May 24, 2012
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Collegiate athlete Lily Brennon has always been the piece that doesn’t quite fit in the puzzle, especially in her fragmented family, and no amount of rule-following perfection seems to bring her any closer to the love and acceptance she desperately seeks. If not for Jackson Carter, her childhood best friend and the only boy she’s ever loved, she’s sure she would have run away years ago. But when Jackson loses his father and a future basketball career within months of each other, his faith is so shattered, he shuts out everyone, including Lily.
After months of heartache, Lily begins to piece together a life without Jackson, and while vacationing on a beautiful island off the Georgia coast, she begins a long-distance romance with Alex Walker, a police officer with a quick wit and a cocky grin. He revives her hope in love again, but their intense attraction and his devastating secret test Lily’s values, stretching them until they break. Through her struggles to remain true to her principles, an agonizing choice between Alex and Jackson, and a series of terrifying events that threaten all of them, Lily must endure losing everything she’s been grasping so tightly. Only then will she discover the depth of the love that already surrounds her.
Later that evening, Lily stood on the playground and squeezed the sand between her toes as a warm, moist breeze swirled strands of hair around her face. The village shops by the pier had been teeming with tourists all afternoon, but most of them had closed down hours ago. The sounds of traffic and screaming kids had faded into a gentle lapping of the ocean against the nearby rocks.
Her feet ached from walking around for the past several hours, and her head was beginning to throb as well. To make matters worse, her dad had insisted that she keep an eye on Kara and her cousin Rachel, which meant an evening full of aimlessly wandering through tourist shops and listening to shallow comparisons of one guy after another. At this point, she wanted nothing more than to go back to the beach house, put her feet up, and relax with a good book.
A few yards away, Kara and Rachel competed to see who could swing the highest. As much as they insisted on being treated like adults, it was amazing how childish they could be. She rolled her eyes and sighed, glancing down at her watch. Nearly time to go.
“Y’all about ready?” she called.
Rachel jumped out of her swing first, followed by Kara who narrowly missed landing on her rear. Rachel doubled over with laughter, and Lily couldn’t help but laugh too. Kara flushed bright red as she glanced around to see if anyone else had seen her stumble.
“Nice,” Lily said.
Kara ignored her and straightened her clothes. Rachel slid her feet into her sandals and tugged her shorts back into place, though they still left little to the imagination. She smoothed her dark hair and picked her purse up off the ground. Then suddenly she squealed like a mouse and waved Kara toward her.
“Look, those cops over there are cute!”
Lily followed her gaze to the massive live oaks that provided a canopy over a picnic area of the park. It was empty now except for two officers talking quietly at a picnic table in the lamp light, their bikes resting in a rack nearby. From several yards away they appeared similar—broad shoulders, dark hair, well-built. Nothing spectacular.
“You’re hopeless,” Lily said. “They’re way too old for you to even think about.”
Rachel shrugged. “So? Cute is just cute. Age doesn’t factor.”
Lily looked at them again. Maybe Rachel was right, but she wasn’t interested in another lame discussion about guys like they were a tasty dessert item.
“They’re all right, I guess. Not really my type.”
Kara snorted. “Oh please. I think you have to date more than one person to have a type.”
Rachel laughed and looked away from Lily’s glare.
“Well, you are the expert,” Lily said. “How many boyfriends have you had?”
Kara took a few steps closer and jutted her chin at Lily. “I know a lot more than you think. I know that hanging out with one guy since you were nine years old doesn’t make you an expert. You wouldn’t even know what to do if a great guy was interested in you.”
“Sure I would. I’d say thanks but no thanks.”
“Oh my word, Lil. Seriously. There’s something wrong with you.”
“I don’t care what you think about me. I don’t want to date right now.”
Rachel’s mouth fell open. “Really?”
“Look, I just want to enjoy my vacation. You know, relax a little, read a good book, take a walk on the beach. I don’t need drama.”
Kara shook her head. “I’m not talking about a serious relationship here. Look around. There are cute guys everywhere. Loosen up and have some fun.”
“I don’t need a guy around to have fun.”
Kara winked at Rachel. “Well, if you’re going to be hanging around us, you better get used to cute guys being around. In fact, I think we should start right now.” She nodded toward the tree where the cops were still seated. Rachel’s face lit up.
“Oh no,” Lily said. “We’re going back to the house. It’s nearly midnight.”
But they sped away before she could stop them, so she threw her hands in the air and followed. This was going to be humiliating. As she approached the officers, the girls sang hello in unison. She could just imagine what these two gentlemen must be thinking. Leaning back on their elbows in identical poses, both of the officers grinned at the girls.
Then she caught a glance from the one on the left, and his eyes traveled down her legs. A sliver of a smirk played at the corner of his lips. Maybe gentleman wasn’t the right word. Kara rattled off introductions, oblivious to the amusement on their faces.
“I’m Kara. This is my sister, Lily, and our cousin, Rachel.”
Lily offered a polite nod. There had to be a way to exit gracefully, but she couldn’t think of one. Kara and Rachel dropped onto the bench of a picnic table opposite the officers, looking entirely too eager. They were practically panting.
“I’m Steve,” the one on the right said. “It’s nice to meet you, ladies.” His smile lit up his whole face, and his eyes had a warm puppy-like expression. Lily relaxed a little. At least one of them was friendly anyway.
“You can just call him Poindexter.” The other officer’s eyes sparked with mischief, and Steve slapped him across the chest.
“I know you don’t want me to tell them what they can call you, Rambo.”
“Rambo?” Rachel asked, tilting her head.
He waved his hand to dismiss the question. “Forget it. It’s not that funny anyway.”
On closer inspection, the nickname seemed fitting given his dark waves and bulging muscles. He probably did think he was some sort of action hero. She could practically see him admiring his biceps in a mirror.
“So what is your name, Rambo?” Lily asked.
Their eyes met, and his lips tipped into a smirk.
“Walker. Alex Walker.”
Yep, definitely an action hero.
“So what are you supposed to be?” she asked. “Double-oh-six-and-a-half?” The retort slipped out before Lily could catch it.
Steve snickered and looked away from Alex’s murderous glance.
“Well, you can just call me Daddy.” He cocked an eyebrow at her, an obvious challenge, but his grin never changed.
Lily held his gaze, irritated by the way her stomach flipped. Must have been something she’d eaten.
Rachel finally broke the awkward silence. “So, um, is it usually this quiet around here?”
Steve shook his head. “Nah, it’ll pick up tomorrow, trust me. This place’ll be crawling with people and screaming kids.”
“And plenty of little boys for you girls to play with, I’m sure,” Alex added.
Rachel’s chest sprang out as she huffed. “We are not little girls, and we are not interested in little boys.”
“How old do you think we are anyway?” Kara asked.
Lily couldn’t wait for this response. Alex had wandered into dangerous waters, but he seemed oblivious. He put his fingers to his chin and assessed them.
“Hmm, let me see.”
Steve waved off the challenge. “I can’t ever tell.” He sent a knowing grin at Lily, and she couldn’t help but smile back. At least he had some sense.
“Well,” Alex said, looking first at Kara, then at Rachel. “With all the make-up, you look about twenty-one. So I’d have to say you two are about thirteen, maybe fourteen.”
Kara’s mouth dropped open and Rachel gasped. Lily could barely control her laughter.
“What?” Rachel exclaimed. “I am fifteen, almost sixteen!”
“And I am already sixteen!” Kara folded her arms across her chest.
“Whoa! Don’t get your panties in a wad.” Alex threw up his hands in surrender. “I was just giving you a hard time.”
As the girls continued to sulk, he winked at Lily. Something about him sent a shiver down her arms.
“And how about you?” he asked.
She hesitated. She shouldn’t let him bait her into comments she might regret. Arrogant or not, he was an officer of the law, a position she had always been taught to respect.
Rachel finally spoke for her. “She actually is twenty-one.”
Kara lifted a brow, a puzzled look that seemed to ask if she was okay. Lily decided to ignore it and Alex as well.
She turned and looked out over the ocean, wishing she could enjoy it alone. The ocean and sky had melted into one large black expanse, but she could hear the waves tumble into the rocks not far away.
“So, how long have you been police officers?” Kara asked.
“Seven years for me,” Steve answered.
“You’re kidding. You don’t seem that old.”
Steve laughed. “I went into the police academy right out of high school. Been doing this since I was eighteen.”
Lily glanced at Kara and caught the slight nod toward Steve. She knew she was being rude, but what did Kara expect? Flirting with a stranger wasn’t going to fill the hole in her chest. Still, she supposed she should at least be polite.
“That’s pretty young to become a cop,” Lily said. “You didn’t think about going to college?”
“Nah.” He grinned like the thought was absurd. “I never wanted to do anything but be a cop. Dad’s a cop. Mom’s a cop. Just seemed natural.”
He smiled at her again, and the warmth of it reached out to her. It wasn’t much, but it made her smile. Maybe getting to know Steve wasn’t the worst idea in the world.
Alex caught the flush in Lily’s cheeks as she smiled at Steve, and he took a quick glance at his partner. Steve was the nicest guy he’d ever met. Too nice. And he wasn’t about to let some snobby chick get the wrong idea about him. Besides, no matter how nice he was, even Steve could be tempted by a hot girl, and he had to admit this one was a looker. Her legs had caught his attention first—long, athletic—but it was her eyes that he kept coming back to. They were cool and aloof, wandering over everything in the park, except him. He could tell from the moment she walked over that she’d rather be anywhere else. Until now.
He’d have to nip the flirting before she mistook Steve’s goofy grin for something more than friendly conversation.
“So that makes you about, what, twenty-five?” Lily asked.
“Yep, I’m getting old.” Steve’s chest shook with his chuckle.
“Thankfully you finally found a good woman to take care of you in your waning years.” Alex darted his eyes over to Lily as he spoke, satisfied with the subtle fall of her smile.
Steve’s face lit up with his crooked grin, unaware of the hope he’d just crushed.
“Yeah, I got a good one alright.”
“How long is it to the wedding?” Alex threw that one in for good measure.
Steve looked up at the stars as if he expected the answer to be spelled out as a connect-the-dots puzzle.
“I guess about six weeks or so.” He looked back down at the girls and grinned. “I don’t have much to do with the planning. I’m just supposed to show up on time.”
The younger two dove into questions about the wedding, though Steve never seemed to give good enough answers. Lily hung back, of course, her eyes drifting down the beach. She crossed her arms over her chest and shifted her weight back and forth like she couldn’t wait to get out of there. The lights of the ice cream parlor across the parking lot went dark, and she looked down at her watch with visible relief.
“We should probably get going.”
The blond glanced at her watch as well. “We still have a little time left. What’s the big hurry?”
“You two are supposed to be back by midnight.” Lily pointed a look directly at the brunette with all the make-up. “Your parents would kill me if I let you stay out late, and you know it.”
“A few minutes isn’t going to hurt anything,” she whined.
He watched Lily squirm. She looked like a kid in desperate need of a bathroom break. Too damn good to hang out with public servants probably.
“Yeah, Lily,” he said. “What’s the hurry? Don’t you like us?”
“Uh, well…” she stammered. “It’s not that. I just don’t want them to get in trouble.”
“Let me guess,” he said. “You do everything you’re told and you’ve never disappointed anyone.” She opened her mouth to respond, but he cut her off. “You’ve never missed a single curfew in your life, have you?”
“What’s it to you?”
“Well, that must be an exciting life.”
She swung her weight to the other hip and shot bullets of contempt from her eyes.
“Just because I take my responsibilities seriously doesn’t mean I can’t have a good time.”
“Oh, I’m sure you’re the life of the party.”
Little Miss Perfect was making this way too easy. She turned and jerked her head at the other two.
They stood up and flashed adorable smiles. Then they sang their goodbye as bubbly as they had their hello. The brunette flipped her hair and winked, and he stifled a laugh. That girl was going to be trouble in another year or two.
Lily, on the other hand, was already trouble. He could feel it. Something about her still lingered after she’d disappeared, like the aftertaste of an expensive wine. It reminded him of why he hated the stuff.
About the Author:
I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama and Holly Pond, Alabama, two very different towns that I love for so many reasons. Holly Pond is my soul, the place where I go to remind myself of who I am and where I come from. It’s a quiet place that allows me to reset when I’ve fallen off track.
Birmingham is my heart, the place where I lived out my story. I go there to remember my best friend, my first love, my first job, my first heartbreak.
And then there is Saint Simons Island, the place I go to feel alive, to feel the breeze off the ocean, the salt on my tongue, the excitement of my first (and only) summer fling.
I may reside in the suburbs of Atlanta, creating memories with my sweet boys, but I call several places home.
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