Authors: Tammy L. Gray
he was in hell and this was her penance for trying to have something she knew she didn’t deserve. Her footsteps dragged across the dry grass, dread clasping her throat as the distance between her and her old friend lessened.
Asher wouldn’t go away. He walked step by step beside her, inching closer to her as they moved in tandem.
Those boxes she had so precisely separated—her past, her future, her mistakes—all had been dumped together in her front yard, with Laila as the centerpiece.
Laila Parker had been her best friend from the time she could walk. They’d spent every summer, every weekend, and every pre-date shopping trip together. And yet they hadn’t spoken a word since Katie took off in the middle of the night.
Her old friend stood next to a man Katie didn’t recognize, looking exactly like she did so many years ago. Black shorts and a side-tied Joe’s Bar T-shirt. Long blonde hair braided over her shoulder. Only a hint of makeup. The man had his hand around Danielle, one of Laila’s coworkers, and each time the girl moved, the hand inched closer to her backside.
She should have known Cooper would attack with his entire arsenal. That was what he did. What both of them did. Rip each other to shreds.
Piper draped over him like a sloth on a tree, but he only responded to his clingy girlfriend when Katie met his eyes. Sickening. Piper was one more casualty. One more person destroyed by the dysfunction of their relationship. Cooper didn’t want Piper any more than Katie wanted them standing in her front yard.
Once she’d finally made it past the end of Asher’s property, squeals filled the air as Danielle rushed forward and tackled her with a hug that smelled like cheap perfume and Jäger shots.
Danielle jumped on her four-inch heels while her too-short skirt rode up her legs. She didn’t acknowledge Asher, except for a dismissive glance.
“I can’t believe you’re back! Cooper said you were. He said if you wouldn’t come to the party willingly, we’d drag you there. Where have you been?”
“I’ve been helping my parents.”
“All work and no play makes for no fun at all,” Danielle crooned. “So, girl, we are kidnapping you tonight. Don’t even try and say no. Joe’s is ready to go with at least fifty people. We just need our honored guest!” Danielle giggled until she tripped, and Katie had to practically hold her up. “And dang, girl, you look like some rich hoity-toity. I’m almost afraid to touch you.” She fingered Katie’s top. “Is this silk?”
Embarrassment flushed Katie’s cheeks. Asher was seeing her life firsthand. Seeing the crowd she’d hung in. Seeing what she used to think was fun and exciting.
They stopped in front of Cooper, whose smile was as confrontational as it was victorious. “Hey, Firecracker. I heard your daddy was out of town tonight.” His eyes flickered from her outraged ones to something behind her. “We both know what you like to do when given a little freedom.” He pushed Piper away while Katie tried to detangle from Danielle’s obnoxious embrace.
Katie’s heart drummed a rapid beat, and a cold sweat broke out over her body, leaving her trembling palms clammy. Asher and Cooper slowly approached each other, and although Asher stood a good three inches taller than Cooper, Katie knew he could never compete physically with him. Cooper was a street kid, raised to take a licking and keep on fighting, the dirtier the better.
“Cooper.” Her tone was a warning.
“Chill out, babe, I’m just introducing myself to your
.” He said it like a curse at the same time he offered a hand to her neighbor. “Cooper Myles. I’m the ex.”
Asher didn’t miss a beat, nor did he seem intimidated or thrown. He wore the same casual smile she seen him display in church or with her parents. “Asher Powell.” He glanced at her only a second before adding, “The neighbor.”
“That’s right, you’re the preacher’s kid.” Cooper’s feigned surprise made Katie want to punch his arm. He’d known exactly who Asher was before he ever pulled into the driveway.
Movement to her right pulled her attention away from the guys and onto Laila.
She should say something. This was her friend, her only real support for years. But she had no idea how to reconcile who she used to be with the person she was now. Or how to begin to apologize for what she’d done.
Cooper’s voice boomed throughout the yard, and judging by his focus on her, the excessive volume was intentional. “If they let ole Katie through the doors, I ought to get my own ticket to heaven. Compared with this one, I should get mine lined with gold and maybe an emerald or two.”
She flinched, his gut punch quick and effective.
“It doesn’t work that way,” Asher said, hands in his pockets, shoulders relaxed as if they were talking about the weather.
“Really?” Cooper laughed into the air and reached for an eager Piper. “Dollface, we’re about to get evangelized. Come on, preacher boy, give it your best shot. I guarantee better men have tried and failed.”
“Just like old times, isn’t it?” Laila’s raspy, feminine voice was one of a kind, and it made Katie’s heart pound against her chest. “Two guys sizing each other up. Cooper marking his territory like a dog on the loose.”
“There’s nothing to mark. I’m not the same person I used to be.” This shouldn’t be how they talked after all these years. Not with Cooper dropping hints about the ring and Danielle lining shots up on the hood of the truck.
“Oh, girl. We both know that isn’t true.” Laila’s sarcasm came with an icy stare. This wasn’t the girl Katie had known most of her life. This one was lethal, bitter, angry.
Katie suddenly felt dizzy. Too many important conversations were happening around her, and she couldn’t follow any of them. Danielle was squealing, declaring the shots were almost ready. Cooper was harassing Asher, who brushed off every insult with a quick response. And Katie could feel Laila’s hatred. It poured from her voice like lava.
“Cooper finally told me what happened that night.”
Her stomach cramped. “What do you mean?”
“Don’t play stupid with me. The ring. The drugs. Chad. Every stupid, idiotic choice you made. He told me.”
A continual pressure built in Katie’s chest with each horrible word. Cooper had actually done it. He’d said he would. He’d threatened and threatened her. She’d been stupid to think he wouldn’t. That he felt as responsible as she did.
“I didn’t know he’d take them.” Katie could hardly breathe, let alone speak.
Tears pooled in Laila’s eyes. She opened her mouth to speak but no words came. Then, as one tear after another slid down her cheek, she barely choked out, “I hate you.”
Laila stared at the ground, her right hand toying with her very bare ring finger. “No, you don’t. You don’t know anything about what these last four years have done to me.”
Katie didn’t respond. What could she say? It was true. She’d left and never looked back. She’d wanted to forget. Wanted to erase everything about that night.
“I used to admire your ability to detach from anyone at any time. No one ever hurt you. No one ever penetrated that cold heart of yours.” Laila’s tension came into her, charging the atoms in the air between them. “But only because I thought I was different. I thought I mattered more.”
Katie swallowed the fire in her throat. “You did.”
“Do you have any idea how much I needed you? We swore we’d never abandon each other, and you just left me here.”
Because Katie couldn’t have faced her. She couldn’t face anyone. It was a month before she called a soul. And even then, it was only a message left on her dad’s voicemail so he knew she wasn’t dead.
Cooper was like a shark that could sense blood in the water. “You girls okay there? It’s looking pretty intense.” He cuddled Piper to him. “It’s supposed to be a party, remember?”
Laila followed Cooper over to the shot glasses. She wasn’t cruel by nature, but the devil would’ve shown more mercy than Laila did as she picked up the shot glass and unceremoniously toasted her. A threat? A promise? Katie had no idea.
A hand on her back made her jump.
“I’m fine. Please, just go home.”
Before they tell you too. Before everything is ruined.
“Don’t.” There was an unfamiliar edge to his voice. Irritated and tight, just like his features.
With her free hand, Laila offered Katie her own glass. “Come on. You love this, remember? My first shot was at your house. What were we, fourteen?” She pointed to Katie’s window. “Right up there with Chad and . . . what was his name? Oh yeah, Eric. A night of many firsts.”
Everyone else grabbed their shots, leaving only two. Katie’s and Asher’s.
Danielle’s boy toy gestured to the lonely glasses. “Come on, Katie. I’ve heard you can outdrink men twice your size.”
“No thanks.” She couldn’t swallow that shot if she tried. They’d all come to humiliate her. And she could have taken it—she probably deserved it—if Asher hadn’t been standing right there hearing every word.
Cooper smirked. “What about you, preacher boy? Or will Daddy get all hot and bothered?”
“It’s Asher,” he answered. “And I’m good.”
Laila offered him a coy farm-girl smile, the one that sent most men to their knees. “He’s a cutie, Katie. Well done for only having a couple of months on the prowl. And to convince him you’re clean and a good girl now? That’s impressive, even for you.” She leaned forward, training her eyes on Asher’s. “Here’s a little secret, though:
she’s a liar
Cooper laid a hand on Laila’s shoulder, pulling her back and silencing her at the same time. He lifted his glass, and his gaze drilled into Katie’s. “A toast to Mary Blanchard.”
Katie shook her head, her hands trembling so uncontrollably that she could feel their quiver in her knees. “Don’t do this.” She was pure rage. Pulsing, aching. Her chest vibrated with energy. Her hands clenched and unclenched.
“Mary Blanchard,” he continued with his glass raised. “Sweet, God-fearing old woman who only made one mistake. She trusted the wrong person. Trusted Katie with her home, her health, even the key to her most valuable possessions.” He stepped forward, stopped only a foot from Katie.
Blood pounded in her ears, her head, her eyes. “Shut up,” she warned.
His lips curved. “And here’s to Katie.” His words came slowly, each one intended to encourage her restraint to crumble. “The ring-stealing junkie who ruined everyone’s life.”
With a guttural curse, Katie attacked like a rabid animal, giving Asher only a split second to step aside before Cooper’s shot glass shattered at his feet. Laila jumped out of the way. The red-headed girl cried Cooper’s name.
Katie punched, kicked, clawed, and hollered obscenities, the high-pitched stream of hate echoing across the air.
Asher grabbed her waist and pulled her off her ex-boyfriend, whose arms were busy protecting his face. She thrashed like a wild two-year-old, making it nearly impossible for him to contain her and still prepare for a counterattack.
But Cooper only stood straight, wiping a trail of blood coming from his bottom lip.
Katie surged for another round, and Asher wrapped his free arm around her chest, locking her arms down to her sides. “Stop,” he hissed in her ear.
It was enough to break through her madness. She stilled, her chest heaving in and out against his grip while she glared at the man in front of her. The man who was now smiling like he’d won a war.
He came closer, and Asher pulled her back.
“There’s my Firecracker.” Cooper’s voice was low and intimate, and it challenged Asher the way no fist ever could. Cooper placed his hands on his knees, came nose to nose with the woman in Asher’s arms. “I knew you were still in there.”
Katie deflated, and Asher needed the same strength it took to keep her from attacking to keep her on her feet. Asher backed toward the house while the group quietly loaded into their trucks. The air was hollow. Silent. As if the earth had stopped spinning for a finite moment in time.
The rear truck backed out of the drive and Cooper’s soon followed, honking twice as he departed.
Katie wiggled out of Asher’s hold, walked over to her new front steps, and dropped straight down. She sat, her arms limp between her knees, as if she’d witnessed carnage. She didn’t speak, and her gaze fixated on the place where she’d just completely lost her mind.
Asher ran a hand down his face, his arms rubbery from the strength it had taken to hold her back. Words bombarded his mind. Mary Blanchard. He knew her. She had been his mother’s widow for February and had come to lunch twice.
Katie’s face was a blank mask. What had been raw emotion only minutes ago was now a chasm of nothing. He laced his hands on top of his head and paced, waiting for her to do something. Say something, anything, to explain how ten minutes could annihilate their world so completely.
The silence grew, as did his temper. “What just happened?” he demanded.
Nothing. Not a blink. Not a sigh. Not even a breath.
She had told him it wouldn’t work between them. His dad had warned him that he had no idea of the depth of Katie’s wounds. Heck, he’d heard Cooper and her fighting before. So why was he so stunned? Why was he ready to pound his fist into the nearest tree and dig out his shotgun?