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HERE WITH ME
By Tia Louise
He’s my best friend’s older brother.
He’s quiet, brooding, sinfully sexy…
Dark hair, a scruffy square jaw, and deep lines of muscle I trace my fingers along slowly, followed by my lips…
He always does what’s right.
They say you get in life what you have the courage to ask for.
Well, I’m brave.
And I want him.
Everybody has them.
Big, small, innocent… forbidden.
Mindy was a line I should never have crossed.
But I did.
She was beautiful… sassy and tempting,
And rules were made to be broken.
We broke them all.
Now I’m home, released from service with hidden scars.
Now my secrets are the demons that grow stronger every day.
I try to send her away, but I can’t let her go.
She’s my reason to fight, and I’ll walk through hell to be the man she deserves.
To give her a reason to stay here with me.
(HERE WITH ME is a STAND-ALONE best friend’s older brother, second-chance, military romance. No cheating. No cliffhangers.)
© TLM Productions LLC, 2020
Love was all around me when I was a kid.
It was the twinkle in my mamma’s eyes when my little sister Noel walked out on stage at the Princess Peach pageant. Even if she ducked her chin and wouldn’t look at anybody, much less the judges.
It was in her full-body laugh the time my baby brother Leon ate cocoa powder and started crying because it was so bitter. We all laughed until he got mad and wouldn’t speak to us for an hour. He said he wanted a new family.
It was walking with my daddy in the rows, listening to his thoughts on life. It was the warmth in his voice when he’d show me the green shoots of new growth on a peach tree. It was him calling me son.
One day, this will all be yours, son…
Sitting beside Hayes pond, I reach in a plastic box and pull out a brown cricket. Its spindly legs fan out as I thread the fish hook down its spine before tossing it onto the water. I don’t like fishing with insects, but they’re the best way to catch bass or perch, my daddy’s favorite.
I watch as it bobs along the short waves, slowly getting waterlogged, slowly sinking into the depths. The wind moves through the cold trees and the early-morning light is pale gray.
I like the quiet. It helps my mind relax, and I can sort through my thoughts, straightening them out like playing cards dropped on the floor.
Fifty-two card pickup.
A dirty trick played on little kids.
Noel went fishing with us once. She was only five, and she chattered nonstop. Daddy didn’t mind her flitting around, bouncing back and forth between us, but I was ten. I wanted her to sit down and shut up. Stop scaring away the fish.
When she saw us baiting our hooks with crickets, she fell back and got real quiet.
Finally, I thought, until I looked around and saw she’d opened the box and let all our bait hop away to freedom.
It was my mamma’s favorite story.
She’d make Daddy or me tell it every time she wanted a good laugh. Her hazel eyes would crinkle at the corners, and she’d smile that pretty smile, lips parting over straight white teeth.
People say I’ve got my mamma’s eyes…
Daddy and I used to go fishing every Sunday, but he hasn’t left his room since Mamma died last month. He sits in a chair, not speaking, not eating, just staring out the window, like he’s waiting for her to come back for him, waiting for her to tell him it’s time to get up and eat something, start living again.
Mamma had gone for a walk that evening around twilight. She was just over the hill on the narrow dirt road when that truck came out of nowhere and killed her instantly.
The driver said he never saw her.
The coroner said she probably never saw him.
I hope she didn’t.
I hope she was thinking about Noel freeing all our live bait that steamy summer morning. I hope she was laughing softly, thinking of her family, full of love as she slipped away to heaven.
When the sheriff told my daddy what happened, my daddy fell to his knees. The noise that came from him was raw and wild, something I’d never heard before or since. Mr. Vincent looked at me like he didn’t know what to do, so I went and carried my daddy inside to his room.
An ache lodged in the middle of my back that night, right between my shoulder blades.
I hope if I catch a mess of fish and cook them up how he likes, maybe Daddy will come back to us and stop sitting in that chair, silent and far away.
The line dips then a sharp tug almost pulls the pole out of my hand. My grip tightens, and I turn the spinner fast, reeling in a good-sized perch, a little bigger than my palm.
A few casts later, and I’ve caught enough to feed us all, once I clean them.
I’m walking back to my truck. At sixteen, I’ve been driving for about a year. It’s close enough to walk home but cold as fuck, which is why I drove.
The last thing I expect to see is a girl sitting on the ground this side of the fence. It’s Noel’s friend Mindy Ray. She’s wrapped in a thick, beige coat that looks like a teddy bear, and her frizzy, dark-brown head is pressed forward against her knees. She’s crying. I can hear her sharp sniffles as I get closer.
“Hey.” I put my hand on her shoulder, giving her a little shake. “You okay?”
She only pulls away from me, not lifting her head.
Frowning, I squint up to where my old red Chevy waits. I’m kind of maxed-out on the emotional front right now, but I can’t leave her this way.
Ever since Mamma passed, the adults have been lost in their own heads. It’s like they forgot about us kids, like they forgot we’re suffering, too, and we still need them. It’s made me feel like I need to step up and look out for us, and there’s no way in hell I’m leaving her out here in the cold.
Reaching down, I catch her skinny arm and pull her to her feet. “Come on.”
“Leave me alone!” She jerks her arm out of my grip and glares at me.
Mindy’s only eleven, but she’s got this look that kind of hits you right in the gut, bright green eyes, full lips, and all that thick, dark spirally-wild hair.
For a little girl.
“Fine.” I start to go. I want to leave her after that outburst, but I only get a few steps before turning back. My jaw clenches, and my voice is more like a growl. “What’s wrong with you?”
She answers sharp and fast. “Nothing’s wrong with me.”
“Why are you crying?”
“It’s nothing you’d understand, Sawyer LaGrange. No one’s ever made fun of you.” She shoves a coiled lock of hair behind her ear. “Just forget you ever saw me here.”
Little drama queen. Fat chance of that. “I got to get back to the house. Don’t make me put you over my shoulder.”
Her lips press together, and she glares daggers at me for the space of a few blinks. But when I start walking, I hear her following me. Reaching over the side, I put the bucket of fish and my rod in the bed of the truck while she climbs in on the passenger’s side.
The engine is a low rumble in the quiet, and I shift it into gear before driving us slowly back toward my house. Mindy’s arms are crossed. She’s staring out the window, but her lower lip quivers. It makes me uncomfortable.
Still… “Want to tell me what happened?”
Suits me just fine. I direct my gaze out the windshield, thinking about what’s waiting for me.
The sun rises slowly over the rows of peach trees that make up our family’s 100-acre orchard. Golden light tips the frost on the dark green leaves. Frost is okay now with no buds on the trees, but frost in April can wipe out an entire crop, all our income for the year.
As the oldest son, Daddy’s been grooming me to take over the place one day. Leon’s only seven, and Noel’s just a girl. I have mixed feelings about the idea.
Before Mamma died, I thought I might travel, maybe join the military. I’ve been in Harristown my whole life, and while it’s my home, I want to do something, see the world before I settle down and take over.
Resting my elbow on the window, I rub my forehead wondering what’s going to become of all that now. My mind’s a million miles away when Mindy’s voice pulls me back.
“Why do girls want to be in cliques?”
I look over at her. Her green eyes are red-rimmed, but she’s stopped crying.
“Is that what this is about?”
“Elizabeth Haynes said I look like I stuck my finger in a socket.” She tugs on the side of her hair. “Beth Hebert and everybody laughed. They said I must be adopted.”
My hands tighten on the steering wheel. I don’t know why girls do what they do. “Why don’t you just hang out with Noel?”
Her chin drops, and she twists her fingers. “She’s kind of… out of it.” She quickly adds, “Which is understandable! I understand… I just get lonely.”
My mind returns to that thought I was having earlier about the adults being out to lunch and leaving us to figure it out.
“Listen.” Her green eyes fix on mine, and I’ve got her attention. I’m sixteen. I’m the oldest of all us kids, and they do what I say. “You’re gonna be really pretty one day. Some girls have a problem with that.”
Her slim brows furrow. “Gonna be? One day? Make me feel better next time.”
This is why I don’t say much. It always comes out all fucked up.
“I just mean people want to keep you in your place. You gotta blow that shit off and be yourself. Take the high road.”
Daddy always said I’m “old for my age.” I just keep my mouth shut and watch how people act. After a while, you start to notice patterns.
Mindy looks out the window again like she’s thinking about what I said. We’re pulling into my long driveway, and I see a few cars I wasn’t expecting. One of them is the sheriff’s, and my heart beats faster. What now?
The tightness in my shoulders moves around to the front of my neck, like somebody’s strangling me.
“I guess I understand.” Mindy’s still thinking about her problem.
Reaching over, I pat her shoulder. “If you ever need somebody to talk to, just come to me. I’ll take care of you.”
She looks up at me, and her green eyes fill with an emotion I half recognize. Trust. I’d remember it better if I weren’t doing my best to fight the panic settling on my skin like cold rain.
Sheriff Gautreaux stands on our front porch with Ed Daniels beside him. They both have that look on their faces—stony, preparing for what’s about to happen.
The fish in the back of my truck are forgotten as I climb out of the cab. Whatever brought them here is like a bad storm rolling in. It’s in the air around me, metallic on my tongue.
The sheriff is the first one to speak. “Sawyer, we need to talk to you, son.”
My insides clench, and my breath gets tight. A small hand slips into mine, and I look down. Beside me, Mindy’s brow is furrowed, her green eyes meet mine.
Somehow as small as she is, having her here beside me, holding my hand, I’m able to catch my breath. “Yes, sir?”
“It’s your daddy.” His voice is the same as the night he told us Mamma died. The knot between my shoulder blades twists tighter with every word. “We found him up on the old dirt road… I’m sorry.”
My daddy died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. They found him in the same place they found my mamma.
I guess he got tired of waiting for her.
I guess he decided she was too much to lose.
I guess he forgot about us.
Roaring fills my ears like a hurricane, destroying everything, and sweeping it all away. My parents, my home…
Not my home.
I won’t let that happen.
Whatever it takes, I’ll hold us together.
Mindy’s small hand tightens around mine, and she holds me, an anchor in the middle of the storm.
I said I’d take care of her, and she’s standing here trusting me—they all are.
Old for my age.
That day changed everything, but she stood beside me. A girl who turned out to be stronger than I knew, a girl who would hold my hand in the darkest hour.
A girl who would change my life.
It all started the day I thought I’d lost everything…
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