Authors: Tammy L. Gray
OTHER WORKS BY TAMMY L. GRAY
Waves of Summer
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2016 by Tammy L. Gray
All rights reserved.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version
. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotation marked (NIV) is taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version
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Cover design by Jason Blackburn
To my wonderful brother, Josh.
For loving us all unconditionally, for being a Godly husband and father in your home, for teaching me the power of compassion, and for being one of my best friends.
I’m so honored to call you family.
he Fairfield water tower loomed over Katie’s regrets like a guard she had to sneak past. She was almost home. Eight point two miles away, to be exact. Two of those miles stretched through the heart of downtown, where her past sins were as vast as the Atlantic Ocean.
She wished it were true that time healed all wounds. But time held no real power. If absolution were that simple, she’d have come back to Georgia long ago and not waited until her father’s plea had forced her out of hiding.
Katie swung her car into the parking lot of her old haunt, the service station on the corner of Main and the highway. She needed a hit of caffeine and chocolate before facing her hometown, and it was now or never.
A bell dinged as she entered, but no one acknowledged her, not even the store clerk who talked on her cell with her back to the door. Relief stretched through Katie’s stiff, car-trapped muscles, even though she knew her anonymity would be short-lived. Eventually, everyone in Fairfield would know she’d come home. They’d dissect why, add their own dose of juicy gossip, and discuss her return until they had an explanation as monstrous as Katie’s reputation. But this time there was no power play or grand finale planned. She simply wanted to do the right thing for once in her life.
A deep voice said hello from the other side of the snack aisle. Katie wandered along, her eyes lingering on a chocolate bar and pretzels before glancing up. To her relief, she didn’t recognize the middle-aged trucker who was grabbing two bags of chips. She returned his greeting with a nod and went back to her browsing.
ushered her trembling legs along, away from the next customer. Soon she was nicely hidden in back, where three large coolers held everything from beer to bottled coffee. This place was busier than she remembered. But that didn’t surprise her. A lot changed in four years.
Two more patrons entered, the bell reverberating twice as they came in one after the other. She inhaled deeply to calm her sudden nervous adrenaline and focused on choosing a drink she could actually swallow. Returning home suddenly felt much easier in theory than in practice. There was too much history here. Too many loose ends.
The decision that had felt so concrete just four days ago now faltered in her mind. She’d thought one selfless act would allow her to heal. That maybe coming here, helping her parents, would somehow diminish the growing mountain of guilt. But even these faded walls and archaic fuel pumps held reminders of the girl she used to be. The girl she’d spent the last several years trying to forget.
“Well, look at this. My Firecracker has finally found her way home.”
Katie gripped the edge of the chilly refrigerator door and focused on not letting her legs buckle. Cooper Myles’s presence here was a cruel, sick, horrible joke. Of course he’d be the first one in town she talked to; that was her luck. Or maybe her deserved penance for daring to start over.
She shut the cooler and held the Dr Pepper bottle like a shield in front of her chest, knowing the coming confrontation was inevitable. Cooper wasn’t the kind of guy who would be dismissed.
“Hey, it’s been a while.” The words were acid on her tongue. Four years hadn’t lessened the animosity she felt toward him, nor had they erased her memories of their life together. The dysfunction. The brutality. The poor choices. And ultimately the weekend that sent her fleeing from Fairfield in the first place.
She tucked her free hand into the back pocket of her shorts and met his familiar dark eyes. Most men would have taken a second to peruse her body, examine how much it had changed since they’d last seen her. But Cooper was too calculated for such a cliché move. He kept his gaze steady, a laser into hers.
He hadn’t changed much. His hair was still in need of a good cut, and his mouth still wore that infuriating smirk that attempted to be both condescending and charming. But he’d aged. Lines cut around his eyes, and his skin had a weathered look from his working outside in the hot Georgia sun.
She eyed the distance between his massive body and the edge of the narrow aisle he blocked.
As if he could read her mind, he broadened his stance and cut off the little space that remained. “‘A while’? It’s been years, Katie. I almost didn’t recognize you.”
Of course he didn’t. She’d stopped dyeing her hair jet black and had cut at least five inches off the length. She also wasn’t wearing frayed booty shorts and a ticked-off expression. Well, she hadn’t been scowling, not until Cooper cornered her.
He reached out to touch her natural, more traditional locks of hair, and she flinched. Physically, he’d never hurt her, but the man knew how to throw an emotional right hook that could knock a person down for days.
He dropped his hand. “Where have you been?” The chill in his voice came after a jump in his jaw.
“I went to Jacksonville for a while. Then Tallahassee.”
“You should have called.”
“I had nothing to say to you.” She took a breath. Her face felt hot, the skin beneath her bra straps damp and itchy. Standing there, Katie felt twenty-two and stupid all over again. Condensation from her drink dripped down over her fingers. She switched hands and wiped the water off on her clothes.
“Maybe I had things to say to you. Maybe all of us did.”
When she refused to respond, he relaxed his voice. “So, what brings you home after all this time?” His disingenuous attempt to sound concerned made the hairs on the back of her neck bristle.
“Just visiting my parents.”
He tugged on the edge of his T-shirt as if he needed to do something with his hands. The front was splotched with dirt and he reeked of sweat and wood shavings, echoes from a day spent at the fencing factory where he worked with her father. At least, that’s where he used to work, before she left him.
“So that’s it? You just walk back into town like you hadn’t run off in the middle of the night? No one’s seen or heard from you in four years. You didn’t even have the courtesy to tell me good-bye.”
Done with niceties, Katie met his eyes with a cold stare. “Don’t rewrite history. You and I both know it was over.”
“It was a fight.”
No. It was an apocalypse.
Familiar rage grew in her belly. She needed space. Needed to get away from everything this man represented in her life. She inched forward. “Can you move? I’d like to pay for this now.”
He didn’t budge, and she wasn’t surprised. Cooper was two hundred pounds of stubbornness and had controlled her for most of their two-year relationship. But she wasn’t that messed-up girl anymore.
Frustration touched his eyes. “We all did things we regret that night.” His chin dipped, and even though she sensed his simmering temper, he kept his voice mild. “I see no reason we can’t talk about it like mature adults.”
She could give him a million reasons, one being that his proximity was making her nauseated. “I’ve changed, Cooper. I’m not the same girl you remember.”
“Nobody really changes. They just adapt.” He took another suffocating step toward her and placed a hand at the top of the metal shelf above her shoulder. “I know you, better than you know yourself. You need a rush. You need an outlet for all that pent-up aggression you have inside. That fire is what sucked me in all those years ago.”
Bile crept up her throat as she remembered the “rush” that blew up her old life. “I told you I’m different now. Please, get out of my way.”
Katie immediately regretted her words. Cooper loved a challenge, and his slow smile proved she’d just issued one. He stepped aside, but it didn’t feel like a victory.
“I’ll see you soon, Firecracker. I bet you get bored before the end of the week. We both know you don’t have it in you to play the good girl.”
She somehow made it past him without slamming her fist into his gut and tried to ignore the name she hadn’t heard in forever.
He was right. She’d been wild. The first to try anything, go anywhere, and do whatever made her forget her loneliness. But no matter how far she chased that elusive peace, she never found it. Not until four months ago when she stepped into a church next to Tallahassee’s women’s shelter and Reverend Snow told her it wasn’t too late. Even for someone like her.
Still clutching her drink, Katie walked past the chips and the candy bar she’d originally considered but now couldn’t stomach the thought of eating. She’d have kept going past the red exit light if it weren’t for the soda in her hand and her sheer determination not to let Cooper know he bothered her.
At the counter, she cursed her nonexistent luck. Did she have to know everyone in this town? Missy Baker snapped her gum with disinterest until she recognized the new, milder Katie, then hung her mouth open, exposing the pink blob.
“OMG! Katie Stone. How are you?” Missy squealed and ran around the counter to give Katie a bone-crushing hug. Missy was the youngest of three girls. Katie had gone to high school with her eldest sister, Maebry, and the two of them had spent many days together in detention.
“I’m good. How are you? You’re graduating this year, right?”
Missy slumped before her. “Ugh. Yes. Don’t know how I’ll ever make it.”
“You will. It’s only a month away.” Katie handed Missy the drink, wishing the girl would move faster. She could practically feel Cooper staring at her.
“I guess. You were so smart to get out of this town, but I swear, with you gone, it’s been all kinds of boring. Course, now that you’re home, I’m guessing things are going to get much more colorful.” Missy continued to chat as she rang up the soft drink, but Katie stopped listening.
Beyond the windows, the sky darkened to dusk, just like her hope of things being different this time around. There was way too much history in this little town, and her younger self had left a black mark, not easily erased. TP-ing the mayor’s house, getting high right before her senior presentation, skinny-dipping in the lake, protesting at city hall when they proposed making Fairfield a dry city. She’d always found some way to buck the system or cause a scene.
“How long you stayin’?”
Katie snapped her attention back to Missy and handed her a five-dollar bill. “Not sure yet.” At the rate things were going, she’d be hightailing it out of there tomorrow.
A big tan hand slapped a twenty on the counter, and Cooper’s chest pressed against her arm. “I think Katie needs a reminder of life in Fairfield, starting tonight at Joe’s Bar.” His eyes drilled hers. “Think how surprised Laila’s going to be when I give her the news that our girl has come home.”
Missy giggled and nodded like a bobblehead doll. “Laila and Katie together again. I can’t wait to call Maebry. She’s going to die when I tell her.”
Katie shifted left until her elbow bumped a tower of Budweiser cases, her former best friend’s name lingering in the air like a phantom. She’d tucked Laila’s memory away, kept it locked inside the dusty corners of her mind.
Cooper hadn’t changed. His words were still harsh and calculated. He wanted her to remember. Wanted her to hurt.
Without taking his eyes off Katie, he slid the money to Missy. “Pump six, dollface.”
Katie looked away, not bothering to mention he’d cut in line.
Or that he’d ripped the scab off her greatest emotional wound.
Hot breath touched her ear, and her skin went cold. “Your key still works, Firecracker. I’ll be home all night.” He strolled out the door, a victorious beat to his stride, as if running into her were the spark of a new beginning.
But leaving Fairfield was supposed to be the end, a closed chapter she never intended to reopen. She’d left home a broken, bitter girl, searching for answers, and finally, over the last few months, had become someone she was actually starting to like.
Defeated, Katie pushed open the glass doors and walked to her rusty old Toyota in the parking lot. She hadn’t even crossed the city line and already the positive transformation she’d worked so hard to make was unraveling. She had thought she was ready. But she’d only been high on wishful thinking.
It would take a miracle for her to get a second chance in her hometown.