough to notice girls. But Andi had always had her sights and dreams set on a career and a life away from the coal mine. Tommy had never graduated high school, and the miner’s life was all he knew. A gnarly

case of asthma kept him above ground though. He worked at the conveyor belt filling coal into the train cars. There was still plenty of irritating float dust, but it was diluted by more fresh air. “Good for Andi. They’re lucky to have her.” I dropped two cards, signaling Roland that I needed two new ones. My hand was looking up. Dawson laid down three with a look of disgust. It seemed lady luck had taken her lips elsewhere. “Guess that means she’ll be staying in the city,” Tommy said, bringing the topic back to Andi. “She’s still commuting for now. She met some young doctor, and I think she’s been dating him.” Occasionally Dawson could be a completely unthinking dick. I peered over the tops of my cards at Tommy. His jaw was clenched tight enough to crack a walnut open. I slid my boot across and kicked Dawson’s foot. His face snapped up. I discretely inclined my head in Tommy’s direction. Dawson got the clue, but the damage had been done. Tommy grunted and threw down his hand. “Holy shit, it’s like these fucking cards are conspiring against me tonight.” He slumped back in his chair and slung back the rest of his beer. The news of Andi taking up with a doctor was going to put him in a bad mood for the rest of the night. Sasha wiggled her ass on my thigh and reached across to the bowl of peanuts. “There is nothing sadder than seeing Huck have a bad night.” Tommy looked up at her. “Yeah? Maybe you should do something to put a smile on my face.” Sasha shrugged. “Maybe I should.” I was staring at three jacks, and the other faces at the table were looking disappointed. Roland folded. It was just me and the two bikers from Browning. They’d hardly spoken two words the entire game, and when they did speak, it was only to each other. It was like that with the Browning people. They came and drank the beer, gambled and occasionally left with a Bluefield woman, but they never mixed. They stayed to themselves. We were sort of like two opposing countries participating in an organized truce. But we rarely ventured over to the bar on their side of the mountain, mostly because it made The Hole look like a five star resort.

We showed our cards, and I’d won handily with my three jacks. I swept the chips into my meager pile and tightened my arm around Sasha’s waist. “Let Huck pout for awhile longer, darlin’. That was the first good hand I’ve had all night.”


As bleak as the interior of The Hole looked, the crowd inside was cheery and boisterous. A loud chorus of giggling drowned out Becky’s story about the grumpy old customer in the pharmacy who nearly got her fired. I leaned closer to Becky. “Some of these people don’t look old enough to be in here.” “Eighteen to twenty-year-olds are allowed in, but they get branded with a glow in the dark pink stamp on their hand to make sure they don’t drink or gamble.” Becky had added some questionable blonde streaks to her long brunette bangs. She rolled her blue eyes at the twittering teenage girls behind us. “God, were we ever that silly?” I tapped my chin. “Hmm, let me think—yes, yes we were. And then some.” On our way to the bar counter, we attracted what I felt was an inordinate amount of attention. Faces, some slightly familiar, others not, turned and stared unabashedly. I found myself ducking down a bit behind Becky. “Jeez, do I have something between my teeth or what?” I muttered behind Becky’s back. “Nope. They just don’t see too many Highlanders in here, especially not Highlanders like Rylan Merritt.” I was relieved to squeeze up to the bar counter and face away from prying eyes. “I’ll bet they don’t even know who I am anymore. I’ve been gone a long time.” Becky waved her fingers at the bartender, a slender woman with red dreadlocks and pretty skin. “Hey, Molly, can we get two house beers?” Becky rested her arm on the counter and glanced back

into the barroom. “I’d say they know exactly who you are. And most probably haven’t forgotten that you were once with Kellan. Kellan has quite the reputation on this side of town. Some of it good. Some that lands a little more on the side of notorious. Especially when it comes to women. Seemed he couldn’t pull his heart back into one piece after you left.” I was thankful for the beer and took a big gulp. “Becky, you’ve dreamed up some romantic fantasy about what Kellan and I had. His heart wasn’t broken. It was indifferent.” She shook her head but, thankfully, decided to switch subjects. Although the new one wasn’t much better. “I guess you’ll need a job to keep from going stir crazy in this town. I heard Abbie needs help at the ice cream shop,” she said behind a smile. “You won’t be laughing when I’m standing behind the counter using the cute little sample spoons to help myself to every flavor ice cream in the shop. Besides, I might just get desperate enough. I’ve been out of work for awhile, and I don’t think I’ll be able to live at home for too long without going nuts. My mom has filled my bedroom with her high tech exercise equipment. Something tells me I’m going to wake up at six in the morning tomorrow and see my mom in her designer workout gear, jogging on her treadmill and sipping a mocha latte.” Becky picked up her glass. “Can’t even imagine my mom getting on a treadmill.” From where we stood, I could see the entire room. No sign of the one face I’d been preparing myself to see. I had no way to gauge what my reaction would be when I saw Kellan but a few different scenes, some sad, some hilarious and some complicated had gone through my mind. “Here’s a juicy tidbit,” Becky said between sips of beer. “Scott mentioned that Jason Meade has a gambling addiction. He’s placing wagers he can’t afford all over the place, and his dad is completely in the dark about it.” “Sounds like some of his ugly, mean karma is catching up to him. That guy used to show up wherever I was at school. Drove me nuts.” “Oh yeah, I forgot about the big crush he had on you. Yeesh, who would want that jerk near.

He’s just as mean as ever. Scott stopped hanging out with him long ago. Jason’s one of the supervisors at the mine. Naturally. His dad had to do something to keep him out of trouble. The miners hate him.” “Just like in high school. Some things never change.” Most of the gobs of gossip Becky had promised were dull tales about people we’d gone to high school with. But there was really only one person I wanted to hear about. “Is Kellan still living with his mom?” Becky wiped some foam off her lip with her pinky. “He moved out with Dawson and Tommy. They rented that old cabin at the end of town. You know, the one owned by that guy everyone called Oscar, like the grouchy Muppet. That place was a wreck, but I will admit, they’ve put some work into it and it looks a lot better. Or, at least, it doesn’t look like it will be falling down around their ears anymore.” She perked up. “Oh, Scotty just walked into his office. I’ve got to go talk to him a second.” “That’s fine. I need to find the ladies’ room.” She waved her fingers toward a doorway. “Right down that hall. And just a warning—it’s not exactly The Ritz in there.” I made a point of looking around the room. The ceiling was patched in so many different places, there was more patch than ceiling. The furniture was mismatched and rusty but still charming in a funky, yard sale kind of way. “Apparently Scott used all his decorator’s budget on the bar and didn’t leave any for the restrooms.” “Still a smartass,” Becky said. “Thank goodness.” She leaned over for a quick hug. “So glad you’re back, Ry.” She scooted through the bar patrons to the office. I carved a path toward the dark hallway at the far end of the bar. Obviously, lighting hadn’t been high on Scott’s decorating budget either. There were three doors and no signs on any of them. I put my hand on the first doorknob and turned. I pushed the door open and realized instantly it was not the bathroom. A group of men were sitting around a poker table, and a woman with white blonde hair was sitting on the lap of one player. They all looked up in surprise. “Sorry, thought this was—”

A face peered around the platinum blonde’s large chest. For a brief second, it felt as if the splintery floor beneath my feet had given way. I clutched the doorknob tighter to keep upright. “Lanie.” Hearing the deep, rich voice, still completely familiar after all these years, call me by the nickname made my knees weaken more. “Excuse me,” I said on a fast breath and spun out of the room. A girl opened a door at the end of the hallway. I raced toward it. She scooted out of my way with a scowl. I smacked my hands against the door before it shut and slid inside. There were two empty stalls. One girl was just finishing up applying lipstick in a cracked mirror hanging over a stained sink. Before I could catch my breath or slow my heart, cool air ushered into the bathroom as the door swung open. I didn’t need the shock on the lipstick girl’s face or the size of the shadow looming over me to know that Kellan Braddock had followed me into the women’s restroom. “You done, Chelsea?” Kellan asked. The girl pushed her lipstick into her bag and left the bathroom with a disgusted huff. I wrapped my arms around myself, took a deep breath and turned to face him. Another deeper, more frantic breath followed. He’d filled out. He’d grown up. And I still couldn’t catch a decent breath. The handsome face that I knew by memory was filled with the same intense emotion that had gripped me too. “Lanie,” he uttered the first word, a repeat of my nickname, the same two syllables that had just about dropped me to my knees in the card room. I finally managed to loosen my throat enough to speak. “I must have gone through a hundred scenarios about the first time we saw each other again.” My voice wavered but there was nothing I could do, short of sealing my mouth shut, that would iron out the tremble. “But stupidly, the one where you had a woman wrapped around you was not one of them. My ignorance, I suppose. Or maybe a little dose of self-preservation.” I tended to babble on when I was nervous, and I was definitely that.

Or maybe I just hadn’t expected to get so shaken from seeing him. Kellan stepped closer. His throat moved as if he was swallowing back all the words he’d saved for this moment. “Sasha is just a friend.” “That’s all right. You have nothing to explain.” I looked around at the shabby bathroom. “Guess I wasn’t expecting our first reunion to be here either.” A thick silence followed. We stared at each other as if we were still trying to decide whether the moment was real. “Sorry to hear about your wedding being called off.” His gaze dropped to the dirty tile floor. His long black lashes reminded me of the younger, less hardened looking Kellan, who I woke up thinking about every morning. He lifted his face, and a glint of that cocksure smile returned. “Who the fuck am I kidding? I’m not sorry at all. Far as I’m concerned, there’s no one good enough for you, Lanie.” He stepped closer. I took a step back. My bottom smacked into the edge of the sink. “I’m really good at picking men, it seems. Again, you don’t owe me an explanation, and I’ll probably regret admitting this, Kellan, but just know that I wasn’t just heartbroken when I left Bluefield. I was shattered.” His blue eyes flickered with an intensity that I couldn’t define. It wasn’t anger or hurt. It was something deeper, more profound. It seemed he badly wanted to tell me something. But he stayed quiet. And I was slightly relieved. I wasn’t looking for any seven-year-old confessions. I was just trying to lift some of the pressure from my heart, a heaviness that had been there for a long time. “Lanie, the way it ended.” He shook his head. “It’s complicated.” Two girls were talking animatedly as they pushed open the door. They both looked wide eyed at Kellan. The petite brunette slid between us. “Damn, Kellan, can’t you two find a back room or something?” “I’ve got to go.” I pushed past him and out the door. I squeezed through the crowded barroom

and caught a glimpse of Becky coming out of the office. Her face flattened some as she saw me coming toward her. “Shit, Ry, what happened? Too long a line?” Then she caught sight of something behind me. “Oh, never mind. Got it.” I grabbed her hand but didn’t look back through the bar. I’d seen him. The bandage was off, and the damn wound hadn’t healed at all. He still had no real explanation for breaking my heart. Although, maybe the explanation was more obvious and far less romantic than I’d imagined. Kellan loved women and they loved him. I was certainly not enough to hold his heart. Or anyone’s, for that matter. Chase was proof of that. “Becky, please, I have to get out of here. This was a mistake.” “All right. I’ll admit you look a lot more shaken than I’d expected.” She gripped my hand tighter, and we navigated the quickest path to the door.


The porch creaked as I walked across it and sat on the top step. Even without turning on the heat, it was warmer inside the cabin, but I’d needed to clear my head. I spent most of my waking hours inside dark, cramped spaces and crowded bars. Sometimes, I craved the wide open space and fresh air like a drug addict craved heroin. And tonight, I’d needed it more than ever. Tonight, my one true temptation, the one craving that could never be satisfied, had returned. And the longing was as fierce as ever. I’d left the poker game and the bar and headed back home, no longer wanting to be around people or music or light. Seeing Rylan had brought back every second of our last night together. Rylan had left town believing that I’d ditched her on the gym roof. My silence afterward had only compounded that conclusion. I’d wanted to tell her, to let her know what had really happened, but I didn’t want to hurt her. I didn’t want her to know the lengths her dad had gone through to make sure I stayed away from his daughter. She loved her dad. It would only break her heart more to know. And it was in the past. No fucking reason to stay in the past, far as I was concerned. Right. No fucking reason to stay in the past. I got to my feet and fished my motorcycle keys out of my pocket. I climbed on my bike and started it up, sending a rat out of the bushes and across the road. I pulled onto the unpaved road in front of the cabin and rode toward town. Rylan had moved on. She’d gotten a degree. She’d experienced life past the suffocating borders of Bluefield. I was still that bad influence from the wrong side of the tracks in her small hometown. She’d moved past her teen years. I’d done some growing up as well. But hell if I was going to let her leave here again thinking I was the worst asshole in the world. Aside from the dull roar of voices and music coming from The Hole, the rest of the town had shut down for the night. Rylan had left the bar long before me. My guess was that she’d headed back

home. There just wasn’t much else to do—on either side of the tracks—after midnight. I lowered my face to avoid the sting of the cold air. The bike rumbled over the tracks as I headed north on the main road. Flat roofed, square houses with shabby lawns and old cars parked in front faded behind me, and the stately mansions and rolling lawns of north Bluefield loomed in the distance. The air was just as brisk and littered with the same microscopic float dust as the south side of town. But to the Highlanders, the grit was a small annoyance. Coal meant money and expanded wealth and better cars. The inconvenience of dirty air was a small price to pay because the rewards were great. I turned the corner onto the private road leading to Rylan’s house. It had been a long time since I’d ridden through that part of town. I’d had no real need to wander north of the tracks. There was nothing for me on this side. Rylan’s dad had made that clear as glass years ago. A tall black iron gate blocked the entrance to the long paved driveway leading up to the colonial brick mansion. A wall thick enough for a medieval fortress surrounded the property, a long lazy stretch of lush lawns, boxwoods and rose gardens. When we were teens, Rylan and I had discovered the easiest place to climb into the garden. Back then, we’d run hand in hand, trying not to laugh out loud or alert her parents as we made our escape. It had meant climbing down a less than stable trellis and jumping down off a ledge eight feet above ground but nothing stopped us. We couldn’t get enough of each other. My whole fucking existence had been circled around the green eyed girl with the laugh that could ease the worst pain or lighten the darkest day. I stopped my bike on the road and walked along the outside perimeter of the wall to the back of the property. The wall was a smoothly plastered brick barrier. A massive, gnarled mulberry stood just outside the wall. I was in luck. The tree’s long branches still curled up and over the wall. I’d always had a good laugh at the irony of it all. Merritt had gone to so much trouble to keep his family and property secure, but I’d breached his fortress dozens of times unnoticed. I walked up beneath the dense canopy of the giant tree. I didn’t know whether to credit the tree

with happiness or heartbreak. Both, it seemed. Old fashioned as Graham Merritt was, I figured there was still a good chance that he had installed a more elaborate security system by now. But I was willing to chance it. Dying leaves rained down on my head as I reached up and grabbed a thick branch. I swung my feet up and over it. More leaves shivered and took their last breaths as they let go of the tree and fluttered to the ground. Winter was around the corner. Soon, every leaf still clinging to the twisted tree would be gone. I scooted toward the end of the branch. It dipped down as I pushed off of it and grabbed the edge of the wall. I hurled myself over it. My feet thudded onto the hard ground below. A bright porch light lit up the front of the house, but I was heading to the back, to Rylan’s bedroom window. Some of the landscaping was different but everything else about the place brought me back to that time, that time when nothing mattered but having Rylan in my arms. Her room was dark. I searched in the smattering of moonlight for three decent sized pebbles. I threw them at the windowpane one at a time. Each one plinked off the glass and then tumbled into the long vine of climbing roses covering the trellis below her window. I shoved my hands in my coat pockets and waited. No light came on. Just as I started my search for more pebbles, I heard the window above my head push open. Rylan leaned out. “Well, this is cliché. The old pebble against the windowpane trick.” I shrugged. “Yep, which means you’re supposed to climb down or tiptoe past your parents’ room in your silk nightie to meet me.” “I’m definitely not climbing down that trellis. And I’m old enough not to have to tiptoe. As for a silk nightie—” She stood up in the window and held her arms out to show off her flannel pajamas. She leaned her forearm on the window sill and gazed across the lawn. “Guess the old mulberry is still moonlighting as a ladder.” “Sure is.” I walked closer and stared up at her. “You were a goddamn heartbreaker in high school, Lanie, but now—shit. Come down. I just want to talk.”

“I don’t know, Kellan. It’s late and it’s cold.” “I’ve got a motorcycle.” Her white smile rained down on me. “You do?” “Yep, big ole fucking Harley. And it’s loud and fast.” She laughed. It was the first time I’d heard it in seven years. The sound of it went straight into my chest. “Loud and fast, you say?” I gazed up at her. Everything about her was familiar and breathtaking. She’d always been the one right thing in my life. “Come down, Lanie. Please.” “Just a second.” She pulled shut the window. I paced a few circles on the perfectly mowed lawn. I had no real plan. All I knew was that I had to see her. I had to talk to her. I’d thought of nothing else since Meade had told me she was coming back home. A few minutes later, the door to the back veranda opened and shut and the girl I’d loved since I first laid eyes on her in high school walked out from beneath the shadows of the house. She still moved with that easy grace that always had me mesmerized. There was enough sway in her slender hips to require a deep breath just to get my heart moving again. I stood stock-still on the lawn as Rylan walked toward me. She stopped in front of me. She’d pulled on jeans, shoes and a coat. Her blue pajama top poked out from the collar of the coat. The same sweet fragrance that had always circled her like a candy cloud was still there. I could never figure out if it was perfume, shampoo or just something my senses had come up with naturally. I kept my hands deep in my pockets, not sure I could trust myself if they were free. “Holy shit,” I muttered. “What? Déjà vu?” “Something like that.” My pulse was definitely racing like it always had whenever she was near

me. I looked at her for a long moment. “It’s really good to see you, Lanie.” “Good to see you too, Kellan.” She peered up at me. “You got even taller.” She lifted her hands and moved them apart. “And broader.” A smile followed. “Manhood suits you, Mr. Braddock.” I laughed. “That’s good, cuz there’s no going back from what I’ve heard. So, you want to take a ride? I’ll go slow.” “Yes, I want a ride, and don’t you dare go slow.” She looked in the direction of the mulberry tree. “Think you can still get me up and over the wall?” “Sure can.” I took my hand out of my pocket. I reached across and wrapped my fingers around her slim hand. It felt the same. And it felt completely right in my grasp. We headed across the lawn. “Remember that time we were sneaking back in and I twisted my ankle?” she asked as she glanced up at the night sky. “I carried you across the lawn to the veranda.” “Oh my gosh, that still plays out in my head as one of the best moments of my life. My ankle hurt like hell, and I had to hobble around for days but you carrying me—” She sighed. “You know, of course, it’s every girl’s fantasy to be carried to safety by her chivalrous knight.” “I did not know, but I’ll remember that.” “Yep, you can have that one free of charge for your bag of tricks. Not that you need any more tricks, from what I remember or from what I’ve heard.” “Since when does Rylan Merritt listen to gossip?” “I don’t usually. Unless the topic interests me.” “Don’t believe everything you hear. Especially if it’s coming from Becky.” We stopped. “Shit, I don’t remember the wall looking so damn tall from this side.” I reached up and took hold of the lowest mulberry branch snaking over the wall. I lowered it and hoisted myself onto it. It creaked

angrily as my full weight pressed down on it. “Give me your hand, and I’ll pull you up.” A mischievous glint sparkled in her eyes. “I feel like a teenager again, and frankly, it’s awesome.” She lifted her hand up. I took hold of it and pulled her up onto the branch. She sat down hard and the branch wobbled. I grabbed hold of her arm before she pitched herself backward off the limb. Rylan put her hand to her chest to catch her breath. “Guess I was a little more nimble in my teens.” “I think it’s because I’m bigger and heavier, and this tree is older and crankier.” The top of the wall was one good hoist away. “Are you sure you’re up for this, Lanie?” “I want to ride on the back of that Harley. I’m willing to risk life and limb to do it.” “Then let’s get that cute ass of yours over this wall.” I hopped up on top and lowered my hand for her. “You’re still light and airy like a piece of lace.” She landed hard on her bottom with a small grunt. “Yes, that’s me, weightless like a butterfly.” I spun my legs around and jumped to the ground below. A thick root had broken through the ground near the base of the tree. It was a great stepstool and gave me just enough height. I reached up toward her. She bit her lip in hesitation. “Was the ground always this far away?” “Come on, Lanie. I’ll catch you.” “We probably should have just used the key in my pocket. It opens the pedestrian gate near the entrance.” I laughed. “Why didn’t you say so?” “I thought this way would be more fun.” She pushed off the wall. My hands went around her waist. Her hands landed on my shoulders. I lowered her slowly to the ground, making sure to slide her body along mine on her descent.

She stayed pressed against me for a second. My mouth was just a whisper away from her lips, lips that I’d never stopped thinking about. “I think you’re right. This way was much more fun.” She stepped back. I felt the disappointment of no kiss through my entire body. Some things never changed. “Show me to your steel horse, cowboy, before I lose my nerve.”


I wrapped my arms tighter around Kellan’s waist. My hands dug beneath his coat for warmth and to revel in the feel of his hard stomach muscles as they tightened and relaxed with the movement of the bike. I ducked my face behind his shoulder to avoid the icy wind. He felt warm and secure. I’d always felt that way with Kellan. Until that horrible night when he left me alone on the roof of the gym, he had been the one solid thing in my life, the one thing that I could count on. I rubbed my cheek against the soft leather of his jacket wishing we could be transported back to the time when we were the only thing that mattered to each other. I was sure our connection would be forever. It had been a raw slap in the face when I’d come to realize that the attachment was one-sided. I was back in town to restart and reorganize my life, to get past the horrid thing Chase had done to me. The last thing I needed was to be around Kellan. But when he’d asked me to come down and see him, I’d barely given it a second thought. And, it had had nothing to do with the motorcycle. I just wanted to feel that same carefree bliss I’d felt seven years ago. The scenery blurred as the bike rumbled along the curved mountain highway. Little about Bluefield had changed, and everything looked completely familiar, as if I’d been gone for only a week instead of seven years. Sitting with my arms around Kellan felt completely familiar too. As if we’d never parted. As if he had never crushed my heart. “You cold?” Kellan yelled back over his shoulder. “I don’t know. I’m too numb to feel anything,” I called back.

His stomach muscles rippled with a laugh. We rode around the next curve. He pulled off onto a wide turnout and stopped the motorcycle. Reluctantly, I pulled my hands out from under his coat, giving up the warmth provided by the jacket and Kellan’s body. I held his shoulders and swung my leg off the bike. I shoved my hands deep into my own pockets and walked to the safety railing that kept cars and people from rolling down the steep wall of the mountain. The vast, endless wilderness stretched out below me. The potent scent of evergreens filled the cool air. We were above the town, in the part of the atmosphere that was free from coal dust and train fumes. I swung around. Kellan was just getting up off the bike. His large silhouette looked almost menacing in the dim moonlight. “I remember this place. Lover’s Point, right? Everyone used to come up here to park and make out.” Kellan walked up next to me on the railing. “Yeah, this is the place. And now I’m really missing that old truck of mine.” His mouth kicked up into a half-smile. “That’s right. The old Ford pickup. I was afraid to sneeze in that truck for fear that the doors would blow off.” “I finally had to send her off to the junkyard. We had a lot of good times in that truck. Dawson started singing Amazing Grace when the tow truck took her away.” “I thought I saw Dawson and Tommy sitting at the poker table with you. I mean it was all sort of a blur, and it was a little hard to see around the big boobs casting their shadows over the poker players.” He turned and leaned against the railing. A week ago I’d been sitting in Chase’s tiny, ridiculously overpriced New York apartment talking about where to have the wedding, and now I was standing on the top of a mountain ridge looking at the man who I’d spent the last seven years trying to

forget. But I hadn’t forgotten him at all. Even the way he was looking at me brought back every emotion, every second of joy, every second of heartbreak. “Sasha is a friend. She’s lonely and lives a sad life. But she’s a good person. There just aren’t that many of those around.” “Then I’m glad she has someone like you as a friend, Kellan.” I wrapped my arms around myself for warmth and to calm the small tremble that had started the second I saw Kellan standing on the lawn below my window. “And, you’re right. Good people are a rarity. Speaking of good people, how is your mom?” He stuck his hands in his pockets, stared down at the ground and kicked at some loose gravel with the toe of his boot. “She just never completely recuperated from losing my dad. She doesn’t take care of herself. We rarely see Derek. He’s stationed in Europe. That doesn’t help. She’s still working at the fabric store, but I help her out as much as I can. She has problems with her knees and her hands and just about every other part of her.” He looked up. It was obvious he was worried about her. “What about your parents? I know your dad is still active on the board. I see his name on all the memos and meaningless shit they stuff in our lockers.” “Far as I know, he’s still got a heavy hand in the mine. And my mom spends her days working out and shopping online. She’ll probably outlive me.” “Guess that’s the difference between living on the north and south sides of the tracks. So, what will you do now?” We watched as a car rolled slowly past the turnout. It seemed we’d put a crimp in someone’s make out plans. “I’m not sure. I gave up my job to move to New York.” I paused. “Big mistake. Big damn mistake. I had a good job as an editor.” “You miss him? The guy in New York?” he asked, but it seemed he didn’t really want the answer. I thought about how easily I’d packed up, how easily I’d walked out the door and climbed into

the taxi. I shook my head. “I walked into his office, the one he’d worked so hard to get. He had his assistant bent over his fancy desk with her skirt up over her ass. I don’t miss him. He wasn’t ever the one. I just needed someone to fill a void, and Chase came conveniently along. My mom is far more heartbroken than me.” “Rich, successful, clean fingernails and free of coal dust, the perfect checklist for a son-in-law.” He said it with a laugh, but there was a sadness behind it. “The guy is a fucking idiot.” “I heard you’re a roof bolter now.” “Yeah. Dawz and I work together. It’s not paradise down there, but sometimes, if the walls aren’t closing in on me too much, it’s a nice place to forget about life up on the surface.” I smiled. “You make it sound like it’s a different planet down there.” “It sort of is.” “I guess you’re right.” Kellan looked around. “People don’t park here much anymore. The cops come up and shine a big spotlight into the car if the windshield is fogged up.” I looked down into the deep valley below. “Says the man who told me not to believe everything I hear.” “Not sure what you want me to say, Lanie. There’ve been other women, but none of them were you.” I swallowed the knot that his last words had formed in my throat. I’d had no plan of bringing up our last night together, but, suddenly, I just needed to talk about it. “That night, after I finally convinced myself you weren’t coming back to the roof, I ran into Jason Meade.” Just the mention of the name made Kellan’s jaw clench tight. They’d always been enemies. It seemed that still hadn’t changed. “He told me you’d taken off with Lilly Upton.” An ill-timed laugh fell from my lips. “I blamed myself for that. I was so inexperienced. I knew you needed someone more—well, anyhow.”

He shook his head. “Jason lied. I wasn’t with Lilly.” He turned to me. “Christ, Lanie, I was so fucking nuts about you I had your name tattooed on my arm. Why the hell would you believe something Meade said?” Warm tears rolled down my cold cheeks. I’d caught my fiancé, the man I’d followed like a silly groupie to New York, screwing his assistant and not one tear had formed or even threatened to fall. “Because I had to believe something. I had to make sense of the anguish I was feeling.” I crossed my arms around myself more to keep myself from falling apart than to keep out the chill. “I was so damn in love with you. I was sure you felt the same.” He scrubbed his hands through his hair and seemed to be searching for something to say. “Are you fucking kidding? I couldn’t take a breath without thinking about you. I loved you. Fuck, I still love you, Lanie.” His fingers wrapped around my arms, and he brought his mouth down hard over mine. All of it came pouring back. The thrill. The heartbreak. The passion. The anguish. The tears. Kellan wrapped his arms around me and held me against him. “Christ, Lanie. Tell me this is real. I need to fucking know that this is real. That you are here again in my arms.” “It’s real, Kellan. I’m in your arms again.” A bittersweet hush fell between us as we rode back to the house, just the fresh air and silent, stoic shadows of nature surrounding us. Neither of us knew what this meant. We’d both survived losing each other, barely, it seemed, but were we just destined to get hurt all over? I couldn’t go through the heartbreak again. Kellan was a miner. He was connected to Bluefield with blood and sweat. I, on the other hand, couldn’t imagine living the rest of my life in Bluefield. As strongly as we still felt about each other, it was impossible to deny the fact that seven years had passed. Kellan coasted the motorcycle along the street and stopped at the pedestrian gate. It seemed, like me, he’d been wondering just what the hell came next. We’d gotten lost in a moment of passion, an emotional confession of sorts, but now what? I climbed off the motorcycle. Kellan gazed up at me with that intense blue gaze that always

made my chest ache for him. “Thanks for the ride.” “I can walk you to the house.” I glanced through the iron gates. The house was dark and quiet. “Think it’s better if I go it alone.” He nodded. “Will I see you again, Lanie?” “Yes.” With that, I turned and went through the gate.


I whistled for Max. He came trotting out from under the kitchen table where he’d been happily licking the remnants of a hamburger wrapper. It took him a second to get the muscles of his back legs working smoothly again. He stopped and stared up at me with a shred of the greasy wrapper still hanging from his mouth. I snatched out the paper and crumpled it in my fist. “You act like we don’t feed you, Max.” A big shake started in his ears and made its way down to the tip of his thick tail. I’d found Max out in the forest, half dead from what the vet had determined was a bear attack. He was half starved and his back legs had been pretty torn up, but he’d managed to lift his big head and look at me with soulful black eyes. I carried him back home and drove him thirty miles to a veterinarian in the city. Took me about two months of pay to get him better, but the doctor did a good job. He said Max’s strong will to survive had brought him through it. Tommy came out of his room scratching his stomach and yawning. “Where the hell did you ride off to last night? Thought you came home, but you weren’t here.” “Took a little ride.” I’d been up most of the night thinking about that little ride. I could still taste Rylan. I could still feel her in my arms. Holding her wasn’t like holding other girls. Holding her was like holding everything in life I’d ever wanted or needed. But as she’d walked alone back up to the house, I was reminded of the fact that even though she was all I needed, she’d been slated for a different life. Fate had cruelly placed my soul mate on the wrong side of town. Tommy, looking as if he’d finished the night with too much beer and too few wins at the poker table, accepted my vague answer and plodded into the kitchen. I crouched down to tie my running

shoe. Max licked my face in eager anticipation of our run. He always started out more enthusiastic than he finished. By our last mile, Max would be dragging behind me giving me the evil eye and silently questioning himself about why he’d agreed to go along. I kept a rawhide in my pocket just to make sure I had a way to get him all the way back home without having to carry him. I straightened and reached for the door. Tommy stepped into the room with a banana. “You went to see Rylan.” He didn’t even bother to ask it as a question. Tommy and Dawson knew me well enough to not have to ask questions, especially when it came to Rylan. “Yep. I’m going for a run.” “After the way you twisted yourself up in knots about her, it seems like you’d have more sense than to go after her.” I looked back at him. “Speaking of getting twisted up over someone—if you had a chance with Andi, you’d just say fuck it and not bother?” He reached up and rubbed his knuckles against his beard stubble. “Stupid comparison.” His eyes flicked with that same disappointment I always saw when the topic of Andi came up. “I’m not ever going to have a chance with Andi. Nothing’s changed. Rylan is still a Highlander, and her dad is still just a ruthless businessman who holds your chains.” “Fuck, Pollyanna, you’re just full of fucking cheer this morning.” He lifted his hand. “Fine, do whatever the hell you want. Just don’t come crying to me when it all goes to shit.” Max and I walked out, and I snapped the door shut behind us. My feet pounded the dirt road. Max trotted obediently behind as we headed out. I’d taken up running as a way to deal with all the crap life liked to hand over and to stay in shape. After seeing my dad wither from being a big, burly guy, who could lick anyone in an arm wrestle and chop up enough

wood for an entire winter in one long afternoon, to a man who had to carry an oxygen tank in his gnarled gray fingers just to have enough breath to make it to the refrigerator, I was determined not to go that way. I glanced back. Max was still in tail wagging mode. He loped along right next to me, keeping up with my long strides, even though his hind legs were sometimes just going through the motions. A long recovery from three surgeries had taught the dog to rely more on his front legs than his back. Occasionally, if we were moving fast and I stopped suddenly, he would do a quick nosedive as his strong front legs put on the brakes. We reached the end of town. I turned onto the dirt road that led to the river and the wide open stretch of land split in two by the tracks. The terrain was smooth and easy to run. And the air along the river was better. The mossy wet smell of running water muted the acrid taste of coal dust. I’d hardly slept with thinking about Rylan. Being with her again had felt so easy and so right. In the back of my mind, I knew everything Tommy had said was true. Graham Merritt held my future and my livelihood in his hands, and I was the last person on Earth he wanted near his daughter. Even though it had been seven years, I knew he was still stuck in the past, mired in his own ignorance and fucked up beliefs that Trogs had no business on his side of town. We worked for him and kept him and his cronies in fine houses and cars, but we had no business mingling with their kind. Rylan had had plenty of fights with her parents about me, but she’d never known just how ugly her father’s disdain for me had gone. And I planned to keep it that way. All she needed to know was that my feelings for her were just as solid as they were back then. Maybe that’s all this was to me, a chance to make her understand how much I cared for her. I wasn’t delusional. Rylan Merritt was destined for better things than me, but I wanted her to know that I had never stopped thinking of her. Even when I’d fallen silent and avoided her before she left town, I was still with her. She was still in my heart. She was there for good. The arches of Jackson Bridge curved up into a clear blue sky. The churning, relentless roar of the river added sound to an otherwise quiet landscape. Few people, except Meade and his buddies,

and Dawson, Tommy and Andi knew that I’d jumped off the bridge. They were the only ones who knew what had happened. I doubted even Rylan’s dad knew just how far Meade’s scare tactics had gone that night. Not wanting my mom to see me, I’d stayed the night rolled up in a blanket on Dawson’s floor. Andi had crept down the dark hall and came into the room to find out who Dawson was talking to. She’d spent the next hour cleaning up my cuts and bruises. She’d told me she could help with the physical pain, but the rest of it was up to me. Andi always knew just what to say. It was always easy to understand why Tommy was so nuts about her. Max got a burst of energy and trotted ahead, most likely to terrorize a squirrel or lizard. As I hit my stride, I reached a clearing near the tracks. A girl on a bicycle was peddling toward me. It was Rylan. At first I wondered if I was just imagining the adorable vision riding in my direction. Then Max trotted toward her with his tail wagging wildly. Rylan stopped the bike and put her feet down. She held the handlebars with one hand and reached down to pet Max with the other. Max did his usual circular dance, a trick he used to get a hearty rub on every inch of his body. Rylan looked up at me. There just wasn’t any damn thing better than her smile. “What a great dog. When did you get him?” Max continued to circle her. She gifted him with a long stroke of his fur. “He sort of got me. Or I guess we got each other. Found him near death out by Sander’s Trail. Guess he tried to take on a bear.” She looked at the scars on Max’s back legs. “You poor baby. And you’re such a sweetheart.” “He likes you. He doesn’t like many people.” Her creamy cheeks were pink. Her green eyes were glittering from the sunlight and the fresh air. “Really?” “Nah, that’s a lie. If you smile just right at him, he’ll follow you home.” Max heard my voice and trotted back over to me.

“I don’t know about that,” Rylan said. “He’s looking at you with dreamy eyes as if you’re his one and only.” I patted the pocket on my sweatshirt. “Rawhide.” She laughed. And there it was, the one damn thing on Earth better than Rylan’s smile. Her laugh. I walked up and squeezed the rubber horn on her bike. It scared a bird out of a nearby patch of tall grass. Max took off after it. We watched the dog’s futile effort to catch an animal that could fly. “He figures if he runs fast enough, he’ll grow his own pair of wings.” I looked back at the bike. “New set of wheels?” She shrugged. “Apparently, at one point, my mom went through a bicycling stage. And since I sold my car before I went to New York, I decided to try it out.” “You sold your car? You loved that stupid little red tin box on wheels.” “Ginger was not a tin box. She was my loyal steed.” A sweet sigh rolled off her even sweeter lips. “And all it took was one stupid, pigheaded man telling me I had to give her up because there was no place to park in New York, and I handed her off for three hundred dollars to some questionable looking guy with a strange bubble gum snapping habit. I’m such a knucklehead. Anyhow, my dad told me I could use my mom’s Mercedes, but she bitches if I move the seat or the mirrors. Plus, the leather interior reeks of that horrid menthol smelling grease she uses for sore muscles. I guess this time she’s really serious about the whole exercise and diet thing. The fridge is filled with yogurt, and my dad has taken to hiding pastrami sandwiches in his desk drawer. I’ll stop babbling now.” “Shit, and I was just thinking that I could sit here all damn day and watch those lips as you babble.” She sat her bottom back up on the seat and leaned the bike on one foot. “As I recall, I didn’t need to be babbling for these lips to get your attention. You were always pretty damn focused on them.” “Guilty as charged.”

Rylan looked around at the scenery. “I’m actually liking this mode of transportation. Forgot how pretty it was out here. And Sunday. I always loved Sunday, the only day those damn trains didn’t go racing through town shaking the windows and leaving behind a trail of smoke and coal dust.” “Where you headed to?” I asked. “Nowhere in particular. Just exploring and maybe hoping I’d eventually run into you.” “Yeah, hoping? I like that. Why don’t you come over to my place in an hour. I’ll make you some lunch.” “Kellan Braddock in an apron, and making me lunch, no less. Actually, I do remember you cooking me some scrambled eggs once. They were the worst, most rubbery eggs I’d ever tasted. I ate every last bite.” “I think my skills have improved a little since then. But don’t expect anything more than grilled cheese. And I don’t have an apron.” “No? Too bad. I’ll bet your ass would look great sticking out from beneath an apron tie.” I glanced back over my shoulder. “You’re right. I’ll have to get an apron sometime. What do you say, Lanie?” Max barked once. “See, even Max wants you to come.” “I think Max is bored of standing here while there are critters to sniff out of the grass. Do you think you can pick me up in front of my house in an hour?” She waved her hand over the bike. “Think my legs will only carry me this far once today.” I stepped closer and pushed a long strand of her light brown hair behind her ear. A sweet, familiar smile followed my gesture. “Why do I get the feeling you’re just using me to get to my Harley?” Rylan tilted her head. “Now every woman knows that a Harley isn’t worth a damn unless there is a hot man gripping its handlebars.” Just then her handlebars turned sharply, and she nearly fell over with her bike. I caught the bike and the girl and righted them.

She laughed. “Jeez, I’m lame at the flirting thing.” “You kidding? All you have to do is take a deep breath, and you’ve got my full attention.” Her smile softened as she gazed up at me. “Still that sweet talking boy who could talk me into skipping my next class or climbing down from my room in the middle of the night.” I reached up and took hold of her chin, lifting her face and those lush lips closer. “Are you saying I was a bad influence?” I kissed her until Max, pissed about not being the center of attention, decided to worm between me and the girl. He wriggled his big body and shot off one, loud bark. “You might just have wiggled your way out of that rawhide, buddy. I’ll pick you up in an hour, Lanie.”


The ride back was more uphill than I’d remembered. A quick shower and three different wardrobe changes and I was ready to wait out front for Kellan. I was beyond excited and beyond nervous and feeling as unsure about everything as I could possibly feel. But the one thing I was sure of was that I wanted to be near Kellan. I made it as far as the front sitting room before I ran into a parent. Mom had on a neon green, racer back tank and black leggings. The fourth workout outfit I’d seen on her today, and it wasn’t even noon. “Mom, you do realize that hanging around the house in workout gear does not count as exercise?” She waved off my comment. “Don’t forget the Hinkleys are coming for dinner tonight, and they’re anxious to see you.” “Wish I could say the same thing about them.” Another comment dismissal. Mom was good at filtering down to just the stuff she wanted to hear. “Did you see my message? I stuck it on the buffet in the formal dining room. On a pink sticky note. I put it right next to the silver tea set that Aunt Gertrude gave me on my fortieth birthday.” She pressed on obviously hoping that by giving enough details the message would suddenly jump back into my memory. “Mom, you lost me at formal dining room. I don’t think I’ve walked into that room since my return. Heck, since you only use it for parties and holidays I don’t think I’ve been in there since Christmas 2008. So no, I didn’t see the message. What was it?” She drew in her lips as if she was fixing her lipstick, but I knew her well enough to know she

was hoping I’d seen the note so she wouldn’t have to give me the message face to face. “Chase called here.” I put up my hand. “And this time you lost me at Chase.” “Rylan, sweetie, shouldn’t you at least talk to him?” “About what? I guess I could mention that he was damn lucky that my blood tests for STDs all came back negative. Otherwise, I was going to send a mass email to his entire office letting them know.” “I just think you’re being hasty.” “Hasty about what?” Dad asked as he came around the corner with his newspaper folded beneath his arm and his Sunday morning cup of coffee. It seemed my dreams of escaping the house unnoticed had been completely destroyed. “Chase called this morning,” Mom said with a simpering smile that made my toes curl in my shoes. “And I just think Rylan should talk to him.” “About what?” Dad boomed. “My god, Brenda, you need to stay out of Rylan’s business.” I hopped up and kissed his cheek. “Thanks, Dad.” “Oh, by the way,” he continued, “I was on the phone with an old college friend. He runs a newspaper in Connecticut, and he’s looking for an editor. I gave him your number.” I huffed hard enough to disturb some of the soft, white hairs of his beard. “What happened to my own business?” “Yes, Graham. Besides she should head back to New York. That’s where all the big name publishers are.” I put my hands on my hips. “And the rich men. If I didn’t know better, I’d say my loving, doting parents are trying to get rid of me.” “Nonsense, Rylan,” Dad said. “Just thought you’d appreciate a job lead.” He looked down at

my outfit, jeans, a sweater and black ankle boots. “Where are you going?” I briefly thought of just blurting out Kellan’s name. But I wasn’t ready for that particular battle again. “Out with a friend.” “But we’ve hardly seen you all morning,” Mom complained. “I thought we could hit the upstairs gym together.” “You mean my bedroom? I already woke up to your virtual spinning class, Mom. Besides, I rode the bicycle all over town. My legs feel like noodles.” “Rylan.” Dad’s tone had grown hard like steel. Never a good sign. I knew exactly what was coming next. “You’re not thinking about starting up with that boy from town?” “First of all, Dad, Kellan is no longer a boy. He’s a man, a man who risks his life every day working at the mine. And secondly, I’m no longer a girl. I’m a woman, and I’m too old to be told how to live my life. And if you spout the old ‘when you’re under my roof rule’ then I’ll just pack up my things and find another roof to stay under.” Mom was about to speak, but I stopped her. “And no, it won’t be under Chase’s roof—ever. My relationship with him is over, done, history. I’ve got to go.” “Rylan, we just want what’s best for you.” Dad tossed the overused sentiment at my back as I headed out the front door. I shook my head and released a few choice cuss words, which actually helped a bit. The choppy purr of Kellan’s bike wiped away some more of the frustration and anger. I ran across the lawn. I’d been transported back to that blushing teenage girl who scribbled Kellan’s name all over her notebook and kept his picture under her pillow. Even if this wasn’t as Dad had said, the best thing for me, it was what I needed most right now. I opened the pedestrian gate and stepped outside the wall. The handsome boy I’d had such an unbreakable crush on was now a breathtaking man. Kellan’s white smile sparkled beneath his black sunglasses. I hurried to the bike. Kellan lifted his glasses and looked at me with worry. “You all right?”

“I am now.” I put my hand on his strong shoulder and swung my leg over. I pushed my hands beneath his leather jacket. It wasn’t cold out, but I wasn’t going to miss out on the pleasure of wrapping my hands around him. I pressed my body against him, letting my breasts have the pleasure of rubbing against his strong back. I propped my chin up on his shoulder. “See, it’s not the motorcycle ride I’m after. It’s the chance to fondle the extremely hot rider.” He laughed. His stomach muscles rippled beneath my fingers. “Then fondle away, darlin’ cause I’ve been missing those sweet hands of yours.” I leaned my head over to see his face. “Oh? Just my hands?” “And lips, and legs and ass and . . .” He twisted the throttle, and we sped off toward the south side of town.


Tommy’s truck was gone. He’d mentioned something about driving into the city to get some car parts for a tune-up. Dawson’s jeep was still sitting on the gravel patch in front of the cabin. Max greeted us on the front porch. The dog followed us through the open door and headed straight to the kitchen where he’d left the remnants of his rawhide for an early afternoon gnaw session. Dawson walked out of his bedroom just as I stepped inside. Rylan was behind me. Fortunately, he’d taken the time to pull on his jeans. “Guess who showed up at The Hole after you left.” Dawson started right in on a conversation, not realizing anyone was behind me. I was about to stop him, worried that he’d blurt out some woman’s name. But he talked right over me as he buttoned up his fly. “Jigsaw came in and he was looking for and I quote ‘the filthy coal-coated fucker who he wanted to fight again but with a less crooked ref in the ring’.” He finally sealed shut his mouth when Rylan stepped out from behind me. He recovered quickly. “Hey, Merritt, long time no see. You’re looking fine as always. Good to see the twenties haven’t caused too much havoc on your looks.” “Thanks, Dawz, the twenties have been good to you too.” Her curious expression shifted my direction. “So, are you the coal-coated fucker? And who the heck is Jigsaw?” She paused. “Wait. Are you two guys involved with that shady back room fight scene that Becky told me about?” Dawson and I didn’t answer. “Of course you are. Silly question. Let me see, Jigsaw is someone who breaks his opponents into pieces?” “Good guess.” “Yeah, well that darn English degree comes in handy every once in awhile.”

“Anyhow.” I looked at Dawson and decided a quick topic change was needed. “Dawz, don’t you have to go out and do that—that thing today?” Dawson shot me a questioning look. “What thing?” One look from me cued him into my meaning. “Oh yeah, right, that thing over at that place.” He pointed toward the kitchen. “I’ll just go to this place first and get some coffee. Then I can go do that thing.” He scrubbed his hair back and headed toward the kitchen. “Or you could just tell me to get the hell out of the cabin,” he muttered. “K. Dawz, get the hell out,” I said as he disappeared into the kitchen. Rylan walked over to the front window. It was hazy from dust. But that wasn’t unusual in this town. Her tawny brown hair was pulled into a long ponytail for the ride on my bike. “I vaguely remember the old guy who lived here. He used to raise his fist and cuss a lot,” she said. “Yep, Oscar the Grouch.” “I always figured he was just super lonely, and that was why he was so grumpy.” “Or maybe he was lonely because he was grumpy. Guess it’s the whole chicken and egg thing.” Rylan laughed. “Good point.” She picked up a piece of petrified wood I’d found out on a hike. “This is neat.” I walked up behind her, close enough to see the small diamond stud in her ear and breathe in the scent of her shampoo. But I didn’t touch her. Yet. I’d been working hard on control. There was nothing I wanted more than to have Rylan naked in my arms. I wanted her so badly that I was sure once I started, I wouldn’t be able to stop. I needed to be sure she wanted it as much as me. She’d just gone through a shitty break-up, and the last thing I wanted was to scare her off by coming on too strong. Dawson finished the clamor in the kitchen and walked back through to his room. Rylan turned around. We were face to face and just inches apart. Heat and energy filled the narrow space between us. The thin spray of freckles on her nose nearly melted my resolve. That was how it was with Rylan.

Something as innocent as her freckles or the way she pursed her lips in thought could make me nuts with wanting her. She reached her hand up to push my hair back off my face. As her fingers grazed my skin, I closed my eyes. “I can feel that through my entire body,” I said quietly. “I think it’s because I spent so much damn time daydreaming about you touching me. About me touching you.” “Oh?” Without warning she pressed herself against me. “And what else were we doing in those daydreams?” “All kinds of dirty stuff. I should be totally ashamed but I’m not.” There was no way to have her pressed against me without touching her. My hands dipped under her sweater and smoothed over the silky skin on her back. It was all I needed. She smiled as my cock pushed against my fly. “Dawz, get the fuck out!” I yelled. I kissed her lips, and she mewled sweetly against my mouth. Dawson stomped down the hallway. “I’m taking Max with me.” “Good idea,” I said without taking my eyes off Rylan. “You should put a necktie on the door or something, otherwise Tommy’s gonna come back and —” “Don’t have a tie,” I said impatiently. “Get out.” Dawson walked over to the couch. We watched with frustrated amusement as he dug through the couch cushions. He yanked out a necktie. “Nina likes to be tied up,” he explained. He tossed the tie onto the coffee table and walked out. Rylan burst out laughing. “He’s still the same hugely entertaining character as always.” “Yeah, he’s a clown. Now, I’d say let’s move this to the couch, but after he pulled that damn tie out from the cushions, I’m thinking I might never sit on it again.”

“We could skip the middle section of this story and go straight into the bedroom.” The sultry expression that came with her suggestion made every muscle in my body tense with wanting her. “Darlin’, I’ve got to warn you, I’m getting so fucking wound up right now—” She curled her hand around my neck. “Well, what can we do to relieve the pressure? You know, Kellan, I’m not that same inexperienced, semi-shy teenage girl anymore.” “I know, and trust me, I’m already fighting with my own demons about wanting to rip apart any other guy who dared to touch you in the last seven years.” “Did you expect me to wait for you?” “Damn fucking right I expected it. You are mine, Lanie. You’ve always been mine. Even when you were four states away, you were mine.” Her eyes glossed with tears as I took hold of her hand and pressed it against my chest. “You’ve been right here all along. Mine always and forever. Sorry if I sound like some fucking obsessed luna —” She threw her arms around my neck and her lips flew to mine.


I could feel the energy, the ferocity, and with his size and strength, I should’ve been terrified. But I was feeling the opposite of fear. My own longing matched his. I wanted Kellan. It was entirely possible that any time I’d had sex with another man I’d been thinking of Kellan. How the hell had he managed that? How the hell had he managed to possess me like that? He kicked the bedroom door shut behind us. For a second, the look in his blue eyes made me shrink back. Was I ready for this? Was I ready to give myself completely to the man who had owned me, heart and soul, since I was a teenage girl, a girl too young and naïve to understand what real passion was? Seven years ago, we’d kissed and fooled around like clumsy, inexperienced, hormone flooded teens. Even then, Kellan had been far more experienced and confident than me, but he’d still been nothing compared to the man with the hungry gaze staring at me, looking at me as if he’d just as soon devour me as take me to bed. Kellan closed the gap between us in two urgent steps. Before I could utter another word or take a clean breath, he had my sweater up and off. He tossed it over to the lopsided dresser that had a drawer missing on the bottom. A shiver pulsed through me. “Are you cold?” The hitch in his deep voice sent another tremble through my body. It was the sound of a man working hard to stay in control. “It’s not the cold.” My own voice sounded weak as a whisper. “It’s the way you’re looking at me.” An expression that seemed somewhere between hurt and concerned fell across his handsome face. I could see the muscles in his jaw twitching and his Adam’s apple moving each time he

swallowed. “Lanie, say you want this or we can walk out of this room right now. Cuz I’ve got to warn you, I want this so fucking bad right now, I’m going out of my mind with thinking about it. Thinking about you. Seven fucking years of thinking about you is a long damn time.” He was not the type of man who would shake or show the slightest fear in even the scariest situation. I’d seen that courage in him as a teen and I could sense that the steel hard man in front of me was even more fearless now. Yet, I was sure I saw his muscles, his entire body twitching with emotion. My throat tightened. “We can’t go back to the past, Kellan. I don’t know where any of this is going. I’m afraid to feel like I did when I left here. It hurt like hell. You hurt me, and it was a pain I never want to know again.” His eyes flickered with disappointment. He swallowed hard again. I took a deep breath. “But I want this, Kellan. I need this. I need to feel wanted again.” He moved so fast, I missed it with one blink. His arms went around me. I could still sense that he was holding back, working hard to keep from crushing me in his arms. My bra fell to the ground, but I hadn’t even felt him touch the clasp. I kicked off my shoes, and he pushed my jeans to the floor. My panties slid down behind them. I was naked. I’d never stood like that, completely naked, in front of him. He stepped back, only for a second, and the way he looked at me made heat surge through my body. All he’d done was gaze at me, and suddenly, all I could think about was him buried deep inside of me. He reached up and pressed his hand against the side of my face. He hadn’t touched me anywhere else. The anticipation coupled with the heated, pulsing energy coming from his body was making me nearly lightheaded. “No condom, Lanie. Don’t ask it of me. With others,” he said the words quickly as if they might mean less that way, “I always use them. But I can’t.” His words caught in his throat. “I can’t put anything between us. I have to feel you, all of you.” Tears rolled down my cheeks. It was seven years of emotion, seven years of confusion and love

and hate and desire all rolled up into one moment in time, and I was overwhelmed by it all. By him. By how strong our feelings had remained through time and separation. He reached back and pulled off his shirt. The black ink on his arm flashed by as he tossed away his shirt. The tattoo. I hadn’t seen it since that night. I walked to his side. He stood with his fists balled, another mechanism of control that only served to make my pussy even wetter. I ran my fingers over the tattoo. He’d attempted to cover it with a geometric pattern but the letters were still clear. He didn’t say a word about it as I touched each letter. The muscles in his arms and shoulders contracted as he curled his fists even tighter. I placed my mouth against the ink and kissed his arm. “Take me, Kellan.” The words came out on a faint whisper. My feet left the wood floor as rock hard arms swept me up. He lowered me, none too gently, onto the bed. I stretched out naked beneath his predatory gaze. His eyes did not leave me as he unbuttoned his fly and pushed his pants down. His cock stood straight out, hard, thick and slick with moisture. I moved my hand and wrapped my fingers around him. He grunted and took hold of my wrist. “No,” he said between breaths. “I’m already close to coming just looking at you. He knelt on the mattress and stared at my pussy as his hand smoothed up my thigh. His fingers curled through the moisture pooling between the folds of my pussy and a moan of pleasure fell from my lips. “That’s it, baby. I need to hear you.” He leaned over and pressed his mouth against my pussy. “I need to taste you,” he muttered against the tender folds. He settled between my legs. He spread me wide with his callused fingers and flicked his tongue over my clit. I cried out and found myself instinctually writhing against the pressure of his mouth. My fingers curled in his hair, gripping him, wanting to feel even more than his mouth had to offer. He stroked me with his tongue and thumb, bringing me as close to the edge as possible without me coming apart into a million glittering pieces.

“I could die right here between your thighs and die a happy man, baby.” He lifted up to his knees, taking his mouth from my pussy and leaving me at the sharp cliff of an orgasm. “God, Kellan, please.” I reached for him. He answered my plea. He felt massive and powerful as he lowered himself over me. His hand pressed against my cheek as he gazed down at me. “I have to see your face when you come, baby. I have to be looking at you.” With that he slid his hand beneath my ass. His cock pushed against my aching pussy, teasing me mercilessly. I grabbed hold of his arms. “Please, Kellan.” My eyes drifted shut as he filled me. “God, Lanie, you’re so hot, so beautiful, so fucking tight. Just how I imagined you’d feel. My perfect fit. My match. You were meant to be mine and only mine.” His words were strained as he moved faster and harder against me. My eyes fluttered open. His blue eyes gazed at me with a mix of erotic need and love. We were together. He was locked inside of me in every way, and all of it felt so real. Tears fell from my eyes as my pussy tightened in ecstasy around him. He continued to move inside of me, stroking every inch of me with his cock. He leaned down and kissed away a tear with his mouth. “Are you all right, baby?” “Yes,” I said on a breath. “Holy shit, Lanie, how did I last these seven years without you?” His final words were edged with anger, but it wasn’t toward me. It was directed at someone else, at something else. Those demons he’d mentioned, possibly. I might never know, and maybe that was for the best. The bed chirped against the wall as his movements increased in speed and strength. Every blow was pure, sweet agony. My pussy still ached with the orgasm, and it seemed every movement stirred up the same sensations. I wrapped my legs around his waist to take in more of him. He responded by pushing against me harder, filling me to my very core. It had never felt this right with anyone else. With Chase it had been sex. With Kellan it was sex, passion, desire and a connection that I felt so deeply it made my entire body ache.

The hard muscles in his arms tensed beneath my hands as he thrust inside of me one last time. “Fuck,” he growled. He stayed there over me, gazing down at me as our breathing slowed and the spinning in my head vanished. He kissed me again. “I don’t want to leave. I could just stay here, like this, inside of you, forever.” He lowered himself onto the bed and pulled me into his arms. I kissed his chest and ran my fingers over the hard muscles and ink on his arm. The ink that spelled out my nickname, the name he’d given me. I reached down and pulled the blanket up over us and curled into his warmth. It was always bittersweet with Kellan. I was in pure paradise lying naked in his arms. But there was always the ache that uncertainty of the future brought with it. Nothing about our relationship had ever been easy, and, it seemed, things weren’t much different now. I pushed the sad thoughts from my head and snuggled against him. “I seem to recall that I was promised a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch.” “I guess I did make that promise. You hungry?” “Famished. But first, I want to stay curled in your arms just a little longer.”


Pop’s Gym was just like it sounded, a mom and pop gym in the middle of nowhere. Only mom, better known as Pop’s wife, had left him ten years ago for one of the body builders who frequented the place. Pop, or Rob, his real name, had been a professional boxer and wrestling coach in his younger days, so he ran a tight, no nonsense gym. Aside from one questionable treadmill, no shiny chrome machines or fancy juice bar. Just weights, punching bags, jump ropes and a few other primitive devices meant for the serious workout. You didn’t go to Pop’s to socialize and gawk at women in their spandex clothes. You went there to work out. Sunday afternoon was always a quiet time at the gym. Pop was in his office watching drag racing on television. There were only three other people working out. I gripped the smooth wooden handles of the jump rope. It whistled through the air and my feet thumped the mat. Tommy and Dawson came through the front door arguing about something. Tommy said something and waved Dawson off. That seemed to put an end to the conversation. Dawson stopped halfway to the weight area. “Can’t believe you pulled yourself away from Rylan long enough to come work out. What happened? She get tired of ya already?” I ignored him and kept jumping. I couldn’t really blame him for being such a dick about Rylan coming back. He, and Tommy, for that matter, had been there. They knew what had happened grad night, and they knew that I had grown into a damn walking time bomb afterward. My short temper and my dark mood had gotten me into plenty of trouble back then. Even though they’d always had my back, they grew tired of bailing me out of crap all the time. Once I’d finally accepted that Rylan was gone for good and that she had no interest in me or Bluefield, I was completely broken, like a wild horse

no longer willing to buck or kick. I just fell into a spiritless, dark mood that took me a long time to climb out of. Now Rylan was back. I was an adult now too. But after just one day with her, an amazing fucking day at that, it seemed that all the old feelings were still there. And they were still strong enough to knock me on my ass again if she left. I stopped the rope and wiped the sweat off my forehead with the back of my hand. I headed over to the weights where Tommy and Dawson were doing bicep curls. “You were saying something earlier about Jigsaw coming into The Hole last night?” I popped my heel up on the bench to stretch out the back of my legs. Dawson counted four more reps and then lowered the barbells to his sides. “What an asshole. Guess he’s going around claiming that Lowe paid off the referee to call you the winner because there was big money on him. Which was a lie in the first place. Scott said most people had put their money on you to win, but Jigsaw has scrambled up the story.” He smiled at his pun. “Considering the overgrown fool left the ring with his nose looking like a pancake and barely remembering his name, I don’t think he’s got much of a case. But I’ll fight him again. What does Lowe say about it? Seems like he should be pissed. Jigsaw is questioning his ethics. Not mine.” Tommy had taken a break from the curls. He and Dawson exchanged a look. “What’s with the silent message?” I asked. Tommy never liked to talk as much as Dawson, but when he spoke, he never wasted words and always headed straight to the point. “You fucked Lilly right before the fight?” He asked it like a question, but it seemed he already knew the answer. Which was good because I had no intention of giving him one. He looked at Dawson. “Told you.” “Told him what? Are you two dicks going to let me on this secret conversation, or what?” Dawson put his barbells down. “Someone saw Lilly going into the locker room before the

fight.” He dropped to the mat for some push-ups and to let Tommy finish what they had to say. “Someone?” Tommy shrugged. “It might have been Gilly. He was there that night. Anyhow, whoever it was, they mentioned it to Jigsaw. I think that might be more of his motive for getting back in the ring with you.” “Fuck.” I walked over and grabbed hold of two weights. “The last thing I need is for this to get around and for Lanie to hear it.” A short, dry laugh shot from Tommy’s mouth. “That’s your big fucking worry? Jigsaw doesn’t wear the cut, but he’s a Browning hometown boy and the Grunge Devils take care of their locals. He’s in close with that club. That’s who you should be worried about. Christ, Braddock, you’re getting yourself twisted into a fucking knot again over Rylan. You’re not thinking straight.” I was just about to tell him to fuck off, but I’d lost his attention completely. He stared, unblinkingly, in the direction of the door. I glanced back over my shoulder. Dawson’s sister, Andi, had walked inside. She hoisted her duffle bag on her shoulder and waved at us. I looked back at Tommy. “Speaking of twisted in a knot. You can take a fucking breath now, bro.” “Fuck you.” The weights clanged extra loud as Tommy returned them to the rack. Then he headed toward the punching bags, where it seemed some poor bag was going to have the shit beaten out of it. “Hey, Andi,” Dawson called across. “Haven’t seen you in here for awhile. Trying to get in shape for anyone in particular?” Dawson knew that Tommy was nuts about Andi, but he was also a protective brother. As close as he was to Tommy, he was never good with the notion that one of his best friends should date his twin sister.

Andi reached the weight area and took a long, sort of sad glance in the direction that Tommy had walked. “Hey, Tommy,” she called to him. He lifted his chin like he might do to me or Dawson. “Hey.” He started pounding the bag. Andi was smart. She never talked about it, but she’d always known that Tommy had had a crush on her through school. But she was also humble. She’d never had a lot of confidence when it came to guys. I never understood why. She was pretty and smart and athletic. I figured it probably had to do with the fact that her dad was a heavy fisted ogre, always more quick to insult than to praise. Andi’s lack of self-esteem made it impossible for her to understand just how much Tommy loved her. Andi’s dreams, like Rylan’s, had always been better suited to a life away from Bluefield. But Tommy, like me and like a lot of guys from our side of town, had been born to be a miner. Andi walked over and gave me a brief hug. “Sorry about the sweat.” She laughed. “I’m working as an emergency room nurse. Trust me, sweat is like the champagne of body fluids.” “E.R.? Dawz didn’t tell us you got moved to the emergency room. That’s got to be rough.” “It’s hard and stressful, but I love it. The work shift goes by really fast.” “I’ll bet.” Dawson rested his hand on the bench and lifted his body up to work his triceps. “Did you find a place to live yet? Heard you were dating some big shot doctor.” Tommy’s rhythmic thumping got faster and louder. Andi glanced in his direction for a long moment before turning back to Dawson. “There’s no such thing as a big shot doctor because they’re all big shots. At least in their minds. Some of them deserve the descriptor because they are truly brilliant. And some don’t because they are anything but. Nick’s all right. But he’s so damn serious, and he has trouble letting go of work when we’re not at the

hospital. And, occasionally, he acts like he knows everything, which he probably does, but it’s annoying just the same.” “Sounds like a fun guy.” I pulled my arm across my chest to stretch it. “I’m going to go over to the punching bags. Looks like Tommy’s having too much fun on his own over there.” “Heard Rylan Merritt was back in town,” Andi blurted as I walked toward the bags. “Yep.” Andi knew just as well as Dawson and Tommy that having Rylan back was a huge fucking deal to me, but I didn’t want to talk about it. I walked over to the punching bag next to Tommy and hadn’t noticed that Andi had followed until Tommy’s fists stopped. He steadied the bag with his hand. Sweat dripped off his face as he stared down at the floor, as if he thought she couldn’t see him or talk to him if he didn’t look at her. I was almost feeling more sorry for Andi than for Tommy. She really had no idea why he was being such an asshole. “Hey, Tommy, thought I could get a hug or something. I haven’t seen you for a few months.” Tommy looked down at his sweat soaked shirt. “I’m covered with sweat.” “Considering how many times I’ve cleaned blood off of you, I’m not too put out by a little sweat.” She walked over and lightly embraced him. He didn’t move to touch her. I knew he wouldn’t. Andi paused for a second to smile at him. Tommy could hardly make eye contact. Looking a little less cheery than when she walked over, Andi shifted the strap of her bag on her shoulder. “Guess I’ll go change.” Tommy gave the slightest nod. Her smile disappeared completely as she turned and headed toward the women’s locker room. Tommy stood there, knowing full well that I was staring at the side of his face. He shook his head a little bit. “Not a fucking word, Braddock.” “Really? Cuz I was just gonna say that it’s like looking at a fucking mirror image. And now you

know why Lanie came up as my first concern.�


Becky texted that she was out front. Apparently, Abbie, the owner of the town’s ice cream shop, had whipped up her first batch of pumpkin swirl ice cream. Abbie was one of the most beloved citizens of Bluefield. Her ice cream shop was nirvana for anyone with a sweet tooth. The shop was situated just below the tracks. Ironically enough, most of the fun places were on the south side of town. Even the Highlanders with the longest sticks up their snooty butts were willing to cross the tracks for Abbie’s rocky road and fudge brownie swirl. I, too, was never one to turn down an ice cream cone. I zipped up my coat and climbed into Becky’s car. “How can the sky be so blue and the temperature be so darn low? Might be just a little cold for ice cream,” I noted as I cupped my hands in front of my mouth and blew hot air against them. “Never too cold for pumpkin swirl.” Becky fiddled with the defrost button. Warm air blew up from the dash. “So, have you run into him again?” “Here you go again with the mysterious pronouns. Kellan. His name is Kellan.” Becky raised a smoothly plucked eyebrow my direction while still keeping her eyes on the road. “Considering I played in the same sandbox with the guy in kindergarten, I’m well aware of his name. You’re avoiding the real question, which I can only interpret as a yes.” I stared down at my hands. They were slowly thawing out. “Ry? What the hell is going on? Did you see him again?” I couldn’t keep down the smile. Not that it mattered. Becky always had a way of reading my mind. And when it came to Kellan, I was always wearing every thought and emotion right next to the

heart on my sleeve. She smacked her steering wheel, but her suede gloves muffled the sound. “You saw him. You went and saw him.” “Actually, after I saw him at the bar, he showed up at my window with some pebbles and that smile that I just can’t say no to.” It took her a second to comprehend my meaning. “Say no to what? Oh my god, you slept with him already.” “Stop with the already stuff. You make me sound like a slut. It’s Kellan we’re talking about. There is no already. We were together for a long time before I left to college.” “Right, well excuse me, miss right and proper, but it has been seven years and you’ve only been back for three days. I don’t think already is too strong a term.” She relaxed back, her shoulders sank some. “Just when I thought I had my activity buddy back, now I’m going to lose her again as she goes completely gaga over Kellan Braddock.” “Gaga? I don’t do gaga.” “Uh, yeah, when it comes to that boy, you do. You do gaga with the best of them when that coal dusted man is in your world.” Becky’s car stuttered as it drove over the tracks and into the south side of town. She looked over at me. “Just take it easy, Ry. O.K.? I know you’re older and more mature and a big college grad and all, but I can see that same teenage twinkle you used to get in your eyes back in high school. Kellan would walk into class or down the hall, and you’d nearly fall into a trance just looking at him.” “I’m fine, Beck. I’m a big girl. You forget I just broke up with a man who was supposed to be my husband, and I’ve hardly thought twice about him. I’m different. I’m worldly now,” I said with a wink.

She clicked her tongue. “Worldly, my perfectly well-toned ass. At least in my mind it is. I think the mirror in my bedroom came from some carnival fun house.” She waved her gloved fingers to stop her tangent about her ass. “If you haven’t given Chase a second thought, then you must not have loved him. It’s a whole different ball game with Kellan. So just take it easy.” She huffed a breath. It blew up through her long bangs. “There’s no parking. I’ll have to pull around the corner and drive into the miner’s parking lot.” A large, open-backed truck carried the miners down from the work site. There was little room around the mine that wasn’t filled with heavy equipment and train cars. So parking was arranged only for the managers and people like my dad, who had huge financial interest in the mine but who had never worn a coverall or dirtied their hands with coal dust. Becky parked the car, and I surreptitiously peeked around for Kellan’s bike. Of course, Becky knew exactly what I was up to. She pointed across the parking lot. “It’s over there behind that blue pickup truck.” I shrugged casually as if it didn’t really matter but then snuck another glance at her car clock. “Quitting time is in fifteen minutes. It usually takes another ten before the first group of miners comes down the hill. You know. Just in case you were wondering.” “Oh shut up. Let’s get that ice cream before Abbie runs out.” It was late fall and soon enough light snow would cover the town with an icy white lace. But today, the bright blue sky overhead cast a late summer ambience over the town. A line of anxious pumpkin swirl fans was already snaking along the cracked sidewalk in front of Abbie’s shop. The same three benches were sitting out front of the store only they’d been painted a bright blue to go with the new striped awning over the front window. There were teens and kids and plenty of adults, mostly from the south side of town, lined along the sidewalk and storefront eating ice creams. Some were there to meet a miner who would be coming down off the ridge. Others were just there to enjoy Abbie’s treats.

A lot of high school aged kids, kids from both sides of town, were hanging out in front of the shop. Abbie and her magical ice cream shop had created a seamless place in town where the tracks were blurred and everyone felt welcome. “I forgot what a hangout this place was after school. I’m glad to see that everyone still comes here. And I’m sure Abbie is especially glad.” We stepped into line and waited while Becky filled me in on more of the successes and failures of some of our classmates. It seemed some people had managed to pull free of Bluefield and find a life and contentment far away, and others had stayed, deciding a small town and coal mine were all they needed to be happy. We reached the counter. Abbie had added a few crinkly lines around her eyes and mouth, and her chin had added a roll or two, but her friendly smile was still the best in town. “Rylan Merritt!” she squealed as she reached across the counter with her ice cream scoop in hand to gave me a quick hug. “Are you back for a visit? Heard you were living in New York.” “I’m back indefinitely, Abbie. New York didn’t work out.” “New York’s loss is Bluefield’s gain.” She waved her silver scoop over the tubs of ice cream. She closed one eye and squinted at me. “Wait. Give me a second. Cookies and cream on a sugar cone, right?” I smiled. “You are amazing, Abbie. Yep, that’s my usual.” She scooped an extra large portion of ice cream and jammed it on the cone. Becky ordered her pumpkin swirl, and we walked outside of the noisy, bustling shop to enjoy our ice creams. A help wanted sign was posted in the window of the shop. I pointed at it. “That would be a fun job. All the ice cream you could eat, and Abbie as your boss. Pretty sweet deal.” Becky quickly licked the drips of pumpkin swirl that were heading to her hand. “The last girl went off to college. You should apply.” She laughed. “I can just see your dad now when you tell him.”

“Yeah some things never change. Except my mom’s workout gear. That changes every fifteen minutes.” I took a semi-bite, semi-lick of my ice cream. “Yum. That woman behind the ice cream counter has my vote for sainthood.” From the bench where we sat, I could see the crystal black peaks of the coal piles. A gray truck appeared at the top of the long, asphalt road leading up to the mine. The dark heads of the miners bobbed in the back. They’d be heading back to their cars and trucks and some of them would head home on foot. I tried hard to concentrate on the story Becky was relaying, something about an illfitting bra she’d bought online, but my eyes and focus kept straying to the big truck waddling like an overloaded elephant as it carried at least a dozen weary miners down from the site. “I guess the moral of my long-winded tale is don’t trust the pictures on the online stores. I heard Kimmie Hadleston, remember Kimmie, with the sketchy-looking mole on her chin? Anyhow, I heard she decided to buy a wedding dress from some private dressmaker. She never met the lady, just talked to her back and forth through email.” Becky paused long enough to take a long lick of her ice cream. She pondered the creamy orange confection for a second. “Needs more cinnamon, I think. But delish none the less. So, where was I?” She paused again to find her story. I took the opportunity to glance up the road. The truck was just rolling over the tracks, jostling the live cargo in back. “Oh my gosh, could you be any more obvious?” She took another lick of her cone. “If this hadn’t been my suggestion in the first place, I’d think you were just sitting here with me to catch a glimpse of lover boy.” “Nonsense.” I lifted my cone. “I came here for the ice cream and to hear more about Kimmie’s big wedding dress disaster.” “That’s right. That’s what I was talking about. Long story short, she sent a two thousand dollar deposit to the woman, who turned out, of course, to just be a scam artist preying on helpless, unsuspecting brides.”

“Wow, I did not see that ending coming.” “Oh shut up. The story was more intriguing the way Yoli told it.” “I’d say Kimmie hasn’t grown much more brain matter than she had in high school. I still remember when she set a dish towel on fire in home economics.” Some of the ice cream patrons were making their way to the corner of the block. The miners were hopping out of the back of the truck. My heart did a little leap as the familiar dark head appeared in the group. Dawson was walking next to him. Together, tall, broad shouldered, handsome and slightly coated in the dirt and float dust of the work day, they were hard to look away from. “Dawson is still as fine as ever,” Becky noted as she peered at them over what was left of her ice cream. She elbowed me with a laugh. “It’s fifty-five degrees out today, but that ice cream in your hand is melting like it’s a hundred.” Dawson and Kellan reached the corner. Kellan’s gaze drifted the direction of the ice cream shop just as he was turning to walk to the parking lot. He stopped. Our gazes locked. It seemed I could hear my heart beating in my chest. He dragged his gaze away and continued on toward his bike. Becky had caught the whole exchange. She looked at me with surprise. “I thought he’d at least come over and say hello.” I made a show of acting unfazed, but I was feeling disappointment all the way down to my toes. “I’m sure he’s tired after working all day,” I added, but it was more for my own self-assurance. I stared at the dripping disaster in my hand. Suddenly, the ice cream didn’t look so yummy. In fact, my stomach was feeling anything but up for cookies and cream. “This is just way too much ice cream for me.” I got up from the bench, dropped the cone in the trash and wiped my hands clean with a napkin. I wanted to kick myself for feeling this way already. But that jagged line, that fissure that Kellan had carved in my heart long ago had never healed properly. Becky knew I was upset, but good friend that she was she didn’t say a word.

I spun around and forced a smile. “Guess I should be getting back home.” “Yeah? Something tells me you won’t be going home just yet.” Becky leaned her head to look past my shoulder. That’s when I heard the rumble of the motorcycle as it came around the corner. All the ice cream eaters watched as Kellan rolled up, stopping his Harley in front of the shop. His big black boots lifted off the foot pegs and rested on the asphalt as his thick, strong arms held the handlebars steady. He’d pulled on his worn leather jacket, but he had on no helmet or sunglasses. Just a thin layer of coal dust on his face and hands. Every inch of him was raw and erotic and masculine. Now, even swallowing took concentration and focus. Several of the high school girls, wearing backpacks and Bluefield High sweaters twittered and giggled about something. I heard the name Kellan Braddock mentioned a few times. His dark blue gaze coasted my direction. He didn’t call me over. He didn’t need to. I looked with apology at Becky. She rolled her eyes. “Hell, if I had a guy like that roll up on a Harley, I’d ditch my friend too.” “You sure?” “Just go. But keep your head about you, Ry. Kellan is the kind of guy who makes straight thinking and common sense melt away.” I gave her a quick hug and walked over to the bike. “Tommy and Dawson are going out to get some steaks. We could go with them, or . . .” He let his gaze drop slowly over my body. “I like or.” A crooked grin turned up one side of his face. “Thought you might. Hop on, baby. You smell like cookies and cream, and I can’t wait to taste you.”


I closed the door behind us and couldn’t stop myself from pressing Rylan up against it. I kissed her only lightly, not wanting to cover her with the day’s work still clinging to my skin. She looked disappointed by the kiss. I held up my hand and showed her the back of it. “I need to shower and get rid of this dirt, so I can do all the dirty fucking things I’m thinking about right now.” “If you’re thinking about them right now . . . then why wait?” She hopped up on her toes, wrapped her arms around my neck and kissed me, not seeming to care that coal dust was smudging her arms and face. And if she didn’t mind, I sure as hell wasn’t going to hold things up. I’d been thinking about her all damn day. I reached down to the hem of her sweater, and we parted our mouths just long enough to yank the sweater up and over her head. I flung it back behind me. My greedy fingers made a grab for the button on her pants. She did the same and reached across to unbutton mine. I had hers down around her ankles long before she’d opened my fly. “Let’s take these damn shoes off, Lanie,” I grunted in frustration as I tried to wrench her leg from the pants. She held my shoulders and lifted one leg at a time, allowing me to pull them off. I pulled her pants free. Still crouched down in front of her, I pushed off her panties. I had a raging, fucking erection. There was no way I could slow down. I pushed my mouth against the sweetscented pussy in front of me and allowed myself a few seconds of running my tongue along the hot, wet lips of her pussy.

Her fingers tangled in my hair. She pulled it lightly, urging me to stand up. “Take me now, Kellan. Please. I need you to fuck me.” I straightened. Her mouth and neck were smudged charcoal gray. It only made me that much harder. She’d never shied away from what I was. She’d never turned me away for being a Trog who spent hours down in the mineshaft, digging in the layers of earth and silt and coal beneath our feet. My gaze raked hungrily over her near naked body, half her beautiful skin creamy and pink and half marred by my gritty black handprints. I wanted those handprints to be permanent, to stay there for everyone to see that Rylan Merritt belonged to me and I belonged to her. No matter what the fucking Highlanders said, Rylan was put on this earth for me and no one else. I shoved my pants down and my cock sprang free, slick and hard and so ready, so fucking ready. Rylan was just as ready. She threw her arms around my neck. My hands rounded beneath her naked ass, my fingers digging into her flesh. The door rattled on its rusty hinges as I pushed her roughly against it. Her legs went around my waist, and before either of us could pull in another breath, I was inside of her. Some of the urgency, some of the tension in our bodies melted as that first feel of being locked together coursed through us. Rylan’s long, dark lashes fluttered softly as her green eyes drifted shut. Her lips parted as her pussy melted and reformed perfectly around my cock. “Fuck, baby, it’s like your pussy was made just for me. Fits me so fucking perfectly.” “I think we’ve been sculpted solely for each other’s pleasure,” she said on a long flowing whisper. I contracted my ass and rocked hard against her, briefly wondering if the door would withstand my thrusts. I leaned back slightly and stared down at our bodies, connected together, locked in place like a perfectly fitting puzzle. “Hold on tighter, baby. I’ve got to stroke you until you come.” I moved my arm so that one hand held firmly onto her ass. I reached between us with my free hand. My thumb pushed into the hot, wet slit of her pussy and found the nub that would make her purr my name and milk my cock.

Bracing herself harder against the door, her ass tightened in my hand as she writhed against my thumb. “Your callused skin, the rough feel of it is like heaven, Kellan.” Her thighs tightened around my waist. “Yes.” She pushed forward to receive the full brunt of my blows as my thumb stroked her to climax. Her arms and legs trembled as she clutched me. Her body shuddered in my grasp as her pussy clenched around me. A faint pink blush covered her skin making the streaks of coal stand out sharply. I removed my hand and ground against her, never getting deep enough. My muscles tightened, and I held her firmly against me as my cock ground into her one last time, spilling my hot seed inside of her. I held her to me as I carried her down the hallway to the bathroom and to a hot shower. I stayed buried in her pussy, not wanting to lose the grip she had on me and on my heart.


Hot steam filled the small bathroom. Kellan stepped inside and offered me his hand. The coal dust turned the water a gunmetal gray as it dripped down his chest. Kellan pulled me under the warm stream of water and held my face as he kissed me. He stopped long enough to reach up with his thumb and wipe a streak of coal off my cheek. “God, baby, do you know how hot it makes me to see you like this, wearing my work day, the dust that never really leaves me, on your flawless skin. You’ve never been like any of the other girls in this town.” The water returned from gray to clear as it washed the grit away. I pressed my mouth against Kellan’s chest. He took a deep, long breath. “When you put your lips on my skin, Lanie,” He growled. “I’m hard again, darlin’. Just a brush of your mouth, and I fucking have to have you again. What you do to me, baby. I can’t even explain it.” Kellan reached down and wrapped his big hand around both my wrists. He lifted my hands above my head and pinned them against the tile wall of the shower. Warm water sprayed down on my naked skin. It turned pink from the warm water and from the way Kellan gazed down at me. I was defenseless and his captive in more ways than just his firm grip on my wrists. Even years ago, when he’d broken my heart beyond repair, I’d sworn to myself that I would never let Kellan invade my heart and soul again. But I’d been a fool. The second I saw him I’d realized that he had never left. He’d been with me all along. All I’d needed was one glimpse, one touch, one kiss, and I was completely and hopelessly in love again. All my pep talks and promises to myself vanished, and

I was the same girl he’d left waiting for him on the roof of the gym. I’d had no explanation yet for what happened that night, but for now, I was putting that pain behind me. I was with Kellan again and that was all I cared about. Kellan’s dark head lowered as his mouth suckled at my water drenched nipples. I arched my back toward his mouth as he explored every inch of my skin. I shivered with the sensual feel of him holding me captive and taking complete control of me with just his hot kisses. We’d only just had wild, urgent sex up against the front door, but my pussy was already aching for more. His mouth trailed over me as his free hand slid between my legs, once again coaxing me close to an orgasm. My appreciative moan rolled off the shower tile. “Oh, Kellan.” His long finger impaled me, and a whimper tumbled off my lips. I wanted to touch him and struggled to move my hands, temporarily forgetting that he had them secured above my head. He kept his grip on my wrists as he straightened. His mouth came up next to mine as his hand stayed tucked tightly against my pussy. “Baby, don’t come yet.” Another cry left my mouth followed by a frustrated groan. I was on the edge, ready to splinter into a million pieces, and the relentless, perfectly erotic assault on my pussy was taking me closer each second. My knees weakened as I worked to hold myself together. Kellan tugged my wrists to keep me from melting into a puddle in the bottom of the shower. “Please. Please, Kellan.” My plea sounded helpless in the milky steam surrounding us. He lowered his mouth to mine. “Don’t you come yet, baby. Let me take you to the top of fucking Everest before you fall off.” I tugged to free my hands, which only made him grip me tighter. His fingers impaled me, and his thumb swam in the cream he’d teased from my pussy. My thighs trembled as I clamped them around his hand, begging him to finish what he’d started. “Oh, Kellan,” I begged again. He squeezed his fingers around my wrists. My fingers were tingling, and my wrists felt tender from his strong grasp. “Not yet, baby, do you hear me? Your begging is making my cock ache for you.

Tell me how badly you want this.” “Please, Kellan, fuck. I can’t hold back, Kellan. I need—” Breathless and trembling, my words were lost. “Please.” I spoke so quietly it was lost in the steam. My body shuddered weakly, drained by the energy used to hold back. The pulsing need between my legs had grown so strong my mind centered there and I could think of nothing else but being fucked and fucked hard to gain that release I yearned for. Without warning, he pulled his hand from my pussy. My cry of disappointment echoed off the shower wall. He released my wrists and caught me before I crumpled into a pile at his feet. Then his mouth came roughly down over mine as he lifted me, bracing me against the tile. “Lanie,” he grunted as he pushed his cock inside of me. I cried out and clutched at his arms, looking for something solid to hold on to. It took only two thrusts and my pussy clenched down hard around him. Holding back had produced sweeping waves of ecstasy that seemed to last forever. I groaned in pleasure as he pushed hard and fast inside of me, bringing himself to climax. My body still pulsed and my pussy still writhed hungrily over his cock wanting to feel every last tingle before the sensation was gone. Slowly, I lowered my feet to the ground. Kellan pressed his forehead against mine until our breathing had slowed. The water was cooling, but the heat between us remained as fierce as ever. I thought briefly back to sex with Chase and nearly laughed out loud. Kellan caught my smile through the mist. “What’s that grin about?” he asked, unable to keep back his own. “Just happy.” A shiver rattled me before I could stop it. “And getting a little cold too.” He reached back and shut off the water. I followed him out of the shower. There was only one towel. Kellan dripped water on the bathroom floor as he wrapped it around me. He lifted me into his arms and carried me down the hall to his room.


The continuous miner, the huge drilling machine that plowed the coal from the mine lay silent, like a massive sleeping giant with terrible teeth. All the machinery had been shut down, and another long day underground had come to an end. The light from our caps glanced off the milled limestone covering the ribs of the mine. The limestone powder, which glowed an eerie white under LED lights, was used as a thermal inhibitor to prevent an explosion. Dawson swung his lunch pail back and forth like a kid happy to be leaving school. “I heard Ulrich was having trouble with the continuous miner again. The remote kept turning off.” “That piece of equipment needs to be sent to the graveyard. High time the owners forked over the money for a new one.” “That’s not going to happen anytime soon.” Dawson glanced over at me. “Are you going to The Hole tonight? Hear Scott’s booked that band again, Salt Dogs, the one with the hot singer. I do love all those piercings. You think she’s got one on her pussy?” “How the hell would I know that?” “Yeah, I guess hers is one of the few pussies you haven’t gotten to know intimately.” “Shit, Dawz, the way you talk you’d think you’ve been living in some damn monastery all this time. You couldn’t even remember the name of the last girl you took out to dinner.” “That’s cuz she had one of those weird long names. And she didn’t even use tongue when she kissed. A tight lipped good-night kiss is the perfect forever end to a relationship. Or, in our case, a perfect don’t bother to begin. Guess we can’t all be lucky and have our one true love prance back into

town. It’s going good though. I can tell by that satisfied and cocky smile you’ve been wearing.” “Let’s just say, Lanie and I are having a good time getting reacquainted.” “Shit, reacquainted. Don’t forget I’m sleeping in the room next door, and those old walls have never heard of insulation. Bring Rylan tonight. Should be fun.” The man trip, the carrier that would take us back up the man way and out of the mine, was filling up fast. It was Thursday night, which after a long work week always felt like Friday eve. Overdrinking and over-spending wasn’t an option since a heavy hangover on a long Friday of mine work was nothing short of torture. And since Friday was payday, our pockets were pretty empty on Thursday night. But music and a pitcher of beer sounded good. “I’ll call Rylan when I get to the locker room and see if she wants to go.” Dawson’s light swung from side to side with a head shake. “Does that mean that you won’t go if she’s not interested?” “Didn’t say that, did I? Christ, I wish you’d find someone who means something more than just a quick fuck. If you ever do, I’m going to have a damn hay day giving you my unwanted opinions and comments just like you’re doing to me.” We picked up our pace to grab the last two seats on the man trip. A whistle shrieked through the air behind us. “Braddock.” I knew the voice without having to turn around. “What the hell does fuckface want from me now?” I looked back. Meade was standing next to his truck. “Braddock, ride out with me. I need to talk to you.” “Goddamnit,” I muttered. Dawson glanced back. “That pudding faced dick gets meaner every day. At lunch, a couple of the guys said he was in deep with some bookie over some football games he was betting on. Think that’s making him even worse. If that’s possible.”

“I’ll catch up to you in the locker room, but if I don’t come out of this hell hole come looking for my body.” I headed back toward Meade. He climbed into his truck without waiting for me. I wondered, briefly, if he planned to just run me down and make it look like an accident. I opened the passenger side or the side that Gilly usually had his skinny ass planted in, acting the loyal and stupid sidekick to the honorary boss. I slid inside and shut the door without even bothering to look at Meade. Everything about his face made me want to throw a fist at it, so I decided to just avoid it. He said nothing as we waited for the man trip to start on its way up the passage to the surface. “Thought I warned you to stay away from Rylan,” he growled while still staring straight ahead. I shrugged. “Guess you did, but last I checked, you’re only boss down here and during mining hours. Even then, your authority is questionable and a big fucking joke.” His clean, pink hands gripped the steering wheel hard enough to make it creak. “You fucking Trog. I can have you off this work site with a snap of my fingers.” “First of all, if you snap those baby soft, pillowy fingers they won’t make much sound. And just try and get me off. I’ll have my union rep over here so fast, you won’t even have time to produce beads of sweat on that big, flat forehead of yours.” The words union rep got the response I’d expected. His knuckles turned white as he twisted his hands on the steering wheel. “I wouldn’t be so fucking confident, Kelly boy. You’d be surprised what a few good written reprimands from the boss can do. All I have to do is say you’re neglecting safety procedures, and you’ll be out on your ass in no time.” He always resorted to the nickname whenever he felt that he was losing control of the situation. “I’m not a teenager anymore. Your threats don’t work. You fire me, and I’ll just move on. Do whatever the fuck you need to get your rocks off, Meade, I’m not giving her up this time. I’m never giving her up.”

The man trip was out of view. I glanced up the passageway. “Are we getting out of this hole or what? My shift is over.” With a sharp burst of anger, he shoved the truck into gear and it rolled forward. It seemed I was due for one long ride out of the mine. “Rylan’s dad knows about you being back in her life. You might think that you are headed toward a happy ending, but it’s never going to happen. Graham Merritt will see to it. And I’ve already offered my help.” “Told you, do whatever the fuck you want. None of it matters to me. And Rylan is an adult now. Her dad is going to have to come to grips with that.” Meade slammed on the brakes. My hand shot forward to the dash to keep from falling off the seat. “It’s a long, dark hike to the surface,” he said between gritted teeth. “But you could stay down here. It’s the perfect place for a lowlife Trog.” He looked pointedly at the door handle. “I’ll climb out, but the guys on that man trip all heard you say I was riding out with you. Might be a problem when you emerge without me.” He cussed under his breath. “Then get out and ride in back. That way I don’t have to smell you or look at that smug fucking face of yours.” “Huh, funny coincidence, I was just thinking that same damn thing.” I opened the door, hopped out and climbed into the bed of the truck. I watched his fat head bob back and forth and badly wanted to throw my fist straight through the back window and into the back of his skull. The thing that stuck most in my mind about our quick and ugly conversation was the mention of Graham Merritt. Jason was obviously itching for a repeat of grad night. Ironically, I would welcome a repeat. This time Meade would be the one stuck on the railroad bridge. And there was no way that coward would have the balls to jump into the river.

Rumors of my successful jump had circled town for a few months afterward, but they vanished quickly when I told people it’d never happened. Dawson, Tommy and Andi did the same. I’d just wanted the whole damn night to disappear, and the river jump was too much of a reminder. I’d been pissed as hell at myself for letting a dick like Meade get the best of me. Mostly, I’d been pissed at myself for letting Merritt basically blackmail me out of seeing Rylan. I could only guess the river jump rumors had been started by Scott Lowe, who quickly broke off his friendship with Meade after that night. I’d never really forgiven Lowe for taking part in it, but we tolerated each other and even occasionally exchanged friendly words. With him being the owner of The Hole and with me being one of the crowd drawing fighters for his fight nights, it did neither of us any good to be enemies. But the asshole behind the wheel of the truck, my supposed boss and lifelong itch on my ass, was working hard to fuck up my life again. But I was done with his shit. The dim light of a cloudy, late afternoon was still enough to make me squint as the truck rolled out of the mineshaft. I hopped out while the truck was still rolling and headed toward the lockers. Dawson and most of the other guys looked up as I walked in. I went straight to my locker to change. Dawson balled up his coveralls and threw them inside his locker. He glanced around the door. “What did he want?” I shook my head, deciding if I talked about it, I’d start shooting fire from my nostrils. “You know how it is with Meade. Everything he says just goes in one ear and out the other.” Dawson took that answer as a ‘don’t ask’. “Seems to me you might need that beer more than ever tonight.” “Think you’re right about that, Dawz.”


Becky yanked the towel off her head and pointed to her bangs. “Better?” “Yes, better.” Two hours earlier Becky had called in a near panic. After wearing blonde streaks in her dark brown bangs for several months, she’d suddenly glanced in a mirror and decided it was an un-fashion statement. Her new term for a look that would end up being laughed at by the fashion police or anyone with any sense of style. I might have saved her a few days by being more honest the second that the blonde streaks had forced a polite ‘looks great’ compliment. “Thanks so much for doing this for me,” Becky said as she rinsed the cup and brush out in the sink. “Rhonda had no more appointments left today.” “What are friends for if not to step in as emergency hair stylists and un-fashion erasers.” Becky plucked her hair dryer from beneath the bathroom cabinet. “I’ll hurry. I know you’re dying to get over to The Hole to see Kellan. The band that’s playing, Salt Dogs, is a local favorite. The place should be packed, which means the cash registers will be stuffed. Which, of course, means Scott will be in a good mood. I might just hit him up for that new purse I’ve been eyeing. It’s been awhile since he bought me anything nice.” Becky lived near me on the north side of town. Her family had come from what people liked to call old money. Her great grandfather had a successful lumber company, which he’d left to his son, who’d then left it to his son, Becky’s dad. But that’s where the family legacy and old money came to an abrupt end. Becky’s father was not a business man, and after he ran the company into the ground, he took off in shame. Becky’s mom had managed to hang onto the old estate that had been passed through the generations. But it was in bad need of repair, and neither Becky nor her mom made enough money to fix things.

I sat on the faded quilt on her bed and checked my text messages. Kellan rarely texted. He preferred to call, mentioning that hearing my voice was the best part of the day. There was a text from Jane, my ex-boss in Pennsylvania, the wonderful woman who I’d stopped working for so I could follow dipshit to New York. Although, the more I thought about it, the more I realized I’d been the dipshit. I rubbed my thumb over the message and it opened. “Hey, Rylan, hope all is well with you. I confess I heard that the whole marriage thing didn’t work out. Which brings me to my text. The woman we hired to replace you was no replacement at all. So if you’re in need of a job, we’d love to have you back. Best wishes, Jane.” I stared at the text. Several weeks ago, after the Chase disaster, I would have been elbowing people out of my way at the airport to board that plane to Pennsylvania and get back to the life I’d started there. But now . . . Or was I being a dipshit again and letting a man decide how I would live my life? I thought about Kellan and how I woke up every morning thinking about him. When I wasn’t with him, I was thinking about being with him. This time I wasn’t letting a man decide for me, I was letting my heart decide. Of course, I knew better than to let my heart lead, but at the moment, it was completely and utterly in charge.


The shabby, dingy interior of The Hole was starting to grow on me. It was a trashy sort of ambience that just seemed to work for the place. The band was already in full swing playing what sounded like an original song, rock and roll with a country twang that definitely made you want to pick up your feet. I felt even more like dancing when I saw Kellan through the crush of bar patrons. He was standing at a counter high table with Tommy, who was busy talking to two women. I’d just seen Kellan the night before, less than twenty-four hours, yet I found myself pushing quickly through the crowd to reach his side. His arm curled proprietarily around me, and he pulled me tight against him. He’d been acting completely possessive, something that, with anyone else would have irritated me. Chase had acted that way a few times in our relationship, trying to tell me who I could and couldn’t speak to, and I’d countered with a resounding ‘you don’t own me’. But it was different with Kellan. Chase had just needed to assert his manliness, to try and show who was boss. Kellan had no need to prove that he was every bit the man. I’d never felt like he was trying to show that he owned me. He didn’t make me feel like his possession. He made me feel as if I was worth fighting for. He made me feel like I was the single most important part of his life and, for a change, it was damn nice to feel that way. Kellan leaned over and kissed me. Instantly, his scent, soap mixed with that same earthy aroma that came with working in the mine and his raw masculinity, washed over me, making me feel lightheaded. “Missed you all damn day, Lanie. What were you up to while I toiled in the pit of hell?” “Big things. Exciting things. First, I agreed to work out with my mom, even though my gut

instinct was to run from the house and never look back. Instead, I waddled on a stair stepper while she ran on her treadmill and lectured me about how I was eating all the wrong things. She has also decided that Abbie, the sweet little ice cream lady, is making the entire town head for an early grave.” I shook my head. “Can you imagine? We’re surrounded by coal dust, but it’s rocky road that’s going to take us all down. Then I binge watched some detective thing on streaming and it ended on a cliffhanger. So I checked up on Google to find out when the next season would be available. The series was cancelled. Which means, I’m left with a whodunnit mystery where I will forever be wondering whodunnit. Of course, the writers of the show probably didn’t know either. And I ended my important day by helping Becky get her bangs back to normal. The piano key look was no longer working for her.” Kellan laughed as he poured me a beer. “That is some pretty high stress stuff. And I thought my day of drilling the roof of the mine to keep it from collapsing was tough.” I sipped through the beer foam and rested my head against his shoulder. “I’ve got to find a job. I’ve got to get out from under my parents’ roof.” I had no intention of even mentioning that my old job was open again. It wasn’t relevant at the moment, and it would only serve to put him in a bad mood. I’d texted Jane back to thank her for the offer and let her know I’d think about it. But, the truth was, I was so thrilled to be back with Kellan, the job just didn’t seem that tempting anymore. Music thrummed off the walls. A group of people were dancing in the center of the floor. Dawson was up front dancing with a pretty girl who had long dark hair, but he seemed more interested in the singer on stage than his dance partner. Tommy leaned forward. “Hey, Ry, glad you’re here. Now Mr. Sourpuss can be more sunshiney again.” “Yep, sunshiney is the word everyone uses to describe me.” Kellan lifted his beer. “Rylan Merritt?” the girl next to Tommy said with surprise. “Zoe? How are you?” Zoe had been one of those semi-friends in high school. We’d partnered up

in science lab and for homework projects because we were both no nonsense students who liked to get good grades. But as matched as we were academically, we had little else in common. “I’m great. I’d heard rumors you were back. Guess this explains why Kellan was giving us girls the cold shoulder tonight.” Tommy laughed, but Kellan ignored the comment. I glanced toward the band. “Looks kind of fun out there. Wanna dance on the next song?” “I guess I could work up the energy to twirl you around the dance floor.” As I drew my gaze away, I spotted a familiar face coming through the front door. I tapped Kellan on the shoulder. “Hey, isn’t that Dawson’s sister, Andi? Oh my gosh, she’s even prettier than I remembered.” Kellan looked pointedly over at Tommy, and I was reminded of the crush Tommy had always had on Dawson’s twin sister. Andi spotted us. Her bright white smile broke out as she made her way across the floor. Tommy watched her over the rim of his glass as he drained it of beer. He smacked it down on the table hard enough to startle Zoe. “I’m going to the bar for a couple of shots.” Tommy didn’t look at Kellan when he said it. “Think that’s wise, Huck? We’ve got a long ass work day tomorrow.” “Yeah, we do. And yeah it’s wise.” He walked away leaving Zoe looking slightly offended. Zoe took a deep breath and excused herself from the table just as Andi reached us. Andi was always one of those smart, cute healthy looking types with a sporty figure and skin that was as smooth and flawless as cream. She hadn’t changed much since high school, except she looked more confident. And from what Kellan had told me about her dad, confidence was a hard won commodity to come by in their house. “Oh my gosh, Rylan, you are just as beautiful as ever,” Andi said, winning me over instantly.

“I was just thinking the same thing about you. Guess true beauty never fades.” I shot her a wink and smiled at Kellan. “You’ll get no argument from me on that point,” Kellan said. Andi cast a somewhat disappointed glance in the direction of the bar. Tommy was leaning over the counter talking to the bartender. He’d walked away quickly but had taken at least two fleeting glances back at our table. Andi turned back to Kellan. “What the heck is going on with Tommy?” Kellan made an obvious stall for time by taking a drink of his beer. “You know, Huck. His moods change with the wind.” “Then I must keep running into him downwind. He always looks as if he wants to chew nails and spit them at someone.” She looked back toward the band. “Hey, Mr. Goober is dancing.” She laughed. “He is not exactly graceful but then I guess that’s to be expected of a guy with size thirteen feet.” “I’m heading to the bar for more beer. What are you drinking, Andi?” Kellan asked. “Just a glass of wine. My shift starts at six tomorrow.” Kellan left to order drinks. “I heard you’re working in the emergency room,” I said. “That must be hard. And stressful. And damn courageous, I might add.” Andi unzipped her sweatshirt and took it off. “Too much body heat in here. E.R. is definitely a learning experience. I’m going to try and stick it out there as long as I can, but from what I hear, the burnout rate is pretty fast.” She glanced in Kellan’s direction. “Looks like you two picked up right where you left off. I’m glad for Kellan. After what happened that night—” “What happened? Do you mean grad night?” Her eyes rounded, and I seemed to have caught her completely off guard. “Uh, I mean after you

left—once you left town.” She was stumbling over her words. “It was just really hard on Kellan, that’s all.” “Hey, sis, you made it.” Dawson came up behind. Andi nearly crumpled with relief that our conversation had ended. Dawson picked up his glass of beer, and Andi reached for it. “I’m parched. Give me a sip.” Kellan was on his way back to the table with the drinks. Dawson glanced around. “Where did Huck go?” “Think he’s over talking to Lowe about next Saturday’s fights.” Kellan handed Andi her wine. “He’s avoiding me.” Andi took a drink and crinkled her nose at the taste. “I think I’m going to go over and ask him why he has a bug up his butt whenever he sees me.” “Probably not a good idea,” Dawson interjected quickly. “You know how he gets. Just leave him alone, Andi.” She huffed. “Fine. See if I ever tend to that man’s cuts and bruises again. He can find himself a new first aid nurse.” I looked over at Kellan to see if I could gleam any information from his face. I was usually really good at reading his thoughts, but he and Dawson were keeping stiff upper lips on this one. It was impossible to tell what was going on, but I was nearly certain that Tommy’s high school crush had never actually melted. A new song started up. Kellan offered me his hand. I placed my palm in his and he walked me to the floor. “Don’t know about you, darlin’, but I’m thinking two dances and we blow this joint.” He pulled me around and wrapped his arm around my waist. His blue eyes were pale under the dim lights hanging over the dance floor. “We can make some of our own music at my place.” “I like your way of thinking, mister.”


After my chat with Meade, I’d badly needed a beer and some good music. But the second I saw Rylan walking across the barroom floor all I could think about was being alone with her. Not just because I needed her naked and in my bed but because I needed to remind myself that Rylan was with me and there wasn’t a damn thing anyone could do to change that. The band was taking a break. Tommy had been acting like a first class asshole toward Andi, and she looked plenty distraught about it. Dawson was busy sharing a beer with the band’s singer. “Hey, Andi, Rylan and I are leaving.” “Are you? I don’t know why I came here in the first place. I don’t hang out with any of these people anymore. With Dawson acting like a lovesick band groupie and Tommy acting as if we were enemies, or at the very least, strangers, I think I’ll leave too. That way you can walk me to my car, if you don’t mind.” “Absolutely.” I took hold of Rylan’s hand and caught Dawson’s attention just long enough to point out that his sister was leaving too. We headed out the door. The cloud cover of late afternoon had turned into a late night cold drizzle. Not great weather for a motorcycle ride. I was glad we were only a few short miles from the cabin. We stepped out of the shadow of the building. Four more motorcycles had joined mine in the parking lot. Red cigarette butts glowed through white puffs of breath as the four riders hovered around their bikes. It was easy to recognize the Grunge Devils’ cuts, even with only one working light in the parking lot. It was also easy to recognize Jigsaw’s oversized head through the mist.

I squeezed Rylan’s hand tighter and took hold of Andi’s as well. “Where’s your car?” “Across the way,” Andi answered, without pulling her worried gaze from the men standing at the motorcycles. “Didn’t realize those guys came this way. Why the heck don’t they stay in their own town?” “Uh, have you seen Browning?” I smiled to assure her everything was fine, and it was no big deal. But then the bikers turned to look at us. Both girls squeezed my hands tighter. We reached Andi’s car. “Hey, Andi, can I ask you a favor? Can you drive Rylan over to my house? I’ll be right behind on my bike.” Rylan took hold of my arm. “I knew it. Those guys are waiting for you, aren’t they? I’m not leaving here without you.” I kissed her quickly. “Hmm, why the heck does the beer always taste better on your lips.” I held out my hand. “I’m just having Andi drive you because it’s cold and wet out.” Rylan knew me too well. She shook her head. “Not believing that excuse.” I looked at her. “I don’t really know what the hell they want, Lanie. But if they are looking for trouble, then I’ve got a lot better chance if I don’t have to worry about you. Let Andi drive you to my place, and I’ll be right behind.” Reluctantly, Rylan climbed into the passenger seat. Andi opened the window. “If you don’t mind, Lone Ranger, we’re going to wait until you actually climb on that horse and ride off. If not, this little baby”—she patted the dash—“can take out at least one of those thick-necked oafs.” “Just stay in the car. I’ll be right behind,” I said again. I turned and headed toward my motorcycle. One of the assholes had decided to straddle it. “Braddock!” Jigsaw barked at me. “We need to talk.” I kept walking toward him. The jerk on my bike finally threw his big leg over and got off. Jigsaw and two of his buddies stood shoulder to shoulder, like a trio of potato-faced asshats.

“Already told Lowe I’m willing to step into the ring with you again.” I stopped a few feet from him. “That doesn’t mean I didn’t win the last one. I did. Fair and square.” His doughy face tightened with anger. “Yeah? Well, this time I plan to put you into a fucking coma. Then there’s no way Lowe can rig it.” I grinned. “We’ll see.” “And what about Lilly?” “What about her?” I peeked back over my shoulder. The girls were out of earshot but watching the whole confrontation. Mickey, the Grunge Devil who I’d cleaned up in poker a few months back, laughed, showing off his black front tooth. “Got your girlfriends keeping an eye on you? That’s sweet.” “Which one of those sweeties is your favorite? Doesn’t matter. I think I’ll give them both a go.” Jigsaw made a show of grabbing his crotch. “Seems only fair since you’ve been going after Lilly.” “Going after Lilly?” I laughed, and badly wanted to add ‘if you only knew’. But I knew the bastard would take it out on Lilly. Someday she’d get smart enough to leave the creep. “Well, it’s been fun, as always, Jigsaw.” I looked at the others. “Jigsaw’s buddies.” I nodded politely and moved toward my bike. They formed a wall in front of it. I sighed loudly and looked at Jigsaw. “What the fuck do you want? Didn’t realize what a sore loser you were going to be.” The cold weather and his overblown muscles made Jigsaw move just slow enough for me to easily duck out of the path of his fist. I, on the other hand, spent most of my time under the Earth’s surface where you went from bitter cold to a hundred plus as you got closer to the molten core. Temperature change in either direction never bothered me. I returned a right hook, clipping him on his square, iron jaw. It didn’t blow him off his feet, but he stumbled back with a groan. The other guys moved in. As I spun around to block a fist, a leg shot out and kicked my legs out

from under me. I slammed hard, shoulder first against the pavement. Shadows fell over me as I moved my feet to stand. An elbow came down hard between my shoulder blades. I was outnumbered. I groaned as sharp pain shot down my back. In the distance, I heard a car’s tires chirp across the parking lot. I stared at the wet pavement, trying to catch my breath and figure my next move. A steel toed boot came up toward my chin. I grabbed the boot and gave it a violent twist, sending the owner reeling backward. But before I could even let go of the foot, another boot came in from behind, nailing me hard on the back. The pain and loss of breath knocked me senseless for a second. A voice inside my spinning head told me to get up or end up in the fucking hospital. Hot searing pain shot through my back as I pushed to my knees with a grunt. I lifted my face. The massive silhouette in front of me was fuzzy and unfocused. Jigsaw’s laugh helped clear my head fast. I shot to my feet and drew back my arm, but before I could shoot it toward his face, his head snapped to the side. Blood and spit spurted from his mouth, and he fell to the ground. Dawson’s face appeared through the rainy mist. As he shook out his hand, an arm went around Dawson’s neck. He jammed his elbow back, but I couldn’t stick around to see how it ended. The fourth guy, with snow white hair and a twisted looking scar on his face, lumbered toward me with a chain dangling from his hand. My back was on fire, but adrenaline had pumped plenty of rage into my muscles. From the corner of my eye, I saw Tommy, with a bloody shirt, in a full fist fight with one of the Grunge Devils. No one had a stronger right hook than Tommy. I had no doubt he would leave the asshole with fewer teeth and even fewer brain cells. “Kellan!” I heard Rylan’s scream but had no time to look around and find her. The chain was swinging toward me like a deadly whip. I raised up my hand to defend my head. I sucked in a sharp breath as the heavy links smacked my knuckles. The chain twisted around my forearm like a metal snake. I got a grip on it and yanked it so hard, the guy wielding it fell to his knees. With the chain wrapped tightly around my fist, I hit him right in the middle of his face. It was like wearing a heavy duty set of brass knuckles. Bone cracked, blood flowed and his nose looked a

little less centered on his face. I held the chain up in front of him. “I think I’ll hold onto this.” Voices floated to us through the cold drizzle, a drizzle that had now soaked me to the bone. In the midst of the melee, the main douche bag had disappeared. A crowd had gathered outside the bar to watch. Scott Lowe, the owner, had so much illegal gambling and so many safety violations going on inside his place, there was no way he’d call the police. Dawson and his opponent were still throwing punches, but Tommy was done with his. The guy was on his knees, puking his guts out. “Hey, Braddock,” I heard Jigsaw’s voice come from between two cars. That’s when I heard a tiny whimper. It was a sound that went straight through me. Jigsaw came out of the shadows. His fat fingers were wrapped tightly around Rylan’s arms. “A little more payback for you sniffing around Lilly,” Jigsaw sneered. Before Rylan could turn her face, Jigsaw pressed his mouth against hers and kissed her. He shoved her as he let go, and she fell back hard on her bottom. I was on him so fast, the fucker didn’t have time to react. I grabbed his shirt and slammed my fist into his face. His head snapped back and came forward, and just like a punching bag I hit him again. And again. It was Rylan’s plea to stop that finally made me let go of the shirt. Jigsaw crumpled into a bloody mess at my feet. Rylan ran to me. I hauled her against me. Scott Lowe and a couple of the big dudes he employed to tamp down bar fights were standing nearby. “Guess you boys have had enough.” Scott had carried a baseball bat out. He rested it up against his shoulder. “Jigsaw, I think I’ve had about enough of you. You and your friends find somewhere else to hang out from now on.” Scott looked over at the Grunge Devils. They all looked way worse off than when they’d first started the evening of fun. “You’re no longer welcome here.” “You’re siding with these assholes?” The guy with white hair growled through a fat lip.

“Just like you, we take care of our own in Bluefield,” Scott told him. “Then they need to keep their cocks out of our Browning women.” He scowled at me as he said it. I felt a twinge of tension in Rylan’s body as he spit out the words. I was going to have plenty of explaining to do after this. But I had nothing to hide. I hadn’t so much as glanced in another girl’s direction since Rylan had walked back into my life. “Agreed,” Scott said. “We’ve got trucks here if any of you need a ride home. We can put the motorcycles in the back.” Jigsaw pushed to his feet. The blood might have made it look worse than it was, but my knuckles were telling me I’d hit him hard. He stumbled toward the bikes. “Jigsaw, you want a lift home?” Scott called. “Fuck off,” he grunted and threw his leg over his bike. His friends followed. They started their motorcycles and rolled out of the lot. It seemed the entire bar had cleared out to come watch the fight. Scott wasn’t favoring us with any friendlier of a face than he’d given the pathetic assholes who’d just ridden off with their tails between their legs. “Kellan, I’m not completely sure what all that was about. I know Jigsaw was pissed about losing the fight, but I get the feeling there’s more to the story. Next time a fight breaks out here that isn’t inside the ring, I’m banning you from this place for good. And that goes for your two sidekicks as well.” I looked at my friends. They’d had my back as usual. Dawson had a fat lip and black eye, but it was Tommy who was inexplicably covered in blood. “Huck, where the hell’s all that blood coming from?” I asked. Tommy looked down at his shirt as if he was just noticing the blood for the first time. “Don’t know.” He slid up his shirt and discovered a mean looking cut on his side. “Shit, that fucker must have had a blade in his hand. It’s so damn cold out here, I didn’t even feel him slice me.”

Andi stepped forward from the crowd of onlookers. Her car was parked in front of the bar. It seemed the girls had driven back up to the entrance and raced in to let Dawson and Tommy know I needed them. Andi headed toward Tommy. His jaw tightened as she neared. “I’m fine,” he growled. It seemed Andi had had it. She stuck her fists on her hips. “Oh really? Because the pint of blood on your shirt tells me otherwise. I’m going to swing home and get some first aid supplies and then I’m coming back to look at that. Either that, or my brother is going to take you straight to the emergency room and you can explain to the police how you got cut with a knife.” “Yeah, fine,” Tommy said begrudgingly. Show over and rain falling faster, most of the patrons headed back into the dry warmth of the bar. Without another word to me, Rylan climbed back into Andi’s car. Tommy and Dawson headed home in the truck, and I got on my bike. Rain fell out of a black sky in heavy, cold drops. My back ached as I leaned forward and gripped the handlebars. Scott had told them to leave and not come back, but I wondered just what kind of payback Dawson, Tommy and I could expect. Jigsaw wasn’t exactly the forgive and forget type. Neither were the Grunge Devils. And now I had to explain some things to Rylan. If she wanted to listen. There was really no damn reason why she should. In her mind, I was the asshole who’d left her alone on the rooftop of the gym, cold and brokenhearted. If I were her, I sure as hell wouldn’t give me a chance to explain. The night had started out just fine, but the whole damn thing had turned to shit fast.


I waited in the car, watching the windshield grow hazy from my breath, while Andi ran in to get her first aid supplies. While she was inside, I changed my mind back and forth a dozen times. I considered just going home and giving myself a night to sleep it off. Maybe it was better not to know everything. After all, I’d been gone a long time, and I hadn’t exactly been sitting around with my knees glued together and my chastity belt firmly locked in place. But a spark of curiosity edged with just enough anger told me I needed to find out if Kellan had been with other girls since my return. I just didn’t need to be sideswiped again like I had been with Chase. And this would be far worse. This would wake up all the old wounds and heartbreak that Kellan had left me with years before. Andi hadn’t been gone long, but by the time she returned to the car with her green duffle bag, I’d made a firm decision. I was going to ride back to Kellan’s house. I’d left town never talking to him and never knowing what had happened. I wasn’t going to let lack of communication, fear of a broken heart or my wild and slightly jealous imagination ruin things again. Andi climbed inside, looking excited about the prospect of cleaning up a bloody mess. I couldn’t hold back a grin. “I must say, your enthusiasm for this upcoming first aid experience is admirable. Just thinking about the blood on Tommy’s shirt has my stomach doing all kinds of stuff that isn’t natural.” Andi twisted around and dropped the green bag on the backseat. She turned back to the steering wheel. “I guess I do have a sort of macabre obsession with it. I’ve been filling that bag back there for about ten years. That’s how long I’ve been patching up Dawson and his friends. Aside from their usual scuttles, which were not quite as severe as tonight’s brawl, there was the terrible and bloody

downhill skateboarding period. Must have gone through a dozen boxes of sterile gauze.” She turned the car around and headed back to the end of town. “I’m pretty sure that like reptiles, all three of them have shed their entire skin at least twice. Although, I guess shed isn’t the right term. More like exfoliated.” I pressed my arm against my stomach to settle it . . . again. Andi caught my attempt. “Sorry, I forget that most people, normal people, get squeamish about this stuff.” Andi was extremely bright and brave and a lot of fun to talk to. I’d known her only casually in high school. Mostly because, I too, had often been guilty of staying on the side of the lunch quad with the kids from my neighborhood. It was ridiculous, and now I felt extra ashamed and stupid for falling into that pattern along with the other snobs of the town. I’d missed out on knowing Andi, and something told me, she would have been far more fun than the people I’d grown up with. The car rumbled over the tracks, the great divide between north and south. It was laughable to think about now. I felt so much more a part of Kellan’s world than my own. “I’m still not clear on what that whole mess was about tonight,” Andi said. “I know that big guy, Jigsaw, was pissed at Kellan about something. Dawson said something about Kellan winning him in a fight, and Jigsaw being a sore loser.” She laughed. “What he should be sore about is that comical nickname. What an oaf. Dawson doesn’t get mad much, but when he does, he’s scary. And Tommy . . .” She grew quiet and contemplative. “Don’t ever know what to think about Tommy. He had it rough after his dad died. I don’t think he ever recuperated from all the stuff that happened.” She seemed to shake off a sadness that had swept over her as she talked about Tommy. She turned to me with a smile. “Kellan sure seems happy to have you back in town. At least he was happy right up to those last few minutes when he had to fight off four guys. Glad we raced in to get Dawson and Tommy.” “Me too. It’s hard to say just how serious things might have gotten if they hadn’t stepped in to help.”

The rain had stopped, but a heavy, white mist hung over the town. Aside from the occasional porch light or flickering glow from a television, the houses were dark. Most people had gone to bed to get ready for a day of work. “Do you think they’ll go to work tomorrow?” I asked. “Seems like their jobs are going to be that much harder with all the cuts and bruises.” “Those three never take days off. I’ll have to see how deep Tommy’s cut is. He works with the machinery that fills the box cars, so he’ll probably be all right to work. But I don’t envy any of them. Pain and hard work never go well together.” Andi turned the car onto the unpaved section of road leading to the cabin. Being at the very edge of town, it was exceptionally dark. But there was a light on in the cabin. Andi parked and we climbed out. Kellan walked out onto the porch to greet us. His gaze caught mine before I’d even reached the steps. He was trying to read what I was thinking, but I wasn’t going to make it that easy on him. I decided to let him sweat for a bit. I walked quickly past him without a word, following Andi into the house. Tommy was sitting at the small kitchen table with an open bottle of whiskey in front of him and a kitchen towel, now red with blood, pressed against his side. His blood soaked shirt lay over the edge of the sink, making the kitchen look like a gory murder scene. Dawson came out from the kitchen holding a bag of ice against his lip. Andi walked up to him. “Let me see it.” Dawson winced as he pulled the ice away. Andi hopped up on her toes to get a better look. “Damn, that’s going to take awhile to heal. Avoid anything sour or salty or it’s going to hurt like hell.” “Thanks.” Dawson motioned to the bag. “Don’t you have anything in that witch doctor bag to heal it up over night?”

Andi smacked her hand, none too gently, on his shoulder. He flinched as if every muscle hurt. “No magic cures for a split lip. But I can tell you that it will break open again every time you talk, laugh, or yawn. So avoid all those activities.” She walked into the kitchen. I followed, deciding I should offer my assistance, even though my stomach was firmly against it. But my stomach was even less ready to talk to Kellan. He was looking pretty miserable himself. Incredibly handsome. But miserable. Tommy stared down at the glass of whiskey in his hand. With his good looks, his dark brooding gaze, the muscles of his chest and arms covered in a mosaic of tattoos and blood, he looked like some warrior hero from a video game. Andi yanked out a chair. “Alcohol will make that cut bleed more.” “It also makes it hurt less,” Tommy said quietly. He still hadn’t looked at her. “Just give me a fucking bandage. I can take care of it myself.” Andi reached in her bag, pulled out a roll of gauze and threw it at him. Alcohol and the fight had dulled his reflexes. It bounced off his head and onto the table. He finally lifted his face and looked at Andi. There it was. Confirmation of what I’d been theorizing. Tommy was still in love with Andi. Andi’s harsh scowl softened. “Just let me look at it to see if it needs stitches.” “I’m not going to the hospital,” he grumbled as he lifted away the kitchen towel. My stomach did a right and proper somersault. Tommy gripped the whiskey glass hard enough to break it as Andi leaned her face closer to inspect the cut. From the tense hush that had fallen over the nurse and her patient, I decided it would be better if I left the room. There was obviously a lot more going on than just a first aid session. Besides, it was time for me to talk to Kellan. Dawson was sitting on the couch with his head leaned back and a bag of ice covering half of his face. Max was curled up next to him. Neither man nor dog looked up when I walked into the room. I

headed down the hallway to Kellan’s room. His door was slightly ajar. I knocked lightly and entered without waiting for a response. Kellan was facing away from the door. He’d just pulled his wet shirt off. His back was red. Some significant bruises were already forming between his shoulder blades. “You need some ice,” I said. He raked his fingers through his wet hair. “I took a couple aspirin. It only hurts when I breathe . . . or move . . .” His gaze held mine. “Or look at you.” I hadn’t realized just how much emotion I’d been wearing until he pointed it out. I worked hard to complete a swallow, but my throat was dry and tight. Sometimes, being blissfully naive had its benefits. But I had to grow up. “I need to know—” I started, but he shook his head and moved closer. He didn’t reach out for me, and I was thankful. I was always at my most vulnerable when Kellan was touching me. “I have not seen Lilly or any woman since you—” “Lilly?” Hearing her name stung like a sharp slap. I hadn’t put any familiar names or faces with the heartbreaking scenarios I’d been imagining. My reaction seemed to have caught him off guard too. “Jigsaw is dating Lilly Upton. I figured that’s why you were so—” “Upset?” It seemed neither of us had the patience to let the other one finish their own sentences tonight. “I was upset because I caught the gist of what the fight was about. I assumed you had been seeing girls from Browning. But Lilly Upton, the beautiful, sex crazed girl who stalked you in high school, the girl I blamed for running off with you on grad night? Hadn’t really thought about her. But now it’s kind of making sense. And if she’s the girlfriend of that giant dipshit, why the hell would you be seeing her?” “Good question. Guess cuz I’m an asshole, and I deserved what I got tonight.” He took a deep

breath. It seemed to cause him a great deal of pain. But at the moment I wasn’t able to conjure much sympathy. “I haven’t seen Lilly, I haven’t seen anyone since you got back.” He moved to touch me, but I wasn’t quite ready for it. I stepped back. “I can’t go through it again, Kellan. I can’t. I’m already so tangled up with thinking about you that I’m ready to kick myself for letting my guard down so fast.” A nervous laugh flew from my mouth. “Guard. That’s even funnier when I say it out loud. I have no guard when it comes to you. Defenseless. Hopeless. Completely fucking gaga, to use Becky’s term for it. But I won’t let myself break into a million pieces again because, frankly, it takes too damn long to pull all the pieces back together. So if you love me at all, you’ll swear to me right now that—” Two long steps and his arms were around me. “I swear, Lanie. There’s no one else. You’re on my mind every minute of the day. I wake up worried that I’m just dreaming this.” His hand curled around my face and he kissed me. “I worry more that you’ll come to your senses and leave this town and me. If you broke into a million pieces, then I broke into a billion. And I never put the pieces back together.” He kissed me again, but with more urgency, as if he feared it might be the last time. He lifted his mouth from mine and gazed down at me with those blue eyes that could pull me into a trance. I reached up and rubbed some of my lipstick off the side of his mouth. “I trust you, Kellan. Just don’t make me look foolish. I couldn’t live through that kind of humiliation again.” “I’m not him, Lanie. I’m not that jerk you left behind in New York. I love you. I can’t even remember a time when I wasn’t completely nuts about you. That will never change.” I curled against him. “See that it doesn’t.”


Max trotted up the steps behind me, staring at my pocket expectantly. I dropped the rawhide on the porch. The dog snatched it up in his teeth and carried it to a shady corner. Neither of my roommates were up, and I wasn’t surprised. Tommy hadn’t made his Friday shift because of the cut on his side. He’d refused Andi’s advice to get it stitched up, and so she made do with some strong liquid bandage adhesive and crossed fingers. Her skilled work had at least put a stop to the seemingly endless stream of blood, but work would have been impossible. He was pissed about missing his shift, but he was having an even harder time recuperating from the tender ministrations of his personal medic. He’d gulped down half the bottle of whiskey after Andi left. I walked to the table and picked up my buzzing phone. “Hey, baby, was just going to call you.” “Guess what? My parents have gone out for the day. Some board members’ lunch or one of those boring events.” “Great. What should we do?” She paused for a second. “I tell you my parents are out for the day, and you ask what we should do? You’ve lost your bad boy touch. The old Kellan would have been inside his truck slamming over potholes and screeching tires around the corners to get here.” “You’re right. Where the hell is my head? Should I climb the mulberry?” She laughed. “I will let you in like a real visitor.” “I’m on my way, and be ready because once I get there I will prove to you that I haven’t lost my bad boy touch.”

“Looking forward.” *** After the world’s speediest shower and ride through town, I found myself at the ornate iron gate outside the Merritt mansion. I had been inside the stately home only two other times. Both were times like this one, when Rylan had been left home alone. I’d never be invited inside like a normal visitor and that ugly fact always played havoc with my head. It seemed that for Rylan and me to have a future together, she was going to have to make a hard choice between family and love. It was archaic and stupid, but her parents were still stuck in their old world ignorance. And from what Meade had told me, her dad was still just as fiercely against me as he had been seven years ago. Rylan came out of the house with her dad’s two hound dogs in tow. She had on pink pajama style pants, fuzzy boots and an oversized t-shirt. Her hair was swept up in a messy knot on the back of her head. She put a key in the lock, and the pedestrian gate opened. I swept her instantly into my arms. “Darlin’, you shouldn’t have gone to such a fuss with your outfit.” She laughed. “Figured whatever I put on, you were just going to yank it off of me before you took three steps into my room.” “How the hell can you be so hot and so smart?” I reached down and grabbed her ass. “And this ass is a major bonus too. Especially in these pajama pants. You look like you’ve just come out of a slumber party. Shit, you and a slumber party, that makes me hard just thinking about it. Maybe you should get me inside before I take advantage of you right here on your dad’s rolling front lawn.” “It’d probably be the most exciting thing to happen in this morgue-like neighborhood in fifty years.” She took hold of my hand. The dogs sniffed me for a second. I patted each of them. “Guess it’s good I took the time to wash off the scent of rawhide before I came over.” Rylan nearly skipped as we headed across the wide green stretch of perfectly manicured grass. Red and white roses lined a used brick path leading to the front steps. The dogs beat us to the front

door. I stepped across the white marble floor of the entry and stared up at the massive chandelier. It was a light fixture that was probably worth more than all my belongings put together. Which, of course, wasn’t saying much. Gold flecked wall paper lined the walls, and every form of art was placed in perfectly planned locations. My gaze followed the gleaming white balustrades up the double staircase. “Like what you’ve done with the place.” Rylan grabbed my hand again. “Wait until you see my room. Best gym this side of the Mississippi.” We climbed the staircase. Rylan led me down a hall on the left side of the stairs. “I just realized I’ve only entered your room from that sketch ass trellis outside your window. Hey, did your mom install a stripper pole? Heard they were good for exercise.” She shot me a raised brow. “Careful. Just hearing you mention my mom in the same sentence as a stripper pole has nearly shocked me out of the mood.” We reached her door. Before she opened it, I pulled her against me. “You’re in a mood, darlin’?” She pushed her leg between mine. “I’ve been in a mood since I woke up this morning with the name Kellan on my lips. It was all I could do not to take matters into my own hands.” “Damn, baby, you’re just giving me all kinds of dirty ideas.” I pushed open the door to the room. “Holy shit, this is a nice gym. I especially like the big bed in the center of it all. What I’m wondering is just how many wild things can we do in one afternoon?” I walked over to the exercise bicycle. There was a long, rubbery band hanging over the handlebars. I picked it up and swung it around. “I say we start simple and work our way up to the more advanced stuff.” I tossed the massive rubber band over my shoulder and walked over to Rylan, who was now blushing pink. “Damn, Lanie, when I think of all the fun we missed in these last seven years—”

She reached down and lifted the oversized t-shirt up and off, exposing a sexy black lace bra beneath. “Then it seems to me, we’ve got some major catching up to do.” She pushed the bra straps down, and her nipples peered up over the top of the lace. It was the last tease I could take. My arms went around her, and my mouth slammed down over hers. I slid my hand between us and teased a taut nipple in between my finger and thumb. I pushed down the pajama pants. I paused the kiss long enough to lean my head down and gaze appreciatively at the black lace panties. “See, you did take the time to dress nice for me.” I swung the long band off my shoulder and led her to the bed. A long ornately carved post stood at each corner. “Is this bed an antique?” I asked as I ran my hand over the polished wood. “Yep, Victorian, back when everyone was prudish and stodgy and wild sex was a big no no. Oh, and women didn’t wear black lace panties and bras.” I ran my finger around the rose colored nipples that peeped up above the black lace of the bra. “Wonder how high the suicide rate was back then.” I reached up and tied the large band near the top of the post. “Try to forget that this belongs to your mom.” I took hold of her hands. “We’re about to give this old Victorian bed a lesson in dirty fun.” I lifted her hands up and tied the band lightly around each wrist. She squealed. It was a sort of nervous, excited laugh. I lifted her chin and pressed my mouth against hers. “Do you trust me, baby?” “With my body? Yes. With my heart? Not sure.” “Well then, I’ll have to work on that last part. But for now . . .” I walked behind her. A shiver coursed through her thin body as I kissed the back of her neck. I ran a trail of kisses down her back and hooked my finger around the thin strap of lace holding her panties on her hips. I dragged them down and over her fuzzy boots. “Kind of liking these short fuzzy boots,” I said. “Especially with this perfectly sculpted naked ass.”

With that, I pressed my mouth against the cheek of her ass. I dropped to my knees, reached down and spread her feet farther apart. “God, your pussy is beautiful, baby.” “Kellan, touch me, please,” she begged softly. I pulled her ass out farther and ran my tongue along the seam between her cheeks. She squirmed away from my mouth, but I held her firmly and continued. My tongue flicked at the tight puckered hole as my fingers spread the folds of her pussy wide. I moved my mouth lower and held her against my mouth. She cried out and her knees weakened some as I pushed my tongue inside of her. My cock pushed hard against the fly of my pants as I tasted the moisture pooling between her legs. I moved one hand around to the front and pushed between her legs, taking care to caress her clit. She mewled in satisfaction as my tongue found the sweet spot inside of her. Her bound hands and my grasp seemed to be keeping her from sinking to her knees. As my mouth devoured her, I brought my free hand up and slapped her once on the ass. She gasped but she didn’t shy away. She jutted her ass out farther, asking for more. I delivered another spank, and she sucked in a breath. “Kellan, I can hardly hold myself up,” she said breathlessly. My tongue dove deeper as my free hand smoothed over the pink color I’d just left on her ass cheek. I slid my thumb along the crack. She tightened and resisted as I slid my thumb into her ass. In seconds, I had her nearly melting against me wanting to take in more of my thumb. She rocked against my mouth and my hand. All of it, invading every part of her, was making me so fucking hard I was going to explode. I could feel the heat surging in her pussy, and her legs trembled as she reached the edge of climax. She came against my mouth in long shuddering waves. “Oh, Kellan.” Her soft cry circled the room and wound its way around my already rock hard cock. I stood behind her and wrapped my arm around her, holding her up as I released her hands. She collapsed against me, whimpering softly as I lifted her into my arms. I carried her to the side of the

bed. “Baby, I want you on your hands and knees.” It was meant to be a question, but it came out as a command. She responded by lowering her feet to the floor. She turned around and climbed onto her bed. On her hands and knees, she moved to the center and then smiled at me over her shoulder. “Will this do?” she asked. I unfastened my fly. “More than you fucking know, baby.” I kicked off my shoes and shoved down my pants. Looking at her sweet pussy, still pink and slick from my mouth, made an involuntary groan roll up from my chest. I climbed on the bed behind her. “Fuck, baby, I don’t know if I’ll be able to make this last long.” I took hold of her hips and jammed my cock inside of her. A half cry shot from her lips. Then she moved against me, wanting me to fuck her hard. My muscles clenched. I had to hold back. She was too sweet. She was too fuckable. And everything about her heightened my senses. “I want this to last all damn day, Lanie. I want to stay right here.” Her round ass pushed up toward me, silently asking me for more. My hands gripped her ass, and my right hand smoothed over her. Again, I pushed my thumb inside the tight hole. She moaned softly, assuring me that was what she’d wanted. I rocked against her, slowing and lengthening my thrusts, my cock sweeping against every sweet tender spot in her pussy. Her fingers clutched the quilt, and tiny sounds burst from her lips as I slammed against her over and over. She returned the pleasure by bracing herself against me. The massive antique bed creaked beneath us as we brought each other to climax. My body went rigid as my cock spilled hot seed. Rylan’s arms collapsed. She sighed softly against the quilt. “God, Kellan, that was something.” I pulled her into my arms and dropped down onto the mattress.

She turned around in my arms and kissed my chest. “I’m going to need the rest of the day just to recuperate.” “What time are your parents coming back?” I raked my hair back with my fingers. “Shit, why does asking that make me feel like a damn teenager again?” “It does me too. I think we’ve got a few hours still.” I wrapped my arms tighter around her. “Then you don’t have all day to recuperate. Maybe twenty minutes tops because I plan to start all over.”


I stepped out of the shower and grabbed my towel. My head was still spinning from the hours in bed with Kellan. It had been hard to see him go, but we’d made plans to see each other later. I knew my parents would be returning at any time, and I just didn’t need any conflict. I planned to find a job and apartment nearby, hopefully in the city. I’d be out from under my dad’s roof and his disapproving scowl whenever the subject of Kellan came up. I’d hoped that the man’s old, stodgy attitude would have mellowed through the years. But that just hadn’t happened. I loved my parents, but it seemed my own happiness was going to depend on me disappointing them. They were going to have to deal with that on their own. For Kellan and me, it was like falling head over heels for each other all over again. There had been a slight hitch in our reunion on the night of the fight, but we’d worked through it. I felt secure about us. And while I wasn’t always a good judge of character, as Chase had proved, I was certain about Kellan. I knew deep down that he would never hurt me. I finished drying off and stepped into my room to change. There was a knock on the door. Mom popped her head in without waiting for a response. Typical for her. “Rylan, hurry and get dressed. We have a visitor.” Her cheeks were dark pink, which meant she’d been sipping wine. “Who is it?” “You’ll see. Just put on something nice.” “I won’t be staying long. I’ve got plans.” Her face drooped, revealing the lines that were usually hidden by her Botox injections. “Don’t

be silly, Rylan. We’re all going to dinner, so wear something pretty.” “I won’t be going. And if you don’t let me get dressed, I’ll be coming down to meet your guest in my towel.” I shooed her out before she could launch into a full blown argument. I walked over to my dresser and glanced at my phone as I dug out clean jeans. I had a text from Kellan. “Lanie, I need a couple hours to do something. I’ll text you when I’m done.” I stared at the text. Something. What the heck could it be that he couldn’t be more specific? I wrote back ‘O.K.’ and put the phone down on my dresser. With no mode of transportation other than a bicycle, I was stuck at home having to visit with my parents and their mystery guest. I had no doubt it was one of dad’s business acquaintances, and chances were, the person had a rich, eligible son in his twenties. Acting the stubborn daughter, I pulled on my faded jeans and an even more worn out sweatshirt. I wanted to make sure my parents realized I wouldn’t be going to dinner, and I definitely wouldn’t be used like a piece of livestock paraded in front of all the wealthy farmers. I quickly sent a text to Becky to see if she had time for a quick cup of coffee. Our friendship had taken a small hit because of the fight outside the bar. Scott had been plenty pissed about it and with good reason. He didn’t want to draw unwanted police attention to a place that was obviously doing some sketchy activities in its back rooms. I was hoping Becky had cooled off some. I dragged a brush angrily through my hair, still wondering what my parents were up to and, even more, what Kellan was up to. It seemed my lovely morning had gone south fast. A text came through. I hoped it was Kellan telling me he was ready to pick me up after all. But it was Becky. “Coffee sounds good. I’ll pick you up in fifteen.” “Great.” The size of the house made it difficult to hear conversations in different rooms, but my mom’s laugh, a sound that was always slightly irritating, floated up from the sitting room. I headed down the stairs. I would put in a quick appearance and then head out to wait for Becky.

I could see my mom standing with a glass of wine smiling at someone as I reached the doorway to the sitting room. Mom’s face shot my direction. Her smile tightened with what seemed like a touch of nerves. “Sweetheart,” she said through the same plaster hard smile, “look who’s here.” I stepped into the room. “Chase.” Just saying his name caused a bitter taste to rise in my throat. I shot a look of pure disbelief at my parents. Chase placed his drink on the coffee table and stood up. He was wearing a crisp designer suit and his skin sparkled as if he’d been to a spa. I realized, then, how unattractive his freshly scrubbed skin and expensive suit were to me. He was a man who loathed sweat and dirt. How the hell did I ever fall for him in the first place? Guess the easy answer to that was that I never had fallen for him. He was just a warm body to fill up what I thought I needed for a full life. And seeing him now only sealed that notion. Chase walked over to me as if he would hug me. I put up my hand to assure him that wasn’t going to happen. “That’s close enough, Chase. I’m not sure why you’re here.” “We invited him, Rylan,” Dad said. I shook my head. “Dad, how could you? I thought you were on my side.” Dad got up. “Let me get you a glass of wine, Ry. Then we’ll all sit down and talk this through.” “No. I don’t want any fucking wine.” “Rylan, your language.” Mom added a hand to her chest for extra effect. “I’ve got to use the right words just to show you how goddamned pissed I am that you did this.” “Ry, let’s go somewhere quiet so we can talk about this.” Chase reached for my hand, but I yanked it away. “Oh my gosh, you are thick. Oh, and I’m not talking about, you know.” I pointed down to his fly. “You’re thick in the head if you think there is anything to discuss. You were fucking your assistant in your office in the middle of the work day. That’s what happened. There is not a damn thing you can

say to fix it or erase it.” Chase yanked down on the bottom of his coat to straighten it. “Fine. I told them you’d be unreasonable. You’re a spoiled little girl, and frankly, I need someone much more worldly.” “Good. Bye bye. Have a lousy flight back. I’d show you to the door, but that would be more time than I want to spend with you.” Chase strode past me shooting me an ugly sneer as he whisked by. Dad followed him. “Rylan,” Mom said pleadingly, “you should at least talk to him.” I stared at her for a long enough moment to make her fidget in her designer dress. “I’m finding this all a little surreal. I’m going out for coffee with Becky, and later, I’m meeting Kellan.” Dad had walked in just as I said Kellan. “Rylan, we raised you to make better decisions. Let’s concentrate on finding you a good job somewhere. I hear California is a great place for jobs.” I looked at my dad. Physically, he looked older, but he hadn’t changed at all in seven years. Even with the added wrinkles and white hair, he was still a formidable looking man, a man who was used to being in charge and giving orders. Only I was no longer a little girl ready to follow those orders. “So you’d rather send me off to the other side of the world just to keep me from dating Kellan. You obviously care more about holding your rank in society than my happiness.” I yanked the hood of my sweatshirt up over my head. “I’ll see you both later.” Tears ached at the back of my eyes as I stomped out of the room and out the front door. The red tail lights of the rental car were the last I saw of Chase, and I was relieved. I was still reeling with the reality that my parents had stooped to this underhanded scheme to make sure my future was to their liking. Dad had been supportive before, siding with me on my decision to break off the engagement. But it seemed his abject disapproval of me seeing Kellan again had forced him to the dark side. My mom’s side. Apparently, a no-good, cheating husband who made good money and wore expensive suits was still a better catch than an honest, hard working guy who loved me and made me

happy. I fought back the potential deluge of tears and wrapped my arms tightly around myself to keep off the chill and to keep me from falling apart. I kept checking my phone wishing to hell that Kellan would text. I needed him badly. Worried that one of my warped parents would decide to follow me out and continue their meaningless lecture, I decided to walk to the end of the street. Becky’s car came around the corner. I hopped in. She stared at me. “You look upset.” “I’m pretty sure my mom and dad just reached a true low point in their parenting career. They invited Chase to the house.” Becky pulled away from the curb. “Chase? Holy shit. You need more than just a coffee, sweetie. You’re going to need a double shot of espresso.” “Damn right. In fact, I might even say yes to whipped cream with sprinkles. And I’m going to blame the sugar rush on my meddling parents.”


I climbed off my bike and walked up to Sasha’s door. She was the only person in town who might know where Lilly had been living since she’d left Bluefield. Lilly’s cryptic message was hard to understand because she’d been crying so hard, but she was in trouble. Jigsaw had obviously decided to take his frustrations and Thursday night’s humiliation out on his girlfriend. And I knew that Lilly had no one else to turn to. I wasn’t thrilled about riding into Browning alone, but Dawson and Tommy had gone rock climbing. I stepped over an orange tabby cat who was moonlighting as a welcome mat. The cat barely opened its eyes to the black motorcycle boot arching over its head. I knocked. No one answered at first. I turned to leave just as I heard rustling and footsteps on a hardwood floor. Sasha’s hair was a mess as if she’d just gotten out of bed. She smiled. “Hey, gorgeous, what are you doing on my front stoop?” “Hey, Sasha, sorry to bother you. Do you happen to know where Lilly lives or where she might be staying?” She raised a brow at me. “Thought you and her man were just beating the crap out of each other last week. She must be some lay.” “Not looking for any fight or lay. I think she might be in trouble. Thought you might be able to point me in the right direction. I’ve tried calling her, but she doesn’t answer.” Her judgmental expression softened to concern. “I’ve been telling her she needs to cut loose from that asshole. I think they were living in a room in the back of the garage where Jigsaw works as a mechanic. Poor kid. She thought she was getting out of this town and moving on to something

better.” “That helps a lot, Sasha. Thanks.” I stepped back over the cat. “You be careful over there, Kellan. I’m sure those Grunge Devils you fought the other night are not going to welcome you with open arms.” I stopped and held out my hands. “But I’m such a likable guy.” She laughed. “That you are. And, thank you, for helping Lilly.” I nodded and pulled my sunglasses back down to my face. My phone rang as I threw my leg over my bike. I had every intention of explaining this to Rylan once I got back to town. In the meantime, I didn’t want to worry her. The call was from Lilly. “Lilly, where are you? I’m just leaving town.” Lilly’s sobs came through the phone. “Lil? Are you hurt?” The question made her cry harder. “I’m behind Luke’s Garage. Jigsaw isn’t home right now. Hurry, Kellan. Please.” I put away the phone and patted the switchblade I’d shoved under my coat. A casual thought that Lilly was being used to set me up circled my mind once or twice. But if she was, then she was one hell of an actress. And I couldn’t take a chance. Too much of this was my fault. I sped off toward Browning.


It was a Saturday afternoon, but the center of town was quiet. The hardware store was having a sale. There were a few cars in front of it along with two girls selling hot dogs from a cart. Otherwise, the brisk chill that had floated in after late morning seemed to have sent most of the citizens back to the warmth of their homes. Browning was a lot like the south side of Bluefield. Small, poorly kept houses and front yards that were more weeds and broken down cars than grass and trees. A giant wrench-shaped sign with faded blue lettering that read Luke’s stuck up over the roof of the grocery store. Just two blocks down from the sign, a row of shiny black and chrome motorcycles were lined up in front of a dark building with tinted windows. The bar the Grunge Devils hung out at was like a toilet with beer spigots. Dawson and I had gone in once on a dare. We’d ended up leaving our beers mostly untouched after it was suggested by the other patrons. At least eight of them had surrounded the barstools we’d sat down on. It didn’t take us too long to figure we were outnumbered and on enemy ground. I was just glad to see that they spent their afternoons in the bar instead of out and around town. I put my motorcycle in neutral and rolled into the parking lot in front of the mechanic’s garage. They were closed up for the day. I didn’t see Jigsaw’s bike, or, for that matter, his ugly face, which was no doubt even uglier after my fist festival Thursday night. There was a warped metal door with a window that had been covered with foil at the back of the building. It was the only entrance in the back. I looked around, once again, wondering if this was all a set up. I trusted Lilly as a friend, but her boyfriend had plenty of control over her. She could very well have been threatened into calling for help.

I pressed my hand over the knife in my coat. If I was about to be jumped, I at least wanted to go out drawing some blood. I knocked on the metal door. I stepped back just in case the door swung open and Jigsaw and his cronies came flying out of it. Instead, shaky white fingers with blue nail polish lifted a corner of the foil curtain. “Kellan, is that you?” Lilly’s voice was shaky and weak. “Yeah, it’s me. Open up, Lil.” A lock clicked and she opened the door. “Christ, Lilly, did Jigsaw do this?” I lightly touched the black bruise that circled her eye and stretched over her cheekbone. Her bottom lip hung swollen, limp and bloody. And with the way she was moving, slowly, as if everything hurt, I was sure there were more injuries beneath her clothes. She pressed her arm against her stomach, and her shoulders shook with sobs. I put my arms around her. “Why didn’t you call the police?” A sad muffled laugh followed. “Nothing would happen to Jigsaw. The MC would make sure of it.” In the distance, I heard the rumble of a motorcycle. “We need to get out of here. Can I take you to your mom’s?” She nodded. “Let’s go.” I took her hand and led her to my bike. The motorcycle I’d heard in the distance neared. Jigsaw rolled into the parking lot. I looked past him and saw that some of the club members had come out of the bar. They were walking toward us like an angry posse of leather and chains. I was fucked. Lilly gasped. “He’s going to kill me.” I pushed her behind me. Jigsaw stopped his bike and nearly threw it down in his hurry to reach

us. His face and nose were still distorted from the fight. I stepped toward him. “You come near her again, you fucking low life, and I will make that face of yours even uglier. Just like I did the other night. Only this time I won’t stop.” Several of the club members came up next to Jigsaw. I didn’t recognize any of them as the guys from the fight. One with a patch that said vice president and a skeleton hand tattooed on the side of his bald head peered at me over a bushy moustache and beard. Lilly leaned her head to look past me. “I’m leaving, Jigsaw. It’s over so let us get out of here.” The VP with the beard stared at Lilly for a second. He turned to Jigsaw. “Did you do that?” Jigsaw squirmed at the question. “She was smart mouthing me, and she fucked this guy.” The beard fluttered as the guy sighed loudly. “You’re an idiot, Jigsaw.” The man turned to me. I was sure he was going to signal his buddies to jump me. Instead, he lifted his meaty hand and pointed at my motorcycle. “You and the girl get on the bike and ride out of here. Now.” I didn’t need a second invitation. I climbed on and fired the bike up. Lilly climbed on behind me. She gripped me tightly. The VP said something to his buddies, and they jogged back to their bikes. I wasn’t waiting around to see what the hell they were up to. I pulled my bike onto the main road through town. Before I reached the end of the shops, Lilly suddenly tightened her hold on me. “Kellan, they’re following.” “Shit. Thought that was too easy.” Four motorcycles rode up and positioned themselves, two on each side of us. The riders all stared straight ahead. I figured they were just waiting to get me to a remote location to kill me without witnesses. “I’m so sorry, Kellan,” Lilly cried from behind. “Just let me off. I’ll go back to Jigsaw. They’ll leave you alone then.” “Not leaving you behind, Lil. Just hold on. When we get to the highway, I’m going to grab the

throttle. I won’t be able to lose them, but it’ll make them have to work at catching us.” We reached the place in town where the ‘leaving Browning’ sign had been nailed to a tree. The two lane highway stretched out ahead of us. “Here we go,” I said over my shoulder. Lilly leaned against me and held tightly. I grabbed the throttle. The cold wind chipped at my skin as the motorcycle flew forward. I glanced in my mirror. The other motorcycles had slowed and turned back around. They’d just been escorting us out of Browning. It was their way of showing me the door and letting me know not to come back. I slowed down. “They’re gone, Lil.” She relaxed behind me. “Thank you, Kellan. Thank you for getting me out of there.” Lilly’s house was just down the street from my childhood home. My mom had moved in with her sister, and our house was being rented. It looked even shabbier than I remembered. Lilly’s house wasn’t much better. Across the street was a line of stores and a pool hall that most of the older men in town liked to hang out in on Saturday night. The evening hours hadn’t even begun yet, but there were already plenty of cars out front. “I haven’t been home in three months,” Lilly said. The sadness in her tone was hard to hear. She’d always been one of those lost souls, always looking for the right people to love and trust. “My mom will throw a fit when she sees my face.” I stopped my bike. “Will you be all right?” Lilly climbed off. “Yeah, as long as Jigsaw leaves me alone, I’ll be fine. Thanks, Kellan.” Tears filled her eyes. “I didn’t know who else to call. I’m such a fool.” “I’m glad you called. And you’re not a fool. Just don’t pick guys like that anymore.” She leaned over and threw her arms around me. She straightened. “I heard you were back with Rylan.” I smiled. “Yeah.”

“Some girls have all the luck.” She sucked in a deep breath. “Well, I better go brace myself for my mom’s three hour lecture on picking the wrong man. Bye.” “See ya around, Lil.”


I stared into my cup. The whipped cream had long turned to milk in my coffee. The super sweet smell was actually turning my stomach sour. It turned out a fancy cup of java wasn’t going to help me out of my funk. I cared deeply for my parents, but they’d really stretched my affection for them today. Knowing that they’d rather see me unhappy in New York with a man I didn’t love than at home with the man I loved made me question their values. It was still all about money and status for them, and it seemed they would take those priorities with them to the grave. “Oh, I didn’t tell you this bit of gossip. Actually, I don’t even know if it can be classified as gossip because no one cheated or two-timed on someone else, but it’s interesting nonetheless.” Becky waved her hand in an attempt to stop her own tangent. It was something she did often, and I always found it humorous. She leaned closer as if the other patrons in the coffee shop had any interest in our conversation. “Scott told me that Jason paid off his enormous gambling debt. And just in time too. Scott knows the bookie Jason was involved with, and he’s not a nice guy, if you catch my meaning.” “Yep, I catch it. Where did all the money come from? His dad, maybe?” Becky sat back with a shrug. “Not according to Scott. He said Jason’s dad would never part with that kind of cash. He doesn’t even know about Jason’s gambling problem.” “Maybe Jason finally found a rich girl who could stand to be around him longer than three minutes.” “Three minutes? That would be long in my book.” “I’ve been lucky enough not to run into him since I’ve been back.”

Becky plucked off another piece of blueberry muffin. “How come you aren’t with Kellan today?” “I was earlier. We had plans but then something came up. He’s going to text me when he gets done.” “So I’m just filler?” She winked. “That’s all right. I’m waiting for Scott to finish up with office work. He’s taking me to dinner in the city. It’s so rare when he takes a night off from The Hole.” “That sounds nice.” My phone buzzed with a message. “That’s probably Kellan now.” I picked up the phone. The message was from an unfamiliar phone number. “Just took this picture five minutes ago.” I slid my thumb over the picture to open it. It took me a second to decipher what I was looking at. I held the phone closer and then dropped it as if it had caught fire on my palm. Becky looked up from her muffin. Her eyes rounded. “Oh my god, what is it, Ry? You look like someone just socked you in the stomach.” I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t breathe. I glanced at the phone on the table. Becky grabbed it and turned it over. Her brows fused together as she squinted at the fuzzy picture. “Shit. Is that Lilly hugging Kellan? No way. I mean I know Lilly was always sniffing around Kellan whenever she came to The Hole.” She stopped when she apparently noticed that her words weren’t helping. “There has to be some kind of explanation, Ry.” I took a deep, stuttering breath hoping it would clear the sudden fog from my head. It didn’t help. “There is an explanation, Becky.” My throat was so dry it hurt to talk. “I’m an idiot.” My phone rang. I stared at it again as if flames were shooting out of it. Sometimes I hated phones and texts and everything about technology. I picked it up, not completely sure if I’d be able to speak if I heard Kellan on the other end. But then, he was busy with Lilly, so he wouldn’t have time to call. It was the same unfamiliar number. I was about to find out who my private eye was. “Hello.”

“Hey, Rylan, just thought you’d be interested in that picture.” “Who is this?” “Well, if that isn’t a slap in the face. It’s Jason, Jason Meade. I was playing pool and—” “How did you get my number?” His laugh was ugly and harsh. “That’s your main concern? How I got your number? It seems that Kelly boy is fucking with you again.” Another laugh and he hung up. Becky had not taken a new breath in her angst to hear what the call was about. I stared at the phone. “That was Jason. He’s the one who took the picture.” Becky twisted her mouth in thought. “Well, it makes sense. He always hated Kellan, and he always loved you.” “I don’t even know how he got my number.” There was a flicker in Becky’s eyes as if something had clicked, something had gelled. “What is it?” She started to say something and then shook it off. “Nothing. I was just thinking about how Jason might have gotten your number. But I really have no explanation.” “Becky, if you don’t mind, I think I’d like to go home now.” My phone buzzed. The sound of it nearly made me throw up. My hand shook as I looked at it. It was a text from Kellan. “I’m done with what I had to do. Should I pick you up?” I didn’t answer. The ache in my eyes melted to tears. I was numb from my head to my toes. “Please, Becky, just take me home.”


I plopped down on the couch. It had been a long afternoon. For a few tense minutes I wasn’t sure Lilly and I weren’t going to leave Browning in one piece. But she was back home, and I knew her parents. They were decent, and I was sure they’d take care of her. I’d called and texted Rylan, but she’d never answered. I figured she got busy doing something else, so I decided to wait at home. I ripped open a bag of chips and popped open a beer. I’d only just started up a video game when Dawson and Tommy pulled up. Tommy was the first inside. He stared at me as if he was waiting for me to change colors or sprout horns. “What the hell you looking at, Huck?” He didn’t answer but looked back as Dawson stepped inside. “I don’t think he saw it yet.” “Saw what? What’s going on?” Just then my phone received a text. I pulled it out of my pocket expecting it to be Rylan. It was Meade. “What the fuck does he want? Did we leave a locker door open or something?” Tommy stepped toward me and held up his hand. “Wait.” “Too late.” I rubbed my thumb over the picture. It was a picture of Lilly hugging me. Nothing was coming together for me. Dawson and Tommy waited in dead silence for my reaction. “Shit, it’s like that asshole is my shadow. Creepy of him to take a picture without me knowing it. And why the hell are you two looking like you just wet your pants? Lilly was in trouble. Jigsaw beat her, so I went and picked her up. All was cool. The Grunge Devils escorted us out of town. They looked pissed at Jigsaw for giving Lilly a black eye.”

They still hadn’t said anything. Another text came through. It was Meade again. “This is a nice cozy shot of you and Lilly. I’ll bet Rylan thought the same thing when I sent it to her.” “Guess he sent it to everyone,” Dawson said. I put down the phone. My pulse was pounding in my ears. My fingers curled into steel balls. “This time I’m going to fucking kill him. I’m going to take that fat meat head of his and pound it into the cement so hard his tiny brain will splatter.” I got up from the couch. Dawson stepped in front of me. Tommy blocked the door. “Get out of my way, Dawz.” “Nope. You’ll have to go through both of us. Then you’ll be hurting too much to pound Meade’s fat head. Just call Rylan and tell her what happened. She’ll understand.” “Rylan. Fuck, this is why she’s not answering my calls. She’s already decided I cheated on her.” I slipped past Dawson. “Yep, I’m going to kill him.” Tommy braced a hand against the edge of the door as if he was just casually hanging out. “Can’t let you through this door, bro. You’ll cool off. Rylan will cool off. Then everything will be . . . cool. And you won’t spend thirty years in prison for the murder of a guy who is definitely not worth thirty years. So walk your ass back to the couch, and I’ll get the beers.” Taking a decent breath or swallow was hard with teeth clamped shut. I lifted my arm and threw my fist into the door right next to Tommy’s head. He barely flinched. “Sorry, Huck, just needed to hit something if I’m not going to get a chance at Meade. Just step out of my way. I’ve got to go see Rylan. I’ve got to talk to her and tell her what happened.” Dawson laughed. “So you’re just going to march up to the front door? I’m sure old man Graham probably has his old hunting rifle primed and ready for just such an occasion. Try and call her again. Leave a message.” “Nope. I need to see her. I know if I can talk to her face to face she’ll understand.”

I reached for the door. “C’mon, Huck, give me a break. Get out of the way.” He lifted a finger and pointed at me. “You’re not going to go search out Meade, are you? Otherwise, I’m going to buy you a big jar of lubricant for your jail time. I hear that helps.” Dawson had a good laugh. “Glad you two are amused. My whole fucking life just fell apart, and all I did was help a friend. I’ve got to find Rylan. I won’t go after Meade . . . At least not today.”


An ounce of luck had followed me into the house and I managed to get inside and up to my bedroom without running into one parent. I dropped onto my bed. Kellan’s scent still lingered on my comforter. My throat tightened as I thought back to the unbelievable morning we’d had together. I pulled the comforter over my body and head, giving myself a nice, downy cocoon against the rest of the world. I could hear my parents’ voices at the other end of the hallway, readying for their dinner out. Apparently, ruining their daughter’s life in a traitorous move of siding with the devious ex-fiancé hadn’t diminished their appetites for steak and lobster. Just the thought of food made me press my hand to my mouth. I felt sick to my stomach, but it had nothing to do with whipped cream topped coffee. I’d forced myself to stop crying while in the car with Becky. I didn’t need to put on the same pathetic show I had the last time Kellan had done this to me, the last time he’d completely shattered my heart. I wanted to kick myself hard. I’d done this already. I’d gone through the horrific pain that came with loving Kellan only to find that he didn’t return the same love. Or at least not enough to keep him from Lilly’s arms. I still couldn’t believe it or understand it. Was I really that naive and delusional about his feelings for me? When we were together, the connection I felt always seemed to go both ways. But I’d been wrong. I heard Dad’s voice booming down the hallway as they headed to the stairs. He mentioned something about me coming to my senses and inheritance and some other words. All of them melted into nothing in my head. My dad seemed to be under the twisted notion that money was more important than love. While my mom had a small list of undesirable traits, that perverse obsession with wealth and status had always been the one thing I’d never admired in my dad. Now, it seemed, I

was also lower than wealth on his list of priorities. I was stuck with no place to go. Fuck Chase. This was all his fault. Never again would I change my life for a man, or any controlling parent either, for that matter. I burrowed down farther in the blanket, thankful that my parents hadn’t realized I was back home. The front doorbell rang. Dad’s loud footsteps pounded the stairs and the floor in the entry. Since Chase and I weren’t going to fill their reservations for four, they must have quickly invited some friends for dinner. No sense in an ugly scene with their daughter getting in the way of a lovely Saturday night out. I closed my eyes hoping I’d just drift off and away from the awful day. Dad’s voice grew louder and sharper. I pulled the cover down to hear what was going on. That’s when I heard it, the voice that always tugged at my heart, that always instantly sent a tremble through me. But today the tremble was like a soft ache. “Lanie!” Kellan’s voice rang out from the front steps. I tossed off the cover but hesitated. What could he possibly say to fix this? He’d told me he had something to do. And that something had been Lilly. The same person who’d I’d spent seven years believing that he’d left me for on grad night. Even though he’d insisted that was a lie, the picture had made me question everything he’d told me. “I will call the police!” Dad barked. I threw off the blanket. If nothing else, I needed to tell Kellan to leave before my dad had him arrested. I had no doubt that Dad relished the idea of the police dragging Kellan off in handcuffs. I reached the stairs and took a deep, steadying breath. Facing him was something I hadn’t braced myself for. I tended to be a weak, starry eyed girl when I came face to face with Kellan. “How the hell did you get on my property?” Dad asked. “I climbed your fucking fortress wall. I just want to talk to Lanie.”

I reached the bottom step just as Dad instructed Mom to call the police. She scurried enthusiastically off in her high heels to do Dad’s bidding. “Lanie!” Kellan called again. “I’m here.” My voice was ragged and quiet and barely audible over my dad’s thundering pulse. Kellan looked past my dad. He looked as wrung out with anguish as I felt. “No, you don’t get to look like that, Kellan Braddock,” I said sternly, gathering my strength to face him. This was what true heartbreak felt like, as if I had nothing left to lose. Seven years ago, I didn’t get to tell him how I felt. I wasn’t going to blow that opportunity this time. I walked a little closer. Dad turned around. “Go back upstairs, Rylan. I will handle this.” “And you don’t get to treat me like a little girl anymore, Dad.” Dad stayed between us, and I was glad for that. My defenses were always shot when Kellan was too near. “You don’t get to look hurt. I do. I’m the one that gets to be heartbroken. Not you.” Kellan took a step forward, but Dad stopped him. “Lanie, please. Lilly was in trouble. I helped her. That’s all it was. You’ve got to believe that. You know how I feel about you. I would never do anything to lose you.” My resolve nearly cracked just like I knew it would when I saw him and heard him. He was my one true weakness. And so often, he’d been my one true strength. But now I knew I needed to depend only on myself for strength. “You’ve done this to me before. I don’t know why I let my guard down, how I managed to just ignore what happened seven years ago.” In the distance I heard a siren. “You should go, Kellan.” Then the tears fell. I’d been lecturing myself to be strong but I crumpled. Telling him to go, hearing the words in my own voice had melted the composure I’d been working so hard to maintain. Kellan looked at my dad and his gaze hardened. “Are you going to tell her?”

“Tell her what?” Dad barked. “Are you going to fucking tell her about seven years ago?” A flashing red light twirled around the front gate. Dad pressed the intercom and let the police inside. “You should have left when I told you to,” Dad sneered. Mom walked triumphantly into the entry, proud that her part had been done. Kellan looked at me. His dark blue eyes were deep with pain, and his chest was rocking with the short, deep breaths of anger. “Don’t do this, Lanie. Don’t leave me.” The local head of police, Officer Walker, was, of course, a close friend of my dad’s. He was an ignorant, stern man who thought poorly of Kellan, and any other person from the south side of town. “Braddock,” Walker said sharply through a megaphone, not even stepping out from his squad car. “Put your hands behind your head.” Kellan’s face dropped. He put his hands behind his head. “Dad,” I said, “I will tell you right now that if you press charges, if Kellan doesn’t walk out of here on his own, free to go with no other consequences, then I will walk out of this house and you will never see me again. I will be dead to you, and you will be dead to me.” Officer Walker’s black police boots pounded up the steps with the handcuffs dangling at his side. Dad’s face was still red from rage, but his big shoulders drooped in defeat. “Nate,” he said to Officer Walker, “this young man was just leaving. Sorry to have called you out here. Everything’s fine. Just a misunderstanding.” Kellan shot one last look at me and held my gaze for long enough to wring my heart just a little harder. Then he turned around. Officer Walker waited until Kellan climbed onto his bike and left. I waited until Dad closed the door. I couldn’t cry anymore. I didn’t even want to feel. I wanted to just drop back into my quilt and never get out of bed again. Dad avoided looking at me. But I stared

straight at him. “So, Dad, tell me about seven years ago.” “I don’t know what he was talking about. Let’s just get all this behind us. It seems you have dropped him, and that’s a good first step.” I shook my head. “You’re not telling me something, Dad, and I’m going to find out what it is.” I turned around and raced back up the stairs to the comfort of my room and my warm quilt. It took me a few minutes to decide whether or not the whole damn day had been real, the incredibly erotic morning with Kellan followed by the horrible moment when I discovered he’d gone right off to see another woman, the bizarre few moments when Chase was suddenly standing in our sitting room, the harsh reality that my parents had decided a future with the man who cheated on me would be more than suitable, and, now, the last few minutes when I’d told my parents that I was willing to walk out of their lives for good. The look on Kellan’s face, the brittle sound of his voice as he pleaded with me not to leave him still stayed with me. It had all been an emotional hurricane, and in the midst of it, something was said that I couldn’t shake off. I reached over to my nightstand and fumbled for my phone. I dialed it. “Hello.” “Becky, I need you to tell me something.” “Ry, how are you feeling? What’s going on? You sound even worse than you did after the coffee shop.” “Becky,” I said sharply to get her attention again. “You know something. You know something about what happened on grad night, the night that Kellan stopped talking to me. I want you to tell me.” “Rylan, I don’t know if you’re in the right state of mind to hear this.” “Becky, tell me. My state of mind can’t get any worse.” She paused, and I was sure she’d chicken out. At the same time, the pause worried me. She was

going to tell me something bad. Something that was going to upset me. I waited. I needed to know. I felt as if I’d been a child kept away from a dark secret that everyone knew but me. “This is all through Scott’s telling of the story, but you can’t let him know I told you. He’s been living with the guilt of it all this time, and he and Kellan have sort of called a truce on it. So, don’t say a word to Scott.” “I won’t.” “On grad night, Jason, Sean Gilly and Scott grabbed Kellan in the school parking lot. They beat him up pretty badly from what Scott tells me. They pushed him into the trunk of Jason’s car and drove him out to the railroad bridge.” “But why? I knew Jason was a bully but—” “That’s where the story gets tricky.” She hesitated again. “Oh, Ry, I shouldn’t be telling you this. I don’t know why Kellan never told you. I wish he had. I guess he just didn’t want to hurt you.” I lowered the phone from my ear and closed my eyes. Maybe this had been a terrible mistake. I heard Becky say my name through the phone. I lifted it back to my ear. “I’m listening. I still don’t understand.” “Jason had been hired,” she said the word hired quickly as if it was unimportant. “Hired for what?” “Jason was paid to make sure that Kellan stayed away from you. You were leaving town. It was the perfect opportunity to make sure the break was clean and that you would have nothing to do with Kellan anymore.” Now her words flowed fast as if a stopper had been removed and the secret that had weighed on her conscience was finally being set free. “Kellan didn’t care how badly they beat him. Scott said he basically told Jason that they’d have to kill him to stop him from seeing you.” A small sob escaped, and I shut my eyes to stop the tears. “But it worked. I left town without another word from Kellan.”

“Yeah, that’s when Jason pulled out the biggest weapon of all. Kellan would lose his job in the mine if he continued to see you. Scott still can’t believe that Kellan jumped from that bridge. He was sure that Kellan was dead. Scared Scott good. He ended his friendship with Jason right after that night.” “The railroad bridge?” “Yep. They walked Kellan out there, bound and beaten. The train was coming. They waited at the end of the bridge to beat him more. He stayed on the bridge and jumped just before the train got him.” “That Jason is a fucking monster.” I thought back to the word Becky had used. Hired. “Wait, Beck, who was it that paid Jason to do that?” This time I could read volumes in her silent pause. I squeezed my hand around the phone, not sure if it was from anger or disappointment or utter betrayal. “It was my dad, wasn’t it?” She didn’t answer. “Shit.” My stomach was tightening. I was sure I would throw up. “Becky, I’ve got to go. Thanks for telling me.” “I just didn’t want to hurt you,” she said. “I know, Beck. You’re a good friend.” “Rylan, there’s one more thing.” She stopped. “Becky, the wound is open. Just pour in the salt. How much worse can it get?” Then I decided it was probably a stupid question with the way my day had been on a downward spiral. “Scott thinks that there might have been a money exchange between Jason and your dad again. That’s why Jason was able to pay off his debt. That’s why he sent that picture to you.” “Of course, it was Kellan’s fault for giving him the perfect photo opportunity.” I slumped back

against the pillows on my bed. “My dad is never going to be able to make this up to me.” Tears rolled again. I had always thought so highly of my dad. My entire opinion of him was dissolving. “I’ll talk to you later, Becky.” I hung up and stared down at the phone in my hand. It had brought me so much bad news today, I wanted to hurl it across the room. Becky’s horrible story still didn’t explain why Kellan had run straight into Lilly’s arms today. One thing was clear. My dad was capable of deceit, and he’d stoop to any depths to keep Kellan out of my life. My being back in town had only made things bad again. For me. For my parents. For Kellan. I opened up my contacts and found my ex-boss, Jane. I opened the text box and typed. “If the offer is still open, I would love to work for you again. I can start next week.”


Max climbed up on the couch next to me and dropped down with a loud dog sigh. His big head rested on my thigh. I placed my hand on his head and used the other hand to lift the bottle of whiskey to my mouth. I winced at the taste of it, some cheap, questionable stuff that probably only tasted good if it was mixed with something else. But tonight, it was serving its purpose. I wasn’t looking for a good drink so much as a good buzz that would leave me just numb enough to not feel anything. Dawson came out of the bathroom with a steam cloud that smelled like soap, shampoo and way too much aftershave. “Sure you don’t want to go? I hear some hot women hang out at this place. Think I’ll be getting lucky tonight for sure, so if my bedroom starts a rockin’—” “I think you need a van for that saying to work.” I lifted the whiskey bottle. “I’ve got my date for the night. Is Huck going with you?” “Yep. He’s still getting dressed.” Dawson stood there staring down at me. “What’s that look for? If you put on a flower print apron and put your hands on your hips, you’d look just like my mom used to look when she was lecturing me about some dumbass decision I’d made.” “Then my point has come across just right. I knew the second I heard she was coming back to town that you were going to end up just like this with a face that is droopier than that dog’s and a bottle of whiskey clutched in your hand.” He did a double take of the bottle in my hand. “Can’t believe you’re drinking that hog’s piss. I was going to dump it down the sink.” I lifted the bottle and took another drink. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and stared at the label. “I find the taste mellows with each swig.”

“Yeah, I guess hog’s piss might do the same.” Tommy came out from his room. His look mirrored Dawson’s. “So this is your Saturday night?” “Yep. So run along, Moe and Curly. Max and I are busy holding down the couch.” Tommy grabbed his keys and phone. “I’m sure as fuck glad I don’t have my balls all twisted up around my heart like that.” I laughed. The whiskey had already changed the sound of it. “The hell you don’t. When Andi was patching you up the other night, I thought you might lock your jaw up for good with the way you were clenching your teeth so damn tight.” Dawson laughed, but Tommy ignored the comment. They walked out. With the exception of Max’s snoring, the cabin was quiet. I leaned my head back and closed my eyes, just about drunk enough to land myself in a nice sleep coma. My phone rang. I knew who it was even before I answered it. It had always been that way with Rylan. I could sense her even when she wasn’t with me. She was that tightly bound to my soul. “Hey.” “Hey,” she said softly. The sound of her voice made me grip the bottle in my hand tighter. “Just wanted to make sure you were all right.” “I’m not. I would never do anything to hurt you because I love you. You’re the only one, Lanie. There’s never been anyone else.” My words were sluggish from the alcohol. “I heard the truth about grad night, about what Jason did.” She took an audible breath. “And that my dad was behind it all.” I stroked my hand along Max’s back. “I didn’t want to tell you. I knew it would hurt you.” “I know.” She sniffled a few times. “Kellan, I’m going back to Pennsylvania. My old job is open again, and I think it’s for the best.” “The best for who? Sure as fuck isn’t best for me.”

“Are you sure? I’ve only been back for a few weeks, and I’ve screwed up everything again. I see now that my dad is completely unreasonable. My parents will never understand.” “So what? Stay. Stay with me.” Another sniffle. “I just need this—I need—I don’t know what the hell I need, but what I don’t need is to feel like I feel right now.” “Lanie, please—” “I’ve got to go, Kellan. Take care of your—” the last word fell off with a sob. “Lanie.” No answer. She was gone. I tossed the phone on the table, leaned back against the cushions and brought the bottle to my mouth.


Dawson came up behind me as I reached the man trip. “Shit, are you even sober yet?” he asked. “More sober than I want to be. Slide in.” I motioned toward the empty seat. He climbed in and propped his lunch pail on his lap. I climbed in next to him. The vehicle waddled and groaned as it headed into the entryway, the tunnel that would take me to my work place deep below the Earth’s surface, away from sunlight and fresh air. Away from everything. Away from Rylan. “As I’ve said before, I knew that day you told me Rylan was coming back that this was going to happen. And now here it is.” “I can’t take this shit today, Dawz. Save it for another time.” “Yeah? Well fuck you. I’m the one who has to spend my entire fucking work day in the pit of hell with your mopey ass. Sorry if I sound like a fucking nag.” I leaned my head back. My miner’s cap nudged forward covering my brow and shading my eyes. Thankfully, Dawson decided to stop his rant. Now, if I just managed to avoid running into Meade down in the hole, I just might make it through Monday without throwing my fist at someone. Most of the workers climbed off the man trip at the first few stops. Dawson and I were the lucky roof bolters who had to go to the deepest section of mine, the area where the continuous miner had already scraped free all the coal, with the exception of the pillars left behind to keep the entire thing from collapsing. Dawson and I would work our way through the mined out cavern and bolt the roof for extra support.

We climbed off the man trip and turned on our lights as we headed down to the area where our machinery and equipment waited. The floor and ribs of the mine trembled as the continuous miner worked its way through the next section. Once the giant machine advanced, Dawson and I would sweep in behind it and add bolts to the newly mined section. With Dawson pissed at me, and me not interested in conversation, our work went fast. Even without communication, we worked together like a well-oiled machine, securing the roof of the mine. I was lost in my own world, watching the bolts disappear into the dark rock and, all the while, working hard not to think about Rylan leaving me for good. Dawson’s face shot my direction. His brows were creased together beneath his safety goggles. “What the fuck?” he mouthed to me. That was when I heard the roar of the continuous miner getting closer, much closer than it should have been. The remote had been giving the operator trouble, and I briefly passed it off as a wrong turn. Then, in a surreal replay of every nightmare I’d ever had about being buried alive in the mine, the gnarly grinding wheel of the continuous miner broke through the ribs of the section we were working in. Dawson shot toward me. “Roof fall!” He grabbed my arm. “Let’s head toward the passageway.” I dropped my tools and raced behind him. The noise shook me to my core. The dust cloud that swirled up around us was as thick as cream soup. My safety goggles were smeared with dirt, making visibility even worse. I pressed my gloved hand over my mouth to keep from inhaling the choking air. Dawson was just a dark silhouette with a dim light as he led the way to the passage. The continuous miner had finally stopped behind us. The roof and ribs of the mine groaned and creaked before collapsing. The ground beneath me shook, throwing me off my feet. I landed hard on my side. The wind was knocked from me. As I struggled to get it back, I sucked in dust. I fell into a coughing fit and couldn’t find enough clean air to recover. I squinted up ahead but could no longer see Dawson or his light. Still coughing, I pushed to my

feet, taking tiny sips of the acrid air. I made my way with only the light of my helmet to lead me. It seemed as if I’d been walking forever, alone and in the dark. Then voices and alarms and red flashing lights showed me the way out. I reached the surface. The daylight was completely muted by the float dust. Kooley, one of the supervisors, grabbed my arm. “Kellan, thank god you’re all right. Is Dawson with you?” “He was ahead of me, but there was another collapse and I lost my footing.” I looked around. “Dawz!” I yelled. “Haven’t seen him come out yet,” Peters, the man in charge of head counts, yelled back. I turned to go back in. Kooley grabbed for my arm, but I yanked it out of his reach. “Braddock, you can’t go back inside.” I pushed back through the curtain of dust and headed back down the passageway to find Dawson.


I placed my suitcases down at the entry to the dining room. Dad was sitting alone at the massive mahogany dining table having a poached egg as if everything was perfectly fine. He looked up from the newspaper next to his plate. “Rylan. Your mom went into the city to shop.” He spotted my suitcases. His white brows lifted. “You’re leaving?” “Don’t look so shocked, Dad. Besides, it’s what you wanted, me away from this town, away from Kellan. It seems, once again, your plan was a success. This one might even pass the seven year limit of the last plan.” His beard twitched. “You’re not making sense. Come sit down and have some breakfast. I certainly don’t want you to leave here mad at us.” “Too late, Dad.” He put down his fork and leaned back against the chair. “Rylan, I’m sorry about Chase. You are right. It was a bad decision.” I walked into the room but didn’t sit at the table. “I know what you did, Dad.” “Rylan, you’re talking in circles. Come sit.” “I don’t want to sit. And I’m not talking in circles. You’re just not listening. Grad night. That awful night when you saw your little girl inconsolably broken. You were the cause of it. You paid Jason Meade to threaten Kellan to stay away from me.” The expression on his face was one of guilt and resignation. He wasn’t even going to try and deny it. “I only told him to let Kellan know that his job was in question if he continued to keep in

touch with you.” He fingered the newspaper. “I didn’t realize that Jason had some old scores to settle himself. I never would have told him to hurt the boy. That was all on Jason. You were leaving off to college. I just wanted to give you a chance to start fresh without ties to Bluefield.” “You mean without ties to Kellan, the unsuitable match for your daughter. Then, even knowing just how awful Jason was, you paid him again to break us apart.” His lips drew thin, nearly disappearing completely behind his white facial hair. “I merely told him that if he had any opportunity to find something that would—” “Break my heart? Well done then, because you’ve succeeded again.” Tears filled my eyes. “Dad, you were a wonderful father, and you always supported me in everything I did . . . but this. I’ve been in love with Kellan since I was a teenager. That has not ever changed.” A loud, irritating bell sounded in the distance, but I was fully into the speech I’d been practicing in my head all night. I worried that if I stopped, I might lose my nerve. “But our relationship, the one between us, has become brittle. And I don’t know if it will ever be strong again.” I knew my words would sting, but the look on his face was not hurt. He’d tuned me out and turned his head toward the sound of the bell. That’s when it hit me. It was a sound I’d heard twice as a little girl. My throat went dry. “Is it from the mine? The alarm that something has happened?” His phone rang before he could confirm it. “Yes, this is Merritt.” His face blanched nearly as white as his beard. “Any casualties or trapped miners?” I grabbed the back of the dining chair to keep myself upright. “I’ll be right there.” He avoided looking at me. “Dad, what is it? What’s happened?” “A collapse. I need to get over there.” I followed closely at his heels as he went to collect his hard hat and coat.

“I’m coming with you,” I said. “Everyone else in town, anyone with a loved one down in that mine will be there. I will be too. Waiting for my loved one.” He stopped for a second. I was sure he’d say no. He nodded and we hurried out to the car. It seemed all traffic, both wheeled and pedestrian was heading toward the mine. A roof fall or explosion was rare nowadays, thankfully. But there was never any way to ignore the fact that the people who went down into the mine each day were putting their lives at risk. The sight of red flashing lights and emergency vehicles sent an icy shiver through me as Dad pulled his car up to the parking area. A crowd of worried onlookers stood embracing and comforting each other as they waited for news. “You’ll have to stay back here with the others, Rylan.” Dad put on his yellow hard hat and headed toward an area that had been roped off with caution tape. I walked to the circle of townsfolk who were waiting for news. Some of the miners had already emerged unscathed and were giving quick hugs and reassurances to their loved ones before heading back to the hub of activity near the entry to the main. I scoured the chaos and the blur of coveralls and miner’s caps for the familiar face, for my reassurance, but I couldn’t find Kellan. “Rylan Merritt, right?” a woman’s voice said from behind. I spun around. It was hard not to show shock. It wasn’t the fact that Lilly Upton had dared to approach me as much as it was the terrible black and blue marks on her face. It took me a second to find my voice. “Yes. Lilly, right?” She was of course the last person I needed to see at that moment. I briefly wondered if she was there to wait for Kellan too. At the moment, I didn’t care as long as Kellan was safe. She glanced back toward the mine. “Just came up to make sure my dad and my friends were safe. Kellan went back inside. He came out but found that Dawson was still trapped inside. He rushed back in.” She glanced over the heads of the onlookers. “Doesn’t surprise me though. That’s just the way he is.” She pointed to her face. “Kellan saved my life. I heard there was a picture going around.”

I opened my mouth to talk, but she placed her hand on my arm to stop me. “I didn’t have anyone else to call. He risked his life and came to Browning.” Tears clouded her eyes. “He loves you.” She laughed weakly, but it seemed to strain the cut on her lip. She reached up and pressed her fingers against it. She took a deep breath. “Much to my dismay and to the dismay of half the girls in this town. Kellan Braddock has only ever had eyes for one person and that is you. Just thought you should know.” I swallowed hard to keep from crying. “Thank you, Lilly. And I hope things get better for you.” “They will. Especially now that I’m back here in Bluefield. Guess this dirty old town is hard to let go of, eh?” I nodded. “It really is, Lilly.” She placed her hand on my shoulder. “I’m sure he’ll be coming out any minute.” “Yes. I’m sure too.” She walked away. The crowd was thinning as some of the miners had been released to go home. There would be no more work today. It seemed most of the workers were out and some of the sense of urgency had diminished. I still couldn’t find Kellan or Dawson anywhere in the sea of faces. With the chaos slightly lessened, I decided to break past the barrier of onlookers. I moved closer to the action. Tommy was wandering around looking more than a little uptight. “Tommy,” I called as I raced to him. He turned around. He, like the others, was covered head to toe in black dust. “Rylan.” “Have you seen them yet?” “No. I guess the collapse was in the room they were working. Kellan came out fast, but when he heard Dawson hadn’t emerged, he went back inside.” Dad spotted me and walked over.

“Dad, I’m not going to go any closer. Is there any word about Kellan and Dawson?” “Nothing yet. They are the last two still inside. Rescuers went as far as they could, but the roof fall was extensive in the area they were working.” I covered my mouth to keep from crying. Dad put his arm around me. Tommy pointed toward the mine entry. “There they are!” Cheers and clapping thundered through the air. I hopped up on tiptoes but couldn’t see over the heads. Tommy’s hands suddenly clamped around my waist and he lifted me up like a parent might lift a kid to see a passing parade. I cried in relief as I watched the two men, both covered so heavily with float dust that they were hardly recognizable, walk out of the mine. Dawson had his arm around Kellan’s shoulder and his left foot was dragging behind. “Shit, Dawz must have broken his leg,” Tommy said, his voice wavering with obvious relief. Dad headed in their direction. I followed. He turned and started to tell me to stay back, but the determined look on my face assured him that wasn’t going to happen. By the time we reached the staging area where the medics were checking the injured, Dawson was being lifted onto a gurney. Kellan stood with him until they rolled him toward the triage area. I broke through the line of miners and emergency workers. I stood a few feet away. He hadn’t seen me yet. He looked dazed and tired and relieved and dirty. Very dirty. His blue eyes, the only thing still visible through the dust, landed on me. He stared at me for a second as if he was trying to figure out if I was just an illusion. But I wasn’t. He wasn’t. Everything between us was real. I raced to him, tears of relief filling my eyes and my chest aching to be in his grit covered arms. “I’m covered in dust, Lanie,” he warned as I dove into his embrace. “Thought I’d lost you.” “You can never lose me, Lanie. Never.”

“Kellan,” Dad’s deep voice came from behind. Kellan reluctantly lowered his arms. I turned around. Dad lifted a brow at my charcoal covered clothes and face. “Dad—” “Kellan,” Dad continued, “the supervisor will have to write you up for going back into the mine.” “I understand,” Kellan said. “I’d do it again.” Dad nodded. “I’m sure you would.” He walked forward and stuck out his hand. Kellan stared down at my dad’s clean palm for a second before placing his grit-covered hand in my dad’s. “Even with a reprimand, there isn’t anyone out here who didn’t consider it a true act of courage. Most of us would like to think we had friends who would risk their lives for us, but few of us really have that.” Dad’s beard was beginning to catch the dust from the air, and the snowy white hair was beginning to turn gray. He looked at me as he continued. “It seems I’ve been an ignorant ass.” He turned his attention to Kellan again. “I’m sorry.” Kellan nodded. I put my arms around Dad and hugged him tightly. “Can you ever forgive me, Rylan?” he asked. “I imagine in time. Besides, your punishment will make you think about what you’ve done.” “Punishment?” he asked. “You have to tell mom that I’m staying and that I’m going to be with Kellan whether she likes it or not.” “Sounds fair. Now, I’ve got to go meet with the board to find out just how much damage has been done.” Dad walked away. I turned back to Kellan. “I should never have doubted you. I won’t let it happen again.”

His arm curled around me and he pulled me into his embrace. “See that you don’t.” He kissed me. “It’s only ever been you, Lanie. I love you.”


I pulled my coat tighter around me and stood behind Kellan as he fiddled with the padlock on the gate. “I can’t believe you still have the custodian’s keys.” He pushed the gate open and we snuck inside the school grounds. I glanced around. “Everything looks smaller and less intimidating.” Kellan reached back and took hold of my hand. He led me across the track toward the pale yellow school gym. The sun had just set, and the fringes of winter were upon us, making the air bitterly cold. Kellan pulled the hood of his sweatshirt up over his head. “You’re right. The place does seem smaller now. I was so fucking glad to get out of here.” We crept past the girls’ locker room. “I was glad never to see the inside of that smelly locker room again. And don’t get me started about the leathery faced old biddy who taught physical education. Her whole day consisted of blowing that damn whistle and yelling at us until the veins stood out on her leathery neck.” Kellan shot a quick glance at the locker room. “I kind of liked the inside of that locker room.” “Oh?” “When you girls were in changing, we guys would jump up and grab the ledge of those upper windows to look inside. The glass was clouded, but you could get some nice glimpses if you pulled yourself up at the right moment.” “Jeez, almost wish you hadn’t told me. Perverts, the whole lot of you.”

“Pretty much.” We reached the utility door that led to the roof. He unlocked the door, and we slipped inside. It was cold and stark and much how I remembered it. Kellan’s strong, callused hand was wrapped around mine again too. Just how I remembered it. “Maybe I should have dragged out my satin grad night dress. Guess it might have been too cold.” He peered back at me as he led me up the metal steps. “Think that’s how the trouble started last time too.” He unlocked the door to the roof and we stepped outside. It was still the unsightly maze of air conditioner units and electrical boxes. “Exactly why are we here again?” I asked. “Wanted to celebrate your new job at the local newspaper and your parents’ new acceptance of me and of us. And . . .” He led me to the side of the roof where he’d left me standing that night seven years ago. He stopped and turned to me. “I thought we could start this whole darn thing from the beginning.” His hands took hold of my face and he kissed me.

TOMMY’S STORY IS NEXT! Dirty Talk AVAILABLE MARCH 10, 2016 The premature death of his dad and a tumultuous childhood has left coal miner, Tommy ‘Huck” Sawyer, hardened to emotion and relationships. Andi Sullivan is the one woman who can break through that tough exterior. But Andi, the twin sister of Tommy’s best friend, is destined for better things, away from her harsh father’s control and their sooty mining town. It seems everything is against Tommy ever having the one thing his heart wants most. Andi Sullivan has achieved her life’s goal of a successful nursing career in the city, away from her hometown. She’s even started dating a doctor. Everything is perfect and dreamy . . .almost. Something, or someone, is pulling at her heartstrings, pulling her back to Bluefield, the place she was so anxious to leave. When an accident pushes Tommy Sawyer, her troubled childhood friend, back into her life, Andi soon finds herself torn between two worlds and two happy endings.

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Tess oliver dirty shame, a bad boy romance (bluefield bad boy book 1)  
Tess oliver dirty shame, a bad boy romance (bluefield bad boy book 1)