In the After
Published by: Swoon Romance
Publication date: February 2nd 2016
Genres: Contemporary, Romance, Young Adult
Sadie Reynolds is a liar with secrets. At school, she’s part of the popular crowd known as AE, despite being broken inside. She hides it well. She has to. The slightest bit of imperfection will land her in the same shoes as her Geeky neighbor named Ian.
Ian and his only friend are the object of Sadie’s friends’ ridicule, ire, and entertainment. The AE rule the school with intimidation and retribution against anyone who would dare question their supremacy.
Sadie steers clear of most of it, terrified someone will find out her secret. She isn’t the least bit perfect. In fact, she suffers from PTSD stemming from the murder of her mother right before her eyes when she was a child. She can barely cope from day-to-day, hiding her truth and trying to fit in. But she knows it’s only a matter of time.
Hayden is a “Waverly,” a kid with the misfortune of living in the small farming town of Waverly that borders the very affluent Lexington Parrish. The AE doesn’t mix with “Waverlies.” Ever.
Desperate to get away from her oppressive friends, Sadie crashes into Hayden at a bonfire and the attraction that sparks between them is nothing short of electric. But Hayden’s an outsider and when things heat up, Sadie will be forced to choose between her friends and her new boyfriend.
Only Queen Bee Britt isn’t having it. She will not allow Sadie to cross her. Sadie can either do what Britt wants her to do or she will reveal Sadie for the PTSD freak that she is.
Sadie does some soul searching about who she is and who she wants to be. She can’t live her life like this. Not any more. One fateful night will help her see how much things have to change.
She’s determined to no longer allow the AE to rule her life. She will be strong, stand up for Ian and love who she wants in Hayden. Determined and invigorated, Sadie goes to school feeling hopeful for the first time in forever.
But, the unthinkable happens.
Shooters attack dozens of students before the two eventually take their own lives, leaving the school a decimated shadow of what it once was.
Suddenly who lives where, wears what or loves whom seems like the least of Lexington Parish’s problems as everyone and everything changes forever in the after.
IN THE AFTER by Elisa Dane is a hard-hitting and heart-warming story of tragedy, love, loss and redemption. It is recommended for readers 14+.
CHAPTER 5 EXCERPT:
@KillSwitch998: You’re an asshole and stupid. Better watch your back.
“I’m concerned about you playing Assassin, Sadie. I’ve never liked the game, and now that a real threat has been made, I like it even less. I’m setting up a meeting with your principal. I don’t care if it’s tradition; I want the game to stop.” My dad sighed. “I need to know you’re safe, Sadie. I’m helping with the investigation. We’re going to find out who made that threat.”
“Good luck shutting down the game. The school doesn’t sanction it. It’s student run.” Assassin was Britt’s baby. If anyone tried to shut it down, she’d cry to her rich daddy who would toss around some cash until his baby girl got what she wanted. The town was ass-backwards, its inhabitants afraid to go against Judge Kennedy or his daughter.
My dad took a sip of water, then placed his glass back onto the table. “Bugesky’s out for the next eight weeks. Busted finger.”
I swallowed down a bite of baked potato and chased it with a swig of water, wondering how long I needed to sit at the table before I could get up and escape to my room. “How’d that happen?” Mocha, who’d jumped onto my lap the moment I sat down to eat, stared up at me with her giant Chihuahua eyes, her gaze bouncing back and forth between my face and the lone bite of potato gracing my plate.
My dad glared at Mocha and me for several seconds, at which point I pushed her off my lap with a quiet “sorry, pup.” His fork scraped across his plate as he finished his last bit of salad. “Dumb shit slammed the damn thing in his patrol car door.”
“Hmm … ” I reached for his plate, ready to stack it on top of mine so I could clear the table, when he placed his hand on my wrist.
“Just a second, Sadie.” His gray eyes held a mixture of worry and apprehension. I sank back into my chair and stared at the horizontal pattern etched into the wooden table in front of me. Maybe if I stared hard enough, I could count the grooves in the table and tune out whatever he was about to say. I knew that face he was making. He only ever brought it out when he wanted to talk about Mom.
I didn’t want to talk about Mom.
“Can you look at me when I’m talking to you?” There was hurt in his voice, and it killed me that I was the one putting it there. I knew he harbored an extreme amount of guilt for not being there to protect my mom and me the night she was killed. I saw it in his tired eyes that were always on alert, never resting. I saw it in the way he checked every room, every window and door in the house before he left for work each day. I heard him on the nights I couldn’t fall asleep, quietly crying alone in his room, missing his wife, his best friend. I knew he was hurting, and though I consciously didn’t blame him for what happened, I couldn’t see past my own hurt, even now, to comfort him. My callousness was just another symptom of the giant problem that was I. I was a big fat ball of fucked-up and I hated myself for it.
I bit my lower lip and lifted my gaze to meet my dad’s. His salt-and-pepper hair was shorn close to his head, his good-natured face bronzed to an almost leather-like shade from the sun. He released my wrist and rested both elbows on the table, steepling his fingers. “B side is gonna be hurting with Bugesky gone. The rest of us are going to have to fill in his shifts until he gets back.”
I shrugged. “Okay.”
Dad’s lips curled down into a frown and he shook his head once. “Bugesky works midnights.”
It felt like someone kicked me in the gut. Panic spiked and my head began to swim. “Can’t someone else cover his shift? I can’t … ” I shook my head, fat tears clouding my vision. “I don’t … ” I don’t want to be home alone—at night. I couldn’t get the words out. Didn’t want to comprehend what he was trying to tell me.
I ripped my hand out of his grasp, every muscle in my body rigid with anger and frustration. “You promised you wouldn’t work nights.” I leveled a harsh glare at him, willing him with every fiber of my being to understand how deeply I felt about this. “You promised.” My back teeth ached from the force of my grinding, and I could literally hear the blood rushing through my veins with each frantic beat of my heart.
My dad sighed and sank back into his chair, then swiped his hand over the top of his head in a back and forth pattern. He shook his head once, then eyed me with something that looked a lot like pity. “Sadie.” He opened his mouth to speak, only to promptly shut it with another sigh. “Honey, I made that promise to you three years ago after we first moved into this house. A lot of time has passed, and while the department’s been great with our situation and history, I have to start being more flexible. I have to help when asked.” His voice held that tone that always seemed to make me feel childish and stupid, and the skin between his eyes crinkled as he leaned forward again and rested his forearm on the top of the table. This conversation was going nowhere fast and I just wanted to end it before it really had a chance to begin.
Unwilling to look him in the eye, I instead chose to focus on his square-shaped fingertips as they slid back and forth across the aging wood. “Whatever,” I snapped. I jerked out of my chair and glared at the floor, too embarrassed, angry, and scared, to meet my father’s gaze. “Can we just be done talking about this now?” I didn’t see any reason to beat a dead horse. He’d dropped the bomb, and now I had to live with the aftermath, which would no doubt include a lot of sleepless nights. My relationship with my dad was strained, but the fact remained, I felt safe when he was home. Without the promise of protection he provided, I wasn’t sure how I would make it through one night, much less a regular schedule of midnight shifts.
“You know, Sadie, if you were to talk to that therapist about—”
“Stop it, Dad,” I snapped, pulling away from his outstretched hand. I glared at him this time, the bubbling anger inside my belly giving me newfound courage. “I told you … I don’t want to talk about what happened. I don’t want to think about that night. I just want to forget it. I’m not talking to a therapist.”
A tired helplessness lingered behind my dad’s eyes. It gutted me. But not enough to give him what he wanted. Not enough to give in and tell him I’d talk to the therapist. He wouldn’t understand the inner workings of the AE, or that talking to Britt’s aunt about my mom’s murder and my PTSD could potentially get me blackballed and ruin my social life. My social life was all I had, and though it sucked a good portion of the time, it was the one thing I felt I had some semblance of control over. Without it, I had nothing. Being seen coming out of a therapist’s office would ruin me. Case closed.
“Sadie … ” Dad stood up slowly, his head cocked to the side, his palm lifted up as though he were about to plead with me. “You can’t wish your past away. You can’t pretend that night never happened.” His voice cracked, and along with it a small piece of my soul. “Life can be unforgiving. Downright cruel. People get hurt. You and me,” he paused for a moment and sucked in a long, slow breath, closing his eyes briefly while he exhaled. “Life didn’t just treat us to a mild case of road-rash—it flayed us from navel to neck.” He stepped forward and gripped my shoulders, his touch as full of gentleness and care as the expression on his face. “We stitched ourselves up as best we could, honey, but we’re not experts. We’ve got scars. Scars that can heal with help from the right people.”
Part of me wanted to crumple into a ball and fall apart in the safety of his arms. I loved my father. Loved that, despite the emotional distance I’d placed between us, he still cared and worried over me. I knew there was truth in his words. Knew I needed help, and dammit, I wanted to give him peace of mind. Do something to alleviate the anguish the poor man endlessly suffered at my expense. I just didn’t know what that something was. The AE would crucify me if they found out how screwed up in the head I really was, so seeing my old therapist was out. Driving into the city to see someone was out too. It was too big and reminded me of my old home where my mom was murdered.
I placed my hand over my dad’s and squeezed. Exhaustion had taken over and I was too darn tired at the moment to think about my messed-up head, or anything else, for that matter. “Some scars run too deep to ever heal completely, Dad.”
Mocha scurried over to the sliding glass door leading to the back yard and whimpered. She eyed the door, then me, then shoved her nose between the blinds and scratched at the glass with a soft yip. I pulled my dad’s hands from my shoulders and shuffled toward the door. “Some scars you just learn to live with.” I undid the latch and slid the door open, ready to follow my pup outside when my dad’s words stopped me dead in my tracks.
“My first midnight shift is tonight, Sadie. I’m officially off day shift until Bugesky returns.”
The tears that I’d managed to keep back just a few minutes before forced their way out, a deep sob aching inside my chest, desperate to escape. Speaking was impossible, so I just nodded once and slipped out the door, feeling an odd certainty that this specific moment in time was a turning point for me. The hell that plagued my dreams every night had ripped the veil and I’d been thrust into a waking nightmare.
Mocha bounded across the covered porch and hung a left, disappearing to her favorite spot to do her business. I sank down onto one of the wicker chairs lining the back of the house, my muscles aching and feeling like they weighed ten tons. The cute outdoor seating reminded me of my mother, and had my dad not just dropped a bomb on me, I never would have sat in the thing. Growing up, my mom’s favorite place to be was on our porch, reading a book while she sat in a white wicker chair. The pain of missing her was just too much, so for the most part, I avoided anything that reminded me of her. Well, except for reading. Books were an escape I couldn’t deny. Sleep was a nightly battle for me, and with my dad gone, I knew a book would be the only thing that had a chance of chasing my demons away.
“Stay out of my room, asshole!”
Ian’s flinty voice carried across the yard, the slam of his patio door echoing throughout the open space.
“Fucking calm down, man. You’re acting like a two-year old.”
My body sprang alive at the sound of Hayden’s voice. Blood rushed through my veins like water pouring out of a damn and bubbly warmth erupted inside my stomach and spread upward into my chest. His effect on me was reflexive and innate and it scared the living shit out of me. Afraid if I moved I’d draw attention to myself, I sat glued to my chair, barely breathing for fear of discovery. Ian’s yard had an elevated porch, the property sitting on a higher elevation than mine, which made it easy to see into one another’s yards. The lack of privacy had never bothered me before. It did now.
“There’s this thing called privacy, Hayden. Ever heard of it?” Animosity resonated thick in Ian’s voice, and it struck me that I was hearing the real him for the first time in a long time. Ian never raised his voice in challenge to anyone at school, and it killed me that he didn’t have the courage or comfort to stick up for himself like he was here with his cousin.
“I’m stuck here until next week, Ian. What the hell am I supposed to do? Sit in your spare bedroom, all by myself? I just wanted to talk to you. To hang out for a while. I didn’t know your precious hidey-hole was off-limits.” His eyes narrowed and he cocked his head to the side. “And what the fuck was that on your computer? Since when are you into guns?”
A rush of adrenaline shook through me. Hayden was staying at Ian’s? I narrowed my eyes. Wait … Guns? Ian was looking at guns?
“Newton’s dad likes to hunt. He invited me to go with them at the end of the month. I was just doing some research. And hang out? Are you serious?” Dusk blanketed the sky, casting dark shadows across Ian’s face, making his angry expression look both monstrous and scary. He threw his hands up and kicked a nearby planter. “When have you ever hung out with me unless our parents made you?”
Silence hung in the air, thick and oppressive.
“That’s what I thought,” Ian snapped. “You don’t give a crap about me.”
Hayden stepped forward, his brows slashed over his eyes in frustration. “Fuck you, Ian. I’ve chased Whittier off your ass on more than one occasion. I wouldn’t bother if I didn’t care.”
Ian shook his head with a scowl and offered a clipped “Don’t do me any favors.”
Hayden sucked in a long, slow breath and looked to the sky for several moments before leveling Ian with a harsh glare. “If this is how you treat people on a regular basis, I can understand why you only have one loser friend.”
I felt his words like a punch to the gut. And from the looks of it, so did Ian. His face fell for a brief moment, his mask of anger returning as quickly as it had left. He opened his mouth to say something, but instead turned on his heel and stormed back into his house, slamming the sliding door closed behind him.
The tips of my fingers stung like someone was shoving needles beneath my nail beds and it wasn’t until I looked down that I noticed I had a death grip on the wicker chair.
“How long have you been sitting out here?”
Oh shit. I’d been caught.
I shot up out of my chair, feeling as though I’d been caught with my hand in a cookie jar. “I didn’t … I mean, I wasn’t … ”
Hayden waved his hand through the air dismissively. He’d moved and was now standing on the edge of the porch closest to the house. “Relax, Sadie. I’m more concerned for your comfort level than embarrassed for myself.” He inclined his head toward the house, the corner of his mouth turning up as he shrugged. “Family fights don’t bother me.” He had the good sense to appear somewhat chagrined as he glanced down at his feet for a moment. “Probably shouldn’t have made that last comment about him not having any friends, though. That shit was pretty low. I’ll have to apologize.”
“Who are you?” The whispered words came out before I could stop them, Hayden’s confused expression confirmation he’d heard my quiet comment. He was just so damn different from anyone I’d ever met before. Confident, but not cocky. Unbelievably attractive, but approachable. And he had a heart. He cared. Unlike pretty much every other guy I’d ever met.
Ian’s outdoor lights flickered on now that the sun had set fully, casting a soft orange glow across Hayden’s masculine features. He’d changed clothes since school and looked relaxed and comfortable leaning against the house in a plain white T-shirt and gray sweatpants. His eyes bored into me like twin laser beams, the heat of his stare churning up an achy warmth between my thighs. My skin tingled, my lungs felt like they were going to burst, and I desperately wished he had the kind of woo-woo power the alien hero in my current romance book possessed, so he could zap himself next to me and touch me like he had in the library earlier in the day.
His expression turned from confusion to concern, and for a moment, I thought he might have read my mind, because he hopped over the porch railing and jumped the fence into my yard. Head cocked to the side, brows knit together, he studied me for several moments as he lingered at the entrance to my covered porch. “Have you been crying?”
If nothing else, the boy was perceptive. I’d give him that. My first instinct was to shake my head and lie. Protect my secret and uphold the careful façade I’d built for myself. But something stopped me. I wasn’t sure if it was the way he looked at me—into me, really, with those beautiful blue eyes, or if it was the unexpected comfort I felt in his presence. Whatever the reason, I found it impossible to be anything but real with him. I nodded once. “Yes.”
Silence blanketed the space, the squeaking wood beams beneath Hayden’s bare feet the only noise registering in my ears. I huffed out an awkward laugh, both shocked and thankful the wish I’d made just moments before had come true. Hayden’s scent, his presence smothered me with a peaceful warmth I only felt when I was with him. The boy was like some sort of super drug, and I was quickly becoming addicted.
He clasped his hands around my wrists, then slowly dragged his hands up my arms until they came to rest on my shoulders. “Why have you been crying, Ginger?”
I laughed once, for real this time, and shook my head. “My name’s not Ginger.”
His right hand ghosted across my shoulder, over my collarbone, and up until it came to rest on the side of my neck. The tips of his fingers sent shockwaves of pleasure rocketing up and down the length of my spine and it took everything in me not to close my eyes and melt into his touch. His smile was as gentle as his touch. “Stop avoiding the question, Sadie.”
The giant lump in my throat along with his close proximity made my voice sound squeaky and not at all like myself. “My dad switched to midnights at work. Tonight’s his first shift.”
Hayden placed his left hand on my neck opposite his right and leaned forward until his forehead was pressing against mine. “And you’re not comfortable being home alone.” His breath was minty and warm like his touch, and I wanted to freeze this moment in time. Live in it for the rest of my days, feeling safe, and at peace.
I squeezed my eyes shut and bit my lip, fighting to keep my tears at bay and hating the damsel in distress role I’d fallen into and perfected so well. I was never this weak as a child. But that was when I still had my mom. When I still knew and cherished the safety of her arms and her love. Still believed the world was bright and full of possibilities. That was before.
I now lived in the after.
“No,” I whispered, hating how shaky my voice was. “I’m not comfortable at all.”
Hayden brushed his thumb across my cheek, then pulled his hands away and whipped his phone out of his pocket. My soul nearly wept from the absence of his touch. It must have shown on my face because he grabbed hold of my hand and squeezed. “Give me your phone number, princess. I’ll send you a text so you’ll have mine. Then, if you get scared, all you have to do is call. I’m right next door.”
Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d feel safe with anyone like I did with my dad, but here was Hayden, tall, handsome, and barefoot, offering to comfort me if I got scared, and that’s exactly what I felt: safe. And relieved. And overheated. And out of breath. And suddenly really, really turned on.
I gave him my number, which he dutifully entered into his contacts, then narrowed my eyes. “Why are you staying at Ian’s, anyway?”
Hayden drew in a deep breath, then sighed. “My lunchtime fun with Whittier got me sent home from school. Cops came to my house and questioned me about my fight with Dane last Saturday and the Facebook threat from today.”
“I never believed you had anything to do with that,” I said, interrupting him. Hayden wasn’t sneaky, and he wasn’t passive aggressive. He dealt with things head-on. Had no problem handling conflict out in the open for all to see.
He squeezed my hand again and smiled. “Thanks for the vote of confidence. Once the cops figured out I wasn’t the one who made the threat, my parents relaxed—a little. They left for some big farming exhibition out of state a couple hours ago and didn’t want me home alone. I think they were afraid I’d do something stupid.” He chuckled. “Well, even more stupid than getting into a fight at school, I guess. I’m stuck with my aunt and uncle until they get back.”
“I see.” My lips curled upward and I bit my lower lip, his penetrating gaze and glorious smile almost too much to bear.
He moved in close until almost every inch of him was pressed against every inch of me, and from the way my heart slammed against my ribs I feared it might explode out of my chest just so it could get closer to him. “Yeah,” he whispered low and husky, his face closing in on mine. “I see too.”
His hands found my neck again, the flush that had begun crawling up my neck and cheeks now covering every inch of my flesh. Centimeters. His lips hovered centimeters from mine, and the anticipation of feeling them move against my own sent my head spinning and made my lids heavy.
He didn’t kiss me, though. Instead, he brushed his lips across my cheekbone, his fingers twisting into the hair at the base of my neck as he slowly breathed me in. “You smell like coconut and sunshine.”
The sensation of his lips ghosting down my jawline and along my neck rendered me utterly useless and barely able to stand, let alone hold my eyes open. They fell shut, and my head fell back with a soft moan I couldn’t have stifled if I’d tried. His hands roamed over my shoulders and down my back, his strong fingers kneading and tugging, pulling me tighter against his body, but not nearly tight enough. He feathered tiny kisses up the other side of my neck and nipped my earlobe playfully with a hungry groan. “You taste so good, Sadie. I want to kiss you so bad it fucking hurts.”
“Then, why don’t you?” His hands slid down and cupped my butt, holding me still while he sucked my earlobe into his mouth and ground himself against me simultaneously. My mouth fell open and I let out another embarrassing groan. ‘Oh God, Hayden. Kiss me. Why aren’t you kissing me?”
His lips hovered over my ear, his labored breaths along with the hardness pressing against my hips confirming he wanted me as much as I wanted him. “You’re not ready, princess.” He nipped at the skin just below my ear, his tongue darting out to taste my flesh before sucking it between his lips.
My body sagged against him and I was damn sure my eyes rolled to the back of my head. “W-what? Not ready?”
He released his hold on my ass and once again placed his hands on either side of my neck. “Look at me, Sadie.”
My lids felt like they weighed ten tons. I blinked them open slowly, my shallow breaths coming in quick pants.
There was hunger in his eyes and something else—determination, maybe? I couldn’t be sure. All I knew was that I wanted to melt beneath his gorgeous blues and lose myself in his touch.
He brushed his thumb across my jaw, the tip barely grazing my lower lip. “I want more from you than you’re ready to give. The minute I put my lips on yours, you’re mine.”
My breath caught and my heart jumped. In that moment, I couldn’t think of anything I wanted more.
He bit his lower lip with a groan, then leaned in and pressed his forehead to mine. “I want you, Sadie. I want you to be mine. But you have some choices to make.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Choices?”
He pulled back then, his expression resolute. “I won’t be your dirty little secret. You don’t get to hide me from your friends. If you want me … If you want this—” he motioned between us “—then it has to be real, open, in public for everyone to see.”
“Sadie? You still outside? I’m getting ready to leave,” Dad’s voice called.
I stiffened, a surge of panic rocketing through my veins. My dad’s footsteps grew louder as he neared the back of the house. My eyes darted toward the slider, then back to Hayden, who wore an amused expression. “I’d love for you to meet my dad, but first impressions are kind of important. I’m not sure you want him to see that,” I said, pointing to the large bulge jutting out from the front of his sweats.
Hayden swore beneath his breath and laughed. “Good point, princess.” He cupped my cheek and treated me to one last, glorious smile. “You have my number. Call me if you get scared.” He was off my porch and halfway over the fence when my dad opened the slider.
“A real man sticks around and introduces himself to a girl’s father.” My dad shook his head and frowned at Hayden as he disappeared into Ian’s house. “Who was that, Sadie? What were you doing with him, and why did he feel the need to hop the fence to avoid me?”
It was a struggle, but I managed to avoid rolling my eyes and heaving a sigh. I wasn’t particularly interested in getting into it with him again. Our little tiff in the kitchen had left me drained and in a foul mood. I craved the company of myself, and myself alone.
“That was Hayden Pope … Ian’s cousin,” I said, turning to face my dad. He had on his uniform and held his keys in his right hand. “Ian and Hayden were talking on their porch when I came out. Hayden came over to say hello.” I pegged my dad with a hard stare. “No big deal. Really. I sent him away right before you came out. He wasn’t avoiding you.” Liar. I was such a damn, dirty liar. Hayden and his obscenely large erection were most certainly avoiding my dad. I felt like a tool, lying to my dad when he’d never been anything but open and honest with me. And what did I repay his honesty with? A string of lies that could circle the planet ten times over. For that reason alone I deserved the sleepless night I was sure to have.
The skin between my dad’s eyes crinkled and his brows slashed inward as he peered down at me. “I’ve heard some troubling things about that boy from his aunt. He’s got a history of aggressive behavior.” He jabbed a finger at me and cast me a pointed stare. “I want you to stay away from him.”
“Dad!” I didn’t even try to stop. I totally rolled my eyes. “You can’t be—”
“Enough, Sadie.” My dad’s voice grew stern, as did his expression. He ran his empty hand over his shorn hair and heaved a sigh. “It’s not up for discussion.” His eyes flicked over toward Ian’s house, then back to me. His brows lifted into his shorn hairline. “That boy is not allowed on this porch, or anywhere else in or around this house. Is that understood?”
“Are you kidding me? You don’t even know him,” I said with a scowl. “You only know what you’ve heard second-hand.”
My dad crossed his arms over his chest. “Felicity Daniels is a reliable source.” He shook his head. “I also know any guy who runs and jumps a fence instead of meeting a girl’s father is no guy I want my daughter to talk to.”
I opened my mouth to argue but was immediately shut down with a laser stare that would melt steel. My opinion didn’t count. I wouldn’t be talking to Hayden anymore.
At least, not while I was at home, anyway. School was an entirely different situation.
My dad shifted his stance and inclined his head toward our house. “I went through all the rooms. Checked all the windows. The house is locked up tight. Mocha will bark if anyone comes near the house. If that happens, just call me and I’ll be here.” He fidgeted in place, clearly as uncomfortable with the situation as I was, which gave me a small measure of comfort. At the very least, I knew he understood the depth of my fears. Then again, he heard me scream in my sleep on a regular basis.
My mouth felt dry, my chest hollow. My reality, that I’d be alone all night, and for many nights to come, crashed down on me with a finality that stole my breath away. Fear faded into a familiar numbness I both treasured and hated. When I was numb, I didn’t feel the pain of my mother’s loss. The downside? I walked around feeling dead inside. Not a fun way to live.
I followed my dad inside the house and retreated to the safety of my bedroom the minute he left.
“No! Stop it! Don’t hurt her. Mom! Mommy!”
I thrashed awake, my throat on fire, my skin cold and soaked with sweat along with my pajamas and sheets. That damn, fucking night. That final image of my mom bleeding out across our hardwood floor before the monster tied me up and locked me in the closet—it wouldn’t disappear. Burned into every deep, dark crevice of my mind, it haunted me daily, and replayed itself on an endless loop every night while I slept.
The three night lights dousing my room with a soft, warm glow, failed to provide the sense of safety and comfort they normally did and I hugged my blanket to my chest in a vain attempt to chase the chill away. My room wasn’t cold. The chill lay deep inside me in the place the darkness had taken up residence. Dying of thirst, I reached for the glass of water sitting on my nightstand.
My body seized, my arms flew up with a scream, and water rained down over everything within a five-foot radius as the glass tumbled through the air. It shattered upon impact with the wood floor. Mocha went crazy. The fur at the nape of her neck standing on end as she paced back and forth at the end of my bed, growling and barking.
Barely able to control my limbs they were shaking so badly, I floundered around for my cell phone, which had gotten lost somewhere between my sheets.
“Sadie! Let me in.” The window shook each time the attacker rammed his fist against the glass and panic spiked, a high-pitched wail blowing past my lips as I ripped apart my bedding.
I found my phone buried beneath the blanket near my feet. Dizzy and hyperventilating, I fumbled with it, repeatedly stabbing the touchscreen in a vain attempt to unlock the damn thing.
“Come on! Come on, you stupid thing.” My heart felt like it was in my throat and my chest felt like it was going to explode any minute.
“Ginger! It’s me, Hayden.”
It felt like I’d been trapped under water and was finally able to surface and take a deep breath. The thick haze of fear slowly dissipated, the fog inside my head clearing enough for me to recognize his voice. “H-Hayden?”
Hot tears trickled down my cheeks as I stumbled out of bed and made my way over to my window. I grappled with the extra locks my dad had installed when we first moved in, unable to contain the loud sob that blew past my lips when the window finally slid open.
Hayden was in my room with his arms around me before I had a chance to draw breath. “I heard you screaming and I got scared.” His body stiffened and he pulled away, his gaze scanning the room. “Did you hear something? Is that why you were screaming?” He took a step toward my bedroom door, stopping when I caught his wrist.
“It’s okay, Hayden. No one’s here. I had a nightmare.”
He stared down at me with narrowed eyes, then closed the gap between us, drawing me into his arms again. His arms felt warm and strong, the space at the center of his chest where I laid my head as though it was made for me and me alone. As if on autopilot, his hand found its favorite spot on the side of my neck, his touch both soothing and electric as he peered down at me with concern. “Nightmare? You were screaming like someone was trying to murder you.”
His eyes grew wide for a millisecond, realization and understanding warring for dominance behind his eyes. Thankfully, the gentleness I craved in his deep blues returned as quickly as it had left. He swept me off my feet without warning and carefully placed me on my bed, sliding between the sheets right along beside me. I rolled onto my side, my body shuddering in relief when he pulled me against him and wrapped his arm around me. “Sleep, princess. You’re safe. I won’t let anyone hurt you.”
Safe. It was such a small word with such a big meaning. Lives either flourished or fell apart in search of it. I’d known the warmth of safety. Taken it for granted. Wasted the warmth and comfort that came with it like a spoiled child. I also knew the festering terror that came with the absence of safety. I walked in its darkness. Choked and smothered beneath it nightly. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever believe I would truly feel safe again. But, for reasons I couldn’t explain, that’s exactly how I felt in Hayden’s arms. Completely safe.
And so very tired. Too tired to care about my dad’s warning about talking to Hayden and letting him in the house. My lids grew heavy and I was asleep within moments.
ELISA DANE is a self-proclaimed book junkie. A lover of handbags, chocolate, and reality television, she's a proud mother to three All- Star cheerleaders. Writing is her absolute passion, and it's her mission to create stories that will not only take you on a romantic journey that will warm your heart, but help you find a new respect and interest in the sport of All-Star cheerleading.
Elisa is no stranger to the publishing world. She writes steamy paranormal romance under her real name, Lisa Sanchez. Her adult works include the Hanford Park series (Eve Of Samhain, Pleasures Untold, and Faythe Reclaimed), Obsessed (an erotic suspense), and a paranormal novella, Cursing Athena. Elisa lives in Northern California with her husband, three daughters, and a feisty Chihuahua who stubbornly believes she's human.
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