Falling in deeper, p.33
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       Falling in Deeper, p.33
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         Part #11 of Wicked Lovers series by Shayla Black

  life without consulting her. But now that One-Mile had executed Dan from the roof of the church across from that skeevy motel, Corey was dead, his mom extradited from Canada, Emma and Kev behind bars, baby Isabel in CPS custody, and Canton potentially in for a lifelong prison sentence, Lily understood that with the past obstructing her future, she’d been going nowhere, doing nothing, committing herself to no one.

  Everything had changed now that she’d made peace with her bleak teenage years. She couldn’t change them or wash them away. She could only accept them, embrace them, and understand they were a part of who she’d become.

  Her phone, which she’d tucked into the pocket of her polka-dot shirtwaist dress, buzzed. Axel had texted her a link, ostensibly to a story from a major news website. She clicked it and had to repress tears. It seemed as if she cried all the time now. After years of being unable to express her sorrow, now she overflowed. And god, she felt so much better.

  The article popped up on her browser. More of Canton’s victims were coming forward. More people he’d beaten, raped, swindled—all too terrified to say anything in the past. A tremulous smile wobbled across Lily’s mouth. Once she’d been brave enough to tell the truth, others had followed suit—some with video evidence. The DA was taking all of their statements and compiling one big, long list of Canton’s crimes. Gory details had been splashed across the news in every medium. He’d been denied bail by the judge because he’d been deemed both dangerous and a flight risk.

  Subsequently, he had declined to run for governor of California.

  Lily had been just about ready to click her phone off when it vibrated, low and rhythmic, indicating she had a call. She glanced at the display that popped up and smiled. “Hi, Axel.”

  “Hi, Sweet Pea. And yes, I’ll probably always call you that.”

  She laughed. “Thorpe and Sean do, too. I kind of like it now that y’all know my real name.” The nickname that used to be a means of hiding had now become a sweet endearment.

  “Sorry I’ve been out of pocket but I’ve been wondering how you are. It’s good to finally talk to you,” he said.

  Lily smiled at the sound of his voice. “I’m fine. Don’t worry about me. You’ve got a wedding to plan.”

  “I’m up to my eyeballs in lace and tuxedos but it’s good.” He paused. “How does it feel to be you again?”

  Interesting. Since Lily had come back to her old neighborhood over the past few weeks, she’d encountered so many people she’d known as a kid. Some were scraping by, trying to raise their own kids. Some were behind bars. Others had become drug addicts. A handful were already dead and buried. In some ways, Lily felt fortunate to have stepped out of the shadow of this awful barrio with its mediocre schools and parents too involved in their own jobs, addictions, or hookups to care about their kids. She’d seen a whole new way of life since leaving here. She’d experienced a whole new sort of family—the kind she chose.

  “Let’s say I’m not moving back. But I ran into Rick Mensell, my first boyfriend.”

  “The guy who knocked you up and walked out?” Axel growled.

  “Yeah,” she said sadly. “I actually think that kind of messed him up. He married right out of high school because his girlfriend at the time got pregnant. She had a miscarriage. They divorced. He never had more kids. He says he got a vasectomy at twenty-five because he didn’t think he could go through the pain of losing a child again.”

  True, he hadn’t been by her side for Regina’s birth or death, but he said he visited her grave pretty regularly. Lily supposed everyone grieved and dealt in their own way.

  “I would say he probably did the world a favor since he didn’t handle his responsibilities well before but—”

  “Let’s not go there. It’s done, buried, past. I’ll always be sad, but I’m young. I’m recovering, thanks in part to you.”

  He sighed, his voice low and full of regret. “I tried to do my best by you.”

  “Oh, you did so much more than anyone should expect.” He’d loved her more like a pal and had been happy to watch over her. But he hadn’t been in love with her and he hadn’t been interested in her sexually. But when she’d needed to be held and feel like a woman, he’d given her the sort of sex that was counter to his nature in virtually every way, just to help heal her and build her up. Most people wouldn’t understand, but Lily did. And she couldn’t have asked for a better protector and friend.

  “I wish it had been more.”

  “It was plenty and then some. In part, because of you, I have hope for the future.” And that was all she wanted to say about that or she’d start crying again. She sniffled and managed to hold the rest back. “Speaking of which, how much longer will you be in London?”

  “For another few weeks. Marshall wants Mystery and me to attend some royal freaking ball that’s being held in his honor,” Axel said of his fiancée’s father. “After that, we’ll be back in Dallas, hopefully for good. You?”

  “Soon, I think. It will take a while for all the trials to get underway here. I expect to be flying back and forth. But that’s okay. Someday, it will all be over and . . . I’ll put it behind me forever.”

  “Has Stone reached out to you?”

  The one bleak spot in her life now. “No. It’s been almost two weeks. Last I heard, he’s still with the feds. I’ve left a couple of messages . . .”

  But maybe he didn’t want to spend his life with her after all. Maybe he’d put a bullet in Corey simply to end his miserable life and protect her. Then Stone had held her afterward because he felt sorry for her. Two weeks ago, she would have never believed that. Today, she didn’t know what else to think.

  “He’ll come for you, Sweet Pea,” Axel swore, his voice deep with gravity. “I might have stepped in the shit and given him a hard time when I raced out to the swamp that morning, but I figured out during your rescue that he loves you something fierce. The ‘fight’ in the parking lot of the motel? That distraction was his idea to get you out. If it didn’t work, he was going to bust inside and rescue you. And probably get himself killed.”

  Lily didn’t know what to say. “He’s a good guy. He wouldn’t have wanted anyone to die the way Corey had planned for me.”

  “Don’t be stubborn,” Axel chided. “Stone really had called off the deal with the feds before I’d busted into Jack’s cabin all full of my righteous self, just like he claimed.”

  That took her by surprise. “Stone was telling the truth?”

  Lily almost hated the hope his words gave her but she needed it so badly. She ached for him, yearned for the promise of those tomorrows he’d once said he wanted to share with her. She knew committing to each other was no guarantee of happiness—but it would be such a lovely start.

  “Yeah.” Axel sighed. “He would have put down his life for you, walked through fire, conquered hell. Whatever it took to keep you alive. You deserve that.”

  She teared up again and didn’t hold anything back. “You’re making me cry, damn it.”

  “Good. You’ve needed a real cry for a long time. But don’t worry. He’ll come for you. And you know I’m here anytime you need me. Just a phone call away.”

  “You’re the best friend a girl could want. Thank you for everything. I can never repay you except by saying that I can stand on my own two feet from now on. And I’ll be your rock if you ever need it.”

  “I know you’re more than capable. Bye, Sweet Pea.”

  “Bye.” She sniffled again and pocketed her phone.

  Damn it, she needed to start carrying a purse with tissues. The Technicolor world of emotion was new, and she didn’t always find it easy to process but damn . . . Life felt so much richer when she stopped wallowing in guilt and grief and tried to appreciate every day and the people in it. From now on, until she drew her last breath, she’d never stop living that way.

  When she brushed the latest batch of tears dry, she approached Erin’s grave and its simple headstone and placed some of her flowers in the ho
lder. She hoped that somewhere up there Erin could forgive her for being careless. And that her bestie could forgive her brother for being mired in anguish and letting it cloud his judgment.

  “I miss you,” she told her best friend. “We should still be holding hands and telling secrets and laughing about stupid movies. But I won’t stop thinking about you. Ever.”

  Lily laid her hand on the top of the headstone and caressed it, hoping that Erin could feel her regret and affection.

  More tears flowed as she made her way a few rows down to her family, buried side by side. Her mother had only been thirty-eight. She’d lived terribly and died fast. She’d been a kid trying to raise a child in a bleak situation. Lily didn’t blame her for her anger, desperation, choices, and coping mechanisms. She’d only been human, too. She wished she’d understood the woman better, but maybe with age and wisdom, she could. Or maybe in another life.

  Lily laid down fresh flowers. “I hope I’m making you proud now. I’ll always try, Mom. I hope you’re up there finally resting and smiling in peace.”

  Then she stepped over to her brother. Brady had been so young. He’d had no way of understanding the terrible violence that had ended his life with such frightening finality.

  “Hey, Brady Boy.” He hadn’t wanted her to call him that in public, but at home, he’d liked it until the day he’d been taken from her. She laid down flowers, one with a fluffy teddy bear attached. It was probably something most twelve-year-olds wouldn’t admit to still liking, but Brady had loved his stuffed animals. “I brought you a little something to play with. I hope you’ve found soccer balls and video games in heaven, too. You deserve them. I’m so sorry those terrible men hurt you and for the way you died. You can kick my butt when I get up there someday, huh? Until then, maybe you can forgive me?”

  Of course, he didn’t answer, but the wind blew, brushing her skin almost like a caress, as if she could feel her brother’s hand on her shoulder letting her know he was all right. Maybe Lily was thinking wishfully, but Brady had been a good kid and a kind soul. She’d loved him. “You and Mom take care of each other until I can get back here to visit again, okay?”

  That answering breeze kicked up once more, and she smiled, feeling more at peace than she had in over half a dozen years, maybe ever.

  Now came the hard part.

  Lily clutched the last of the flowers and made her way to the corner of the graveyard. She knew where to find Regina. She’d made contact with the cemetery a couple of weeks ago and received a map. She was late in visiting her loved ones but she hoped they could forgive her. She was finally learning to forgive herself.

  When she reached the corner, climbing ivy and bougainvillea filled in the slats of the fence with their gorgeous greenery. A nearby willow bent protectively over her baby’s grave, leaves swaying gently, almost like an eternal mobile.

  She also saw an unexpected sight. A gleaming white headstone marked Regina’s final resting place. Beside it stood a man so familiar, her stomach clenched. Her heart swooned. Had he arranged the big marble monument for her daughter?

  “Hi, baby,” Stone said quietly, turning and reaching out his hand for her.

  “You found me,” she said numbly, though her heart pounded in a crazy, thumping rhythm.

  “I always will. Come here.”

  She slipped her hand in his and peered up into his dark eyes. He looked tired and nervous but so incredibly wonderful in a simple gray suit and a solemn expression. “You’re really here.”

  “And I’m not leaving you. The feds and I are good now. Because it looks like Canton is going away for a long time and I helped, they agreed to commute my sentence. I’m a free man—and only in part because I’m not going back to prison. You gave me a whole new path in life. You showed me a love worth fighting for.”

  Lily shook her head, smiling at the great news. “I think you’re the one who taught me how to look past my fears. I’m sorry I yelled and I accused. And I left.”

  “I’d help you twenty times over if I could. I’d do anything for you.” He gave her a small smile. “I called my dad today. We made peace. It was . . . surreal and a little awkward but nice.”

  “That’s fantastic. I’m really happy for you. I think you needed the closure.”

  “Yeah. We’re going to try to talk more, maybe get together soon. See how it goes. We both have some forgiving to do.”

  “But that’s important. Helpful. I know it’s been good for me.” She swallowed, nodding slowly. “What brings you here?”

  He squeezed her hand and looked down at the marble headstone, engraved with Regina’s name and a baby’s rattle. “Do you like it?”

  “It’s beautiful. You did that for her?”

  He nodded. “And for you.”

  When he raised her hand to his lips and kissed it, Lily’s heart nearly exploded. The tears that were ever present these days sprang up again and spilled down her cheeks. She looked at him, completely baring her love for him in her eyes. “Thank you. That’s the most amazing thing anyone has ever done for me.”

  “I want to do wonderful things for you for the rest of your life.” He shoved his hand in his pocket and looked down, decidedly nervous. “I’m not a man of flowery words and I’ve fucked up a lot in my past. But every mistake has led me to you. I know what I’ve done wrong. I know what I want for the future. And baby, I never would have coerced you to testify just so I could get out of prison, not once—”

  “Not once you knew me? I figured that out.” She barely squeaked the words out past her crying. “Axel told me that you really had given up your freedom before he barged in at the cabin. But I realized that awful day when Corey plotted to kill me that I couldn’t blame you for making that deal. When you did it, you didn’t know me. Of course you wanted freedom. And I should have wanted to put Canton away before he could hurt anyone else.”

  “Knowing you changed everything I felt. I swear it.”

  “I believe you.” She caressed his shoulder and stepped closer. “I know the kind of man you are deep down. We all make mistakes. You made yours young, like I did. Since then, you’ve grown into someone so wonderful.”

  Stone grabbed her, swept her lips under his, and held her close as they exchanged breaths and silent vows. Finally, he pulled away. “Marry me?”

  She cupped his cheek, feeling both giddy and hopeful. “I never want to be with anyone else.”

  For the first time that day, he gave her a wide, genuine smile—and lit up her world. He showed her colors of the heart she hadn’t known existed before. And she’d always be so thankful for Stone.

  “That’s a yes?” He looked anxious and hopeful.

  “A big yes.” She managed a grin, though she couldn’t seem to stop crying. “A hell yes. An I-can’t-wait-to-be-with-you yes.”

  Stone managed a deep laugh as he pressed another kiss to her lips, then pulled out a simple solitaire set in white gold from his pocket and slipped it on her finger. It fit perfectly. “For the record, I wasn’t letting you get away again.”

  Lily looked down at the diamond winking on her finger. “I wasn’t planning on walking away anymore. You’re stuck with me forever.”

  “I like the sound of that.” He wrapped his arms around her and held her close.

  His heart beat against hers. Lily breathed in the man who had become her life, her hope, her future.

  “How did you know I was coming to visit Regina?” she asked.

  “I knew you needed to make peace.” His solemn expression of support almost turned her heart inside out. “And I’m still tracking your phone.”

  She laughed even as more tears fell, but these felt happier. “So you’re free to start a new life?”

  “Yeah. But I have this boss in Lafayette. He’s a cranky Cajun who’s impatient to have me back. And a group of friends who apparently don’t mind having a wild ex-con around and want me back in town. You?”

  “I think . . . I want to get married and have another baby, this time wit
h the man I love. What do you think?”

  “I love that plan and I love you, Lily. I always have.” He looked into her eyes, focused, strong—all hers. “I always will. Let’s go home and start our new lives together. Preferably naked.” He winked.

  Lily nodded happily, gratefully, as she laid the flowers down on Regina’s grave and blew her daughter a kiss. She would forever mourn the little girl, and no baby would ever replace her, but she knew she would love the children she and Stone would have someday and that Regina would smile down on them. “I’d love that.”

  She slipped her hand in his, and together they walked into their future.

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