The crack of dawn wasn't the most ideal time to wake up. Yet Penny continued to wail in the other room until Becky calmed her down. I was glad, no relieved, that I had never gotten serious enough with any guy to consider kids. I wasn't sure I could ever handle the thought of having kids when I was barely an adult.

As Penny calmed down, I slipped out of bed, nursing a slight headache and upset stomach.

My forehead was coated with sweat as I snuck into the bathroom. I splashed cold water all over my face until I let out a sigh of relief. Last night was the hottest, muggiest, and most uncomfortable night in the month I had spent there. While Nevada had its heat waves, I felt it had nothing on the little small town in South Carolina.

It was just another reminder that this place wasn't home. It'd never be.


The unexpected presence caused me to jump and react quickly. My big toe hit the corner of the vanity, flaring in a wave of pain. Somehow, through the pain, I managed to give Becky the smallest of smiles.

"Morning," I rasped out, my throat dry and aching dully.

Becky stepped into the bathroom looking as if she had been awake for hours. Her hair was in a perfect bun at the top of her head. Her top was a pretty floral print that fit more as a mini dress. On bottom was a pair of black, cotton Bermuda shorts that gave her a youthful but put together look. Even her sandals were elegant with the intricate designs.

"How long have you been up?" I asked, after taking a swig of tap water.

"An hour, maybe. I'm used to early starts between Penny and work."

"Wow." Surprise swallowed my face as I stared at her in wonder. "You look so refreshed, happy even. How do you do it?"

"It's silly," she began quietly, her voice thoughtful and controlled, "because it's not this incredible feat. I believe I can do it, and keeping a positive attitude helps."

"You are truly a wonder," I stated as I put all of my stuff away.

"Did you think about it?" she asked, her voice barely above a whisper.

"About what?" I blurted out, not sure what she was asking.

"About going to church here. I think it may prolong your trip longer, but why not spend the rest of the summer here?"

There wasn't a doubt in my mind that Becky knew better. She seemed to flow with hope and faith. It was easy to understand why we had formed such a deep bond in the first place. She made me want to be a better person, and maybe all I could do was make myself better before I went back home.

"I'm sorry," she rushed out. "I'm talking out of turn. You know what? Forget about this. Just get dressed and be downstairs in ten minutes. I'm making breakfast."

"I, uh," I stammered awkwardly, "I normally don't eat breakfast."

A hand on her hip and a stern look on her face, she spoke darkly, "Bronwyn, you have ten minutes. Got it?"

With a sigh, I nodded my head.

There was no talking Becky out of anything

Breakfast gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling as Penny sat on Becky's lap, eagerly telling a fantasy story as she spooned mouthful after mouthful of oatmeal. She was the animated type of talker—throwing her tiny hands into the air and conveying every emotion through her endless, sea blue eyes.

Their connection made my stomach twist more as I munched on my toast. Despite everything, they were a family. No matter what had brought them to this point in their lives, they looked like they were the brightest rainbows after a rain shower.

"Is Hemingway always so involved?" I asked, only speaking as Penny slipped out of Becky's lap. She walked around the kitchen, humming under her breath.

"Pretty much," she confirmed as she finished off Penny's breakfast. "Every small town has its activities to bring the community together."

"I don't know…" I started weakly. "I don't know if it's a good idea I go. Everyone knows I got into that heated argument with Jesse. I'm not in the mood to go another round. I just want it peaceful while I stay here."

"Peaceful is likely. Jesse isn't a jerk all the time. He's not this big, bad wolf he makes himself out to be."

Somehow, even with my faith in individual people, I wasn't sure that everyone could change. Obviously Jesse had a rough childhood. He wasn't using words and anger as a defense mechanism; he knew what he doing. Yet, he still chose to be a jerk. I didn't know his intentions, and the more time I spent around him, the more I never wanted to know what went on inside his head. He was secretive and cruel. His semi-decent moments were so rare that I could only recall one, true moment.

"I don't know," I argued, slightly overwhelmed, "He's cocky and confident. He knows he looks good and he has this bad boy rep that reels the women in. Jesse seems to thrive on his bad attitude and negativity, and I…I just want to keep my distance."

Becky grabbed Penny and set her to the floor. "Go into the living room, Pen. I need to talk with Bronwyn alone."

The little girl bobbed her head up and down. "Sure mommy." And without further coaxing, the girl darted from the room, giggling away.

"Bron, I'm not trying to be the all-knowing type. I just like giving advice. And it seems like you need a lot of good direction, so I'm going to tell you exactly what I think, and I hope you won't take it as a personal hit."

"But it is a personal attack."

"Listen, the truth is, you're not doing him any favors. Being just as bad as him doesn't make you better. You should be the better person here. I know you learned about keeping rude comments to yourself if you have nothing else to say."

I sighed. "You're lecturing me," I cringed, slumping into the chair. I felt like a little child that was being reprimanded, and I wondered if I had brought it all upon myself. "You're sounding more like my mother…"

"I am a mother, Bronwyn. And I am a woman of God. I have two kinds of experiences you need right now. Why don't you show me that you still have faith and call your friends?"

"They won't answer." My heart thumped wildly. "I tried this already."

"Okay." Exhaling deeply, she gave a small smile. "You can work on that. A little good influence and direction will go a long way when you feel lost."

The clean up was distracting. As I idly chatted with Becky, I realized how calming and peaceful Hemingway was when I let go. The scenery was charming. It was easy to fall in love with the town's simple ways, but would I ever love it long term?

Becky's proposal rang in my head all morning. How could I promise to come back? I didn't know what was waiting back for me in Bliss, but if things worked out, how could I possibly run a second time? It would be hard to shed the reputation I had been given, but home was home. And the farther away I was from my irresponsible parent's, the better. Nothing they ever said could be trusted. One minute I could be adopted, and the next they'd proclaim I was an alien or half machine. The odds were completely against them.

I wanted to call them. I wanted to confront them. I wanted to demand an explanation for how they could shut me out of their life when I had run away all those years ago. I believed, deep down, that I was still their daughter. And I wouldn't ever believe the lies they fed. If they wanted nothing to do with me, I'd keep my distance.

"It's nice, isn't it?" Becky asked as she scooped up the remnants of a large firework.

"It is," I conceded, a silly half-smile reaching my lips. "It's not home, but it's nice all the same."

"Do you think you'll go home?"

"I have to Becky. Everyone will hold the past over my head. I want to see them again. I want this aching in my chest to end. Hemingway can't mend a broken heart."

"I'm not putting ideas in your head, but hearts do heal. And some friends are replaceable. If she won't even give you the chance to explain yourself, what does that say about what kind of friend she is?"

Her words were smart and right. I had made a mistake—one I was trying to apologize for—and even a month later, she still refused to hear my side. I was convinced I could make her. One way or another, she needed to know how sorry and wrong I was. Our friendship needed to be mended because I didn't know who I was supposed to be without Abby.

"I'll try."

We finished the clean up close to eleven. The sun was starting to pound on us as we picked up idle chat. We were throwing the last of the trash away when I spotted Jesse in the distance. He looked like he was a man on a mission as he stomped towards me, an unreadable look on his face.

"I need to pick up Penny from the sitter, Bron. How about we meet up at the diner later? I have night shift."

"Sure. Thanks." I reached forward, pulling her into a tight hug. As crazy as it was to admit, Becky had wormed her way into my heart. It was like she had filled the part of best friend. I'd miss her when I left. She had made Hemingway an okay place to stay. Even with a ten-year age gape, she was like a sister. I wondered what would happen if I left and never came back. Would I just be pulling the same stunt twice?

"Don't kill him, Bron," she teased, smiling brightly.

I laughed. "No promises."

With a final wave, Becky turned and jogged towards her car. I, on the other hand, turned back to the distance with a pounding heart. Jesse was within speaking distance, and to be honest, he didn't look happy at all.

His clothing was severely wrinkled, and I realized it was the same thing he wore last night. If I felt and looked like shit, Jesse's state was infinitely worse. His eyes were droopy. Even his steps had him lightly swaying as he met me at the top of the hill.


I shivered, just from hearing him say my name. I cursed my stupid hormones. I felt so weak and defenseless – even idiotic as I stood there blushing.

"Can we talk?"

I couldn't find my voice. Nodding weakly, I started to walk towards a shaded area.

"What's going on?" I asked, staring at the floor.

"I know I was an asshole last night but I didn't mean to drive you out of my place. I'm sorry."

"Why are you apologizing?" I demanded, suddenly angry. "I'm just some stupid tourist passing through as you like to call it…so I shouldn't even matter."

"You're not that bad," he mumbled. "I…there's a lot you don't understand, Winnie. It's complicated."

"How complicated?"

"Complicated," he murmured. "Seriously complicated. I don't want you to leave."

The words made my head spin. Was Jesse McIntyre begging me to stay in this stupid town?

"Why not?"

"Between Max and Nor, you're pretty much the best friend I ever had."

I snorted. "Come on, Jesse. The only thing we have is mutual hatred. I'm sure Becky put you up to this. She's good at these sorts of things, but I don't want to be your friend. I have plenty of those."

"Please," he pleaded somewhat desperately. "It's weird without you around. Can you accept my apology? Will you come back to my place?"

I sighed. "Jesse, why would I want to do any of those things?"

"It's…well, there's something you should know."

Heart thumping, I looked up, meeting his shining blue eyes.

"W-what should I know?" I asked quietly, leaning against the tree. In the severe heat, the shade created from the large tree branches and leaves was already cooling me down. I was sure I could make a second leg of the clean up if necessary.

"I got really pissed last night," he blurted quickly. "That's just me, though. But…I ended up at the garage last night. When I get really angry or upset, I like to spend time with cars. Fixing things has always been my way of dealing with anger. So, I started to really check out your car. The things I found wrong are going to cost you an arm and a leg, and I think its better you just let it go and get another."

I groaned. "It's hopeless?"


"Well, I guess I'll be getting the bus out of here…"

Jesse frowned. "You're that desperate to leave?"

"I miss home. My ex boyfriend's wedding is coming up soon. I think I'll just save enough to go back."

Jesse sat down in the grass, crossing his legs. He looked deep in thought as he tore grass and sprinkled it back onto the ground. "I-I don't really want to know the personal details," he exclaimed. "You have your reasons to go back just like I have my reasons to stay here."

"Becky wants to send me back home. I'm tempted to take her offer, but I can't take her money. She's working part time and doing her best to provide for her daughter. I can't take that security away. I feel bad enough staying there…"

"Becky is a good woman. She's religious. She's not the best educated. But she'll be your friend for eternity."

"Do you know much about Becky?" I asked, suddenly curious. "I wonder about Penny's father or even Becky's parent's. She never really mentions anyone."

Jesse moaned. "You make it so fucking hard to be nice, Winnie. I just told you Becky is a great person, and you can't be satisfied with that. Do you really need to know that she was adopted and that her adoptive parent's died in a car crash a few years ago? As for Penny's father, I don't know. Becky could tilt back a bottle real good when she was younger. She attracted the wrong attention."

"I heard you really tilted that bottle last night," I hissed, changing the subject.

I was trying to be nice and civil, but it was so hard with Jesse. A part of me wanted to battle with him. He was so easy to get angry, and I just wanted to bait him until he felt half as bad as I did.

"I don't think that's any of your business," he growled. "We're not talking about me right now, so stop changing the subject."

The baiting, cruel words left my mouth before I had the chance to silence them. "No, you're wrong. You don't want me to change the subject because you know that you got piss drunk and acted like an asshole. Pretending to be nice to me doesn't work, Jesse. I see right through you. You can't handle any criticism without blowing a gasket." Anger continued to surge through my body. It was easy to have a lapse in judgment when he was around, but I knew his true personality. He was never nice to anyone unless there was something in it from him. "And I'm not your best friend, either. We're barely even friends. In fact, we're not friends at all."

"You're great to confide in. That's why I wanted you to help with my jealousy ploy, but now I see you were the wrong girl for the job. You can't see behind the stereotype, can you? I'm not a heartless, senseless bastard. I have feelings too, Bronwyn."

We argued, heatedly, for nearly an hour before I backed down from a sore, growing hoarse throat. I was angry and upset—hating the person I was becoming. Why couldn't I keep my emotions in check?

"I'm done," I cried out. "I'm done fighting with you. You have faults too. Maybe I am a little shallow, but at least I'm honest and not faking it. I'm not pretending to be your friend. I don't need false friendship. So just drop the act and forget about me. Pretend I never existed," I spoke in a controlled voice.

Jesse wiped the sweat off his brow, glaring fiercely. I noticed that he was wearing his overalls. They were covered in grease, and he smelled like a mixture of gasoline and oil. My eyes studied his worn down face as realization hit me that he hadn't even gone to sleep yet. The bags under his eyes were a dead giveaway.

"I don't pretend, sweetheart," he growled through gritted teeth. "And your jacked up car is at my garage. I don't think you're in an position to be high and mighty right now."

I exhaled. He wasn't thinking clearly, right? It was nothing more than that.

"At this point, I couldn't care less what happens to it."

He sighed. "What's wrong with you today? You're acting like you don't care?"

"Not caring is easier."

"Well," he growled back, his hair slick with sweat, "if we're not caring, then you wouldn't mind if I did this."

Jesse took as many steps forward until he was in my personal space. "If you don't care or have feelings, then I can just touch you like this…" he extended his hand and ran his fingers along my arms. "I can keep doing it and you won't feel a thing."

I swallowed, refusing to let him win—even as I felt the tingles shoot up my arms.

"Because baby, ice isn't cold enough for you. You don't melt or have a softer side. You're just cold, unbreakable steel. Maybe you're pliable under intense pressure and heat, but you never break. I'm done fighting with you about things that don't matter. You'll never grow up, will you?"

"I am not steel," I murmured, my resolve crumbling. It was so hard fighting him when I was this emotional and close to tears. "I am not ice. I am a girl with a wall, Jesse. I don't ever want to be hurt again—not when your persistence reminds me so much of Seth."

"Winnie, you have to let him go. Grow up. Who cares why you broke up? He's with someone else, and you shouldn't care."

"Well, when someone shatters your heart into a million pieces and everything you do reminds you of that person, they you can lecture and criticize me, Jesse. Until then, just stop," I pleaded, my voice wavering. I wasn't sure how long I'd be able to keep myself under control. "Give me a little space, please."

"You really care," he murmured softly, his eyes wide with concern. "It's a very dangerous feeling Bronwyn. You know, I can help you with that."

"How?" I asked, my voice cracking.

"You turned it down once before, but how about you help at the garage? Norah and I are still not getting along. She pretty much quit. And Max, he just doesn't want to get in the middle. It's so awkward there. If nothing more, I could use the company, and this is your golden ticket. You get out of here faster and back to your precious life—even though you fled from it in the first place."

Flustered, I lowered my head. "There, there are a lot of variables you haven't considered. I came all this way for my parents—not to escape. And now that they want nothing to do with me, I want nothing to do with them. But being here is just a constant reminder of how unwanted and screwed up I really am," I ranted, my cheeks flushed and burning. "I'm so sick of the person I've become. I'm not a fighter. If I was normal, I would've never fought with you."

"Well, what if I said I enjoyed our arguments."

I snorted. "Arguing isn't fun. It isn't me."

"I still like fighting with you. It's refreshing to have a hotheaded girl challenge me while others cower in fear."

"What says I'm not scared of you?" I blurted out.

Jesse stepped closer. "You don't hesitate. You let me get this close and you don't hurt me."

"God would be disappointed if I kicked you in the nether regions over personal space," I bit back.

"Owe. You're always quick to comment. But when we fight, I feel like I really get to see who you are. I know we're not best friends, but we could be."

"There is no use in striking up friendships. In the end, I'll be leaving anyway."

"Then it shouldn't matter, Winnie. Just accept my offer and let one damn thing go right. I can already tell that Becky's influence is starting to wear you down."

"That'll never be true," I hissed, blood pumping like fire through my veins. "I still hate you. I don't want to be your friend. I don't want to give you a chance, either. It's too hard with you, Jesse. Why don't you just make up your mind and save everyone the trouble?"


And before I had the chance to give a hasty goodbye, Jesse grabbed my hair, twirling it in my fingers as he jerked my head towards his until we were just millimeters away.

"Maybe this would change your tune," he teased, his fingertips touching my cheeks as he closed the gap.

The moment his lips touched mine, everything changed.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: I meant to update a lot earlier, but I forgot I had this finished. So, here it is.

Faded Soulfire