Under the lights, p.20
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       Under the Lights, p.20

         Part #2 of The Field Party series by Abbi Glines
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  one last time.

  “Go on back inside and start your schoolwork. I’m going to go back to the big house and make some calls. See if I can’t figure out where he’s taken off to before I call his momma. She’ll drag her heels doing it.”

  Nonna turned and headed back to the Lawtons’. I watched her go, thinking she’d never find him. He hadn’t left without thinking about it. This had been planned, and he had the money to stay hidden.

  “Be safe, Gunner,” I whispered, although he was nowhere near me. Then I turned and went inside to put the mop away and begin my first day as a homeschooled senior in high school.

  It Was for Both of Us

  CHAPTER 49

  GUNNER

  I stared at the toss phone I’d bought at the local Walmart before taking off. I had left my iPhone turned off and hidden in my room. Not that I thought my parents might want to actually find me, but if they did realize I was missing, then tracking me via my cell was easy.

  Although I had over ten thousand dollars in cash, thanks to my father’s lack of creativity with the combination, I’d been able to take it out of the vault in the office, I was living cheap. The motel room I’d ended up at somewhere in Tennessee, about five hundred miles from Lawton, was only forty dollars a night, and it was for good cause. This place was a shit hole.

  I didn’t have anyone to call, so why I had gotten the phone in the first place was stupid. Last night I’d considered calling Brady or West and letting them know I was gone for good. But I hadn’t.

  Staring at it now, I wanted to call Willa. If anyone would be worried, it would be her. Did she even know I was gone yet? Would her Nonna tell her, since she was apparently under house arrest?

  I kept going over that letter in my head. Wishing I hadn’t given it back but kept it. My pride had won out that day, and I’d shoved it back at her. My pride wasn’t winning out now though. I wanted to see her. Read her words. Talk to her.

  God, I missed her.

  Flopping back on the cheap-ass bed I was sitting on, I directed my frustrated gaze to the water-stained ceiling. Was this what I had wanted? Running across the country from one cheap motel to the next, alone? Sure didn’t feel free. Not living in that house with those people was a relief, but this wasn’t much better. It was lonely. Ms. Ames wasn’t in the kitchen cooking, and I wouldn’t get to go out on the field in the afternoons and play football.

  More importantly, there was no Willa here. I should have fought harder. She’d been the one to tell me she loved me. I hadn’t said the words back to her. Because I hadn’t been able to. Saying those words sounded like a promise, and I wasn’t good at keeping promises. I was a Lawton, after all. Blood or not, the other men that I knew that had the same last name didn’t have a moral bone in their body. Why would I be different?

  If I had been able to say those words, would she have opened that door Saturday? Would she have gone against the rules for me then? Had I even fucking thought about that?

  No.

  Growling in frustration, I pounded my fists on the bed. This wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to be . . . hell, I wanted to be a Brady Higgens or a West Ashby. A guy who Willa could trust and love without fear. A guy who could tell her he loved her back like she deserved. Why did I have to be so goddamn messed up?

  Willa was the best thing that ever happened to me. When I was a little boy and now. Both times she walked into my life and gave me a reason to smile. A reason to hope for more. Running away was throwing that away. I knew there would never be another Willa. Never another chance for the way she made me feel.

  But going back meant facing the demons in my house. Conquering them and learning how to live with the changes. Convincing myself I wasn’t that little boy anymore who they could mistreat was tough. I still saw them as being powerful and in control.

  Sitting up, I reached for my phone and dialed the only number I could right now.

  It rang twice before he answered. “Hello.” Brady’s voice was comforting. Simply because it was a part of home. A part of Lawton. A place I thought I hated, yet my chest warmed at the idea of it. My parents weren’t the town.

  The town was Brady and his family, West and his mom, Asa and his family, Nash and Ryker. It was all those people I’d grown up around, and it was Ms. Ames . . . and Willa.

  “It’s Gunner,” I said.

  “Where are you, man? Coach about shit when you missed yesterday. I went by your house and no one answered. Even went by Willa’s and nothing there, too. She’s not at school either.”

  “Willa is fine. She’s being homeschooled. I’m coming back. I thought I wanted to run, but I’m coming back. I need your help with something though.”

  He paused. “You ran? Like in away from home?”

  Figures Brady was going to get hung up on all the details. I needed him to focus on what I was going to ask him. Not the play-by-play of my taking off.

  “Yeah, shit got bad at home, so I just left—”

  “Where are you?” He cut me off, sounding panicked now.

  I smiled. I was missed. Brady missed me. I hadn’t given credit to Brady for caring when he’d tried to show me more than once he was there if I needed him. I’d just felt safe with Willa. Knowing he cared . . . that felt good. “I’m about five hundred miles away, but I’m coming home. Now would you listen to me and do something for me?”

  “When did you leave? Jesus, Gunner, I tried to be a friend and listen to you on Saturday. You sent me packing. If you needed to talk, I was available. You didn’t have to take off.”

  If Mr. Do-Gooder didn’t shut the hell up and listen to me, I was going to lose my shit. “Brady, could you focus please?”

  “I’m focused. What do you want? I’m going to need a good excuse for why you aren’t at practice again. We need you on the field Friday night. Coach won’t let you play if you don’t have a good excuse.”

  A good excuse was the last thing on my mind. “Tell Willa to tell Ms. Ames everything. Explain it all. And that I’m coming home.”

  I almost added to tell her that I loved her, but I wanted to say those words myself. To her. It was for both of us. A part of my moving on and letting go of the bitterness that controlled me.

  “Okay . . .” he replied slowly, then added, “Is this gonna get her in trouble? Because she’s on probation. She can’t get in trouble. Or is she already? Why is she homeschooled?”

  “All this can be answered later. Just do it. Please.”

  “I’ll try. Now come home.”

  Gunner Didn’t Even Have That

  CHAPTER 50

  WILLA

  A knock on the door broke into my studies, and I was grateful. I’d been sitting here for over four hours. This was boring. But it wasn’t Catholic school.

  I got up, went to the kitchen, and peeked through the window first. My mother’s silver BMW was parked outside. I paused, unsure that was who I was seeing. Why would my mother be here . . . in her car?

  Dropping the curtain back into place, I walked to the door slowly, trying my hardest not to panic. She had no reason to be here unannounced. I glanced at the phone and thought about calling Nonna. I wanted her here.

  My mother knocked again. I had nothing to be scared of. This wasn’t my mother’s house. She couldn’t throw me out of here. If anything, she’d get thrown out.

  Unlocking the door, I turned the brass knob with a sick knot in my stomach. I pulled it open and tried to breathe normally, but it was hard. I hadn’t seen her since the day she kicked me out. I hadn’t spoken to her either.

  “Hello, Mom,” I said simply.

  “Willa. Is Mother here?” was her businesslike response.

  “She’s at the big house.” I almost offered to call her but decided that my mother could do that herself.

  “Can I come in?” she asked, and I really wanted to say No, you can’t. Leave.

  But I stepped back so she could walk inside. Mother looked around the kitchen as if expecting to find something. “It’s the
same. She never changes anything,” Mom said, almost annoyed with that. I loved that Nonna’s never changed. It was safe and familiar.

  “Why are you here?” I asked, not waiting for her to get to the point. I didn’t like her looking down her nose at Nonna’s house. It was my home.

  “To see you,” Mother finally replied. She put her hand on her stomach, and I glanced down for the first time to see the small bump starting to show.

  “Chance told me you were expecting another one. Congrats on that.”

  She smiled. “Thank you.”

  I hadn’t actually been sincere, but she didn’t catch that. Whatever.

  “I came to tell you that myself and to discuss your future. I can’t expect Mother to continue to take care of you.”

  I hadn’t planned on staying here after senior year. “Senior year is almost half over. I’ll be going to college after that.”

  Mom nodded. “About that . . .” She motioned toward the living room. “Why don’t we sit down. My feet are tired, and my lower back is killing me.”

  I wasn’t surprised she was a dramatic pregnant woman. I doubted she had gotten to be that dramatic with me at fifteen. Now she had a husband to dote on her. She had to be eating that up. I felt sorry for Chance having to witness that daily.

  I followed her into the living room, and we each took a place at opposite ends of the sofa. I tucked one leg underneath me as I turned toward her.

  “Okay. Talk,” I said, wanting to get on with this. Suddenly my schoolwork was looking promising.

  “I know you are expecting the savings account that Nonna helped me set up when you were born for your college. However, that’s not going to be available. Times got tight over the years, and I wasn’t always able to put money away. Then, with the new baby, I need extra money for a nursery. You’re almost eighteen, Willa. It’s time you make a life on your own without my help or your nonna’s. Get a job and pay bills. We can’t be expected to let you freeload. That won’t make you a hard worker.”

  Nonna had put twenty thousand dollars from my grandfather’s life insurance settlement into a savings account when I was born, for my college. It was supposed to have been accruing interest over the years. My mother had claimed a few times to be adding money to it, but I hadn’t heard her say anything about it in years. I hadn’t expected money from her, but that money Nonna had saved was going to get me through my first year while I worked and saved up for my next year. I was also going to apply for financial aid. I had this all figured out.

  “Nonna put twenty grand into that account,” I said, not sure what she was saying.

  Mother straightened her shoulders. “That was my father’s life insurance money. You needed things over the years, and money was tight often.”

  Wait? What? “Are you saying you spent my money?”

  She glared at me. “It wasn’t your money. It was my father’s. He’d have wanted me to use it if I needed it. He didn’t even know you.”

  She had spent my college money. I sat there and repeated that over and over in my head. If this was a nightmare, I’d really like to wake up now. Thank you very much.

  “You need to stop living off my mother and get a real job. Make money and find your own two feet. Mom has coddled you. You’ve had it too easy with her, and you were spoiled and selfish and made stupid decisions that lost a little girl her life.”

  If she had taken a knife from the kitchen and shoved it through my chest, it wouldn’t have hurt any worse right now. Being accused of Quinn’s death was the most painful thing I’d ever face. Especially from my mother. I’d have never touched a drink or taken one smoke if I’d known Quinn was upstairs.

  “That’s not fair,” I managed to choke out through the tightness in my throat. Making it hard to breathe.

  “Tell that to Quinn and Poppy’s parents. To that town. Tell them it’s not fair, Willa. What isn’t fair is that since you came into this world you’ve been a problem. Just like your father. Useless.”

  She stood up and again placed her hand on her stomach, as if protecting herself.

  “I’m just glad I’m not like you,” I said as she walked toward the door.

  “You never were,” she spit. “You even look like him.”

  Anger was slowly replacing my pain, and I stood up with my gaze locked on hers. “Good. Guess I got lucky then,” I retorted.

  She jerked her head back like I’d slapped her. “Don’t you dare talk to me in such a way. I’m going to tell Mother to pack you up and send you on your way. Figure out what the real world is like. It’s time you grew up, Willa.”

  “The only person leaving this house will be you.” Nonna’s voice filled the room in a loud commanding tone, and I had never been happier to hear anything in my life.

  “Momma,” my mother began, but Nonna held up her hand to stop her.

  “Get out of my house with that evil heart and mouth of yours. That girl don’t deserve this from you. Go spew your venom elsewhere. If you come back, I’ll call the cops. You hear me? Leave!” Nonna pointed to the door, just in case my mother wasn’t sure on the exit.

  She opened her mouth to speak again, and Nonna shook her head. “I’ve heard enough.”

  “I’m pregnant! I came to tell you!” she yelled.

  “I can see that. And you want money from me to support that baby. I know that, too. Leave my house now!”

  My mother balled her hands into fists and stormed out of the house. Nonna slammed the door behind her. I watched as she touched the door with one hand and took a deep breath. That had to be hard on her. Nonna loved my mother. She wasn’t a mother like mine was. She was loving. She wanted the best.

  “I’m sorry I didn’t get here sooner,” Nonna finally said as she turned around to face me. “That girl is mean. Always has been. Can’t for the life of me figure out where her meanness comes from. Her daddy was a good man.”

  “She used all my college money,” I told her. That was the one thing that was said I couldn’t shake loose. It affected everything.

  Nonna nodded. “I know. I checked on it over the years and saw she was taking some a little at a time. I began to do the same. I ended up saving about seven thousand of it. I added it to my savings account that has the rest of your grandfather’s life insurance money in it, and that is more than enough to get you through college. You’ll need a job of course to pay for your food and extras, but the classes will be paid for and the dorm.”

  “She doesn’t know you took some?” I asked, still in a daze going from being told I had no college money to being told I had enough for all of my college.

  “Your mother isn’t smart with money. She can’t afford a new baby, yet she’s driving around in a flashy foreign car. I figured I needed to take care of your future, because she’s only worried about hers.”

  Tears filled my eyes, and I didn’t hold them back. I let them freely roll down my face as I closed the distance between me and my nonna. Having a mother like mine was hard. But I had my nonna.

  Gunner didn’t even have that.

  Nonna pulled me into her arms and held me tightly. I sobbed against her chest for the mother I didn’t have, the grandmother I did have, and the life Gunner had been given.

  The Good Lord Wasn’t Going to Swoop down and Change Anything

  CHAPTER 51

  GUNNER

  I walked back into my house after several hours on the road with a plan. This was my home, and I was making it somewhere I wanted to come back to. I headed to the office, where I’d last spoken to the man who wasn’t my father.

  Without knocking, I walked inside and faced him. I didn’t give him time to speak. “Next month after my birthday, you’ll need to find another house to live in. You can take Mother with you. Your allowance will end. Prepare to get a job.” I turned and started to walk out of the office.

  “You can’t do that! You have no idea how to run the Lawton holdings. You’ve not been trained.”

  “I’ll hire help. I don’t need you.”
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  “You can’t do this!”

  “You have no Lawton blood. Yes, I can,” I reminded him. “Now go quietly, or I’ll make sure the town knows exactly how fucked-up this family tree is.”

  “You would have to tell them that you’re a bastard too! It would ruin
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