Authors: Karen-Anne Stewart
Ash to Steele
Ash to Steele is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges that the trademarked status and the trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means without the written permission of the author.
Cover photo was purchased from fotolia.com. Any people depicted in stock imagery provided by Fotolia are models, and such images are being used for illustrative purposes only. Certain stock imagery © Fotolia.
Because of the dynamic nature of the Internet, any web addresses or links contained in this book may have changed since publication and may no longer be valid. The views expressed in this work are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher, and the publisher herby disclaims any responsibility for them.
Due to strong language, mature scenes, and some violence, Ash to Steele is recommended for readers 18 and older.
Copyright © 201
4 Karen-Anne Stewart
All rights reserved.
Ash to Steele is dedicated to my husband who has been with me every step of the way since I jumped headfirst into my dream and who was brave enough to answer ‘yes’ when asked if he could handle me. Here’s to many more dreams together!
Can you handle that?
I love you!
This novel is also dedicated to all the amazing readers out there who are making this dream possible!
To my husband, thank you for your continued support and patience while I had my laptop glued to my legs, music blaring in my ears, and my emotions on my sleeve. I love you!
To Darryl Collins, Jim Guilliams, Justin Arnold, and Todd Ervin, thank you for your expertise.
To the most amazing Beta readers, ever! Your feedback, encouragement, and time is most appreciated and loved! Thank you for all that you do, Diane Maxwell, Chantelle Cunningham, Jovon Tucker, Pam Riddle, Tara Ansari, Keri Wilson, Karen Galloway, Heather Lindall, Shannon Ropp, Jackie Parker, Honey Warren, Heather Pfingsten, Karla Crescioni, Valeria Gardin, and Tichelle Williams.
To Bret Stewart, thank you for your professional editing services with Ash to Steele.
To the Rain Makers, you girls rock! I appreciate each and every one of you, Jovon Tucker, Heather Pfingsten, Chantelle Cunningham, Karla Crescioni, Honey Warren, Danielle Cury, Jackie Parker, and Kim Rector.
To all of the authors who still amaze me with your support and encouragement, I have been truly blessed to have been given the chance to get to know you. Thank you!
To the bloggers and reviewers, your support has been beyond amazing, and I’m thrilled to have connected with each of you. Thank you!
A huge thank you to all the readers! Like I’ve said before, you guys ROCK! I look forward to hearing from you about Breck and Emma’s story.
“I don’t understand why you have to leave?” The raw emotion in Dad’s voice cuts through me, feeding my already choking guilt.
Taking a deep breath, I blink the tears away, forcing myself to turn towards my father, “We’ve talked about this.”
He clears his throat, swallowing hard as he shifts my bag from one hand to the other. “It’s cold there in the winter.”
I suppress a chuckle at his practical tactic to get me to stay, “I know, Dad.”
One quick nod is his response. He’s usually my rock, has been since mom died when I was eleven. Dad has always been so strong, but now that strength has been broken...by me.
“You know you freeze in the winter.”
“I packed a heavy coat.”
“Justin loves you, Em. I’m not saying to marry the boy right away, just stay. Give him a chance. He’s got a good head on his shoulders and he has a great job; he’d provide you with a good life, honey.”
Dad’s words ring in my ears, doing nothing to ease my guilt. Letting out a soft sigh, I gaze out at the cornfield, watching the tops of the stalks blowing gently in the summer night breeze. I’m going to miss that. I’m going to miss Dad. God, I’m going to miss Dad.
“I know I would have a good life here, but I want more than you do.” Turning back around, I give him a pleading look, “I like Justin, but I’m not in love with him. I don’t want to settle. I want to fall head over heels in love.”
“That’s only an expression, Em. Just words.”
“I don’t believe that. Neither do you. I want what you and mom had.”
The sad look in his eyes renders my resolve not to cry pathetically useless. The back of my throat burns as tears escape, warming my cheeks and tickling my chin as they roll down my face.
“And you don’t think you can find that here?” His own tears well before he has time to blink them away, and my heart bleeds.
I look into his eyes, searching his, begging him to understand, “I can’t stay. I need more. I need passion!”
Dad shakes his head, giving me that smile he always gives me when he thinks that I’m clueless.
Rolling my eyes, I manage to cause him at least a miniscule smile.
“Hon, what do you know about passion?”
“Nothing, Dad, that’s the whole point,” I whisper.
Pulling me into his strong arms, I sink into his embrace, into his shelter, inhaling his unique scent of hay, leather, and Old Spice. Another lump forms in my throat when I think of how much I’m going to miss that, too.
“My daughter wants passion,” he chuckles. “Heaven help me, what would the congregation say?”
Loving my father immensely right know, I laugh, realizing that he just granted me his blessing, “I didn’t say that kind of passion, Dad.”
“Alright, Em, you go out into the world looking for what you think you need. I pray you find what you’re looking for, honey.” Sorrow dims his eyes, weakening my resolve.
“I will,” I tell him more forcefully than intended.
Unbearable silence fills the air. Dad cocks his head, giving me a chuck under my chin, “You are just like your mother, so stubborn, so independent.”
The words are meant as encouragement, his way of telling me it’s okay; he understands. I never knew guilt could cause physical pain until this moment.
Hoisting my duffle bag over his shoulder, he starts towards his old sedan, which is now mine, and slowly tosses the bag inside. His shoulders rise with deep breaths as he holds onto the doorframe. “I want you to know that, sometimes, what you think you want ends up biting you in the butt, Em. People have left since the beginning of time, spending their whole life moving from place to place looking for something they could’ve found in their own backyard. You always have a home here, you know that, right?”
“Yeah, Dad, I know,” I assure him, pushing back the tears and trying to suck it up as I throw my purse in the front seat before turning back to my father. “Like you always told me, I have to find out for myself. I love you, Dad.”
“You’re not supposed to use my own words against me.” He gives me a soft smile, the light in his eyes dimming further.
I watch as he stands there, looking at me, his headstrong twenty-two year old daughter getting ready to move to Boston, which might as well be across the world according to Dad, and the ache in my heart is profound. When his hazel eyes mist, I can’t take it any longer and I throw myself into his arms, giving him one last long hug before wiping my own eyes and slipping into my beat-up maroon sedan and drive away.
The katydids sing loudly as dust rises on the way down the long dirt road, serenading my good-bye and sending a shot of nostalgia punching me hard in the gut. Memories cling to me as I pass the pond I learned to swim in when I was five years old, the old willow tree my mother took me for picnics, and the large barn where Nick pushed me against the wall in the back when I was nine and gave me my first kiss; that memory makes me smile through my tears.
The summer breeze blows through the rolled down windows, causing my long chestnut hair to billow freely in the wind, and some of the guilt and sadness eases, replaced with a tingling anticipation. A part of me still wants to slam on the brakes and run back home, but most of me wants to leave,
to leave, this small town that slowly suffocated me through high school. The thought of staying, always wondering ‘what if’ nearly chokes the life out of me, so I push harder on the gas pedal, sending more dust flying through the air as the tires roll over the gravel and dirt until I’m on the two lane, on my way to a life that doesn’t know me as simply Emma Michelle Jones, John Jones’ daughter, Justin’s girlfriend. No, I won’t be that girl, not anymore. I get to be whoever I want; now, I just have to figure out exactly who that is.
Don’t look back, Emma, don’t you dare look back
, I demand, refusing to even glance in the rearview mirror. This town gave me a good life. I was protected, sheltered, loved. That security is just as deceptive as it is comforting. If I allowed myself, I would follow the path most do and never move further than fifty miles from where I was raised; that’s the thing about small towns, we take care of our own, and we do a good job at it; there’s no need to leave. I guess I’m different. I don’t have that peace letting me know I’m where I’m supposed to be.
Despite my best attempt not to, I glance towards my old high school where I spent all four years being Justin’s girl, his shadow. All of the girls were jealous; they wanted to be me while I wanted to be anywhere else. I was hated, adored, revered, and secretly torn down, being the girlfriend of the star quarterback who was the hottest boy in school. I wasn’t the most popular, but I wasn’t the least popular either; I was just
. I was the shy girl. The invisible girl. That changed when I started dating Justin.
Images of Justin attack me and I desperately try to push them away. I know he doesn’t deserve my leaving this way, deserting him when he always treated me like I was the most special person in the world. I don’t know of any other guy who would stay with a girl through high school, then college, when she didn’t have sex with him. That painful guilt slams into me again as I think of how he would ask but never pressure me, and how he would just pull me into his strong, reassuring arms when I would slowly shake my head and tell him I was sorry. His words sting as they race through my mind…
It’s alright, Em, you’re worth waiting for.
He waited all those years for nothing.
The tears pour as I’m assaulted by the look in his eyes last night. He was so broken, so blindsided, when I told him I was leaving. Anger surges through the guilt. How could he not know? How could he not realize what I was feeling if he really knew me that well? I told him so many times that I needed to experience more, but he talked me out of going away to college, and I let him.
The twenty-one mile commute to Furman every day further suffocated me. I loved the university, and I felt alive while I was there; I could taste the freedom. But that sweet taste was stripped away every day as I climbed back into my car and headed back towards home. I know I should be grateful for what I have, for all Dad has done for me, and I am, but I need more…so much more. I guess that’s selfish, but should it be? That’s the question that has plagued me since making the decision to finally break the shackles and run like hell. Selfish or not, it’s what I have to do. I dry my tears, throw my hair into a ponytail, and laugh as I crank up the radio when I hear Tim and Taylor crooning “Highway Don’t Care.” Fitting. Refusing to take the song as any kind of divine sign, I speed down the highway to finally find who I know I’m supposed to be.