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         I often wondered if it was a common thing for a girl tofall in love at thirteen. And if it was, does that love last? Or is it just a crush? Can you even truly love that young? These thoughts kept me up at night. Why did I stay up thinking about love? Because Asher Sutton had given me a ride home and, in that moment, stolen my heart for good.

“Dixie Monroe, what are you doing walking out here by yourself? Ain’t safe for a girl. You know better!” That thick, deep voice was Asher Sutton’s. I’d know it anywhere. My cheeks heated and I felt silly. I didn’t want to admit I had missed the bus because Emily James hid my clothes while I was changing after P.E. and I’d been left in the locker room naked. Until Coach Jones came in and found me. She had given me an extra P.E. uniform to wear home. It was too big and smelled funny, but it was something to wear, at least. I didn’t want Asher to see me or smell me like this.

“I, uh, just wanted to walk,” I stammered, hoping he wouldn’t realize I was barefoot. There had been no extra shoes for me to wear. Walking in the grass felt fine on my feet. Luckily, it wasn’t cold or wet outside, or I would’ve been in a fix.

“Well, that was a bad idea. Your daddy would have a fit and will if he catches wind you walked home. It’s too damn long a walk. Get in this truck.”

Asher Sutton’s truck. It was famous. Well, at least the stories about that truck were. All girls in town wanted to experience Asher’s truck. He was known as the best kisser in town and he was by far the most handsome boy I’d ever seen. I knew he’d had sex in that truck with a college girl just last week. And Asher was only sixteen.

I looked down at my shirt that was at least three sizes too big and the shorts that hung past my knees. I had wrapped the drawstring around me then tied it to keep the shorts from falling off. My bare feet were dirty and the pretty pink nail polish on my toes was now chipped. It no longer reminded me of cotton candy.

“It’s okay. He won’t mind. He knows I like to walk for exercise,” I lied. It was the first thing I could think of. Because Asher was right. My daddy was not going to be happy about any of this. Not about the clothes, shoes, or my walking home. I was already preparing myself for him to go up to the school tomorrow and pitch a fit over this. But seeing as I had lost my shoes and clothes, I didn’t see how I was going to hide this from him.

Unfortunately, Asher wasn’t buying this story at all. “Not moving from here until you get in this truck, Dixie. Can’t leave you out here to walk,” he paused and I glanced up at him. His gaze had dropped to my feet. “Shit, girl, are you barefoot?”

I sighed. This had been humiliating to begin with. Now it was becoming a nightmare. Wasn’t the first time Emily James had gone out of her way to make my life hell. I never could figure out why she hated me so much. I was a nice person. I tried really hard to get people to like me. But nothing I did or said could make Emily like me. Instead, she found ways to embarrass and humiliate me. Regularly. At least once a week. Never had it been this bad before. Because never had Asher Sutton witnessed it.

I knew he wasn’t going to leave me out here now. Might as well get this over with. “Yeah, I, uh, lost those,” I sounded like an idiot.

Asher frowned. He didn’t seem amused. “Come on, Dix, get in the truck.”

I did as I was told this time. It was another three miles to my house and my daddy was going to start worrying about me soon enough. I would never forgive Emily for this one though. I was done trying to be nice to her. She had taken it too far. I was in Asher Sutton’s truck looking like an idiot and smelling worse.

“Thank you,” I said not looking his way again once I was inside.

“Buckle up,” he said, “then explain to me why you’re wearing gym clothes that could fit me, don’t have shoes on your feet and are walking home like that.”

Lying was less embarrassing. But I was a terrible liar. Daddy said I stammered and turned red the moment I even tried to fib a little.

“Someone stole my clothes while I was changing after P.E. class.” Just saying it made me sound like a loser. I had always been the little girl next door that Asher Sutton liked to tease. I wanted to look grown up and have boobs like Emily or my best friend Scarlet. Something to make me look older than thirteen.

“What the hell?” His tone was incredulous. As if he couldn’t fathom that. I bet he couldn’t. I doubt anyone had ever done anything like that to him. “How’d they take your clothes?”

This was just getting worse. I wished he’d drive faster. Admitting I didn’t change in front of the other girls because my body wasn’t developing like theirs yet was too much. But he wasn’t going to stop asking unless I told him. “I change in one of the bathroom stalls. I had my clothes hanging over the door so they wouldn’t touch the floor. When I took off my gym clothes, I hung them over the door and then—” I stopped. Telling Asher I had then taken that moment to use the toilet stuck in my throat. “I…” What did I say here?

“You had to pee?” he offered and I felt my face become an inferno.

I simply nodded.

“Then someone grabbed all your clothes and shoes?”

I nodded again.

“Fuck, wish I knew who did it.”

I knew but I didn’t say. Emily had slept with several of Asher’s friends. She was tall and curvy and the older guys loved her. My house was finally in view and I wanted to leap out of the moving truck and start getting homeschooled tomorrow. Never leave my house again. Never have to look at Asher again.

“Your daddy is heading out to his truck with a concerned scowl on his face. Reckon he’s coming to find you. Knew he’d be worried.”

He had probably already talked to Coach Jones. He wasn’t happy with the harassment I’d been dealing with this year. It had escalated. Today was the worst yet though.

“I need to stop him,” I said, hoping Asher would speed up.

He honked his horn and Daddy stopped and looked our way. The relief on his face when he saw me made me feel bad. He had been worried. I should have called him from the school instead of trying to hide this. I just hated upsetting him.

“He ain’t gonna be happy about this,” Asher said.

“No, he ain’t. Thanks for the ride,” I told him and reached for the door.

“Dixie,” he said my name gently.

“Yeah,” I answered without looking at him again.

“Girls are mean as hell. But only because they’re jealous. Whoever took your clothes didn’t know you’d look just as pretty in a damn potato sack. Don’t let them get to you. Don’t let them change who you are.”

Those words weren’t the first Asher Sutton ever said directly to me in my life. But they were the most important for two reasons. I remembered them every single time Emily James did something cruel to me during that very long year. And they made me fall in love with Asher Sutton. Not because he was popular, beautiful, or the football captain. I fell in love at thirteen because a boy was kind to me.

Chapter One

Dixie Monroe

The paper bag was being crushed in my hand. The death grip I had on it from the moment I noticed that old blue Ford truck, slowly pulling through the caution light, was causing my hand to go numb. I wasn’t ready to see that truck. Not yet. Steel hadn’t warned me. Not about this he hadn’t.

But then again. . .Steel may not know yet. I glanced over my shoulder to see if the truck was going to drive by, so I could breathe again. My heartbeat quickened as the truck pulled into a parking spot right outside Harrod’s Pharmacy. He was getting out. It was him.

I knew I needed to look away. I didn’t want him to catch me staring. Really, it was pathetic. Completely ridiculous and sad. Asher Sutton had destroyed me. I shouldn’t react to him anymore, and I most definitely shouldn’t care anymore that his face was still chiseled perfection and his body that of every woman’s dreams.

Before I could gather my bearings, control my reaction to him, self-preservation kicked in, and I instinctively took a step out of his line of sight. His truck door swung open, long jean-clad legs stepping onto the pavement. The dark hair I used to run my fingers through was cut short, highlighting his stone cut face, the stubble covering his jaw making him appear like a dangerous angel. The flannel shirt he was wearing was faded and tightly joined across his chest. A chest I knew all too well was smooth and paneled with muscle.

“Don’t go there, Dixie.” Scarlet North, my best friend since middle school, whispered in my ear. Her hand clamped around my arm and she tugged me hard, enough to snap me out of my foolish stupor.

“Evil. Remember that, Dixie. That man is evil. He’s more beautiful than any one male has a right to be on the planet. But he’s the devil. You know that. Besides, don’t forget about Steel. You’re now dating Asher’s little brother.” Her last six words were a murmur. Only I could hear what she said.

Gossip in a small town was bad. In Malroy, Alabama, it was worse than bad. The place was a mecca of gossip. Everybody knew everything and everybody was in everyone’s business. There was a very good chance, right there on Main Street, that people were peeking from their windows to see if I would look Asher’s way. There had been enough talk about us in Malroy to last a lifetime and two years of Asher being away at college didn’t change a thing.

“I didn’t know he was coming home,” I said, simply trying to slow down my heart rate from seeing Asher for the very first time in years. He didn’t come home last summer. He stayed in Gainesville, Florida taking summer classes and seemed to have forgotten about Malroy.

“He’s probably just here to see his momma. He’ll leave soon enough, you’ll see. Steel would’ve told you if Asher was coming home for the summer,” Scarlet assured me.

I managed to nod while gripping my scrunched up paper bag in front of me like a shield. Asher was back and I didn’t know how to react. What was I supposed to expect? Would he keep pretending like I didn’t exist? Could he even do that now that I was with his brother? Would Steel tell him? Would Asher care?

No, he wouldn’t. I knew that all too well. Asher wouldn’t care at all. He had made it very clear to the entire town that he didn’t want me anymore. He didn’t care who had me now. He was done with me. I went from being one half of the “golden couple” to the discarded girl who surely must’ve done something horrible for Asher to throw her away and never look back. It happened so quickly, it still made no sense to me.

He had been my safe harbor. I was secure in his love. I gave my innocence to Asher believing in my heart he would be my forever, my one and only. But he blindsided me by leaving me without any explanation whatsoever.

The people I thought were my friends believed it had been my fault, something unforgivable that I did, and quickly turned their backs on me. They all worshiped the football star that had singlehandedly put our town on the map, the boy who led our team to a State Championship two years in a row. He could do no wrong in their eyes.  They had wasted no time taking his side. Everyone except Scarlet. She was my only true friend.

“He’s a giant asshole. Full of himself. The great and mighty Sutton,” she snarled his way.

I rolled my eyes and turned to look at her. “Don’t act like being a Sutton boy is a bad thing. You’re so in love with Brent Sutton you can’t see straight,” I pointed out.

She grinned, then shrugged and giggled. “Yeah, well, all Sutton boys ain’t bad. Just that particular one there.”

I agreed with her. The Sutton boys were a part of my life. They always had been and always would be. Our farms sat beside one another and our families remained intertwined.

The tiny diamond on my left hand sparkled in the bright sunlight as I lifted it. “No, they aren’t all bad,” I said. “One or two are decent enough.”

Scarlet released a sigh and shook her head. “Why are you wearing that? I thought you were still thinking about it?”

I glanced back at Asher’s blue truck, unable to pretend like it wasn’t there. My heart twisted painfully in my chest. He still had a crazy hold over me, and no amount of pep talk could do anything about it. “I wanted to see how it felt,” I admitted shyly, before glancing back down at the ring Steel had given me two weeks back. It hadn’t been a traditional proposal. Our relationship was complicated. And that blue truck reminded me why I hadn’t been able to say “yes” to Steel.

“Stop looking,” Scarlet growled in frustration.

“Do you think he’ll care. . .about the ring?” I only let Scarlet see how incredibly vulnerable Asher still made me feel.

“Oh, Dixie,” she sighed and pulled me into a hug. “You know he won’t. It’s been three years. You’ve got to let Asher go for good.”

I closed my eyes and let her hold me, because in that moment, I knew was right. She was always right. “How do I forget him, Scarlet?” The lilt in my voice made Scarlet squeeze a little tighter.

“Let yourself love Steel. He loves you. Be the girl he deserves,” she replied. Scarlet then pulled back to look at me. Both her hands rested on my shoulders. “Asher Sutton broke you. He deserves for you to forget him. Steel Sutton, on the other hand, adores you. And he’s nothing like his big brother. He gave you a ring, sweetie. It’s time your heart let go of the wrong Sutton boy and fell in love with the one that deserves it.”

I knew she was right. I just wasn’t sure where to start. Not when everything still reminded me of the one who didn’t love me back.


Four Years Ago…

I patiently sat in daddy’s truck while he filled the diesel tank with fuel. Jack’s parking lot had begun to fill up. Jack’s was a pool hall, that was also a bar, or maybe it was the other way around. A bar that was also a pool hall. I wasn’t sure because I’d never been in there. If my daddy ever heard I was in there—and he would’ve found out quickly because Jack would’ve called him himself—he’d have thrown a fit.

            The only reason I would want to go to Jack’s anyway was because of the faded blue pickup truck that was currently parked outside the place. I’d seen three of the five Sutton boys climb from it and enter the establishment. The only one that mattered to me, however, had been the driver. Asher had sauntered inside like he owned the place. All smiles and too sexy for words in the jeans he’d been wearing.

He had those jeans on today at school. I had noticed them as well as the Malroy Bears Football tee-shirt he’d worn. Every day since the first day of school, Asher made sure to walk with me to at least a few of my classes. I knew he only did it to protect me and it worked. Emily James hadn’t harassed me again, and because of that alone, high school was proving to be a lot easier than middle school had been for me.

            The day I’d climbed into his truck in someone else’s stinky, oversized gym clothes had changed me forever. I’d become more confident when dealing with Emily’s cruel pranks and at some point, they simply stopped. The last day of middle school she had tripped me. I was walking down the hallway for the very last time with my arms full of my locker contents. When I fell, notebooks, pencils, and even a few tampons went flying into the air, landing all around me. But that had been it and, seemingly, her final act of cruelty toward me. Now it was October and, in a week, I’d be turning fifteen. Emily had never looked my way again since I’d began high school two months before.

            Scarlet had texted me that she was going to Jack’s tonight. She wanted me to go with her, lie to my parents, which was common for Scarlet, but not for me. She knew before she even asked I wouldn’t do it. But she asked me anyway like she always did. Now, sitting here and having watched Asher walk inside, made me wish I was braver, wilder, and didn’t care so much about letting daddy down.

            She’d tell me all about it tomorrow anyway. The girl Asher took to his truck. Who the twins Brent and Bray Sutton ended their heated night with. Who she, Scarlet, made out with in the dark. Or in front of everyone. To her, it didn’t matter. Even though she had her eye on Steel Sutton these days. He was our age, and he was the Sutton boy to pursue for girls in our grade.

            “You good with fried chicken? Jack’s cooking up fried chicken. You can run in the back and get a bucket. Get some of them fries of his, too. We’re fending for ourselves tonight.”

            Momma went to church on Wednesday nights. Her ladies’ group bagged groceries and delivered them to the needy every week. Truth was she would have made us dinner if daddy had allowed her. But he insisted we would eat out so she wouldn’t need to cook every night, and so we did. Every Wednesday night, just the two of us, and usually it was fried.

            “That’s fine with me,” I replied, a small thrill from possibly catching a glimpse of Asher again made my heart race. I didn’t want to act overly excited about chicken from a bar, or Daddy would have gotten suspicious.

            “Let me use your phone,” he said, extending his hand to me.

            I didn’t have anything to hide from him, so I gave him my phone without any hesitation.

            Daddy took my phone and called Jack, telling him what we wanted. “While your momma is gone, we might as well live it up. Reckon you can whip us up some sweet tea?”

            Lately, momma was on a health kick. It wouldn’t last long because they never did, but she wanted daddy to consume less sugar and grease, which were the very things he enjoyed the most. She said he’d live longer that way. But he just ended up eating it whenever she wasn’t around. Like tonight, for example.

            “Yeah, I can.” I might as well. If I said no, he’d just go get a beer from the case he hid inside the barn. The real kind, not the light version which momma bought for him.

            Although the chance was slight I’d see Asher from the back where I’d enter and Jack would send a server, I still couldn’t stop myself from getting giddy at the possibility. I had seen him today at school, and even though he’d talked to me and walked with me to three of my classes, always interested in what I was learning, my grades, and my new friends, I already couldn’t wait to see him again. Because even when everyone around us was calling out his name, trying to get his attention, Asher only paid attention to me.

            “Ask Jack to give us extra of that special sauce he makes,” daddy added as I leapt from the truck. He must have been ravenous for extra sodium and a hearty dose of cholesterol.

            “Okay,” I replied, thinking to myself about all the mayonnaise and fat in that special sauce and how unhappy Momma would be about that. But I would do whatever he asked and make him happy. Besides, it would give me more time to stand there while the server ran to get the sauce, which gave me a better chance at catching a glimpse of Asher.

            The large, heavy wooden door that had been painted red years before I was born was a familiar sight to me. I’d only entered Jack’s through that back door. And only when daddy brought me here. I’d get the food, then pay and leave. I never got to go inside through the front entrance because Daddy didn’t want me in a bar. High school students weren’t served alcohol, but they were allowed inside. Everyone but me because Jack would rat me out.

            Brandon Heely was standing just inside the door with a bag of food I knew was ours. “Hey, Brandon,” I said politely. He’d been working here for years even though he should’ve been off at college by now. But he wasn’t and probably never would be because he preferred to flip burgers at Jack’s and riding his motorcycle around Malroy, pretending to be the badass he wanted to be, but never could be.

            “Hey, Dix, here’s your order.”

            “Thank you,” I replied, reaching forward. “Daddy wants to add some extra special sauce,” I added, praying he had to go to the front to get some from the cooler.

            Brandon chuckled. “This is his third time ordering this week. Jack says your momma has him on a diet. Is that true? Because it ain’t working if you ask me.”

            Third time! Jeez! Daddy! I hadn’t realized he was sneaking off for greasy bar food that often. 

            “Yeah. She’ll eventually give up or catch him.”

            Brandon sounded amused. “Stay right here. I’ll go get the sauce.”

            This was my chance. “Okay.”

            As he turned to walk away, I slowly followed behind him. I crept closer to the swinging door and just when I thought I wasn’t going to see anything before it closed in my face, I caught a glimpse of Asher, standing at the pool table, with a grin on his beautiful lips. His arm was propped on Andrea James, Emily’s older, college age sister. She was leaning against him, enjoying herself and Asher doing the same. She worked here, had to be at least twenty, and like her sister Emily, she was gorgeous and curvy. Now I officially hated her.

            Andrea was in heels, making her almost as tall as Asher. She was leaning in to whisper in his ear when the door closed and blocked my view of them. I slowly backed away. I’d seen enough. I knew Asher was popular with the older girls. He was popular with all the girls, regardless of their age. They all wanted him because he had it all—looks, charm and mystique. But I wanted him for other reasons altogether. Not that it mattered anyway. I was a kid to Asher, one he was following around to keep safe and protect from bullies at school. I was just a charity case to him and I knew that.

            Brandon stepped back through the door with two containers of their famous sauce. “Here you go. Jack said to tell the old man he better not clog his arteries and have your momma up here giving him the what for.”

            I forced a smile. “I will. Thanks, Brandon. Have a good night,” I said, before turning to rush out with our order. I was glad I hadn’t gone with Scarlet. I’d seen enough through that door to last me for months. I didn’t need to see anymore. My heart couldn’t bear it.

            I opened the door and sat the bag on the seat. Daddy pulled the order to the middle to peek inside, while I climbed back in the truck. “You get the extra sauce?”

            “Yes, sir. But three times this week? Seriously? You need to admit that to Momma. Her healthy eating regimen is making you eat even worse. Greasy bar food isn’t meant to be consumed more than once a week, Daddy. And even that’s a lot for you. Enough to kill you.”

            Daddy sighed. “I’d much rather eat your momma’s greasy food, but she’s quit frying stuff.”

            “That’s because she wants you to live a long time. Jack’s cooking won’t do that.”

            “I ain’t gonna fuss with you about this. Your mother gives me enough grief. My granddaddy ate fried food and raw beef up until his ninety-sixth birthday, when he went on to be with the Lord. I’m just fine. Great genetics.”

            My great-granddad had lived a long life and I couldn’t argue with that. I sighed and leaned my head back in my seat. I wanted to think about Asher, torture myself by going over all I’d seen at Jack’s, but I knew I had to turn my thoughts to something else. Anyone else, just not a Sutton boy. Because they all reminded me of Asher. Even the youngest one who appeared part Native American. Their momma looked like that too. The rest were spitting images of their father. My daddy always said, “Vance Sutton reproduced and made twins of himself.”

            Vance Sutton must have been really handsome because he didn’t have one ugly son. They were all striking. They just weren’t all Asher. I really needed to stop thinking about him..

            “Tell me what you want for your birthday next week,” Daddy asked, changing the subject.

            I wanted Asher Sutton to notice that I had boobs and curves now and that I wasn’t a little girl anymore. I wanted Asher Sutton to see me as something more than just a helpless kid who needed him to protect her from bad people. But these were all things that Daddy couldn’t give me. No one could.

            “Put whatever you were going to spend on me in my savings account for a car.”

            Daddy sighed. “How much you got saved? You’ve been working and saving for a couple years now and you still got one more year left. I’d think you had plenty by now. I told you I’d meet you half way. Whatever you save, I’ll equal.”

            I wasn’t sure what I wanted yet. To be safe, I was saving all I could. If I had extra money in the end, I could use it for any problems the car had later on. I didn’t need anything else.

            “I’m saving until I turn sixteen. Right now, the balance on my savings is five thousand even with interest.”

            Daddy released a whistle. “Lord, girl! I’m gonna have to take out a loan to meet you half way at that rate.”

            Of course, he was teasing. I replied, “guess you better start saving too.”

            That brought a deep belly laugh from him. I smiled and inhaled the greasy chicken smell filling the air. I might not have Asher Sutton, but I had a good life, and I was grateful for that.

Chapter Two

Asher Sutton

Momma hadn’t mentioned the doctor wanted to put her on blood pressure medication. I remained calm while Frank Harrod told me how happy he was that she had agreed to take it. He’d gone on and on about how dangerous it was at her age not to treat high blood pressure. Why the fucking hell hadn’t Doc John called me before now to let me know?

I pulled my truck into the gravel driveway outside the farmhouse I’d grown up in and I took a deep breath. I hadn’t been here since Christmas. Even then, my visit had been a short one, I made sure of it. I’d wanted to run away. As far away from here as possible. The memories haunted the hell out of me whenever I got near this place.

A loud banging startled me and I jerked my head around to see Bray grinning at me like a fool. “You are home, motherfucker!” he said, gripping the frame of the door.

Bray was only twelve months younger than me and seeing him smile was rare. Brent, his twin, was the happy one. A grin was always on Brent’s face while Bray normally scowled. Not much excited Bray, which only made me feel even guiltier for staying away so long, seeing him smiling at me like that.

I opened the door and grabbed the bag with the meds I had picked up and intended to force Momma to start taking right away. I couldn’t lose her. There was a lot of fucked up in my life, but my momma was the one person I depended on to be there. I would like to think no one knew I was such a momma’s boy, but the truth was, everyone knew. Then again, it wasn’t just me. All four of my brothers loved our momma. She was our home. We knew as long as she was here in this house, we had a safe place to come back to.

“Don’t look too excited to see me. I’ll think you missed me,” I teased Bray. He then grinned bigger, no longer trying to hide the fact he was pleased to see me home.

“Fuck that. I’m just glad you’re here. ‘Bout time you came back.”

“Holy hell! That can’t be my long-lost brother who thinks he’s too good to come home.” Brent called out from the front porch rail, before swinging his legs above it in one swift move we’d all perfected from our many years of jumping it. When his feet hit the ground, he took several long strides toward me before grabbing and hugging me bearlike.

As glad as Bray had been to see me, he hadn’t been as excited as Brent. He slapped me on the back. “Momma’s gonna be the happiest woman in Malroy,” Brent said.

“No,” Bray drawled. “The happiest woman in Malroy is Jenny Wilson. I spent a good thirty minutes with my head between her legs last night.”

“Dude, fuck, you did not just say that,” Brent replied, shaking his head.

I just chuckled. I missed this. Being away from my family and this place was so damn hard at times. Unable to help myself, I lifted my gaze to scan the yard, looking past it and toward the white picket fence that surrounded the house neighboring ours. I wondered if she was still living at home. If she looked older. . .Fuck, where did that come from? It only happened here, being so close to her. I normally didn’t allow myself these thoughts because they were too dangerous, too destructive, and entirely pointless.

Brent said with his dimpled grin, “Momma’s inside putting up some jam. She won’t allow them strawberries to waste. She’s been at it for two damn days. We’ll have good ol’ strawberry jam with our biscuits all year long.”

“Reckon with you being home, we can coax her to use some of those berries to make us fried pies,” Bray said. “Been craving one of them pies.”

I wanted to talk to Momma alone. This shit with her not taking her medication was serious and I had to fix it. Then, I needed to leave. Run like hell, because at this moment, all I wanted to do was look back toward that white picket fence.

“Where are Steel and Dallas?” I asked Brent as he fell in step beside me walking toward the front porch of the house.

“Uh,” he replied and glanced back at Bray before replying. I knew that look. Something was up. Fuck. I’d been gone too long. What other shit did I need to fix before I could leave again?

“Probably at the feed store,” Brent added. “We were low on some stuff. Steel said he’d go get it. I’m sure Dallas rode with him. The white truck is gone. I don’t see it.” He was lying. His tone always gave him away.

“Motherfucker, you suck at that,” Bray said, shaking his head and walking past us like it was a race. He took the steps two at a time, barging through the front door as if he were in a hurry to get away from everything behind him.

“What am I missing? ‘Cause I’m definitely missing something,” I asked, stopping on the steps, and turning from Brent’s deer in the headlights expression to Bray’s stiff back at my front.

“Just tell ‘im,” Bray said without looking back at us.

Brent didn’t say a word. We all stood there for a moment. The silence was deafening, filling the air with growing tension. I shouted, “if something is wrong with one of them, I need to fucking know.”

Bray dropped his hand from the door and turned to look at me. The hesitation I’d seen on Brent’s face wasn’t on his twin’s. There was an annoyed glare instead. “They’re fine. Everyone is just fucking fantastic. Calm your shit down,” he replied, shifting his gaze from me to the yard at my rear as he sighed. I could see him trying to control his temper, another thing that set the twins apart. Brent didn’t lose his very easily. Hell, you were lucky if you could piss him off. But Bray was a loaded gun. He’d blow the hell up fairly easily and I’d had to bail his ass out of trouble more times than I’d care to admit.

“Where are they?” I asked, looking at Bray.

Bray didn’t look back at me. The muscle in his jaw ticked as he kept his gaze on the yard. He was thinking this through, whatever it was, and though I didn’t like to be kept waiting, I also didn’t want to come home and end up in a brawl in the yard before even giving my momma a hug.

“Steel has been dating Dixie for almost a year,” Bray said. He spoke calmly, but the warning couldn’t be missed. He was protecting our younger brother, without any idea whatsoever what he was protecting him from.

Everything around me started spinning. I grabbed the railing beside me, steadying myself, because this wasn’t happening. I’d left to protect a secret, to protect Dixie. . .but this. . .holy fuck. . .what had I done?

This couldn’t be fucking happening. I’d lost it all, walked through hell for three long years, and I still walked through it daily. Every dream she appeared in reminded me that no one else would ever be enough. Lies had ruined my life. I wouldn’t let them ruin hers too. And I sure as hell wouldn’t let them ruin Steel’s.

“Don’t fuck this up for him. He worships you. Would do anything to please you. But he loves her,” Bray warned me through his glare.

He didn’t know what he was saying. None of them did. No one knew but me. I wasn’t about to lose my shit because I was jealous. I’d learned to live with the jealousy that consumed me anytime I thought of someone touching her.

“Have they. . .” I couldn’t even say it. My throat shut. I wanted to yell at the world, at how cruel it could be. The tightness in my chest and the rage pounding in my veins were emotions I knew all too well. Emotions I shouldn’t be feeling. The mere idea of Dixie with someone else ripped me apart. I’d been living that nightmare for three fucking years, knowing I had no right to be jealous. I felt sick to my stomach that keeping my mouth shut had now led to this. But as horrified as I felt, all I could think about was Steel touching Dixie. . . my own fucking brother.

“Fuck!” I roared, stalking back through the yard, needing distance from everyone present. My heart was pounding so hard I thought it would leap from my chest. The range of emotions churning through me spread like a lightning bolt through my skull. “Motherfucking hell!” I yelled, throwing the bag of my momma’s medication to the ground and grabbing my head with my hands. I felt dizzy, my eyes bugging from the pulse of the pain.

My knees went weak and I let them give way, squatting, resting my elbows on my thighs and holding my head through the pain. I’d run from Malroy to save us both. But while trying to save Dixie from what would haunt me for the rest of my life, I’d left my baby brother unprotected and free to walk into a horrible sin. Holy hell, how could I do this to him now? How could I let him turn into this same shell of a person I’d become?

“Asher?” Momma’s voice rang out loud and clear from the porch. I let my hands fall as I looked up at her. She was standing tall with her apron on and her hands on her hips, staring at me. The pinched look on her face meant she was upset. The stained red spots all over her apron reminded me of happier times. Days when sneaking a strawberry without momma knowing was the only problem I had.

“You two had to go and tell him before he even got in the door? You little shits. I haven’t seen my boy since Christmas and you upset him off the bat!” Momma scolded Bray and Brent before shaking her head and pointing at me. “Get up from there, for God’s sake. You’re too big to act like a five-year-old throwing a temper tantrum. Come see your momma and then tell me why the hell you went and got a prescription that I didn’t ask for in the first place. I’ll make you a fried pie while you explain.” Her tone meant business and we knew that. “And you two,” she added, waving the towel in her hand between the two of them. “Y’all should be ashamed. Ain’t the way to do things!”

I stood, let the numbness wash over me. It was the only way I’d get through this. My own little brother would now pay for my mistake. The gaping hole in my chest grew bigger and bigger. Forcing myself to stop thinking about it for the moment, I picked up the bag of Momma’s meds from the ground and moved toward the house, walking slowly onto the porch and into my momma’s open arms. As her five-foot-seven frame held me tight, tears stung my eyes. I hadn’t cried since the night I realized that I’d lost it all, or more accurately, the night I realized it had never been mine to have. Having Momma hold me made me want to break down like a little kid. But I held it together like the man they all expected me to be.



Four Years Ago. . .

             I liked girls. Better yet, I loved girls. I loved everything about them. The way they smelled, their soft skin, the curve of their bodies, the sound of their laughter. God put girls on this earth to make it a brighter place. I truly believed that.

            The problem with that was that I loved all girls. I wasn’t picky, couldn’t choose just one when there were so many of them to choose from. When they touched my arm, whispered in my ear, promised with their mouths what their bodies would do, I didn’t know how to turn them down.

            Now and then, I got some loving from a girl who thought she’d change me for good. Make me just want her and her alone. But as soon as she realized I wasn’t a one-woman man, all her sugar turned sour, the ugly came out, and I quickly moved on to another. I tried to avoid that kind of girl, but sometimes they snuck through my defenses.

            Andrea James had a hint of sour lurking right under the surface. It was there. I sensed it immediately. She had curves in all the right places and she smelled like a wet dream, but I’d seen that gleam in her eyes before, and I wasn’t willing to chance it. I made my excuses, blamed my momma, said that she needed me home. Not even Andrea James was brave enough to make my momma angry. After that, I headed out the door. Jack’s place was all we had in town. For a good time, that’s where we went. I looked forward to college when a pool hall bar wasn’t the only thing to entertain me.

            “You sure your momma wouldn’t let you stay out a little longer?” Andrea called from the steps in front of Jack’s as I was climbing into my truck.

            I wanted to answer back, “I’m sure she would, but you’ve got that crazy in your eyes I ain’t willing to tangle with.” Being a nice guy and all, I replied, “yeah, I’m sure. Promised I’d help her hang some shelves.” Now that was a lie, but sometimes a lie was needed to save yourself from imminent disaster.

            Shame Andrea James was the crazy sort. Guess I should have figured that out before I let her rub up on me. Her younger sister was a real mean bitch. That I knew for a fact. Once I was told she had been the one harassing Dixie, I made sure that didn’t happen anymore. Dixie was the sweetest kind of girl there was. The kind you looked at, wanted to get closer to, but knew you shouldn’t. She was not the kind of girl you took to your truck. She’d never be that girl.

            I knew I spent too much time watching Dixie. I liked to be near her as much as I could. Dixie smelled sweeter, laughed brighter, talked softer, and her eyes saw deeper than any other girl I knew. It was hard to ignore Dixie Monroe. And if I was younger, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to keep her at an arm’s length. But I wasn’t younger, I was three years older than her, and had no business looking her way. Instead, I let myself enjoy little innocent tastes of her. Small moments spent in Dixie’s company. That was enough for me. And like always, just before I turned down the dirt road, the one that led to my house, I glanced over toward Dixie’s home. This was one of my little tastes of her. Because sometimes I saw nothing, but sometimes I saw glimpses of her life, glimpses of her, and I couldn’t look away.

            Tonight, I was lucky. The full moon and the front porch light illuminated her house and yard. And Dixie sat there on the bottom step of her porch, her feet bare and her knees tucked beneath her chin, her head turning in my direction as I drove past her. Although it was too far to see the reaction on her face, I knew she recognized my truck. And she didn’t look away.        

            Bray swore Dixie had a crush on me. He’d been saying that for years. I didn’t know why as Steel was her age and he was popular in their grade. I knew that if she showed any interest in him, he’d jump at the opportunity to make her his.

            Something made me stop the truck in the middle of the road, put it in park, and look back at Dixie Monroe. I knew that pulling into her drive and walking to her wasn’t a good idea. I wanted to join her, to hear her laugh and watch her smile, to simply be near her for a little while, but I knew better.

            Instead, I chose to sit here in my truck. Let my presence communicate all I couldn’t say. That I saw her. That I wished things were different. But for both our sakes, it was best that I stayed in my truck. I was too old for her. And nothing could change that.

            I figured one day, once we were both adults, the three years between us wouldn’t matter anymore. But would she be in love by then? Maybe planning on marrying someone from around here. Or would she go off to college and meet a guy there? Would we ever get a chance? I didn’t like thinking I’d never get one.

            Dixie’s gaze was locked on my truck. I remained parked on that dirt road, opening my door and stepping out of the truck to lean against it. With nothing between us but darkness and only moonlight making me visible to her, I crossed my arms over my chest, and just watched her back.

            For once, I let my thoughts drift to all the “what ifs” I never allowed my mind to entertain. I wondered what Dixie was thinking in that moment. She didn’t move and she didn’t look away. Many girls had tried to change me, but I knew that only Dixie was the girl I’d change for. The only girl I’d ever need.

            When she stood, her sudden movement jerked me from my thoughts. Our watching game was over. I’d wanted her to stay there longer. Make this moment between us last for as long as it could. But I knew it shouldn’t, as innocent as it had been.

            For a second, I thought she was going to walk to me. Part of me wished she would, although I had no idea what I would say if she did. Words weren’t necessary during this perfect moment between us. But she didn’t come to me. She just raised her hand, gave me a little wave, and walked inside her house without looking back at me. I waited until her bedroom light came on, and only then got back in my truck and drove off. Something happened between us that night, something shifted, and even though no words were exchanged, we both knew things would never be the same.