Was that love? Probably not. I’d know love if I felt it. She was something I needed. I knew that. I’d known it since the moment she came sauntering up to me two years ago wearing a mini skirt and high heels, asking me if I would buy her a beer at Jack’s. I’d seen Scarlet before with Dixie. But she’d grown up and somehow, I had missed it. Until then.

I had told her I’d get her a beer if she’d pull her skirt up one more inch and show me her panties. Then she’d suggested we go out to my truck and she would do more than that.

And she had.

Just like many girls before her.

But Scarlet had been different.


BRAY HAD STAYED with me on our return to the party. It felt as if everyone was watching us when I knew most people hadn’t even realized we disappeared. Asher had scowled at Bray, and Dixie had looked relieved. Other than that, I was not making eye contact with anyone.

The way Bray kept his hand on my lower back as we moved through the crowd felt too possessive. It made me nervous. I had given him some hope knowing I’d leave. My chest was heavy.

“I need a drink. What can I get you?” Bray asked.

I turned my gaze up to meet his. There was a twinkle in his eyes. He was happy. This was what he’d set out to do and he thought he’d won. He didn’t love me. But he wanted me. It didn’t matter. Not even his love could hold me here in this town.

“Water,” I replied.

“You okay?” He immediately noticed my mood. His brows drew together as he studied me for an answer.

Telling him my thoughts was not in the cards. So, I shook my head and made my smile bigger.

He didn’t appear convinced but he didn’t push for more. He would later. Bray didn’t let go of something until it was settled.

Bray’s hand left my back, and he walked over to get our drinks. I watched him wishing I didn’t love him. It would be easier to leave Bray, hurt him again, if I didn’t care so much for him. There would never be a wedding like this one. Our ending was inevitable.

“You’re gonna have to give me the details on that one. I tried to get my own taste, but Asher put a stop to it,” Meg said as she came up to stand beside me. I glanced at her and saw her gaze was on Bray. Before . . . I would have been jealous. I was eaten up with jealousy when other girls talked, looked, or touched Bray. But I’d grown a lot over the past seven months. I couldn’t expect them to not want him.

“I already know the details. This isn’t a wedding hookup,” I replied honestly.

Meg slapped my arm her eyes wide. “You’ve experienced that! No way!”

Sighing I looked back at Bray. He was getting me a glass of water. Reality was even better than her imagination, but I wasn’t sharing that with her.

“He’s that bad boy you want to try out to know how it feels. You know?” Meg’s voice was laced with excitement. As if Bray was just a short ride on an adventure.

“Yeah,” I replied because I did know. Once he had been that for me too. Then he’d made me love him. That was my mistake, but it had been unavoidable.

While my thoughts were on preparing my heart to leave him again, a tall blonde I didn’t know walked up to him and whispered in his ear as she leaned into him. His hand touched her waist. I don’t know if it was to push her back or pull her closer, but I was frozen by what I saw. Unable to look away.

“Looks like you’ve got competition,” Meg whispered as if they could hear her.

There would always be someone else, but I wouldn’t be here to see it.

The blonde laughed and smiled up at him. His expression was serious, and he did move her away, but his hand was still touching her. I couldn’t hear them, but Bray was not happy about this conversation. The blonde wasn’t giving up easily. She twirled a strand of hair and puckered her lips in a pout. I had seen this a million times with a million other girls. Before I’d needed Bray so badly I had taken it. Dealt with it.

Bray nodded his head in my direction and our eyes locked. I didn’t want him to see too much in my eyes. The loss I already knew was coming, my wish I could be that girl, the desire to love him with a healthy mind.

He began moving away from her in my direction. Not breaking eye contact with me. The determination in his gaze was evident. He was ready to defend whatever that was I’d just witnessed.

“I think you’re the winner,” Meg said with a giggle, then winked and walked away.

Bray handed me the water while staring at me intently. “Yes, I’ve fucked her and no, I don’t want to again,” he said bluntly. “I can’t erase my past just like you can’t yours.”

He had no idea how powerful his last words were. Erasing my past had been my wish since I’d been a child. Erase the memories. The things I’d seen, the things that had touched me, cracked me, tangled my wiring until I was weak. Desperate. Angry. I said nothing. But I did nod and drank my water. The blonde was coming up behind him. This wasn’t over. I didn’t have time to tell him before her hand touched his shoulder.

His body stiffened, and he sighed before turning to look at her. “I was clear, Ari. Not interested.”

The blonde’s glare was then on me as she blatantly looked me over with distaste. “You said you preferred blondes. Red was your least favorite color,” Ari said with a smirk.

“Don’t get nasty, Ari,” Bray’s tone was annoyed.

She shrugged. “Last night you were begging me to suck harder and telling me I had the best mouth you’d ever had. That’s over so soon? Already moving on? I have more tricks you haven’t seen yet.”

Last night.

It wasn’t like I didn’t know Bray was a player. Sure, he’d been sleeping around over the past seven months. He wasn’t sitting around waiting on me to return. But her words were the splash of cold water I needed. A reminder. That leaving him wouldn’t hurt him. It would sting his ego, but this was Bray Sutton. He’d find a mouth to make him feel better within hours of my leaving. Beating myself up over leaving him was only hurting me. I knew what I had to do.

“You weren’t on the guest list, Ari. Please leave,” Bray repeated.

The blonde slung her hair over her shoulder and held her shoulders back. “I think I’ll stay and meet everyone.” The smug grin on her face bothered me. “Or you could walk me to my car and I promise to leave.”

Bray glanced at me. “I’ll be right back.” Then he turned back to Ari. “Let’s go.”

She seemed pleased and flashed me a winning grin as they walked off. I waited until they had left the tent to find Dixie. She was drinking a glass of champagne speaking to guests. When she saw me coming she excused herself and walked toward me.

“Hey,” she said, already knowing I was here to say goodbye.

“It was perfect. You are beautiful. Thank you for letting me stay. I love you and I will call soon. Enjoy your honeymoon. But,” I paused and glanced back at Bray. “I need to go.”

Dixie nodded, then hugged me. I wrapped my arms around her tightly. “You’re gonna get your happy one day,” she whispered. “I love you too.”

Before I began crying, I nodded, then let her go before walking away. Toward my car. This was an escape. It felt wrong to leave without telling him goodbye, but how could I? He’d try and convince me to stay. This was for his own good. Even if my heart broke with each step I took away from him.

Tags: Abbi Glines South of the Mason Dixon Romance
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