After you grow up living in fear of what might happen next in your house, nothing else compares. That fear prepared me. It’s why I didn’t fall apart when I had to live in my car for three weeks. Also, why I didn’t panic when I went three days without any food. I’d known worse things than starvation or even death. Seven months later, I was living on my own successfully. Every day that passed I felt more secure. The nightmares still came, but I always woke up.

Before the water got warm, my phone rang. I paused and debated either ignoring the phone to take my shower or turning off the water and waiting thirty minutes for the water to warm up and try again.

I was tired. My feet hurt. I needed to wash the stench off my body and whoever was calling could leave a message. No one called much anyway. Sometimes Ethel called about a shift change, but rarely. And that could wait. I needed this warm shower.

The ringing stopped as I stepped into the shower and started again. They were calling back. What in the world? Ethel never did that. My number was known by a limited amount of people. I went through the list of people in my head as I growled in frustration and turned off the water. Jerking the towel off the hook that had probably been rusting since the 1980’s, I wrapped the towel around myself, stepping out of the bathroom to get the phone. Checking the phone screen, hoping nothing was seriously wrong, I sighed and closed my eyes when I saw the number.

I got this call about once every eight weeks or so. The first time I was surprised. I couldn’t figure out how the youngest Sutton brother had my new phone number. I thought maybe there had been an accident and Dixie had given it to him to get in touch with me because she couldn’t. There wasn’t an emergency, he’d simply given me an update on Bray. He didn’t ask me any questions or tell me anything about Brent. He’d only told me how Bray was doing and ended the call. Everything about his phone calls was odd. He never told me how he’d gotten my number. He’d barely let me speak, much less ask him questions. After receiving three of the same calls over the past few months, I knew what to expect.

“Hello.” I prepared myself for whatever he would say.

“It’s time you come home,” Dallas Sutton said simply.

“What?” I asked taken aback by his abrupt change of conversation topic.

“You heard me,” was the only response I got before he hung up.

I held the cell phone in my hand and stared at it for several minutes. Dallas was still in high school. We’d never been close, but he called me to relay these informative messages. This phone call was the most bizarre.

I wouldn’t go back to Moulton. The past, my memories, all dwelled there. Every inch of that town would remind me. Haunt me. Shaking my head, I spoke to the silence around me “No. I can’t go back there.”

Bray Sutton

LAST NIGHT I should have had a few beers and been done. But no, I had to drink a fifth of whiskey. It was my oldest brother’s bachelor party. He was the one locking it in with a woman, sharing bank accounts, a bedroom, bills, and all that shit. Not me. I should have given him my whiskey. We still had a week before the wedding, but Asher wouldn’t agree to staying up late drinking the night before his wedding. He wanted us all sober. He wouldn’t let Dixie down.

Instead of getting up and drinking coffee, taking a shower, and making myself presentable for work, I was outside behind our barn smoking a cigar. A Churchill reject to be exact. Tasted just as good and it didn’t hurt to pay for it. I’d bought it when Asher and Dixie’s wedding date had been set. Even then I knew I’d need it. Celebrating wasn’t my thing. Sure, I knew my brother was marrying the only woman he’d ever loved. I was happy they had found that fairytale bullshit. What they had was rare, too fucking rare.

Seeing the spot beside Dixie Monroe where her best friend should be would only serve as a reminder to me of what I had wanted. What I’d been so damn obsessed with that I didn’t care who I hurt. My relationship with Brent, my twin, was damaged as a result. We had found a way to move on, forgive, live, but we would never be the same. I knew that.

Taking a pull from the cigar in my hand, I looked out over the land that separated our farm from Dixie’s. I had many memories with Scarlet out there. Secret, hidden moments that I should regret. It was worse than cheating, I was cheating on my brother. I wouldn’t go back and do it differently. Scarlet was gone. Brent was moving on with Sadie something or another. She had pulled up in our drive after getting lost about three months ago. Brent went to her car to see if he could help. They’d talked a bit and when she left, he’d walked back out to the barn grinning with a piece of paper in his hand.

He’d gotten the girl’s number. She was from somewhere up north. Moved down here for work. She was in life insurance. Brent had been in love after two weeks. To say it was hard to stomach would be an understatement. I wasn’t saving myself for Scarlet’s return or some crazy shit, but my heart was unattached. The women I spent time with knew I wasn’t in it for more than a good time. Until Scarlet, that was all I was ever in it for. She’d been different. She’d seen me. She’d looked past the fucked-up stuff others always saw. It wasn’t the bad boy she wanted. She wanted me.

“Asher just arrived with the tuxes. Wants us to try them on. Make sure they fit. No last-minute problems and that shit,” Dallas, my youngest brother said.

I turned around and found him standing a few feet away. He was so much larger now. Bigger than all of us. His arms were crossed over his chest and he was frowning. As if I had done something wrong. It was a motherfucking cigar.

I held it up. “Want some?”

He walked toward me then dropping his arms to his side. When he reached me, he held out his hand. “Sure.”

I didn’t need the whole thing. “Helps cure the hangover,” I told him.

He was too young to drink, but he’d drank with the rest of us last night. Technically, only Asher was legal age. But we’d been drinking since we were fifteen. I had watched Asher cut Dallas off early. We’d lost our dad at a young age. Asher had stepped up as the man of the house and helped Momma. We’d expected that and respected him.

If I had tried to cut Dallas off he’d have told me to fuck off. But Asher, he would obey. He’d earned respect from all of us. Even Steel. It had helped Steel understand and let go of his dream of a life with Dixie. We had all known since we were kids that Dixie Monroe loved Asher. I never could figure out why Steel would want to be someone’s second choice. Fuck that.

“Scarlet should be there. For Dixie,” Dallas said handing the cigar back to me.

“She left all of us. Can’t say I blame her. But I sure as hell won’t forgive her,” was my response. I’d realized a while back that her reason for leaving was more than running from the mess we had made. She’d left me. I’d thought what we had was unique. Intense. Fucking special. She didn’t bother to fight for us.

“Don’t think she had much choice,” Dallas drawled as if he knew and understood life.

“Ain’t the way I see it,” I said and took another pull from the cigar.

“You think she left you. And you’re stubborn and selfish enough not to forgive her for that.”

Dallas and I hadn’t talked about Scarlet in a couple months. He’d tried this Doctor Phil bullshit with me and I’d shut it down. Or rather Asher had overheard and told him to let it go. Wasn’t his business.

Tags: Abbi Glines South of the Mason Dixon Romance