With One Word

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With One Word

by Olivia Blake
Published: November 30, 2015

Have you ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn't have?

Ever since my dad walked out eight years ago, my life has been Hell. My mother is an alcoholic whose "boyfriends" think it's fun to use me as a punching bag. Everything nice I've ever owned has ended up in the pawn shop so Mom could buy booze and cigarettes. Thanks to Mom's reputation, every guy I've ever gone out with has only been interested in one thing, so I've never had a real boyfriend. Then a few months ago my best friend moved halfway across the country to go to college. The only reason I didn't skip town the moment I turned eighteen is my little sister, Willow. She needs me to protect her from Mom's "boyfriends" and make sure there's food in the house, and I can't leave her behind.

But three weeks ago the hottest guy in town asked me out. Aiden is everything I ever thought I wanted, all in one sexy as sin package. In my wildest dreams I never imagined I'd end up with someone like him. There's just one little problem.

I can't stop thinking about Grant, my best friend's dad.

Warning:This novel contains strong themes of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse (though *not* between the main characters). If these topics and situations disturb you, this book is probably not for you.

Chapter 1

* Holly *

Mom was drunk again.

I could hear the yelling before I even stepped onto the front porch. Although it was barely four o’clock in the afternoon, her slurred screeches already echoed through the tiny, ramshackle house I shared with her and my younger sister. With acid churning in my stomach, I froze with my hand on the tarnished bronze doorknob. I wanted nothing more than to run back to my car and floor the gas pedal and drive away—drive so far that I’d never have to see either my mother or the rathole with peeling paint and water stains and cigarette-burned carpets we lived in ever again. But I couldn’t abandon Willow that way, so I took a deep breath to steady my nerves and made myself push the door open.

The shabby living room was dark and empty, so I tiptoed around to the kitchen. At the other end of the house, the shouting mercifully quieted down as Mom slammed her bedroom door hard enough to rattle the windows. I didn’t want to think about what had started her on a tear like this so early in the day; I just wanted to check on Willow.

My sister sat huddled over the chipped Formica kitchen table, her face hidden as usual by the impenetrable veil of her long, brown hair, her slender shoulders rocking slowly back and forth with silent sobs. For some reason she was the one who Mom focused her outbursts on these days, and bitter helplessness festered inside me over her plight. I wanted so badly to save her, but I couldn’t even save myself.

“Hey,” I called softly.

After a moment, a pair of eyes the same dark honey color as my own peered up at me through that fall of hair. Even red-rimmed from weeping they seemed dull, listless, and I thought my heart was going to break. How long could she keep going like this? As bad as it was for me, I knew it was far worse for Willow. At seventeen, she should have been enjoying her senior year, going to parties, going to prom. Falling in love. What she got instead was this never-ending Hell that we endured. Did she even have any hope left that one day she could escape?

“Are you all right?”

Her eyes fixed on me blankly, almost like I wasn’t even there or something. It kind of made me doubt whether I really was. Was my life, everything I was, just someone else’s bad dream? If so, they seriously needed to wake up already.

“Willow. What happened?”

It came in a whisper so faint I almost didn’t hear. “Ray tried to get me to do a threesome with them. Mom hit me when she found out.”

Bile rose in my throat at the mere thought of that slimy pervert in the same room as my little sister. Ray was Mom’s long-term ‘boyfriend,’ except he was actually more of a client, and he was an abusive sleaze to boot. The fact that he had propositioned my sister didn’t surprise me at all; that my mother had gotten upset about it did. Mom didn’t give a damn about either one of us—hadn’t since the day Dad had walked out eight years ago and she decided that it was all our fault. As far as I could tell, the only thing she cared about these days was getting her next drink, and if she had needed to sell both of us to her ‘boyfriends’ to get it I knew she wouldn’t have batted an eyelash.

I strained my ears and managed to catch the low rumble of a male voice coming from the back of the house in response to my mother’s higher pitched whining.

“He’s still here?”

When she nodded I bit my lip. There was no way I could leave her here. Inevitably Mom would pass out, and when she did Willow would be alone with Ray, who was the type of guy who wouldn’t take being told no as anything but foreplay.

“Can you stay with Lauren?”

“She’s at her dad’s this weekend.”

“How about Tegan?”

“I’ll call.”

“Do that, and then pack enough clothes for the weekend.” I reached into my purse and pulled out two twenty dollar bills. “It’s all I’ve got,” I said with a shrug of apology, ashamed that it was all I could offer.

Willow flinched. “I don’t need it. Keep it.”

I reached out and folded her slim fingers around the money. “Go out with Tegan and blow it. I know it’s not much, but go do something to remind yourself that this isn’t all there is.”

For a second I saw a glimmer of tears in her eyes, but with a sharp, shuddering breath she turned away and scooped up her phone. Willow never cried; she was usually so brave it made my heart ache. That she had broken down today meant she was at her limit. As she called her friend, I crept down the hallway to the tiny bedroom we shared, where I listened to the muffled voices of my mother and Ray through the wall while I changed into my work clothes. Before I finished dressing, Willow came in and started cramming clothes into her backpack. Apparently Tegan was okay with her staying over, so I felt far less guilty when I pulled out a pair of pink jeans and a white lace blouse and slipped them into a plastic bag. Willow noticed and raised a quizzical eyebrow.

“Aiden,” I whispered, and her eyes got big.

Aiden Rogers was the one bright spot in my life. I had known him for years, or at least known of him, but in my wildest dreams I had never imagined that I’d be going out with him. Back in high school every girl had swooned over him, and I knew a lot of them had done far more than that in the back seat of his car after the football and baseball games. It was hard to blame them—the combination of his tousled mop of dark blond hair and soulful brown eyes with his athlete’s body was practically irresistible. Tonight would be our third date in a row, and I had started allowing myself the hope that I might finally have started a real relationship.

While I was in high school, my mother had made that impossible. Somehow during my freshman year everyone had found out what she was, what she did, and I spent my entire four year sentence at Westbrook High being called a slut or worse. The only guys who would so much as look at me were only interested because they thought I would be an easy lay, and as soon as they found out I wasn’t they disappeared. That never stopped them from telling stories to their friends about hooking up with me, though. By the time I graduated I had a reputation almost as bad as my mother’s, despite the fact that I’d never gone further than a couple of kisses with anyone I’d ever gone out with.

It killed me to think that Willow had to endure the exact same thing, only in her case it was even worse because she had to live down my reputation as well as our mother’s. During her first two years of high school she had come home sobbing almost every day, but then around the start of her junior year something changed. The tears stopped, and she grew more distant and shut out everyone else except for Lauren and Tegan, the two girls who had defied the rest of the school to remain her friends. Up until then we had been close, but now I was firmly on the outside as well. She wouldn’t confide in me, and I no longer knew what she thought nor had much of an idea what went on in her life outside of our house.

That didn’t change the fact that I was responsible for her, though. While everyone else might abandon us, I would always be there for her.

“Ready?” I whispered as she zipped up her backpack.

She gave a brief nod and crept after me into the hallway. In the back of the house, the clamor of Mom and Ray arguing spiraled up as they strove to shout over each other. I didn’t mind, since their voices drowned out the faint creaks of the loose floor boards as we made our way to the living room and escaped out the front door. The moment we crossed the threshold we bolted for my car, and I had us in gear and moving before the doors were even closed. Neither of us could get out of there fast enough, and as I watched the house shrink in the rear view mirror I wished that I had a friend like Tegan I could stay with for the weekend. But at least I had Aiden to look forward to—I just had to make it through my shift at the coffee counter in the bookstore.

By the time I had dropped Willow off, my mood had started to lift a little. I mostly had things under control, despite the incident at home. In a few short months my little sister would graduate and I could get us out of town for good. Willow would get a scholarship somewhere, and I’d help her out while she went to school to make a better life for herself. We’d both be able to put this miserable existence behind us. I’d held it all together this long, and I could keep her out of trouble until then, surely?

As I rolled to a stop at a red light my car chugged hard, and the sputtering noises coming from under the hood quickly killed off my optimistic mood. The car was shaking so badly that the steering wheel vibrated in my hands. I let my head fall back against the headrest with a groan. Why me? Murmuring a little prayer, I eased on the gas when the light turned green, and the car lurched forward like a drunk staggering towards the bar.

I should have turned off the road then. My car was obviously in bad shape and ready to die at any moment, but I needed to get to work and so I held onto an irrational hope that I could baby it along that far. No such luck. By turning off the air conditioner and playing with the gas, I managed to make it another hundred yards up the street and right into the middle of a construction zone before the engine gave a final spasm and died. I had just enough momentum to pull off onto the narrow strip of pavement that passed for a shoulder, and then sat there staring wretchedly off into the distance. Cars and trucks roared by only inches away from my door, shaking my whole car as they passed. I wasn’t about to risk getting out and looking under the hood in this kind of traffic. Not that it would have mattered, since I was as qualified to perform open heart surgery as I was to diagnose a sick car. While I’m not completely hopeless—I do know how to change a tire and make sure the oil and stuff are topped off—this was way beyond my level of expertise.

Hoping I could convince Aiden to pick me up and give me a lift to work, I dug into my purse to pull out my cell phone and received my next disappointment. When I tried to turn it on nothing happened, though, and my shoulders slumped in despair as I stared down at the lifeless hunk of glass and plastic in my hands. I had forgotten to charge it overnight, and between going to classes and the library afterwards I’d had no chance to do it during the day. It might as well have been a brick for all the good it was going to do me. I was just going to have to go out and find a phone.

I flipped on the hazard lights then crawled over the center console and pushed open the passenger door. With the concrete barriers on that side, there was just barely enough room for me to squeeze out. A big truck flew by and the wind of its nearby passage sent my hair whipping around my face and tugged at my clothes. If I got myself squished as roadkill, I wasn’t going to do Willow any good. With my eyes squinted against the blowing grit, I hopped over the barriers and put some distance between me and the zooming traffic.

A small shopping strip lay a few hundred feet further on, so I slogged through the knee-high grass towards it, thankful that I had on a pair of sneakers rather than heels. The two offices on the end closest to me had already closed for the afternoon, but the cheap hair salon next to them was still open.

“Can I help you?” a young woman around my age with fuschia hair and long, purple nails asked brightly.

“My car broke down back in the construction. Can I use your phone?”

The woman’s smile died and she rolled her eyes. “Make it quick. It’s supposed to be for business only.”

I dialed Aiden’s number and waited for it to pick up. When there was no answer I tried again, and this time it went straight to voicemail. This just wasn’t my day. There was no one else I could call. My one friend was away at college halfway across the country, and as for my mom, even if she hadn’t been drunk out of her mind she would have just laughed and hung up on me. Willow’s friend Tegan had a car, but I didn’t want to get them involved. I had sent Willow off for the weekend hoping she’d forget her problems, not to get her wrapped up in mine. I was just going to have to find another way to work, and once there I could take the time to figure out what to do next.

“Thanks,” I told the woman, who shrugged me off without a glance.

I started back for my car, hoping I could find someone who would let me hitch a ride closer to work. When I got to the bookstore I could look up a towing company and a garage. As I walked, my heart quailed at the thought of the towing and repair bills I was about to get hit with. I needed every penny I could save if I was going to get us out of this town when Willow graduated, but expenses like this could quickly eat away at my savings and leave us both stranded here. Mom was already taking a big chunk of my check as rent to let me stay at home. Once she had realized that there was no way I would leave Willow alone there, she had started demanding more and more. I sighed. Next week I would need to take steps to help get us further along, even if it meant putting the other things I wanted on hold for a while. It was okay, though. Taking care of Willow was more important than anything else.

When I got back to my car there was pearl gray Lexus parked in front of it, and my heart gave a little flip as I recognized it. I decided my luck wasn’t quite so bad after all when I made out the man sitting in the driver’s seat talking into a cell phone.

Grant Richards was my best friend’s father, and I probably should have called him when I couldn’t reach Aiden. There were just two problems with that: I didn’t have his cell number memorized, and I had my reasons for not wanting to impose on him more than I already had over the years. He glanced up from his phone, and when he saw me standing by the car his face lit up with a smile and he beckoned me towards the door.

“Hi, Mr. Richards,” I said as I slid gratefully into the cool, black leather seat. It was still only early spring, but the weather had warmed up fast so the air conditioning felt heavenly. Deep blue eyes like sapphires flecked with steel regarded me with evident relief, while he ran a hand through thick, dark brown hair only a couple of shades lighter than black. The navy blue suit and gray striped tie he wore brought out the blue in his eyes and emphasized the breadth of his shoulders. Okay, so maybe it was more than just the weather that made me glad of the air conditioning. I’d had a wicked crush on him for a while back in high school, and sometimes I seemed to forget that I was over it.

“I saw your car and thought you might need help. What happened?”

“The engine died. It started acting up back at the light and then conked out.”

“Have you called for a tow?”

“Not yet. My phone was dead.”

“Your car and phone in the same day?” He shook his head as though in exasperation, but his eyes twinkled and I knew it was just for show. “I guess it’s a good thing I happened along when I did. You’re welcome to use my phone, or I can call the garage I use and they’ll come take care of it for you.”

He held his phone out towards me, but I shook my head. While I would have preferred to shop around to get the best price I could, I was already running late for work and I knew so little about cars that I was afraid of being ripped off by any cut-rate mechanic I managed to turn up. Or worse, with my luck I’d find one who knew my mom.

“Will you please do it?” I asked.

“Of course. Do you want it towed to your house or to the shop?”

“The shop, I guess. I’m sure not going to be able to fix it.”

It took him less than five minutes to get it taken care of. “Done,” he said. “They’ll be here in about thirty minutes. Do you need anything out of it?”

“I’ve got my backpack and a plastic bag of clothes in the back seat. That’s all.”

“Key?” I handed over my key ring. The penguin ornament on the fob looked faintly ridiculous dangling from his fingers. “Be right back.”

Before I could protest, he had darted around to the side of my car while there was a gap in the flow of traffic. He returned after only a minute, tossing my things in the back then turning to me.

“Were you on your way to work?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, I’ll drop you off.” He gunned the engine and slid smoothly into the traffic between a pickup and a cement truck. “It’s too late for them to get to it today, but the garage should call you first thing tomorrow with an estimate. I gave them my number as well as yours, just in case something else happens to your phone.”

“Thanks. I’m sorry to cause you so much trouble.”

Faint age lines crinkled at the edge of his eyes with his smile. “Helping out lovely young ladies is never trouble,” he said with a wink. “Don’t worry about it, Holly. I’m happy I could lend a hand.”

I let myself sink into the soft leather seat and tried not to feel guilty, but I had no more luck with that than I had keeping my car alive. I wasn’t big on accepting help from other people. I knew better than to allow myself to ever rely on anyone else—even someone as trustworthy as Mr. Richards.

“Will you need a ride home?” he asked as he pulled up in front of the bookstore.

“No, thanks. I’ve got a date after work, and I’ll get him to drop me off.”

“All right. Have fun, then.” When I started to climb out of the car he stopped me with a hand on my arm. “Wait.” He pulled out his wallet and dug out a business card. “Keep that in your purse, and the next time you need help please call me.” I opened my mouth to protest, but he gazed at me sternly over the rims of his sunglasses. “You know that if Trish was here you would have called her. Sometimes it really is okay to trust people, Holly.”

“All right. If I get in trouble again, I’ll call you.”

As I walked into the bookstore I pondered that. Was it really okay to trust people? Was it okay to trust him? I had been over my crush on him for a long time. Mostly, anyway. But my arm still tingled from his touch, and my heart was beating a little faster than normal, and however much I wanted to blame it all on the unseasonably warm weather I knew better. That business card could sit in my purse until Doomsday, but I wouldn’t be calling Grant Richards.

Friday nights were usually slow. Ordinarily I didn’t mind because it gave me a chance to catch up on homework or do a little reading, but that night each second seemed to drag out into an eternity while I waited anxiously for ten o’clock to come. I knew it was no good to be so eager about my date, but I just couldn’t seem to help myself. All through high school I had dreamed of having a boyfriend and the kind of relationship I saw the girls around me enjoying, and now when it finally happened for it to be Aiden Freakin’ Rogers? I didn’t have much left in the way of balance or composure.

Once I had locked up and finished the nightly closing routine, I changed clothes and reached the parking lot just as Aiden pulled up in his gleaming white BMW convertible. Excitement thrummed in my veins, mingling with the sharp bite of anxiety as I hopped in and he revved the gas a little. The guy was so gorgeous that I still had trouble believing I was going out with him. He lounged in his leather seat with a feline grace that was pure predator, the sleeves of his burgundy button down shirt rolled up to his elbows to show off his muscular arms, and those smoldering brown eyes had me ready to melt right into the seat despite my nervousness. His lips curved up into a sexy grin as he caught my reaction, and he reached over to give my thigh a playful squeeze.

“How’s my girl?”

His girl. Butterflies swarmed in my tummy at the possessive way he said that, like he wanted me and intended to keep me. That was something very, very new to my experience, and I decided I liked it. A lot. My fears were just going to have to take a hike.

“I’m good. Getting better by the second.”

He laughed softly. “You ready to go?”

“Yes! Where to?”

“Dinner if you’re hungry. Or I know a couple of happening parties we could go to.”

Parties were not my thing. After seeing what alcohol did to my mother, I wanted nothing to do with it. None of the people back in high school who’d had parties would have invited me in a million years anyway. “I don’t know.”

“Come on. I promise you’ll have a good time.”

It was the promise in his eyes that did it. The heat simmering in their depths reminded me of his mouth hot on mine, and I was nodding before I knew what I was doing. I wanted more of those kisses, wanted to be a normal, desirable girl who went to college parties with her boyfriend and had fun like everyone else. Was that so wrong?

I took a deep breath. “Okay. Let’s do it.”

“All right! That’s my girl.”

Aiden’s face lit up with that sexy grin, and then he leaned over and brushed his lips across mine. The warm whisper of his breath tickled against my skin as he teased, a butterfly’s touch at first, followed by a soft flicker of the warm tip of his tongue tracing out the curves of my mouth. With a little whimper of eager desire I slid my tongue against his, inviting, coaxing him to play.

Fingers stroked against my thigh as his velvet lips claimed my mouth. While our breaths mingled, Aiden’s tongue pressed deeper to twist against mine until my heart throbbed like a bass drum and a heated flush of arousal swept over my whole body. With each heartbeat his fingertips crept higher until he brushed the crotch of my jeans and I jerked back with a little squeak and the first hints of panic.

“Aiden, not yet. I’m not ready yet,” I gasped, trying to catch my breath and regain some composure. It was hard to push him away when he looked at me with such desire, but I wanted more than just sex with him. If he was the right guy for me, Aiden would understand that it was still too soon and wait.

“All right,” he replied in a low, sexy purr as he slowly withdrew his hand. “If that’s what you want. Although with the way you respond, it makes me wonder. But you’re the boss.”

His lazy grin let me know he wasn’t mad, and I smiled back. How had I gotten so lucky? I’d finally found a guy who wasn’t just in it for a quick score. “You want to go to that party, now?”

“Oh, yeah. I could definitely use a beer to cool off after that. Those lips should come with a warning label, babe. ‘Anyone with a heart condition should not ride.’”

I laughed as he hit the gas and peeled out of the parking lot. I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt so good.

* Grant *

After I dropped Holly off at work, I was surprised at how empty my day seemed with her gone. For a few minutes she had filled the void, and my life had almost felt back to normal. The normal of the past, anyway. The normal of today, with Trish halfway across the country and Holly wrapped up in her own life, was something completely different.

Going home wasn’t something I dreaded, exactly, but with Trish off at college it was no longer something I looked forward to very much. The house was too quiet, too sterile. I missed the girls with their laughter and boundless energy, their vibrant presence that filled the quiet spaces in my life. Now I had my work, but little else. While I had dated on and off over the years since Trish’s mom died, there had never been anyone permanent. I was probably too critical in my selections for Trish’s sake, and few of the women I considered worth seriously pursuing were interested in a widower with a child. Even with the ones who were, though, I never found the kind of romantic spark I had once experienced with my wife. While I had fun dating them and enjoyed nights of no-strings-attached sex, the flings never lasted long. There were no bitter fights or break-ups, but there was never any real desire on either part to push towards a deeper relationship, either.

Part of me was disappointed. I wasn’t so old that I was ready for that part of my life to be over yet. I deeply missed the close companionship of my wife and thought that I could love someone again, but I just couldn’t seem to find anyone to fill her place. Was I being too picky? Was I trying too hard to find something deep and meaningful right off the bat instead of letting a relationship develop on its own? I asked myself these questions again and again over the years, but the answers always eluded me. In the end, I began to believe that lightning just wouldn’t strike the same place twice. I’d had my shot, and now I had to be content with memories.

In a way that wasn’t a bad thing, since it had kept me focused on Trish. I like to think that having a new woman in my life wouldn’t have made any difference in my relationship with my daughter, but too many of my divorced friends had lost sight of their kids as they started over again, and I never wanted that for my little girl. She must have felt something similar, for she never let new friends or boyfriends come between us, either. The only person who ever really penetrated our bubble was Holly, and that was because she made herself a part of it rather than disturbing it.

Darkness and silence were my only welcome as I opened the door and hung up my keys. Was this what my life was going to be like from now on? Maybe I needed to get a dog. Better yet, something a little less needy, like a goldfish. On the other hand, a fish was only a small step up from a plant, and since most of those had died since Trish left, a fish probably wasn’t a good idea, either. Especially since dead fish tended to smell rather worse than dead ferns.

Or maybe I just needed to quit bitching and find a new girlfriend. She didn’t have to replace my wife, or be the love of my life, did she? It didn’t have to be perfect or last forever. Why couldn’t I just settle for someone who I could have a good time with, someone who was good company on cold, lonely nights? Then at least I’d have something.

After throwing together a sandwich, I tried to watch television for a while, but there was nothing on to hold my interest. Later, I found myself standing at the mantel staring at the large, framed picture of my wife, Amy, with Trish and our son—the last picture of them all together. My thumb brushed over Amy’s face, that face which I still had memorized, that I could have picked out by touch alone in the dark. But there was only cool, smooth glass beneath my fingertips, and as I stepped away I somehow knew that I’d never experience that electric tingle of my hands on her skin again. It had been a once in a lifetime thing, and I just had to accept that. Somehow I’d have to live with it.