Stay for Me
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From New York Times Bestselling author Corinne Michaels comes the final poignant standalone love story in the Arrowood Brothers Series.
Hollywood taught me everything I know about relationships—except how to be in one. As an actor, I became an expert at faking it. Faking that I wasn't affected by my childhood. Faking that I was okay. Faking that I knew how to save the day, the girl, the whole damn world.
But I've always known the truth—I’m no one's hero.
Until I’m forced to move back to Sugarloaf for six months, and Brenna Allen offers me a chance to prove otherwise. She’s everything I never knew I wanted, but can't have. Her broken heart, perfect face, and adorable children turn my world upside down. Instead of preparing for my next leading role, I’m directing a middle school play.
All to make her smile.
The more time I spend here, the more I want to stay. Build a life in this town that I swore I’d leave—for her.
But when the world comes crashing down around us, I’m forced to decide if staying for her is the right choice or if leaving is better for the woman I love.
Release date: December 8, 2020
Publisher: BAAE Inc.
Reader says this book is...: action-packed (1) emotionally riveting (3) entertaining story (2) funny (1) happily ever after (3) heart touching (2) heartwarming (2) high heat (1) modern life (1) plot twists (1) satisfying ending (2) sex scenes (1) strong chemistry (2) strong heroine (1) suspenseful (1) swoon-worthy (3) tearjerker (1) terrific writing (2) unputdownable (1)
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Stay for Me
Beep. Beep. Beep.
It can’t be six thirty already. I swear, I just fell asleep.
I roll over, check the clock, and sure enough, it’s time to get my ass up. My hand slides across the sheets to feel the cold, and I want to cry. Over the last eight months, I’ve felt like I’m living the same day on repeat. I look for him, ache for him, try to feel the warmth that was once there, but it’s gone.
Just like he is.
“Mom!” Melanie’s voice screeches at the end. “Get up!”
I sit up in the bed, drape my legs over the side, and close my eyes.
I can do this. I’ve been doing it this long, and I’m doing the best I can. The kids need better, and I have to be that for them even if the pain is still so intense I want to give up.
Ten days ago, we moved into this new house, which is a simple house in the middle of nowhere, but it’s close to my husband’s—my now-gone husband’s—family and the place he’s buried.
I’m struggling to breathe, to find something to hold on to that will let me know that life will be okay again. It will be. I know this, but I’m alone, and it hurts. I don’t have Luke or his steady faith to remind me that I’m a warrior and I always find a way. I’m the one having to push myself up and remind myself that this isn’t just a deployment. It’s forever. He’s gone. He’s buried in the ground, and I’ll never hear his voice again.
When I closed on this place, it should have been a time of joy. Instead, I sat in that cold chair, signing the mortgage papers with just my name. There were no smiles or jokes as we notched another address on our list. It was tears that filled the space as my pen swiped along the final black line.
My head tilts back to the ceiling and the hurt in my heart grows.
“Mom! Sebastian won’t get out of the bathroom! I have to do my hair!”
I release a deep breath. “I’m coming.”
Clenching my teeth so hard they may shatter, I get to my feet, pull a robe on, and shuffle out the door.
Melanie gets one look at me, and her eyes bulge. “Oh my God!”
“I look that good?” I joke. Sure, I haven’t slept in a week and was up crying half the night, but I don’t think I look that bad.
“No, it’s . . . your eyes are swollen. If Miss Cybil were here, she’d be screaming.”
“It’s been a rough few months.”
Plus, Cybil wouldn’t say shit. When I met her, we were two lonely military wives, stuck in Pensacola without any family or friends, and I was pregnant. Cybil was a sweet Southern girl with a thick accent and a heart of gold. We’ve been best friends for twelve years.
She’s a peach. On the outside, she’s soft, sweet, and you think she’s easy to bruise. But on the inside, there is a pit. A hard shell that’s impenetrable and able to withstand almost anything. She’s my rock, and I miss her more than almost anything.
Mel sighs and then looks at the bathroom door. “I know.”
And she does. It’s been rough on all of us and we wrestled with the idea of coming to Luke’s hometown. Not because we don’t love it here or want the family close but because it meant another life altering change.
We were a military family. Always close to a base, stopping the car at sunrise and sunset to hear the national anthem, and living in cramped houses that had more issues than we could count, but it was our life.
After having held Sebastian in my arms as he sobbed hearing the jet fly over the house, I knew we had to go. It had gone from being a source of joy, of knowing his father could be in that plane, to an ever-present reminder that Luke is gone and will never fly again.
I left, stayed with my in-laws as we looked for somewhere to live. This house came on the market, and thanks to one of the teachers I met at my new job, I was able to grab it quickly. The only issue is that it’s small and the kids don’t have their own separate bathrooms.
“He has to get out of there!”
“You will be totally fine, Melanie. I promise that no one will care if your hair isn’t perfect.”
“You don’t know that. What if these girls are mean? What if the boys don’t like girls who don’t wear makeup? Why can’t I get ready in your bathroom? Why won’t you let me put eyeliner on?”
The life of a preteen girl is always so dramatic.
“Well, I need to get ready in my bathroom. To answer your other questions . . . you’re twelve, your father said he didn’t want you to do it, and I’m going to abide by it because he’s dead and I’m tired.”
Her eyes meet mine, and then she sighs. “I’m sorry, Mom. I shouldn’t have said it . . .”
My sweet girl, always the caretaker. She may only be twelve years old, but you’d never know it. She’s sometimes more grown up than most of the adults I know, but that’s the life of a military child. They grow up too fast, understanding that a family is its own unit and everyone needs to do just a bit more.
Then she lost her father, and her childhood became nonexistent. Gone was the girl who spent hours on fashion and beauty. Instead, she has been trying to be an adult and I’m doing everything I can to stop that progression.
“Don’t be sorry, sweetheart. I am. I shouldn’t have snapped. I was wrong.”
She waits for me to breathe normally and chews on her lower lip. “I’ll get Sebastian and me off to school.”
“No, that’s not necessary. I just need to get going. It’s a first day for all of us.”
Luke’s favorite saying was that everything happened for a reason. He felt that kismet was real, and that it was the reason we met. I don’t know if it’s true, but I never argued. I was eighteen years old, met a man who was a pilot, and I fell—hard. Within a few months, I was pregnant with Melanie and we were married.
No one thought we’d last—in a way, I guess we hadn’t, but it wasn’t the ending anyone had in mind.
“Did Grandma make our lunches?”
I really freaking hope so. I was unpacking while she helped get things ready for today. “She said she did last night.”
“Did she make Sebastian’s sandwich without the crust?”
“I gave her all the instructions.”
She sighs, knowing that, most likely, it didn’t happen. “She’s as bad as Daddy. He doesn’t make the sandwiches right either.”
Her body tenses at her slip. She never mentions Luke. She pretends that he’s just deployed and that we didn’t suffer the most unimaginable pain a family could feel. Melanie has taken it horribly. Luke was her world.
The father that every little girl dreamed of. He may not have always been there because of his job, but neither she nor Sebastian ever felt neglected. His job came first, yes, but kids never felt that. It was only me who got shafted in the time department when it came to Luke’s job, and I accepted my role. I was to handle everything at home—the kids, appointments, moves, and shuttling them around. I ensured that our home was a well-oiled machine, and if something broke, I got it fixed.
However, no one told me to plan for me being the broken piece or what happened when the plane went down.
“Everyone is trying,” I tell her with a smile, thankful that my mother-in-law has been able to step in and help.
“I’ll check on the sandwich while Sebastian is hogging the bathroom!” Mel screams the last part so loud I wince. Then she heads downstairs, missing the soft sound of her brother laughing at her.
“Sebastian, you have five minutes, buddy. All you need to do in there is brush your hair and your teeth. Doesn’t take more than that.”
He’s eleven and this is really just to irritate his sister. I love my kids, but I really hoped to have today go smoothly.
It’s their first day of school in Sugarloaf. They’ve met a few kids over the years when we visited Sylvia and Dennis, but it’s all uncharted for them here. Typically, a new school is no big deal, but this time felt different because we had left military life behind. There was camaraderie between military kids. They understood how hard it was to be the new kid, year in and year out, and tended to be more welcoming.
Now, they’re going to a place where these kids have known each other their whole lives.
Not even thirty seconds later, he’s standing at my door. “Do I match?”
I look at him, dark brown hair just like his father’s and that grin that is impossible to resist. Then I look at his attire and groan. “I thought you and Grandma laid your clothes out last night?”
Oh, Jesus. “And that’s what you want to wear for your first day?”
“Granny said it had character.”
I snort. It has more than that. “Sebastian, sweetheart, that doesn’t match. Go put on the pair of new jeans I bought you.”
“What about the shirt?”
This is not the hill I want to die on, so I say, “If you like it, I think it’s great.”
My mother-in-law has a thing for loud colors and animal print. If it has stripes or spots, she owns it and wears it. I am nothing like that, but she and Sebastian bonded over it years ago, prompting her to help him, “Dress to own the world.” If he likes the shirt, I am not going to stop him.
A boy named Bruce or Troy or God-only-knows-what with fists the size of watermelons will probably have something to say about it, but Sebastian has long since tried to make people like him. He’s a sweet boy who loves to make us smile and constantly entertains us with jokes or music. He writes songs, plays the guitar, and has straight A’s. I couldn’t be any prouder of him if I tried.
“I wish Dad were here.”
“He would’ve liked the shirt.”
I fight back the tears that threaten to form. “He would’ve bought a matching one.”
One thing that Luke didn’t have was fashion sense, but he loved trying to give Sebastian the confidence to wear what he wanted. If he—a big bad navy fighter pilot—would wear a zebra shirt, then Sebastian would too.
“Do you think he’s in heaven watching me today?”
“I would bet all my dollars.”
Sebastian’s face falls slightly. “I miss him.”
I give him a soft smile, one that is a signature. It says, I understand, I wish it were different, but I can’t fix this. “I know you do, but it’s a good thing that we’re in this town with Granny and Pawpaw, right?”
He nods, but I can see the disappointment. “Yeah.”
“It’s not the same, though,” I tack on. There’s nothing that will make this better for any of us, and trying to give him false hope is only going to make it worse.
We are alone.
We’re no longer the Allens, a family of four. We’re just three of us, down a spoke on the wheel that will never be mended.
I lost the man I love and the father of my children because of a mechanical failure. So many apologies. So many nights spent crying, wondering how our life would be if he hadn’t reenlisted three months before that.
If only he hadn’t let me down.
If only he’d loved me enough not to go to work that day like he promised.
If only . . .
But only is a dream that I can never have because reality took him from us, and now, we only have each other.
“No, but I have you.”
Sebastian rushes forward, arms wide, and I pull him tight. His hugs are the best. They’re full of warmth and love.
He lifts up onto his toes, kisses my cheek, and hugs me tighter. “I love you, Mom.”
“I love you too.”
Melanie comes back up. “Crisis averted.”
I laugh. “Thank you, Mel.”
She shoulders past Sebastian and darts into the bathroom. “Jerk.”
My son rolls his eyes. “Sisters.”
As they get themselves ready, I head to my bathroom, dressing in a pantsuit that I hope says hip but still professional. Working as the district counselor will be a huge change of pace from what I’m used to. In California, I was in a rough area. The kids I dealt with needed help in all areas of their lives, from escaping drugs, gangs, and abuse to passing SATs and applying to colleges. My days were never boring, and I loved helping everyone who entered my office.
Mrs. Symonds, the principal here, laughed and told me to prepare for days where I’d be searching for problems to solve.
I’m still excited and ready for any challenge that comes my way.
The kids meet me downstairs, backpacks slung over their shoulders, and I can feel the tension in the air. “You guys ready?”
They nod. Our house has very deep-seated traditions for the first day of school, and I’d like just one damn thing to be the same for them. They file into the room, pushing the other out of the way as they try to win the implied race.
“Move, squirt.” Mel’s voice is hushed.
“You move! You’re stupid.”
Oh, siblings. “Both of you stop.”
“She hears everything,” Sebastian says with wonder.
“Yes, I do. Now, stop being buttheads and let’s have our cake.”
They come into the kitchen area and grab a plate. This was something Luke and I came up with after our first duty station change. On that first day, we have cake for breakfast. It’s a celebration of the wishes we want to make. Even though this isn’t a first-first day of school, it’s a first for us in Pennsylvania, and we’re going to count it. Plus, cake has eggs, and eggs are a breakfast food. Sure, the sugar, oil, and frosting negate anything healthy, but I don’t care.
Each slice has a candle, and in order for the wish to be put out in the world, it must be spoken aloud.
“Melanie, you go first.”
She lifts the cake, staring at the flame. “I hope this year I get all A’s and I finally get a boyfriend.”
Sebastian laughs. “Yeah, right. No boys are going to want to go out with you. You don’t even wear makeup.”
Oh, I don’t have enough strength for this.
She glares at him and then blows her candle out.
“You’re next, Mom.”
I hope this year I don’t fall apart.
They don’t need to hear that. Instead, I bring the cake up and wish for something that might actually happen. “I hope this year gives us new friendships, lots of laughter, and we love our new home.”
“That’s sweet, Mom,” Mel remarks softly.
Sebastian’s voice is opposite of hers. “And boring.”
“Yeah, yeah, you go, Mister Adventure.”
He grins and then closes his eyes. “I hope that I can stop missing Dad so much, I meet some cool kids, and I get to see Jacob Arrowood, tell him how amazing he is, get to go on set, and become a famous actor.”
Melanie and I share a look because Sebastian might just get a part of that wish.
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