Worth It by Linda Kage - Read Online
Worth It
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Summary

I fell in love once.

It was amazing. She was amazing. Life was amazing.

I lived for each time I could see her, and nothing else mattered, not that our families were enemies, our time together was forbidden, or we had to meet in secret.

Our love could conquer all.

Until it didn't.

So I was ripped away from the love of my life and shoved into hell, forced to continue without her.

It shattered me, broke the best parts of me, left me permanently damaged.
Or so I thought.

Years later, I swear history’s trying to repeat itself because she’s back in my life, and I’m just as drawn to her as I was before. But I'm older and wiser now, and I know she should stay away from a worthless piece of ex-con like me.

So, I will not let her in. I absolutely refuse to hurt her. I will keep her away.

Then again, sometimes risking your greatest fear to get to a smile makes everything worth it, and besides, I’m not sure I can resist her, anyway.

This is the story of how Felicity Bainbridge changed my life forever, starting one summer day long ago after I was forced to change a dirty diaper...

--Knox Parker

Published: Linda Kage on
ISBN: 9781311053602
List price: $2.99
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Worth It - Linda Kage

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Smashwords Edition

Worth It

Copyright © 2015 by Linda Kage

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, businesses or establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this book—except in the case of brief quotations in reviews—may be used or reproduced without written permission of the author.

Contact Information : linda@lindakage.com

Publishing History

Linda Kage, August 2015

Credits

Cover Artist: Kage Covers

Editor: Stephanie Parent

Proofreader: Autumn at the Autumn Review

Proofreader: Shelley at 2 Book Lovers Reviews

Formatted by:

www.emtippettsbookdesigns.com

Published in the United States of America

Table of Contents

Title Page

Books by Linda Kage

About WORTH IT

Dedication

Quote

Chapter 1 – Felicity – Then

Chapter 2 – Knox – Now

Chapter 3 – Felicity - Then

Chapter 4 – Knox - Now

Chapter 5 – Felicity - Then

Chapter 6 – Knox - Now

Chapter 7 – Felicity – Then

Chapter 8 – Felicity – Now

Chapter 9 – Felicity – Then

Chapter 10 – Knox - Now

Chapter 11 – Knox – Then

Chapter 12 – Knox – Now

Chapter 13 – Felicity – Then

Chapter 14 – Felicity - Now

Chapter 15 – Knox - Then

Chapter 16 – Felicity – Now

Chapter 17 – Knox - Then

Chapter 18 – Knox – Now

Chapter 19 – Felicity - Then

Chapter 20 – Knox – Now

Chapter 21 – Felicity – Then

Chapter 22 – Felicity – Now

Chapter 23 – Knox – Then

Chapter 24 – Felicity – Now

Chapter 25 – Felicity – Then

Chapter 26 – Knox – Now

Chapter 27 – Knox – Then

Chapter 28 – Knox – Now

Chapter 29 – Felicity - Now

Chapter 30 – Felicity – Now

Chapter 31 – Felicity – Now

Chapter 32 – Knox – Now

Chapter 33 – Knox – Now

Epilogue – Asher Hart

The Girl’s Got Secrets

Acknowledgements

About the Author

Copyright Notice

Forbidden Men Series

Price of a Kiss

To Professor with Love

Be My Hero

With Every Heartbeat

A Perfect Ten

Worth It

Granton University Series

Fighting Fate

Loving Lies

Addicted to Ansley

The Right to Remain Mine

Delinquent Daddy

How to Resist Prince Charming

The Color of Grace

Kiss it Better

A Man for Mia

Hot Commodity

A Fallow Heart

The Stillburrow Crush

The Trouble with Tomboys

The Best Mistake

I fell in love once.

It was amazing. She was amazing. Life was amazing.

I lived for each time I could see her, and nothing else mattered, not that our families were enemies, our time together was forbidden, or we had to meet in secret.

Our love could conquer all.

Until it didn’t.

So I was ripped away from the love of my life and shoved into hell, forced to continue without her.

It shattered me, broke the best parts of me, left me permanently damaged.

Or so I thought.

Years later, I swear history’s trying to repeat itself because she’s back in my life, and I’m just as drawn to her as I was before. But I’m older and wiser now, and I know she should stay away from a worthless piece of ex-con like me.

So, I will not let her in. I absolutely refuse to hurt her. I will keep her away.

Then again, sometimes risking your greatest fear to get to a smile makes everything worth it, and besides, I’m not sure I can resist her, anyway.

This is the story of how Felicity Bainbridge changed my life forever, starting one summer day long ago after I was forced to change a dirty diaper...

--Knox Parker

For the ladies at Wild Bananas.

Thank you so much for your stimulating visual inspirations, the peek into your bunker, and all the fun—though sometimes bloody—support!

This shank’s for you!

"Happy families are all alike;

each unhappy family

is unhappy in its own way."

--Leo Tolstoy, from Anna Karenina

I loved the woods behind my house, from the fresh scent of pine to the crunch of twigs underfoot and especially those stray ribbons of sunlight that streamed through the tree limbs. But mostly, I cherished the absolute absence of human intervention. God, did I adore the quiet scuttle of squirrels pillaging through the foliage, birds chirping their daily chorus, and the flutter of the breeze through the hollows, like the breath of nature, whispering her secrets to me.

So I’d sought the woods with my e-reader almost every day this summer, escaping either my mother, my father, or both my brothers, pretty much my entire life in general. It was one big happy retreat.

I had no idea why I hadn’t come out here before this year. The quiet, relaxing solitude was addictive. And there was so much of it. My father owned a half-mile strip through the forest—or three hundred and twenty acres, as he would classify it. The only other property to butt against ours was the Parkers’, and their place was clear on the other side, so I had the entire three hundred and twenty acres all to mysel—

"Watch out!"

Startled out of my peaceful reverie, I whirled around, clutching my Kindle to my chest. But what...how...? Someone else was in my woods?

No!

Except there was no way to deny he was charging directly toward me as if the hounds of hell were after him.

Oh...crap.

He tried to stop and avoid a collision. I could tell by the way his arms flailed through the air as if he were grasping for invisible brakes, and by the widening of his eyes...right before he plowed into me with a jarring thud.

The breath snapped from my lungs. Momentum from his run propelled me backwards and him forward. There was a brief moment when we were both soaring through the air that our gazes met in the hazy, pollen-clogged afternoon. His enlarged brown eyes filled with horror. Mine, fear. That’s all we had time to do, share a single look—I didn’t even get in a good scream—before we landed, him on top, me crushed beneath with my back to the forest floor.

The fall didn’t knock me unconscious, which was disappointing since the pain was immediate, searing up my spine and exploding out all four limbs.

For a dazed moment, we lay together, a tangled knot of arms and legs. He crushed me to the earth with his warmth and the sharp incense of boy.

I’d never thought of what boys might smell like before. But he certainly didn’t exude snips and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails. He was musky and fresh with a hint of apple.

And then his smell was taken away.

Oh...shit. He did an awkward crablike crawl to scramble off me, making me moan as his weight lifted and the release of pressure brought about more sensation, like that new throb of agony to my hip.

"Are you okay? Hey. Hands gripped my shoulders and shook. When I did nothing, because the wind was still knocked from me, he said, shit, again. Wake up. Please wake up. I’m sorry. I—shit...you have to be okay."

Fingers skimmed over my face and into my hairline, boy fingers, containing the slight rasp of callouses against the softest part of my cheek.

Boy.

Boy.

Boy.

Why did I keep noticing the boy aspects of him?

And why couldn’t I tell if I was wiggling my toes or not?

And hey, why exactly was he running his fingers through my hair? The creeper.

I realized he wasn’t feeling me up but was rather searching for wounds about the same moment he found a goose egg on the back of my skull.

Ouch! Pain zapped through me, from the back of my head, down, until it shot out the ends of my feet. And yeah, I could definitely feel my toes now as they pulsed with an agonizing throb.

I grabbed his wrist and flashed my eyes open. The first thing I saw was the straight, tall branches overhead with the blue sky peeking through, checking on me as if making sure I was okay. I transferred my gaze until I focused on concerned brown eyes, the skin around them wrinkled into a sympathetic wince.

Are you okay? Let me help you up.

His warm, boy fingers wrapped around my elbow and more of them gently took hold of my shoulder. But when he tried to lift me into a sit, I sucked in a breath and curled away from him.

He immediately let go and shied back. Sorry. Sorry.

I rolled onto my side, cradling my ribs, and bent my knees up toward my chest. But...ouch, this did not feel good.

The boy hovered above me, his fear, concern, and indecision oozing with a pungent intensity. Where does it hurt?

I moaned, or maybe whimpered was a better word. Everywhere. Closing my eyes, I gnashed my teeth and concentrated on nothing but breathing until I could bear the ache. Then I blew out a breath and began to sit up on my own. He shifted toward me and extended an arm as if he wanted to assist, but then he paused, changing his mind.

What can I do? he asked, still with the anxious hovering.

Nothing. I’m fine. It’s okay. I... When I looked up, the words stalled on my tongue. Then they dissolved in shock as I realized I knew him. You’re... Well, maybe I didn’t know him, know him. But I definitely knew what he was. He was, ...a Parker.

I wasn’t sure which Parker exactly. I’d seen him in school; he was a year ahead of me. But I didn’t know his first name. It had to be strange, though. They all had funky first names. Speed. Cobra. Mercedes. And there were a ton of them. Six or seven, or something like that. Their father had lined them up on our driveway and listed them off, right before yanking forward the only girl and claiming my brother Garrett had gotten her pregnant.

That had been months ago, back in the spring. After a brief, private conference with Bruce Parker—the Parkers’ dad—my father had dismissed them out of hand and sent the lot of them away, complaining throughout dinner that evening about how the dirty trash Parker family had upset his entire afternoon by daring to set their pathetic, second-hand-store shoes on his property.

The entire scene had caused a stir for weeks, really. Father grumbled about how he’d like to take the Parkers’ land from them and send them away permanently. Mother had fretted over possible rumors circulating of any of her sons having had any kind of dealings with a Parker. Max incessantly teased Garrett about his impending fatherhood. And an indignant Garrett disclaimed all accusations. But I hadn’t seen or heard from anyone in the Parker family since then.

Until now.

As my eyes grew big with shock, his narrowed in recognition.

Bainbridge, he hissed.

And just like that, we were enemies.

I recoiled while he shook his head, almost as if he were trying to deny our chance encounter. What’re you doing out here? he demanded.

Excuse me? I spit back indignantly. "This is my family ground; what’re you doing here?"

I... His eyes widened, filling with a jittery anxiety. Then he glanced around the trees as if seeking the most available form of escape. Shit, he muttered to himself.

Before he could explain himself, another voice boomed through the forest.

"Hey, Max! Garrett’s shout made me and the Parker boy jump simultaneously as it came from not too far away. You see him yet?"

No. Nothing, Max answered from the other side of us, the rustling of tree limbs revealing he was closer to us than Garrett was.

Well, if you do, hold him for me. I’m going to beat the ever-loving shit out of the dead prick.

I swerved my gaze from the direction of one brother’s voice toward the other’s, seeing neither of them through all the trees. When I returned my attention to the Parker boy frozen in front of me, his face had drained of color only to fill with fear and guilt.

I gasped, suddenly understanding. What did you do? I hissed, realizing he was the very dead prick my brothers were pursuing.

Shaking his head, he lifted his index finger and pressed it against his mouth, begging me to keep silent.

Like hell.

He was a Parker. The enemy. Not to mention he’d just tackled me to the ground and maimed me. I sucked in a lungful to scream for Max, but the Parker boy leapt at me and slapped his hand over my mouth.

"No, he whispered harshly. Please."

I shrieked into his fingers and tried to pull away, but he lassoed my waist with his arm and banded me against him.

I bit his hand, stomped on his foot and thrashed my head until my goose egg gave a violent pulse of pain and made me dizzy enough to gray my vision. Worried I was going to faint, I sank my teeth harder into the meat of his palm with renewed purpose.

Mother of God, he gasped but held on to me even tighter. "Fuck. That hurts."

The salty tang of his flesh filled my mouth, startling me with how boy he tasted; it made me let up on my teeth hold, but I kept struggling in every other capacity.

Stop. Please stop, he said in my ear. "I’m not going to hurt you. I mean, any more than I already accidentally have. I just don’t want them to kill me. Please don’t help them kill me."

Stopping would mean surrender, and I could never surrender to a Parker. They’d accused a member of my family of the most degrading crime. He was the enemy, and no Bainbridge surrendered to the enemy.

I tried to scream again, so he swung me around, pinning me to a tree. The impact left my brain rattled. I let out a squeak of protest, and he must’ve known he’d expended too much force because he immediately let up half of his energy.

Shit, sorry, he rasped into my ear as he used every inch of himself to hold me securely to the tree.

Tears stung my eyes, and the fight left me as pain clouded my senses.

Hey, you still awake? The Parker boy jostled me, nudging his shoulder into mine when I went slack. Oh, fuck. I didn’t kill you, did I? His concern sounded strange since he’d been the one to shove me into the tree in the first place.

I bucked against him once and almost freed myself, but that was all I could accomplish before the fight seeped from me again.

He huffed out his surprise and tightened his grip. Yeah, she’s definitely alive. His breath fanned my ear and the side of my cheek, stirring something hot and moist in the base of my stomach.

Maybe the knock to my head had muddled my senses, or maybe it was something else, but the boiling tingle in my abdomen began to swirl out and into my veins until every inch of my skin felt prickly. It made me think about how close he held me, how good he smelled, how warm he felt. I wanted to burrow into his heat and let it soothe away every aching tingle inside me.

My resistance slipped.

I would never hurt you on purpose. The words sounded sweet and genuine. They made me catch my breath with shock as I felt...I don’t know, flattered maybe, by his sincerity.

Then his boy fingers gently stroked the scrape on my elbow as if trying to caress the wound better. Again, things deep inside me clenched with a sensation that had my skin buzzing with full-body awareness.

You know that, right? You’re safe here. His hushed voice coaxed more from me than he probably intended. Just...please stay still with me for a couple minutes longer, until they’re gone, okay? Then, maybe give me a head start before you scream as loud as you want.

All I heard was, stay with me, and please. And oh my word, I was tempted to give him anything he wanted.

But when I lifted my gaze to his, his chocolate brown eyes met mine, and he looked so...Parkerish.

Parkers were the enemy.

Crap, what was happening to me?

Horrified because I’d let a Parker momentarily drug me into his captivating spell, I struggled a little, just to let him know my answer about helping him wasn’t yes. But I didn’t put much effort into it, because honestly, he still affected me. I didn’t want to be anywhere else on earth just then. I’d never been this close to a boy I wasn’t related to before. It was thrilling. Kind of daunting but also...amazing.

My heart thumped in triple time, and I caught my breath when I realized I could feel the erratic beat of his heart, too, as his chest heaved against mine. I liked knowing he was as scared as I was...or as scared as I’d been. I wasn’t really scared any longer. I was captivated.

His smell, his warmth...they got to me. I lifted my gaze to his hair; the flyaway dark locks matched the color of my favorite trees’ trunks. I wanted to touch each strand, run my fingers through them, then bring them to my face and test how they felt against my cheek.

Just who’re we looking for out here? a third person asked, sounding like Tad, Garrett’s best friend. He was even closer to us than either of my brothers had been.

I tensed. If we stayed here, we’d be spotted within seconds. And I wasn’t ready to be discovered just yet, not with the Parker boy so close to me.

Acting quickly, he crouched behind our tree, bringing me down onto my haunches with him. He didn’t even seem to realize I no longer struggled as he kept his hand loosely over my mouth. His touch felt more protective than it did ominous, as if he were trying to shield me from trouble instead of imprison me into it.

The hell if I know, Garrett called back. But I walked into my room to find some fucker with a dirty diaper, smearing baby shit on my bed. And when I find him, he’s dead.

This time, the Parker boy sank closer as if seeking shelter from me. I almost touched him in reassurance. But I stopped myself, because that probably wasn’t what I was supposed to do for the enemy.

I bet it was one of them Parkers, Tad answered. Still trying to claim their newest brat was yours?

Garrett let out a derisive snort. If you ask me, it was probably that filthy bastard Bruce Parker himself who knocked up his own girl.

The Parker boy’s muscles coiled, and the vibration of his growl deep in his throat echoed through my bones. His eyes gleamed hard with vengeance as he clenched his teeth and curled his top lip into a snarl.

I grabbed his wrist to stop him from acting. And at my touch, his surprised gaze slashed to me. I shook my head, begging him with my eyes not to react. I’d seen Garrett mad before. From the sound of his voice, he was the kind of mad you didn’t want to mess with. He tortured cats and small animals for the pure pleasure of it.

Thinking about the things he did out of anger made me shiver with horror and worry for this beautiful boy cowering against me.

After staring at me for an overly long second, the boy blinked and seemed to relax under my beseeching gaze. Slowly, his hand fell from my lips. We continued to stare at each other as the search party combed past us, never discovering our hiding spot. Minutes drifted by and still, neither of us moved. Finally, he glanced away as if to ensure our safety. But his gaze tracked right back to me.

You’re not screaming, he said, seemingly perplexed by the notion.

Oh, crap. I was supposed to scream now, wasn’t I?

With a small clearing of my throat, I lifted my chin and straightened my back. Well...you’re not running away.

His gaze darted around my face, confusion and maybe a little awe in his eyes. I think he realized then, just as I did, that maybe we weren’t complete enemies after all.

He straightened to his feet and backed a step away, seeming almost leery of me. When he turned to leave, I panicked, not ready for him to go.

Hey. I leapt up after him, only to cause my vision to blur and a dull ache to ricochet through my goose egg.

He paused. A second passed, then two. Finally, he glanced back. What?

Did you really do that to my brother’s bed?

A grin lit his face, a grin that had my stomach flipping over and my heart skipping madly. A slight nod later, he answered, "And I’m going to keep doing it every time I have to change one of his daughter’s dirty diapers."

I exhaled a breath I’d been holding, a little impressed he’d had the nerve to do something so bold against Garrett, against anyone in my family, and even warmer in the belly that he felt so protective of his sister. I wondered if either of my brothers would seek that kind of justice for me if I’d landed in the same situation. But what I said was, I can’t believe you broke into my house.

"I didn’t steal anything." He took a step toward me, then another.

I didn’t move away, but I did hold my breath. A toxic mixture of fear and excitement raced through me.

Slowly, he lifted his hand. When I still refused to back away from him, he paused with his fingers lifted halfway between us. Then he gave in to whatever had been holding him back and reached out to pluck a broken twig from my hair.

With a sharp breath, I glanced from the twig to his face. Then I shook my head. You still vandalized my brother’s room. That’s not right.

His eyes narrowed. "It’s a lot less wrong than what he did to my sister."

I don’t... When he lifted his eyebrows, waiting for me to continue, I took a quick breath. I mean, I don’t think Garrett...you know...I don’t think he’s the father.

With a sniff of dismissal, the boy glanced away. Of course you’d say that.

"No, really. I’m serious. I know my brother. I know he’s not perfect. And he’s definitely capable of doing something like...this. He can lie and deny the truth to your face only to turn around and brag about it to his friends. But I’ve heard him talking to his buddies about this, and he still denies it to them."

Well, I’ve seen the baby, the Parker boy countered. This time, when he reached for my hair, it wasn’t to pull anything from it. He wound a strand around his finger. And she looks exactly like you.

My breath caught. "Well...I-I’m certainly not the father."

He gave a soft laugh and smiled. Wow, I liked his smile. Were poor Parkers supposed to have such straight white teeth and amazing smiles?

But then the smile dipped into an irritated scowl, as if he’d just remembered I was one of the rich, pretentious Bainbridges. His fingers jerked from my hair. She’s definitely related to you. Flaming red hair. Eyes so blue they’re almost turquoise and only about two freckles on her entire face. Kind of pretty, actually.

I tried not to react, except my skin heated violently. His compliment blushed through my entire system, and every breath I took made me more exhilarated than the last.

Until he had to add, For a Bainbridge.

Spinning away, he hurried off and disappeared around a tree.

I stood there, gaping at the place he’d just been. Even though he’d tried to end our encounter with criticism, my chest expanded and filled with warmth and an exuberance I couldn’t contain because it leaked out my lips and stretched the tips up until I was grinning like an idiot.

He might not have taken anything from my home, but he’d definitely just stolen something from me, something I’d never get back. It was as if he’d sucked out everything dismal and distressing in my life and left me glowing with nothing but a giddy radiance.

As my gaze dropped to the ground and I searched distractedly for my fallen Kindle, I felt uplifted and revitalized. I couldn’t wait for him to come back and steal more from me.

I think I knew, even then, my life would never be the same again.

The electronic belch of the prison gate rang to notify guards on the other side whenever the doors were about to open. It was meant to be a warning. Caution. But to me, it was the sound of freedom, because today, they blasted for me.

As I stood before them, the obnoxious wail echoed between my ears with a piercing intensity. It made my hands twitch at my sides and nerves rattle like loose change in my stomach. Then metal grated on metal as the gray steel began to peel apart, slowing baring the world beyond.

Color assaulted me. A pristine azure sky, bright yellow taxi with a white puff of smoke coughing from the tailpipe, glistening silver gates, a piercing red stop sign down the block, and grass as green as the moss that grew on the trees in the woods behind my childhood home.

I’d been eighteen when I’d stepped behind bars. For six years, my world had been nothing but grays and browns, blacks, and inmate orange. So I had to wince against the blinding onslaught of fresh, new color until I lifted my hand to shield my eyes.

Sunlight warmed my chilled palm and it sent a ripple of anxiety down my spine. I tried to control my erratic breaths and slow the whiplash of my heartbeat, hide the overwhelming insecurities.

I hadn’t expected quite this level of emotion. What perplexed me most, though, was that the overriding sensation wasn’t even relief. It was fear. I no longer knew this world. I wasn’t prepared to step into it. I didn’t even know if I wanted to be a part of it. But I sure as hell didn’t want to stay here.

Wiping my hand over my face to clear my expression, I took a step forward, my first toward freedom.

The guard next to me nudged my arm. Hey, Parker.

The heels of my shoes collided with the floor, jerking me to a halt. Expecting him to hitch his chin toward the belly of the prison and drag me back to my cell—telling me this was simply a test run, I wasn’t really being released today—I did nothing but stare blankly when he pulled a folded bill from his pocket and extended it my way.

When I only blinked at the cash, he jabbed it at me again, like some kind of jousting stick. Buy yourself some new clothes, will you? You look like shit in those.

My gaze darted from the money to his face, back and forth, a ticking pendulum of indecision. I didn’t understand.

I started to shake my head, so he sighed. Just take it already. He glanced away, uncomfortable with his gift. It’s only twenty bucks. You’ll barely be able to buy a meal with that.

My eyes flared. If you couldn’t even buy a meal with twenty dollars these days, I wasn’t prepared for life on the outside at all.

And there went the acid in my stomach again.

Come on. I know you need it. I’m the one who pulled your possessions. You have exactly eleven cents in your pocket.

I swallowed and slowly reached for the cash. Okay, thanks.

He glanced away. Don’t get too excited, it’s not much. I wish I could’ve helped more. You’re a good kid. You never belonged here.

My throat closed as I studied him. I was going to miss him. He’d been the only source of nice I’d had in the last six years, and I was probably never going to see him again. I opened my mouth to thank him, to say good-bye, to...I don’t know. But nothing I thought to say sounded even remotely effective enough to convey what I really meant.

I... I glanced down at the money. It’s more than I expected.

Shit, that sounded awful.

The guard laughed softly and nudged my shoulder. Go on. Your ride’s waiting.

I glanced at the taxi, then back to him. Good-bye.

He nodded. Stay out of trouble. I don’t want to see you back here again.

Yeah. He didn’t have to worry about that. I sent him a small wave before half walking, half jogging toward my one and only state-funded cab ride to a destination of my choice.

My clothes stretched and pinched as I moved. I’d grown enough that the hem of my pants fell well above my ankles and my shirt was so tight the seams groaned, protesting each step.

The last time I’d worn this very outfit, I was being arrested for raping Abbott Bainbridge’s only daughter.

Where to? the cabbie asked as I opened the back door and slid in.

I sat there, staring at him. Where to?

Why had I not thought of an answer for that question until this very moment? All morning, ever since I’d been informed I was being let go, I’d only been concerned about getting free; I hadn’t even thought about what I’d do when I actually was free.

I just knew what I wasn’t going to do.

I wasn’t going to find her.

Well?

Uh... I drew in a breath and rattled off my address, though I had no idea what to expect once I actually reached it. No one in my family had come to visit me or contact me in any way, not once in seventy-two months. They probably had no idea I was out.

My mom would be happy to see me, I was eighty percent certain of that. My dad would pitch a shit fit and most likely slap me around a little, then either put me to work or tell me to get lost. My brothers and sister...hell, most of them probably wouldn’t even recognize me.

But I didn’t recognize myself, so they wouldn’t be alone.

As we approached the city, I stared out the window, identifying some landmarks, while other landmarks...not so much. Even the things I did remember looked different. Felt different. I tensed when I realized what was coming next.

The Bainbridge estate. A long drive lined with trees that ended at a stone-set circle drive and introduced the snowy white mansion of Abbott Maxwell Bainbridge.

When the tree line broke away, there sat his property, as proud and pretentious as ever. I sucked in a breath, not expecting the flood of longing, regret, heartache.

It tore through me, shredding open my chest and slashing into my guts. The breath-stealing sensation lingered as his house just as abruptly disappeared and more trees sprang up.

My trees.

I clenched my hands around my knees and closed my eyes, ignoring the ache in my chest. My heart banged against each memory like a battering ram, bruising every tender image that flashed through my mind.

If only...

No. There were no what ifs. No should haves. No if onlys. This was life and how it had happened. I had to let go of the past and continue from here. Without her.

The taxicab began to slow. I scraped my top teeth over my bottom lip to combat the nerves. I actually ached to see my mother, all my siblings, even our stupid worn-down shack of a home. I couldn’t wait to—

The car pulled into a drive.

I blinked.

What’s this? I said, pointing out the window, sounding accusative, feeling accusative, as I scowled at the driver.

But my home, the place where I’d lived for the first eighteen years of my life, was...it was gone. A convenience store gas station sat in its place.

It’s your stop. The cabbie put the car into park and glanced back at me nervously.

I stared at him with a slight frown before turning back to gape out the window. But...

This was the right location, it had to be. My woods were right there, we’d just passed the Bainbridge place, there was nowhere else the house could be. There should be a small faded blue cottage here. With half a dozen broken cars in the yard that had grass and small trees growing up through their engines, along with a haphazard metal fence to keep in our hound dog, Tidbits.

The cabbie sent me an odd look. How long you been locked up, kid?

Stupefied, I glanced back at the gas station.

Too long, I murmured, my shoulders falling as my hope deflated.

Look, you can’t sit here all day, He shifted in his seat, probably uncomfortable and beyond ready to get the ex-con out of his car. This is the address you gave me.

Yeah, okay.

Fine. I’d get out here.

I tugged open the handle and stepped from the cab. It took off as soon as I shut the door.

Lost, I stared at the store in front of me in confusion. I could see people inside, waiting in line to purchase soft drinks and cigarettes. Three cars sat in the lanes, pumping gas. It was so normal it felt dizzyingly surreal.

But what was I supposed to do now?

I scanned the outer wall for a pay phone, but didn’t spot one, even though I had no idea who I would’ve called if I had. Maybe I’d find a sign, some kind of direction, a purpose, inside. I stepped forward to investigate, except behind me, I heard an approaching automobile. Wondering if I’d left something in the cab, I glanced back and nearly pissed myself as a front bumper rushed toward me.

Shit! I leapt to the side as a silver Lexus veered around me and headed too fast toward the store. For a horrified moment, I thought it was going to jump the curb and crash into the side of the building, but it screeched to a stop at the last second.

Idiot driver.

Leaping onto the sidewalk so no other automobile would feel inclined to play chicken with me, I squinted and tipped my head to look through the windshield.

Just what kind of rich prick thought I was so pancake worthy?

I totally wasn’t expecting to see a youngish woman with her eyes squeezed closed and tears coursing down her cheeks.

I slowed to a stop, watching her, my anger draining into a nagging, itching sensation I concluded might be concern.

When she finally drew her driver’s side door open like an old decrepit woman, my Spidey sense kicked in, telling me something was definitely not right. She put out a hand, then swung out a leg, but when she went to stand, she gasped and fell back into the driver’s seat. As her face tipped forward, contorting with pain, I took a step her way, then paused and glanced around to make sure someone else wasn’t already moving in to check on her. But no one else had noticed her.

Damn it. Someone else should handle this. Not me. I wasn’t the best candidate for helping a woman in trouble.

She finally heaved herself from the car with a sob, and I saw how large her stomach was. Cradling her pregnant belly, she stumbled toward the curb. The same moment I noticed a trickle of blood running down the inside of her leg, she tripped and started to fall.

Whoa. Hey. I dashed to her and barely caught her in time.

She clutched my upper arms, her fingers digging in hard as if the grip was helping her stanch the pain. Lifting her face, she managed to say between shallow breaths, I’m sorry...did I...almost...run you over?

Fuck that. I helped her straighten back into a stand. "I’m fine. Are you okay?"

"I’m—oh! She doubled over and began to crumple, letting go of me to grab her stomach. I kept her upright and she leaned her bowed head into my sternum as a moan of agony tore from her throat. Something’s wrong, she said after considerable panting. I need to call my husband. Left my cell phone at home. So stupid."

We’ll call him from the hospital, I said.

No! She choked out a sob and started to cry. I don’t want to go to the hospital. I don’t want to lose my baby.

You’re going to be fine. I clenched my teeth when I heard my too gruff reply, hoping my voice hadn’t scared her. The hospital will help you save it.

When she didn’t shy away, I