Under the lights, p.9
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       Under the Lights, p.9

         Part #2 of The Field Party series by Abbi Glines
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  “What did he do?” I asked, aggravated at the idea he had fought with her. Asshole. Even more reason he shouldn’t have let her run off.

  She shrugged. “It’s silly really. We just disagreed about the way he treats Ivy. He told me to mind my own business, and he was right. I should have.”

  The way she didn’t meet my eyes told me she wasn’t telling me everything. She could tell me that her best friend had killed herself, but she couldn’t tell me what my best friend had done to send her running. I wouldn’t push though. I’d just figure it out on my own. We’d done a fair share of opening up already.

  “It’s okay,” I assured her. I wanted to warn her to stay away from Riley Young, but then she’d have questions about that. I didn’t feel like talking about Riley right now. I needed to be alone for some time and sort through my thoughts.

  It Was Better than Good

  CHAPTER 22

  BRADY

  I didn’t make it past the front of my truck before Willa opened the back door to her house. The cottage she lived in was small. Two bedrooms, one bathroom, a tiny kitchen area with a table in it, and a living room. When someone drove up out here, you heard it no matter what part of the house you lived in.

  Willa loved her nonna’s though. Or at least she had as a child. I didn’t know her well enough now to know if that was still true. Maybe she had lived in a big house in Arkansas with privacy and missed that life.

  “Nonna will be back soon. She won’t like you being here. I’m a bad influence, and you’re a good boy.”

  Not far off from the greeting I had expected. I didn’t figure she was going to be happy about seeing me. Not after last night.

  “I won’t stay long. If Ms. Ames returns, I’ll take the blame for being here and assure her you haven’t led me astray in any form.”

  Willa had to have done something seriously wrong for Ms. Ames to worry about my safety around her beloved granddaughter. That was something to find out another day though. Not now with the kiss looking over our heads. I came here to apologize and hope we could move past it. I’d wanted to test things with Willa. And the test had been amazing. That kiss wasn’t something I was going to forget. She was more than a childhood memory. She was worth knowing now. I wanted that.

  She crossed her arms over her chest and scowled. She didn’t want me here either. Talking about the kiss wasn’t on her list of things she was ready to deal with. Too bad. We were dealing with it before we both faced Gunner tomorrow. He’d texted earlier that he wanted to talk to me. I ignored it because I wasn’t sure what she might have told him today.

  “You talk to Gunner today?” I asked her, cutting right to the point.

  She nodded.

  Shit.

  “Did you tell him why you ran last night?” I couldn’t bring myself to mention the kiss.

  She shook her head. “No.”

  Whew. I had time to fix this before we had a fight that was pointless.

  “I’m sorry . . . no, actually I’m not. I wanted to kiss you, and you kissed me back. It was good. It was better than good. It was fucking amazing.”

  The entire ride over here I had gone over what I was going to say, and this had not once been an option. Where the hell had all my blatant honesty come from? Seeing her face-to-face made me want to force her to admit she felt something too. Because I knew she did. That wasn’t just all me.

  Her cheeks turned a bright pink, and I wanted to grin, feeling a little smug that those words made her blush. But I controlled myself and waited on her to say something. Anything would be nice about right now.

  With a deep sigh, she closed her eyes briefly, then shook her head. I’d forgotten how dramatic Willa could be. “We shouldn’t be kissing. Maybe we were curious because of our past. I know I was, but you have a girl that you don’t call your girlfriend, but she is something to you. I have a lot to prove and a lot to work through. I can’t go around kissing guys.”

  “I wasn’t suggesting you go around kissing guys last night. Just me.” And the honesty just kept pouring out of my mouth like a volcano erupting. Damn it to hell. I had to shut up.

  The frown on her pretty mouth deepened. I tried not to think about the way her mouth had tasted and how much I’d like to walk up to her and taste it again.

  “You know what I mean. I’m not here for that. I’m here . . . I don’t want that. I just want to go to school and make my nonna proud.”

  We weren’t going to make any progress today because she wasn’t going to explain any more. I could press, but she’d shut me out. The wall between us was growing higher by the minute, and I didn’t want that. Not with Willa.

  “Okay, okay. I get it. I didn’t mean to send you running off last night. I am sorry about that. I shouldn’t have lost you out there. I should have made sure you were safe. Riley Young sure as hell isn’t safe for anyone to be riding around with.”

  She looked confused, then frowned. “How did you know I got a ride with Riley Young?”

  Shrugging, I didn’t see how this was a secret. “Gunner told me.”

  That frown just got worse. “I didn’t tell Gunner about Riley. He didn’t ask.”

  Ah, so Gunner hadn’t wanted to explain his hatred for Riley. Couldn’t say I blamed him. If she’d almost had my brother locked up behind bars for a false accusation, then I’d hate her that much too. I hated her enough now. Rhett was like my older brother or the closest thing I’d ever had back when he lived at home. Riley had come close to costing him his football scholarship and future in the SEC.

  Rhett had been like the big brother to all of us once. He’d been the cool older brother we all knew and got us into the field parties before it was our time. We had all stood behind him back then, and Riley hadn’t just become his enemy but all of ours.

  “Gunner ran into her leaving the property on his way to find you when you ran off. I was in trouble with him for losing you, and he wasn’t in the mood to run into Riley. Although he was relieved you were safely home, he hated that you were close to that bitch at all.”

  Willa stepped forward and shot me an annoyed glare. “Riley was nice, and she didn’t do or say anything bad about y’all. I liked her.”

  With a warning she needed in advance, I made sure she understood me loud and clear. “Don’t ever say that to Gunner. There is no one on this earth he hates more.”

  “His dad,” she replied.

  I shook my head. “Nope. Not even him.”

  “Nonna is on her way. She’s already spotted you. Please go ahead and leave now so I don’t have her angry with me.”

  I couldn’t argue with that, even though I wanted to stay and talk. I didn’t feel like I’d accomplished anything. Getting her in trouble with her nonna wasn’t winning me any brownie points. But I wanted to hear her say she felt something too. That she wanted to try more with me like I did her. Even if there was a chance for more, I wanted to hear it.

  I nodded. “Okay, but I’d like to talk about this again. I want more with you than friendship, Willa. If that’s all you can give me, then I’ll accept it, but that kiss hasn’t left my mind one time since last night.”

  I didn’t wait for her to respond. I turned and headed back to my truck, waving to Ms. Ames, hoping that helped out some with Willa.

  I Didn’t Think Chicken and Dumplings Could Heal That

  CHAPTER 23

  WILLA

  Facing Nonna and letting her warn me to leave Brady alone was coming. Might as well deal with it and get it over with. It wasn’t fair though since I hadn’t asked him to come over, and I’d also asked him to leave.

  I walked back into the kitchen and started fixing my late-afternoon snack. Nonna had run some food over to the big house for Gunner. She did that on Sundays since the Lawtons stayed gone all day and Gunner didn’t participate in the Sunday ritual they had.

  The back door opened just as I started slicing up a pear, and I inhaled deeply to calm my frustration with the lecture I was about to receive.

&nb
sp; “Why was Brady Higgens here? Thought I told you to leave that boy be.”

  Here we go, I muttered in my head. I picked up the jar of peanut butter to spread some on my pear. “You did, and I’ve obeyed. Can’t control Brady’s actions though. He came over here, and I told him to leave. He never even made it to the back door.”

  Nonna was quiet a moment, and I didn’t turn back to look at her. I made my peanut butter and pear snack as if it was the most important thing I’d done all day.

  “Well, you weren’t rude, were you?”

  Was she seriously asking me if I was rude? Jesus, what in the world did she expect me to do?

  “I asked him to leave. If that’s rude, then yes, I guess I was.” I still didn’t look at her. I walked over to the freezer and got out a frozen mug for my milk.

  “Why was he here?”

  “Because I left the field party last night without saying good-bye, and he was worried he’d said something to offend me.”

  I didn’t like lying. But at times like this it was necessary. My nonna could not handle the truth. He kissed me, and I ran like hell wasn’t an option here.

  She made a hmph sound that Nonna had perfected over the years. “Well, that’s nice of him. He’s a good boy. No need to be rude when he stops by.”

  I wanted to growl my frustration. Another deep breath to calm myself was required here before I faced her finally. Holding my plate in one hand and mug in the other, I turned to meet her assessing gaze.

  “I accepted his apology and told him it wasn’t necessary and that he needed to leave. I was a bad influence and you didn’t approve.”

  My mother would have yelled and lost her shit at a comment like that. But Nonna just sighed as if she couldn’t do anything with me and shook her head. “Always so blunt and to the point,” she muttered.

  Yes, I was. And for the most part I was honest. Except when I had to lie about kissing Brady Higgens.

  She waggled her finger at me. “I don’t think you’re a bad influence. You’ve just got healing to do over something that boy ain’t ever seen the likes of. He ain’t the kind that’ll ever understand.”

  Although she was pointing her finger at me like I was a scolded child, her words helped. To know she didn’t think I was too terrible to be around Brady the golden boy. It was for reasons that concerned me. Not him. She was worried about me.

  My chest eased, and my frustration faded away.

  “I know. He’s a nice guy, but my demons are too dark for him.”

  Nonna looked sad. I wished I hadn’t said that now. What I was thinking didn’t always come out right.

  She walked over to me and took my plate and mug from my hands, then placed them on the small linoleum table with the yellow chair straight out of the sixties that was the centerpiece of the dine-in kitchen. Then she turned back to me and pulled me into a tight hug.

  “I love you, my Willa. You made mistakes and suffered greatly for them. I’ll be here to help you heal. You’re never alone.”

  Words a child expects from their mother. Words my mother would never utter to me as long as she lived. Words that reassured me that I was loved. My nonna was my safe place. She always had been.

  “Thank you,” I whispered into her shoulder, biting back the tears. I didn’t need to cry anymore. I’d done enough of that.

  “Why don’t you share that snack with me. Then I’ll fix us up a bowl of chicken and dumplings just the way you like them.”

  When I was a kid and things got tough or I was upset over something, Nonna always made me chicken and dumplings with more dumplings than chicken for a comfort meal. Thinking about having that meal now made me feel as if it would all be okay. Because back then it always was. But back then I hadn’t suffered tragedy.

  I didn’t think chicken and dumplings could heal that.

  “That sounds good,” I told her instead of the truth.

  She patted my back with reassurance. “Your momma don’t know how to love the right way. Not sure why, because Lord knows I loved her and so did her daddy. But something in her never clicked right. She always put herself before all others. And I’m sorry about that, Willa girl. I’m really sorry about that.”

  Hearing her tell me what I already knew helped. It reassured me that it wasn’t me that was unlovable, but it was my mother who just couldn’t love me. I nodded, and she kissed my temple before pulling back and looking me in the eyes. “You’re a special girl. One that makes me proud. Don’t let life take that from you. Fight for it and prevail.”

  I wasn’t sure what she meant by all that, but it sounded hopeful. It sounded like she believed in me. I needed someone to. “I will, Nonna,” I promised her.

  • • •

  Later that evening as I lay in bed staring at the ceiling I realized a part of me was looking forward to going to school tomorrow. But when I tried to decipher what it was I liked most about school, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

  The idea of seeing Gunner in the morning and our ride to school or facing Brady again and listening to him say things to me he shouldn’t. Both were pathetic, and I needed to stop pretending that there could be something like that for me.

  Brady and his smiles that had made my heart go silly when I was a kid still caught me somewhere in the chest. He was so good and dependable. You could trust him and know he wouldn’t let you down. He also had a girlfriend he wasn’t actually claiming, so that was a strike against him. I wasn’t sure if what I felt in that kiss was the little girl with the crush bleeding through or something more.

  Gunner was different. He frustrated me and calmed me all at once. I didn’t question his motives; I understood them. He didn’t go out of his way to be kind to everyone, but he also wasn’t leading any girls on. He was brutally honest. When I was with him, I got comfort I hadn’t experienced in a long time. Part of me actually needed him.

  I’d had a chance at being a normal teen, and I’d ruined that. Demolished was a better word. My choices were the things nightmares were made of.

  Closing my eyes, I thought of the days after that night and the times I had tried to wake myself from the living horror I wanted to be only a nightmare. If I could just wake up and Quinn and Poppy would still be alive.

  If only second chances were real. They weren’t. They never would be. Not for me and not for Poppy.

  My cell phone was tucked away in the antique maple dresser that sat directly across from my bed. It was there. I knew it was there. I just couldn’t touch it or turn it on. My mother might have had the service turned off by now. I wasn’t sure. I just knew I wouldn’t use it again.

  That small, flat smartphone held the memory of the last phone call I had accepted. A call from Poppy’s mother. I never turned it back on again. I couldn’t face the text messages or anyone else trying to call and find out details while attempting to act as if it was sympathy. That was the worst of it all. The nosy way people fished for the specifics.

  Then there were the memories of the Snapchats and texts that I’d done daily with Poppy. There was too much on that phone that I couldn’t see. I wondered if I’d always be this raw. Did a heart heal from something like this?

  You’re Not Dressed in Nineties Clothing

  CHAPTER 24

  GUNNER

  Like the other times I had picked up Willa, she was waiting on me out by the road so I wouldn’t have to turn into her drive. I had given her space after the way she had opened up to me about her friend. I was guessing that other than her nonna no one here knew that story. Everyone here assumed her mother had sent her packing and run off with a new man, since that was once her thing.

  Telling me had been a big deal for her. Just as my telling her I wasn’t really a Lawton had been a huge deal for me. I’d sworn to myself to never tell anyone, but I had wanted to tell someone. I had wanted to tell Willa. It was trust. I trusted her more than anyone I realized when the words fell from my lips. Why that was, I didn’t really know. But I did.

  I had placed a blueb
erry muffin on her seat. Not once had I forgotten to bring her whatever baked good Ms. Ames had on the kitchen table since the first day she’d ridden with me. I liked doing it for her, and I liked the way she smiled when it was there waiting on her. When she opened the door. She paused and saw it, then picked it up and flashed a smile at me.

  “Thanks.”

  “You’re welcome.”

  Also our normal morning greeting. I wanted this to become our routine. Mornings with Willa were better. I liked this. I got her alone, and we often laughed. Now we both knew the secrets we’d been trying to hide, and it felt more intimate. I’d never felt this connected to someone. From the moment I knew my life was a lie I had closed off, but Willa was reaching that part of me no one else had even tried to.

  Once she was inside the truck and settled, she took a bite of her
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