My life would be full of adventure. It was my life plan. I would never stay tied down to one girl. I’d travel, see the world, and get the hell out of Lawton. Never love anyone and never get hurt again.

When I reached my room, I glanced back down the hall to my mother’s bedroom. She and my father didn’t share a room. They never had. At least in my lifetime. Maybe once, when the house was new, they had. I wasn’t sure nor did I care to know. Her door was closed, and I knew she wouldn’t check to see if I was home safely. Because she didn’t care. Neither of them did. The only person who cared about me was me. Sure, I’d like to think Ms. Ames did, but the older I got, the more I disappointed her. It was only a matter of time before she hated me too.

I was okay with that. I knew I could always trust myself. That was all I needed. The rest of them could all go to hell.

I Was on a Sinking Ship

CHAPTER 3

WILLA

I was almost back to the cottage from my evening walk to go see if the tree house was still there when I heard leaves crunch behind me. I froze.

“Hey,” a male voice called. “What are you doing here? This is private property and that house isn’t yours.”

My heart sped up as I tried to put the faint memory I had of a young boy’s voice to the deeper voice I was hearing behind me. Could it be Gunner? And was I ready to face him?

“You better speak up or I’m calling the police,” the guy warned.

I’d seen the headlights coming down the mile-long drive that led to the Lawtons’ house a few minutes ago. They had slowed, and I thought then that I might have to explain myself. I wasn’t sure who knew I was back here. Had my nonna told anyone yet? From the sound of his voice, I was thinking my presence was still a secret.

The door opened to the cottage and my nonna appeared. Our eyes met, and then she glanced over my head to the guy behind me. I saw her face soften before she smiled. “Thank you, Brady, for watching out for me, but Willa belongs here. She’s moved back to live with me for a while. You remember Willa. Y’all played together as kids.”

Brady Higgens. I wished I could remember his face more clearly. The only feeling that I did remember was the flutter in my stomach when he was near me. Slowly I turned around to see the kid from my youth who had played such an important part.

The soft glow from the porch light touched his face, and my breath caught a little. The beautiful boy I’d left behind was tall, muscular, and even more perfect than he’d been when we were eleven. His gaze was locked on mine, and I couldn’t seem to form words. I wanted to look away, but then I never wanted to stop looking at him either. It was completely confusing.

“Willa?” His voice was a husky sound that made me shiver.

I nodded. I didn’t trust myself to speak just yet. All those silly butterflies he’d caused as a kid were back and more intense.

A smile broke across his face as he took a step toward me. He looked happy, pleased, and something else. Something that I understood. Something that as much as I liked it, I knew I couldn’t act on it—he looked interested.

“Willa, come on inside, now.” Nonna’s voice was stern and held no room for argument. “Thank you again, Brady, for checking up on me. You get yourself home now so Coralee don’t worry about you.”

I tore my gaze off him and hurried up the steps, keeping my head down so I wouldn’t have to meet my nonna’s eyes. She had noticed that look in his eyes too. And she didn’t trust me. No one did.

If Brady only knew, he wouldn’t have looked at me that way.

“Anytime, Ms. Ames. Y’all have a good night,” he called out. I kept walking to the bedroom that belonged to me.

I didn’t want to hear the lecture to stay away from Brady that I knew was coming. When the front door clicked shut, I cringed and grabbed for my bedroom door.

“Not so fast.” Nonna’s voice stopped me, and I wanted to growl in frustration. I didn’t need her to tell me what I already knew. “Brady Higgens is a good boy, Willa. He’s turning into a fine young man. He is quarterback of the football team, and college scouts are already trying to recruit him. He’ll make this town proud. You’ve seen more than that boy has. You know more about the world than he does. He sees that you’ve turned into a beautiful young woman. That’s all he knows. I don’t intend on telling folks what happened with you. Ain’t their business. But until . . . until you heal from this—until you’re better—boys aren’t something you need to be spending your time on.”

It was hard to hear. Nonna had taken me in when no one else wanted me, but she didn’t trust me or believe me either. That hurt. So much so that my chest ached. All I could do was nod. “Yes, ma’am,” I replied before hurrying into my bedroom and closing the door to any more hurtful words that she might say. I just needed someone to ask me what had really happened and believe me when I told them.

Just like every night since the accident that changed my life . . . I didn’t get much sleep.

Registering for a new high school your senior year was intimidating. Nonna reassuring the principal and counselor that I would cause no trouble had only added to it. I was required to go to the counselor every Tuesday and Friday during my last-period class to discuss how I was feeling. I knew I should be thankful that was the only thing I had to do, but I dreaded it all the same.

Nonna had squeezed my arm and looked me firmly in the eyes while she told me to work hard and make her proud. If she only knew that was exactly what I intended to do. I’d lost too much at this point to lose her, too. I was going to earn her trust. I had to.

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