Main Between Now and Heartbreak

Between Now and Heartbreak

He’s searching for the truth. I’m living a lie. And as much as we want to, We can’t stay away from each other. Falling for Carter nearly cost me everything. To save myself I made a deal with the devil. Now, I’ve got a second chance and more to lose than ever. So when he makes it clear he wants me back, I vow not to make the same mistake twice. Carter has learned his lesson, too. He’s done making promises. This time, he’s staking his claim. He already owns a piece of my heart, But he won’t settle for less than all of me. And by the time his seduction is done, I’ll want to give it to him. But I made promises I have to keep. And the devil I owe has come to collect his due.
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Praise for The Forever Trilogy

“An electrifying love story filled with heart, heat, and an engaging plot. If you want a page-turning story filled with passion, pick up Carter and Elisabeth’s story! Definite five star read!”-- Jenika Snow, USA Today bestselling author “This book has everything, angst galore, intriguing storyline, amazing amazing characters, and all the feels!”- Book Twins Reviews

“Dylan Allen has written a groundbreaking romance. This story has a purpose, a message and a call for change. Between Now and Forever is only the beginning of an epic saga. But I can already feel this story is going to make a difference.”- PP’s Book Shelf “Ms. Allen has swung for the fences with bold and vivid descriptions, heartrending deeply emotional situations that put her characters through the wringer and back again. For lovers of roller coaster romance stories, this is absolutely the one for you.” - Words We Love By

“Between Now and Forever will pull at every heartstring. It will leave you an emotional mess. It’s a story full of twists and turns with enough angst, pain and heartache that’ll have you clenching your chest.”- Ness Reads

Between Now and Heartbreak

The Forever Trilogy Book 2

Dylan Allen

Hello, Dreamer.

Are you on Facebook? If you are, then PLEASE join my private reader group, Dylan’s Day Dreamer. It’s where I spends most of my time online. My Day Dreamers get exclusive giveaways, sneak peaks, glimpses into my every day, and lots of other fun bookish things! It’s fantastic and I my favorite place on the internet.

Click here to join and make sure you introduce yourself.

Copyright © 2019 by Dylan Allen All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

The book is dedicated to the girls with stars in their eyes and a fire in their hearts. Don’; t wait a second longer to do the thing you love.

If it requires a leap of faith, I implore you to jump. Because you, my love, were born with wings.

I can’t wait to see you soar.

Love, Dylan

“My whole heart

Will be yours forever

This is a beautiful start

To a lifelong love letter”

from “I Choose You” by Sarah Bareilles






























28. DID I DIE?




32. BLUE











About the Author

Also by Dylan Allen


Dear reader,

Beth and Carter’s path to happily ever after will make you want to throw your kindle at times.

But hopefully it will also make you clutch it to your chest and hug it.

It will feel dramatic at moments, but I ask you to remember that there’s nothing in this book that’s not based on a real human experiences. Either my own or that of the people I interviewed and studied while I was writing this story.

Where these characters start is not where they end up. I hope you fall in love with them the way I did and that at the end of the third book you feel like you never want to let them go.

If you’re ready for the kind of heartbreak that is the unavoidable wage of epic love, then you will love this story.

Thank you for taking this journey with me. I promise, in the end, it will be worth it!






“In my day, when a girl was engaged to be married, she didn’t get dressed up to go out without her man.” My father complains.

I stiffen, and my perfunctory kiss glances the rise of his cheekbone before I straighten completely.

“This is not what was promised to me when you came home. We’re six months in and you’re dawdling.”

“We’re not dawdling.” I say as obligingly as I can.

His eyes dart to my mouth and I realize I’m biting my lip.

I stop.

It’s a new and very irritating habit of mine - when I’m nervous - my lips start to tingle. Since Duke pulled the rug out from underneath me and proposed three months ahead of schedule, the sense of control I had over this situation is starting to slip and jittery nerves are my constant companion.

“Duke came to see me. He’s ready to move forward and set a date.”

I struggle to keep my expression neutral. My ears are ringing. We were supposed to discuss this before he went to my father. I’m so sick of these men who think they’re gods. And as much as I want to put it off, the sooner I walk down the aisle, the sooner I’ll be free of them.

“I see, well then that should get things moving,” I smile with all the excitement I don’t feel.

Suspicion and warning narrow his eyes and he leans back in his chair, his elegant hands resting on the worn leather arms of his vintage Herman Miller chair.

I know that my heart’s accelerated beat is muscle memory. But under the weight of his wordless, inscrutable gaze, I have to remind myself that I’m not afraid.

“I’m leaving for our long tour of our global offices right after your little party next week. We’ll be back in time for the annual shareholder’s gala.”

“Won’t you be here for James’ one year anniversary?”

“Anniversary?” He chuckles, but his eyes are mirthless. “You make it sound like a happy occasion. Do you think a stupid service will make me feel better? Nothing will make up for the loss your recklessness brought about.”

The hairs on the back of my neck stand up. But I don’t say another word. When he’s in this mood, anything I say will bring up back how James is dead because of me.

“Don’t interrupt me, again.” He doesn’t raise his voice, but he doesn’t need to.

“It’s where I’ll officially announce my candidacy and Wolfe’s succession plan. Duke, of course, will be standing next to me when I tell everyone that he will be my successor. ”

“How nice. You must be glad to have that settled. ” My smile is all compliance and deference. My heart though, is raging and rebelling. That a man like Duke will be the one to step into James’ shoes is a bitter, jagged pill to swallow.

“We’ll also announce the wedding date that evening. It will give the shareholders the reassurance they need.”

I’m shocked out of my self-preservationist neutrality by those words.

“But, that’s in two months. It’s so soon.”

The panic in my voice sends his eyebrows shooting up and draws his attention away from whatever he’s reading.

His winter blue eyes pierce me with that intensity that he’s famous for.

“You do like the way things are now, don’t you?”

There’s no mistaking the threat in his voice.

It’s the first time he’s even mentioned my confinement. I have let myself believe that it wasn’t a possibility I needed to worry about.

He couldn’t send me back to my grandmother’s now without causing a public relations nightmare. And that is the last thing he wants right now. But, I can see right now, that I was wrong.

If he decided to send me back right now, no one could stop him.

But, I don’t need his threats to incentivize my behavior.

I glance to where Fiona’s sitting in a rocking chair she had built near the little bay window. My baby sister Cameron, is asleep in her arms. She was born a few days after I got home and she’s the reason living in this house is bearable. She’s my reason for everything. I’ll swallow a hundred jagged pills if it means she’ll have the choices and support I didn’t.

“Can I hold her?” I ask Fiona, knowing already what she’s going to say. She’s very protective of Cam. And holds her almost constantly. She doesn’t have a nanny. And she only lets me take care of her when she and my father have to go out.

“It took me so long to get her to sleep, ” she says with an apologetic smile that doesn’t quite reach her eyes. In fact, I can tell she’s annoyed I asked.

Since I’ve been back home, she’s gone back to the distant role she played in my life before everything.

When I replay our visit at my grandmothers I can see things I missed in the moment. Yes, she set up the scheme that led to me being able to come home. I might still be there if she hadn’t. But, I can see now that her concern was laced with cunning.

If that day wasn’t so clear in my memories I’d be easily convinced that I’d imagined that. Because now, she’s back to being my father’s docile, obedient wife. There is no hint of the woman who came to ask me to help her undermine his grasp on her daughter.

I drop a kiss goodnight on her downy little brow and inhale her sweet baby smell.

Fiona’s not subtle throat clearing is my cue to pull away.

I make my way back to the kitchen to wait for Dina.

All of this is my fault. I’ve let my guard down since I came home.

Duke, until his recently, has been on his best behavior. He made good on all his promises. Besides his insistence that I wear a pink something every day, he hasn’t said a word about my wardrobe.

He flew in some hairstylist from Los Angeles to make a custom wig for me to wear until my hair is long enough to dye and put extensions in.

As much as I don’t like being blonde, I have to admit that it’s amazing. Unlike the one I ordered for myself from amazon It actually fits and looks like it’s growing out of my head.

When he was brought in as acting CEO, he got a huge salary increase and he’s been really generous with it. Especially when it comes to me.

Nothing but the finest will do.

And he doesn’t skimp on himself either. Duke looks every bit the young, powerful leader that he plays every day at Wolfe.

We went on our first public date less than a month after I got home and he took me to a really fancy restaurant in Austin where a very high profile blogger also happened to be having dinner.

Our picture was in the paper the next morning and suddenly, we were off to the races.

I had invitations to parties every weekend. I was asked to join the Junior League and two girls who used to call me Scar Face in elementary school, Georgia and Eva, are suddenly my every day #lunchbuddies, my #workoutbuddies, and my #spadaybesties. And all the other hashtags they’ve come up with to chronicle every single second of our time together.

At first, I didn’t hate it…In fact, it felt nice to not have to be on the defensive all the time. Being treated like I belonged didn’t suck. The feeling started to grow on me.

Duke, however…has done the exact opposite.

On my first day in my new position at Wolfe, he sent flowers. Not a huge bouquet, but a little posy that looked handpicked but was too expensively arranged to be. And he’s sent one every day since.

And while I haven’t cooed and swooned the way my co-workers have when those little bouquets arrive, there have been a few days where I’ve …swayed a little.

He’s still a greedy, overly confident douche with a shit eating grin and more ambition than sense. But he’s also turned out to be the perfect gentleman and when we’re alone, he hasn’t tried anything that makes me uncomfortable.

That doesn’t mean he hasn’t made it very clear that he wants things to be more than just transactional. And, I have moments, usually right before my period starts, where I wonder if I shouldn’t just use him to scratch my itch.

To date, I’ve never done more than wonder.

Sure, I can get caught up in the attention, the flattery, the access that looking like this has brought me.

I’m not apologetic about the fact that I like blending into the tableau instead of ruining it.

But, swayed is not fooled.

Forgiven is not forgotten.

Duke didn’t wake up and suddenly realize what a great catch I was and decide to make the most of this arrangement.

This money means a great deal to Duke. Publicly, everyone thinks he’s golden. The youngest son trying to find his way still. But, that’s because his father is very good at cleaning up his messes.

For all Duke’s ambition, he doesn’t like hard work. And since there is no such thing as success without it, he’s failed at every endeavor he’s turned his hand to.

The chairmanship of Wolfe - which is largely a figurehead role that is checked and balanced by an excellent board - is just the place to put him.

His father needs money, my father has it in spades.

My father needs political capital, his father is the bank that mints it.

We’re both just pawns they have found use for.

But unlike Duke, I’ve got other options. I’m not scared that if I left my family’s money on the table that I’d be destitute.

I’d wait tables. I’d give art lessons. I’d find a way.

The only thing keeping me here is baby Cameron and knowing that with the money I’ll inherit, I can make sure that she’s got someone in her life, other than her father, who can help her be more than what he wants for her. Like James tried to be for me.

Duke sees this money as his only option.

When he surprised me by proposing months ahead of schedule, I knew it was because he was feeling anxious about the money. He was smart. He did it in front of a group of people at his father’s house and made me saying no impossible.

Since then, he’s been avoiding being alone with me. He stood me up for dinner last week. He hasn’t returned any of my calls all week, instead sending texts saying he’d call me back. He didn’t. Now I hear he went to my father to talk about wedding dates.

Months ahead of schedule.

Just like his proposal was.

I’ve lost control of the situation. And I’m dreading this party my father is throwing us next week.

My phone buzzes with a text from my best friend, Dina.

“I’m here, your cunty housekeeper just let me in.”

I grin, genuine excitement welling inside of me for the first time in forever. She was here for James’ funeral, but couldn’t stay. Before that, she hasn’t been back to Winsome in years. In high school, she’d been my best friend. We’ve stayed in touch by email but while I was at my grandmother’s we weren’t in touch at all.

She’s already in the foyer when I get there. I start toward her, crossing the cavernous space as quickly as I can.

She looks up from her phone when she hears the clack of my heels on the floor. Her smile is already in place, but it falters when she sees my much altered appearance, confusion clouding her dark eyes for a moment before she shakes it off. Even if I wanted to talk about things with her, which I don’t, this isn’t the time. I haven’t told her anything about what happened last summer. I don’t know how to talk about Carter without telling her the rest of the what happened. How do I explain the six months where I fell off the map? So, she just thinks I was grieving at my grandmothers.

She was one of the first people I called when I got a new phone. We talk at least once a week, but this is our first time seeing each other since the funeral.

“Lizzy,” she squeals, her arms opening for a hug.

“Dina, hi,” I try to make my voice bright and relaxed, but it comes out like a squeak.

I look over my shoulder, half expecting to see my father standing there. He’s not, but the feeling that something is breathing down my neck spurs me forward.

“Great to see you,” I say cheerily as I speed walk past her, ignoring her open arms and heading for the front door as quickly as I can without actually running.

“Nice way to show it,” she mutters behind me but she catches up quickly.

“I’m sorry, I’ll explain,” I say in a hushed tone, not slowing down as we head for the door.

“Please be home before midnight,” my father’s disembodied voice floats out of the speakers that dot the ceiling in our foyer.

I nod at the command, smile my most agreeable smile, and hook my arm through Dina’s and pull her through the door.

“What in the world is that?” Dina whispers, her eyes are wide with surprise as she looks back over her shoulder. I pull the door shut behind us. Even though I know we’re alone now, I still speak in a whisper.

“Let’s get in the car. I’ll tell you everything.”

“Ohhhh-kay,” she drawls, a bemused expression on her face, but she unlocks the car and climbs in.

As soon as the door is closed, I slump in my seat and take a few deep breaths to steady my breathing.

Her hand closes around mine and I jump. I look down at our joined hands. I can’t remember the last time anyone touched me with anything approaching kindness.

“Liz, are you okay?”

The worry in her voice shakes me out of my stupor. I remember the part I’m supposed to be playing. Even with her, Duke and I signed non-disclosure agreements. We’re not allowed to tell anyone the true nature of our relationship. Not even our best friends.

I turn to her and give her a broad smile.

She smiles back, but it’s tentative.

“I’m so sorry about that. I’m just anxious. It’s my first night out in a while,” I pull my hand out of hers and buckle my seatbelt.

She hesitates for a beat before she starts the car and pulls out of the drive.

“So, where are we going? You were all mysterious on the phone.” I say when the silence starts to feel uncomfortable.

“Was that your dad’s voice coming through speakers in the wall?” she asks, clearly not willing to let me off the hook.

I grimace. “Yes. It’s actually Fiona’s thing. It’s not just speakers, it’s cameras. She can see and hear from every angle between here and the front door.”

“What the hell? Why?” She glances at me, her eyes wide and befuddled. She’s my closest friend, but even she doesn’t know how dysfunctional my family is. I can’t tell her everything, but I can share what I think will be least shocking.

“My dad is having an affair with Heather.”

Dina’s whole body jerks left and she hits the brakes.

“Heather, cunty Heather who just opened the door? No wonder she looks so pleased with herself.”

“Yup.” I let out a frustrated breath. It’s my father’s worst infidelity yet. He’s always at least pretended to try to be discrete. This is so blatant. And it’s made Fiona crazy.

“She thinks the cameras will make them stop. Or take it somewhere outside the house. But, I don’t think they care.”

Dina shakes her head in dismay and starts to speak again, but is cut off by the phone ringing.

The loud trill of it blares through the car’s speakers and her husband’s name flashes on the display.

Her expression sours slightly and she presses the button to decline the call. Before I can ask her what the hell that’s about, she clears her throat.

“Finish telling me how your dad’s in love with your housekeeper.”

I have to admire her skills of deflection. I wish mine were as good. Even though I’m dying to probe her about what James told me in the hospital room, I also know what it is to have things on your heart you can’t share. So, I let the awkward moment pass like I didn’t notice.

“They’re fucking. I don’t think he’s in love with her.”

“I was being sarcastic. Your Dad isn’t in love with anything but himself and that company.” She giggles and then slaps a hand over her mouth. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t talk about him like that.”

Her contrition is misplaced. I shrug. “It’s not like you’re lying. We all know who he is. He’s never tried hard to hide it.”

“So, Fiona just…what? Puts up with his cheating?” She asks in a voice that drips with judgment and even though I don’t feel differently, hearing it from her, chafes a little.

I shrug again, but this time with less ease and try to put a definitive end to this conversation.

“Di, I stopped trying to understand their dynamic a long time ago. I know it’s fucked up. But it’s also their real lives. They’re in a miserable marriage. My dad is an asshole. But, no matter what he’s done or what he’ll do, he’s my father. It counts for something so, I don’t want to talk shit about him or my stepmother.”

“I’m sorry, honey.” Her apology comes out swift and sincere and I feel like such a hypocrite for defending my him. But it’s like a reflex, especially after spending months pretending to be a part of his world.

“It’s okay…I know we joked about it all through high school, but now that he’s all I have, I just feel like I’m dishonoring something I shouldn’t take for granted.”

“Wow, you’re so wise all of a sudden,” she says when we pull up at the red light. I look over to find her watching me with a look of appreciation on her face.

“Near death experiences will do that to you.” I mutter and wince at the tug of pain in my chest when I think about James saying that in the hospital.

She frowns. “What does that mean? I thought you were visiting your grandmother. What happened?”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it literally. It’s just…a lot has happened this year, it feels like I’ve been to hell and back. Everything’s changed. Including me.” I rush to reassure her.

“I can see that…you have to tell me everything, Liz.” She says and the knowing smile on her face makes stomach clench. I know she’s mainly talking about my new look, but she’ll want to know about things with Duke. That is the very last thing I want to talk about. Ever.

“I will. Just not all tonight, I’m in a good mood. I’d like to stay that way. I want to hear about you. What’s this research project?”

“My senior thesis. It’s a case study on Winsome.”

I snort a surprised laugh. “Winsome? Uh - that’ll be the shortest senior thesis in history. There’s nothing to study here.”

“Are you kidding? Winsome is a legend in economic development circles.”

“What in the world for?” I gape in genuine surprise.

“High unemployment, epidemic level opioid addiction, crime, brain drain. You name it—those things are like a plague in small towns all over the country. Winsome has proven to be the exception.”

“Wolfe Construction being here helps, I think.”

“Yeah. It does. But, that’s not all. Other rural towns can boast huge multinational headquarters.”

“Winsome is not rural.”

She ignores me. “In those other rural towns, the work force commutes from a suburban area. Outside working hours, they turn into ghost towns. The diner, the general store all close, too. There are no other customers once the work crowd is gone.”

“So you think that’s it? That they people who work here, live here, too?” I muse.

“Partially. I think Wolfe being the town is an even bigger reason.”

“That’s hardly true. I mean, my dad owns the largest business, but it’s not the only one.”

Dina frowns at me.

“I know you know this town’s history already. And so you know that none of the other businesses would exist if Wolfe didn’t want them to.”

Winsome was initially a family compound. At the turn on the twentieth century, the Wolfe brothers were part of the a new generation of German-Americans. Their grandparents settled in Texas during a wave of immigration fifty years before the civil war.

They were the first generation born on these shores, and after a decade of being shunned for their support of Union’s cause in the Civil War, they decided to shed their German identities and make a new beginning.

With nothing but grit, their savings, and each other, Wolfe brothers moved east of New Braunfels and bought the land Winsome sits on now. The original parcel was 600,000 acres – nearly the size of the state of Rhode Island. By the time my great-grandfather started Wolfe construction twenty years later, he and his two younger brothers were the only remaining of the original eight brothers that had settled the area.

They sold off 90% of the land and kept just twenty squares miles for themselves. They all built homes that were miles apart, but that would become the anchors to what would be the borders of Winsome.

“They scouted the globe for talent that they lured back to Winsome as settlers. All of the other founding families moved here because Wolfe handpicked them. You couldn’t buy a plot of land or get a permit without one of them approving it.”

“Okay. But it’s not like that anymore,” I ask annoyed that she knows so much more of my family history than I do. Though to be fair, I’ve never taken the time to learn it. This town, this family, none of it has ever really felt like mine.

“Of course it is. They handpick their residents, lure them with amazing salaries and perks, and then handcuff them non-competes that made finding another job impossible.”

“Didn’t you know that?” She frowns at the surprise registering on my face.

“No, I didn’t.”

My ignorance about the true nature of the people and things I’ve spent my whole life right next is equal parts embarrassing and annoying. No wonder my father didn’t even consider me for a more important role until this arrangement with Duke.

“Well, I only know because my dad worked there. From the outside looking in, this looks like a small town that’s booming because it’s got such a strong heart.”

“That’s exactly what it is.” I say with a certainty I don’t feel.

She nods, her expression grave now, all hints of levity are gone. We stop for a red light and she glances at me for a second before she looks back at the road. I didn’t imagine the conflict I saw there.

“What?” I demand when she bites her lip in agitation and tightens her grip on the steering wheel so that her knuckles turn white.

The light turns green, but she doesn’t pulls away. “Your father, along with the Tremaine’s, they treat it like it’s their personal fiefdom.”

I bristle at that.

“I know people treat my dad like a king, but they vote for their leadership in elections just like everyone else. I mean, if someone besides the Tremaines actually ran for anything, then maybe we could accuse them of rigging it. But they haven’t been opposed in years.”

“Nope, and that’s not because no one else wants to run.”

“What do you mean, Dina?” Her cryptic answers and insinuations are getting under my skin. And I don’t know why.

“I mean, they’ve gained and used power in ways that are, at best, appalling. And at worst, some of their behavior might be illegal,” she says.

“Are you talking about my father? He’s just a businessman.”

She shrugs, but her expression remains just as grave. “These are all just theories, Liz. And he’s not the mastermind of anything that’s happening here, but he’s certainly been the beneficiary. I’ve got a few things I want to check out while I’m here. Including a really strange case a PI friend of mine had me do some research on. At least one kid that was born is unaccounted for.”

It’s my turn to squint in disbelief. “You watch too much tv,” I laugh, dismissing her.

“And you don’t watch enough if you think a kid being born here and then disappearing from the public record is something that only happens in fiction,” she shoots back.

“What in the world are you talking about?” I ask, shocked by the implications of what she’s saying.

“I found a birth is record. But when the woman who is listed on the birth certificate remarried several years later, she declared on her marriage license application that she didn’t have any children.”

“Maybe he died. Or she gave him up.”

“If that child died, no one else knows about. There’s no death certificate. No documents terminating her parental rights. Nothing. But it turns out, it wasn’t an isolated incident. She had another baby that is unaccounted for. Ten years later. After she murdered her husband, burned their house down and disappeared for months.”

“What?” I shout.

“I’m right next to you, Liz, you don’t need to scream.” Dina shoots me a sideways glance and rubs her ear for effect.

I grimace in apology and lower my voice “What do you mean? Here, in Winsome?”

“Yes. Here.”

“Did they find her?”

“Nope, She turned herself in. Seven months after the murder.”

“What? Why?”

Dina shrugs. “Who knows. From what I’ve been able to gather, initially the police thought she’d been kidnapped. She was a missing person. No one thought she’d been the one to kill him.”

I’m horrified to know that all of this happened in Winsome and I had no idea. “What about the baby? Did it die in the fire?”

“No, she was still pregnant when she did it. But no one knew that. When she was examined after her arrest, they found that she’d given childbirth sometime in the previous three months. She denied having a baby. But her body made it clear she was lying. I don’t understand why they didn’t charge her with anything related to that. But they didn’t. I’m hoping to get more answers.”

“So she killed her first kid. Got married, killed her husband, had a baby in secret, killed it, too, came back to face the music for her husband’s murder and denied that she’d had a kid?” I recite the facts and shiver. What kind of person does that?

“Yup. You couldn’t make it up, right?” She shakes her head in disbelief. “Even stranger is that nowhere in the police reports or the records from her hearings is there even a mention of the first child who disappeared. I mean, maybe they didn’t look through the birth records. I’ll admit that getting those records wasn’t easy. But this is a small town, I don’t see how a young girl could be pregnant, give birth and no one remember.”

That sends chills up my spine, too. “Me neither. What’s the family’s name? Do we know them?”

“Her maiden name was Martin. Her father moved here from New York to work as an engineer for Wolfe and settled here. They fell on hard times when her dad died, but she went to work for the Tremaine family in some sort of domestic position right after high school. Her name changed to Kendicott after she got married. Her husband worked construction at Wolfe, but he was just a worker bee. They kept to themselves mostly.”

“Why did she kill him? Did she ever say?” I’m dazed by this story. And by the fact that I’ve never heard it before. This town has a lot of myths and lore, but this isn’t one of them.

“Not really. There’s a note in the police report, her mentioning that he hit her regularly. I don’t know what happened the day she pulled that trigger. She plead guilty. There wasn’t a trial. At the sentencing, his family spoke, but she never did. Beyond the interview with the police and her official confession and statement, there’s nothing.”

“Maybe she got tired of that bastard beating her. I don’t know how anyone is expected to live that way.” I think about the months I spent my grandmother’s. Years of that would make me want to kill someone, too.

Dina lets out a long suffering sigh.

“I know, girl. I know. Let’s talk about something else. This is depressing. And you still have to tell me all about your great love affair with Duke Tremaine.”




Her sudden left turn in the conversation catches me off guard.

The story I’ve memorized and repeated dozens of time in answer to this question jumble and get stuck in my throat.

I hate lying to Dina. She’s the only person who hasn’t let me down and the last person who deserves it.

Her family moved here when her father started working as an Engineer at Wolfe. She was sixteen, from Seattle and full of ideas and dreams.

And she cursed like a sailor.

Her family is from Vietnam originally, and the very first time we talked she promised to take me there one day.

I could tell she meant it.

I’d never met anyone like her and I loved her immediately.

That first year of our friendship was spent making grand plans. She was going to be a famous true crime novelist and editor, and I was going to be an artist.

We’d live in an apartment in Paris, wear beautiful clothes, dance with handsome men in trendy nightclubs, and sleep as late as we wanted.

The closest I’ve come to living that life has been vicarious glimpses of Dina’s adventures from the pictures and postcards she sends me.

She’s in her final year at college, and she’s had an internship every summer with a publishing house in New York including one she spent at their European headquarters in Paris. She married Wes, her childhood school sweetheart just last year.

She’s living my dream life and I should hate her, but I don’t because she’s the real deal. I love her so much.

Lying to her feels like stealing something from her. And even if I could tell her everything, she wouldn’t understand. I know it.

So, I add this to my list of sins and force myself to say what I must. “Uh, Duke and I…” I let out what I hope sounds like a happy chuckle and clear my dry throat. “Well, it was quite a surprise for me, too. But, he’s really great and I’m excited to marry him.”

“Wow.” The surprise in her voice is muted but her expression screams her shock.

“Why, wow?” I ask, hating myself for pretending not to understand.

She blinks a few times like she’s got something in her eyes and she purses her lips.

“It’s just…he must have done a complete 180 for you to be into him. He was kind of an asshole when we were in high school. I mean, we all thought he was hot, but he wasn’t nice.” She grimaces.

“That was a long time ago. I’m not the same girl I was then, either.” I say as casually as I can. But, I hate the reminder of how ridiculous it must seem to everyone else, too.

She doesn’t look away from the road and I can feel her holding back whatever she really wants to say.

“Aren’t you going to say anything?” I ask after the silence yawns between us.

“Well… I’m buying dinner, I guess,” she says but she sounds shell shocked.

I pretend not to notice.

“Oh, Dina. You don’t have to do that.” I give her shoulder a quick, grateful squeeze.

She looks at me briefly, her smile is forced, but I’m so relieved to see it. I don’t want to talk about this any longer.

“Of course I do. My best friend is in love. I think I can swing some wings and beer.”

Carter’s face pops into my head when she says the word love and I groan inwardly. I wish I could stop thinking about him. The swift tightening in my belly when he invades my thoughts is irritating.

Maybe it was silly to think that after months of silence a man like that would still be waiting to hear from me.

But, I did think it.

Because I was waiting for him.

And I thought he felt the same way,

No, I was sure of it.

Built my hopes on it.

I’d been so desperate for someone to look at me the way he did that I made it into something it wasn’t. It’s a painful lesson, but one I’m glad I learned.

I’ve always known that I wasn’t the girl fairytales were written about. Carter made me forget that.

I won’t ever forget it again.

I can’t if I’m going to break the cycle that’s turned the women in my family into nothing more than bargaining chips. That stops with me. Cameron will know something different.

“We’re here,” Dina says with genuine excitement that I wish was catching.

I can’t muster the energy to fake smile, so I turn my face away and peer out the window instead.

I gasp in horror.

A squat, crumbling brick building sits isolated in the middle of a huge field that seems to be moonlighting as a parking lot. The blinking orange neon sign slapped haphazardly on the roof declares it “Corks Wine Bar.”

The name is an insult to wine bars. It looks like a rest stop.

“What is this place?” I demand.

“Let’s go!” Dina jumps out before I can demand she turn around and take me back home.

“Dina!” I call after her already retreating back, she stops and turns back.

I step out of the car and my stilettos sink into the mud.

“Ugh, my shoes,” I groan and pull my heel free. I try to walk on the balls of my stupidly high heels. I almost fall on my face.

“Do like me,” Dina yells and I look up to see her shoes dangling from her fingers. I glare at her and then lean against one of the cars parked around us and pull my shoes off. I shudder at the squish of mud between my toes when I start walking again.

“Sorry, should have told you to take ‘em off in the car,” she says without any hint of apology in her smile as I approach her.

I don’t smile back. “I can’t believe on my one night out in a year, this is where you brought me. I got dressed up.”

She only grins wider and throws her arms open in dramatic fashion. “This is East Winsome’s finest dining establishment and it’s karaoke and open mic night.”

Alarm flies up my throat and I slap a hand over my mouth. I catch my yelp just before it flies out. I didn’t pay attention to where she was taking me. I remember my last visit to this town and how fatefully terrible that turned out. And what if some of those people, Etta especially, are here tonight?

Apprehension halts my steps.

Dina turns around, her expression turning to confused concern as she walks back to where I’m standing.

“What’s wrong?” she asks, her voice devoid of all its humor.

I never told her what happened last summer, not of any of it, and I don’t want to bring it up now. But I also don’t want to walk in there and relive any of those old feelings of helplessness.

“I don’t know…I just have a bad feeling about this,” I hedge, hoping that answer will be enough.

It’s not.

She loses her concerned look and ribs me gently with her elbow.

“You need to get out more, Lizzy. There’s nothing bad in there but the service. Come on.”

I shake my head in absolute refusal. She pouts, and looks woefully between me and the door. I know I’m being a poor sport, but my stomach is in knots.

“Please? Let’s sing. Like we used to when James played. I miss it. I miss you. Pleeeease?” She bats her eyelashes at me.

“No fair using emotional blackmail on me.” Despite my furious frown, my resolve is melted by her recalling of memories that are instantly heartwarming. Those were the happiest days of my life.

“Come on. Please. Let’s at least eat dinner. If you’re not feeling it, I promise we’ll leave. But I want to serenade you, I’ve even got the song picked out and everything.” She smiles at me coquettishly and bats her eyes and I can’t help but laugh. Some of my tension falls away.

I’m being ridiculous. Dina isn’t Duke, and I’m not helpless.

“Fine,” I groan, and make a show of taking a deep breath.

“Yaaay,” she chortles and throws her arms around me.

“The food better be spectacular.” I warn as I follow her through the maze of cars to the building.

“My parents ate here once, and they loved it. And since I’m driving, you’re going to get so drunk that will make everything taste amazing. It’ll be like an early bachelorette party.”

I scoff. “No way. I don’t really drink and we haven’t even set a date. The wedding is ages away.”

We get to the sidewalk and stop under one of the street light like fixtures to take stock of our feet. Mine are covered in broken shards of damp grass and my toes are freckled with splatters of mud.

Up close the building looks even smaller. I look back at the parking lot. There are a lot of people here. They’ve got to be violating the fire code.

“Ugh, this is terrible,” I say and try to wipe as much dirt off my feet as I can with my hands.

“Why do you sound relieved that won’t be getting married for ages?” Dina’s question catches me off guard and also immediately puts me on the defensive.

I sigh impatiently.

“Because it gives me time to plan. Why else?”

“You tell me why else,” she says and even though she’s smiling, her eyes are assessing and full of challenge.

I can’t hold her gaze. “Dina—”

“You know what? Forget it. Let’s just have fun tonight. We both need it.”

She heads up the side of the building to the door and I slip my shoes back on and follow her in grateful silence.

The cavernously large restaurant, as I suspected, is packed with people. They’re crammed around dozens of tables that dot the room. There’s a bar in the corner and a small stage up front with a mic and a monitor for the lyrics behind it.

Some of the diners are singing along with the woman on stage who’s belting out an off-key rendition of Beyoncé’s Irreplaceable. A few of them heckle her. But she gives as good as she gets and they laugh when she throws them a good natured middle finger.

They’re having a chaotic good time. There’s nothing sinister here. It might actually be fun. I push aside my reluctance and follow Dina to a small table close to the stage.

“I’ll go to the bar and order us some drinks and burgers.” Dina says as soon as we sit down.

“Don’t they have table service here?” I ask.

“Of course they do, it’s just more fun and you can flirt with the bartender. Come on! You can experience your first dive bar up close and personal.”

I glance at the bar and then at my mud streaked fingers.

“I need to wash my hands.”

Dina glances over her shoulder, her sleek jet black ponytail swings when she shakes her head at something. She turns back with a look of determination on her face.

“There’s a line for the bathroom. Let’s go to the bar. You can use a napkin. Come on. A little mud never hurt anyone, right?” As if to demonstrate her point, she takes my hand in hers and pulls me toward the bar.

We’re on our way back to our table, drinks in hand when stops so abruptly that I crash into the back of her. My drink splatters on the front of my pink blouse.

“Dina what in the world?”

She grabs my arm and points to our right. “Oh my God. Look at the ass on Mr. Tall Dark and Sexy AF.”

I should have known it was guy. Dina has always been boy crazy. I let out a long suffering sigh, and turn my head to look.

My drink slips out of my hand.

If it makes a sound when it crashes to the ground, I don’t hear it. I’m vaguely aware of a shriek, and the splashes of cold liquid against my leg.

But the loud whoosh of blood in my ears as it tries to keep pace with my heart drowns out everything else.

It’s him.

The back of him, anyway. But there’s no question that it’s Carter.




His dark hair is longer, and curls around the collar of his bright green polo neck shirt. I’ve drawn those unruly waves more times than I can count.

The wide span of his strong shoulders stretch the white cotton of his shirt. The short sleeves expose the lean, defined muscles of his arms. There’s something new tattooed on one of them. But from this distance, I can’t make it out.

“I have to use the bathroom,” I mutter absently to Dina, but I don’t check to see if she heard me.

I stride through the haphazardly arranged dining room.

I say an absent “excuse me” to the people I bump into.

But, I don’t stop.

My heart may be racing but my mind’s mad dash to try and understand is outpacing it.

I have a million questions.

A million emotions.

A million fears.

A million hopes.

A million regrets.

I’m trembling by the time I reach him and put a hand out to touch him.

My palm has barely skimmed the rise of his shoulder when he turns sharply.

Just like that, we’re face to face.

Our gazes slam into each other and a lump the size of my heart rises in my throat.

The huge smile that he’d been wearing disappears.

He looks as stunned as I feel.

But then, he looks angry and he crosses his arms in front of his chest.

“What are you doing here?” The accusation in his tone is even more disconcerting than his expression. I feel like a rabbit caught in the site of a hunter’s rifle.

“I think that’s what I should be asking you. I live here.” I say in as hostile a tone as he used.

His mouth tightens and the muscle in his cheek jumps. He looks down at my left hand and I’m so glad I left my ring at home.

“Here with your man?” he says in a biting voice that lands like the sting of a whip.

“How did you—”

“I saw it online somewhere. You move fast.” He says in a voice so cold, it gives me gooseflesh.

He’s looking down at me like I owe him an explanation. Anger and resentment coil around my middle and nearly steal my breath.

How dare he?

When I think of the choices I made in a desperate attempt to hold on to the idea of him, and terrible consequences I’m facing because of those choices, I want to slap him.

I take a step back

Thank goodness for the months I’ve spent faking my equilibrium. Like I do whenever I feel like I can’t maintain the façade one minute longer, I bring Cameron to the front of my mind and push everything else away.

I will not fuck this up by doing anything rash.

I straighten my shoulders and smile, but I don’t even try to hide the disdain in my eyes.

“Are you here with the girl whose ass you ate for breakfast?”

A flush rises up his cheeks and his mouth opens and then closes in a firm angry line. His obvious mortification is nearly as satisfying as getting to slap him would have been.

“I won’t lie and say it’s nice to see you. But, I do hope you enjoy your stay in Winsome.”

I turn on my heel and walk away.

I manage to keep my tears at bay until I’m safely ensconced in the surprisingly clean bathroom in the back of the bar.

But once I’m there, I let them flow.

I don’t even know why I’m crying. In the grand scheme of my life, it’s not a big deal. I know that.

So, why does it hurts so much to see him and not be able to hug him?

Why is it feel so wrong to have anything other than warmth between us?

It must be muscle memory. But, just like my fear, my affection isn’t real.

Yes, we had a nice time. But, whatever we might have been, I’ll just have to wonder.

I’m done crying over men who will never cry over me.

When I’ve washed my face and reapplied my make up, I make my way back to our table, rehearsing my explanation to Dina.

The excuse I concocted disappears like a candle being snuffed out when our table comes into sight.

Carter of all people is sitting with her. Before I can turn around and beat a path away from them, they look up from their intense conversation and straight at me.

His expression is unreadable and I have no idea what I must look like as I wait for one of them to speak. Inside, I’m a mad woman running with my arms flailing around my head.

Dina reacts first.

“What happened to you? You dropped your drink and by the time I looked up you were gone.” Dina stands and walks over to me and lays her most disgruntled frown on me.

I grab her arm and smile with as much nonchalance as I can while I turn us so Carter can’t see my lips moving.

“I went to the bathroom. I see you met your Mr. Tall…or whatever you called him.”

Her eyes and mouth widen in delight and she turns us around so we’re facing him again.

“Liz, this is Carter Bosh.” She says like she expects me to cheer.

I smile stiffly and look at a point over his shoulder. “That’s nice.”

“Why are you being weird?” she tugs on my arm.

“What’s he doing here?” I say out of the corner of my mouth.

“You’re being rude,” Dina hisses and then drags me to the table, talking to Carter as we walk. “You have to forgive her. She’s one of those people who doesn’t watch TV, so she has no idea who anyone is.” She gives Carter a conspiratorial smile that makes me want to scream.

He doesn’t smile back and he’ already on his feet, backing away from the table.

“Nice to meet you, Diana,” he says.

“Her name is Dina,” I say with an insincere smile. She jabs my side with her elbows me slightly before she rushes over and puts a staying hand on his shoulder.

“No, don’t go, we need some excitement and I promise she’s not always this unfriendly” she say and glares daggers at me. She fixes a seductive smile on her face before she looks back at Carter.

I swallow a gasp of horror and look away.

She’s flirting with him.

This can’t be happening.

“Beth’s not rude,” Carter’s voice is low and casual, but there is no mistaking the intimacy he has with my name. I can feel Dina’s ire cool from across the table.

“Nice to meet you, Carter,” she says and the dismissal in her voice is unmistakable.

If Carter is thrown off by her whiplash change of attitude, he doesn’t show it.

“You, too,” is all he says before he turns and walks away.

I drop into the seat he abandoned. It’s still warm from his body.

“Beth?” Dina’s incredulous question makes my stomach tighten.

The feeling of being trapped sends a flash of heat that spreads up my neck and into my face.

I knew coming here was a terrible idea.

I don’t even want to know why Carter is here. I just want to disappear.

Our server has perfect time and she drops the burgers we ordered off just as Dina is about to launch into what I’m sure will be a speech I don’t want to hear.

“Oh, I’m so glad this came out so fast,” I say and then take a huge bite. The explosion of salt and fat cut by the acid of the pickles and tomatoes is nearly orgasmic after a year of salads and flavorless chicken breast. I groan involuntarily, and my eyes roll up in my head.

“This is amazing,” I gush around my mouthful of food. Without waiting to finish chewing, I take another bite.

And then another.

I’m gearing up for a fourth when it’s unceremoniously ripped from my hands. I open my eyes and glare at Dina.

“What are you doing?” I swipe at my cheek and find a smear of mustard on the back of my hand. I lick it off.

Dina is sitting with her arms crossed over her chest, watching me with an expression of extreme irritation marring her pretty face.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” I ask, even though I know perfectly well why.

“Do you know him?” Dina says loudly to be heard over the music. Even though he was clear across the room, I look up to make sure he didn’t somehow overhear.

“Why would you ask that? I didn’t even look at him.” I say and take a huge gulp of the water our inattentive waiter brought.

“You were forcing yourself not to. But he was looking at you like he wanted to tear your clothes off. And he called you Beth.”

I remember his cold demeanor, and laugh. “He’d sooner rip my head off than my clothes. Trust me.” I say and curse myself.

“So you do know him?”

I squirm under the weight of her wide eyed accusation. “No. I mean – yes. We met when he was here last summer. That’s all.”

In the same way the tip of the iceberg is “all”. Or the ocean is “deep.”

“How could you not tell me you met anyone last summer.” She shoves me hard enough that I slide in my seat.

I glare at her. “Sorry, I’ve been a little distracted by grief,” I snap.

Her eyes narrow in unmistakable annoyance. But she presses her lips together as if damming up her words.

I hate the way my father uses James death. I hate myself for doing the same thing now. It’s shitty and I know it. But I’m desperate to stop talking about this.

I pick up the drink on the table and throw it back, wincing at the bite of alcohol, but grateful for the way it cools me down.

“Sure, Liz, you can finish my drink. I didn’t want it or anything,” Dina says with feigned cheeriness.

I turn to her, my expression full of sincere apology.

Hers is twisted in a scowl.

“I’m sorry, Dina. I was just surprised to see him at our table. And you were flirting with him.”

She flushes. “He’s famous, and hot and I could use the distraction. Clearly, I was—”

The whine of feedback from the mic makes us both cringe and turn toward the stage.

The MC is holding the mic with one hand and squinting at a clipboard in his other.

“Looks like we’re going to church tonight, folks. Up next we have… Carter singing Hallelujah, by Pentatonix,” the MC crows into the mic.

The crowd cheers and jeers. My stomach heaves and tears I don’t understand spring to my eyes. I am desperate to stop whatever is about to happen.

“Can we go?” I grab Dina’s arm and tug.

She pulls out my grasp and signals for our waitress.

“No way. You got to have your silent, subliminal hate fuck. The least you can do is let me watch him sing.” She turns and places an order. Resigned, I order one of whatever she’s having. I’m going to need a drink to make it through tonight.

Her eyes are glued to the stage and even though I know she’s married, the way she’s looking at him scares me. And suddenly I feel like I need to explain more..

“Dina, listen, I need to tell you something.”

She turns, presses a finger to her lips and shakes her head before she looks back at the stage.

I give up and, very reluctantly, look that way, too.

All the oxygen flees my lungs. And just like everyone else, I can’t tear my eyes away from the stage.

Even under the harsh lights of the stage, Carter is riveting.

He’s got…a magnetic presence. The light bounces off his bowed head, shooting prisms of light through his dark hair. His hands flex around the the mic while he waits for the song to start.

Suddenly he looks up and straight in my direction and our eyes meet.

God help me.

My memories sold this feeling short.

It’s like flying. I want to get up, and go put my arms around him. To soothe his hurt over losing his dad. To ask him why he left me all alone after he showed me what it was like to have someone give a shit.

I don’t know what he sees in my eyes, but all I see is that tenderness that held me in his thrall last summer.

Time vanishes, taking all of the distance and animus with it.

Right now, we’re back at his lake house sitting on my bed, talking to each other. His head rests on my stomach, my hands sift through his hair while his heart thumps against my thighs, tapping out a combination that will make sure they spread any time he wants.

The crowd goes wild and shakes me out of my trance. I sit up and look over at Dina and find her watching me intently. What I see there, pity and accusation –is jarring and I look back at the stage and try to forget everything I’ve had and lost.

He’s not looking at me anymore.

He’s not looking at anyone.

His eyes are closed and he’s singing.

His voice is beautiful. It’s a clear, rich tenor with a rasp around its edges that fills the room and holds us all in its thrall. The crowd is transformed. There’s a hush in the room that sends chills up my spine.

My heart swells with pride and happiness.

He may be singing to a room full of people, but he might as well be on Mars – he’s totally lost in the song.

And I’m lost in my emotions.

Oh, Carter.

This is what he was born to do.

I remember the clips of him at the piano from the CNN report, but they never actually played the parts with music. Just the shocked look on his face and the scramble to get the camera away from him.

But, he’s clearly got a gift. Why is he here? And not on a stage in some big city?

I look over at Dina and find her eyes closed, her head bowed as if in prayer, her lips moving as she sings along silently. I see tears on her cheeks and even though my friend never cries, I understand.

He’s singing about fear, and courage, loss and acceptance, discontentment and hope, and the emotion in his voice is visceral and raw.

His eyes open and they come straight to me when he sings the line “Well baby, I’ve been here before.”

For a few long seconds, our gazes tangle and he smiles at me.

Like we didn’t just have that awful exchange.

Like he did right before he kissed me that first time.

Like we’re still what we were.

Maybe, it wasn’t all just in my head.

Maybe there’s an explanation for what happened.

Fed by that small drop of hope, a smile spreads tentatively across my face. It’s like I snapped my fingers and broke his trance. His eyes clear and his expression shutters.

But I don’t miss the look of…something I don’t understand, but that I think might be regret before he turns away.

Again, I’m stung. I don’t understand what I’ve done to earn his ire. But even in the face of his rejection and all my confusion, I can’t stop watching him sing.

I sigh deeply and my hand curls around the phantom pencil it craves.

I want to draw that face again.

He finishes the song and the whole place goes wild.

Without even acknowledging the applause he strides off the stage and disappears behind it.

The curtains as they settle back into place.

The crowd’s claps die down and the MC introduces the next act.

But, I can’t move on.

“Start talking, sister.” I’d forgotten Dina was sitting next to me.

I nearly jump out of my skin, but the afterglow of Carter lingers and I can’t help but smile through the rush of embarrassment at being caught staring.

“His voice is great.” I keep my voice light and make a feeble attempt to find our server.

Not that a drink is going to do me any good.

My circuits are fried from the overload of emotions

“Are you okay?” She frowns and peers closely at me.

“Yeah,” I cover my breathless voice with a cough.

“Liz …did something happen between you two?“ Dina asks quietly.

“No,” I say instantly and then, I drop my head into my hands and rub my eyes.

“So, I guess that hair on your head isn’t blonde, either?” She pokes at me hard.

I rub the spot on my arm where her finger jabbed me. I know I deserve it, and more, for lying to her. But, I can’t help the way my hackles rise.

I have to hold onto my anger and my resentment all the time. But the combination of seeing Carter, Dina’s accusing question, my self-loathing thoughts prove to be the pound that busts the button I’ve been using to hold it all back.

“Fucking stop it, Dina,” I hiss.

“Why? You’re telling me to believe you instead of my own eyes, right?” She flicks a lock of hair off my shoulder.

“Can you just let it go? I’m serious.”

“Yeah, serious about ignoring the herd of elephants in the room.”

I run a self-conscious hand over my wig.

“What do you mean?” I glare at her.

She leans in, unrelenting and undeterred by my growing anger.

“Why are you blonde? Why are you dressed like you’re going to tea at your country club? Why for the love of everything that is fucking holy are you talking about marrying Duke Tremaine?”

She says the questions like she’s been holding them in and is about to burst.

“Not this, again. Please, Dina.”

“Oh yes, again and again until you tell me the truth. I don’t understand it. He’s…”

“He’s what?” I ask. I feel compelled to defend him. I’ve made my bed and so far, he’s the only person who’s done anything to actually help me.

She takes in the obstinate look on my face and changes tactics. Her expression softens and she relaxes her shoulders.

“What about your art, then? You’re so talented. Are you just giving up on it?”

I ignore the wave of longing so thick I could choke on it.

Eyes on the prize.

“I’m not a little girl dreaming of things that aren’t possible. Duke is a catch. Do you know how many girls would die to be his girl?”

“You don’t love him,” she says flatly.

“A lack of love isn’t what keeps me up at night.”

“It should.” Her gaze is tormented and I can’t muster any more words in defense of my choices.

I cradle my suddenly pounding head in my hands and wish I could make this all just stop.

She wraps me in a hug and it’s the sweetest relief. I hug her back.

“There’s a whole world waiting for you…” she whispers in my ear.

I want to cry. But there’s no point.

“I’ve made my choice and I’m sick of having to defend it.”

“It’s a fucking stupid choice.”

I pull out of her hug and cast a sullen sidelong glance in her direction. Her expression is unrepentant and defiant.

“I know you think you’re helping me, but you’re being an asshole,”I say petulantly.

“Telling you the truth doesn’t make me an asshole. No, the asshole here is the person who’s looking her friend dead in the face and lying.”

Her words are like a splash of water in my eyes. I’m disconcerted by her naked, but absolutely understandable, ire.

She downs what’s left of her drink and puts the glass down with a thud.

“Let’s go.”

She doesn’t wait for me to respond before she stands and starts toward the entrance.

I grab my purse and follow her out.

She’s never been anything even close to annoyed with me before.

I’m desperate to tell her that I’m terrified I’ve made huge, irrevocable mistakes and I have no idea how to fix them.

That underneath the fancy clothes and the stupid smile I’m always wearing, I’m just a coward with a capacity for compartmentalizing that scares me.

My chest heaves with the effort of not baring my soul to her.

But I can’t. I don’t know that she won’t tell anyone. Not maliciously, but that kind of secret, when it’s not your own, is almost impossible to keep.

The silence between us is oppressive as we stop of pull our shoes off and then pad through the muddy field back the way we came.

Once we’re in the car, the tension takes up so much room, that it feels too small for both of us. Unable to bear it any longer, I try to straddle the yawning chasm that’s formed between us.

“Dina, it’s not you.”

She laughs and it’s a shrill sound that should never come from the throat of this loving, happy person.

“It doesn’t matter, Liz. I understand. I’m not mad. I just…want to get home.”

My emotions are swinging like the rudderless pendulum of a broken clock between sadness and panic. I can’t lose this relationship, too. I can’t tell her the whole truth, but I can tell her some of it.

I lick my dry lips and clear my throat.

“When we met last summer, we kissed. Me and Carter.” I brace for her reaction.

It’s instantaneous and strangely enough, tinged with relief.

She shoves me, this time playfully, lovingly and I feel a surge of relief too.

“I knew I saw something between you two! You better tell me every single freaking word.” She shrieks and practically bounces out of her seat.

“It was so random. And unexpected,” I say with as much of a nonchalant shrug as I can.

And just right.

I thought he was the one.

I can still feel his kiss.

“When? How could you not tell me?” She howls like she’s in pain. Her eyes are comically wide with wonder and her grin…well, I can only describe it as hungry.

I swallow the ball of nerves that’s formed in my throat and push past my instinct to clam up and just spill.

“I don’t know… it was perfect. And God, D…he’s so gorgeous. He—” my breath hitches around the memory and I close my eyes briefly.

“Oh my God. Liz…you should see your face.”

My eyes pop open.

“Why, what’s wrong with it?”

“You look how I feel when I get to eat a slice of that frozen banana pie on my cheat day.”

I know that face. It’s one of pure satisfaction and bliss.

“That’s how it felt. He’s… Oh, God. I don’t know.” I frown miserably.

She groans and sags in her seat, in an exaggerated swoon. “You don’t even have to tell me…it was amazing, right?”

I sigh in relief at being able to talk about this with someone. “Yes. Yes it was. And so was he…it was just the best few days of my life.” I look at her, my eyes heavy with sadness. She covers my hand with hers and squeezes it.

“So…what happened? How did you end with Duke?“ she asks after a minute of us both being lost in our thoughts. I blink away.

“Life. He went back to his life. James died. And everything changed.”

“Well I’m tempted if you’re not. He’s hot.”

“You’re married.”

“I’m still a woman. Plus, he’s like mega-talented. His whole family’s a big deal. And his brother is hot, too. In a different way than Carter--- he’s got this whole asshole who’s unattainable thing going…ugh.” She bites her lip and throws her head back.

“You watch his show?”

“Of course, but I watch reality TV as part of my job and at least once a day, I rub one out to his brother’s IG workout when I’m alone in my office.” She adds conspiratorially.

I grimace, and wrinkle my nose. “I could have lived my whole life without knowing that and never felt like I missed a thing.”

She laughs and waggles her eyebrows. “But clearly I’ve been lusting after the wrong brother. He’s smoking hot – so male and sexy and brooding and fuckable.”

I ignore the pang of possessive annoyance I feel at her words. I have no right to that feeling.

“I wonder why he’s back,” I say.

“Oh he’s been in all sorts of trouble lately. Drinking and shit. Made a spectacle of himself on his brother’s show. Stormed off, quit everything and disappeared. He picked the perfect place. I bet no one here knows who he is.”

I look down at my lap and recall the look in his eyes when he saw me that day. And how he looked just now. “His dad died, Dina. People should cut him some slack.”

“Yeah, but you know how people love to kick a guy like that when he’s down. Maybe you could make him feel better.” I look up and find a wicked and lascivious grin on her face. I groan.

“Dina, I’m not single.”

“You’re dating a guy you should abhor. And the guy you’re clearly crazy for walked back into your life at just the right time. If that’s not a sign, I don’t know what is.“




The entire week I’ve been here has been a nightmare.

A pipe burst in the house I rented in East Winsome and I had to move into a much more expensive bed and breakfast the night I arrived.

Trying to get someone to talk to me about the Kendicotts has been like pulling teeth.

Seeing Beth has turned my mood fucking dark.

I thought I was prepared for the moment our paths would cross.

But, I was wrong. I’ll never get used to the sway her eyes hold over me. And the hurt them… it had been real. I haven’t been able to stop seeing it.

But, I got that text from her phone. And she’s fucking engaged. Those things are real, too.

But for someone reason, now, I feel like I’m the one who did something wrong. Like I’m the one who let her down.

That night at Corks was a disaster. I don’t know why I sang with her in the room. I only went there because I knew no one would know me. Her friend practically harpooned me over to their table, I thought she was a fan, and I know better than to be rude. But when she’d walked over, even though her make up looked undisturbed, I could tell that she’d been crying. Her eyes…God. I’ve been tempted to abandon my mission and go back to New York. But I didn’t come here for her and I need answers.

It’s for the best that there’s this…wedge between us. This whole thing is hard enough without throwing a love triangle in the mix.

I can’t pretend anymore that I don’t have unresolved feelings for her. When we were standing inches apart from each other, I wanted to pull her close and kiss her until the hurt in her eyes turned to heat.

But that kind of trouble, I don’t need.

So, I’ve thrown myself, headfirst into my research so that I can get what I came for and leave.

This morning, finding the deed for the house my parents—my birth parents lived in – is at the top of my list.

I’ve been at the county clerk’s office twice this week requesting documents I thought were public record – birth records and marriage records. But, when I mention the Kendicotts, friendly smiles disappear, eyes shutter and whatever I’ve just asked for isn’t available.

Desperate for progress, I broke down and called my realtor for help. I figured she’d be able to walk into the clerk’s office and ask for records without raising suspicion.

I thought maybe they just didn’t like an outsider coming into town and asking questions.

I was wrong.

“Now, Etta, I’m a public official. You can’t talk to me like that.” I The man puffs his chest out, but I can see the sweat beading on his balding pate from where I’m standing.

And Etta can smell the blood in the water. I can hear his balls shrinking when she doubles down and leans so close to the glass divider that the tip of her nose touches it.

“Look, here. Working part time as a receptionist doesn’t not you a public official.” Her scorn is palpable and the man’s face turns bright red.

“I am not a receptionist,” he sputters.

She slams her palm on the counter and he jumps back.

“I want to speak to someone in charge. Now,” she growls.

“I’m in charge and I’m going to call security if you don’t leave.”

Until now, I’ve been watching, knocking my head against the wall I’m leaning against, while I try to decide my next move. The man’s threat makes my mind up for me really fast. Going to jail is not in my plans. And neither is alienation the people whose help I need.

I take Etta by the elbow and move her to the side.

“Thank you, sir. No need for that. She’ll find another way.”

“Come on,” I steer Etta away from the window and toward the entrance.

She yanks her arm away and comes to a stop in front of me, hands on her hips, her face contorted by outrage.

“What are you doing? That man was being an idiot. They think they’re above the law around here,” she says in a voice that’s too loud. I see other visitors glancing in our direction.

“Making a scene is going to get us anywhere. I’ll find another way,” I reiterate and slip an around her shoulder to keep her from turning around again.

“Well. Okay, then Carter,” she says, her voice drops and her face is transformed by a coy smile as she steps into my side and slips her around my waist.


This is the very last thing I need. She helped me with the house I rented and then helped me get that room at the B & B when it fell through.

When I said yes to her offer to show me around, I didn’t realize she’d been interested in much more than that.

We had dinner my first night and she kissed me when she dropped me off. I told her I was getting over someone to let her down easy. She seemed to take it well then, but I wouldn’t have called if I hadn’t been desperate.

I drop my arm from around her shoulder and she wraps her other around my waist and comes to stand in front of me mid stride.

She bats her eyelashes up at me, unfazed by my curse of annoyance as I try to stop myself from tripping over her.

I look down at her, disbelief at how brazen she’s being.

“I’m really glad you called,” she drawls.

I grab her arms and tug them.

She only tightens her hold on me.

“Etta-uh-- ”

The door we stopped in front of flies open, hitting her backside and knocking her off balance. She falls forward, with her arms still locked around me and I lose my balance too.

We stumble a few steps before I manage to right myself.


I look up to find myself face to face with the one person I’m not trying to see.

If her expression is anything to go by, the feeling is mutual.

Her face has drained of color, but her eyes are bright with shock. But she’s looking at Etta, and Etta is glaring at her.

“Etta?” She’s looking at me when she asks that question and that pained expression is back on her face.

I look between them. But before I can ask any of the myriad of questions that rush at me, Etta comes to stand directly between us.

“You did that on purpose.” Etta hisses, the venom she spat at the clerk back in her voice.

“Of course I didn’t, don’t silly.” Beth shoots back without the same venom, but her loathing is clear.

What is this about?

Etta turns to face me, her face set in a mutinous glare.

“Let’s go. This place is full of jerks,” she throws her voice so that jerks floats over her shoulder at Beth.

Beth turns her accusatory glare on me, her eyebrow raised in surprise.

“I’ll meet you at the car, Etta,” I say without looking at her.

She huffs, but doesn’t argue. She gives Beth one last contemptuous glare before she leaves.

Beth’s eyes follow her retreating back. Her face drained of color as if she’s seeing a ghost.

She’s so changed. Not just her hair, which is blonde and flows down her back, now. But her clothes, her heavy make-up, even her posture — it’s rigid and controlled, like she’s being tested and doesn’t dare slip.

She turns to face me, her expression is dazed, her eyes tinged pink by unshed tears.

My gut twists and my chest tightens as guilt and regret seem to fill every inch of it. It’s only when she steps away that I realize I’ve reach a hand out to touch her.

What the hell is wrong with me. I curl my fingers into a fist at my side.

“Are you with her?” she asks and raises a hand to her throat as if to brace herself my answer. Her diamond ring glints against the creamy skin of her fingers my guilt evaporates.

I straighten and give her an unaffected once over.

“What if I am? You’re not engaged to her, too are you?” I demand.

She shakes her head at me. “Was that night a lie? Why did you make me think you cared?” Her voice is hollow, but her eyes are blue starbursts of pain.

I promised myself I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of knowing how much she fucking hurt me.

But this innocent act is too much. I drop my devil my care expression and let her see how much I cared.

“I called you. Every chance I got. Until my father died and I stopped for a while because I was fucking heartbroken.” It’s more than I meant to say. “Look, just forget—”

Her hand comes to rest on my chest and the words die in my throat at the sympathy in her eyes.

“I’m so sorry about your father—” I step away from her touch, her words make it burn and I

“Nice of you to say that now.” I spit looking away from her, my hurt now potent and too close to the surface for comfort.

“I’m sorry. I know I wasn’t there, but I would have called you. I trie—”

“Let me refresh your memory, Beth,” I yank my phone out of my pocket and open my messages and make quick work of finding her text.

I turn it around and hold it close to her face.

“Please stop calling,” she reads it out loud. Her hands tremble as she runs her fingers over the screen, her eyes wide with shock.

I haven’t forgotten her message on Instagram about not having a phone. But, who else could have, or would have sent that text? I didn’t have an explanation, but it never occurred to me that she wasn’t at least aware of it.

I can see now thought, that she’s shocked.

“Carter, I didn’t send that.”

She covers her mouth, but the gasp of pain is audible. And the dawning of understanding in her eyes is like watching my own heart break all over again.

But the ring sparkling on her finger reminds me that whatever she needed from me that day, she doesn’t need it any more.

She’s going to marry the man who I have reason to believe is my biological brother.

I can’t look at her anymore. I can’t do this anymore.

“It doesn’t matter,” I say in a terse voice and tuck my phone away in my pocket.

She grabs my arm and digs her fingers in.

“It does. Carter, I didn’t send that. I didn’t even have a phone. The first chance I got, I sent you a message. Didn’t you get it?”

I flinch at the memory of how I felt reading that message. She needed me and I wasn’t there.

And she found someone else.

I squash my guilt and try to sound nonchalant.

“It went to my requests, I didn’t see it until last week.” But I hear the regret in my voice and can see that she does, too.

“Oh, Carter. Oh, no,” she whispers, her hand comes back to my chest, covering my heart. The binding that’s been constricting it loosens at the touch of the woman who it wants to belong to.

I’m a fool. Because, I don’t step away this time. Instead, I do what comes naturally and place my hand over her heart, too. It thuds against my palm. I close my eyes briefly, savoring the heat of her skin under my hand.

We stand there, our hearts in each other hands and for a moment, we’re us.

The frayed edges around the tapestry of my memories begin to reknit themselves as I look into her eyes and see the truth of things.

“Is that why you moved on? You thought I had?” she asks.

Time, acrimony, hurt, all of it disappears.

None of those things, even united common purpose, are can measure up to the strength of this feeling.

“I didn’t move on.” I say

Her eyes are hopeful. And…my heart wants to cling to it. Could it really be this simple?

The answer to that comes swiftly and decisively.

“Clover, we’re waiting for you. You’ve got to sign it, too.”

She yanks her hand back and steps away from me. For a second my hand sits there’s suspended in midair in the place where she’d been standing. I turn to see her big lugging idiot of a fiancé step through the door. He’s dressed in a suit that looks out of place in this small county clerk’s office. But next to Beth, who’s dressed in black skirt and pink silk blouse, he looks…right.

His expression morphs from an annoyed scowl to what he must think is a charming smile when he sees me.

I’ll never forget how he looked at me that afternoon at her house. And when his smile falters and recognition darkens his eyes, I can see that he hasn’t forgotten either.

I don’t know what I expected to feel when I came face to face with him again. I thought now that I knew he was my brother, maybe I’d feel a connection, or a spark of recognition.

All I see the asshole that bullied and then managed to seduce my girl--

I put a brake on those thoughts. She’s not, and never has been that. No matter how badly I want her to be.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt. I’m Duke Tremaine.” He sticks his stupid fucking hand out for me to shake.

I don’t trust myself to not crush the hand that I know gets to touch her.

I sneeze into my cupped palms and then hold them up apologetically. “Sorry, don’t want to give you this cold.” I shove my hands in my pockets.

“That’s considerate of you.” he says in his good old boy mannerly way, but his eyes narrow and his smile is gone.


“Clover, we’re waiting. If you could finish up your chat and join us.” He says to Beth, but stands there waiting instead of going back into the room.

I can’t look at her.

“I’m just leaving. We’re done. She’s all yours,” I say with all the detachment I don’t feel.

My stomach churns and bile rises in my throat as I walk away. It takes all my self-control not to look back at them.

“I was about to leave. What took you so long?” Etta as I climb into the car.

The sharp bite of anger in her voice yanks me out of my dark thoughts.

“I’m sorry I made you wait. You could have gone ahead.” I grumble and buckle my seatbelt.

“So, what’s up with you Princess Elisabeth?”

I frown. I don’t like her questioning me. And I don’t like the contempt in her voice when she says Beth’s name. But, I realize that this might be my chance to get the scoop on her engagement to Duke.

So, I swallow my annoyance and shrug. “My dad knows hers. Just saying hi. You guys have a history, huh?”

She scoffs, it’s a hard, bitter sound. “Oh yeah, I know her, alright. There’s nothing but trouble in that direction. Her father is a wolf in a savior’s clothing, and she’s his biggest fan and a total fake.”

Why do you say that?” I ask her when she doesn’t elaborate on her declaration.

She laughs as if I’m an idiot for even asking.

“When her parents got divorced, she stayed with her father. Even though they got divorced because he was having an affair. She’s one of those women who will put up with, or do anything for money.”

“Maybe she just loves her dad,” I say, surprised by her answer.

“That would be even worse. That man is proof that beautiful shells can mask the ugliest hearts. He’s a monster.” Her voice is almost reverent in its loathing and her shudder is dramatic, but real.

“That’s harsh,” I say it with an air of disbelief in the hopes that she’ll elaborate in an effort to convince me.

She proves true to type.

“It’s not harsh enough. You don’t know that man. And she’s just like him. They call her Clover, you know? Like she was precious.”

I almost tell her that it’s because of her birthmarks, the one on her arm and the one on her face – the ones that I thought were good luck. But I catch myself and just nod instead.

“Turns out Clover is a regular old slut like the rest of us. And when her Daddy found out, he took it out on people who couldn’t fight back.”

“What?” I ask. The girl I met said she’d never been kissed before. This reeks of bitterness.

“She got fucking someone. But she wouldn’t give up his name. Drew Wolfe went on a mission to find the, how’d he put it…” she rolls her eyes skyward and her sneer deepens. “The little prick that thought his dick was good enough for his daughter’s pussy?”

“He actually said that? Her father?” I remember the casual cruelty he displayed that day at their house. But, she’s his kid. Monster was right. My mom has caught me with --- my thoughts come to a screeching halt as the rest of what she said sinks in. She was fucking someone in East Winsome?

“Not himself. He sent his goons to do his dirty work. Beat up a couple of the boys he managed to get his hands on. Just to drive his message home. And to think he wants to be governor. God help us. The corruption in this town, you wouldn’t believe.”

“Who was it? The guy she was with?”

“God only knows. I only saw her in East Winsome once. The night before her brother died. Must have been someone she met then.”

She’s talking about me. Her dad found out.

My stomach drops. Her eyes had been hauntingly grave when she’d warned me about this that day in the church.

“If he found out I was seeing you, he’d find a way to stop it,” she’d said .


“Wow. So, what happened?” I panic and glance at her when I realize I’ve slipped and called her by my nickname. She doesn’t appear to have noticed.

“Nothing. She disappeared. Just gone. They said she went to live with her grandmother.”

“Is that in a different town?”

“Yeah, near Dallas. I think she was in rehab,” Etta says, her grin is sinister. I’m used to people making shit up about me and my family. But they’re gossip columnists. Not my neighbors. The dexterity with which Etta vaults her verbal missiles is clearly a result of practice.

“Is Beth…like who are her friends?”

“If her Instagram is to believed, Georgia and a girl named Ava. But who knows. She came home from her grandmothers,” she puts mimes air quotes and rolls her eyes, “looking like a new person. Ms. Perfect. And now she’s got her perfect fiancé.”

“So, they weren’t dating before?” I ask, surprised that anyone would describe him that way.

“Of course not. He would never have. I think his Daddy is making him do it. I mean, I don’t see what else it could be. She’s like plastic. You know? I heard she’s got all sorts of fillers in her face. Not that I’ve been close enough to find out for myself.” She snorts derisively. “She goes all the way to Houston to get her highlights done like she’s fucking Ms. America, or something. Not that I want her business. The smell is sulfur would be bad for business.”

Bitterness must run in long, uninterrupted cords through her veins. She seems consumed by it.

“You know they’re cursed, right?” Her voice has lost some of its edge, but it feel forced. Like she knows she might have gone too far and is trying to pretend that she’s not dead serious.

I’ll play along because her dislike of Beth is extreme and disconcerting.

“Who’s cursed?”

She shoots me a glance and her annoyance is clear as day. “Her family.” If she’d added a “you sack of numb nuts" to the end of that sentence it couldn’t have been more patronizing. “Like the Kennedy’s, ya know? She has another brother. Older than the one who died. But he disappeared. But heard Wolf disowned him because he was gay.”

“Would he really have done that?”

“Oh yeah.. I mean, it may be the 21st century in NYC, but here we… time stopped when Ronald Regan died.” She laughs.

It’s possible that her theory about the cause of his leaving is pure conjecture with no basis in fact, but that it’s even in the realm of possibility makes me sad for them. Her father doesn’t deserve the children he’s been given. What an asshole. Maybe monster wasn’t harsh enough.

“Anyway, just watch out for her. She’s an opportunist. If she finds out who you are, she’ll be after you, too.”

My skin feels too tight for my body. It’s hard to sit and listen to hear her talk about Beth like that and say nothing in her defense. Things may have been turned upside down, but the Beth I spent the night with last summer is the real her.

I know it, the way I know water is wet.

Whatever she’s done, or said, she’s not a malicious, self-absorbed, fake. Not even close.

But I bite my tongue. Because to defend her would reveal things I don’t want Etta to know. In her hands, the truth about us would be repurposed into ammunition.

“Can you drop me off at the car rental place instead of the B & B?” I ask after a minute of silence.

“Sure. Or I could give you a ride. Any time you like,” she says in a sly voice. Even though I pretend not to get it, the suggestion isn’t lost on me.

I give her a side long glance. Her blonde hair is cut in a blunt bob that hovers right at her jaw line that gives her an edge. I imagine that without it, her youthful, large eyed, wide mouthed face would make her look like she’s twelve. I’ve only seen her a handful of times, but she’s always wearing a variation of the same thing. Jeans, a white t-shirt and lots of bright beaded jewelry. She’s got a great laugh and when she’s not talking about Elisabeth, she’s really easy going. But this woman is a shark and god help the person who gets in her ocean with a paper cut they didn’t even realize they had.

“I told you, I’m not looking for anything right now. You’re a great--” I say as apologetically as I can.

She nods. “Save the pretty words for someone who needs them. A ride is all I was offering. I’ve yet to meet a man worth the skin he was born in.” Her tone is matter of fact, but her jaw ticks.

“I’ll try not to take that personally.” I say dryly.

“It’s not. Ya’ll can’t help being born with dicks instead of hearts.”

I bark a surprised laugh, someone did a number on her.

And how I wish that was true.

Because right now, mine feels like it’s been drop kicked.

But the dumb fucking thing won’t lay there and play dead. No, because she put her hand over it and gave me hope.

What might have been if things hadn’t gotten so turned upside down.

I’m not surprised she’s got a man.

A woman like that wouldn’t be alone if she didn’t want to be.

But God… help me, I hate it.

It was one night. One.

I shouldn’t care.

She moved on.

Now that I know that, I should, too.

Our meeting was as improbably as a bright blue sky in the middle of the night. And yet…I was sure I’d found something meant for me.

I tasted her magic. That’s all it took to hook me. And now I have to live with the knowledge that I’ll never have it again.

And fuck if that doesn’t piss me off.




“Lizzy has always had the best luck. I mean, she’s my best friend, but I’ve also always secretly hated her a little because she’s so perfect.” Georgia smiles her toothy, sparkling white smile and beams down at me with a great imitation of love and affection.

The only way I can muster a smile in return to her is to imagine all of her teeth cracking and falling out. She’s phony as fuck, but then again, I guess I am, too. So I tolerate her.

“That’s my baby. So perfect. Her only flaw is this tiny cut on her pinky toe and even that’s cute,” Duke says and leans in to kiss me.


I turn my face and his sloppy kiss lands on my cheek and my father clears his throat. I pretend I didn’t hear him and take a huge gulp of my previously untouched wine.

I’m irritated and tired. The dinner party started less than an hour ago and Duke is already drunk. He’s been touching me and making lewd comments all night, and it’s taken real restraint to not throw my drink in his face.

I glance down to the other end of the table where Dina is sitting. She looks like she wants to vomit.

Georgia taps her glass with her knife and the room quiets down again.

“We all love her so much because well, she’s so sweet. Being your best friend is the biggest blessing of my life.” She smiles sweetly down at me.

And like a rebuke from the heavens for the enormity of her lie, the door to the dining room flies open with a huge bang.

The tranquil, if slightly boisterous, mood of our little gathering is instantly shattered. Everyone’s attention shifts and a chorus of shocked gasps fills the room as a woman marches in.

She looks like she’s been in a fight. Her dark hair is half out of her ponytail and her face is streaked with tears and flushed red.

But, I’d recognize her anywhere. She works with me at Wolfe. I’ve never seen her look anything less than immaculately put together and happy. She’s glaring daggers in my direction and alarm streaks through me.

“Oh fuck me.” At his muttered oath, I turn to look at Duke. Dread pools heavy and hot in my gut when I see the raw panic in his eyes as he stares at Julia.

“What have you done?” I whisper.

He doesn’t answer but eyes go from panicked to apoplectic when Julia plants her hand on the table across from us and leans in, her gaze hot and directed at me.

My insides shrivel as the room seems to go deathly still. “I thought you were decent, but you’re just like them,” she seethes.

I make a mental inventory of the guests we gathered here tonight to celebrate our farce of an engagement. On the left side of the long table are my guests. Georgia, who has designated herself as my best friend and maid of honor, has a wide-eyed look of surprise on her face. My father is staring stonily between Duke and Julia and he’s let go of my wrist.

Fiona is fussing over Cameron and trying her hardest to ignore the chaos. I wish I could, too. And even though I didn’t do anything to bring it on, I don’t have the luxury of distance.

I look to my right at Duke’s parents, his siblings and their wives. Their expressions are the mixture of shock, discomfort and morbid fascination people car wrecks inspire.

This is so bad.

I want to reach over and wrap my hands around Duke’s throat. But I have to try and diffuse this before it spills outside of this room.

“Can you please close the doors?” I ask of one of the servers my father hired for the evening. He doesn’t say anything. He’s joined everyone in their frozen shock at the sight of this woman. I would do it myself, but my legs are trembling and I’m afraid I’ll fall if I try to walk across the room.

I repeat myself, this time louder and he jumps to close it.

“With her inside?” He asks as he looks at Julia like she’s an alien.

“Yes,” I say in annoyance.

“Call the police. She’s clearly dangerous.”

“Who is she?” Duke’s sister-in-law, Madison, whispers loudly to her husband.

“That is none of your concern.” Mrs. Tremaine’s rebuke is swift and severe and Madison flushes and looks down at her lap.

That’s what they would make me into if I let them.

I sweep that cobweb away and turn back to the waiter who’s watching the scene unfold with ardent interest.

“Leave us and close the doors behind you.” I make it a command rather than a request this time. He only hesitates for a beat before he scurries out of the room. Thank God my father owns this country club, no one here would dare gossip about him or his family.

“Julia whatever’s wrong, let’s go somewhere else and talk about it.” I stand and make my way to her.

“You should have talked to me before you got me fired.” She retorts.

“I didn’t get you fired,” I insist.

“Really? Then why was I marched out of the building today?”

I blanch. “I don’t know. But clearly it’s a mistake. Why would any fire you?”

She shakes her head at me in disgust. “Why? Because, it’s business as usual in this god forsaken town. Your men fuck up, and we pay for it.”

“What are you talk...Duke, what is she talking about?” My voice is rising at the same rate as my alarm as her words start to sink in.

“He came on to me. Next thing you know, I’m being fired.”

“She’s lying.” He says woodenly, his eyes wide with dread as they implore me to believe him.

“Why would I lie? You think I want people to know what you did? You’re disgusting. But now, someone’s got to pay for what happened.”

My head spins at her words. “What did you do?” I glance at him and he’s staring straight ahead like he’s in a trance.

“He pulled his dick out and asked me to suck it,” Julia flings at him.

A loud, high pitched gasp is followed by the scraping of chairs. Duke ’s mother is on her feet. Her face is mottled bright pink and she’s glaring at her Julia like she’s the devil.

“I’ve heard enough. We’re leaving.” She snaps at him before she turns on her heels. Her husband only hesitates for a minute before he’s on his feet, too. Her sons stand, albeit reluctantly and with their wives, follow her out.

“Mama —” Duke calls out to her but she doesn’t break stride or look back.

“Fix this, you fuck up,” his father snaps over his shoulder before he follows the rest of his family out.

“Drew, we should go, too. Cameron needs to get to bed.” Fiona says in a small apologetic voice.

My father stands, but he doesn’t acknowledge Fiona. Instead, he’s staring at Duke. He doesn’t say anything, but it’s clear from the very meaningful look on his face that this is something they’ve discussed.

“Don’t take it too personally. Fidelity isn’t how men show their commitment. That diamond and their last name, is.” He squeezes my shoulder hard and walks out, Fiona behind him trying to keep up.

I can feel Julia seething with impatience and my insides shrivel when I think about what she must have been through today.

“Dina, Georgia, can you please give us some privacy?” I level them with a stare that brooks no argument.

Georgia gives Duke a lingering glance that doesn’t bode well for any of us before she stands and leaves.

Dina stands, too. She’s got feral gleam in her eyes and Duke in her sights. “Can I stay? I don’t want to miss seeing you kick him in the nuts.”

Duke grabs my arm before I can finish scowling at her.

“She came on to me. I turned her down and she’s made my life hell ever since. I swear.” He says, his voice low and urgent.

“You filthy liar. I wouldn’t touch you with a ten foot pole.” Julia rushes up to us, her chin thrust forward and her hands balled in fist as she leans in to get in his face.

I have a terrible vision of this turning physical.

I pivot to put myself between them. “Julia, there’s been a mistake. I’ll go to HR on Monday and fix whatever’s wrong.”

She turns her vengeful gaze on me. “You think I want to work there again? No, I think I’ll take the money instead.”

“What money?” I turn to him and find him glaring at her, his eyes intent and full of

“I offered her money to go away. But you’re not getting shit from me, now.”

This is getting worse by the second. “Why did you offer her money?” I ask Duke, horrified by what an unmitigated disaster this is.

“Because she’s unhinged. I mean, look at her.” He waves a frantic hand in Julia’s direction. “Why would I risk what we have on that?” he flings his hands out in her direction.

Julia gasps, her eyes bulging in anger. “How dare you?”

“Liz, take note. He fights dirty,” Dina chimes in unhelpfully, again.

I glare at her.

“Get out.” I growl.

She has the grace to look shamefaced as she slinks out of the room. As soon as the door closes behind her, I regret asking her to leave.

I’m alone in a pit of vipers.

“But now I want more. I want two hundred and fifty thousand dollars and I’ll get out of your hair.” Julia says as if it’s a reasonable demand.

“You’re crazy.”

“That’s right. And you’re fucked.”

When she turns to look at me, the pity in her eyes makes me flinch. I don’t deserve it. Her scorn from earlier wasn’t displaced.

She doesn’t know this is a sham and

I know what I look like standing next to Duke.

Even though our relationship isn’t real, the humiliation heating my cheeks, is.

I can’t look at her anymore, but I force myself to look her in the eye. She deserves that much from me at least.

“I’m so sorry, Julia. I promise, you’ll get your money.”

Her expression softens a little. “I don’t know why you try to so hard to be one of them. They don’t deserve you. If I were you, I’d get out of this town and live a little.”

If I were me, I would, too.

“You’re a fool if you marry him. He’s a nasty piece of work. And he’s banging your friend, too,” she shoots and then stalks off, pulling the doors closed behind her with a slam. It resonates through the room and is followed by complete silence.

Duke and I sit in complete silence for a few minutes after Julia leaves.

“Clover,” I turn to Duke. His expression is an odd blend of panic and calculation.

“Don’t call me that when we’re alone.” I surge to my feet on a wave of adrenaline and stalk over to him. He stands, his hands out as if he’s preparing to catch a flying fist.

“She’s lying, I wouldn’t,” if I didn’t know him, I’d believe the earnest plea in his eyes. But this is devil I do know and he doesn’t have an earnest bone in his body.

“It doesn’t even matter if it’s true. We need to run damage control”

He groans as if he’s in agony and throws his head back. “

“I told you I didn’t try to fuck her. Not that I couldn’t have. And if you would start sleeping in my bed, you’d know where I was every night.” He says it like he actually believes it.

My body hums, like one of those old wind up timers right before it goes off. “That’s never going to happen. I know what you did to me that night. You’re lucky I didn’t call the police” I snarl at him.

He moves so fast that I don’t realize he’s getting up until he’s standing right in front of me. He takes hold of my chin in a punishing grip and his other hand lands with a firm pat on my cheek. I’m too stunned to move at first.

“Watch your fucking mouth.” His voice is smooth as silk. But flash of rage in his eyes tells the real story. He looks like the devil, for real.

I yank out of his hold and scramble to stand on the other side of the table, my heart racing from the jolt of adrenaline.

“Did you slap me?” I demand incensed, now.

He blinks, like my anger and question are startling. Then, he shuts his eyes and curses under his breath. After a few seconds he lets out a breath and opens his eyes. They’re clear, the rage I saw a few seconds ago is gone.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me.”

My heart rate picks up even more as he closes the distance between us. I didn’t imagine that look in his eyes just now and no one can switch off that fast.

“I’m pissed at that lying bitch who ruined everything tonight. I lost it for a second. I’m sorry, Clover.” He stops a few feet away from me and waits for me to respond.

I don’t know what to say. This is a disaster I didn’t anticipate. But all of this has been nothing like I expected.

I was desperate to get away from my grandmother. I thought pretending would be easy. But it’s getting harder and harder to look in the mirror when I’m dressed like this.

And since I saw Carter at Corks, I’ve been increasingly aware of the stark contrast between the life I want and the one I’m living.

An honest existence versus this lie.

Feelings versus obligation.

I was nauseous when replayed our disastrous encounter at the records office. The hurt in his eyes had made my knees weak. But seeing that text, and imagining how he felt receiving it, broke something in me. I can’t stop thinking how different things might be if he hadn’t received.

He might have come to look for me.

But so what? My father wouldn’t have allowed it.

The unsympathetic truth is, no matter how badly I want to, now I can’t allow it. I’ve got to salvage this mess and keep my promise to Cameron.

I look over at Duke. He’s pacing, scheming, and probably thinking about himself. He’s clearly chafing against the confines of our agreement. This whole thing with Julia, it’s so reckless it smacks of self-sabotage.

“Why did you go to my father to set a date?” I demand.

He flinches like something stung him and then he turns away from me before he answers. “I didn’t go see him about it. He brought it up when we were meeting and I wasn’t going to argue with him. He wants this done so he can assure the stockholders that he’ll have a successor when he steps away to run for governor. He thinks he can win this time, so he’s going all in.”

“He made it sound like you came to him.” I say, not hiding my disbelief.

He shakes his head in a vigorous denial. “No, I didn’t.”

“So why have you been avoiding me?” I press.

“I’ve been busy. Work is a lot.” He says, his voice growing pained, and his discomfort clear on his face.

He’s lying.

“Duke, if something is wrong, you should tell me. We may not really be a couple, but once we get married, all of our stuff becomes each other’s. We’re legally like the same person. So, I need to trust you.”

“You can trust me. I’ve just been working trying to learn all this shit for this job.”

“I can’t trust you to be discrete about your lovers.”

“It won’t happen again, get off my ass, please.” He

“Duke, I don’t care who you fuck. As long as it’s not me. If we do all this and don’t get the money after all...” I glare at him.

“We’ll get the money. We both need it, right? Let’s figure this out.” That desperate look is back in his eye.

Whatever he’s hiding won’t stay a secret long. I’ll just have to hope it’s nothing worse than a hidden mistress. I’m exhausted and breathing the same air as him is making me ill.

I have to keep my eyes on the prize and focus on fixing this mess. I take a deep breath and forge ahead. “You really messed up. So, I can’t walk out of here like everything is okay. Everyone needs to think we broke up. Anything less won’t be believable. And we can’t risk that kind of scrutiny. It’s bad enough that Fiona knows. But she has as much to lose as we do.”

“Fine. You’re right. So, what next?” He looks as irritated and tired as I feel. I think we both need off this ride.

I tug his ring off my finger and my lungs expand like they’ve been starved for air as soon as I drop it back into his palm.

“This sucks.” His voice is sullen and I’m overcome with the urge to slap


“It’ll be expected.”

He scowls but nods his head in resignation. “I guess it’s not the worst timing. I’m leaving for that trip with your father in a few days.”

I’d forgotten he was going to be away.

This is perfect. I need the time to think without him and my father pressuring me. “When you get back, we can start going out again, and eventually get back together. You can make a show of winning me back, How about that?” I say evenly, not wanting him to see a hint of my real feelings.

“No. Your dad wants us to announce our wedding date at the fundraiser. It’s two days after we get back. We’ll have to pretend we made up long distance.”

I’ll tell your dad that we’re on a break once we’re gone. I think it’ll be easier if he can’t question you about it, you know?” It’s thoughtful consideration, so it’s probably not about me at all. But I’ll take it.

I pick up my purse and smooth my hair.

“When I walk out, pretend you’re upset because I haven’t forgiven you, okay?” I say sternly.

He nods, like a kid accepting the punishment for breaking the rules.. And then, we go and play our parts.

When we step out into the lobby, Dina is waiting for me in the chair outside the room. Georgia is still there, too.

“Can you take me home?”

“With pleasure.”

She hops up, the glare she turns on Du