“If you ever walk in that door again without being invited in, I will take off this belt and beat your ass. Do you understand me?” His voice was a little less than a roar. I didn’t understand him at all. He’d not even acknowledged my turtle. So I held it up higher. Until my elbows were over my head. “But I found a turtle!” I exclaimed, thinking he had somehow missed this information.

My father reached in my hand and took the turtle from it, then tossed it out the open window behind his desk. “There. Go find the damn thing and stay out of my office.”

I never did find my turtle.

And I never called him Dad or Father again.

The man behind that door I hated. I knew he hated me equally, and it wasn’t until much later that I had understood his hate. One day I’d demand my mother tell me my real father’s name. I wanted to carry that last name. I no longer cared about the name that held power in this small southern town. I wouldn’t live here much longer. When I graduated, I’d take my money and leave. Never to return.

Except maybe to throw a party the day of that man’s funeral.

The kitchen already smelled like muffins, bacon, and coffee when I entered it. My parents never came to the kitchen to get food. They would sit at the table in the dining room, and Ms. Ames would serve them their meal. I, however, had started eating in here with Willa when we were kids. I liked it better at the small, round table that was always set whenever I walked in.

“Morning, boy,” Ms. Ames said with real affection in her voice. “’Bout time you got down here. You’re gonna be late. I put your coffee in a travel mug, and here’s your two blueberry muffins and a few slices of bacon. Don’t eat and drive. Just eat it quick before you go.”

I was in a bigger hurry than she realized. I had to get Willa and get us both to school on time. “I’ll eat in first period,” I told her, taking the food and coffee from her hands.

She frowned but nodded. “Okay then. You drive safe.”

“Will do,” I assured her.

My mother wouldn’t wake for another two hours. It was a blessing. Having to face her before I’d had coffee every morning would suck. I never saw the man in the office, and I liked to keep it that way. One of the reasons I never showed for family meals. I told Mom that dinner in the kitchen was easier on my schedule for football and homework. It was complete bullshit, but for the most part it worked.

“Willa doing okay at school? You seen her?”

“She’s doing just fine from what I’ve seen, but I’ll watch out for her,” I replied, then hurried out the door. I wanted time with Willa, and the more I wasted in the house chatting up her nonna the less I’d have on my ride to school with her.

She made me remember a happier time. A simple, easy friendship I no longer knew. I wanted it back. Being with her hadn’t just been easy, it had made me feel good. It still did. My chest felt lighter, and I looked forward to being around her. No one calmed me and excited me at the same time the way Willa did.

I took a long swig of my coffee and let it burn my throat on the way down before starting my truck and making my way to Ms. Ames’s house the long way in case anyone was watching.

Willa was outside at the end of her driveway, with the brown backpack she carried on one shoulder and a bottle of water in her other hand. Her blond hair was dancing in the breeze as the early morning sun illuminated her. She really was gorgeous. It sucked that I needed her friendship too much to ruin it by getting to put my hands on her.

I stopped beside her and watched as she climbed inside and looked at my uneaten muffin and three slices of bacon on the napkin on my seat. Her hand reached out, and she snatched a slice, then took a bite before smiling at me. “Next time get her to give you more. She expects me to eat cereal since she leaves so early.”

I’d keep that in mind. “You can have the muffin. I’ve already eaten one of them. But leave me the rest of the bacon.”

She took a muffin and began eating like she was starving. I wasn’t sure a girl had ever eaten like that in front of me. Most didn’t eat in front of me at all, or in front of any guys for that matter.

“Ms. Ames starving you this week?” I asked, amused.

She nodded, then smiled. “I have a high metabolism, and I require food.”

“Someone needs to tell your nonna then. She should be sending you off with more than cereal for breakfast.”

She shrugged. “Why would I do that if I have you to smuggle it out to me from the big house? Y’all get the good stuff.”

I knew she meant the more expensive meals. My mother required uppity healthy shit that cost money and was bought at that organic grocery in Franklin. “Fine. I’ll keep you fed. But you owe me. I’ll collect when the time is right.”

She laughed, and although it didn’t fully touch her eyes, it was definitely a laugh. Something I wanted to hear more of. Willa had a really good laugh.

I Don’t Drink Alcohol

CHAPTER 15

BRADY

Taking Ivy to Asa’s birthday party didn’t help how she viewed our relationship. It also didn’t give me the opportunity to spend time with Willa. Who had shown up with Gunner. Not that they had stayed together. Gunner had taken off to the woods with Serena a few minutes ago, and Willa was currently talking to Maggie and West. Maggie appeared to like Willa, as did the birthday boy, who kept moving toward her wherever she went. Damn horny-ass Asa.

Maybe I could get Maggie to invite Willa over so I could have time alone with her that Gunner couldn’t interrupt. He said he wanted friendship. I didn’t believe him, but I think he thought that was all he wanted. He just didn’t realize yet he wanted Willa like I did. I was just ready to face it. I was interested in getting to know the girl she’d become. When we were kids, I’d had a crush on her simply because she was different. Most girls I knew wouldn’t get dirty playing ball or go looking for lizards. She’d been fascinating to me as a kid. Now that she was all grown up, she was still different but beautiful. Willa was like this untouched flower that everyone wanted to see and get close to.

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