“It’s Bray Sutton. Scarlet’s friend,” I said quickly. “I can’t get Scarlet on the phone and I was wondering if you could tell me when she called in sick and who spoke with her?”

“Well now, I called her. Several times before I woke her up. It was after eight I reckon. She was apologizing and I told her not to worry. I knew y’all must have had a night full of adventure. Told her not to come in. To take a day off. Now why ain’t you with her? Don’t tell me you ran off again because boy I got myself a gun and I know how to use it.”

She’d overslept. She was okay. Why wasn’t she answering?

“I got a call at five this morning. My baby brother took a fall from a wild mustang. He’s in critical condition and in surgery. I had no time to explain I had to get here. I’ve called her a million times and get no answer. I’m worried about her, but I’m four hours away.”

“Oh good Lord! Why on earth would the boy get on a wild mustang?” she asked.

I didn’t have time to get into this with Ethel. I just needed her to find Scarlet for me.

“Don’t know ma’am. Can you check on Scarlet?” I repeated.

“Sure. I’ll head on over there right now. But I imagine she’s sleeping. The girl don’t get enough rest. I should probably take her some food. I doubt she’s eaten a bite. And when I tell her about what’s happened with your brother she’s gonna want to head that way. She’ll need some food. You go on now and be with your family. Is your parent’s alive son?”

Why did older people want to talk so much? She was wasting time. “My momma is ma’am.”

“You hug her tight. Bless her. That’s a scary thing. Lost my Hugh when he was young. But we won’ talk about that. You go be strong for your momma and I’ll take care of Scarlet for you.”

“Thank you—” the phone call ended. I shook my head and stuck it in my pocket. The whole damn lot at that diner were nuts.

“You get some help this time?” Asher asked turning his head to study me.

“Yeah. Ethel. Her boss. She’s gone to check on her.”

He gave me a nod then inhaled deeply and turned back to the others. “If he . . . if he doesn’t make it,” Asher said the words low so no one else heard him. The hesitation held more emotion than any tear or expression. Asher was holding it together but not by much. “Momma won’t be able to live without him. I don’t think she can lose a child and survive.”

I wasn’t going to accept the possibility Dallas may not make it. Asher was the oldest. He’d taken over with the father figure stance since we were young. Once Dad was gone it was Asher who taught us to drive the tractor, use the saw, drive the truck, build a fence. The fact he felt like he needed to prepare for the worst because he may have to hold us all together wasn’t good.

Steel, Brent and I were grown. He didn’t have to take up the slack for us anymore. But in his head, he hadn’t let it go.

“He’s tough. A fighter. He will make it,” I said firmly. Then for Asher’s sake I said, “But if he doesn’t. This isn’t on your shoulders. We are grown men, Asher. Not little boys you have to herd and instruct. We will all be there for Momma.”

The emotion in his gaze broke free for the briefest second before his stoic mask returned. I’d seen his fear. We weren’t ready to bury a brother. We had buried our father. But this we shouldn’t have to do. Dallas was the youngest. He would be the one to bury us one day when we were all fucking old and wrinkled bald men.


WHEN I HAD closed the little pink diary full of a child’s monsters and nightmares, I picked up my keys, walked outside, and went directly to my car. I didn’t take my purse. I didn’t put on pants or shoes. None of this registered with me until I was one hour from Moulton. With no phone, no money, no shoes, no pants I realized I didn’t exactly know how I was going to get gas.

The light was on for my gas gauge but I didn’t know how long it had been on. I hadn’t looked. The words I read, the wounds it ripped open, the memories I’d managed to block out were back. The tightness in my throat and pounding of my heart weren’t from fear. I wasn’t scared. I’d been scared for too long. My childhood had been taken from me. No, I wasn’t falling apart.

I was mad. I was motherfucking furious. I had been a child and the one person on this planet that was meant to protect me, love me, had been a cruel, selfish, monster. She’d been as dark and twisted as the men she let into my room. My world had been molded by pure sickness. Disgusting terrible things had happened to me. And she had let it. For drugs. She wanted drugs that the man who I’d called my father wouldn’t give her money for. So she had used her child to get them from sick bastards.

As I passed the city limits my car began to jerk and sputter, then the power was gone and I coasted over to the side of the road. I was given this car by a man who could have kept me safe. If he’d been around. I might not have been his daughter but I was a kid who needed saving. He’d let it go on causing years and years of damage before he stopped it. Innocence I couldn’t get back.

Opening the car door, I took my pink diary of horror and left the keys in the car that had been given to me for appearances . . . I leaned over, opened the glove compartment and took the matches that said Bright Eyes Diner on them. That was it. All I needed from this car.

I began walking. Toward the prison I’d been raised in. The pretty white picket fence that had appeared normal and happy on the outside. While all the ugliness in the world was inside.

The diary was clasped tightly in my fist. I didn’t even want to look at it. The childish pink plastic coating with the silver lettering normally held memories girls cherished when they grew up. Dixie had diaries full of stories about ponies and Asher smiling at her. She had stories about baking cookies for Santa and the day her mom took her to get fitted for a bra the first time.

Not mine though. The only happy story in it was the last one. The day I shoved Emily James and made a best friend. Dixie had been bright and clean. No dirty secrets. She was like a perfect being. I had once thought being close to her would help cleanse me in a way. But no. Nothing could replace the past.

My feet were getting filthy I noticed. Good. I was going to the most soiled, disgusting place I knew in this world. I should be as dirty on the outside as she’d made me on the inside. My hair was tangled. My makeup smeared from last night. None of that mattered. Why should it? Appearances meant nothing. I knew that all too well.

Turning on the street I’d walked down a million times. I spat on the ground. Fury began to simmer as my temple pounded in a rhythm. I noticed nothing. Paid no attention to my surroundings until I was standing in the front yard of the house I’d been raised in.

Every horrible second I spent in that house came back to me. After reading the diary, I had remembered the things I’d managed to block out. The moments I’d cried begging a God if there was one listening to me to take me. I didn’t want to live. What seven-year-old girl should even consider death an option? It was a sad world where this was even an issue. I didn’t want to think of another little girl or boy living through what I did.

If I was given one wish in this world that would be it—to save them. The kids being abused. Sexually and physically. Children shouldn’t be hurt. They should know security. Pain and fear comes later in life, but it shouldn’t be a part of childhood.

Tags: Abbi Glines South of the Mason Dixon Romance
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