Fireworks exploded behind my eyes as Greg slapped me across the face once more. I slumped to the floor, my hand over my cheek. I pressed my fingers gingerly over the spot where it seemed my skin was on fire, wincing when I touched broken skin and wetness that surely indicated blood.

“You just don’t know when to fucking quit, do you bitch?”

I opened my mouth automatically to deny…to ask what I’d done now, but I should have known better.

Before a sound had even passed my lips, he was swinging, screaming, “I don’t know how many times I have to tell you! Are you ever gonna learn, you stupid little cunt? God damn, I should have strangled you last time and saved myself the fucking trouble of going through this again!”

I squeezed my eyes tightly shut; I didn’t want to see the blows that were coming. I could feel the wetness of blood begin to trickle down my cheek, and my eyes were starting to swell. A scream wrenched from my throat as the toe of his boot connected with my tender ribs, then my arm as I instinctively wrapped it around my body for some kind of protection.

But the abuse just kept coming in rapid succession. I tried to crawl away to no avail; he only followed, punching and kicking while I tried my damndest to protect my head and the other vital parts of my body.

I sobbed in pain, writhing on the floor while he stood over me, spittle flying from his lips as he yelled, screamed, and raged at me for whatever transgression I’d committed this time…and as the blows continued to rain down on my abused body, I slipped inside myself, floating away where I couldn’t feel it anymore, where he couldn’t touch me anymore.

The words of the lullaby my mom used to sing me tumbled through my mind and I sang them tunelessly in my head, letting them carry me further into the darkness that soothed me, brought me relief…

The moon is shining brightly

Over top your wee-bit head

So rest your eyes my little girl

As Momma tucks you into bed

Off to sleep now, off to dream

Snuggle in and hug me tight

I love you always and forever

Go to sleep, my girl, goodnight.

Chapter 1

“I kissed Brandon.”

The words exploded from my mouth, followed by a whispered apology, before I could even think about stopping them. Horrified, I clapped my hand over my lips, squeezing my eyes shut as I imagined Allie’s fist meeting my face. That was so not how I envisioned finally getting this off my chest.

When nothing but silence met my comment, I risked peeking over at her. She was standing beside me, her hands frozen over the flaps of the box we were unpacking that had just come into her store. She stood like that for just a second before she smoothed her hands down her swollen stomach and nodded decisively.

“You know, I was going to ask you why there was some kind of tension between you two. Guess I don’t have to do that now, huh?”

She chuckled wryly, the corner of her mouth tilting up in a half-smile.

My heart stopped, but my face crumpled and my mouth started running of its own volition.

“I…I don’t have any excuse, really, Allie. I’m sorry. I’m so, so completely sorry, and I really never meant for it to happen. We were just on that road trip and I got drunk one night when I was feeling sorry for myself and…I just kissed him.” I threw my hands up, shaking my head as I felt tears threaten.

Soft, small hands cupped my cheeks and brought my face around. My eyes clashed with the big, bright blue ones of my future sister-in-law.

She sighed, her thumbs gently wiping away the tears that had just started to fall. “Chloe, don’t cry. You didn’t do anything wrong. Brandon and I were done at that point. I’m marrying your brother, and I’m having your nephew. I’m not mad…I won’t lie to you and say it doesn’t hurt a little…but I’m not mad.”

The tears began flowing faster down my cheeks. How could I have done this to the amazing person standing in front of me? How could I have hurt the person who has done so much for me ever since I showed up unannounced and buried under a mountain of personal baggage?

A sob bubbled out from my chest and I choked it back, not wanting to break down completely. I didn’t deserve to break down in front of Allie…she was the one who was hurt. I deserved nothing more than an ass kicking.

Allie groaned and pulled me into her arms, hugging me tightly and the dam broke. She just held me tighter, letting me cry on her shoulder, literally. And as shitty as it was for me to do, I let her do it, and I cried. Hard.

When the storm of sobs had finally slowed, she pushed me back and looked me over as I stood there, struggling to catch my breath and wipe my face.

“Okay. I think that this is a perfect time to just close up shop, head over to your house, and have some special sundaes.” She paused, rubbing her belly again before shaking her head and smiling as she said, “Well, you’re gonna have a special sundae and I’m just gonna eat the frozen yogurt.”

I gave her a watery smile and nodded. We shut down the store and headed to Allie’s, er, my house. It was still so weird to say my house, and even weirder to hear Allie say it, too, especially because not too long ago, it was Allie’s house. I guess I’m even more flabbergasted at the generosity of Allie…I mean, I had nowhere to stay when I showed up on Luke and Emma’s doorstep, looking for my brother. I knew he was building a house and I could always crash with him, that went without saying. Instead, I ended up at Allie’s house in her spare room, and when she moved into Jackson’s house, she’d handed me a piece of paper that turned out to be the deed to her house. I tried to refuse, but…I finally gave in and took it for what it was worth; a chance to start over fresh on my own two feet, which is exactly what I came here for. I just didn’t expect it to happen so quickly.

I left L.A. a broken and battered mess, running to the little town of Phillus, Ohio where my brother had decided to relocate. Initially, he’d come to see his best friends, Luke and Brandon, but one look at Allie and his mind was made up. He bought land, started building a house, and now he and Allie are engaged and expecting my little nephew in a little over two months. Of course, their story was a little more complicated than that, but…you get the idea.

Half an hour later we were sitting on my couch after a slight detour to the store to grab special sundae items. The first time they’d handed me one, I was a little skeptical. Strawberry daiquiri wine cooler over strawberry frozen yogurt? Yeah, not a combination I ever really thought would be good. But lemme tell ya, it is yummy!

I took another bite of my sundae and laughed at the yearning, pathetic look Allie shot my bowl as she spooned up her own bite of boozeless fro yo. She scowled as she shoveled it into her mouth on a huff.

We ate in silence for a minute before Allie broke it on a sigh. “Look. I know I said it hurt earlier when you told me you kissed Brandon. It’s true…it does hurt. But I have no right to be mad at you, and like I said, I’m not mad at you. Brandon made his choice to walk away from what we had, and I made the choice to let him. I gave up, didn’t fight for him, and do you know why?”

I shook my head, my own eyes beginning to brim with tears as they started falling from hers.

“I didn’t fight for him because I realized that, deep down, I knew the love I had for Jackson was so much deeper than the love I have for Brandon. But I’m selfish, I guess, because if he hadn’t walked away, I would have kept him with me, and honestly, that would have probably ruined us...someone would have ended up unhappy and, in the end, we wouldn’t even have the friendship that we do. I couldn’t bear that. Besides Emma, he’s my best friend.”