Amethyst, Wisconsin 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. Populated with colorful characters, Amethyst is bursting with mystery, romance, and jealousy. Come and visit a place where anything is possible 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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Layla Dupriest sighed as she pulled on long gloves and a mask in preparation for cleaning the kennels and cages. She’d started working as an assistant at All Creatures Great and Small Veterinary Clinic just over a month ago. And I think Dulce only hired me ’cause she wants her turn at lordin’ her success over me.
Layla had grown up in a small town in Georgia, where she’d been popular right out of the gate. She’d been head cheerleader, homecoming queen and prom queen, though she couldn’t claim the title for smartest girl in school, nor the dumbest. Her grades were just okay while her social status made the top tier.
And that mattered to me, as if it’d have any bearin’ on real life. In some ways, it had. She still had her pick of guys and her looks opened countless doors while rescinding not a few speeding tickets.
At 28, she was finally beginning to see how beneficial popularity had been in her life. As in…not much. She was in a job she didn’t love, didn’t hate but truly hoped wouldn’t last forever. Her love life was nothing short of a disaster. She had no plans for the future, no ambitions for making the most of her life.
Dulce hadn’t been popular in school, but she’d gone on to own a business–albeit passed down from her parents–accompanied by a wonderful husband and an adorable family. Dulce insisted Layla’s bullying of her and the other unpopular kids in school was ancient history, but that didn’t change that some days Layla could do no right in her employer’s ever-vigilant eyes. A few minutes ago, she’d been sent to clean the kennels for an infraction she wasn’t even sure was viable while assisting in the treatment room.
Her nose wrinkled at the urine saturating a blanket. She dropped it quickly in the laundry basket, then grabbed a rag to mop up the rest at the bottom of the cage.
Belated punishment for my high school crimes?
While normally she could optimistically look forward to the time she’d be off work for the upcoming holiday, she’d been trying hard not to think about that too much. She’d asked for four days off for Thanksgiving almost as soon as she got this job. Oddly enough, Dulce gave it to her, though Layla couldn’t fathom why. Probably pity. During the interview, Layla stupidly confided she’d returned to Georgia since she and her boyfriend (couldn’t get myself to say aloud the truth: ex-boyfriend) were having problems. Dulce all but crowed for joy under masked sympathy, agreeing to the time off Layla needed in November.
Did she figure out then that I might quit at any time if me and Benji get back together and I return to him in Amethyst, Wisconsin? Probably not.
Layla only just prevented herself from gagging as she dropped the next sopping rag into the basket. I been tellin’ myself all along all I ever had to do was say the word and me and Benji’d get back together. Especially after what he did, he should’ve expected me to hightail it home and let him cool out and rethink the error of his ways ’til I’m good and ready to forgive him.
But Layla already knew he didn’t believe he’d done anything wrong by convincing her 12-year-old nephew Jack to go to Canada bear hunting last September. Jack had been injured during that trip despite Benji’s fervent promises to protect him.
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 Jack to hunt with them, Layla instead filled the boy’s ears with sense. She’d thought she’d finally persuaded him not to go, but then Ben spun exciting stories of hunting in Winnipeg with his dad and brothers as a kid.
Long story short, the party headed off to Canada, and exactly what Layla feared happened. Jack’s arm got mauled and broken by an angry bear. But he was alive.
Layla could still taste the bitterness of her words when she’d screamed at Benji once he got back to Wisconsin. Even if Jack had recovered well since then, she couldn’t let it go. She’d lost her father when she was just a little girl. Her mother had been alone that long, grieving for her beloved husband. For what? For something so stupid and worthless. Something not worth his life, the lives that were emptier without him.
Jack’s parents, along with some of their aunts and uncles, were heading to Benji’s family resort in Wisconsin for Thanksgiving and deer hunting. Part of the reason Benji and his brothers had gone to Canada had been to see how a hunting camp worked. For the past year, they’d been in the process of launching their own.
To financially get through any winter in a resort town with a population of about a hundred in the dead season, the Johnson family had forever been trying out money-making schemes. Benji’s 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. Layla’s own family would fill more than a few cabins this year. Jack’s arm was almost healed, and he claimed his mental state was ideal to get back out there. He bragged about the experience–something that solidified Layla’s anger. But his parents wouldn’t let him with the sling still on his arm. He was going with them but wouldn’t hunt again until next year.
In the many weeks since she’d stalked out of her ex-‘s hometown of Amethyst, Wisconsin she’d fought her own anger and the growing sense that any chance of reconciliation with Benji was slipping through her fingers.
She’d told him during one of their few tense conversations that she’d consider going there at Thanksgiving–no promises though. It bothered her he didn’t consider any of the stuff with Jack his fault–claimed he’d done everything right and saved both of their lives. Even her half-brother Colt and his wife believed Benji was a hero. She didn’t want to believe she was in the wrong here, all the way around, when it came to her treatment of her ex-boyfriend, whom she’d broken up with officially way back in June of this year.
While she disinfected the cage, she remembered how her hedging infuriated Benji during their phone conversations.
“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?” he demanded, sounded shocked. “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.”
She’d sighed dramatically. “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’d screamed, “How dare you even suggest such a thing, Benji Johnson! I haven’t done anythin’ wrong.”
She’d promptly hung up on him, but she’d gotten a voicemail from him only moments later. She’d been shaking with rage and disbelief as she listened to it.
“Fine, you want me to leave the message, so I will. I’m done, Layla… I don’t understand why you wanted to break up with me, but nothing you’ve done since makes any sense. But I was done when you suggested it. So… Bye.”
She hadn’t talked to him. She had talked to his sister Tally, one of her best friends in the whole world, though. But Tally was loyal to her brother and wouldn’t divulge anything, insisting she call Ben and talk to him herself. Layla had come to the conclusion Benji was peeved, just airing his impatience. He hadn’t meant any of what he’d said. He would take her back just as soon as she initiated it. He’d always been so in love with her, he couldn’t see straight. He’d been devastated when she broke up with him in June. Why else would he have agreed to not telling his family they’d split up?
But it’s been weeks… Layla reeled in shock when she realized the truth. No, it’s been almost two months. All this time, I’ve been convincin’ myself I’m still in control of our relationship, that he’s just been waitin’ for me to say we’re back on.
All her life, Layla had been the one in control of every relationship, and she’d had many of them. She enjoyed getting to decide how things would progress. She’d become conceited in her entitlement when it came to believing herself the prize in any relationship. She also liked molding her boys to some higher expectations and tastes. And Ben had terrible taste–in music, fashion, hairstyle. She’d worked long and hard to get him up to her specifications.
Benji’s so very moldable. But he always fell back into bein’ himself whenever I wasn’t lookin’. I hated that.
The only area he wouldn’t budge was in his stance about not getting married until they were financially stable enough to start a family. She’d seen that the first time, but realized he wouldn’t budge. No way did that ever sit well with me.
While we were together, he tried hard to make me happy, even if it wasn’t always what made him happy. He went along with the breakup, and I convinced myself he was bidin’ his time while I thought about our relationship, considered our future. The thought of not bein’ part of his family, not bein’ in Apple’s wedding, then Tally’s…
Layla swallowed her shame as a memory crept in that she hadn’t been comfortable with at any time and so she pushed it into the deepest part of herself each time it came up.
I can’t bury my head in the sand and get myself to believe nothin’s happenin’. I assumed he was mine to lose…
The mask she wore for cleaning made her face hot, but she couldn’t deny the heat was extreme, especially combined with the ugly image of herself her nasty thoughts painted.
Mama’s been tellin’ me for weeks I’m showin’ my ugly Prom Queen side. Damned if she ain’t right. Am I still that bullyin’, overconfident popular girl in high school who lorded her superiority over everyone? Golly. It’s sickenin’ even to me.
The realization was even more unattractive than she could bear. Because she knew she was being an awful shrew, and a conceited one at that. One that maybe didn’t have a leg to stand on when it came to qualifying as the prize in the relationship. She’d treated Benji as badly as he…and a certain other someone she didn’t ever want to think about again…claimed.
He’s not pining for me, the way I assumed all this time. There’d never been anyone to rival her in his life. Never–
But that claim brought forth an objection she couldn’t handle. There had been one rival.
But shorely not… Charlize left and I made sure she wasn’t ever gonna come back. So…no. Everything’s okay. I’ll call him tonight, tell him I’ve worked through my anger over the part he had in Jack’s accident. I haven’t lost him. There’s still a chance…
Layla had never been one to handle her emotions well. She did exactly what she hated to admit to herself she did time and time again. She buried her head deep in her own justifications and pacifications and went along in an oblivious bubble. This time the knee-jerk defense felt shaky.
Given that the clinic was closing for the holiday, she and the rest of the staff left early for the day. She was driving home to the split-level that’d been part of her daddy’s family estate as long as she could remember when a lump filled her throat. A big, giant, unmistakable lump of guilt.
Charlize Seagrave was a friend of Benji’s youngest brother Bailey’s bride. The two women went through rehab together. Charlize had come to the resort for wedding preparations and stayed on far too long even after the newlyweds settled into married life.
Ben and Charlize gravitated toward each other like gnats. He’d insisted it wasn’t anything more than friendship, just like the former drug, booze, and sex addict did. Layla never had much cause for jealousy. She was attractive. Point in fact, she doubted few found Charlize attractive at all. She wasn’t even cute by any known standards, not the way Layla herself was. Yet Ben always harbored strange ideas and opinions.
Layla couldn’t for the life of her figure out why Charlize was sticking around, although there were mild insinuations she had some psycho after her and she wasn’t safe anywhere “out there”. That unconfirmed rumor raised Benji’s protective instincts for sure.
I could see for myself they were two misfits who fit together perfectly. And there was no way I was gonna let her win, even if me and Benji were no longer together. I just couldn’t handle the thought that he didn’t still love me and wanted me back…especially for her. I’ve never felt so inferior for no reason I could see. Why wouldn’t she just go away quietly? I made it clear that’s what I wanted. When that didn’t work, I decided to make her go away. And she did.
Even now, Layla defended what she’d done in her own mind at every turn. She’d done what she had to to get Benji’s attention back where it belonged. Any woman would have done the same. So why did she always get the big old lump of shame in her throat whenever she thought about what she’d done?
‘Cause it was wrong of me to convince myself I was still in love with him, still wanted the future we dreamed about…yet each time I thought about reconcilin’, I wondered if I could accept him the way he was. Damn that Charlize for makin’ me realize I’d been tryin’ to make him into my own image of the perfect man. He came up short every time. That’s why I broke up with him. So why couldn’t my jealous damn heart accept that? Why did seein’ him with her make me insane? So I did the cruelest thing I’ve ever done to another person.
Layla pulled into the driveway of the house her mother had spent the whole time since her husband’s death trying to hold onto. She worked two jobs to that end. Given how long the estate had been in the family, she didn’t want to be the one to lose it. Truthfully, though, the house was way too big for the two of them and even more for just her mama. Luckily, they had lots of relatives and, during the Christmas season, most of them were in the house, filling it up and making it a warm, cozy place.
Her mother would be home soon. They’d planned to go out and do all their Thanksgiving shopping tonight. Layla let herself in, reminding herself she needed to call Benji right away. This couldn’t wait, if the lump in her throat and the blockade that made her chest tight were indications.
Yet she dithered until her mother arrived home from work, playing with the fawn pug puppy Dulce convinced her to take in.
She wasn’t surprised when the first words out of her mama’s mouth were, “You sure you wanna have a big, traditional Thanksgiving meal this year, sug? It is just the two of us. Everybody else is off huntin’. We could order in or go out, and call it a day. Too much trouble for one meal, ain’t it?”
Layla fell into the chant she’d been spewing for the past two weeks, clearly fighting someone or something in the process. She hadn’t figured out who or what. “We decided, Mama. Big ol’ turkey and all the fixin’s.”
Her mother shook her head, and Layla could see the fatigue in her eyes. I took the holiday off in advance, but I didn’t wanna go back to Wisconsin. I equally wasn’t ready to take Benji back nor to let ‘im go.
Golly, who am I? When did I become this horrible person?
Her mom put a hand on Ripper’s silken head, then glanced at her. “Layla, I really think you should go see Benji and have a long talk. You’ve drawn this out long enough. He loves you. But he ain’t gonna die with your name on his lips, sug. Go to Wisconsin. Talk to him. If y’all want ‘im back, he ain’t gonna wait around forever.”
Layla’s chest felt like it was burning even as she insisted, “Mama, you and me already made our plans, ain’t we? How’m I gonna get a plane ticket this late in the season anyhow? Now, come on. Let’s go shoppin’.”
Ripper loved traveling. While her mom held him on her lap, Layla drove to the local supermarket and she talked off the top of her head about the glorious Thanksgiving meal they’d have, just the two of them. In the back of her mind, she was considering something else that hadn’t occurred to her until now.
Just after a nothing-serious fight they had at the beginning of their relationship, Benji had said something curious. They’d made up and everything was birds and bees. During pillow talk, he’d said, “If you’re ever planning to cheat on me, I want you to call me and officially break up with me first. Don’t treat me like our relationship is worthless, like I’m worthless, by cheating on me and then trying to hide it. Promise me you’ll call me before that ever happens. You wouldn’t want to be left dangling, made a fool of like that, would you?”
While she couldn’t even remember what started that argument between them, she’d felt ashamed of herself for causing it. As a result, she’d made the promise Benji wanted her to because he seemed to need it.
The memory of it now seemed almost out of place…until she added it to the last voicemail he’d left her. Suddenly, his angry bluff (as she considered his kiss-off) took on new meaning. Standing in a store filled with anxious shoppers, she could only think one thing: Did Benji leave that Dear John voicemail ’cause he was keepin’ his end of that bargain I promised him I’d keep? In other words, he called to make sure I knew our relationship was contractually severed so what happened next with him couldn’t be considered a breach in any world?
She desperately needed air to cleanse her burning lungs. Her thoughts locked her up too much to do it. And she’d been doing nothing for weeks because she was living on pure anger at his audacity. In his mind, he made sure all the i’s were dotted and all the t’s crossed so I wouldn’t be left danglin’, lookin’ like a fool when he moved on with his life.
With someone else?
Layla whipped out her cell phone and texted Tally, demanding to know the answer to two questions: Is Charlize back at the resort? Is Benji with her now?
She could have been isolated in a psychiatric ward by herself wearing a strait jacket instead of in a busy store for how into her own situation she was inside her head. She heard and saw nothing until Tally’s text came back…not answering her questions at all, instead repeating what she said every damn time they talked in the last three weeks: You and Ben need to talk. It’s not my place.
Furious at the verbal swat, her fear nevertheless won out over her anger. Benji was over her, the way she’d never let herself believe he could be, especially since she wasn’t entirely sure she was over him. He was with Charlize Seagrave now. But Charlize wasn’t the type for anything but unattached sex, so… So if I return to Amethyst, make sure he’s back in my clutches, we can pretend nothin’ happened. But I have to go now, hell or high water. I have to get him back. I’ve spent too long hemmin’ and hawin’ about whether I want to get back together with him when nothin’s gonna change. He’ll still be doin’ the same annoyin’ things, still be as settled as a house foundation in Amethyst.
The supermarket came back to her in a loud blast, and she heard her mother muttering about the exorbitant price of everything. She turned to her and said, “Mama, I think I need to go.”
Her mom gawked, eyes wide at the sight of her. “Lord, baby, what’s gotten into you? You look positive peaked.”
“Benji…I’m…I’m worried he’s gonna forget about me. I need to get him back. I gotta go to him. Now. Today. And that means we can’t have our Thanksgivin’. I’m so sorry, Mama. I gotta go.”
“Don’t you think you should talk to him first, sug? He loves you.”
I let Mama believe that. Wanted to believe it myself. But he’s over me. How could I have been so stupid, not realizin’ I was losin’ him and to who, all this time? “I need to go there, Mama. For Thanksgivin’. Gotta get a plane ticket. Can you drive while I make my reservations?”
Her mother looked down in alarm at the half-full cart they’d filled “What about all this food?”
“Ain’t none of it perishable. Someone’ll put it away. I need to go now.”
Her mother looked stressed about abandoning the cart. She walked beside Layla, hurrying but looking like a furtive criminal the whole time.
They steered toward her car, and her mother relaxed slightly, since they’d made good on their getaway, and said, “Didn’t wanna tell ya, sug, but I could’ve easily worked over the holiday. You seemed so certain you wanted to have a full-on Thanksgiving dinner. So I said no, but…as I may be alone–“
“Can you call and say you’ll work after I make my reservations?” Layla said selfishly, without looking up from her phone and the plane ticket she was desperately trying to reserve.
She could hardly believe when she got the confirmation. She’d have plenty of time to pack before she had to go. When she was done getting both plane and car rental reservations, she said, “I’m gonna bring Ripper with me. He’s so small, smaller even than other pugs his age, his cage carrier can be in the plane cabin with me. I think it’ll fit under the seat no problem.”
“I’ll drive you to the airport, but if I’m gonna take a shift, baby, I need to drop you off early. I gotta get to work by five tonight.”
“No problem. I don’t mind waitin’ there for a few hours.” The drive to the airport was just over an hour, and her mother would need another hour to get back to town. If all went well, Layla could be in Amethyst by midnight or a little later.
Her mother turned to her. “I think this is a good thing. Somethin’ ya should’ve done long ago.”
The last thing Layla needed was a lecture for her bad behavior lately. She said, “I should call Dulce. Just to make sure it’s okay for Ripper to travel.”
Her mom didn’t act put out for not wanting to talk about her attitude of late.
“Ripper shouldn’t have a problem with traveling, but maybe you should stop by my house on the way to the airport. I’ll give you some anti-anxiety sedatives just in case he’s stressed during the flight.” Dulce lived within a few blocks of the clinic. “I’ll also print a copy of his latest vaccinations, since you might need that to board with him.”
Not surprisingly, her boss was all questions when her mom detoured to her house before taking her to the airport. “When do you think you’ll be back?”
Layla had thought about this. She wasn’t ready to quit her job preemptively. She didn’t want to admit the reason for her wariness to make big life decisions to herself. She would get Benji back. She had to. End of story. A happily-ever-after-ending story. But no sense doing anything drastic until then.
“November 28th, just like I told ya when I requested the vacation.” If she ended up quitting her job over the phone, so be it.
Dulce looked at her as if thinking exactly the things Layla didn’t want to–and taking huge delight in her distress. Layla shoved down the bad feelings she had toward this old schoolmate so ready to kick her while she was already down. “Well, let me know if you need more time.”
Layla bit her tongue, took the medication and vaccine report, and rushed back to the car, where her mother waited. At least her mama was optimistic. When they hugged at the airport, she said she looked forward to seeing both her and Ben at Christmas. Maybe with good news.
Needing the boost, Layla let the encouragement decide her emotions. She would and could do this. The fact that her flight and subsequent car rental went smoothly, despite how last-minute, gave her hope this was the right thing. She and Benji were meant to be together, and any sign, no matter how small, was just further proof of that.