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Adventures in Amethyst Series, Book 9: Forbidden Fruit
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Adventures in Amethyst Series, Book 9: Forbidden Fruit


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Amethyst, WI is a small, peaceful town on a pristine lake with an active tourist season in summer. When the air turns chill, the area is transformed into a ghost town with only a handful of lifers who stay. Amethyst is bursting with mystery, romance, and jealousy all-year-round.


Rich and superficial, Apple Wooten knows best that she's wasted her life, in and out of rehab, betraying those she considers friends, and never forming attachments with anyone but her unhealthily cloistered family. When her brother shocks all of them by announcing he's leaving the Wooten Law Firm in New York City and moving to Amethyst, Wisconsin, a mere blip on the map, to marry a small town girl, Apple is prodded by her mother to rush in and talk sense into him. Though it's the last thing she wants to do considering she's just been released from another rehabilitation she doesn't expect to stick and Amethyst is the hometown of a friend she all but destroyed with her selfishness, she nevertheless sees no way to avoid her mother's bidding. She'd never been able to refuse her parents anything--and not simply because they control the purse strings. 

The one person in Amethyst who will give her the time of day is Bailey "Bay" Johnson, who also went into the family business. The Johnsons own a slew of resort cabins on Lake Amethyst and, during the tourist season, they do brisk, bustling business. Apple had met Bailey years ago, the first time she ever came to Amethyst, when she'd ordered him around and all but made him her servant. Bailey didn't seem bothered by her cruel teasing then, just as he doesn't seem to be affected by her humbled, fumbling attempts at kindness now. 

As the youngest of nine siblings in a close-knit family, Bailey has learned that acceptance is far easier than fighting. Unfortunately, a bad experience with love when he was young also taught him that folding is preferable to holding because reaching for forbidden fruit like the treacherous, beautiful disaster, and--recently--child-like and fragile Apple Wooten could be the worst mistake he's ever made.

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Amethyst, WI is a small, peaceful town on a pristine lake with an active tourist season in summer. When the air turns chill, the area is transformed into a ghost town with only a handful of lifers who stay. Amethyst is bursting with mystery, romance, and jealousy all-year-round.


Rich and superficial, Apple Wooten knows best that she's wasted her life, in and out of rehab, betraying those she considers friends, and never forming attachments with anyone but her unhealthily cloistered family. When her brother shocks all of them by announcing he's leaving the Wooten Law Firm in New York City and moving to Amethyst, Wisconsin, a mere blip on the map, to marry a small town girl, Apple is prodded by her mother to rush in and talk sense into him. Though it's the last thing she wants to do considering she's just been released from another rehabilitation she doesn't expect to stick and Amethyst is the hometown of a friend she all but destroyed with her selfishness, she nevertheless sees no way to avoid her mother's bidding. She'd never been able to refuse her parents anything--and not simply because they control the purse strings. 

The one person in Amethyst who will give her the time of day is Bailey "Bay" Johnson, who also went into the family business. The Johnsons own a slew of resort cabins on Lake Amethyst and, during the tourist season, they do brisk, bustling business. Apple had met Bailey years ago, the first time she ever came to Amethyst, when she'd ordered him around and all but made him her servant. Bailey didn't seem bothered by her cruel teasing then, just as he doesn't seem to be affected by her humbled, fumbling attempts at kindness now. 

As the youngest of nine siblings in a close-knit family, Bailey has learned that acceptance is far easier than fighting. Unfortunately, a bad experience with love when he was young also taught him that folding is preferable to holding because reaching for forbidden fruit like the treacherous, beautiful disaster, and--recently--child-like and fragile Apple Wooten could be the worst mistake he's ever made.

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Chapter One


Apple Wooten smiled contently as she settled herself in a garden spot on the addiction rehab clinic property. She'd been here for four months now, and maybe she wouldn't consider herself happy--she didn't even know what that word meant, especially in connection with something real. But she was content. This was her favorite time of each rigidly strict day. If it rained, sketching inside wasn't nearly as nice as in the gardens, but she still enjoyed it. Who could have guessed there could be anything she'd enjoy as much as drinking and drugging herself blind?

When she looked around, searching for inspiration, she realized she'd never sketched the trees or the flowers or the immaculate, bright green lawn. She'd always found some poor soul, mostly looking terrified, bored or restless, and she'd captured that moment in time on the page so somehow the sketch didn't look static and flat. The portrait seemed alive to her, as if it'd become tangible between her imagination, the charcoal pencil, and the smooth, heavy paper. Become a being all its own. She didn't let anyone look at her drawings mainly because she knew, if she found out she'd been the unwitting target of someone's creative manipulation, she'd hate what'd been done without her permission. 

This is the one place where I don't want to call attention to myself. I've spent four months with my head down, believing from the very minute I entered this place that getting better was impossible. Four months later, I believe I am better, but I know the second I have to leave here, nothing will have changed. Nothing.  I'll go right back to everything that's been destroying me for thirty-two years that feel neither long nor short but are undoubtedly worthless. My life up to this point can be described as nothing less than a colossal waste of time, money, space...

If nothing had to change, she was okay. She'd gone from wishing to close to her eyes and forget she was alive, crying herself to sleep every single night, missing the very things she'd come to abhor because she couldn't stay away from them to an abnormally precarious calm. She'd realized she hadn't done all those lethal things because she loved them. The opposite. She did them because she didn't know what else to do. 

Who am I? I don't have the first clue. When Dr. Medina asks me what I want in life, I have no answer. My mind is a complete blank, but sometimes...lately, I do have an answer. I want to escape. Escape my own life. Escape the way it's always had to be. Escape the imprisonment of who I'm supposed to be. I want to leave it far behind like Clay did.

Although her older brother had left her behind, too, as a result of his ejection from the life he'd been trapped in as surely as she'd been hers from birth, a small part of her was glad he'd done the impossible. Without Clay, she hadn't known how to cope. She'd never had to take care of herself, didn't have the first clue how to. Left to her own devices, she lied, cheated, stole--literally. She forgot to eat, forgot to sleep or slept too much, screwed up anything that vaguely resembled responsible living. 

More than anything, she hated to be alone with only her treacherous thoughts for company. It was during those times that the guilt and burning shame rose to the surface of her conscience without warning and left her insane with the need to bury both again and deeper. Where did those emotions come from? What was she feeling sick with self-disgust about? She'd never known. 

But a person who'd drank and drugged as long and as much as she had had no trouble accepting she'd done plenty, all bad, and beyond depraved. That she couldn't remember doing any of it mattered not a whit, especially when she woke up from what was sometimes a week-long blackout in a place she didn't recognize at all, with people who were virtual strangers. She had no memories of any part of what might have taken place...but guessing had never been difficult. What she'd done and what had been done to her were mysterious parts of the guilt and burning shame that choked her so often. Seeing her picture in the gossip rags, at times in situations that might as well have not happened to her for all she could recall of them, was mind-boggling and kept the cycle going around and around. To escape the shackles and disgrace, she got bombed, blacked out, until there was nothing else. Sooner or later it was bound to catch up with her. 

Clay had forestalled that inevitability for most of his life with his caretaking. In order to break free, he'd had to shuck off every restraint, including her. Even while she couldn't blame him, she'd felt the betrayal and she'd let it all but destroy her. Clay was the only person on the planet who took care of her, loved her, made her feel like she had a reason to go on. Without him, she'd been lost, no clue what to do with herself. She was completely alone in a big world where she couldn't function by herself.

She'd ended up in rehab back-to-back last year, at death's door, and her doctor had somehow talked her into meeting with her father--alone after hearing how tight of a leash her mother kept her on. Apple never would have agreed if Veronica had been part of the encounter. 

To say their family was dysfunctional was a hilariously mild assessment. All her life, Apple had known Veronica saw her as her own personal puppet, just like she did Clay. They couldn't have minds of their own, couldn't move to the left or the right without her express permission. Apple didn't know how to say no to her, so she did her bidding as if she had no other choice and then stupidly rebelled with her reckless party lifestyle.

Clay had done that most of his life, as well, agreeing to an arranged marriage in his youth, becoming a lawyer when he hadn't wanted to join the extremely prestigious family firm any more than Apple had. The difference was that he'd actually been good at being a lawyer--the best in the firm, and that was why Veronica refused to let him go off on what she considered a silly whim. He'd divorced Summer Rosales (more like, vice versa) long ago. His relationship with Harper Marasek--a former accountant for Wooten Law Firm and a small-town, hick girl without any family connections--was intolerable. Harper had convinced him to move to her hometown of Amethyst, Wisconsin, far from New York City where the Wootens were well-known and upheld their sterling, if somewhat tarnished, reputation. Though Harper and Clay had gotten married five months ago and Apple hadn't attended the to-do (though their parents had), Veronica continued to be a dog on a bone. She wanted her son back in the law firm, not starting some pathetic grape vineyard in the middle of nowhere. 

The second I leave this place, she'll enlist me to get Clay back. I know that beyond a shadow of a doubt. I really am her last resort. She's tried every other dirty, rotten trick in the book to get him back but nothing doing. He's settled and he's never leaving his kingdom in a place the size of a postage stamp. 

Clay has taken care of me all his life, just like Veronica insisted he had to from the time we were both young children, making him feel like he alone was responsible for whether I lived or died. She's counting on him still feeling that responsibility toward me now. That's why I let Dr. Medina talk me into convincing my dad to put me here in long-term, inpatient rehab--with almost no interaction with my family or friends. But I never for a minute believed he'd agree to do it, especially behind Veronica's back. She holds all the strings in our family--the purse, the apron, the marriage, the kids, the law firm. She decides everything. And Asher kowtows to her like she's the Queen of the Universe. He defers to her in everything. Lets her boss him around. Have all the power. He never goes against her. Yet he stood up to her about letting me come here. 

Apple hadn't said a word during the private conference with her dad. She'd sobbed, hating herself, hating her father, hating her mother. Feeling useless and ashamed and stupid, wishing to die rather than go on for another second. Her doctor had done most of the talking, and... 

I've never seen Asher look like that before. He's spent his life looking at me like I was nothing more than a worthless f@#k-up, and who can deny the truth of that? Yet...a part of me was convinced he was seeing me differently for the first time that day. Seeing me as a child. His child. A child who was killing herself without any real intention, for anything important. A child who needed his help.

Unbelievably, Asher had left there and arranged everything for her without consulting his wife first. It was all done before Veronica could protest, as she surely would have. And, for four months, he'd forestalled any objections Veronica might have had to Apple's prolonged absence from her puppet strings. 

What does it mean? Asher had never been anything like a father to her, never gave her the time of day or showed any sign of caring about her or wanting anything to do with her. From the earliest age, she'd seen it in his eyes when he looked at her--like she annoyed him beyond bearing, like he couldn't stand being near her and had to escape ASAP. That he believed her to be stupid and feckless couldn't have been more obvious. She'd avoided him as a result, sometimes even when it meant having to deal with her mother instead. 

Whether she liked to admit it to herself or not, she knew enough about psychology to realize the lack of attention she'd gotten from her father from the moment she was born was the reason she so pathetically and desperately sought attention from males everywhere and always now. She'd never had a "girl" friend that she hadn't ultimately betrayed by either stealing her boyfriend or betraying her in some other shocking and even criminal way. Oh, what a tangled web we weave when we have no intention of practicing to deceive...

Apple had attempted to resist every kind of therapy they gave her from the instant she'd been shipped here. Despite herself, she'd begun to feel a kind of equilibrium she'd never experienced before. Maybe this was about safety even. She didn't recognize the emotion yet embraced it. She'd sat stringently mute through individual therapy, yet she'd agreed to do the "daily gratitude journal" Dr. Medina had prescribed a few months ago. At the end of each day, she wrote down what she was grateful for, even if it was nothing more than air and a bed to sleep in. That'd been hard for her, but her entries had grown with the strange contentment in having a daily routine. 

She'd also agreed to small group therapy, and that one had been the hardest part for her. She'd resisted the other females in the sessions because all her life she'd been teased by other girls her age for not seeming to care about anything but her hair, clothes and shoes. She'd been a spoiled princess in every way. The boys had always liked her, of course, but for all the wrong reasons. Her lack of popularity had been difficult for her, but she'd learned from a scandalously early age that drinking and drugs freed everyone from inhibitions. 

She had no memory of losing her virginity, what age, where, because her blackouts had started taking from her everything she hadn't been taught to hold dear. She didn't remember any part of having sex or the things associated with it. Sometimes she thought she might as well be a virgin for how little she knew, or could recall, about the act. But she couldn't deny she'd done things during her blackouts that were at the core of the bitter shame that came out when she was least expecting it and put her face-down on the floor each time. 

Apple looked around, searching for something to get her muse flowing, but she couldn't seem to feel anything emanating from nature. Her gaze landed on Charlize, the newest girl in her small therapy group. She reminded Apple of herself when she first started coming here. She seemed to resent everyone and everything, as if she was only here to do them a favor and not the other way around. Even now, she looked angry as she played the guitar she'd been allowed to bring with her as a positive creative outlet. Even that familiarity didn't seem to bring her joy.

Apple knew the feeling. But, somewhere down the line, she'd settled in here. Maybe it shouldn't have been a surprise, but she liked being told what to do and when to do it, not having to rely on herself to figure out whatever it was she was supposed to be accomplishing. Clay used to do that for her. When he didn't want to do it anymore, her mother did it resentfully. 

But I'm not messed up anymore. I'm sober, clean. I don't have any self-worth and maybe I never will--any more than I'll probably ever have a purpose or the means to figure out what I want, who I am, what I should do. But, here, I'm not destroying myself because I'm on default. Left to my own devices, it's all I know how to do.

She lost herself in sketching Charlize, wondering if she should show her during group therapy what she'd produced. The thought was still going around in her head when she realized the time and hurried to her individual therapy. As Dr. Medina closed the door of her office behind her, her face disturbed, Apple wondered if she was in trouble for being late. They did keep to the clock like sticklers--

"Apple, I truly hate to have to tell you this, but I don't see any reason to beat around the bush. Your funding has been pulled. You'll be discharged on Saturday morning."

Funding...pulled...? "I...I can't. I'm not ready. I can't leave," she spluttered in protest, her mind blaring like a klaxon alarm.

"I'm so sorry. I feel like we were making real progress."

"How could...? When...?"

"I just found out last night or I would have told you sooner." Dr. Medina couldn't have looked more pole-opposite of what Apple associated with mothering if she tried. Her face was lined, kindly, compassionate--all reverse of Veronica, who'd been having plastic surgery since she turned 35, had never experienced a moment of compassion or kindness her whole life.

Veronica decided enough was enough. She wouldn't pay for my rehab anymore. No surprise about that. No more than that Dad couldn't stand strong against her anymore. He capitulated when Veronica demanded I be removed from the clinic. She'll be the one walking through the doors to claim her lost luggage, too. Not Asher. He'll be nowhere in sight because that's what coward do. Hide. 

Like I can talk.

Apple couldn't separate her own emotions growing inside like a tumor. She was angry, terrified, depressed. She didn't want to talk and she barely heard a word of what Dr. Medina said to her during the individual session. She vaguely discerned snippets of the usual--figure out who she was, what she wanted. Without both, she wouldn't have any direction in the real world. And I'll be right back where I started the second I leave. What was the point of any of this? It was as much of a waste as the rest of my life. 

Even as she left the office in a daze, not functioning the rest of the day, she couldn't help marveling she'd been here as long as she had. Was it actually possible that spineless Asher had stood up to his wife for this long? She couldn't imagine his justifications for attempt to do such a thing.

In small group therapy, the counselor told the rest of the girls--Avery, Jaynie, Rhea and Charlize--that she was leaving on Saturday. She didn't want to cry. What was the point? But it was true she felt affection for these girls she'd nearly forgotten she could experience. She'd had one friend in her life that mattered to her: Summer Rosales, someone she met in college and who'd gone on to marry Clay for a short time mostly because Veronica had wanted the match. 

I betrayed her in the worst way a person can possibly betray another. I let her pay the price for my stupidity, and the price had been brutal. To this day, she wears the literal scar after being knifed viciously, a product of what I inadvertently did to her when I stole an expensive diamond bracelet and, when I realized I'd get caught, put it in her bag and let her take the fall for everything. She went to jail, where she was viciously beaten by a lawyer-hater and miscarried the baby she hadn't realized she'd been carrying. Only then could I get myself to take responsibility of my own crime. My parents managed to have all the charges dropped against her, reinstated in law school, with a bright future in the family law firm waiting for her. 

I got community service. That's it. The result of being one of the privileged. 

Why don't I feel like I've ever really been that?

Summer will never forgive me, no matter what I say or do. I've never gotten over that shame and regret and I probably never will. It's why I refused to join AA while in the clinic. I can't make amends for all my high crimes, so why bother with the petty ones? But I've done the unthinkable again here. Made friends I'm not capable of keeping...

Though she'd learned to eat everything on her plate during mealtimes, she wasn't hungry that night. Instead, she sketched a figure that was desolate, directionless, alone and unwanted, no place to go and no purpose for doing anything. Because she hated how that figure looked so much like she could get up and walk off the page--and maybe would tomorrow morning--she tore it from the drawing pad and crumpled it in her hands when she was done.

That night, she went to bed not feeling tired or content. She cried herself to sleep the way she had for months after she first got here. She faced facts. Tomorrow, Veronica would come and she wouldn't need to know who she was or what she wanted anymore. Veronica would tell her. Apple would do exactly what was expected of her, just as she always had because she didn't have options. She'd never been able to fight her mother's iron will. She was rarely able to so much as find her voice around the domineering woman. 

It was over. She was back at square one and nothing could change that. 

dividers_63

Apple was prepared for facing her mother the next morning as she waited with her luggage, but her balance crumbled at the sight of her father beside Veronica. Why would he come? Why face her when he could easily have stayed away and escaped any hint of his blaring cowardice? The catalyst of oddness worked its way through her so she shifted from numb emptiness into a kind of anger she barely knew what to do with.

Discombobulated, she watched her mother direct the deposit of her luggage into the waiting car, then braced herself when Veronica put her arms around her. She didn't intend to reciprocate, but her mother growled into her ear that she was acting like a child and to stop it. Like a submissive robot, she hugged her back. She knew the drill from there. She was passed unceremoniously to her father, but she didn't want to feel that his embrace was any different than the can't-wait-to-get-this-over-with one he'd always given her because it was expected of him. She didn't want to look at his familiar, too handsome, defying-age countenance. His piercing blue eyes and the silver in his hair, the expensive suit and his trim physique so like Clay's were just as they'd always been. But something's changed and I don't know why but I refuse to acknowledge it.

Her mother handled the paperwork in her efficient, no-nonsense manner and they waited patiently. She led the way out to the car. Apple fell in step with her father, not even realizing she intended to speak until the words said under her breath were out: "Maleficent decided it was enough and cut the funding?"

Clay's cruel name for their mother didn't bring Asher's usual scolding. "You wouldn't ask that if you knew how much this cost us," he said, not looking at her. She was used to that. He never seemed to want to face her. But the tone of his voice and the expression on his face bothered her anyway. Was he actually feeling bad about his cowardice? 

I'm projecting. I have to be. He'd never feel bad about anything. "Enlighten me," she murmured.

"Detox alone was in excess of a thousand a day. You went through it twice. Back to back. This inpatient therapy's been about the same per day. You've been here for four months. How much longer was it going to take, Apple?"

"You're right. Getting your daughter well wasn't worth even a fraction of what you guys put up for me."

She walked past him without trying to see his expression or listen if he wanted to defend himself. She got into the back seat and the chauffeur closed the door after her. During the long drive back to the city, to their generations-old mansion, she shut herself off to everyone and everything around her. Once inside, she didn't speak a word to anyone. She went to her room. Without turning on the lights or opening the heavy curtains, she got into bed and shut herself down again. 

When she came to, all the lights were burning brightly and the curtains allowed sunlight to flood in that could have fried her like she was a vampire. Apple didn't open her eyes. She knew what was coming. Her mother's voice was there in the nothingness. "All right, Apollonia, enough of this foolishness. You've been hiding for more than four months. I allowed you two more days, but it ends now."

Apple didn't move, just laid there feeling lost and without the energy that bespoke of life. Her mother had said she'd been asleep for the last forty-eight hours, so now she expected her to get up, get dressed and go to work. 

The last thing I want to do, the last place I want to go. She'd graduated college, law school, passed the bar, got her license to practice, and she'd worked there--sometimes. She'd never been any good at it. Not like Clay had been. He'd been the kind of lawyer who demanded an outrageous retainer. Everyone in the city wanted him. She'd never been surprised her mother couldn't tolerate losing him. He was their cash-cow and star. 

What am I? Even Veronica can't claim I should be in the family law firm. I have no skills to be a lawyer or anything else, even if she was willing to let me try something else.

Apple felt her mother sit at the edge of the bed, and she squeezed her eyes closed even tighter. 

"Look, we don't have a lot of time here. I'm getting fed up with your foolishness."

"What do you mean we don't have time? For what?" Apple asked dully.

"You know exactly what I mean. Your brother has been playing house in that ridiculous excuse for a town for more than six months now. He should be champing at the bit to escape. But we both know there's only one thing that will get him to leave."

Apple peered out of half-closed eyes. "Nothing will. Clay won't leave Harper. And that's where she is. She's in Amethyst, Wisconsin and as long as she's there, that's where Clay will be. So...cut the cord, Mommy Dearest."

"If you go there and tell him you need him, he'll come home. If you need him, he'll do whatever you ask."

Apple burst out with a shocked laugh. "I think you underestimate my power!" Especially with Harper in the picture. His wife controls him now. But a twinge of guilt reminded her of the truth. Love controlled her brother. He loved Harper more than anyone and anything else--so much so he somehow broke free of the indestructible shackles he and Apple had lived in all their lives, chained to do the bidding of their mother.

"I don't think I do. You were in that hospital for four months, Apollonia, and look at you. You're still a wreck. They shamelessly took over a hundred thousand dollars from us, and you're no better off. I think Clay will see you and realize that's a direct result of negligence on his part. But we need to do this before he has that silly wedding reception."

Apple vaguely remembered her brother telling her during nearly every Sunday phone call for the last four months that he and Harper were planning their wedding reception for late June in their vineyard rather than her family's orchard, as they'd originally intended. 

"You can just tell him you've come a little early--to help out with planning, and then spend the time working on him, getting him to see reason about coming back. He can bring that woman with him, if he must, but under no circumstances will she be welcomed back into the firm--"

Harper had been a junior financial officer, slated to move up in the ranks quickly. She'd been promoted from the accounting department very quickly, and Apple had never doubted the reason why. Asher had hoped for a cheap, tawdry affair with Harper that would burn out as fast as he wanted it to so as not to interfere with his joke of a marriage to Veronica. Beyond that, Clay had also been interested in Harper. But when she'd realized Asher's intentions, she'd quit and decided to go home, where she could take over the accounting for the entire town she'd grown up in. Clay hadn't been able to let her go. Not alone anyway.

"If Harper can't come with him, he won't agree. What if the only way to get him back is to agree to let her work at the firm again?" Apple said without the slightest interest in the revolting manipulation.

Veronica sighed. "Fine. She can come back. But she has to work her way back up again. She can't--"

Apple lifted an eyebrow, and Veronica gritted her perfect, white teeth. "Fine. She can come back and have her position back, in full, with all the same benefits...but see if she gets promoted ever again--"

Apple did nothing but stare at her mother, someone she'd spent her life feeling intimidated by. If she'd ever known Veronica's age, she wouldn't have believed it. Her mother looked twenty-five with flawless skin, gorgeous cheekbones, and beautiful sapphire blue eyes. She didn't appear much older than Apple was, though she and Asher worked every single day of the week, including many holidays. Her dedication to the firm should have stolen some of her beauty, but either plastic surgery or nature had always been too kind to her. She literally looked like she'd stepped out of a salon a moment ago every single second of her life. 

She's never looked like s@#t. All my life, she told me I have to make sure I always look picture-perfect. Not surprisingly, my biggest shames have stemmed from waking up after a blackout to find pictures of myself in all the gossip rags...looking far less than perfect. Her litany is "The world is watching. See that you present your best face without fail." And I've failed to do that so often.

"Get up," her mother said even as she took her own advice. "Get ready. Your flight leaves this afternoon."

"Flight? Where am I going?" she spluttered, sitting up with effort that left her winded.

"To Amethyst, of course. We've already settled that. Keep up. You'll have a stopover in Chicago. I assumed you wouldn't want to drive yourself from that point but would wait to catch a flight to La Crosse. I've reserved a car for you there--"

"I haven't driven in months."

"Fine. Then call your brother from La Crosse and ask him to pick you up."

Instantly, Apple shut her mouth at the thought of doing that. She wasn't ready to see Clay, or anyone else for that matter. Her mother clapped her hands, and Apple was instantly rising from the bed, letting herself be propelled toward the bathroom for a shower. 

By the time she got back in her room, the maid had unpacked and repacked her bags. Her flight and car reservations sat on top of the cases with a credit card that Apple didn't want to touch for some reason and not simply because she knew this time it wouldn't be unlimited. 

She dressed, fixed her hair and makeup, then stood staring at her four massive Valextra cases and travel sack, pictured herself lugging them around the airport, to the rental car and finally wherever she was staying in Amethyst--because she absolutely did not want to call Clay until she had no other choice. Shaking her head, she plucked the reservations and credit card off the top and grabbed the trolley and travel sack. She wouldn't bother with the rest. Why would she need it? She'd go to Amethyst, she'd do what Veronica asked and not a single blessed thing else, and then she'd leave.

And do what after? 

After grabbing the cellphone she'd all but gotten used to living without in therapy since Sunday was the only day they were allowed access and could talk to family or friends, she started down the grand staircase with just what she could handle on her own. 

Apple had been the one to instigate that first, ill-advised vacation to Amethyst when she and Summer were best friends and on the cusp of becoming full-fledged lawyers. Apple had opened a map of the USA, closed her eyes, and pointed. Amethyst was where they were going, all expenses paid by her parents for both of them. Amethyst, Wisconsin--tourist town with the slogan "7500 in summer, 75 in winter"--had been where they ended up. Everything that could go wrong had gone horrifyingly wrong...

Apple recalled that about ten years ago, when she'd asininely gotten it into her head that she would get Summer to forgive her or damn the consequences, Clay had gone with her to Amethyst. Summer had fallen in love with some lifer there during their first visit, the man who'd gotten her pregnant, the man she'd married, and she lived there now with him and their passel of kids.

It was late May, not yet tourist season for a resort town. Amethyst wasn't exactly a hotbed of five-star hotels. Far from. There were no hotels. There were rental cabins, and not even very nice ones. She and Summer had stayed in one of them during that vacation that Apple had gone on to ruin her best friend's life following. And she and Clay had stayed in that cabin when she'd sought forgiveness from Summer but hadn't gotten it. Instead, her life had spiraled downhill in every way possible when Summer told her she'd never forget what she'd done, and she never wanted to see her again. The only reason Apple was alive after Summer's stonewalling had been because Clay had dragged her out of one gutter after the other. 

Apple sighed, wanting to block out the memories. It was either stay in a rental cabin again or call Clay. Even though they'd talked every Sunday since her December detox and by all rights she should have no memory of the conversation they'd had when he'd visited her in the hospital then, she'd probably never forget what he'd said to her after she'd pouted and stamped her foot like a spoiled brat, trying to make him feel guilty for abandoning her to their parents. 

"You're the only person who cares if I live or die," she'd said.

"Don't you care, App? Don't you care anything about yourself?" Clay had asked.

She'd withdrawn, muttering, "Why should I?"

"If you didn't care, you wouldn't bother. Listen, little sister, you better learn how to take care of yourself and fast, unless you're willing to move to Amethyst and take up the country bumpkin life yourself. 'Cause that's where I'll be. I don't plan to be your lifeline ever again, let alone your rescue dog. You want me, you come to me. After all the times I did that for you, it's the least you owe me."

Clay isn't coming back. For me, for anyone or anything else. He's with Harper in Amethyst for life, end of story. This is a waste of time. But, if I do what Veronica told me to, she'll stop nagging me. So...I'll go. Do what I have to. Then I'll leave. I'll worry about where to go from there later. 

She had some vague memory of Clay mentioning another place in Amethyst that had built rental cabins in the town's push to expand the tourist season, but she couldn't remember the details. All she could recall was the Bailey rental place she'd stayed every time she'd been there previously. She remembered the mountain man that ran the place. He'd had more facial and head hair than Paul Bunyan. She'd called him "Scruffy McBeard", after a dog Veronica had let her have all of five minutes when she was a kid. Scruffy, the man, had said one word to her thousand--that she remembered best of all...along with her rabid desire to groom him.

She also remembered Clay had mentioned him while she was in detox, and she'd pretended she couldn't remember him... Bailey was his name, first or last she wasn't sure. She'd been horrible to Bailey all those years ago when she and Clay had gone to Amethyst on an ill-fated, poorly planned forgiveness mission. Her only goal had been to get her life back, not to have to live with her guilty conscious. She supposed now that was a big part of why Summer refused to give her what she needed so desperately. Even in her quest for forgiveness, Apple had been as selfish as a person could be. 

During their stay in the rental cabins, Apple had insulted and ordered Bailey around the whole livelong day. He'd never protested any part of it. Whatever she asked for, he gave her without a word. Maybe that was why she'd tried hard to make his life difficult. She'd been ruthlessly cruel to him, fighting him relentlessly even when he wasn't arguing. 

Maybe he's not there anymore. Maybe he won't remember me.

At the bottom of the staircase, she set her trolley case upright and brought her cellphone up, scrolling through her contact list. Unbelievably, she found a listing: Bailey--Scruffy McBeard. The thought of talking to him made her feel shy. She would need to call him. But...later, during her long layover in Chicago.

She grabbed her suitcase trolley again and started toward the front door, surprised to run into her dad on the way. He instantly looked uncomfortable in her presence. But that was at least normal. 

"Let me call Gavin to get the rest of your bags from upstairs--"

"This is all I'm bringing. All I need."

"Where are you going?" he suddenly realized. "You just got here, App. You slept for two days. Are you sure you're well enough to take off for God knows where?"

"I don't have a choice. Veronica has given me my orders. What does it matter to you anyway?"

He looked at her, his clear discomfort stealing into her as well this time. "What is this attitude, Apple? I'm doing my best--"

Though she didn't want to give him any slack, she couldn't deny that he'd stood up to Veronica maybe for the first time in his life for a full four months, spending an obscene amount of money in the process. She should be grateful... I haven't written in my gratitude journal for three days. Now I have something to write in it. But I can't share it with my peeps--Avery, Jaynie, Rhea and even Charlize who pushes everyone away just like I did at the start and still do.

Glancing away, she murmured, "Veronica wants me to talk Clay into coming back. She's made all the arrangements." 

Asher's face proved his wife hadn't been consulting him on the big life decisions yet again. He stared at her. "Are you kidding? I thought she finally let that bone go when we attended Clay and Harper's wedding."

"She was biding her time. If you don't know your own wife by now--"

"Listen, this is ludicrous. Clay won't take kindly to her interfering again, and we'll drive him even further away from us. Let me talk to your mother--"

"I can't. My flight is leaving soon and I don't have any time to waste or I'll miss it. She'll never let me forget it if I don't do this."

"I'll talk to her. You just go back upstairs."

Apple didn't bother to say no again. She turned and walked out of the house. While she didn't want to do what she was being forced to, she had a direction, at least temporarily, and it didn't matter now any more than it ever had that she dreaded everything to come.

 

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Writers Exchange is a Christian publishing house, although we do publish many, many other genres and not all our authors are Christian:)

We have been publishing and selling books since 2000, but in 2017 we decided to sell MOST of our books exclusively from Amazon. A number of our books are also available from other retailers. We have made it very easy for you to find our books from whichever retailer you prefer, either in the "buy" links on each book page, but also by the Menu Item "Our Books by Retailer" which will show you our books at Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble and Kobo.

So what is here, that is not available at Amazon and other distributors?
* "Universe" pages that go into a lot more detail about the various fictional universes some of our authors have created,
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