Avenged by Love: A Friends-to-Lovers, Military Romance
From award-winning author LJ Evans comes a simmering, fake-relationship romance between a protective, military man and a comic-loving, book store clerk with an entire town against her…
“You don’t have to fight the world alone. You’ve got me.”
Travis Dayton, a.k.a. Truck, is focused on two things: excelling in his position at the Coast Guard and keeping his younger brother out of trouble. So even though the beautiful and ethereal Jersey Banner is tugging at his heartstrings, he refuses to get sidetracked.
Jersey has been struggling to keep her family afloat ever since their dad went to jail. This means the pain she feels on a regular basis isn’t anything she can stop to think about. Not even when she ends up at the emergency room in the arms of the one man who makes her pulse beat faster than the superheroes she worships.
When Jersey finds herself in desperate need of medical care she can’t afford, Truck does the only thing he can… he marries her.
As hearts and lives begin to twine, their temporary deal starts to crumble until there’s little chance of escape without permanent damage. Not unless they just surrender to it all and let love heal them both.
Inspired by Lady A’s “Ocean” this small-town, slow-burn romance is full of vibrant characters, emotional journeys, and happiness you’ll feel in your bones, proving that love truly is the only real superpower.
Also available in The Anchor Novels: The Military Brothers box set with an exclusive novella.
Release date: April 29, 2020
Publisher: LJ Evans Book
Print pages: 403
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Behind the book
This story took a turn just as I was beginning it that I hadn't expected. I want my characters to come across as people you might know in your life. So, I never thought I'd write about a fake marriage because it doesn't seem like a real world occurrence. Then Jersey happened... And our struggle with healthcare as a nation, and it just sort of wrote itself. I hope you love and adore Truck and Jersey's HEA, but I also hope you feel like it could happen to the woman next door to you. Your friend. Your sister. Your colleagues.
This book was therapy for me. While my health struggles are not exactly Jersey's and Jersey's are not exactly mine, they are twined together. To any woman, young or old, that is out their fighting with pelvic pain on a monthly, weekly, or daily basis, I want to say, IT IS NOT NORMAL. You should not be debilitated, even on a monthly basis, by your normal cycle. Get help!
As always, thank you for choosing to spend some time with one of my book babies. I truly appreciate every single person who picks up my words and reads them. XO LJ
Avenged by Love: A Friends-to-Lovers, Military Romance
LOOK WHAT GOD GAVE HER
“And those eyes can hypnotize,
Was designed to blow my mind.”
Performed by Thomas Rhett
Written by Malik / Hindlin / Ryan / Bunetta /
Rhett Sr. Akins / Rhett Jr. Akins
The back of the new-to-me pickup was full with one last load of boxes. We’d spent the day emptying the storage unit the Coast Guard had provided until I’d found a place to live near the academy. Dawson was crammed into the back seat, griping about something I chose to ignore, and Mac was in the front seat, pacifying him.
My brain wasn’t focused on either my brother or my best friend. Instead, it was on the person I’d left back at the rental a couple blocks from downtown New London. My thoughts were focused on Jersey, the ghost-like creature who had stepped out of character long enough to offer to help Dawson and me move. I was still trying to figure out why she’d decided the day I was moving out of Mandy and Leena’s place was the day she could stand being close enough to help me unpack my belongings.
Maybe it was just that. I was moving out.
Dawson and I had been fleeting guests in the old Victorian Mandy and Leena owned, whereas Jersey and her sister had been permanent installments—there before us with no visible end to the arrangement.
A hand slapping the back of my head jerked me from my momentary lapse into Jersey’s snowy white skin and pale-blue eyes. I growled and lifted a hand from the steering wheel to slam a fist into Mac’s shoulder.
“What the fuck?” I demanded, and Mac’s blue eyes sparkled with mischief in return. His eyes were a much deeper blue than the pale ones that had held me entranced the last few weeks. Jersey’s were like looking at the sky through puffy white clouds, while Mac’s were the depths of the ocean.
“Asswipe! Were you not listening? Your brother just outed you.” Mac grinned at me.
Dawson snorted in the back. “You make it sound like he’s decided he’s gay.”
“How come I never knew you had a lady in Hawaii?” Mac demanded. Below the tease, I heard the hurt. In all honesty, I didn’t know why I’d never told anyone I’d dated Liesl. Probably because I’d always known it wouldn’t last past my time there. Maybe because there wasn’t anything to tell. Liesl had been…temporary.
“Whatever Daw said, it’s only half true. You know that. He exaggerates everything he says by about a thousand,” I replied.
I pulled into the driveway of the tiny house that was near enough to the ocean I could hear the crash of the waves and smell the salty air. It was just two small bedrooms and one bath with a kitchen you could barely turn in without bumping into the other counter. But it had old-time charm built into its white planks and blue shutters. There was a cobblestone walk and a detached shed that was supposed to be a one-car garage. If I squinted, the place could almost be from a time when fishing had been the cornerstone of the town instead of the academy and the shipyard where they built sea monstrosities.
The front door was open, and Mac’s fiancée, Georgie, was standing in it. She was tall, dark, and stupidly in love with my best friend. Both my best friends had found something I wasn’t sure existed anymore in our world until I’d seen it for myself: true love. My grandparents’ generation had had it in spades; our generation seemed to forget it was ever an option.
“Did you really have a girlfriend?” Mac asked.
“You say that like it’s some big deal. Like I’ve never had a girlfriend. I wasn’t the one who wouldn’t keep a girl past a swag-and-bag. That was all you,” I said, putting the truck in park, turning off the engine, and slamming the door against the laughter that trailed after me.
Mac climbed out, followed by Dawson. My little brother wasn’t so little anymore. He was taller than me—almost as tall as Mac who was an easy six foot four. In fact, Dawson’s warm, rich skin and dark hair matched Mac’s more than mine all around. With my pale skin and pale hair, the only similarity between Dawson and me was in our eyes. We both had our mother’s golden-brown ones. Other than that, we both took after our fathers instead of our mother.
Thinking of our mom made my heart tug more than it had when I’d left Liesl in Hawaii. Even though Mom was partly to blame for everything that had happened with Dawson, I still couldn’t help hating that I hadn’t been there to shoulder some of it for her.
“Perfect timing. We need a bit more muscle on the molly bolts,” Georgie said, floating up to Mac, tucking her arm through his, and then kissing him.
Dawson rolled his eyes, grabbed some boxes, and headed toward the house.
I wanted to roll my eyes, too, but the truth was, I was happy Mac had Georgie. They fit. She put up with both his sugar addiction and his Navy career while loving him enough to come help his friend move. Because who the hell offers to help someone move unless they’re important to them? Georgie and I hardly knew each other, so it was because of Mac that she was here.
“Get this, Truck had a girlfriend,” Mac said as soon as his lips parted from hers.
“Okay?” she said with a slight frown, and I wanted to kiss her myself for making it sound like it wasn’t a big deal.
I loaded my arms with items from the bed of the truck and headed toward the open doorway.
“He forgets we weren’t all steadfast in our single ways like him,” I said.
As soon as I entered the house, I dropped the boxes and felt my eyes zero in on the apparition that was Jersey. She was behind the TV sitting on a black table I’d brought with me from my apartment in Honolulu. The contemporary furniture clashed with the antique feel of the cottage almost as much as the monstrous television. It was so big you could barely see Jersey’s head over the back. I moved closer, trying to see what was on the wall that had her so engrossed.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
She jumped, bumping into the TV and making it wobble precariously. I steadied it and watched as she turned her pale eyes in my direction before they skittered back away toward the wall. If I hadn’t lived with her for almost two months now, I would think her looking away was from a lack of confidence or, maybe, because she was shy or afraid. In reality, it was because she was thinking. Jersey almost always analyzed her words before she let them out of her mouth, as if she was adjusting them in some form. I wondered what it would sound like if she just spoke without the filter.
In response to my question, Jersey held up a metal cable. “I’m attempting to fasten the television.”
“Fasten the television?” I repeated. God, she made me sound like an idiot. I found my tongue coated in nonexistent wool around her, my words stuttering to get out because I was unsure what my non-analyzed words would make me sound like. Would I be some goober from a hick town in Northern California? Or a muscled Coast Guard with a chip on his shoulder?
“Yes.” She made a motion from a hook on the back of the TV to the wall. “For safety.”
I wanted to laugh, but I didn’t. “For safety?”
She flushed—something I rarely saw—and it made me instantly want to touch the pink skin that was normally all white ceramic. Flawless. Except for a tiny, almost imperceptible dusting of freckles across her high cheeks and tiny, upturned nose. Not for the first time since I’d met her, I was reminded of my mom’s prized Flower Fairies. The cheap prints and cheap figurines had grazed almost every wall and flat surface of our house in Clover Lake.
“You don’t want it to fall and break,” Jersey explained. “It would be expensive to replace, and it might injure someone.”
“I’ve lived a long time… almost thirty years now, and I’ve never lost a person to a TV.” I was trying, with a lot of difficulty, to hold back the amusement, because I was more than thrilled she was talking to me. More than thrilled she was there. And I didn’t want to somehow offend her by laughing at her carefully chosen words. At the same time, I wasn’t sure how to react to this need to attach my TV to the wall with a metal cable so thick it could probably moor one of our Coast Guard cutters to the dock.
She looked away from me, fidgeting with the screwdriver in her hand. “Yes. Well. It only takes one accident.” Her voice went from quiet to almost nonexistent, as if she realized something with her statement. As if she were revealing a clue I hadn’t yet unraveled.
Mac and Georgie came in the house with more boxes at the same time Dawson came from the back bedroom, and the rare moment where Jersey and I actually talked was broken. I may have lived with her for two months at Mandy and Leena’s Victorian, but I could count on probably just my fingers and toes the number of conversations we’d had when it was just the two of us.
“Here.” Dawson thrust something at Mac. I didn’t really give it much thought as I took the screwdriver out of Jersey’s hand and made a motion for her to trade places.
As she passed by me, our skin brushed, sending shivers down my spine. Shivers of joy. Shivers of light. Shivers of touch I’d been denying myself. She ran a hand over her arm where we’d made contact before moving across the room to where Dawson was standing with Mac and Georgie.
I turned my attention to the wall, the molly bolt, and the cable.
“Liesl?” Mac said with laughter barely contained in his voice like mine had been moments before, and my head jerked up to look at the small group of people gathered, watching me.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“This picture. It says, ‘Love, Liesl.’ Is this the girl?” Mac asked.
“Woman,” Georgie corrected him.
I glanced at the picture frame he held and groaned inwardly. I’d never had the desire to go all “Pictures to Burn” on my exes and destroy the evidence of our relationships, but now I was sort of regretting it.
“Yep,” I said, trying to hide my annoyance with the whole situation. “Didn’t realize Dawson had enough time to unpack my shit for me.”
“She’s beautiful, Truck,” Georgie said.
“She certainly was,” I responded and couldn’t help a glance toward Jersey. Liesl had been beautiful. Dark, curvy, and Hawaiian. A complete opposite of Jersey, and yet I’d never once experienced shivers when I’d touched Leisl.
“Her name was actually Liesl? As in The Sound of Music?” Jersey asked, and I heard the amusement in her voice now, roles reversed as she got in a little jab at me. It didn’t upset me one bit. Instead, it had me wishing I could do more stupid shit to get her to laugh in full.
“Laugh it up, everyone. Go right ahead,” I said with a wry smile no one saw as I remembered that Liesl’s name had been the first thing to intrigue me about her.
Mac burst out laughing. “She doesn’t look German.”
“Obviously, she’s not,” I snorted.
“I don’t think that should be a real person’s name,” Mac continued, as if I hadn’t spoken.
“Really, this is what you all want to talk about? Her name? Not a moment of concern about whether I had my heart broken or not?” I tossed back.
“Wait, you have a heart?” Dawson ripped into me, and I didn’t look at him. I just tried to focus on the damn screws in my hand.
“Have you even seen the movie, Travis?” Jersey asked. She was one of the few people who called me by my real name. The majority of the people in my life called me Truck, a name I’d inherited at Texas A&M’s Maritime Academy and it had stuck with me in my military career.
“Of course,” I said, slightly offended.
Dawson groaned. “Don’t. Don’t get him started.”
“Started on what?” Jersey asked.
“His movies,” Dawson said.
“Are you a movie expert, then, Truck?” Georgie asked with laughter in her voice as well. They were all having a good time jabbing at me. I couldn’t resist a jab back.
“Maybe. But at least I don’t need a movie intervention.” I winked at her to soften the blow.
“Asswipe, that was between you and me,” Mac said, flipping me off.
“What have you been saying about me, Mac-Macauley?” Georgie asked, but there was no real irritation in her voice, more tease than anything.
“You just don’t know very many movies from the eighties and nineties, so Truck’s DVD collection could come in handy,” he answered, drawing her to him, but she pushed him away and wagged a finger between both of us.
“I don’t need to waste my time on old movies.”
Dawson groaned again. “See. You’re playing right into his hands. He’s going to give you his whole spiel about certain movies being the iconic example of a culture and class structure or some bullshit.”
“I don’t think I ever said iconic,” I said.
“Epic?” Dawson teased.
“Certain movies are the perfect representation of the era they were filmed in. Studying film is like studying pottery from an archaeological dig.” I finished screwing in the cable and stepped away from the wall and the TV. I grabbed the picture of Liesl from Mac’s hands and tossed it on the counter.
When I looked back, they were all staring at me, including the woman who made my hair stand up on my arm in a good way. In a way that made me want to know what it would feel like if we were tucked together.
“What?” I asked, meeting her gaze.
“That’s exactly what I say about comic books,” Jersey said in her whisper voice.
I nodded. “Except comic books always have more edge. They push the envelope of the time, whereas film is more a reflection of the status quo.”
She was nodding as well.
“Wait. Stop. I want to know what happened with Liesl,” Georgie said.
I shrugged. “I moved.”
“That’s it? Did you ask her if she wanted to move with you?” Georgie asked.
“It wasn’t that kind of relationship.”
“It was more than just sex if she gave you a picture with, ‘Love, Liesl,’ written on it with several hearts,” Georgie pushed.
“Her life was in Hawaii. Her family. Her culture. She had no desire to move stateside. I had no desire to remain on the islands. We’d known that from the very first date, but we stayed together while I was there because we enjoyed each other.”
I grabbed Dawson’s arm and twisted it behind him. “And this little shit should stay out of my business.”
Dawson was all muscle and put up a good fight that, if I hadn’t been military trained, would have ended with me on the floor. “Says the man who lives to interfere in mine,” Dawson griped back.
“You’re welcome,” I said and shoved him toward the open doorway. “Go get the rest of your boxes. I’m done ‘interfering’ with them.”
Dawson laughed and headed toward the door, but I knew underneath his laugh was a bitterness. He wasn’t happy to be in New London. He wasn’t happy to be away from his life in Clover Lake, but he didn’t have a choice. If he’d stayed, his dad would have arrested him.
“Love wounds and marks
Any heart not tough or strong enough
To take a lot of pain.”
Performed by Nazareth
Written by Boudleaux Bryant
I wasn’t sure how I’d ended up at Travis’s house, with his friends, helping him unpack. I mean, I certainly had offered my services and followed him to the house in my barely running Civic earlier that morning. But I still wasn’t sure what had prompted me to offer him my help to begin with. It wasn’t like he needed it. He had Dawson and his friends, Mac and Georgie. The three muscled men were more than capable of moving the belongings Travis and Dawson had brought with them. They’d proven it all day by lifting the majority of the boxes and furniture, leaving Georgie and me with setting things to rights the best we could without actually unpacking for them.
I knew part of me had offered because I secretly adored the little cottage. I’d walked by it a million times and wanted to see what it looked like inside. I wanted a peek at the tiny backyard garden that could rival Mandy’s Neverland-like one. And while I did love the art déco chandelier, brass fixtures, and gorgeous crown molding of the place, the real reason I was there had nothing to do with wood or metal or gardens.
Instead, it had everything to do with the man who was standing beside his friends and expressing his opinions on film and comic books in a way that pulled at pieces inside of me. Pieces I rarely showed anymore. Pieces buried under responsibility, and shame, and loss. I’d once loved to talk about those things with my small group of friends. The tiny group that had gotten me through the loss of my mother only to abandon me with the crimes of my father.
The truth was, I’d been acting bizarrely ever since Travis had arrived at Mandy and Leena’s. And I wasn’t the only one who’d been acting out of character. Violet had been, too. The brothers seemed to have cast a strange spell on my sister and me. It was a good thing they were moving out.
“Knock, knock.” Mandy’s voice drifted into the house from the open front door.
You could barely see her short, bright-red hair and her smiling face over the stack of pizza boxes she was carrying. Next to her, Leena was holding plastic bags that swung against her signature billowy dress that was the epitome of the flower child she was. Her gray hair was wound up into a messy bun that was almost as playful as Leena herself.
My heart skipped a beat when I realized that behind the two women was my exuberant, beautiful sister. She was sixteen going on thirty, and it scared me that men were so easily attracted to her not only for her purple eyes and icy blonde hair but also for her large personality. I didn’t know how to protect her from the attention or from the heartache that was sure to follow.
Violet was looking backward to where Dawson was coming up behind them with more takeout boxes. Her eyes were sparkling at him. Eyes that were wearing makeup she rarely wore. Just as her blonde hair streaked with purple was in long curls she only spent time doing once in a blue moon. She’d made herself up for him, and I realized, with a sigh, the puppy love she felt for the twenty-two-year-old, broody soul wasn’t going to go away just because he no longer resided with us.
“Mandy, Leena, what have you done?” Travis asked, hands on his hips. He looked like a father scolding a child. It was both amusing and heart snagging.
“We knew you wouldn’t have stopped for food, so we thought we’d bring a little house-warming gift,” Mandy responded.
“You didn’t need to do this,” Truck said, taking the pizza boxes from her hand.
“Need and want are totally different things,” Leena said, and God, wasn’t that the truth. But it was just like these two incredible women to think of others and what they needed. They’d been helping Violet and me for longer than I liked to think about. The debt I owed them was too great to ever be repaid.
“We haven’t unpacked the kitchen,” Truck protested. “Let me see if I can dig out the plates.”
“We brought paper plates,” Violet said, waving a plastic bag.
Mandy and Leena helped Travis open the food boxes on the kitchen counter while Violet put the tableware on the counter-height pub table we’d moved in that morning. Dawson went to the fridge and started passing out beers and Cokes to go with the pizza and pasta from Nate’s, the Italian place down the street that was a town favorite.
Dawson started to hand a beer to Violet, and she would have grabbed it if I hadn’t intercepted. “She’s sixteen, remember,” I said, meeting his eyes with mine, the warning clear. Dawson saw it and looked away.
“I always forget that,” he said and gave her a Coke instead.
“God, it’s not like I’ve never had a beer before.” Violet rolled her eyes at me and then sat at the table across from Dawson.
“When exactly did you have a beer?” I asked her.
“When I was at Jada’s party,” she told me. Jada was her friend from the online high school Violet had just graduated from. Jada was two years older and had been homeschooled after being kicked out of every public and private high school her wealthy parents had sent her to. While she’d made some bad choices in her past, her heart was always in the right place.
“One beer isn’t going to kill me. Lighten up,” Violet said.
She was right. But with our family history, it was better we abstained.
“You telling me you never had a beer at a party in high school?” Dawson asked me.
It was a simple question. One that shouldn’t have caused me to react like I did with gut-wrenching pain. Pain that caused me to look away instead of answer. Yes, I’d had beer in high school. One time. One party. One night that had changed everything. Had changed our world.
“Don’t encourage it, Daw,” Travis said, and I wondered if he saw the anger flash over Dawson’s face at his interference. I wondered if Travis realized Dawson didn’t want him acting like he was the dad, which made me wonder if Violet’s reaction to me was just the same. I wasn’t her mom. I could never be Mom.
I ate in silence while the others chatted and teased. The energy was relaxed and friendly. I was drawn to it like a moth to a bug zapper, and just like the moth, I knew it wasn’t good for me. That the friendliness would disappear if any of them knew the truth about us—Leena and Mandy being the exception. They knew and stuck by us for reasons I couldn’t fathom.
My stomach twisted in pain, but this time, it was a real pain from a real bodily function, and my back stiffened as the wave hit me. I put my food down, grabbed my purse, and headed down the hall to the bathroom. I was glad I’d remembered to put on a panty liner that morning. Glad I always carried tampons and pads in my purse. Glad I was going to be able to go home before the real pain hit.
My mood that had been heavy and pensive for most of the day made sense. Hormones were my kryptonite. Normally, even though I’d had life throw me a bunch of plot arcs, I tried to keep it all in perspective by reminding myself of my five good things. It was a trick I’d picked up from my favorite author, Amy Harmon. I had my gorgeous, genius sister, Mandy and Leena’s support, a roof over my head, my job that kept the social services workers from taking Violet away, and my life. I was alive when others weren’t. Today, the being alive part was enough to make my soul hurt for those who weren’t. Who weren’t because of me.
When I got back to the living room, Mac and Georgie were saying goodbye. They were on their way to New York City to meet up with some of Georgie’s friends from when she’d lived in the city. Earlier, when we’d been waiting for the guys to bring another load from the storage unit, she’d told me how she’d gone from owner of a hair salon to a law student. It made me feel better about the break I was taking between getting my bachelor’s and getting my master’s in psychology. Even with the grants Violet and I both qualified for, I couldn’t pull off the remaining cost for two rounds of classes and books. But Georgie had gone back to school at twenty-eight. I was only twenty-three. I had time. It could still happen.
To my surprise, Mac hugged me. I’d never met him before this visit, and I wasn’t prepared for any sign of affection. As he let me go, he whispered, “Go easy on him; he doesn’t know how to react to someone like you.”
I turned to him with a puzzled expression. “What?”
But then Travis was pulling him into a hug that surprised me almost as much as Mac hugging me had. The two tough military men embraced as if it were the easiest thing in the world to do. And really, hugs should be easy. They’d been easy, once upon a time, in our house.
Another wave of pain hit me again, warning me. Telling me I needed to leave and get back to my room at Mandy and Leena’s quickly. Telling me I needed to have a heating pad and a double dose of ibuprofen before things got out of hand.
“I think we’ll head out, too,” I said, putting the strap of my purse on my shoulder and looking at Violet.
“I came with Mandy and Leena. Can I leave with them?” Violet asked. She was unpacking a box in the kitchen as if she had every right to do so. As if she belonged in this house. Violet never seemed to overthink things, compared to my nonstop analysis of everything I did and said.
“Honestly, we need to head out ourselves. The airport shuttle is coming to get us at four in the morning, and I still have to finish packing,” Mandy said.
I envied them slightly, their ability to just get up and leave on a three-week cruise through the Panama Canal. Mandy had fought and beat breast cancer a few years back, and ever since then, the two friends had been seeing the world and slowly marking off items on their bucket lists. I didn’t think I’d ever do either of those things. Travel. Bucket lists. I’d never been farther than New York City and one trip, in another lifetime, to Disney World. For the majority of my twenty-three years, I’d stayed within a two-hour circumference of my hometown.
We all said our goodbyes, but Travis stopped me at the door, a hand to my elbow. The energy that hit me was as strong as it had been when I’d brushed past him behind the TV earlier. As if the molecules in my genes were being rearranged by his touch the way it might be if I was teleporting. It reminded me of all the reasons I’d avoided him as much as humanly possible when he’d been staying with us.
“Thank you,” he said, sincerely, seriously. Travis was rarely serious. Even when he was scolding Dawson, it was usually said with a tease or a taunt, as if life was just a series of obstacles to be laughed about. His attitude appealed to the side of me that was constantly trying to rid itself of the heaviness of our lives, so his seriousness hit me more than it probably would have otherwise.
“You’re welcome,” I replied. “If you need anything, you know where to find us.”
I said it, but I think he and I both knew I didn’t mean it. I didn’t want him or Dawson to come find us. I needed my life to go back to the bookstore, and the garden at Leena’s, and taking care of Violet. I needed Violet’s life to go back to classes and plans that didn’t involve boys—men.
“Same goes for you. We're here if you need us,” he responded, and I felt the authenticity in his voice that had been absent in mine.
I nodded and moved away, my molecules readjusting to the space, the pain in my abdomen reminding me of what I truly needed.
Violet hugged both men, almost bouncing as she moved away from Dawson and smiled back at him over her shoulder. Dawson smiled back at her with a wink. I wanted to throttle him for encouraging her. It wasn’t just the six years separating them that drove me crazy. It was everything about Dawson. His chip on his shoulder. His careless attitude. His recklessness. Violet didn’t need that in her life; she’d already had too much of it.
Violet and I were just getting into the car when Travis’s voice halted me. “Hey, wait!”
He ducked back inside the house and came out with a pizza box and a plastic bag. He jogged over to the car. His ice-blond hair was shining and his body was almost glowing in the moonlight swirling through the fog as it rolled in. He looked like a superhero. Maybe Aquaman—and not the movie version—but the comic-book version. Fit. Gorgeous. Loving water and sea and saving people. I could see the moment sketched across paper in my mind. My hand twitched at the thought of what it would look like in light and shadows of charcoal.
“Take this. It’s too much for Dawson and me to eat, and with Mandy and Leena gone, you won’t have anyone cooking for you.”
I smiled at that. “I do know how to cook. I’ve been cooking dinner since I was twelve.”
He kind of eyed me for a moment. “Well, now you won’t have to for a few more days.”
He pushed the food at me, and I took it because it was easier than having a debate over it. I placed the food in the back and then turned to get in the driver’s seat just as another stab of pain rolled through me.
“Are you okay?” Travis asked. I was surprised he’d seen the pain, because I was pretty adept at hiding it.
“I’m fine,” I told him. It was the answer I always gave. I was fine. I would be fine. I’d be better than fine in about seven days. Life would right itself again.
When I went to shut the driver’s door, Travis stopped it, holding it open. I was forced to look at him with my fake smile, and I saw his warm eyes were full of concern.
“You don’t look okay.”
“Honest, I’m just tired,” I answered back.
He didn’t look like he believed me. He wouldn’t be the first or the last to not believe me, but it didn’t matter. All that mattered was getting home. Getting to bed. Getting to curl up and try to sleep away the pain.
I pulled the door, and he finally let it go. I turned the car on and backed out of the driveway while he watched us leave. Violet hadn’t noticed. She was texting on her phone and hardly looked up.
“I can’t believe you embarrassed me like that,” she said.
I groaned internally. I didn’t have it in me to fight with her tonight. We didn’t fight often. More lately, but that was normal teenage defiance, wasn’t it? “It wasn’t my intent,” I told her.
“I’m not a baby, and you’re not my mom.”
“But in the eyes of the law, I’m responsible for you,” I replied.
“Maybe I should file the emancipation papers after all,” she said, still not looking up from the phone.
It stung, but I knew she didn’t mean it. Violet and I had survived a lot together. This squabble was never going to come permanently between us. It was an old discussion, but it usually only came up when she felt bad that I was the one providing for her.
“There’s really no point in filing,” I responded with the words I said every time it was mentioned. “You aren’t working enough to be financially responsible for yourself.”
“It’s kind of hard to get a job when I don’t have my driver’s license.”
Another old squabble I wasn’t sure I had the energy for with pain dragging at me. I didn’t respond anyway, because there was nothing new to add. It was expensive to pay for driver’s education classes, and it would be even more expensive to add her to the car insurance. I could barely pay now, let alone with a teenage driver added onto the premium.
She sneezed, and my heart lurched. She looked over at me. “Don’t.”
“Just take the extra antibiotics when you get home.”
“I’m not sick. It was just a sneeze.”
“And you know the protocol.”
“I’m not running a fever. It was a freakin’ sneeze.”
“It doesn’t hurt to take them,” I said quietly.
She didn’t say anything. She pushed her phone under her legs and then leaned with her head looking out the window of the car. We drove the last couple minutes in silence. Mandy and Leena’s house was at the edge of town on a hill that afforded a view of the sea from the very top windows. The best view was from the attic. I’d only found that out after Leena had sent me up there to get an old rug she’d decided she needed to put back in the library.
Tonight, the house was lit up inside and out. It made my heart leap a little, dragging me out of my melancholy. It felt like it was welcoming us home. The twinkling lights hanging from a trellis that led to the backyard were lit up, making the manicured garden at the front of the house a fairyland of bushes and flowers. The lights made me think of the ones Mom had hung from my bedroom wall once upon a time.
“I can’t wait till I’m eighteen,” Violet said, a momentary lapse into self-pity. She had a right to it, but she hardly ever went there. Even right after the accident, in the hospital, all battered and bruised and sore from surgery, she’d hardly ever sunk into it.
Having her spleen removed had meant lots of antibiotics. Ones that she was on daily until she was eighteen, and some she’d be on for the rest of her life. She’d never be able to fight things off like people who still had all their body parts. The guilt filled me with almost as much pain as the real pain twisting through my pelvic region. It caused me to jerk the steering wheel slightly. It caused Violet’s eyes to journey from the window to me.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
I nodded again.
She reached across and squeezed my shoulder. “Let’s get you home to bed.”
That was the plan. Antibiotics for her. Bed for me. We were quite the pair. Our lives, our health, our issues never seemed to leave us alone for very long. But I was eternally grateful I had her to go through it with me, and I knew she felt the same. We were in this thing together. This thing called life. And someday, we’d look back at these times and know that, while hard, they were the base of the beautiful future we’d made ourselves. That we hadn’t been handed anything. We’d earned every second of every achievement that was coming our way, the town be damned.
BREAK ON ME
“Put your head on my chest.”
“Come apart in my hands
Take as long as it takes, girl
Break on me.”
Performed by Keith Urban
Written by Nite / Cooperman
The barista called my name, and I grabbed the coffee cups from the counter and left. When I’d told Dawson I’d go grab food and caffeine for both of us, he’d barely grunted. He’d been focused on the TV with a headset on and a game controller in hand, head resting on the back of the chair that had always been mine. He was online with some of his friends from Clover Lake. He always got frustrated when he was on with them, so I didn’t know why he continued to torture himself.
It just reminded him of where he really wanted to be and why he couldn’t be there.
He wasn’t going to be happy when I handed him the job application I’d stuffed in the drawer at the house, either, but he had to do something other than eat, play video games, and pout. He was never going to get out of this dark space without a reason to do it. I knew that for the truth it was.
Back when I’d been flunked out of Professor Abrams’ class and had to stay at Texas A&M for an extra semester, I’d gone to a similar dark space full of anger, self-judgment, and self-pity. It had stayed with me for too long. It had followed me into the Coast Guard and to New York City. It had changed me into a man I’d hated more with every day that passed until I’d finally just let it go. Ava had helped me do that. My other best friend, Eli, had tried to get me out of the funk every single day for the three years we’d been stationed together in the city. But it wasn’t until I’d heard an apology from Ava, when she was the last one who needed to apologize, that I’d finally been able to let go of the anger.
I didn’t want Dawson to have to live with it for so long. I wanted to see him jerk himself out of the abyss way before that.
As I hit the corner and the bookstore Mandy ran, I couldn’t help my eyes journeying through the window to the register where I expected to see Jersey. With Mandy and Leena on their cruise to Panama, Jersey would be holding down the fort both at the store and at the house. So, I was surprised to see Violet behind the counter instead of her sister.
In the few months I’d been living in New London, I’d never once seen Violet work at the bookstore. She helped out at the house a lot, but her journeys into the public were always few and far between. It had something to do with an accident, and her losing her spleen, and their fear of her catching something her immune system wouldn’t be able to process. It wasn’t much of a life. I wondered, not for the first time, what had happened. No one had talked about the accident, but I understood it was the reason the two Banner women were on their own at such a young age. I assumed it meant their parents had died in the crash. But again, no one had really spoken about it, and I wasn’t jackass enough to ask and make them relive it.
I stood outside the bookstore while my emotions warred with my logical brain, wanting to know where Jersey was and why her younger sister was working for her. Wanting to just leave it alone because it wasn’t my concern. I had enough to worry about with Dawson. I didn’t need to shoulder their burden, too.
I looked down to where I was flicking my nails together with my right hand while my left held the tray with the drinks. I sighed and gave up. When I pushed the door open, the bell chimed, causing Violet to look up from the textbook she was reading. Her face turned into a smile resembling her sister’s. They were both stunning. Pale visions. Violet didn’t have the sprinkle of cinnamon across her face that her sister did, and her eyes were more purple than blue cotton candy, but they were alike in almost every other way.
“Hey!” she said.
“Did you bring me coffee?” she asked, eyeing the cups in my hand.
“It was supposed to be Dawson’s, but I’m not sure he’ll miss it.” I handed her the cup. Her smile turned even bigger at the mention of my baby brother. She definitely had a crush on him. Thank God we’d moved out before it had turned serious.
“Thank you! I’ll pay him back. I’ll bring him coffee tomorrow.”
“Nah, he doesn’t need it.”
She shrugged, and I could see her wheels turning, as if I’d just handed her the perfect excuse to visit him. “He might not be there, anyway. I’m trying to get him an interview at the academy.”
“Oh, wow. I didn’t know Dawson was thinking about going to school.”
I chuckled. “No. He doesn’t have any interest in becoming a Coast Guard. I just meant a job interview.”
“Oh. I see.” Her face turned serious. “Maybe you could help me find a job there, too?”
I waved my hand around the bookstore. “This isn’t good enough?”
She smiled again. “This isn’t my job. This is Jersey’s. I’m just covering for her today. Shh. No one is supposed to know that.”
“Where’s Jersey?” I asked, a sense of disquiet filling me.
Her smile dimmed. “She’s not feeling well.”
She flushed a little, looking down and away. “You know. Just. Stuff.”
I got the picture. Female stuff. But it had to be pretty bad for her to not make it in to work. Jersey was the most responsible person I’d met after Eli. “Got it,” I said.
“Don’t say anything. She’d be mad if she knew you knew.”
“Secret is safe with me,” I told her, and her face brightened to its normal brilliance again.
“Did you need something here?” she asked.
“Well, only if you can order me an original Batman number one from 1940?” I threw out at her.
She laughed, more a giggle than a laugh, but it suited her. It made her seem more sixteen than the twenty-something she often acted. “I bet Jersey has a copy.”
“An original?” I held my breath because even I knew an original Batman from the forties was worth enough to buy a house. Maybe two houses.
“She’s got a whole stack of original comics. Unless…” Her smile faltered.
“Unless she sold it. Would it have been worth a lot of money?”
She sighed. “Then, she probably doesn’t have it. She sold a bunch of them a while ago. Before Mandy and Leena convinced us to move in with them. We were having trouble paying rent—” She stopped herself, slapped her hand to her mouth, and then said, “Don’t tell her I’ve told you that either.”
My heart constricted at the thought of them having to sell prized comics in order to make ends meet. I understood a little about that, being raised by a single mom. Our life had gotten easy for a short time when she’d been married to Mr. Dick, but it hadn’t lasted long. Just long enough for her to get knocked up, spit out Dawson, and Dick to move on to the next short skirt.
“My lips are sealed,” I told her.
“Thanks. She’d kill me for spilling our business all over town.”
I chuckled. “Telling one person is hardly telling it all over town.”
“She’d still think it.”
I headed toward the door. “Let me know if she doesn’t get better or you need anything. Mandy and Leena would personally kick my butt all the way to Panama and back if I didn’t help you all out when you needed it.”
“That they would.” I was almost out the door when she called out to me. “Wait.”
I turned back, and she’d come out from behind the counter. She made her way to me, waving her phone. “I don’t have your number. I have Dawson’s, but I don’t have yours.”
I groaned inwardly at the fact that she had Dawson’s. I hoped to God he wasn’t encouraging her infatuation with him. She handed me her phone, and I put in my number, half-tempted to delete Dawson’s while I was in the contacts, but then just handed it back to her.
“You know, Vi—” I started, but she cut me off.
“Not you, too. I get it. I’m sixteen. I’m jailbait. Dawson’s twenty-two and ‘shadowed’ with regret.” She rolled her eyes, and I laughed again.
“Something like that.”
“He’s just nice to talk to. I don’t have many people willing to listen.”
This also tugged at my heart. A sixteen-year-old girl as beautiful as her, inside and out, should have a whole host of people surrounding her. She should be the center of the universe for a swarm of boys her own age. The queen bee in the beehive. Life had certainly done a number on her and her sister. It made my protective instincts come alive. Like I was one of those male bees in the hive. Like it was really Jersey who was the queen, demanding protection and subservience.
I waved and made my way out of the store, hoping I could figure a way out of the hive without dying in the process.
♫ ♫ ♫
“This is bullshit.” Dawson threw the paper at me.
I didn’t flinch. “You have to do something, Daw.”
“A fucking maintenance job? Really?”
“What else are you qualified to do?”
“I’ll get a job working on boats. I’m good at that.”
He was. We both were. He’d been working on boats almost since he could walk. His dad had three boats. All expensive. All with different uses from fishing to sailing to skiing. Dawson had been driving and fixing the boats for as long as I could remember. Especially after he’d started driving the boats himself. Especially after he’d nearly gotten killed doing it and had to fix the blown motor.
“Fine. I don’t give a shit what it is, but you have to do something.” I knew I was crossing the fine line I always walked with him between brother, dad, and friend, so I tried to lighten the air. “I can’t afford your donut-and-expensive-coffee habit on my measly Coastie budget.”
It didn’t make him laugh. Instead, he griped, “I didn’t ask you to take me in.”
He hadn’t. He probably would have gone to jail just to spite his dad. Just to rub it in his father’s face, one more time, how much of a failure and a screwup he was. The cry for attention had turned desperate the colder and more withdrawn Mr. Dick had gotten. It was Mom who had begged me to take Dawson with me. It wasn’t because she was upset at what he’d done. No, instead she’d been upset Mr. Dick might turn Dawson into a person he wasn’t supposed to be. She could barely stay in the responsible lane herself most days, let alone drag Dawson back from the edge he was ready to jump off of.
Dawson grabbed his wallet and phone, shoving them both into opposite pockets in his jeans, and headed toward the door.
“Where are you going?” I asked with a glance at the clock. It was nine o’clock on a Wednesday night. Not really anywhere he could go, and he hadn’t asked to borrow the pickup, which meant he couldn’t get far.
I bit my tongue so I wouldn’t ask where. He was twenty-two years old, and I wasn’t his father. He didn’t owe me an explanation. No matter that, when we’d been younger, he’d always told me where he was going. We’d grown up parenting ourselves, looking after ourselves. Mom didn’t see the need for rules, because she felt like rules had been her downfall—first her parents’ and then her husband’s.
For a moment, my head flew back to Violet in the bookstore that morning. Was Dawson going to see her? The friendship they seemed to have formed was the only bond I knew he had in this town. But even at Leena and Mandy’s, he’d gone out a lot of nights and come home smelling like beer. I was pretty sure that was where he’d end up: drinking at Rusty’s bar.
“Just say it,” Dawson growled, looking back at me from the door.
“Whatever the hell is going on in your head.”
“Honestly, Daw, there’s nothing there but concern for you.”
His growl disappeared, and a momentary flash of sadness crossed his face. “I know,” he said. He opened the door, hesitating one more time. “I’m okay, Trav. At least, I will be.”
Then he left. He left without saying any of the words we used to say when we left each other. It had been so long since we’d said the words I was almost sure he’d forgotten them. Forgotten that we may have said, “Wish me luck,” but what we really meant was, “I love you.”
I rubbed my hands over my face. Worrying about Dawson was not something new to me. If I hadn’t worried about him, I wasn’t sure anyone would have. With our grandparents in Oregon, Dawson’s dad always focused on his image as county sheriff, and Mom focused on letting us define ourselves, I was the only one who’d ever cared when something good or bad had happened to him.
Guilt hit me again, because I was sure that, for a while, when I’d been lost in a world of A&M, bitter disappointment, and a need to prove my worth in my military career, Dawson had felt like there was no one who cared. I knew that feeling, too. With an absentee teen father and the same non-parenting mother, I’d thought Dawson was the only person who cared for a long time. At least, until I met Eli and Mac.
My past was hanging on to me tonight a little tighter for some reason. Maybe because I was suddenly faced with worrying about more than myself again. Maybe because I was worried Dawson would never be happy again. All I knew was that it was going to be harder than I’d thought to get him back on track.
♫ ♫ ♫
My cell phone was singing out the Star Wars anthem. I didn’t even open my eyes. I just grabbed it, hitting the “on” button. “Dawson?”
He was the only person who’d be calling me at two in the morning, unless it was the base, and that was a completely different ringtone.
“Um. No. It’s Violet.” Her voice wavered, uncertainty floating through the phone. I opened my eyes and sat up.
“I’m on my way,” I said, reaching for my jeans on the floor beside me.
“She’s going to be mad I called you…but she’s never been this bad.” Violet’s voice shook with the fear she wasn’t voicing.
“Never been this bad how?” The phone was in the crook of my neck and my shoulder as I buttoned the jeans and went to my dresser, grabbing the first T-shirt I touched and not caring what it was.
“She’s bleeding so much.”
“Okay. I’ll be there in five.”
I hit the “off” button so she couldn’t change her mind, shot a text off to Dawson so he wouldn’t worry when he got home and found me gone, and then pushed my feet into the nearest pair of shoes I could find.
The muggy air hit me as soon as I opened the door. I was used to it in some ways from Hawaii, but the East Coast had its own brand of muggy. It felt more oppressive because you didn’t expect it. Because the quaint town looked like it would never experience a bad climate day, like it was movie-set perfect. I used the thoughts of movies filmed in East Coast seaside towns as a way of distracting me from worrying about two blonde-haired women on their own in Leena’s Victorian. One bleeding. The other scared.
When I got there, I let myself in with the key I’d never returned. The lights were off downstairs. I flicked the lamp on in the entryway and then took the stairs two at a time. I turned down the hall toward the two rooms I’d known were Jersey’s and Violet‘s but had never entered during my time in the house.
Violet was standing outside one. The door was shut, and she was wringing her hands.
“Talk to me, Violet. What’s going on?” I asked quietly.
“She won’t let me in because she thinks she’s got the stomach flu on top of her normal period, but I could still hear her throwing up and moaning. She’s had to wash her sheets twice because she keeps bleeding through everything. She wouldn’t let me do it. She won’t risk me getting sick, but she barely made it up and down the stairs to the laundry room.” Violet’s voice was almost a whisper, more like the way Jersey usually spoke and less like the energetic trill that was her norm.
I didn’t know what to make of her words. I mean, I had a mom, and I’d had girlfriends, so I knew the basics of what happened. I knew sometimes things went astray and blood leaked out, but never the amount Violet was talking about.
“Okay. Let me go in and see what’s going on.”
She nodded. I knocked on the door and then opened it.
The room had a strong odor. Blood and musk and sick. I’d been around worse but not by much. Jersey was faced away from me, curled up in the fetal position in leggings and a long T-shirt, with what looked like sketches all around her on the bed.
“Get out, Violet,” she groaned, waving a hand toward the door.
I sank down on the edge of the mattress, pushing some of the black-and-white comic-book drawings out of my way, and putting a hand on her hip. She flipped over, and her face was even paler than normal. Corpse-like. Scary. She really could be a ghost. A beautifully haunting ghost, but a ghost.
“Wh-what are you doing here?” she asked.
“Vi was a little worried,” I told her.
She flushed, the coloring sneaking over the pale-white skin. “It’s nothing. Just something I ate or the flu.”
Her body stiffened, and she pulled her legs back up to her chest again.
“Jesus Christ. Let’s go. I’m taking you to the hospital.”
She shook her head. “No. Don’t be ridiculous.”
But it was said in between big breaths as if she was trying to hold in the pain.
I wasn’t going to argue over this. I swept my hands under her and stood with her in my arms. Even sick, bleeding, and smelling funny, she was still gorgeous.
She pushed against me weakly. “Put me down, Travis.”
“You’re going to the hospital.”
I pulled open the door, and she struggled against me more.
I didn’t want to manhandle her, but I didn’t know what else to do. She needed to go to the ER.
Violet was at the door and backed up as I came out holding her sister.
“Grab her things and meet me out at the pickup,” I told her.
“Do not grab my things,” Jersey said. Suddenly, she stopped fighting as a wave of pain made her face contort, and she tucked her knees toward her chest instinctively.
“Fuck,” I said and all but jogged down the stairs.
Violet was slamming doors and things behind me.
When I got to the pickup, I carefully placed Jersey in the passenger seat and went to put the seat belt on her when she sat up and shoved against my chest again. “I’m not going to the hospital.”
“I’m afraid you don’t have a choice.”
“I always have a choice. It’s my body. This is just—” She looked away, cheeks flushing again. “It’s just a period. It’s just cramps.”
“Jersey, this isn’t just anything. Not if you’ve been throwing up and bleeding through everything.”
“Violet shouldn’t have called you.”
“I’m glad she did,” I told her.
“I can’t go…” she trailed off, pulling her legs up to her chest again, eyes closing.
“What’s the worst that can happen? They give you something for the pain—that’s the worst.”
“I can’t pay the bill, Travis. I don’t have insurance. I can’t afford to go.”
This stunned me into silence. She didn’t have medical insurance? Even as poor as I’d been growing up with Mom, we’d always had insurance. First, from my grandparents while Mom worked at their video store before they’d closed it in order to keep the one in Oregon alive, and then from the doctor’s office where Mom worked as a receptionist.
“Wait. But Violet takes a ton of medicines,” I said dumbly. It was true. I’d seen the prescription bottles while I lived with them.
“Yeah. She has Husky B. It’s the state-funded insurance for kids. I’m not a kid.” She rested her head on her knees as Violet came up behind me with a bag and a purse.
“Jersey, please. Let’s just go and make sure you’re okay. We’ll figure it out. Truck said he’ll get me a summer job at the academy,” she said.
Jersey’s eyes flew open. “You what?”
Anger, hurt, and pain were all reflected in those pale eyes.
“I didn’t say that. She asked, but I didn’t say I would,” I told her.
She pushed against me. “I’m going to be sick.”
Violet and I jumped out of the way as Jersey heaved onto the driveway. But nothing came out.
“Go get in the back,” I told Violet, waving at the driver’s side. Violet didn’t hesitate; she ran around and climbed inside. I carefully pushed Jersey back into the pickup and shut the door, then I jogged around to the other side.
They didn’t need to figure out a way to pay; I would. I had money in savings. Not a lot after paying for the first, last, and down on the house that was probably out of my real price range, but I had money and credit cards. Violet was right. We’d figure it out.
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