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Stay(A.L. Jackson)

By:A.L. Jackson

Stay
A.L. Jackson

       prologue


Willow



We rarely know when our lives are about to change. When the direction we have been traveling will shift. When the stagnant comfort we've cut out for ourselves will take a sharp turn south, or when everything we know will come to an abrupt, excruciating end.

Maybe I should have known it then. When the bell jingled above the door.

I guess I'd been too absorbed in my work to note the moment. Lost to the feel of the wood beneath my hands as I shaped and sanded away the rot and decay to expose the true beauty hiding underneath.

Maybe I should have taken the way my heart suddenly sped as a premonition. As an omen. As a warning to steel myself for the debris littering the road ahead.

Instead, I took it head on. My eyes squinted against the blinding rays of late-afternoon sun that spilled in like a flash flood behind the man who suddenly took up the entirety of the doorway.

A concealed figure cast in shadows and silhouettes.

A mystery rimmed in the brightest fire.

Maybe I should have braced myself for impact.

For the collision I never could have anticipated.

He took a single step forward and into my direct line of sight.

He stared at me for the longest time, taking me in as if he knew me, before he tilted his head and slanted me the cockiest grin. One that had the power to plow through me with the force of a speeding truck that'd lost its brakes.

Maybe I should have prepared myself.

Maybe I should have been stronger.

Maybe I should have clung harder to the promise I'd made to never allow myself to get burned.

Not ever again.

Little did I know I was now standing in the flames.





one


Ash



I prided myself in being about the nicest guy you'd ever meet. Spreading the love wherever I went. Liking damned near everyone who crossed my path.

Which was why this shit going down was so not cool.

Adrenaline pumped hard through my veins and pounded in my ears. The hairs at the nape of my neck lifted in warning.

I peered back into the shadows of the dark, humid night. Bugs droned in the trees, the sleepy silence only broken every so often by an engine whirring in the distance.

The road I'd decided to walk after I'd left the bar was locked down tight, the small shops and restaurants closed for the night. A dingy haze glowed from the streetlamps lining the main road about half a mile away.

My phone burned in my pocket, but I knew even if I managed to make a call, there was no chance any of my boys would show in time.

I lifted my hands in the air in a placating fashion and took a single step backward. "Have no clue what you're talkin' about," I promised, going for cool and casual.

Only I did. I totally remembered the chick he was talking about climbing all over my dick two nights ago. Of course, she'd conveniently failed to mention anything about Billy or whatever the fuck this asshole's name was.

Normally, I could hold my own. Scrap it out when fists were warranted. It was no secret I'd been partner to a brawl or two. I was used to coming out on top. Hell, most of the time, one glance at me was all it took for fuckers to bow out and back away.

Wasn't so sure that track record would land in my favor tonight.

Dude who'd first confronted me back at Charlie's about an hour ago, and I'd told him to go straight to hell?

He'd just rolled up behind me and hopped out of his big ass truck.

And he hadn't come alone.

Four of his friends loomed behind him, good old country boys who'd clearly had a few and were eager for a fight.

"You callin' me a liar now, after you fucked my girl?" he spat.

I wanted to do him a solid and tell him he should probably wise up and get himself a new girl if he and I were actually having this conversation. But I was pretty sure that wouldn't be winning me any points.

"Hey, man, I'm sorry if your girl stepped out on you. But I don't take anyone home if I know they've got someone waiting on them back at theirs. Totally not my thing."

At least that little bit was the truth.

I pressed a fist into my opposite palm, widening my stance. Figured he'd either get a clue and get on his merry way, or I was gonna have to fight this one out. I jutted my chin in the direction of his idling truck. "Now, I'd suggest you get back in your ride and go sort this out with her, because it doesn't have anything to do with me."

I spun on my heels, putting my back to them, and started to walk away.

They say hindsight is clear.

Twenty-twenty.

Actually, I'd say she was a bitch because she just never seemed to be around when I needed her most.

Because I'd been playing the streets long enough to know better than this.

Acting cocky when there wasn't a soul around to take up my back.                       
       
           



       

Do you know another thing they say?

They say pride comes before the fall. Seein' as how I wore pride like a brand, it really shouldn't have come as a surprise.

A whoosh sliced through the heavy air just as something like dread slicked the surface of my skin. I heard the crack before I registered the actual blow to the back of my head.

I roared when an earth-shattering pain cut into my consciousness.

Blackness swam through my sight.

Murky and blinding.

Sucking me under.

I fought it, blinking through the searing torment.

I stumbled forward, but I managed to find my feet. I attempted to whirl back around, hands fisted and ready to go flying.

Because if I was going down, then I was taking the bastard with me.

Second I turned, I caught the gleam of metal right before a rod came crashing down.

Agony blazed as it connected with the side of my face.

With the impact, my head rocked to the side, body following suit as my knees gave.

I flew.

Pavement came up fast, the air nothing but a pained wheeze in my lungs when I slammed into pitted asphalt.

Blood gushed, cutting a web across my face and dripping to the ground.

I struggled to get to my hands and knees.

To get up.

To fucking do something.

A heavy boot connected with my gut.

A strangled sound shot from my mouth when I slumped back down, and I knew things weren't gonna end well when a clamor of footsteps descended around me.

Hands and feet and that metal pipe.

"Asshole," another voice gritted. My attention darted toward it, my eyes going wide before his fist connected with my face.

That was the last thing I knew before my world went black.





two


Willow



I stepped from the tiny coffee shop. The door drifted shut behind me, and I lifted my face to the sky, which was just breaking with day, that misty hour that cast the world in a woven blanket of grays and purples and blues.

Warmth and hope.

God knew I was clinging to it, hanging on by a quickly unraveling thread.

Wise old oaks strained toward the heavens, spindly branches stretching out as if protecting the solitude of the old buildings lining the street in the Historic District.

Inhaling, I breathed in the invigorating scent of my coffee, the air already thick and bound with the Savannah summer heat. I took a tentative sip of the steaming hot liquid and trudged on toward my little shop as the sun slowly climbed the horizon.

My home.

My sanctuary.

I would do whatever it took to keep it that way.

As I rounded the corner and started down the quaint, narrow road, I dug in my pocket for my keys. My phone rang, and I shuffled my drink and my keys into one hand and dug it free from my purse.

I sighed.

Emily.

But what do they say about counting your blessings? At least it wasn't Bates. I wasn't sure I could handle his expensive brand of manipulation today.

I accepted the call and pushed the phone to my ear. "Hey."

"Are you up?"

"Of course I'm up."

Her voice was light. "The early bird gets the worm."

My laughter was wry. "Not if someone cut off her wings."

Silence crept into the line before she released her own sigh. "You remember the meeting is at three."

Sorrow spun around me. "How could I forget? I'm just … I'm not sure I'm ready to take this step."

I needed more time.

Okay, the truth was, I needed a miracle.

Since I stopped believing in those right around the time I stopped believing in just about everything, time seemed to be about the only thing I could ask for.

When I was a little girl, I'd had so much faith. Believed in dreams and wishes and fate. Believed even the darkest night would eventually bloom with light. What stung the most was the things I'd dreamed of were what most would consider modest.

Simple and right.

Even though I hadn't asked for much, it was everything I'd wanted. Needed.

I'd waited on it.

Counted on it.

But that was before all the most important things in my life had been slowly stripped away.

One by one.

My daddy.

My sister.

My mama.

Lash. Lash. Lash. Until my flesh was raw and wounded, heart bleeding out.

Two years ago, Bates had dealt the final bitter blow.

Belief blown.

"You have to make a decision, Will, or someone else is going to make it for you, and I know you don't want that."

"I know."

She exhaled, and I could almost see my oldest friend pacing her floor. "I'll see you then, okay? Just … think about the options."

The problem was none of the options were ones I wanted to entertain.

"Okay," I promised before I ended the call and turned toward my storefront, key in hand, metal grinding as I slid it into the old lock.

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