BLEACH AND FRIED food, that’s what I smelled like. Every night when I walked into the trailer I now called home, I immediately stripped off my clothes and tossed them into the washer. The trailer was small, more like a camper trailer, but the rent was cheap. Maybe tiny was a better description. The aroma from the country diner where I worked permeated my clothing and me, causing the entire place to stink.

It was bad enough the tiny habitat smelled of mildew. I didn’t need to add the stench of my work environment to it. I’d be back to work at six in the morning. I was lucky this town went to bed early. Getting home at ten wasn’t so bad. I had time to shower and get the food smell off me and enjoy the silence of my trailer before going to bed and doing it again the next day.

Seven days a week. Fifteen hours a day. Six to nine, nine-thirty if I had to clean-up after close. The tips weren’t terrible, better than I had expected. I was paying for my rent, utilities, new cell phone, and food. I’d also managed to save enough to start classes in the fall at the junior college in the next town.

My work hours would be cut back if I took classes, but Ethel—my boss, and owner of Bright Eyes Diner—said that the summer crowd was big money. Robertsdale, Alabama wasn’t a big town. It was small and similar to Moulton, where I’d grown up. The highway that ran right through it was the road that led to Alabama’s beaches, providing us with lots of summer traffic.

If I worked the same hours, I would be able to afford both semesters next school term. I needed a degree. I wasn’t going to be able to work in a diner my entire life and didn’t want to be stuck in Robertsdale. I knew I couldn’t go home because living there . . . it wasn’t good for me. Two guys finally caused me to run. My mistake with the Sutton boys wasn’t what my mind was on, but the freedom of getting out of that house. Away from my mother and the darkness that would always be there. Now that I was out of that house, away from that town, I realized my thoughts weren’t so dark. I wanted to find a life for myself and to learn to live happy.

I stopped at the kitchen bar after dropping my clothes in the washing machine. Still naked and needing to get the greasy food smell off my skin, I paused to pick up the white invitation that hadn’t left my thoughts since I received it in the mail last week. I used a post office box for my phone bill and my best friend, Dixie Monroe. I trusted her, but I didn’t trust her not to break down and search for me if she had my real address. Dixie would never understand this trailer and why I wanted this. How living here was so much better than what I’d left behind. Because Dixie never really knew me. No one did.

I looked at the invitation every day. The RSVP card was still there, unreturned. There was a short, handwritten message included from Dixie begging me to come to her wedding.

Going wasn’t an option for me. I should have been the maid of honor. We had planned our weddings since we were thirteen. I would stand by her and she would for me at my wedding. We’d marry brothers and live next door to each other. Our kids would grow up best friends and our holidays would always be shared. I’d have a large Christmas party at my house and they’d all come. When I say all, I mean the Sutton boys, their wives and kids—that was the fantasy. One I went along with. I’d smile when we’d talked about it, knowing that wasn’t in my future. I’d become the queen of pretend long before I’d become friends with Dixie Monroe.

Dixie thought I’d run because of what had happened between Brent, Bray and me.

Loving two Sutton boys instead of one had been a mistake, but it wasn’t why I left. My reasons were darker than that. Dixie thought I should come back home. She had done the same thing, loved two Sutton boys, but she hadn’t screwed it up the way I had. She’d loved two of them at different times and hadn’t hurt them. She hadn’t been with one brother and cheated on him with his twin. No, that mistake was all mine. I hadn’t been alone in my cheating. Bray Sutton had been right there with me. He’d made me love him. I’d gotten so consumed with him, so freaking obsessed with him that I saw nothing else. Not even the damage that I would inevitably cause. Nothing. I only saw Bray.

I’d never been in love with Brent. Only Bray. My heart still squeezed so tightly I lost my breath when I smelled his cologne. Bray made me want something I’d never imagined. I had been ruined, twisted, long before him. I didn’t feel things like other girls. I’d started doing things with boys when I was eleven years old, in an attempt to feel good. I wanted something to take the numbness away.

Bray had made me feel. That had led to me hurting someone innocent—something my mother would have done. I cringed. I didn’t want to be like her. I was away from all that now. Four hours away. Working all day. Living in a sketchy part of town because I needed to save to go to college. I was alone and that gave me relief from the heaviness that was a constant in my chest.

Christmas Day, I had eaten leftovers from work and sat at the table in the tiny kitchen I was currently standing in. It was the happiest Christmas I’d ever had. There was no pain or tears. No sadness and fear. I knew my leaving had saved Brent and Bray. It had also saved me.

Brent had forgiven Bray. Dixie had made sure to tell me in her text messages. She said they were both dating again. Brent was happy. He’d moved on. Bray was never happy. It was just his way. The constant cloud over him was one reason I was drawn to him at first. His ability to show the world he was angry. He didn’t want to smile. He was brave enough to not hide his issues. I wanted to be like that.

With the same regret, I felt every time I saw the wedding invitation for Dixie Monroe and Asher Sutton, I’d set it back down on the empty bar counter. I wanted to see Dixie marry the boy she’d loved since she was a little girl. Like me, she fell for another Sutton boy for a time, but she hadn’t been in love with Steel Sutton. She had always and would always be in love with Asher.

Now, she was getting the man she dreamed of and I was thrilled for her. Although I also felt jealousy and pain. I didn’t have that dream. Hopefully one day I could build a dream, any dream. Something to bring me joy, because all that had felt remotely close to joy was when Bray Sutton touched me. When he held me. Needing Bray to keep me waking up each day and facing my demons was unhealthy, but it was what I had clung to. Until that crumbled too.

“I wish I could come, Dixie,” I whispered to the four walls around me. “But I can’t see him. They don’t need to see me. I can’t need him again.”

The Sutton boys were moving on with their lives and were the way they should be. No one was fighting, no rift between them. My return would cause issues. They didn’t need to see me or remember what had happened.

Leaving the invitation, I went into the bathroom with a simple sink, toilet, and shower big enough for one. My hands could touch all four walls with my elbows pressed against my ribs while I stood in the center of the space and spun around. The water took three minutes to warm up to a tolerable temperature. Although it never reached hot, it did get warm for about five minutes. I had to hurry to wash and rinse my hair and body before it turned cold. First, it was a waiting game for the icy temp to heat. Things like this were new to me, but I embraced them.

My life had appeared privileged to others looking from the outside. I’d let them think that too. Smiling, partying, accepting a sports car from the man I had called father. The day I drove away, my mother had three words for me: “Good riddance, bitch.” That would surprise or hurt most girls, but those words were nothing. She’d already done her damage long ago.

Tags: Abbi Glines South of the Mason Dixon Romance