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Even in her dreams, the place she was supposed to find peace, she was still falling apart.

She deserved more, more than this world had given her. She deserved happiness more than anyone else out there. I hated that life had been so hard for someone so good. I hated that bad things swallowed the heart of the most graceful woman.

I hated that I couldn’t fix her cracks that night.

She just deserved so much more.

* * *

We stayed in bed longer than we should’ve, and I held her body against mine longer than I’d planned. She was still sleeping, her breaths weaving in and out as her chest rose and fell against me. I hadn’t even noticed it until it happened, my lips falling against her forehead. She’d spent the previous night broken, telling me about her darkest days, and as she spoke, I knew she was reliving each moment.

Emerson, Jamie, Karla, Steven…

The children she never got to hold, the lives she craved so much, the souls who’d said goodbye before they ever had a hello.

I couldn’t imagine her pain. I couldn’t imagine her hurts.

All I could do was hold her and hope my touch was enough to help her through those memories. If ever there was a woman who deserved to be a mother, it was Grace.

The world was selfish, unjust. How could so many undeserving people be given the opportunity to raise children they didn’t even want while so many worthy individuals didn’t get the chance?

She shifted a bit and snuggled closer as a yawn left her lips.

“I slept over,” she whispered.

“You did,” I replied.

“I’m sorry. I know the rules.” She sat up and stretched. “I’ll get going.”

“Or well…”

“What is it?” she asked, looking over her shoulder. Her hair was a mess, and I wasn’t certain how she could get any more beautiful.

“Are you all right? After last night?”

She turned my way and gave me a tired smile. “I’m always all right.”

“Yeah, I know…but if you’re not, you can…” Stay. You can stay with me. “I mean, if you ever need someone to talk to, I’m here.”

Her eyes softened before she broke her stare away from mine. “Careful, Jackson,” she whispered, raking her fingers through her hair. “Summer’s almost over, and you shouldn’t make my heart skip like that. Now, come on,” she said, sitting on the edge of the bed beside me. “Say something less sweet. Say something mean to me.”

“I don’t want to say anything mean.”

“Yes, but if we are going to keep things going, we need to balance out the nice moments with some mean ones. Say anything. Think of something nice you’d like to tell me, and just say the opposite.”

“All right. I think you’re the ugliest person I’ve ever seen. Your face reminds me of a garbage can, and every time you leave, I’m happy you’re gone.”

She leaned in closer and rested her forehead against mine. “Oh,” she said softly. “So the truth is the opposite of that?”

I nodded slightly. “The opposite is the truth.”

“Jackson Emery?” She shut her eyes.

“Yes?” I shut mine.

“My heart’s doing that skipping thing again.”

“Well, maybe that’s okay, you know? Maybe sometimes hearts have to skip in order to keep beating.”

“Can I stay a few more minutes?” she asked, her voice shaky and unsure.

“Yes, and then you can stay a few more after that.”

I wrapped her in my hold, and we lay back down on the bed. The way she melted into me made my mind fog up, but I didn’t mind. I hadn’t felt this way in so long—intimate, protective. I wanted to protect her from the world, from her hurts, from her pain, yet also, selfishly, I just wanted to keep her close to me. I wanted to feel her against my skin, against my lips, against my chest. I wanted to feel her in my heart…

My heart…

Damn my heart.

I didn’t know it still knew how to beat.



“You guys, this is stupid!” Judy complained as Hank and I sat across from her in their living room. “I just don’t think this is a good idea, and the timing is all wrong. Mama and Daddy are already doing so much, and they are as busy as ever. I think this is just silly,” she whined, pulling on the hem of her dress.

“Judith Rae, I swear to God if you try to back out of this now, I’m going to kick you so hard you’ll land in California. Now, come on, do it again,” I ordered, sitting on the couch beside Hank as my sister stood with a stack of paper her hands.

“But...” She frowned and bit her fingernails.

Hank stood, walked toward her, and took her hands in his. “Babe, look at me. You are the best woman I’ve ever known, and you are the best preacher I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to, okay? You deserve this chance, and I can promise you there ain’t no way we are going to let you pass it up, okay? Now focus. You got this. You can do this.”