My mind and my heart wrestled with each other, both imploring me to make what they considered the right decision.

“There’s no point ruining anyone. It won’t change a thing. The damage has already been done.” I recited the facts plain and simple, my voice void of emotion. “My life here is over.”

“Your life here isn’t over. Your life here is with me.”

I continued filling boxes, avoiding his gaze.

“Willow, look at me. Explain why you think running away is the answer.”

I choked back my sobs and slammed my hands against the prep bench. “Because I’m a criminal. I’ve done things I can never undo. I held a gun to a man’s head while my boyfriend ransacked his house. I had to listen to his wife sob and listen to his daughters beg me not to kill their daddy.”

“You paid the price for that,” he said, softly. “Everyone is a dumb fuck at fifteen. I know I was.”

“Did you break into people’s houses? Did you sell prescription drugs and get high? Did you hold a gun to someone’s head?”

“The article said it wasn’t loaded.”

“Something I didn’t know until after the fact.”

“Sit down and talk to me, please. Tell me what happened. You didn’t just decide one day to pick up a gun.”

Deflated, I sank onto one of the countertop stools by the prep bench. My stomach churned, and my lower lip quivered. “After my gramps died, I was in and out of foster care because my mom couldn’t handle me. I wasn’t easy. I threw tantrums if I didn’t get my way, I smashed up the house, I ran away countless times. By the time I turned twelve, I was drinking. By the time I turned fourteen, I’d smoked my first joint. By the time I turned fifteen, I’d moved onto hydrocodone and oxycontin.

“The final time my mom put me in foster care, I played the tough girl roll and pretended her rejection didn’t hurt, but it killed me.”

Feeling brave, I looked at Evan. I didn’t see horror or disgust in his face. Instead, I saw sadness and love. He placed his hand on top of mine, his welcome touch warm and comforting.

“After that, I lived life by my rules. I met Alex at my fifth foster home. A few months after we met, he aged out of the system. Every day he would pick me up from school. We’d go joyriding or break into people’s houses and rifle through their medicine cabinets for prescription pain meds.” I stopped talking to gather my thoughts.

Evan squeezed my hand. “What happened next?”

“Alex owed money all over the place. One day, he came up with the bright idea to steal a prescription pad from a doctor. Lovestruck fifteen-year-old me agreed. I thought we would do it when the house was empty. But Alex said that we had to scare the doctor enough to stop him from going to the cops straight away.

“I wasn’t supposed to stay at the house with the gun. I wasn’t even supposed to touch it. I was scared shitless. The original plan was that Alex would remain at the house while I went around with my fake ID and filled the scripts.

“But he changed his mind and told me to make sure the doctor didn’t leave. My hands shook so much—” Tears streamed down my face, and I brushed my fingers beneath my eyes. “When I went to juvie, I wrote hundreds of letters apologizing to the doctor and his family, but I didn’t send a single one. I wanted their forgiveness, but who could forgive what I’d done? I can never forgive myself. I never heard from Alex again, but through the grapevine, I found out he’d died in a prison fight a few months into his sentence.” My shoulders shook as I wept. “So now you know the truth. You can’t possibly love a monster.”

Evan wrapped his strong arms around me. I laid my head on his shoulder and tried to stop crying, but my tears flowed like a burst dam. He rubbed my head, whispering my name repeatedly.

“You were a kid. The one person who was supposed to love you unconditionally decided she didn’t want you. After your gramps died, you had no one to guide you. I’m not going to try and justify what you did because you know it was wrong, but you paid the price. It’s time to forgive yourself.” He pulled me to standing and rocked me back and forth. “I love you, Willow. Nothing will ever change that.”

When I’d cried all the tears in my body, he stood back and gently swiped his thumbs beneath my eyes. “I wanted to wait and do this the proper way with a ring, but—” he dropped to one knee. “Marry me, Willow,” he said, his voice deepening, thickening. “Spend the rest of your life with me. I love you, and your dirty talking take no shit ways.”

Tags: Jamie Knight Billionaire Romance