“I’m headed back to the house,” the older lady announced as she walked into the dining room from the kitchen. Once this is mopped, you two go on. I reckon y’all got things to discuss that I hope ends in kissin’. Diesel will handle all of the back. No need to help him tonight, Scarlet.”

Scarlet glanced at me before turning to her boss. “Thanks, Ethel. But are you sure? I don’t mind staying to help.”

Ethel waved her hand and tsked. “Go home, child. This man has been waiting on you all evening.”

Scarlet finally nodded. “Okay.”

Ethel then looked at me. “You,” she pointed. “This is your last chance. You leave our girl upset, crying, or cursing folks out again and I’m not letting you near this place. It’s time you do what needs to be done.”

The woman was right of course. “Cursing people out?” I asked instead of agreeing.

Ethel nodded. “Yes! Told Diesel right off. Let him have it good, then she tried to walk out and leave herself. She was fit to be tied when you left. I ain’t got time for that drama except in my soaps I watch. Only place all that belongs.”

Scarlet had her head down, shaking it quickly. Her cheeks were slightly pink again. I held back my chuckle. I liked that she’d cursed at Diesel. He deserved it. I had no idea what the fuck he’d said, but I figured he needed a good dressing down.

“Mop bucket is right in that closet, so is the mop. Why don’t you stop looking at her like you want to take a bite and get to mopping behind her as she vacuums. Then you two can be out of here faster.”

I liked that idea just fine. Without any more encouragement, I went to the closet and found exactly what she said I would.

“Go on now. Let him do it,” I heard her tell Scarlet.

There was some whispering, then the door closed behind Ethel.

I stopped filling the bucket with water and found Scarlet watching me. Her eyes full of questions, doubts, and fears. I hated that she looked at me like that, but what should I expect? She’d been let down her entire life. Neglected. Chosen last and not at all. I hadn’t been any better.

Even when we were together I hadn’t been able to be exclusive. I’d refused to allow my heart to be owned by a female. I had slept around and she’d stood back waiting for any attention I’d give her. I’d taken her for granted.

I fucking hated myself.

“You gonna vacuum?” I asked her.

She sighed, then nodded.

I wanted to say so many things but not here. Not when we more than likely had a listener at the door. Not when I couldn’t hold her and promise her forever. I knew my words weren’t going to be enough. She’d need actions. And even then it would take time. But I had all the time in the world. I’d prove to her she could depend on me.

We cleaned in silence. It wasn’t until it was finished and the things were put away that Scarlet turned to me. “Everything’s done,” she said simply.

“Ready to go?” I wanted to have her ride with me in my truck but I was loaded down and her diary was still in my front seat.

“Yes.”

“I’ll follow you,” I told her.

She glanced over my shoulder outside to my truck parked out front. “You bought that from Joe Kirk, didn’t you?”

“Yep. He had it for sale in his yard for about a month now.”

She kept staring at it a few more seconds then shifted her gaze back to me. “You bought a truck.” It wasn’t a question. It was more of a comment made in disbelief.

I closed the space between us and slipped my knuckle under her chin. “I’m staying wherever you are.”

The hope in her eyes was mixed with pain. I realized there had always been pain there behind every expression she had. Even when she smiled or laughed that had been there. No one ever noticed. Not Dixie. Not me.

Had she wanted us to see? Another question I needed an answer to but I wasn’t sure I could handle. Right now, my self-hatred was strong. Every action, every selfish decision I’d ever made concerning Scarlet haunted me. Was a lifetime long enough to make it right? I wasn’t sure it was possible. But damned if I wasn’t gonna try.

“I’ll see you at the trailer,” she said slowly. Even now I could see the uncertainty. As if she thought I might drive away. More shit I’d brought on myself.

I followed her out the front door and watched as she locked it behind her. I knew she was parked out back but she was purposely not going out that way to avoid Diesel. I’d have followed her if she had. She probably knew that. I wouldn’t fight with him. Didn’t matter what he said. My anger was solely concentrated on one group of people. I had nothing left for anyone else. Especially someone who saw that Scarlet was worth protecting.

She stopped at the sidewalk. “My car is around back.”

I stayed beside her. “I know.”

She waited a moment, then nodded her head at my truck. “You’re parked there.”

“I am. But if you think I’m not going to walk you to your car, then I’m an even bigger bastard than I was giving myself credit for.”

She scrunched her nose as if confused, then shrugged. When she started walking again I fell in step beside her. I could hear the silent questions churning in her mind. The questions wanted to burst out, but she was controlling them.

When we reached her car, I opened the door for her once she clicked the locks open from the remote in her hand. “I’ll see you in a few minutes,” I assured her then bent my head to press a kiss to her lips. A simple press of my mouth to hers. Nothing passionate or demanding. Just the connection. Promises unspoken.

Scarlet

EVEN THOUGH HE’D waited until I got off work, then mopped the floors, I had still watched his headlights in my rearview mirror expecting him to drive off at any second. I thought I’d watch him turn and sped away. Bray was good at changing his mind. Like this morning for example. I refused to believe he drove off planning to buy his own truck, quit his job, and move to Robertsdale.

That idea had to come during his drive home. He wouldn’t be happy here. Getting excited was dangerous and I would not do it. I should send him home now. Save myself the heartache. I didn’t think I had the power to turn him away. What I wanted right now was to wrap my arms around him and hold on. Pretend he was there forever like he had said he was.

Shaking my head at the silly thought I looked at myself in the mirror this time. “Get your head on straight, Scarlet.” I whispered, then turned off the car and climbed out.

Bray was already parked and it looked like he was unloading his truck. I paused and watched as he carried two cardboard boxes toward me. “I brought what your . . . mother . . . hadn’t given away.” I tensed when he said “mother” not because mention of her affected me like that but the way he said it. Almost as if saying the word was so distasteful it was hard to say. What had she said to him?

“Why did you go there?” I asked a little panicked at all the cruel things my mother could have said to him about me.

He stopped in front of me. His gaze steady. There was reassurance in his eyes. As if he knew I needed that right now. “Because if that bitch had anything of yours I wanted you to have it.”

She’d said something to him. There wasn’t distaste in his voice. That was hatred and disgust. “What did she say to you?” I blurted the question out while the fear began to claw at me. She could tell him terrible things. If she had, he wouldn’t be here would he?


Tags: Abbi Glines South of the Mason Dixon Romance
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