Authors: Jennifer Ryan
For all the Jessies out there who have overcome hardship and found themselves on the edge of life and oblivion and found the strength and courage to prevail. I wish you all a happy-ever-after.
Life and love are precious. Hold on to both.
Senior Prom . . .
E COULD HAVE
asked any girl
, Jessie thought and gazed up at the night sky. She couldn’t believe Dylan McBride asked her to the dance. Based on all the whispers and backhanded comments, neither could anyone else.
The stars glimmered brightly overhead. Jessie stood out on the veranda. Rock and roll emanated from the elegant ballroom more suited to waltzes and string quartets than the sounds of rowdy teenagers and thrashing guitars.
If her father discovered her gone . . . Well, it didn’t bear thinking about. Hard to explain living with someone who’d rather drink himself to death than offer you a kind word. You learned to hate them as the love between you withered like autumn leaves and died.
Pushing aside her tormented thoughts, she focused on the stars above and the fact she was here, tonight, with Dylan. She’d give anything to kiss him again, feel his lips on hers, warm and urgent, making her heart slam so hard against her ribcage it just might burst out of her chest. Breathless when the kiss ended, the corners of his mouth would tilt with that cocky half grin of his and melt her heart. Even now, she felt the unfamiliar flutter in her belly that made her both excited and anxious to kiss him again.
“I thought you wanted to dance.” Dylan walked out the French doors and across the veranda to join her at the stone wall. “Might as well get your money’s worth out of that killer dress.” His eyes skimmed over her from head to foot, making her skin warm despite the slight breeze chilling the air.
“I needed a break from all the whispers and snide remarks. They’re taking bets on what I have on you. How in the world did the Queen of Geeks get the most popular everything to ask her out?” Her social-outcast status had reached monumental proportions freshman year and soared ever since.
“Don’t listen to them. No one knows you the way I do. They don’t see the real you,” he said, looking away, embarrassed by the words spilling from his lips. He gazed up at the night sky with her and brushed his hand down the back of her hair.
She cherished the light touch on her head. Normally, she didn’t let anyone get this close. Her father would rather hit than be gentle.
She smiled and turned to face him. “You know, there’s a little poetry mixed in with all that rough-and-tumble jock.” She recognized the gleam in his eye and inhaled sharply, aware of how close they stood together.
“I don’t have a single memory over the last ten years that doesn’t include you. I think you’ve been following me around since the day we moved here.” His husky voice drifted away on the wind.
She didn’t know what to say. He’d been the butt of many jokes because of her blatant interest. Maybe it was the dance, or her first real date with Dylan—tonight she felt older, wiser.
“You’re the only one who doesn’t look down on me.” Nervous, she smoothed an imaginary wrinkle on her dress.
Dylan was the only normalcy in her otherwise turbulent life, and he graduated in a few short days. She’d miss him come fall when he left for college. She didn’t want to face her junior year without any friends, without Dylan.
“You didn’t embarrass me. Well, sometimes,” he admitted with that half smile again. “Mostly I like the attention. You’re good for my ego.”
“Like your ego needs my help.”
Another part of his anatomy sure did.
Dylan wanted to grab fistfuls of her chocolate brown hair and crush his mouth to hers. He loved touching her soft hair, did it whenever she came within reach. The sparkle in her more-green-than-hazel eyes and the sway of her black strapless gown as it ruffled slightly in the breeze made his body tighten and a small groan form deep in his throat.
Her hair never looked prettier, hanging free from its usual ponytail. For the first time, she wore makeup. Tonight she looked like a girl, not another construction worker on her dad’s jobsites. If nothing else, tonight he’d given her a chance to be Cinderella. She looked damn good as a girl.
He ached with wanting her and the hurt that in a few short days, he wouldn’t see her again for a long time. She didn’t know that. No one knew. He wondered if their friendship could survive the distance he was putting between himself and this town, his family’s demands, and, reluctantly, her. Maybe she’d wait for him to come back. A constant in his life, one he hesitated to give up. He needed to go, but all of a sudden he wished he could take her with him.
Something inside told him to take her along. A whisper from his heart, though insistent, he ignored. What could he do? She was still in high school.
“Let’s get out of here,” he commanded, his voice rough.
“Fine by me. It’s not like I’m friends with any of the girls. Can’t exactly invite anyone to my house and hang out, right? My dad’s not exactly the welcoming committee.”
“In all the time I’ve known you, you’ve never complained about your old man. In fact, whenever someone brings him up, you change the subject.”
“What’s to talk about? He’s a drunk, everyone knows it, so there isn’t much to say. Between the kids at school and living with him, sometimes I wish I could just disappear. Lord knows, no one would miss me.”
“I would.” An ache welled from his chest to the back of his throat. She wouldn’t want him feeling sorry for her. But he did.
“Come on, Jess, let’s go for a drive and look for shooting stars. There’s something I need to tell you.”
Jessie thrilled at the idea of being alone with him. He leaned in, took her hands, and pulled her to him. His arms went around her, lips settled over hers in a kiss so soft and sweet she ached with wanting to keep this safe feeling forever. She only ever felt this way with him.
The kiss ended with a soft brush of his lips over hers. He stared down at her and something inside her shifted and tipped. Her girlhood crush turned into a full-fledged love, bursting from her heart and filling her soul.
Dylan stepped back, grasped her hand, and took off for the exit. He didn’t stop until they were in the front seat of his car. Caught up in the excitement, she giggled, and Dylan gave her another of those lopsided smiles that made her insides flutter.
They drove away from the dance and all his friends and settled into the cozy car, the music blaring, his hand holding hers, and the comfort of just being together. The town lights faded behind them. Turning off onto an old, dirt logging road, they rolled and bumped to a stop on a rise overlooking the surrounding hills and trees. He killed the engine.
Jessie stared into the night, at the land, and the glorious star-speckled sky, and sucked in a quick breath. “Dylan, this is gorgeous. How did you find this place?”
“Since I got my wheels, I’ve been scouting out the back roads. I come here a lot. Day or night, you can’t beat the view.”
“No wonder no one uses this road. I don’t know how we made it this far over all those ruts.”
“My superior driving skills.”
“There’s something superior about you, but it’s not your driving skills. More like your attitude.”
“You think so, huh?” He poked her in the ribs to make her laugh. Instead, she inhaled sharply, winced, and pressed her arm to her side before she thought better to hide her response.
“What’s wrong? Did I hurt you?”
His brow wrinkled as he studied her. She couldn’t tell him the truth. “It’s nothing. I got hit with a board the other day at work and it left a bruise. That’s all.”
His palms glided up her arms to her shoulders. He pulled her to him and whispered in her ear, “Let me kiss you and make it better.”
She thought he’d take her mouth again; instead his lips brushed a kiss on her bare shoulder. His head dipped and his lips pressed to the swell of her breast above her gown. The zipper on her dress slid down her back, his fingertips following its progress over her skin. The silky material swooshed and pooled around her waist. He came back to her mouth and kissed her hungrily. Her hands seemed to have a mind of their own, and she let them have their way with him. While his hands roamed her body, she explored his, stripping away obstacles.
An unfamiliar shimmering kind of heat spread over her entire body like hot waves rolling over a road in the dead of summer. She didn’t know how they ended up naked in the backseat together; she only remembered the minute he’d locked eyes with her, his gaze one of pure emotion and need. Nodding her head in agreement, she pulled him down to her again.
On a star-studded night, on a deserted stretch of road, and in the backseat of a car, she gave herself to him with her whole heart.
If she’d known the love she felt that night would be eclipsed by the agonizing pain she suffered after, she’d have done it anyway.
Eight years later . . .
hell did you go?” Greg’s deep voice came from behind her. She hadn’t heard him come into her Hope Construction office. She sat at her desk, facing the window, looking into nothing.
Swiveling around in her chair, Jessie glanced up at him and mentally shook off her stupor. No matter how hard she tried, whenever she was tired, her mind took her back to him, to the hurt.
“Sorry, just thinking.”
“From the look on your face, I’d say you were remembering again.” Greg’s voice held deep concern.
“Just reminding myself how everything can change in a moment.”
“I wish you’d stop punishing yourself for being human.”
“Human? I’m a cliché. I went to the prom with the high school’s star quarterback, lost my virginity in the backseat of a car, ended up an unwed pregnant teen. Dumped by the quarterback, almost killed by my alcoholic father, and then to add insult to injury I lost . . .”
She couldn’t finish. For some unknown reason, today her mind brought it all back. She’d let the ghosts out of the closet and didn’t know how to usher them back in. They lashed at old wounds and made her bleed.