Authors: Cristin Harber
ONLY FOR HER
ONLY SERIES: VOLUME TWO
There's a very good chance that, standing here in the knee-high grass surrounding Randall Ford's rusted trailer, I'm going to be sick. It looks the same as it did the night I ran from Grayson’s bed, the same as when I showed up after beach week three years ago, worried sick and looking for him. Both of those times, Randall made my life hell. I keep waiting for that demented, drunk bastard to die, but he just keeps living.
Ragtag curtains are pulled over the windows. Burnt-orange rust stains streak down from the roof line. I steel myself. According to Summerland County gossip, Grayson died. But that doesn’t mean much. The county grapevine also said he left town because he knocked me up. I almost wish that was true—how awful had that morning been, waking up without him. Gray was gone—but not because he knew I was pregnant.
The front door snaps open. Randall steps out, only to stop and lean against the door frame. He looks ancient compared to the last time I saw him, when I nerved up and asked where Grayson was. His cackling response and door slam is still burned into my memory.
“You again?” Randall coughs.
I nod. This jerk holds the answer. He’s sadistic. It’s written all over his haggard face. His glassy eyes narrow, his mouth purses into some kind of smile, and he looks as if he stinks of a bar.
I straighten my back and square my shoulders. I have one question—might as well get to it. “Is Grayson dead?”
Inwardly, I cringe. Saying the words makes them seem all the more real. Tears spring into my eyes. I need to know, need to mourn. I’m drowning without the truth. All I know is what people have whispered and that there’s been no word of a funeral.
Randall pulls a smoke from behind his ear and lights it. He takes a few long drags and steps down the rickety porch. “You come all the way o’er here jussfer that? Shit.” He spits then draws on the cigarette again. “Gotta be better ways than to bother me wit that sonobitch’s problems.”
I might want to puke with nerves, but I’ve toughened up in the last few years since he’s seen me. “That sonobitch is your
Randall. I know exactly how you treated him.”
“My son. Ha.” He tilts his head. “Little Emma Kingsley grew a set, did she?”
“What do you know about Grayson?”
“What do you know?” He snarls as he coughs. “Come here to see if that bastard of his can get whatever’s left of his benefits?”
My stomach drops, and I stagger back, recoiling at the mention of my daughter and the all-but-certain confirmation of Gray’s passing. “Something’s wrong with you.”
“Blame the boy. I do.” He flicks his cigarette at me and turns for the door but looks back. “Stop coming by. There’s nothing here for you.”
The wind blows, and even though it’s a warm June day, I’m shivering. So much hatred. So much disgust. Part of me can’t blame Grayson for leaving. The trailer door snaps shut, and I’m left standing in weeds, wondering how I’ll move past the death of a man I haven’t seen in years but think about every day.
Trapped in the dark. I’m exhausted and struggling, reaching for escape. I keep surfacing, almost waking. I know it. Can feel it. My body hurts. My mind’s tortured.
Screams echo. Shots blast. I feel the heat, the burn, the terror. The ground shakes. Walls and rocks crumble down. Dirt in my eyes, grit in my mouth. Sulfur burns in my nose. I can’t see anyone, and they can’t see me.
But I feel it. Feel them. Everyone I’ve let down. My unit. Their blood hangs in the air. Death coats my senses. Their faces flash, one after the other. I can’t close my eyes, can’t break away.
There’s a break in the noise. A woman… in the middle of my hell, I hear a voice. Hope flourishes only to freeze and tear away. She’s not my savior. Not my Emma.
Just… my mother?
Just another one, Gray-baby. Find me another one.
One more time, sweetie. Such a good boy. Bring it to me.
I’m going to be sick. War is better than the living room of my childhood. Desperate fear chokes me. I’m torn. Confused. I want her to stop, to go away, to get help. To stop guilting me. I want to help Mom as much as I wanted to save my unit.
I blink in the dark, fight to get away. Her sweet voice calls me, and I can’t say no.
Bring me one more, Gray-baby.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. Tears clog my throat. I always did what she said, and I killed her. Dead. Eyes wide open. Lipsticked mouth hung slack. Dead.
“Mom!” I scream but know my mouth isn’t moving. I’m trapped in the dark, fighting a body that won’t wake up. “Mom!”
Then, with sudden clarity, I see her face. “Gray-baby.”
“No!” A cold shudder runs through me, and I can’t break free.
Extraction team voices mix with my Pops’s. Their words are a blur, indistinguishable, but I know their meaning. Everything is my fault.
My head hurts. Pain radiates. If I can’t wake up, I want to die.
Pops’s voice spins in my head, his words a tumble of nonsense mixed with his drunk cackle.
“Help her!” Her lifeless face stares at me. It morphs to the desert night where I was the last man standing. “Help them…”
Nothing changes. I fall away from the edge of waking into the hell that I deserve. The only thing that could ever save me was Emma’s voice, and I’ve lost that forever.
Business Statistics is going to kill me. The formulas in my textbook make even less sense now that they’re scrawled across a whiteboard at the front of the classroom. The professor hasn’t bothered to show up to class all semester, and I’m ninety-nine percent sure that his assistant is as well versed in this crap as me. My brain will explode soon if I can’t figure this out.
“If you have questions, follow up with Professor Baker during office hours. Thanks.” The assistant tosses down the dry erase marker and heads out the door before a single question can be answered.
Ugh. I’m going to fail this class, which means I’ll lose my internship. I might only do assistant shit, but pouring coffee and taking notes will pay off one day, semesters from now, with a
job at the only decent marketing firm within a twenty-five mile radius. I need this internship because I need
job. One day.
And I’m never going to make it to office hours. Ever.
Shit, shoot, shit. I bite my lip and slam my book shut.
“Makes as much sense to you as me.”
I look over my shoulder. Two guys. One’s cute, my age. Seems popular enough. He always sits near me and more than occasionally catches my eye and smiles. The other is super-hot and an asshole. I don’t have time to chat with either of them, but unlucky for me, the guy trying for conversation is the hot asshole.
“Something like that,” I say. No need to be rude, but I’ve seen him in action in the halls. I shove my stuff in my bag and check my phone. I have seventeen minutes to make it across campus, get Cally, and load us into the car. Then, if there’s no traffic, we can do a quick dinner and bath before she goes to bed and my mom comes over so I can go to work.
When I walk out the classroom door, the hottie’s feet follow.
“Hey, wait up.”
I don’t. Can’t. I’m on a schedule.
He’s by my side, his arm wrapping around my back. “Gorgeous, wait—”
“Hands off.” If there’s one thing that stripping at Emerald’s has taught me, it’s not to take shit from hot guys who put their hands on me. I might look and act like a wallflower at school, but that’s a façade.
“Sorry.” He easily keeps pace with my power walk.
I glance at him and his confident smile. “You normally get away with pet names and touching people you don’t know?”
His smile broadens. “Usually.”
My eyes roll. “Right. I’m late. So… I can’t help with stats.”
“Actually, this class is a piece of cake for me. I was just trying to get your attention.”
Ha. “I really have to go.”
“What’s your name? Emma, right?”
“Oh my god. Seriously, you… don’t want this conversation. I’ll make it easy for you. Walk away. You’ll be thankful.”
His eyes twinkle, and a challenge sparkles in his eyes. “Let me be the judge of that. Bunch of us are getting some beers tonight down at Seven’s. It’d be cool to hang out.”
I try to walk faster, making me slightly out of breath, but it doesn’t seem to faze him. “Not twenty-one yet.”
“They don’t care.”
This I already know about Seven’s but not from experience. “I can’t.”
“Gorgeous, you can.”
The second gorgeous pisses me off, then his hand touches my back and curls around my shoulder to slow me down. I stop abruptly and turn toward his mega-watt smile. He thinks he knows the next move. A mixture of cocky and sexy radiates off him and makes me think he doesn’t have to try too hard. Hell, he looks so self-assured that I bet he wouldn’t be surprised if I dropped to my knees in public to get a taste of him. Jerk.
My molars gnash, and I take a breath. Adding the same bit of sex to my voice that I use at Emerald’s, I ask, “What’s your name?”
“Look, Sam. I was polite, but then you pushed. I said don’t touch, and you did. So now you get the full explanation that I tried to warn you about.” His mouth opens to say something, but I shake my head. “I work three jobs.
. And only two pay. I’m busting my behind across campus to get to day care. To pick up
. Whose daddy just
. I’m mourning him even though I haven’t seen him in
. I’m the walking, talking, breathing definition of baggage.”
Sam’s jaw continues to hang. “Uh…”
“Thanks for the invite. But when a chick tells you to back off, it might be that she’s not playing coy. It’s that she wants you to
back the hell off
. Get me?”
“Shit. Sorry,” he mumbles.
Yeah, I bet.
“If you want…” But he trails off, and I’m walking away anyhow.
I don’t want anything from anyone. I can and do support myself and my baby, though it’s almost killing me. Taking help is hard. I have my pride, but I’m also mired in my own version of punishment. Carelessness isn’t an excuse to take from others. I flat-out refuse cash from my family, though I do accept their time and help. They watch Cally a few times a week, but only so I can earn a living. Not so I can go have drinks with hot guys who want to sneak me into bars.
My phone buzzes, caller ID reading Delightful Diner.
I hit the green circle to take the call. “Hello?”
“Hey, honey.” Jan, the lady who owns the place, only calls about shift changes. “Don’t need you in tonight. Things are too slow.”
Shoot… “You sure? I can work whatever hours you need.”
“I know, Emma. Sorry, honey. Don’t need any hours tonight.”
I chew the inside of my cheek. “No problem. Call me if that changes. I’ll be there.”
“Know you will, honey.”
My stomach sinks. I really needed that shift. My phone buzzes again, and I check the screen, hoping it’s Jan again. Nope. Just my brother.
“Ha. No. I’m planning on moving soon.” But not when diner shifts keep getting canceled. “I just have to—”
“Look, Emma, I had another call out to your complex today. Dad and I were talking—”
I love Ryan, but that brand-new, shiny rookie badge is going to drive me insane. “My apartment is safe. You know that.”