“I’ll always be here for you,” I told him, unable to say the other things I was thinking.

“I want more than that. I want you. I want to be able to kiss you anytime I want. I want to hold your hand in the halls. Hell, I want to be made fun of by the guys for wanting to be near you all the time.” He laughed at his words, and my heart squeezed so tight I had a hard time catching my breath.

This was moving at a pace I hadn’t expected. Although I wanted it too, I had to be fair. He had to know my past. All of it. And understand that I was messed up for life. Yet want all these things with me anyway.

My Plans for the Future Had Just Taken a Massive Turn

CHAPTER 40

GUNNER

“I didn’t tell you everything. The whole story. About why Poppy took her life.” Willa said those words as if they were being torn from her body and she wanted to grab them and pull them back.

I had just told her I was in love with her without actually saying the words, and she was wanting to tell me why her friend killed herself. I didn’t understand this, so I remained quiet and waited. It was something she needed to say, and I would do whatever she needed me to do.

“We were drunk . . . and high. But we were at Poppy’s house and that was safe. We thought. Staying home while her parents worked at their restaurant, we had friends over and partied there. No one drove. It was safe. We weren’t out causing trouble. I liked it. The escape it gave me. I wanted to forget that my mother tolerated me, but she and her husband both would have preferred not to have me around. I was the extra child. The one they didn’t want. But she was stuck with. So the weed and the vodka were my happy place. I didn’t care about anything when I was doing either or both.” She paused and twisted her hands tightly in her lap before staring outside as if she were there again. At the house. Seeing it all happen in front of her.

“Everyone makes mistakes,” I assured her, because, seriously, if she was beating herself up over getting drunk and high, that was a touch overboard.

She nodded. “They do. But some don’t walk away from it. We didn’t. Not Poppy, not me, and not Quinn.”

Who? “Was Quinn another friend?”

“Quinn was three years old. She was Poppy’s little sister. I loved her smile and her laugh. She was always happy, and she loved me. That night . . . she’d been upstairs in her bed asleep. I hadn’t known. Poppy didn’t mention it, and normally she would say we had Quinn to watch. We didn’t drink or smoke when we had Quinn there. But that night . . . Poppy had thought it would be safe. Quinn was in bed, so she didn’t tell me. I had no idea. No one did. Until . . .” She paused again, and a sick knot formed in my stomach. I wasn’t being a pussy, but, dammit, if this story was going where I thought it was, Willa had a lot more that darkened her eyes than I had first assumed.

“I was lying on the floor after looking for cheese balls in the pantry. I had the munchies. I’d been too drunk to stand up. Then the scream . . . it was so full of pain, terror, and agony, I’ll never forget it. Poppy was screaming, and I scrambled up and ran outside toward her voice. I knew something was wrong, but I hadn’t been prepared to see Quinn floating in the pool, facedown and lifeless. I’ll—” She stopped and swallowed as a silent tear ran down her face. “I’ll never forgive myself. I’ll never forget. And Quinn will never have a chance at life. Neither will Poppy. Four days later Poppy took her life. She couldn’t live with knowing Quinn was dead because we hadn’t been watching her. She blamed herself completely. I should have asked. I should have checked, but I didn’t. It wasn’t all her fault. When the paramedics came, so did the police. We were all arrested for intoxication, drug use, and possession, and then there was Quinn’s death. It was never proven to be murder because it wasn’t. But we had been left to babysit, and she’d drowned due to our drug and alcohol use. I spent the next six months after Poppy and Quinn’s funeral in a correctional center for girls. When I got out, my bags were packed and at the front door of my mother’s house. I had no one to call but Nonna. She bought me a bus ticket and brought me back here.”

Fuck.

Double Fuck.

How did I respond to that? Jesus, she’d been through hell over one night of partying. I’d partied many times with no repercussions other than a bad hangover. Her whole world had been tossed.

“I’ll never be able to forgive myself. For Quinn or Poppy. I don’t expect anyone else to.”

“Willa, nothing was your fault. We’re teenagers. We are allowed to make mistakes—it’s part of growing up. What happened to you isn’t fair. You didn’t know the little girl was there. How is her death your fault? It isn’t. Neither is Poppy’s. Poppy was at fault. She should have kept her head clear and watched over her sister. She couldn’t live with the fact she let her sister down. But not one part of this was your fault. You were a casualty.”

I believed every word I said, but Willa didn’t. It was in her eyes as she turned to look at me finally. She’d kept her focus on the lake while she spoke. “I should have asked. They left Quinn home often. I should have asked.”

“Quinn wasn’t your responsibility.”

She didn’t say anything as she lifted a hand to catch a new tear that had broken loose. “April the fifteenth was the night Quinn drowned. On March fifteenth she’d turned three years old. We had celebrated with a Sofia the First birthday party. Purple princess stuff everywhere.”

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