Stay

By: A.L. Jackson

prologue


Willow



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

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

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

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

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

A concealed figure cast in shadows and silhouettes.

A mystery rimmed in the brightest fire.

Maybe I should have braced myself for impact.

For the collision I never could have anticipated.

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

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

Maybe I should have prepared myself.

Maybe I should have been stronger.

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

Not ever again.

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





one


Ash



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he hadn’t come alone.

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

“You callin’ me a liar now, after you fucked my girl?” he spat.

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

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

At least that little bit was the truth.

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

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

They say hindsight is clear.

Twenty-twenty.

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

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

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

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