I cried in his arms for what felt like an eternity. The front of his shirt was soaked with my tears, but his arms never loosened. In fact his hold got tighter the longer we stayed there. When it all started to dry up and the heaviness that I’d carried for so long began to ease, giving me my first real deep breath in months, I lifted my head and stared up at him. This boy who I never expected to be my hero. I never guessed would hold me when I fell apart. This boy who had been by my side through many of my life’s changes. Maybe it had always been, but I hadn’t known it or understood it. But I knew it now.
I loved Gunner Lawson.
“Thank you.” My voice cracked as I said the words.
He pressed a kiss to my forehead. “I’m always here.”
Yes, he was. Even though his life was shit, he was still here listening to me. “I soaked your shirt.”
He gave me a small grin. “It’ll wash up just fine.”
“I . . . I haven’t talked about that or really cried like that about it.”
Gunner pulled me closer to him. “I’m glad you did with me. You needed it. You’ve beat yourself up enough. You need to heal, Willa. You need to move on.”
“I can’t ever forget them.”
He shook his head. “No. You can’t. You need to live for them and remember them while you’re living the life they didn’t get. Do it for them. Do it for you.”
“I love you, Gunner.” The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them.
I hadn’t thought through how he would react or what he would say, because I honestly hadn’t meant to say it out loud. But I had said it. Now I had to own it and deal with the repercussions.
Which ended up being nothing. Without a word he kissed my forehead again, then took me home.
It Wasn’t Like We Were the Trumps
Knowing you love someone and saying it out loud are two completely different things. The first is startling, and the second is terrifying. I accepted the fact I loved Willa even though I’d sworn to never love anyone. She’d broken through my walls, and I was glad. She made me happy. Being with her was as complete as I’d ever felt.
The bravery it was going to take in order to tell her that, though, I was afraid I lacked greatly. I wasn’t even having to face the fact she may not feel the same way. There was no laying it out there to be shot down. She’d already said the words to me. But even still, saying them made them real. As real as love could be for me. I’d never told anyone I loved them.
Not even my parents. Because they’d never once told me. I hadn’t been raised in a house where the word love was spoken easily, like Brady and West. It hadn’t been spoken at all within the Lawton walls.
When she’d said the words so easily, my chest constricted because it was the first time I’d heard them. I hadn’t been able to say anything in return. Hell, I almost said thank you. It was a gift many take for granted that others have never been given.
In that moment I didn’t have the adequate words for what I was feeling. All I’d been able to do was hold her and kiss her head. Tears had stung my eyes, and the emotion had made it hard for me to say anything. She’d given me hope. I hadn’t realized I had none until her.
If she had a cell phone, I’d at least be able to text her what I was feeling. But that wasn’t possible, and she deserved more than a well-written text message. I had to man up and say it to her. Let her know I loved her.
At this moment though I had to walk into my house and face the shit waiting on me there. Hopefully, Rhett was passed out drunk. I opened the back door and headed for the stairs without listening for voices. If I could avoid them all, I would.
The silence was a relief as I rushed up the stairs and down the hall to the only sanctuary I had here, my room. No one ever came in there but Ms. Ames to clean it. Everyone else left me alone. When I was younger, that made me lonely. Now it is the only way I can live here.
Slinging my door open, I stepped inside, only to freeze when my eyes landed on my mother sitting in the chair across from my bed. I couldn’t remember a time in my life she’d ever been in this room. Seeing her here now was discomforting.
“Hello, Gunner,” she said in a voice that didn’t hold hostility or annoyance like it normally did when she said my name.
“Mom,” I replied, not moving inside any more because my safe place had just become foreign to me.
“Come in and close the door. There are some things I need to tell you. It’s time you know.”
I was pretty damn sure I didn’t want to know any more of her secrets. The last one was enough to last me a lifetime. “If you’re about to tell me that Grandmother Lawton is my real mother or I’m the offspring of an aunt I don’t know about, could you save it? I need some sleep.” My tone was annoyed. Because I was fucking annoyed.
My mother frowned her disapproving cotillion frown she was so good at, and I pointed to the door. “I’m serious,” I added.
She shook her head. “Stop acting like a child, Gunner. It’s time you grew up and became a man. This immature rebellious persona you’re so fond of has to end now. You have an empire to control whether you like it or not.”
I wouldn’t call the Lawton money an empire, but my mother had always acted loftier than we were. Lawton, Alabama, was . . . well for one it was in Alabama. Jesus. It wasn’t like we were the Trumps.
“I’m a senior in high school, not a college graduate. Your other son is in college, and his drunk ass came to the homecoming dance tonight yelling and calling me his uncle. It was a shining moment for the Lawton Empire,” I mocked.
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