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.
Once upon a time, Ben Johnson believed he had forever sewn up with Layla. But fairy tales rarely come true in reality. Long before her nephew was in a hunting accident and she blamed Ben for not preventing it, the two of them had broken up, citing irreconcilable differences. Layla hadn’t wanted his family to know the truth. Following the accident, she walked out–for good, he assumed.
Charlize Seagrave never fit in anywhere, drawn to danger, darkness, and drugs. For years, she was the guitarist and songwriter for a death-metal band and involved with the frontman who only encouraged her deadly addictions. In order to hide from Freyr, Charlize checked herself rehab. Later, clean–another first in her life–she attended her new friend’s wedding and met Ben. Despite their instant connection, he was supposedly in a committed relationship and she had no interest whatsoever in commitment. If only Ben wasn’t so unlike every other person she’s ever known. If only she didn’t feel like he alone understands and gets her.
When Charlize returns to Amethyst at Halloween, Ben knows loneliness has nothing to do with his feelings for her. His attraction to her the last time she was in Amethyst wasn’t something he was comfortable with, despite that he and Layla had broken up even before his family learned of the fact. But now Layla is implying she’s had a change of heart. Ben wonders if this is all getting too complicated…or if the solution is as simple as a kiss.
Genre: Contemporary Romance Word Count: 48, 131
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(ebooks are available from all sites, and print is available from Amazon and Barnes and Noble)
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Was it possible to be so overcome with emotion, you felt nothing? Charlize Seagrave had realized she couldn’t cry at the funeral. That felt wrong to her, but to come here, to Gran’s house, and still be as dry-eyed as a stranger was unforgivable. The first person she’d ever loved, the only person in the world who’d ever cared about her, was dead. Being here in her house was almost enough to choke Charlize with nostalgia, and yet no tears came as she looked at every familiar thing, smelling the lingering scent of burnt coffee in the air. Gran had liked her coffee burnt and bitter, and she had the blackened percolator to prove it.
I was safe here, Charlize thought. Instead of putting the old aluminum, stovetop percolator in the box she’d brought along in case she found anything she wanted to keep, she set it on the floor next to the equally ancient stove and moved slowly through the rooms. Even when she’d first come to live with her grandmother, the house and all its furnishings had been rundown and threadbare, yet they chugged on, providing the service required. Just like Gran. God, she was stubborn as a mule…but she was a fortress. How often did I think if I just stayed here forever, nothing could ever touch me?
If only Gran’s goodness had rubbed off on her only daughter…
Often Charlize concluded that her personality had to be a direct result of her mother’s heroin addiction, her drinking and smoking while pregnant (not to mention before and after). It was a miracle Charlize hadn’t died in the womb instead of being born a month early an addict herself and forced to undergo hardline withdrawal for the first tenuous weeks of her life. If the courts hadn’t obligated her mother to go through rehab for the remainder of her pregnancy when her doctor reported her, Charlize surely wouldn’t have survived. Instead, she was alive, but damaged in ways she was still calculating.
Have I been living my life at all since I left here? Or wasting it? Can I even answer that with any degree of accuracy? But Gran would defend me by saying I was doing what I needed to do in order to make my mark on the world, shake off the past, and move beyond it.
This house had been her sanctuary, the one place she could always come back to if she needed to. Yet she hadn’t. When she left, she hadn’t come back because she’d discovered a dark, terrifying side of herself she couldn’t break free from, nor did she actually want to deep down. And she’d known if Gran saw her, in a single glance she’d realize how far she’d fallen.
Gran took me in when my big-time dealer parents were finally caught and arrested. By that time, I was already a miserable child. But she somehow knew exactly what I didn’t need: She wouldn’t let me disappear for long. She encouraged me but not in the same way my parents’ friends and clients did, like I was a freak. When I was a tiny little girl, I’d taught myself to play a discarded guitar. But I had to make up my own way of playing because my fingers were too small to make the chords properly. Those stoned deadbeats rewarded me with money and gifts that I squirreled away in my rat hole in case I ever needed to run and become invisible out in the world instead of inside their sprawling estate.
Here in her grandmother’s house, Charlize learned trust, love, respect, security, and goodness. But leaving these walls taught her she was different from everyone else. She’d never fit in at school. She was teased relentlessly for how small and pale she was compared to the other kids, for her inability to know how to act in nearly every situation, for her crippling shyness. But she didn’t fight back. She hid even there. She recalled her grandmother saying she wished she could homeschool her, but that had never been an option. Her husband had died young, just after their only child had been born, leaving behind debts Gran had never been able to catch up with or pay off. She’d worked two jobs for as long as anyone who knew her could remember. Their poverty was no doubt a big part of why Charlize’s mom went looking for wealth, even if it meant becoming the very definition of immorality.
Gran had been too proud to accept a handout–from her own daughter, of course, considering where that money came from. But Gran had refused it from Charlize, too, when she’d legitimately made her own money as Nyx, the guitarist/pianist/singer-songwriter in the cult-followed, death metal band Brideshead Ripped. Gran had taken care of herself right up to the end, when her Type 1 Diabetes got away from her and she developed diabetic ketoacidosis.
Charlize sat down on the twin bed in what had been her small room during her happy years here. It looked exactly the way it had when she left, down to the thick, black curtains her grandmother had sewn for her, knowing her sensitivity to light, and the warm quilt she’d also made by hand.
I was always cold, still am, in any weather. Heroin baby. I learned how to sleep with both eyes closed in this room. I woke up without fear at the sound of Gran’s gentle voice calling that breakfast was ready. I was always hungry. She never complained at how much I ate, only about the way I tried to sneak food into my room and hide it in case I got hungry. She said I didn’t need to do that. Whenever I was hungry, her food was my food.
Charlize took a deep, shaky breath, remembering the things she’d thought about in this room. Tiny dreams, never big enough to cause waves. She’d wanted to write music, play it, have people enjoy it…though she never wanted to step into the spotlight. And she hadn’t needed to even after she got a three-contract deal with Randall Records, one of the biggest record companies in the business with some of the most famous artists like Gregg Stevens and Rain. Freyr, the lead singer of Brideshead Ripped, craved the spotlight along with all the control. Charlize had been the talent that drew the interest of Paul Randall, but Freyr always wanted to be the leader of the band, the focus. She hadn’t cared enough to do it herself, occupying the darkest corner even on stage and wearing masks to hide her identity, and so she’d let him take charge, just as Seker (drummer) and Bes (bass guitarist) had.
Charlize closed her eyes on the memories she wanted to fight. She couldn’t cry, but the emotional overload she’d been shouldering since Paul Randall called her and told her about her grandmother’s sudden death felt too heavy. Always, since she’d left here, she’d fallen back on her old self-soothing techniques and a bunch of new, destructive ones she’d learned. Maybe Freyr couldn’t take the blame for all of them, but he’d taught her about pleasure, oblivion, becoming what and whoever you wanted to be. He’d been so different from everyone else, just like she’d always been.
To this day, she had no idea what made him the person he was. She only concluded it’d started happening to him in the womb and even after he emerged. He was an officially diagnosed psychopath, but at first he’d simply been wild, exciting, breathtakingly reckless to her, introducing her to hedonism in all its forms. She hadn’t realized then that he’d molded himself into the character he wanted to play, altered slightly in every situation. Did even he know who he was? She doubted it. But she’d gotten addicted too fast to pull back.
When it was too late, she’d had to find a way to escape, but she’d never been tempted to run back here. Freyr knew nothing about her grandmother or her quiet, safe life in this place. She’d never told him her real name any more than he’d told her his. There was no way he could find her at Gran’s, but she’d refused to take any risks. Instead, she’d checked herself into a multi-condition, long-term rehabilitation center in New York at the beginning of the year. Only Paul and his wife Wendy and her grandmother had been aware where she was, but she hadn’t told any of them right away either. Paul and Wendy were like cool, protective and loving parents to her and, in the time they’d worked together, she’d come to trust them implicitly.
Paul said he’d never felt close to anyone else in the band except her. He’d only accepted the others because they came with Charlize. He’d personally developed their group into something marketable, though he’d had to fight Freyr more often than not. By the time they’d fulfilled their contract for three albums, Charlize had wanted to be done with Freyr’s insanity. Their other bandmates had enough as well. Fame with their first album had gone straight to his head. They’d had a cult following in Los Angeles and Japan, barely making a blip anywhere else. Freyr took over the band fully on the second album, corrupting Charlize’s songs to the screamer thrash crap he preferred and, because she hadn’t wanted to fight him, Paul hadn’t either. But their last two albums had done little to increase their following.
While she’d been in rehab, Freyr forged her signature, along with Seker and Bes’s, on a new contract with Randall Records. That one had been a cautious deal in which Randall Records would contractually provide financial backing for making a single EP with a maximum of four songs and the band wouldn’t receive any royalties until they’d paid back the advance in full. Months had passed without any progress being made, and Paul had finally got hold of her to find out what was going on. He’d hated dealing with Freyr if he didn’t have to.
Long story short, he’d found out the psychotic showman had tricked him with the contract, taking the money for himself. Whether Freyr intended to convince the three of them to make an album or never had any intention of it, there was no way to know because he’d gone underground as soon as the cash crossed his palm. No one had seen him, least of all Charlize.
Paul had believed Charlize, Seker, and Bes knew nothing about Freyr’s signature forging on the contract. He’d even offered Charlize a solo record deal under her terms–namely she chose her identity, didn’t have to do the concerts she hid in the shadows and masked herself to avoid. Paul also wanted to protect her against Freyr, even offering to hire a bodyguard for her. She couldn’t live like that, but she knew as well as Paul did that Freyr was after her.
What would’ve happened if I’d come here instead of gone into rehab? Would Freyr have found me? There’s no way he could. But maybe Gran would be alive now. I could have been here when she developed pneumonia that sent her diabetes crashing. In the past, she’s always managed her condition without issue. The pneumonia must have put her over the edge. By protecting her from Freyr by not coming here, did I miss my chance to take care of her and provide for her for once?
Rehab had taken so much of the money Charlize had hoarded. She’d gotten by as long as she had since then by being frugal…and holing up with one of the friends she’d unfathomably made during rehab through most of the summer this past year. She’d stayed there far longer than she intended, telling herself she’d done it because a body at rest tended to stay at rest. But the mere thought of that place brought a face to her mind that disrupted her thoughts completely.
It couldn’t have been because of Ben. No way. Because he was in a committed relationship at that time, and I didn’t and don’t have the slightest interest in anything that spells permanent.
Almost without thinking, Charlize gathered up the quilt the bed was made with, folding it carefully and moving back to the front door to place it in the box waiting there. When she straightened, she saw one of the few photographs of her and her grandmother stuck into a framed, handmade painting her grandmother had done of her garden.
Plucking the photo out of the old frame, Charlize looked at her own small face, whiter than snow, her odd, dark red hair so bold against the contrast of her sickly face. Her ice green eyes disturbed nearly everyone who looked into them. In the curled picture, she’d been thin, shapeless, forever smaller than everyone around her. She couldn’t guess what age she’d been. But Gran looked old. She always had, from the first time Charlize met her. The lines on her face were wear and tear, harsh-world symptoms. Yet the kindness was evident, too, especially in this picture.
Hurting and dry-eyed, Charlize stuffed the memento into the back pocket of her ragged black jeans.
Quickly, she detoured to the side door between the kitchen and the living room, where the porch was. Like clockwork, Gran had come out to her rocking chair to smoke her one cigarette a night. Even on cold evenings, she’d indulged in her only vice. She hadn’t wanted her granddaughter to join her on the porch while she was out there, and Charlize knew it was because she didn’t want to subject her to second-hand smoke. More than once, Charlize attempted to point out she’d come into this world addicted to the worst crap imaginable. What difference would a little cigarette smoke make? Gran refused to bend to rationale, if any existed in Charlize’s claim.
In the still afternoon, the late October air was chill and she rubbed her leather-jacket clad arms for warmth as she looked out at the old tire swing Gran had hung from an apple tree. Even when she’d been a teenager it’d been a favorite spot and activity for Charlize. Her feet carried her to it now, the dry leaves crunching beneath her worn, black, strappy buckle boots. Before consciously aware she’d decided to have a swing, she was slipping into the “seat”. She was little bigger than she’d been as a child or teen, but the creaks coming from the thick branch made her wonder if the bough would break.
This had been the only way her Gran would let her join her at night for her smoke. Charlize would swing, far from the smoke, and her mind would be a million miles away, just like when she played her guitar. This was a place to get lost, to become invisible. But never for long. Her grandmother wouldn’t risk Charlize’s health if it was too cold to stay out for long, given her respiratory issues.
“Don’t fly away, little bird. You’d be missed too badly,” Gran would call.
Charlize opened her eyes, feeling the ghost of words unspoken but so familiar she could almost hear them settle over her. But I did fly away, Gran. And I flew into the worst web, the kind you wanted to shelter me from. I never thought I’d get untangled from the threads of my downfall. But I did. I should have come back right away once I was free. But I didn’t. Now you’re gone–
A noise startled her, making her heartbeat fast and erratic as she slowed herself and slipped out of the swing. She ran to the side door, not even certain why she was so afraid, even as the thought, I knew I couldn’t run and hide forever–from Freyr or my own addictions, made her wonder what she suspected was happening.
She felt no surprise at all when she stepped through the side door and saw exactly what she expected to. Freyr was at the front door, on one knee with the quilt in his hand.
Impossible! He didn’t know her real name, let alone her Gran’s, which wasn’t the same. He knew nothing about this place where she’d grown up happy, albeit divergent from everyone else. There was no way he could know. Paul and Wendy wouldn’t have told him. No one else knew where she was.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, her voice seeming to echo strangely with both doors open behind them.
It was a question she’d never needed to ask him before. From the first time she’d given herself to him, like a vampire, he’d taken it as a permanent invitation. To own her and mold her ruthlessly into what he wanted her to be.
I’m weak. I’ll give in again, lose myself to him, give myself over to his evil…
Like hell. Not this time.
He dropped the quilt back in the box and rose slowly. “I hired a private detective.”
“With the money Paul gave you to make an album?”
Everything about Freyr was dark. Ninety-five percent of his skin had been covered with frightening, vile tattoos. He’d shaved his head and the shadow left behind was as dark as actual hair. His eyes were cold, brooding and black, the brows slashed above them thick with menace, just as he intended. Even the clothes he wore to show off his finely sculpted, rigidly fit body were all dark.
He didn’t respond to her question. His tone was calm, unhurried. She could hear the skein of amusement just beneath the surface when he did speak. “I kept an eye on your grandmother. I knew eventually you’d come back here.”
He’s dangling me like a cat with a mouse. “You had no right.”
“You had no right to disappear.”
“I don’t belong to you. I don’t want you here. Anywhere near me.”
“The sooner you accept that I’ll always be with you, little Nyx, the better.”
She’d chosen the false name she’d given him as her own when they met, but she hated the way he’d fleshed out an entire history of her life, playing on the Greek goddess of the night lore.
Without warning, something exploded inside her head with the realization how easy it’d be to just give up. Give in. But she physically ran away from that, reaching her grandmother’s bedroom in a moment. But not to lock herself in. She snatched blindly behind the door, where Gran always kept her shotgun loaded with birdshot to scare away the squirrels who got in her flowers or garden.
Charlize returned to the kitchen with the gun pointing at Freyr, who’d moved deeper into the main room.
He laughed when he saw her scoping him down with it. “You don’t even know if that thing is loaded, Nyx, let alone how to shoot it.”
Without moving her eye from the sight, she took the safety off and drew back the hammers. “Try again, Freyr,” she said in an equally calm voice just before she pulled the trigger. The birdshot hit him between his neck and shoulder. His legs buckled at the impact. He clutched his cheek, caught in the blast, and screamed in pain and shock.
“I don’t belong to you, Freyr. I never have. Whatever we shared when we met, it wasn’t real. It didn’t last. It’s dead and gone. For me, it’s over. You need to let go now. Nothing’s changed since the last time I saw you, when I told you I’m done with you.”
His teeth were clenched as blood dripped down his cheek and neck, seeping through his hand. “You’re right. Nothing’s changed. You’ll always be mine. We’ll always be together. You can’t escape me. Besides, we both know you don’t have the guts to fire that thing where it counts.”
He taught me the pleasure of pain. Brought me into his darkness. But I escaped. And I’ll do it again.
This time, she aimed at his torso. He wore a hoodie zipped only to his bellybutton that showed off muscles. As he collapsed, screaming in agony, blood exploding from his chest, his expression was almost comical. She dropped the gun, turning to pull closed the side door behind her. Without wavering, she strode to her box near the front door, muttering, “I hope you didn’t get blood on Gran’s quilt, you freak.”
Despite how horrible his wounds looked–like gaping red holes in his chest and the side of his head like acid burns–she wasn’t sure how badly she’d hurt him. She looked down at him, almost waiting for him to move.
“I learned to hate you, Freyr. You taught me things I wish I didn’t know, didn’t have to remember, will probably fight against for the rest of my life. Eventually, I might be able to forgive you. If you leave me alone. But…not until then.”
His cell phone had fallen out of the pocket of his jacket, and she leaned down, grabbing it and the box in one long sweep. She tossed both into the passenger side of her rental car. With shaking hands, she went through her pockets, searching for the keys. Shaking became quaking so, a moment later, she barely got the keys in the ignition and started the car.
Am I dreaming? I don’t remember the last time I slept. Maybe none of this is really happening. It’s just a nightmare. That’s why it doesn’t feel real. How badly did I hurt him? Gran could barely get that shotgun to scare away the squirrels, so I know I didn’t kill him. But should I call 9-1-1?
She wasn’t thinking, but she put the car in drive and mindlessly drove until she was far enough away for one clarifying thought to enter her mind. Pulling over, she saw Freyr’s phone in the box, on top of the quilt her grandmother made just for her. All that’s left… A tapestry of the sheltered life she made for me here in the only haven I’ve ever known. But Freyr stole that, too.
She picked up the phone and dialed 9-1-1. When someone answered, she gave her grandmother’s address and said there was an intruder in the house so she shot him with birdshot. When the person asked who she was, she hung up. Getting out, she crossed to the opposite side of the road and threw the phone into the ditch’s puddle of muck.
After she returned to the car, she turned the heat up to stop her involuntary shivering. Then she dialed the phone number of the person she’d seen at the funeral, a realtor who’d tried to remind her they’d gone to high school together and given her a business card. Lindsay. Linds. They hadn’t exactly been friends. Charlize remembered little about school, and even the not pretty, not popular girl was only vaguely familiar to her. “This is Charlize. I’ve just been to my grandmother’s house… You said you could sell it. Can you…? I can’t stay in town. I have to go. I took what I want. Sell or give away everything else.”
“Charlize? Okay. I don’t mind doing that for an old friend and for your Gran. But if I have any takers on the house, you’ll need to get involved in the process.”
I wasn’t a friend of yours. Why do you think we were friends? I’ve never had many ties. Just Gran.
“Okay. Call me.” Charlize hung up, feeling her throat close as if to block a scream. Her eyes burned, and she might have been suffocating for the weight pressing down on her.
If Freyr’s okay, he’ll have memorized the rental license plate number. He’ll come after me. I have to ditch this car. I have nowhere to go. Paul and Wendy? No. I can’t involve them. They’ve already done so much for me. The only safe place I’ve ever been in was–
Her grandmother was dead, the house no longer the safe place it’d once meant for her. I’m alone. Stranded.
Against all reason, another place and a name popped into her head that gave her anxious solace in a moment of abject panic: Amethyst, Wisconsin. Ben Johnson.
Ben Johnson had sneaked away from his family working on building the restaurant to ensure he’d have the Johnson Family Resort host house to himself. Last time he’d called Layla, he’d made the mistake of doing it while his family was gathered here, and he’d added another knockdown round of public humiliation to his disgrace. Bad enough they’d all been nearby the porch when his ex-girlfriend screamed her rage at him just before she walked out on him seven weeks ago. Her loudly vocal snubbing over the telephone had somehow felt worse.
He’d planned this phone call carefully. His only sister kept driving it home to him that he didn’t have to let Layla go, even if he really wanted to. But he couldn’t tell her that. For some reason, she seemed to think Layla would take him back if he exerted the slightest pressure. And, Tally insisted, if she does, I’ll realize it’s what I’ve wanted all along. But I knew way back in June, when Layla actually broke up with me, that it was the best thing for both of us. Maybe once upon a time, I believed she was everything I ever wanted in a woman. But the bloom was still on the rose then.
Only my sister and all the women in my family fell in the love with idea of me and Layla forever, and Tally won’t let it go, even when I never want to go back. At the time of their split, his youngest brother had been planning his wedding and Layla was part of her bridal party. Layla had already become so close to his family, especially his sister and sisters-in-law, and she hadn’t been ready to admit the truth to them about their breakup. She’d even worried Bay and Apple would kick her out of the wedding party if they found out they’d broken up.
Ben sighed, hoping his sister got Layla’s story about intending to come back to him dead wrong.
“You two were so much in love. Who could have been more? Any fool could see it. You were meant to be together. You can’t just let her go. Just keep talking to her, reminding her about what the two of you had together. She’ll take you back. When she does, it’ll be like nothing happened.”
Tally had said that once or a thousand times since Layla stormed out. Even his other sisters-in-law had jumped on the bandwagon, trying to get him to reconcile. But he’d made a promise, one that seemed stupid to him now in light of the fact that Tally had been talking to Layla on the side and his sister was convinced Layla didn’t believe they’d really broken up. Layla called what they were doing “taking a break”. Ben was at a loss to explain that when Tally mentioned it, given that he and Layla had actually broken up in June, long before her legendary walk-out in September. That’d been her choice, just as it’d been her decision not to tell his family they weren’t together anymore.
Ben paused as he considered his own crazy head back then. Maybe he should have called an end to their farce much sooner. But he remembered planning to do that multiple times and stopping himself when the time actually came. The biggest reason I wanted it over with Layla was because I was having feelings for Charlize that were too over the top…especially in light of the fact that Charlize kept saying so often how she didn’t see the point of love and romance and committed relationships. To seal the breakup with Layla might’ve been the first step in getting my heart broken by someone I was already half over the moon about–
But when Layla walked out after publicly unmanning me…hell, how could our relationship not have been over?
The first time Tally told him Layla didn’t consider their relationship a done deal, he’d called his ex-girlfriend, trying to keep the conversation quiet and as private as it could be in a house full of family. Unfortunately, that conversation had provided anything but closure as he’d gotten another earful of her hostility that even those in the living room heard loud and clear.
This time he had the house to himself. Much as he hated the idea of taking the coward’s way out by not having it out face to face, if she wouldn’t come back here to allow that, this was the only way.
After Layla stormed out, she’d gone back to Georgia to live with her mama, close enough she could check on her nephew Jack while he recovered. That she’d gotten a job a few weeks into their separation had seemed to Ben like the clincher to their relationship. It implied she expected to stay there for a long time or indefinitely. Yet Tally claimed Layla was saying the opposite in her ear.
After his ex- picked up his call, she coolly informed him she just got home from work.
“How are Jack and your mom?” he asked politely, steeling himself for a potential rampage.
She gave an annoyed sigh as she said, “No change.” He already knew that wasn’t true. Her nephew and his parents called him themselves every so often to let him know how Jack was doing.
In the background, he heard something that further confused him. “Is that a dog?” he asked in shock. He knew her mom didn’t have a dog–had no time to take care of one, working a full-time job along with a part-time one. Why would Layla get a dog? If she was unfathomably telling Tally she was coming back eventually, why would she get a dog?
“I work with a vet,” she explained in a clipped tone. “They have a rescue dog program. So I took Ripper in.”
“Ripper?” he asked in disbelief.
“He’s a fawn pug puppy, though he’s much smaller than most pugs. Just the cutest thing ya ever did see.”
In the past, the enthusiasm that brought out her Southern charm and twang turned him on. Now it only served to remind him of just how unfair she’d been, telling him she wanted to break up with him and not tell his family, keep up appearances in the host house they lived in with several of his brothers and sister, as well as with her accusations before she walked out saying they needed to “take a long and maybe permanent break from each other”…when in truth they’d already broken up earlier that summer. But Ben had been with her long enough to know the translation: No matter how many times he said he was sorry about it, she’d forever be furious with him for inadvertently convincing her 12-year-old nephew to go bear hunting in Canada in September.
Layla came from a huge family of hunters. Her daddy had been killed in a hunting accident when she was just a little girl, and she’d never gotten over it. So, while the rest of her family’s hunters, including Jack’s own parents, tried to convince the boy to hunt with them, Layla filled his ears with “sense”. Apparently, she thought she’d persuaded him not to go with Ben, his brothers, and her aunt and uncle to Canada.
The party headed off to Canada, but Ben knew when he got back Layla would give him a violent rebuke about it. Only her fears–luckily not her worst ones–came true. Jack had been injured. She’d been a ticking time bomb when they returned to Amethyst. Jack was alive, his arm mauled by an angry bear and broken. But he was alive. She hadn’t acknowledged any of that. She’d seen only what she wanted to see.
Ben hadn’t intended to talk her nephew into going hunting with them. He’d been sharing the fun, bittersweet memories he had of him and his brothers going hunting with their dad in Canada. While he knew Layla had issues about hunting, his point hadn’t been to talk her nephew into the very thing she’d been trying to steer him away from. That’d just kind of happened from his reminiscing. He’d tried numerous times to apologize to her about that to no avail.
Enough small talk and pleasantries. Out with it. Time to confront her and make her see that our relationship is over now and we’re just prolonging the inevitable by stalling. “Layla…I get that what happened to Jack–and me–was scary as hell. But he’s fine–”
“He is not fine!” she started in a shrill, scolding voice that didn’t belong to a sexy Georgia hottie.
“He’s alive, is what I meant, and he’ll recover completely,” Ben added, just barely keeping the anger out of his tone. “You went back to your mama, you got a job, and now you got a dog. It’s pretty clear you’re not intending to come back, so why are you telling Tally a whole different story?”
“Benji…” she said in that contradictory aggravated, uber-patient voice she’d always used that got on his nerves like nobody’s business. “I’m just not ready to decide anything.”
“What exactly is it you’ll be deciding? Or did you forget we broke up? A long time ago. Five months ago. A hell of a lot longer than the seven weeks since my family thinks we split. But you’ve been telling Tally different.”
She was mad at me when she floored it out of Amethyst. I assumed she’d cool off as soon as she saw the facts: I wasn’t being insensitive to her fears when I talked to her nephew. I was just talking about my life, my past, the good times I had as a kid. Something bad happened while he was under my care, but I did everything I could to save him, and myself, then. Jack’s healing fast and, instead of being put off by hunting forever, he’s okay with it now. He’s coming here with his parents for deer hunting in November.
This year would be the launch of the Johnson Family Resort Hunting Lodge. To get through any winter financially in a resort town with a population of just over a hundred people in the dead season, his family had forever been trying out money-making schemes. His youngest brother Bailey came up with the idea of having a hunting lodge at the resort in winter, since they had almost no renters for the cabins until spring.
As kids, they’d gone with their dad to the hunting lodge in Winnipeg, and the idea of doing the same in their neck of the woods could be money. They’d been promoting and setting up for it most of the year and they’d been booked solid from their launch coming up in early November straight through the whole winter season. Layla’s own family would be filling more than a few cabins at Thanksgiving. Jack was coming along, though he wouldn’t actually be hunting. His arm was almost healed, his mental state ideal to get back out there. But his parents wouldn’t let him go out with the sling still on his arm. Jack bragged about the experience now–something Ben imagined solidified Layla’s anger.
Once she figured out Jack’s fine and she had no right to be pissed at me, I figured we’d do what we should’ve long ago and tell my family the truth about our relationship. We’re kaput. How long does she expect me to keep up this farce?
“It’s gonna take as long as it’s gonna take, Benji,” Layla said like some strict school teacher who didn’t like being sassed. “I have every right to be upset by what happened.”
Ben only just held his tongue. He’d felt guilt for a while after what happened to Jack. The kid had been his charge that day and he didn’t like what’d happened. But he knew those events weren’t his fault. He’d done everything right. Hell, when all was said and done, he’d saved both of their lives. Layla was being overemotional because her father died in a hunting accident, so she was irrational because this was her hot button. Jack’s accident had hit it hard. Ben couldn’t deny her reaction was bound to happen sooner or later.
His silence obviously drew her ire again because she asked in a deadly tone he knew was rigged with a snare trap if he responded wrong, “Do you not see what you did wrong, Benji? None of what happened needed to happen. Jack wasn’t gonna go. But, no, you couldn’t leave well enough alone. You had to go and talk him into goin’ along, tellin’ all your stories about you and your daddy and your brothers and what fun y’all had bringin’ down some poor, defenseless black bear–“
“Defenseless? A black bear?”
She continued as if he hadn’t interrupted. “–in Winnipeg. What did I tell you would happen? Jack was mauled by a big, bad, angry bear, Benji! And you expect me to just get over what could-a happened instead so easily?”
“You’re the one who asked me to talk to him about hunting with my dad in Canada–” he started, but realized suddenly that there was no point in continuing.
Jack’s parents came down with the flu when we were at the hunting lodge in Canada. They personally asked me to take Jack out on the hunt so he wouldn’t miss anything. We sat up in that rifle stand a good three hours before a black bear crossed our path. Jack took a shot, and it was a hell of a shot. Clean, decisive. Done. Brought the thing down, and we let it sit five minutes unmoving before I went down by myself to make sure it was dead. Until I was absolutely sure, I refused to let Jack join me. I poked it, verified it was dead, and then Jack rushed down to check it out up close.
I still can’t believe what happened after that, and none of the other experienced hunters in Layla’s family and my own can believe it either. The bear wasn’t dead, after all. That monster reared up suddenly and knocked Jack aside like he was a straw doll. Broke his arm and cut a gouge in it with its enormous, sharp claws.
I was stunned, but only for a second. I knew I had to bring it down permanently, so I did what I had to. I didn’t get paralyzed by shock or fear. I brought up my hunting rifle and I shot it between the eyes three times. It went down. This time, it stayed down.
More than a month later, the kid’s fine, will recover 100% mobility and even his scars’ll be so faint, they might not be noticeable after a few years.
Ben flushed at his defensive thoughts, his mind going back to that incident over and over, like a tongue probing an empty hole where a tooth had been pulled. That had been his first experience, being fooled by a stunned bear. It’d happened so fast…
But hearing her say what happened to Jack is an indication of my worth as a husband, as a father to any kids I might have in the future, was the killer for me.
Ben still hadn’t gotten over those cruel, unfair words hurled at him before she ran out of the house like her heels were on fire. Everything inside him wanted to strike out at her for them now. But he realized now that he’d gone along with the incomprehensible prolonging of a dead romance for his own reasons. It was time to end this.
As gently and calmly as he could, he started, “Layla, look, you don’t seem to want to talk about the fact that we split up a long time ago. Why are you telling my sister you’re still coming back to me, you just don’t know when?”
“I’m just not sure ’bout anything, Benji.”
“Not sure about the breakup you suggested back in June? What does that mean?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Well, I do. I promised I’d keep this from my family, but I won’t do that much longer. Especially if you don’t tell me why we can’t just tell ’em the truth.” Although Ben had his own misgivings about the situation, he felt a twinge of annoyance now. From the start, she hadn’t allowed him to get a word in edgewise–about much of anything. She seemed to think she was the only one who got a say in their relationship.
She sighed again. “Fine. Maybe I’ll think about comin’ back at Thanksgiving so we can talk about it. My family’s gonna be there anyways. But I can’t promise y’all I’ll be free then.”
“Are you implying there’s somebody else, Layla? If that’s the case, why’re you telling Tally we’re still together?”
Not a single second filled the space before she was screaming, “How dare you even suggest such a thing, Benji Johnson! I haven’t done anythin’ wrong.”
She hung up without another word.
Ben blew out a heavy, grieved sigh as he took his cell phone away from his ear.
Does she still love me? What else makes sense? While I initially thought she was looking for a way out when she said we should break up but not tell my family, she started acting weirdly jealous, as if we were still together, when I showed the slightest interest in someone else. The whole hunting thing might just be a smoke screen. Tally believes me and Layla are fated to be together, and I’m missing the chance at everything I ever wanted by not begging Layla to come back. But right now the only thing I really know is I want the truth to out, the way it’s supposed to inevitably.
Point in fact, he had no wish to hurt Layla deeply, especially if she did still have feelings for him. Once upon a time, he had loved her and thought he wanted to be with her forever.
Ben tossed his phone down on the magazine and mail covered kitchen table in front of him. Well, that went well. Not. Scraping back in his chair, he bent over his knees.
He didn’t know Layla Dupriest–once his sweet, sexy Southern Belle–anymore. While he wanted to think her Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde persona started when she first broke up with him, making him promise not to tell his family the truth, then continued with her acting like a jealous shrew, something niggled at him, insisting the about-face that ended with her storming out following her nephew’s accident couldn’t be the whole story.
Just before his dad died, Ben had decided the one thing he hadn’t done in his life was travel. He’d scraped together some cash and headed to Los Angeles in his old, pumpkin-orange pickup truck that stood out like a sore thumb in La-La Land, just like it did in Amethyst. He’d liked being there enough to get a job so he could stick around longer. Mostly, he’d loved the nightclubs, the thrash-metal bands that played live Downtown.
The females in Tinsel Town were vastly different from the ones he’d known in tiny Amethyst, Wisconsin. While they threw themselves at him in a way that could easily have gone to his head if he’d let it, he’d been raised better than to hook up every night. Until that point, all his relationships had been at least pretty committed. He’d dated, mostly exclusively, and he didn’t sleep around with just any woman who was willing. He had to have strong feelings for her, or he was no-go. Sex was always better in a relationship, anyway, and he’d learned that the hard way when he got drunk one night and woke up with a stranger–and not the kind he might have felt justified bedding. Namely, someone beautiful he felt an instant connection with, not to mention dynamite chemistry.
Not only was this particular woman bald–wearing a wig by choice–but she didn’t have any eyebrows. Sometime during the night, she’d rubbed off the makeup that her eyebrows solely consisted of, and the sight of her was enough to make him cry out in shock in the harsh morning light. He couldn’t decide if he was glad he couldn’t remember their time in the hotel bed or not. Even if he didn’t, his shame had been increased by his disgust for what he’d done–or potentially might have done–with a stranger he’d found repulsive. While he was dressing as fast as humanly possible, she’d said in a bored voice, “You can get that look off your face, Billy Bob. The bird didn’t land. Didn’t even get off the ground. So your virginity is intact.”
What Bald Girl’s parting words actually meant, he wasn’t as a hundred percent sure of as he wanted to be. Once he’d gotten back to his apartment, he’d found the one condom he kept in his wallet (more for emergencies than that he thought he’d actually use it) still there and he remembered seeing one of a brand he didn’t use sitting on the nightstand, unopened and therefore unused in the hotel room. While he’d never know the truth, a part of him wanted to believe he hadn’t had sex with Bald Girl and her words only confirmed that.
After that, he’d run all the way home to Wisconsin like a hick exposed to the real world for the first time, not liking what his temporary insanity said about him. He’d never realized how petty he was, and didn’t like that side of himself. Nor did he like that he’d nearly had a meaningless sexual encounter with a stranger he felt no connection with.
Coming home had been the right decision, especially after he got a job and a friend introduced him to Layla, the friend’s relative. Love at first sight struck Ben. She was beautiful, sweet, for the most part a good girl. They connected right away and the first time he kissed her, he’d thought about marrying her. They even talked about it. He’d realized it was too soon, but he hadn’t regretted or even been shocked about the direction of his thoughts.
Because neither of us had much money, it made sense to live in the host house with my brothers, their wives and kids, and my pregnant sister and her husband. I had my stint with travel in California, and other than maybe a few short vacations, I don’t have any interest in traveling again more than once a year for a short holiday.
Though the first couple of months together had been like a honeymoon, Layla had spent the time trying to turn him into the man she wanted him to be. Eventually, he fought back and, after endless fights, she gave up. Literally, she’d told him she’d decided they didn’t belong together after all. As shocked as he’d been at first, a part of him had been relieved. He’d realized she was right–they weren’t well suited to each other. She wanted a clown she could mold to her every desire. He was and always would be who he was, who he was comfortable being. She also wanted to travel and see the world. He didn’t want even one of those things. They literally had nothing in common.
He’d been glad he’d insisted they wait to get married when she told him she wanted to break up. While the thought of keeping their split a secret hadn’t been his choice, he’d gone along with it because of his own issues. He understood Layla was as tight with his sister and sisters-in-law as if the two of them were already married. At that time, he’d had no other prospects anyway and maybe he’d considered they would get back together for a while there.
Until Charlize Seagrave. Her full name was there in his brain without pause.
Ben’s face heated at the memory and guilt rose in him. At least he’d never cheated on Layla, in word or deed, before she broke up with him. Even if they’d been playacting and staying in the same room–him on the cold, hard floor while she was on what had been his parents’ bed–he’d had to keep up appearances because of the promise he’d made not to blab to his family about their split.
Having feelings for Charlize had screwed him up in countless ways. She’d been adamant about not wanting a romance, not even a hint of one, and if he’d in any way showed her he was falling for her–like telling her he and Layla had broken up–she would have run faster than a roadrunner and a hell of a lot sooner than she had. So he couldn’t admit the truth to her, even as he’d promised Layla he wouldn’t confess they’d hit the skids to his brothers and sisters.
I was completely screwed. I didn’t cheat, even when I technically could have.
So what was Layla playing at, acting as jealous as Scrat, the Ice Age squirrel, over every acorn while Charlize was here? And now my ex- is sitting on the dock of the bay in Georgia, leisurely debating whether she’ll come back to me whenever she talks to my sister. She wasn’t happy with me the way I am or my settled life on my family’s resort, working communally to make it a success.
Ben shook his head, wondering again whether he’d imagined his ex-girlfriend’s jealousy and veiled jabs while Charlize stayed at the resort.
A quick glance at the clock told him he better get back to the worksite before his absence was noticed. Another business venture they were hoping not only would get them through the hard, lean winters but also bring in money all-year-round was a restaurant on the resort. The hunters who came to the hunting lodge along with the campers and cabin renters who came for Lake Amethyst’s activities in all the seasons would use it all during their stays, and the townsfolk and maybe the communities near Amethyst dining there could drum up profit for them as well. The building itself was finished, just needed furnishing, decorations, and outfitting with appliances and equipment.
Ben retrieved his phone and got up, inside his own head as he stepped out onto the porch, pulling on his winter jacket on the way. A rental car was parking in the large lot that spanned both the host house and the resort office fronts.
Pausing, he waited until a small, dark figure got out. Instantly, Ben’s heart pounded wildly at recognizing her. Bay’s wife’s friend from rehab–the one who’d come for their wedding last July. Charlize. She hadn’t noticed him yet.
Despite her best efforts to blend in and become invisible, he’d noticed her the first time and every time afterward when she was around. She was a person who unfailingly got noticed, although she always tried to do the opposite.
Small, short, tiny and slim, like one of his niece’s Goth dolls with dark red and violet colored hair she’d told him she been born with (but Layla refused to believe it wasn’t dyed). While it was true Charlize wasn’t attractive by normal standards, her skin so white she could have been a zombie, contrasting with the exclusively black wardrobe, Ben found her intriguing, especially her ice green eyes. He’d never seen a shade like it before. Layla used to say they freaked her out, but they did the opposite to Ben. He was drawn to them like a magnet. Drawn to her, period, truth be told.
Layla had seen that, but he’d denied it up and down, even to himself. Given their breakup, he’d only had to appear committed to Layla during the time Charlize had been in Amethyst staying at the resort. But he’d quickly realized he lived for every interaction with Charlize. And he’d had plenty. She wasn’t the type of female who cared about girly things, the way the rest of Apple’s bridal party had. Weddings, romance, anything sickly sweet and potentially committed put Charlize off. Yet she’d come for the wedding weeks in advance, since she was in the bridal party.
Maybe she’d done it in part because she’d forged a weird relationship with Apple and the other three women who’d been in their therapy group while in rehab together in New York. But Ben suspected, didn’t know for sure, she’d come to escape the psychotic not-boyfriend who was after her. Ben was the only one Charlize had told about that. When she left, he hadn’t been easy about it, afraid the creep would catch up to her despite her comfort in living off the grid.
Just like she had then, she was wearing threadbare and loose black jeans, her beloved, worn leather jacket, and the ultra-masculine, black strap boots. Even on July’s hot summer days, she’d worn that jacket, claiming she was cold. He’d never seen her in anything but this basic outfit, other than at the wedding, when she’d gone against her every principle and put on the flowery, romantic, mint chiffon dress similar to the other women in the wedding party. The color had picked up on the unusual color of her eyes, and she’d been so beautiful and soft in an unimaginable way without the proof right in front of him. He hadn’t been able to keep his gaze off her throughout the wedding and reception, and Layla had unjustifiably been mad at him from minute one until sometime late the next day.
Charlize wore makeup that day, too. Instead of just thick, black eyeliner and nothing else. Her pale lips that all but match the color of her white skin were glossy and pink. How many times did I think about kissing her and feeling guilty for it, especially when Layla’s laser sights caught me staring at someone else but her in her cotton-candy pink bridesmaid dress? She’d been especially adamant about me playing the role of her love-besotted boyfriend on the wedding day. Never had a harder time doing that than that day.
Charlize had stuck around a lot longer than Apple’s other rehab friends after the wedding. She’d been welcomed to by Apple, Bay, and Ben most of all. He couldn’t outright tell Layla it was dangerous for Charlize to leave, though he’d tried to imply it in not so many words so maybe she could be a little understanding. Charlize had sworn him to secrecy about that so he couldn’t break her confidence.
Layla made it clear she wanted Charlize to leave, and she’d been a dog on a bone about it every damn day past the wedding. Even as she’d made their lives a living hell, trying to kick her out, Ben had been doing the exact opposite, attempting to get Charlize to stay with them where it was safe.
Out of nowhere, the thought, Layla broke up with me, I agreed with the breakup and our mutual, continued silence about it because I had issues of my own. I even let her hang up on me last time we talked instead of forcing the issue. But that’s over, starting now, came to him like a pent-up exhalation.
Another thought popped into his head. A memory of something Charlize had said to him when she was here last came to him, the very thing, in fact, that convinced him Layla was right in saying they didn’t belong together and should break up. That a person wasn’t a lump of clay to be molded into someone or something else. In a relationship, especially, it was either ‘accept me the way I am and love me that way, or keep looking’. Either you knew who you were or you didn’t. If you could change to be what someone else wanted you to be, you were clay and compromised. Sure, maybe you changed a bit day-by-day because a relationship and life and circumstances in general altered you slightly as you went through them. But if the couple didn’t know who they were individually outside the relationship, if they allowed themselves to be molded into someone else, then all they were was what was created by the other person. A persona.
Ben knew with Charlize’s words that she’d been talking about the jerk pursuing her–someone, Ben had noted with interest, she never referred to as a boyfriend. Whoever the bastard was, he’d simply been someone she’d shared a violent, destructive relationship with that had nothing to do with love. “Dark, disturbing obsession” had been her equally upsetting description.
She’d gone into rehab to escape him, though she confessed her addictions indeed covered the gamut of drugs, alcohol, and sex. Apparently, the guy had wanted to make her over in his own image. When she resisted and tried to end it, he refused to let her go. The only way to get away had been to hide, first in a clinic and then here at the resort.
When she left here–at Layla’s behest, Ben was convinced, though both women refused to confirm his suspicion–Charlize insisted she wouldn’t keep in touch with him. She didn’t want any ties. So he had no idea what’d happened to her. But he’d worried.
Now she was back, and Layla was gone. Layla, who’d forever been trying to mold him into the man she wanted him to be but he couldn’t and wouldn’t become. He hadn’t been able to deny she did that when Charlize was here last and they’d talked about their relationships. In the beginning of their romance, he’d tried to keep his love of thrash metal away from Layla, agreeably wore the clothes she preferred him in, allowed her to fix his hair and facial hair her way instead of defending his own goofy, messy way.
The only thing he hadn’t done that Layla wanted him to do was propose to her. He’d grown up on the family resort. With seven brothers and one sister, all married with families now, he was finitely aware of his responsibilities, his requirement to do his part. They all worked together to make ends meet. Everyone in his family had a job or multiple ones on the resort. In the past, during the winter, they had to take outside jobs since little or no money was coming in at the resort, but they took care of each other even then.
Ben could barely care for himself, let alone a wife and kids. He wasn’t there yet. Until he was, he couldn’t propose. And he hadn’t. Not even once. They’d talked about getting married and having kids, but neither of them had seemed in a hurry, despite all Layla said to the contrary to the females in his family.
We weren’t ready. In part because she saw herself as in control of our relationship. Whatever she wanted and needed were what mattered to her. She dumped me. I didn’t fight her because I didn’t want to. I agreed we should split up. But then Charlize showed up, and suddenly Layla was talking like she wanted me back. I didn’t take the bait. I kept insisting we should tell my family. She said no. I shut up mainly because Charlize was my focus. More than ever, Layla was putting up an award-winning show about our romance. Throwing it in Charlize’s face, I expect. Then Charlize left, Layla backed off…or I thought she did, especially when she stomped out seven weeks ago, until Tally started telling me Layla’s talking to her about coming back to me. She thinks she gets the power to decide whether it’s over between us for good, about when she’ll come back to me someday once she’s good and ready. Until she makes up her mind, I’m supposed to be a good dog and heel.
Charlize had been standing with the door of the rental car open next to her for a long time, and he noticed then how disoriented she seemed. She showed up here before the wedding the same way, and he’d wondered without asking out loud if she’d left rehab too early. She’d had the appearance of a drug addict then, as she did now. But he hadn’t called her on her potential backsliding then, doubly glad he hadn’t when he found out she was clean but running from a psycho.
What’s the case this time?
Ben wound his winter scarf around his neck and hopped down the steps. He put a wide, welcoming grin on his face as he approached her. “Charlize, how you doing? Apple didn’t tell us you were coming.”
As he closed the distance, she focused on him–or tried to. Almost as if she was unaware she was doing it, she said his name. “Ben Johnson. Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s friend and fellow playwright.” The first time she’d met him, she’d told him that little factoid about some Elizabethan era writer. Now she chuckled at her earlier reference, and the sound of her own laughter seemed to shake her out of her disorientation. “I didn’t know I was coming– Here. I don’t know how I got–“
Was she actually about to say she didn’t know how she’d gotten here? She stopped, but the strangeness of her demeanor convinced him she might have somehow driven here without having a clue at any point where she intended to end up.
“I should go.”
The decision came out of her mouth like a question, but Ben laughed, reaching out to put his hand on her shoulder for a second, hoping to ground her. She seemed to need it. “You just got here. What you mean you should go? Come on. Stick around.”
She shook her head, but it looked to Ben more like a gut reflex instead of a refusal. He saw his in into convincing her with very little effort.
A freezing cold wind whipped over them at that moment, and her choppy, shoulder-length hair blew back. If possible, she looked even more white and stark. She shivered against the frigid wind, huddling toward the open car door.
“It’s cold out here. Come inside,” he urged, glancing at the overcast, gray day that promised winter was coming faster than any of them wanted.
“I shouldn’t. You guys are probably all busy.”
“Always,” he said easily. “And you know best we can always use extra hands.”
While he knew better than to try to force her into the house, he gently eased her away from the car door and closed it. She let him without complaint or comment, as if she’d barely noticed what he did.
“What do you need extra hands for?”
“Too many things to tell you right now–before I know you’ll give me more time for the full story. But one thing is our annual, community Halloween party. Safe trick-or-treating for the kids, prizes for the best costumes, kids and adults, and pumpkin carving. Tally told me this morning we need to get decorating and planning.”
“I love Halloween,” Charlize said quietly.
Ben grinned. He’d kind of had the feeling it was the holiday she loved most.