Filthy Beautiful Lust (Filthy Beautiful Lies #3) Worth Forgiving (MMA Fighter #3)

Come on. I wrapped an arm around him and together we walked slowly toward the diner. I wanted to urge him to go faster but his haggard breaths told me how much pain he was in. I felt him weakening with every step.

Yes, ma’am, we replied in unison. I kissed her cheek then headed for the door. I knew Steel would do the same. You taking Dixie to Jack’s after the game? Momma called out behind me. Yes ma’am, I replied. You talked to Luke about that? Yes, ma’am. Good. Didn’t want to hear you’d been shot by the neighbor. That would be inconvenient. Smiling, I left the house, pushing thoughts of my brother, Dixie and her father back and away from the game. My focus had to be there. We were undefeated. I had to keep it that way. It was my responsibility. Get your asses out here! I don’t want to run sprints after the fucking game because the two of you ran us late! Bray yelled. He was right. I didn’t want to run sprints either. We better hurry, I told Steel, as I broke into a run. We tossed our bags into the bed of the truck beside Brent, Steel climbing in back with him. Bray was sitting on the passenger’s side. We had taken our usual seats. Next year, it would be Dallas in the back and Brent and Bray in the front. I’d be off at college. The thought made me sad. Dixie would be ten hours away. My life here would consist of holidays and a few short weeks in the summer. Steel was right. I had the rest of the school year. What if Dixie got tired of her boyfriend never being around? I’d lose her. She’d move on. Fuck. I couldn’t think about that right now. I had a game. I’d think about it later. There had to be an answer. We hadn’t had enough time together, and losing her wasn’t an option. Dixie Monroe FOR THREE YEARS, I’d wanted answers. Countless nights, I’d lain in bed, thinking that just knowing Asher still loved me would’ve made everything okay. That was all that mattered. Nothing could hurt more than Asher not loving me anymore. I’d been wrong. So very wrong. Come on, Dix. Let’s take you home, Bray said, as we began moving toward my Jeep. Home. My home. Was it still my home? Did Daddy know this? Did he love me anyway? Could I tell him? How could I tell him? Does my daddy know? I asked Bray. He reached around me and opened the passenger’s door. I didn’t even know. So I’m not sure who knew, but it won’t make a difference to your daddy. He loves you and has loved you all your life. In his heart, you’re his little girl. That’s something I’m fucking positive about. I let Bray help me up into the Jeep. I felt as if I was walking through fog. Nothing made sense. My bearings were destroyed. I’d watched as Asher’s truck drove away, but I never saw Steel leave. I couldn’t look at him now, he’d been the one I hoped could eventually heal me, but he’d just made it all worse. Why would he keep this from me? I asked, staring out the window at the field of hay, the birds moving, dipping, enjoying themselves, while I was trapped in hell. Because since you were a kid he’s protected you. He’d do anything to protect you, Dixie. It wasn’t the right decision, but it was because he loves you. He’s suffered alone for three years with this and all because he loves you. He didn’t want you to know it. He wanted you happy. You can’t completely fault him for that. He wanted me happy? He’d broken my heart. How was that making me happy? He can’t love me. His actions prove different. Bray sighed and cranked the Jeep. His love ain’t normal when it comes to you. Never was, he replied. But don’t doubt that he loves you, Dixie. Damn, he smashed in our little brother’s face because he was trying to protect you. Asher’s never hit one of us. We’ve hit each other and he’s broken it up, but he’s always brought it to a halt. He picked you over Steel. That’s fucking huge. Be mad at him for not telling you, but don’t think he doesn’t love you. I couldn’t listen to this. He was my brother. Asher was my brother. The horror of that washed over me, a wail filling the Jeep as I curled into a ball and allowed the sorrow to consume me. Asher stood with his arm around me as he laughed at Brent mocking Bray, the two battling it out over pool. I was at Jack’s after a game. At Jack’s and I was with Asher. This was another daydream I’d repeatedly played in my head so many times, I had a hard time now believing it was happening. That I was here with him, my daddy knew about it, and everything was okay. Asher went to see him after school, before he’d gone to the fieldhouse to prepare for their game. He’d talked to daddy and promised him I’d be safe and with him at all times. When daddy agreed to let me go, I threw myself at him, hugging him tightly and thanking him right there in front of Asher. I’d expected him to say no. But Asher was good with people. Everyone liked and trusted him. You want another Coke? Asher asked me. No, thanks. I’m good, I replied. He pressed a kiss to my temple and whispered, If you’re bored, we can go. As if I could ever be bored with Asher Sutton. I’m enjoying myself. This is the first time I’ve ever been in the front of Jack’s. Daddy always made me pick up the food in the back. Asher chuckled. I know. I’ve seen you more than once through that door over there. And I’ve also seen you, I replied. I’d been looking for him. I knew he was in here. I’d seen his truck. But that sounded stalkerish, so I kept that information to myself. Andrea James then cooed, Hey, Asher, you were amazing tonight, sauntering up to him, and pressing her body against his as if I wasn’t standing right there next to him. I have a special treat for you. Want to leave this party? Asher tightened his hold around me, scooting closer, and moving back from Andrea. I’m here with Dix. I thought that was obvious. Andrea finally looked at me, as if she hadn’t realized I was there. Oh, I didn’t think you’d be with her. Asher, she’s a freshman. I’m aware of that and yes, I’m with her. Andrea smirked. Okay then. When you get tired of babysitting, you know my number. When she turned to walk off, Asher looked down at me. She’s a bitch. The crazy kind. Sorry about that, Dixie. And Asher never tapped that ass. He’s smarter than that, Bray said, a little too loudly for my taste. But I might now that Asher’s off the market. You know he’s an idiot, right? Asher said with an apologetic smile. But he’s right. I’m off the market. I laughed. It felt right. Being with Asher. Laughing at his brothers. I’d grown up with the Sutton boys. This fit. Made sense. As for Andrea James, Asher would get a lot of that kind of attention in his life. I could get jealous every time it happened or accept it for what it was. The way Asher had kept his arm around me and dealt with her made it easier for me to handle, giving me no reason to feel insecure. He was beautiful and women loved him, but now he was mine. Don’t worry about her sister either. He won’t be going after Emily James’ ass. After Asher set her straight for doing that shit to you, he wrote her off. Hell, we all did. She messed with our Dixie, Brent said, winking and smiling at me, like I knew this had happened.I tilted my head back and looked up at Asher, who was glaring at his brother. You made Emily stop? He sighed then nodded. Yeah. How did you know it was her? Asked a few questions, he responded. Didn’t want you suffering anymore. There was no possible way for me not to love Asher. He owned my heart. I stepped to his front, wrapped my arms around his neck, and held him tight. Thank you, I said. You’re my hero. Hey, I threatened her, too, Bray called from across the pool table. She’s not hugging you. Back the hell off, Asher returned as he hugged me back. If my life could always be this perfect, I never wanted it to end. There’d be no one for me but Asher. I was young, but that I knew. When your soul finds its match, there’s no doubt in your heart. Telling Asher I loved him right now was too soon, I knew I had to wait. So as much as I wanted to pepper his face with kisses and tell him how I felt, I didn’t. Instead, I let him turn me in his arms and hold me against his chest. I would have been happy to stay there forever. Steel Sutton ASHER HADN’T COME home last night. Bray and Brent went to look for him and came back after two in the morning with no sign of our big brother. Momma was going to notice that he wasn’t here. Keeping his disappearance from her would be hard. I could smell the bacon now and knew we’d have a big breakfast waiting on us. I believed I’d done the right thing. Dixie needed to know. It was wrong to keep that kind of thing from her. Why couldn’t Asher see that? I wouldn’t desert her the way he had, but she needed to know the reason we couldn’t be together anymore. One day Dixie would’ve found out the truth on her own and we wouldn’t have been there to help. She planned on finding her real mother at some point. She didn’t need to be blindsided by some bitch who didn’t love her anyway. And nothing had changed for me. I loved her as much as before and I wasn’t sure those feelings would ever go away. His bed’s still empty, Brent said, as he walked into my room. Truck’s gone, too. But his shit is still here, Dallas added, following Brent. He’d gotten up early to go work out in the barn. It was his normal morning routine. Momma ain’t gonna be happy about this. What’re we gonna tell her? I asked, looking to Bray for an answer. He shook his head and walked over to the window. Hell if I know. Can’t tell her the truth. It would kill her dead on the floor. Sure didn’t matter to Steel that it might kill Dix like that. Dallas said it like I wasn’t in the room. He just glared in my direction. He’d been pissed at me when he realized Asher had kept it from Dixie to protect her and I had told her anyway. Dallas thought Asher could do no wrong. He didn’t remember our dad because he was too young when dad died. Asher had always been the oldest male in his life, his onlyrole model. Dixie needed to know, Bray said, looking back at Dallas. Really? Cause you want to keep it from Momma, to protect her just like Asher wanted to protect Dixie, Dallas quickly shot back. He was two inches taller than Bray and his shoulders were wider and stronger, but we still saw him as the baby of the family. And even though no one else in Malroy messed with Dallas, we still treated him as the youngest. Shut up, Dallas! You don’t understand. The fuck I don’t! I understand Asher told that dipshit a secret and trusted him to keep it from Dixie. And he didn’t do it, Dallas accused, pointing at me. Take it down a notch or ten, Brent said as he walked into the room, squinting against the sunlight streaming in from the window. He was still in his flannel pajama pants, his blond hair sticking up in several directions. He rarely went without a shirt, still hiding the tattoo on his waist from Momma because he didn’t want to deal with what she’d say. Brent was the last one of us anyone expected to get a tattoo. The word yesterday was inked on his right hip bone and no one knew what it meant. Except possibly Bray, because those two communicated without words. Their twin bond was fucking freakish at times. Bray drawled, sleeping beauty, glad you could join us. Y’all woke me up. I bet Momma heard y’all, too, Brent grumbled, flopping back on Dallas’s bed, which was unmade and torn to pieces. And for the record, I think it was a shit thing to do for you to tell her that, Brent added, lifting his head from the pillow to look at me with disgust, before dropping it down and leaving it. Majority vote is you suck, Dallas said. Bray groaned and turned around to shoot an angry glare at his brothers. It’s done. Shut up and let it go. Now she knows and Asher has got to get a fucking grip. We can’t let him fall off the deep end. He was pretty damn close before this happened. He’s carried this shit around on his own for three fucking years. Remember that. Our goal is to find him. Not sit here and discuss if Steel did the right thing or not. I glanced down at my phone. Dixie hadn’t texted me. I’d almost expected something from her. We’d been fucking engaged . . . well, nearly. Now we were related. My stomach turned again. The only thing keeping me from losing my shit was the fact we hadn’t had sex. We had come close, but she always put the brakes on. As pissed as I was getting, I’m damn sure glad she did. Asher had to live knowing he’d slept with her. And that he’d taken her damn virginity. Fuck . . . I couldn’t imagine that. I can’t imagine what he’s been dealing with. Three years of daily hell. All I want to do is go drink so much I can’t feel a motherfucking thing. Bray’s scowl deepened and he headed for the door. Fuck drinking, I’m going to find him, he said, before leaving us all sitting there, watching him exit the room. Guess that leaves us to explain their absence. Momma’s gonna love this, Dallas said, moving toward the door himself. I should go with him, Brent added, sitting up and scratching his head. He wasn’t a morning person and Bray had looked like a man on a mission. You’ll be in his way, and he’ll be gone before you can slide into a pair of jeans anyway. Let him go, you go charm Momma with pretty boy. I spoke, nodding my head for him to follow Dallas. Brent agreed with a tilt of his chin and then left the room, hopefully planning to find a shirt first before he joined Momma and Dallas in the kitchen. Asher Sutton THIS MORNING AT seven, I’d been sitting in my truck parked behind the football field, when I got a text from Dixie. She asked me where I was. I stared at my phone for ten minutes before responding. She didn’t need to ask me why I was here because she knew. Here, I felt safe. The place was deserted, with school being out, and it was the only place I could think of where I could park and be left alone. Half an hour later, the passenger side of my truck opened and Dixie climbed in. She didn’t knock but I was expecting her. I knew she’d come, but then again, I knew Dixie better than anyone else. Better even than Steel. Steel. I loved him, but I couldn’t be trusted to be around him right now. You been here all night? Dixie asked. Yeah, I muttered. You sleep any?

Forest Mage (Soldier Son #2)

Nope. Not a wink. I hadn’t been able to close my eyes. I wanted to, needing the escape, even for the briefest of moments, but I couldn’t, not when all I saw when I closed my eyes was Dixie sobbing in Bray’s arms. Then I had to fight the urge to go find Steel and beat the shit out of him for doing this to her. Bray came by late last night. He was looking for you. I’d ignored all their texts and calls. My phone was on silent, wanting to sit here alone and think, knowing I wouldn’t find peace. They wanted to make sure that I was alright because they worried about me, but I hadn’t been alright. I was mad at you yesterday. I hated you for a moment. For not telling me. For keeping it from me. Her soft voice cut right through me. I knew she hated me and had reasons. But hearing it from her lips wasn’t easy. I know, I managed to croak through the emotion clogging my throat. I get it. I thought about it all last night. I understand, I do, she said, then her hand touched mine and I flinched, the contact unsettling, confusing. Just wanted to protect you, I replied, needing Dixie to know that I never meant to hurt her and I’d do anything not to hurt her again. I know that now . . . everything . . . I let myself remember it all. Stuff I’d blocked out because it was too painful, I remembered it all last night. How you used to be with me . . . how we used to be together . . . how sure I was you would love me forever. Then you just turned away without a word. I never understood how you could do that to me. It haunted me. I loved you . . . I loved you so much . . . but you also loved me, too. It’s why you did it. I get it. I understand now. Fuck, this was hard, it was past time we did this, but still, it was brutal. The familiar smell of coconut and honey filled the cab of the truck. It had been so long since I’d been close enough to Dixie to smell her scent. It reminded me of how good she’d felt in my arms, how soft her skin was, like satin, warm satin. And how when I sank into her, molded to her body, nothing had been that perfect. The pleasure on her face had made my heart pound just to possess her. She was mine. Back then, all mine. I can’t do this . . . you . . . I need you to leave. Please. Being this close to you . . . I’m not ready for that. I don’t think I’ll ever be. My heart doesn’t seem to understand I can’t have you . . . that it’s fucking impossible. Please, Dixie. I sounded desperate. I couldn’t look at her. I needed her to go. Dixie moved, but she didn’t open the door. Instead, she scooted closer to me, her smell making me light headed. Fuck, she had to get out. Dix, I warned, gripping the steering wheel. I’ll leave, but first, would you hold me? How did I tell her no? And how would I let her go if I allowed myself to touch her again? Please, Ash? Hold me this once. I need this. I learned a long time ago that I would do anything, sell my soul for this girl if needed. Now she was a woman and it was no different, so I released my death grip on the steering wheel and rested my arm on the seat. Dixie cuddled against me, then laid her head on my chest. Closing my arms around her, I inhaled deeply, letting her warmth fill my senses one final time. We didn’t have a goodbye. I didn’t give us one. She was right, this was the end, the one we’d needed back then, but I hadn’t been ready to give it to her. I think I’ll always love you. I can’t help that, she said quietly. I knew I’d always love her, but telling her that right now would only hurt her more. Dixie had to move on and find that ray of sunshine in her life, the one I knew she belonged in. A man who would love her unconditionally, give her a home, happiness and children. He’d make her dreams come true. He’d treat her like a princess and if he didn’t, I’d make him wish he was never born. I would never have a wife. I couldn’t do that to someone. My heart has belonged to the very same girl since I was sixteen years old. No amount of lies and sin could take that away from me. What I felt for Dixie was pure. Simple truth, one I didn’t want to change. I’d watch her live her life from afar and make sure it was everything she wanted, everything Dixie deserved. When I didn’t respond, she didn’t say any more. We sat there for an hour, I held her in my arms one last time and tried to memorize every moment of it. I made plans in my head to make sure that I righted every wrong done to her. It was the only thing keeping me sane. The sound of tires on gravel and Bray’s diesel engine suddenly broke us apart. Dixie moved over, opened the truck door and stepped out without saying a word. We’d said all there was to say. I watched her as she walked to her Jeep. She didn’t acknowledge Bray. Instead, she climbed inside and drove away. I waited for Bray to come to me. Obviously, he’d found me. I was surprised it took him so long to think about this spot, but I was thankful it took some time. When I saw him approaching my door, I rolled down the window and exhaled. Y’all talk about it? Bray asked with a scowl. She got her closure, I said, equaling his scowl with one of my very own. Been looking for your ass all morning and also most of last night. Momma’s cooked a big breakfast. I cranked the truck. Not sure I’m ready to see Steel. Bray sighed. He thought she should know. Maybe she did. The girl never moved on. The way you left it wasn’t an ending for her. She wasn’t healing. The wound was still open. She was engaged to Steel, I reminded him. Dixie had moved on. Put me behind her. Was going to marry my brother. Shit. She hadn’t even said yes. I don’t think she would’ve been able to until she saw you again. No point discussing that now. We’ll never know. Dixie was going to be okay. Her daddy would reassure her. She’d find a man to love her. I had to believe in that. Let’s go home and eat before Momma comes looking for the both of us. With a nod I said, See you there, and dropped the truck into first. There was no age difference. At least it felt that way to me. I loved Dixie. I loved being with her. I loved the way her laugh could make whatever shit I was dealing with better. Other girls had never done that for me. Momma said that the way I looked at Dixie was the way Dad looked at her. It was how she knew he was the one and that there’d never be anyone else for him. I felt that way about Dixie. As the months began to pass and spring drew closer, I knew I would have to make some decisions about my future. I wanted to sign with Florida, but I couldn’t leave her. My life was with Dixie and abandoning her to go to college wasn’t what I wanted. Football wasn’t my future. It was a way to pay for school. I could get another scholarship somewhere closer. Momma said as long as I used my talent to get my schooling paid for, she didn’t care where I chose to go. I just needed a good education. Telling Dixie all this, however, was going to be the difficult part. I’d hinted about staying around, close to her, and she’d always said, no, you belong in a big fancy college. You love football. I want that for you. What she didn’t understand was that I loved her more. She was my future. Not playing football. I pulled into her drive and she was already outside on the porch doing something, wearing a pair of cut-off jeans and a brightly colored tee shirt. Her feet were bare, but she ran down the stairs, stepping through the grass until she reached me, my heart swelling with joy and pleasure, so damn big it shouldn’t fit inside my chest. This, was all I wanted. Dixie was my nirvana.I wasn’t expecting you for another hour. I’m not dressed yet, she said with a smile. I got off early, I replied. My shifts at the grocery store were late only on weekend nights. On school nights, I left at seven. Tonight they’d let me go at five thirty because things had been so slow. Everyone was at home eating dinner and the streets of the town were usually empty as a desert by now. Are you tired? We don’t have to go to Jack’s. I wasn’t tired, but I didn’t want to go to Jack’s either. I wanted Dixie to myself. I could let Bray and Brent take the truck when they get off work. We could walk down to the lake. I could go pack us dinner. Momma cooked plenty meatloaf. I haven’t eaten yet, Dixie offered. That sounds better than a bar full of people. Smiling, she stood on her tip toes. You go drop the truck off at your house for the boys and I’ll go pack us a picnic. Deal, I replied against her lips. It was getting harder and harder not to do more than just kiss, touching and kissing here and there. I wanted it all, but until she was ready, I was happy with what we did do. I watched as she ran to the house. Her ass was too damn perfect in those shorts. I’d seen it up close and personal two weeks ago when she’d finally let me kiss my way between her legs. That had been an experience she was happy to repeat and we’d done it a lot since then. Laughing to myself, I climbed back in my truck and headed to the house. Bray and Brent both worked at Norton Knolls’ stables. The Knolls raised and trained, then sold race horses, Bray and Brent cleaning the stalls and doing the daily chores. Both were great with horses. They took the job when they were fourteen and needed work in a place they could walk to. During football season, the Knolls had other hands, including Dallas who came in and helped. But seeing as Norton was a football fan, he tended to work alongside them. His wife and my momma were longtime friends, going back way before any of us came. I parked the truck and left the keys in the ignition. No reason to take them out. No one was going to come down and steal it. We’d know before they left the city limits. Momma opened the front door and called, You’re home early. Dinner’s on the stove. I got Women’s Auxiliary at the church house tonight. Momma’s busy, busy, busy. I walked closer to the house before answering, Dix and me are taking a picnic down to the lake this evening. Momma winced and visibly shook. I ain’t looking to be a grandmamma yet. You mind that. Dix ain’t like that, Momma. She scoffed. It ain’t Dixie Monroe that I’m worried about. I grinned. She’s different. Trust me. Yes, she is, so keep it in your pants down at that lake. Momma was never one to beat around the bush when discussing sex with us. She was honest and open about it. Becoming a widow by the time we were old enough to need the talk about sex probably had a lot to do with that. We didn’t have a dad, so Momma made sure we were all well informed. I’d tell you to take a condom, but I want to believe you respect that girl enough not to be having sex with her out by her daddy’s lake. You should fear Luke enough not to do that. I love her. Told you that. And yes, even if she asked me to, I wouldn’t do it at the lake. Luke would shoot you and I’d die trying to save your stupid ass. If God was ever going to leave a woman alone to raise five teenage boys, then he chose the right woman for the task. No one will die, she’ll remain a virgin, and we will enjoy her momma’s meatloaf, just happy to be together. Momma nodded and replied, That’s good. Now grab y’all some of that lemon pound cake I left on the counter. You need to contribute to the meal. Ain’t the woman’s job to always feed the man. Best you remember that. I did as I was told, then changed into some clothes that didn’t have that bleach water scent from the mopping I had to do at work, back in the meat department. Once I was ready, I paused by my dresser and opened the bottom drawer. I grabbed a condom because I’d lied. If Dixie asked me to make love to her tonight, I’d chance certain death at the end of a shotgun barrel, with her daddy yanking the trigger. Dixie Monroe I HADN’T ASKED to see the letters. I’d needed that moment to be about us. If that was the last time Asher Sutton would hold me, then I wanted nothing else. I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to read them. I didn’t know my mother. She hadn’t been around long enough for me to remember her. Reading her words didn’t mean a lot to me. There was someone else I wanted to talk to. Someone who could tell me the truth. And if he didn’t know the truth, then we could find it together. The man who’d raised and loved me was my father. Even if he wasn’t my blood. He was my dad, nothing could change that. I just hoped he felt the same way, because I had to face this with him. I couldn’t face it with Asher or Steel. Daddy was out at the stable with his newest purchase, a pretty quarter horse that Mom had seen and wanted when they’d gone to the sale, initially to buy some cattle. Mom had married Daddy when I was little. She was a wonderful woman who made him happy. She loved me and we loved her. My family was perfect to me. Having that ruined in any way wasn’t easy. The one thing I always had to hold onto in my life and depend on felt like it was teetering on the brink of falling apart. Maybe another person wouldn’t be so determined to know the truth no holding onto the love and security I had would be simpler, but I needed to face the past. I had to ask daddy why he’d loved me anyway, raised me as his own, how he could even stand to look at me when I was a constant reminder of his wife’s betrayal. As a kid, whenever I thought there was a monster under my bed, I would grab a baseball bat and immediately search for it, instead of hiding under the covers. I never backed down and hid. I faced my fears. This was no different. It was the biggest fear I’d ever faced but I was ready. Hey, buttercup, Daddy called, stepping from the stables. He’d seen me headed his way. Hey, I replied, my voice cracking, tears quickly filling my eyes. Apparently, this wasn’t like fighting the monsters under my bed. This was scarier. I loved this man, trusted him with my life. I knew he’d be there no matter what. But I knew my questions would hurt him. His smile sagged. Who the hell do I need to beat up? Why’re there tears in my girl’s eyes? He took three long strides, grabbed both my arms, and looked down at me with sad eyes. Is this another Sutton boy’s doing? Cause if it is, I’m gonna go burn that place down. I swear to God, I’m sick of those boys hurting you. What else have they done? The fact that he didn’t know the truth was even more apparent as he spoke. I had to tell him. I was going to destroy the love this man always had for me. Could I do that? I felt my knees go weak. I couldn’t lose my daddy. Alright, buttercup, you’re scaring me. Is your momma okay? he asked, glancing back at the house. I nodded. It’s not about her, I managed to say without sobbing. Talk, darling, I can’t fix this if I don’t know what I need to fix.My daddy always tried to fix my problems. But he hadn’t been able to mend my broken heart when Asher had turned away from me. And now, he would not be able to fix what I had to tell him, either. The problem was standing right before him. I was the unfixable mistake. I heard Asher Sutton was home. Is this about him? Daddy asked, his voice laced with anger. He’s a man now and I don’t have a problem beating the hell outta him. Daddy, I said, interrupting his angry tirade about Asher. Did you know . . . did you . . . I . . . How did I ask my father whether he knew his wife was unfaithful? I couldn’t do this. Could I do this? God, this was too much. Did I know what, baby? What’s bothering you? he replied. His words were gentler as he pulled me closer to his chest like he was protecting me. And he didn’t even know from what. My . . . mother . . . did she . . . I stopped, swallowed hard, because I felt sick. Hearing this was one thing, but repeating it was another thing altogether. You said this wasn’t about Mom, he whispered with concern, gazing again at the house. He didn’t understand. I shook my head. No, the woman . . . my real mother, I replied, his body immediately tensing. We never talked about her, ever, not once. I didn’t know why she had left. Had she left because of an affair? Did he not know that I was the product of that affair? Has someone contacted you? he asked, his voice strained and quavering. I shook my head. I’d once planned on finding her. Now, I never wanted to see her. She’d ruined my life, leaving lies behind that destroyed everything. Did you know she had an affair with Vance Sutton? I asked before I could stop myself. Closing my eyes tightly, I immediately wanted to take those words back. I did not want him to know this. I loved him. He was my daddy. I couldn’t lose that. Ever. Honey, mentally, she wasn’t well. But yes, I knew. How did you find out about this? His words surprised me. I hadn’t expected him to know that much, if anything. Do the Sutton boys know? I nodded. Yes, Asher found letters that Millie wrote to Vance. They said some things . . . tears were now spilling free down my face. I couldn’t hold it in any longer. I’d faced this fear and now I had to wait, see what happened next. Daddy stared down at me frowning with worry on his face and then slowly understanding lit his eyes. He closed them tightly, muttering a curse, before pulling me against him and squeezing. Oh, no, baby, I know what Asher must have read. It’s not what you think, buttercup. You’re my princess. You hear me? You’re mine. I got proof of that. Those letters were from a mentally unstable woman. A woman who hurt others as if life was a game. Millie’s beauty was something she used as a weapon against people. I pulled away from him to search his face. I’m not Vance Sutton’s daughter? I repeated it, said it again, making sure I wasn’t hearing him wrong. No! Daddy yelled angrily. Hell no! You’re all mine! Although Millie tried to destroy me and Vance Sutton with her lie. I had a paternity test done when you were born because Vance demanded it. He wanted proof you weren’t his. But understand this, from the moment they handed you to me, minutes after you were born, you became mine, right then and there. You stole my heart, a heart I didn’t think could heal, but you healed it the moment I looked into your eyes and no piece of paper could have taken that away from me. I wouldn’t have cared what that paper said, you were my baby girl. I was willing to fight for you. I wanted you. Yes, Millie had broken me, but you, Dixie Monroe, you saved me from the darkness. You were my miracle. You lit my life. I let my Daddy hold me and cried. My biggest fear was that, one day, Asher would grow to resent me. Years from now, when we were married with children, when I had to drive them to ballet, football practice or soccer, and sex was something we’d have to find time for, when the washing machine was broken, and the car needed new brakes, that Asher’s decision not to play football for Florida and have a chance to go pro one day would haunt him for the rest of his life. That being a husband and dad wouldn’t be enough for him. That he would wonder every day what his life could have been like and I would be the one he’d blame for taking his dream away from him. I’d only dreamed of one thing in my life and that was to have Asher Sutton’s love. I had that. My dream had come true. I was living it, but Asher was giving up his, for me, and that was scaring me. As much as I begged him not to withdraw from Florida, he swore he couldn’t be happ, without me close and in his life. Momma said that it was his choice and I had to stop worrying about it. But I did. It kept me up at night. Asher was the reason the football team won state two years in a row. They even talked about him on the news—where he’d sign, whether he’d lead an undefeated college football team, just like he’d done in high school. He was important. And I would be the girl who kept him from achieving all this. Selfishly, I wanted him close. I couldn’t imagine not seeing him daily. Distance wouldn’t make me love him less. I’d loved him since I was thirteen and that wasn’t going to change. We’d stopped going to Jack’s and now we did things without his brothers and friends. We went to the lake or sat out on the football field at night, instead, talking about high school. How it was almost over for him and how my time here seemed endless. Some nights he’d take me to dinner and a movie, normally on the days he got his paycheck. He gave half to his momma to pay the bills, all the boys did and the other half he spent on us. That made me feel guilty because I wanted to help out, but Asher never let me. When his old blue truck pulled into the drive and his brothers weren’t in the back, I knew tonight we’d be discussing this again. We’d talked about it repeatedly, but now that his final decision needed be made next week, I had one last chance to convince him to go to Florida and play football. The days were warmer now, but the nights were still cool, the heat of summer still two months off. My arms were bare, so I pulled the white sweater I was carrying over my shoulders and went out to his truck. He was grinning. I got paid early. Want to see a movie? What I wanted was for him to save his money. I’d rather do something where we can talk. He frowned. That sounds like something serious. It was, so I replied, I want to spend time with you. No movie. Just us. Alone. He gave me a crooked grin. Okay. I can live with that. Then tell me what you’d like to do. Can we ride out to Hillview Peak? I asked. Asher’s eyebrows shot up and I knew why. That was where people went to park. It was known for its dark, secluded location. On any given night, you could find sweaty couples having sex in cramped back seats. No one ever talked about it, but everyone knew what happened on Hillview Peak. I watched as a million different thoughts flashed through his expressive eyes. Dix, uh, baby, if you’re ready for that . . . I mean, if you want it . . . trust me, I want the very same thing. But I’m not having your first time be at Hillview Peak. Give me some notice and I can come up with a better place than my truck. His truck. He’d lost his virginity in his truck. There’d been a lot of girls in there. Now, there was just me. I knew that. I trusted him completely. I was ready and although I’d always imagined losing my virginity in Asher Sutton’s truck, I didn’t really want it to happen there. I wanted us to be different. I didn’t hold all the girls he’d been with, the ones that came before me, against him, because I wasn’t jealous. I just didn’t want our first time to be the same, or even similar, to anyone else he’d been with in the past.

Lavender Vows (Medieval Herb Garden #1)

I’d intended to talk him into going to Florida and now we were somehow talking about sex. This wasn’t exactly how I meant for it to happen. I wanted to convince him to live his dream. We could still be together, though it would be hard on both of us. Part of me, a part I wasn’t very proud of, thought that sex would bind him to me, keep him from going off and realizing that I wasn’t the one for him. Then there was that other small voice in my head that said I wanted him to be my first and there was no reason to keep waiting. But the biggest part of me wanted Asher inside of me, to have that kind of connection with him. I just wanted to talk at Hillview. It seemed secluded and the stars there are beautiful. When have you seen the stars at Hillview Peak? he asked with a scowl that made me laugh. I snuck up there with Scarlet when we were thirteen to see if we could spy anyone having sex . . . mostly it was curiosity. Asher seemed relieved. What? Scarlet wasn’t having sex at thirteen? Not yet, I replied, laughing. There was no reason to defend my best friend. She’d been boy crazy since ten. And it was exactly one month after she turned fourteen that she happily lost her virginity. I don’t want anyone seeing us going there. They’ll talk, Asher said. You’ve been there many times. It won’t be a big deal. He reached down and laced his fingers through mine. You’re a big deal. My big deal. And I don’t want anyone thinking I’m screwing you in my damn pickup truck. Especially at Hillview Peak. Asher rarely cursed around me. The fact he did it now only made his words sweeter. He was protecting me. Asher cherished what he had. All the things my momma said I was supposed to expect from a guy and should never settle for any less. Asher would always be more. More than any guy could ever be. Asher Sutton YOU BETTER EAT them biscuits. I didn’t get up and fix them for you to just look at them, Momma said, as she stared at my plate and the food I’d barely touched. My appetite was gone. Vanished. Yes, Momma, I replied before I forced a bite into my mouth and chewed. Steel had hurried up, finished his breakfast, then left. Didn’t even look me in the eye, not once. That was good. He needed to keep his distance until I was able to calm down. Can I have another? Dallas asked like a damn five-year-old. Go get it yourself! She’s not your waitress! I snapped at him angrily. His eyes got big as he stood up with his plate and headed to the stove. Okay, what’s got you all tied up in knots? You weren’t here this morning and Bray was out looking for you while the rest of them tried to distract me. I raised every one of you. I know when you don’t come home at night and I know when Dallas is trying to charm me so that someone else can get away with something. Dallas smirked as he sat down with another plate of biscuits smothered in tomato gravy. Figures, he laughed. I refused to tell Momma what was wrong. There was no reason for her to suffer that kind of pain right now. She had good memories of my dad and it needed to stay that way. Telling her wouldn’t make it any better. Hurting her for no reason was unnecessary. I’m adjusting to being home again. Steel broke it off with Dixie and I’m not gonna lie, I’m glad. Dixie needs to move on and not with one of my brothers. I hoped my voice didn’t betray me. Damn, it sounded like it did. Momma cocked an eyebrow and sat down across from me with a cup of coffee in her hand. I call BS, she just said. She sipped her coffee and studied me. BS, you hear me. I don’t buy it, making her point now more aggressively. Momma, let’s just leave him alone, Bray said. He was the only one brave enough to say something like that to Momma. Except for me, and I wasn’t speaking. Momma turned to glare down the table at Bray who was now looking like a little boy with his hand in the cookie jar. I would’ve laughed, if I wasn’t so fucked up. Dallas and Brent both snickered. They knew what was coming next. I don’t recall asking you what to do. I carried him for nine months and through ten hours of labor. Then I cleaned his nasty butt, nursed him when he was sick, held his hand while he got stitches, and let him puke all over me whenever he got food poisoning. So do not tell me what I can and can’t do. If and when I want to know about one of my boys, I will ask and get an answer. And you might be next, so shut your mouth and eat your breakfast. You’re in my house. Bray dropped his head and replied meekly, Yes, ma’am. Momma swung her attention back to me. Now, last time I checked, you kicked that sweet Dixie Monroe to the curb, without even a backwards glance. Wouldn’t say a word or look at her. I was worried about you getting too serious. You were young, so I didn’t push it. But three years have passed and when you should be attached to some girl you’ve met at college by now, you’re back here still looking heartbroken. Ain’t right. Don’t make sense to me. When a man looks like you, he has women beating down his door. But you’re alone. Explain that to me! It has to be you pushing them away. Steel loves that girl. He’s bought her a ring God knows he can’t afford, and now he’s broken up with her two days after you get home. I smell shit. S.H.I.T. I glanced down the table at Bray, but he was eating and not looking our way. Momma had put him in his place. Brent was watching us with worry in his eyes. He knew I couldn’t tell Momma the truth. They all did, but not one of them was trying to help me out. Suddenly, they were all mute. Maybe, he didn’t love her enough. Enough to fight for her and make sure she was protected from everything that could hurt her. Maybe, he wouldn’t sacrifice his happiness for hers. Maybe . . . I stopped and stood up. Momma, I love you, but I can’t talk about this. Not right now, I said, leaving my plate on the table and heading for the door. If Steel could run out, so could I. Facing Momma right now wasn’t the best idea. You found them letters . . . now, didn’t you? Momma’s words stopped me as my hand touched the screen. I froze. The letters. If she knew about the letters, then she knew . . . What the fuck? Turning around, I looked at her and saw the sadness in her eyes. What letters? I needed her to spell it out. If she was referring to the letters I found, then she shouldn’t have allowed Steel or me anywhere near Dixie Monroe in the first place. The letters from that woman to your daddy. I didn’t know where he hid them. But three years ago, you found them, didn’t you? She nodded as if I’d confirmed this. I wondered once back then when you looked so miserable, but then I thought, no, surely not. If you found something like that, you’d ask me about it, but you never did, so I figured it was something else. Now I see I made a grave mistake. I stared at my mother. She knew. But she . . .Why would you let us, let me be with Dixie that way if you knew? I was trying to grasp the fact that my mother knowingly had allowed Steel and myself to commit incest. The fucking world that I knew was warping before me. Momma stood up and shook her head. I’d have never let such a thing happen. That girl ain’t your daddy’s child. Luke Monroe has a paternity test that proves Dixie is his. Millie Monroe was the most beautiful woman in the county and probably the state, too. She could seduce a man like nothing I’d ever seen, but that woman, she was insane. Mentally screwed up, I tell you. She set her sight on your daddy and that meant she eventually got him. Your daddy was a man, that’s the only excuse I got for him back then and now. I forgave him a long time ago. Understand this, he never stopped trying to make it up to me. He did love me, he just let temptation get the best of him. Not the first and definitely not the last man to do that.If my daddy were still alive, I’d go kill him right now. Listening to my momma talk about him being seduced by another woman pissed the hell out of me. When I was gone to the doctor one day, Millie came to the barn and, well . . . she did some things any man would have a hard time refusing. Your daddy made a mistake. Then, she sighed and added, Millie came back and did it again a few more times after that. Your daddy was weak, so when Millie got pregnant, we didn’t know if it could be your daddy’s child. He admitted it to me right then. Everything he’d done. I was pregnant with Steel at the time. I had three babies I was taking care of and money was tight, you see. Your daddy used Millie as an escape from the troubles we were going through. I thought I’d leave him for a while, but he was so pitiful, and I loved him very much. It took a couple of years, but I finally forgave him. Anyway, when that little girl was born, I wanted a paternity test. So did your daddy. If that baby was his, we needed to know, but it wasn’t. Dixie was Luke’s. Period. Holy fuck, Bray swore, reminding me we weren’t alone, my brothers were still sitting there and listening to every word. Can’t believe I was even born. You shoulda killed him, Dallas muttered. Momma turned around and faced them all. I loved that man. He loved and adored all of you. He was a good man who had weak moments. He made a mistake and I forgave him. It don’t change the fact you were his whole world. He loved each of you. Her tone was determined and it showed she meant what she was saying. I wasn’t sure I could ever forgive the man, but he was gone and being mad at him was pointless. In the end, he’d left us all anyway. Momma looked back to me. Where were those letters? she asked. Loose floorboard in the attic, I told her. She nodded. I should have checked that place out before I let you move up there. I knew you were sweet on that girl. She looks just like her momma, but she ain’t a thing like her. She’s got her daddy’s heart and Luke Monroe is as good a man as you’ll find. He tried to make it work with Millie, even when he knew she was crazy. Millie ran off and left him with that little girl, and it was the best thing that could’ve happened, both for Dixie and Luke. She didn’t need that woman in her life. She turned out to be a fine young woman. The day I heard Millie had dropped dead out in California, I didn’t even feel pity. I felt nothing but some relief that she’d never try and come back into Dixie’s life. Dixie is a beautiful woman inside and out. Momma paused, then reached over and squeezed my arm. A woman your brother loved enough to propose to. Remember that, okay, Asher? Remember that. There was no forgetting. I couldn’t sleep. Dixie’s face and the sounds she made while I’d been inside her the first time replayed over and over in my mind. It was a memory that would never grow old. I also wanted to do it again and again until neither of us could walk. I thought being with Dixie couldn’t get any better. I’d been wrong. The sex was life-changing. Feeling her naked against me, her thighs open, their insides pressed against my hips had felt like heaven on earth. Nothing that felt that good could ever be wrong. I’d had sex with eight other girls in the past, all of them older than me and with tricks that I hadn’t known until they taught me. I appreciated those lessons. I enjoyed every one of them. I was a guy, so I won’t deny it. That sex was amazing. But none of those experiences had prepared me for how it would feel sliding inside Dixie for the first time, knowing I loved her. I didn’t want to hurt her, I wanted it to be a memory she could cherish forever. I’d been about to explode inside her when her nails dug into my back and she cried my name with a scream. Dixie’s head was thrown back, her body trembling with release, and I could feel her pleasure churning through her body like a twister. I knew from Bray’s stories that virgins didn’t orgasm the very first time, and even though I’d wanted that for Dixie, I didn’t expect it. I just wanted her to enjoy it. While standing in the middle of my bedroom, I decided to move the furniture. I wanted to bring Dixie up here one evening, maybe next week when Momma was at church and my brothers were all gone. I wanted to be with her, here in my room. The squeaky floor under the bed would be an issue if we ever did it late at night when everyone was here and asleep. I wanted to be with her in a bed and not in the grass for once. She didn’t seem to mind the blanket on the grass by the lake nor did she mind my truck. But she deserved more than that. It had been three weeks since we made love the first time, but we’d managed to do it as often as we could since then. Dixie was sore the first few times and I’d been taking it easy with her. But the more we did it, the wilder she was getting. The memory of her begging me last night was giving me a boner. I had those a lot lately just thinking of Dixie. The shower would ease me some, but that was always just a short-lived release. I couldn’t seem to get her off my mind even after thrusting my cock into my hand in the shower. I was going to need to wear myself out. I could move furniture, then clean. My room needed it, especially if I was going to bring Dixie up here and make love to her in my bed. I moved the bed away from the wall. Then I stepped into the space to make sure the headboard didn’t break because I’d yanked it sideways from the wallboard. The floor beneath my left foot moved and made a soft clunking sound. That had to be the source of the squeak. I looked down at the loose board now catty-cornered under my foot. I hadn’t noticed it when I first moved up here. But then I’d had my bed sitting over this spot all along. I squatted, grabbed the board to see if it could be nailed down, but my eyes found something else. Something that had been hidden there for a very long time. I didn’t know that yet, but I was curious. I picked the old shoe box up, anxious to open it, the idea of it being a family heirloom exciting me to no end. I sat on the edge of my bed and slowly opened the box. Several letters were inside, folded neatly one on top of the other. I lifted one from the pile and wondered if I should open it, if I had any right to do it. If they contained secrets, maybe those secrets were meant to stay hidden for a reason. My curiosity got the best of me. I carefully unfolded the pages. The words were handwritten and as I read them slowly, my world as I knew it began to change. Darkness engulfed me and any joy, any happiness I felt was ripped from me one word at a time. I wanted to stop reading and burn the whole box, watch it catch fire and pretend I ever read any of it . . . but I knew I couldn’t. Every single word was seared into my brain forever. I read every letter, every page. I knew I had to break the heart of the only girl I’d ever love, even if that love was all wrong. Dixie Monroe SCARLET’S WHITE CAMARO came down my long driveway. I sat in the porch swing watching as she made her way to the house. We hadn’t talked much in the past two days. She seemed to understand that I needed some distance with Asher being back. She had no idea how crazy things had gotten. When she stopped and her door swung open, I realized that Scarlet might be my best friend, but there were things I just wasn’t ready to talk with her about. I wasn’t telling anyone about this until I got myself mentally prepared to tell Asher that we weren’t related. Once I realized that my daddy was my daddy and that he loved me even more than I’d known, I was left knowing that this horrible secret that made Asher leave me three years ago no longer stood between us.

Running to him had been the first thing I wanted to do, but then I remembered Steel. I had to deal with Steel first and see where we stood. I had to think about this, think it all over and decide on the right thing to do, so I sat on my porch and listened to my mom humming as she cooked lunch, knowing that I was safe. My life wasn’t about to be pulled from under me. So I had to give myself time to be able to make the right decision. Scarlet spoke as she approached, Since my best friend couldn’t pick up a phone and call me, or heck even text me, I figured I better check on her. The Suttons got you in a tangled web? She walked up the steps onto the front porch that wrapped around our house. I replied, Sorry. I’m spending a bit of time with my thoughts, before patting the empty spot on the swing beside me. Sit and talk if you’d like. Scarlet flicked her red hair behind her shoulder, smirking and shooting back, Fine, but only ‘cause you’re sexy, she teased, before sitting next to me. She gave the swing a big push with her legs, then tucked her knees beneath her chin. Brent said there’s been some drama. I confirmed, Yep, you could say that. But right now I want to stay away from it. Try peace for a day or two. I have to talk to Steel, but not just yet. Scarlet sighed. Please don’t tell me you’re gonna break it off with him. He loves you. Don’t mess it up because of Asher’s sexy ass. He ain’t worth it, Dixie. She didn’t know any of it. But hearing her talk about Asher like he wasn’t worth the fight was hard. Because he was. Well worth it all. Steel did love me and I had to figure out if what I felt for him was love. I knew I was in love with Asher. I adored him. He was everything I wanted. But he was also dangerous, could hurt me so easily, and now he might not want me at all. Steel did. At least I thought he did before he found out about the letters. Now he and Asher would have to know the truth. You talked to Brent today? I asked wanting to change the subject. Yeah, she replied, then looked out at the yard. I also talked to Bray. If she’d talked to Bray, that wasn’t a big deal . . . or it wouldn’t have been if she hadn’t said it like she felt guilty about something. I studied her face for a moment and wondered if I’d been so wrapped up in my own life that I’d missed something important happening in hers. Why did you talk to Bray? I asked, trying to sound casual. She didn’t look at me, but the way her shoulders tensed wasn’t good, not good at all. Scarlet, I said, look at me. Do you ever wonder what Bray’s thinking? He’s so guarded. He rarely smiles. She paused and a small smile touched her lips. But when he does smile, it’s really something. Whoa. This was not good. Scarlet, um, is there something you need to tell me? She released a long sigh, then turned her head toward me and rested her cheek on her knees. Probably shouldn’t. It’s bad. I’m bad for even thinking it. What kind of person does that? He’s Brent’s twin brother, but they’re so different. Bray’s moody and mysterious and he’s got this sexy, angry look about him that makes me feel funny in my stomach. Do you get what I’m saying? The Sutton boys were trouble. Beautiful trouble. Lots of stinking trouble. And Bray was the worst of them all. Bray isn’t like Brent and that’s a good thing. Brent loves you, while Bray likes all girls, and he especially likes getting blowjobs from them. You’ve heard the stories on how he gets off. Having girls drop to their knees before he gets rough with them. Remember what Jenn said about Bray? How he gagged her and called her names, while he held the back of her head? Scarlet grinned and pressed her lips together. Yeah, but she also said it was sexy and then she went back for more. What? Scar, please tell me you’re kidding, I replied. Nothing about that sounded sexy. Scarlet lifted a shoulder and gave a little shrug. The idea of Bray talking dirty to me while getting off . . . well, it kind of excites me. She then squeezed her eyes tightly together. That makes me a slut, doesn’t it? I sound awful just saying that. I had no answer. No right response to give her. I didn’t think that sounded exciting at all. The rumors about Bray and his sexcapades were rampant, not just in Malroy, but throughout the entire county. Girls loved him, but they said he wasn’t sweet and easy. Bray took what he wanted, when he wanted it, and how he wanted it. If Asher, she said, lowering her voice, pushed you down to your knees in front of him and shoved his dick down your throat, telling you that you had a dirty little mouth and called you his bad, naughty girl, saying that you needed to be punished, maybe even spanked, you . . . that wouldn’t turn you on? I couldn’t respond. The idea of being on my knees in front of Asher and being able to bring him pleasure made my heart race and my body feel feverish. Okay, maybe she had a point. But you love Brent. Why would the idea of Bray doing these things excite you? She turned her gaze back toward the yard. She wouldn’t look at me. What wasn’t she telling me? Had I completely missed something important happening in her life? He’s different. I like it when I can make him smile. He doesn’t smile enough. We were two peas in a pod. Both torn between two Sutton boys. Maybe our reasons were different, but who was I to judge? I wrapped my arm around Scarlet’s shoulders and rested my head against hers. With a shove of my feet, I got us swinging again, then pulled my feet up under me. Bray can’t be trusted with your heart. You know that, right? I reminded her. She didn’t reply right away. We listened to Mom humming and the sound of the tractor way out in the field. It was peaceful. Until Scarlet replied, Just like Asher can’t be trusted with yours. She was right, but I hated hearing that. The front door then opened, Mom sticking her head through it and twisting her face toward us to speak, I have peach cobbler hot from the oven and vanilla ice cream for the top. Y’all want me to bring two bowls? She then came out the rest of the way and waited for our response. Seeing her smiling blond head, slightly wide hips, and makeup-free face beaming at me with such love and adoration made me want to get up and hold her for hours just because she was there. She wasn’t what the world would consider beautiful, but to me, she was the most beautiful woman in the world. Especially where it counted the most. She’d loved a little girl who wasn’t hers and made all her bad dreams go away. She’d been there the day I got my period and got scared out of my mind, and she’d held me when Asher left me. I was the luckiest girl in the world to have her as my mom. She was the kind of woman I hoped to be one day. We’ll come inside and eat some with you, I told her before standing up. I need some cobbler, Scarlet agreed. I walked over to my mom, wrapped my arms around her and said, I love you, swallowing the emotion in my throat, and pushing back the tears what were threatening to come. She gave me a quick squeeze, kissed my cheek and replied, I love you more, princess. Never forget that. That had always been her response whenever I told her I loved her.

Asher Sutton I HADN’T SEEN or spoken to Steel in two days. I knew Bray had told him everything that Momma told us. He let me know that Steel knew the truth about Dixie and the letters, and once I got my emotions under control, I had planned on going to Dixie and telling her everything. It was the only thing I’d been able to think about. But then I realized it wasn’t my place to tell her. Steel had proposed to Dixie. Momma had been sure to remind me of that. I waited for something to happen, but Steel never came to find me. I was getting tired of waiting on him to do something. He’d left early this morning to go mend the south fence. Bray said it was Steel’s turn to pull wire when I asked where he was during breakfast. I had to talk to Steel because I wanted to go to Dixie, but I couldn’t. I wasn’t free to do that. The idea that I could hold her, that I could love her freely again was taunting me. The way I felt about her wasn’t wrong or messed up, it was allowed. I was allowed to worship Dixie, to tell her that she owned my soul, that she was everything to me. But I was waiting on my own little brother to do . . . something . . . anything. When I got down to the barn, I could see the farm truck headed toward me, knowing Steel was in it. The posts and wire he hadn’t needed were clanking around in the bed, the diesel engine rumbling to an idle, then to a stop behind the barn. Steel climbed from the truck and slammed the door without looking at me. The anger on his face wasn’t what I’d been expecting to find. I hadn’t done anything to piss him off. He was the one who’d hurt Dixie. What? I asked, forcing him to look at me and meeting his glare. He let out a hard laugh. What, he repeated, I’m waiting on you to tell me you’re going to see Dixie today. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? To tell me you’re going to talk to her. To warn me you’re about to swoop in and give her what she wants. What she’s wanted all her life. He pulled off his work gloves and threw them down on the ground. What the fuck do I do with that? I can’t compete. So go get her, Asher. Go fucking take her away from me. He then spun and stalked toward the barn. Steel loved her, maybe not the way I did, but he loved her all the same. And I loved him, he was my little brother and I’d always been there whenever he needed me. I’d taught him how to throw a football. Where to hit a baseball on the barrel of your bat. How to tackle with your head across. I loved Dixie. But my lost chance with her. Steel was there for her when she needed someone to comfort her after I’d walked away from her without a word. I didn’t deserve her. Steel was the better man. Deep in my heart, I knew that as I called his name and he stopped. He turned just before entering the barn. The anger in his eyes was now gone, replaced by the kind of pain that further cemented my decision. What, he replied, what, Asher? Go get her! She was yours until now. She hasn’t been mine in a long time. I’ve lived three years believing what I had with her was wrong and disgusting. You only lived that hell for a day. Your love for her is still pure. It’s you she needs right now, not me. I’m pretty sure I’m broken beyond repair and won’t ever be whole again. The tension in Steel’s shoulders loosened, his eyes then becoming those of a worried brother. You’re not broken. You’re a good man, Asher. A great one if you ask me. He was wrong, but he loved me. His love was special, exactly the kind of love I wanted for Dixie. She wouldn’t ever be faced with the dark demons that had taken over my life, demons I wasn’t sure would ever go away. Finding out the truth didn’t magically fix me. It freed me, but it didn’t fix me. That required something I wasn’t willing to take—Dixie’s love. I couldn’t have it. It would never be mine again. Thanks, I told him, but I’ll be leaving next month. She needs a man who’ll be here for her. One who will show her the sunshine every damn day. I have too much darkness in my soul to give Dixie the light she deserves. Steel stood there staring at me. Finally, he nodded in agreement. Okay, he replied. I do love her, you know. I know, I quietly assured him. He wiped his hands on his jeans, then flashed a small smile, before jogging down to his truck. Watching him go wasn’t easy, but it was the right thing to do. The barn door opened and I glanced back to see Dallas standing there wearing nothing but a pair of white shorts and a set of boxing gloves. I hadn’t known anyone was inside the barn. Dallas was just staring at me. I love all my brothers, but just to clarify, Asher, you’re the best one of them. We all know it. Even Steel. Dallas spoke, giving me a sad smile. He then lifted his chin toward the inside of the barn. Come on in and beat the shit out of that heavy bag. I just finished and I’m about to lift weights. The bag is all yours if you want it. Hitting something sounded really fucking good. I walked up to the barn as Dallas pulled his gloves off and slapped me in the stomach with them. Here you go, old man, he teased. I grabbed the gloves and felt a genuine grin tug at my lips for the first time in a really long while. This old man could beat your ass. Dallas chuckled and pointed at himself, before flexing his impressive arms. Dude, you looked at me lately? I’m a beast, he replied. A monster. In return I laughed, really laughed, all the muscles one used to do that finally coming to life again. They’d lain unused for years. Yes, you are, little brother. Both a beast and a monster, I said. The surprised expression on Dallas’s face was quickly replaced by a big grin of his own. Steel Sutton While pulling onto the dirt road that connected our driveway with Dixie’s, I noticed Bray’s truck parked in the field. Slowing down, I checked to see if he needed anything. But when I saw a red head and a pair of tits rising and falling like the sea, I shook my head grinning and kept driving toward Dixie’s house. In broad daylight, the bastard had a girl out there, fucking away without a care. Dude was crazy. My brother was nuts. Dixie and me hadn’t had sex. We’d been together now for eleven months. It was my longest stint of celibacy since I was fifteen and Brenda Vickers first showed me her eighteen-year-old tits, then how good it felt to slide my dick into a hot, wet pussy. Sex became as important as oxygen to me. But then I’d fallen in love with Dixie and waiting on her becoming even more important. Turning down willing women wasn’t easy sometimes, but Dixie was worth the wait. She was better than a meaningless night with some easy lay. Dixie was worth it all. Seeing Bray getting some made me a little jealous. I was tired of masturbating. But what he had was cheap and would be over soon. I had something more with Dixie, something worth the sacrifice, and the long wait that went along with it. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw Dixie’s Jeep parked outside, so I hurried to her door. I didn’t want to wait any longer. For two days, Dixie hadn’t called or texted me. I was so damn sure that Asher would come and take her away from me anyway, so I didn’t try to contact her either. I believed Dixie loved me. She’d told me she loved me, but then again, I wasn’t sure she loved me as much as Asher. Their history was longer than ours, longer and more complicated. I always felt like second fiddle to him. But now that he wasn’t planning on coming for her, she would be mine again.A rampage, I whispered. The elders are going to rampage.

That does not sound good, Roland said weakly.There was no humor in Nikolas’s laugh. There is a reason why no one – not even vampires – tangles with trolls. If you mess with one troll, you get the whole clan and if you harm one of their young, you die. And if a young troll goes missing, the clan rises up to find them – or who took them. Trolls are even better trackers than crocotta and once they are worked up into a rage, they will kill anyone who has come into contact with their missing children. And during a rampage trolls do not distinguish between the innocent and the guilty.

The Darkest Pleasure (Lords of the Underworld #3)

The doorbell rang making me and Roland jump. Nikolas opened the door to admit Chris whose good-natured smile did not falter even when he saw our grim faces. Then he saw Remy. I don’t think I had ever seen someone’s eyes go that round before. Roland shoved a glass of Nate’s whiskey into Chris’s hand while Nikolas brought him up to speed on all he had missed.The kitchen was getting crowded so we moved into the living room. I took the chair by the fireplace and Remy sat on the ottoman beside me. Roland and Chris sat on either end of the sofa. Nikolas stood by the window looking like a sentry.

Your little orphan is just full of surprises, Chris quipped to Nikolas. Never a dull moment.I bristled at Chris’s words. I’m nobody’s little orphan.

Chris ignored my denial. So, what’s the plan?There was no question in my mind about what had to be done. We’ve got to find them. No one said anything so I said, They’re only babies. God knows what those people will do to them.

Roland pointed at Remy. Can’t he track them?Remy shook his head unhappily. Only elders know tracking. If I close I find them.

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