Brunswick, Georgia

"Where the hell are you? You were supposed to meet me at the lawyer's office two hours ago. Call me."

Alex jammed his phone back onto his belt and pounded his fist into the kitchen counter. He should have known she'd do this. It had to be the fifth time in the past ten months she had ducked out on him. He racked his brain for the number at the newspaper office, but he couldn't remember the last four digits, and the harder he tried, the angrier he got.

He paced his kitchen in a frenzy, reciting numbers out loud hoping some combination would be familiar.

"Seven, eight, three, four. Seven, eight, four, three."

He stopped and took a deep breath.

"Eight, seven, four, three."

That was it.

He grabbed his phone again and dialed the number. After several rings, voicemail again. Damn. He repeated his message for the third time, though by now he began to realize the futility in leaving them. He hung up and immediately dialed Chloe's number. Maybe she would at least have some answers.

"Where is she?" he demanded as soon as she picked up.

"Excuse me? Don't you even bother with hello anymore?"

The coolness in her voice only infuriated him further.

"Hello. Have you heard from Adrian?"

"I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Yes you do," he spat through clenched teeth. "I'm sick of the games. If you know where she is, just tell me. I know you two talk all the time."

She sighed, and immediately he knew what was coming.

"You're handling this all wrong."

"Chloe, I swear to God, I don't need a lecture from you right now. Just tell me where she is."

"I think she said something about an assignment overseas or something. Let me guess. She didn't bother to tell you? I told you this was not-"

He hung up and slammed the phone onto the counter. He'd heard enough. And he had waited for her to come to him too many times. It was time to take action himself. He hated being manipulated, but there was obviously no other way to resolve the matter. And as soon as he got to a computer at the station today, he would book a flight to New York, and give her exactly what she had wanted all along.

August 11

Samford University

Birmingham, Alabama

Jackson looked down at his watch for what had to be the hundredth time since he'd climbed out of his car and leaned against the hood of Lily's. He only had another twenty minutes before he had to be at work. If she didn't come out of her dorm soon, he'd have to come up with another plan.

The parking lot was basically empty, except for a few cars outside a couple of the dorms where the athletes lived. This section of campus was tucked away in a wooded area, and the dorms formed a quaint red-bricked neighborhood. Jackson remembered how excited Lily had been to get into these dorms as a sophomore, how they'd played like little kids two winters ago when a freak storm had frozen the roads and dumped a foot of snow across the South. That seemed like a lifetime ago.

A door slammed shut a few feet away, and Lily walked down the front steps of her dorm. He pushed away from her car and took a deep breath to settle the adrenaline racing through him. This couldn't be any harder than preparing for a basketball game. He just needed to focus on the game plan. But when their eyes met, she visibly stiffened. Not a good sign. She adjusted her backpack and shook her head as she walked toward him.

"I don't have time for this right now, Jackson. Go home."

He'd expected resistance, and finally hearing it actually solidified his resolve.

"I just need a minute."

She stopped in front of him and shifted her weight to one hip. Her eyes still blazed with the same anger he'd seen just before she'd driven away from the hospital.

"I only have thirty minutes to get to the training room and get treatment before practice. This is going to have to wait. Or better yet, let's just postpone it indefinitely."

"I know you're upset-"

"I don't want to hear anything you have to say."

She started for her car, but he stepped in front of her and blocked her path.

"Please, just listen for a minute."

"Now I am going to be late since I have to walk there."

She turned and stomped away from him toward the bridge that led to the main campus.

"Come on Lil. Quit being so stubborn and let me drive you to the gym. You can't tell me extra sprints are worth avoiding me."

She stopped and turned around, obviously weighing her options. When she finally walked toward his car, he breathed a sigh of relief. That was half the battle right there. Now the real fight was on.

"Fine." She reached his car and swung the door open. "Just make it quick."

As he climbed in beside her, she slammed the door closed.

"Hey," he said. "Take it easy. She's about to fall apart as it is."

"Everything eventually falls apart."

She crossed her arms and stared out of the window while he tried to figure out what to make of her attitude. He hated it when she was like this—completely fenced off and impenetrable. But then again, he'd been the same way not so long ago. She was only acting this way because he'd hurt her. She looked at him and frowned.

"Well, are you driving me or not?"

He cranked the car and headed out of the parking lot, turning onto the road that circled the main campus. It was a fairly short drive over to the gym, but it might be enough time to at least get her attention and turn things around.

"I want to apologize," he said.

"Done. Apology accepted. Now you can leave me alone."

He sucked in a breath and said a quick prayer. Lord, give me patience.

"Why are you so angry with me?" he asked. "It can't be because of one stupid remark I let slip."

She stared out of the window like she was desperate to jump out and run.

"Can you speed it up a bit? I do need to get there today. I swear, you drive like a grandmother with an infant tied to the roof."

"That's a new one. How long you been saving that one up?"

Not even a hint of a smile. He was running out of time. He pulled into the parking lot of the gym and shut off the engine. Before he could say another word, she jumped out and started walking toward the back entrance. He ran to catch up with her, finally overtaking her at the bottom of the hill leading around the back of the gymnasium.

"Wait, Lily."

He reached for her arm, but she pulled it away and kept walking.

"You asked for a minute. You got it. I accepted your apology. Now we're done. For good this time."

"No, we're not. Now stop and listen to me."

She reached for the door handle that led to the training room, and panic surged through him—like she might disappear forever if she went inside.

"Lily, I love you. Please! Just listen to me for a minute."

She stopped and faced him, honey-streaked strands of hair whipping across her cheeks as though they were as angry as she was.

"How dare you say that to me now. You don't know if you love me, remember? You're just jealous. You can't stand that I could actually be happy with someone else."

He had to admit she was right, at least about being jealous. She had been his for so long. How could anyone else know that the only way to make her giggle was to breathe in just the right spot behind her ear? Would any other man even care how she got the scar over her right eye that had gradually receded into her hairline? No, she was his from the beginning, and no one was going to change that.

"You're right. I am jealous. I get sick to my stomach just thinking about some other guy touching you. But I do love you. Don't make this about Alex. There's no way you could choose him over what we have."

"What we have? Are you serious?" She thrust her hand into his chest and knocked him back a step. "If what we had, Jackson, was so great, then why was it so easy for you to let it go?"

He regained his composure and moved closer, leaning down until he made eye contact.

"Believe me, absolutely nothing about the last few months of my life has been easy. I never wanted to let go, I just didn't have the strength to hang on!"

She shook her head and stepped away from him, obviously fighting tears. She was still angry, but he could see tiny cracks forming in her wall—the same cracks he had seen the other morning in his mom's kitchen. She would have kissed him. He was sure of that. But she'd denied even getting close.

Then suddenly it all made sense.

"I was right," he said.


"That's why you're so mad. I was right, and you know it."

"I don't know what you're talking about."

He moved closer to her, but she retreated again.

"You still love me," he said.


"Yes, you do. It's the only thing that makes sense."

She straightened to her full height and met his gaze like she was staring down an opponent.

"I don't love you."

Her eyelids fluttered, and he had to force back a smile.

"I don't believe you."

"I don't care if you believe me or not. We're through, Jackson. With everything. We can't even be friends."

He moved closer again, and this time when she backed away, the brick wall stopped her. Instead of stepping any closer though, he stopped and studied her. He had one chance left to get through to her.

"Prove it," he said.

"What? You're not making any sense."

"Prove to me that you don't love me, and I promise I'll leave you alone."

He tipped her chin until she looked up, her gaze full of the same emotions swirling around in his head. She put her hands on his chest to push him away, but there was no strength in them.

"Prove it?" she asked. "How?"

"Kiss me."

Her eyes widened. "No."

"It's the only way to get rid of me. If you don't love me, it won't mean anything."

"You're crazy."

He leaned in closer, keeping his lips barely an inch from hers.

"Lily, just kiss me."

He felt the tension between them drawing him into her, and hope rose like a wave inside of him. If he could just kiss her, she would remember—she would have to see. He reached for her face, cupping her cheek in his hand. But the dampness of her skin stopped him cold, just a breath away from what he wanted. Then a voice as clear as his own echoed in his head.

Don't do this.

He felt her hands shaking on his chest, saw the same pain in her eyes that had been there that night at his house—the night he had let her walk away. His heart sank. Sure, she might kiss him. She might even still love him. But trying to take it from her would just hurt her again.

"I'm so sorry." He wiped the tears from her face. "I shouldn't have said that. You don't have to prove anything. That's what I'm supposed to do. And it's about time I did it."

"Now what are you talking about?" She sniffled and pushed some strands of hair off her cheek.

His stomach wretched as he realized what he was about to say, and he nearly doubled over. But it was time to stop hurting her, and start loving her.

"I'm the one that has something to prove. I do love you, and more than anything in the world, I want you to be happy. Part of me wants to grab you and shake you until you see what a mistake it is to give up on us."

He paused as his words sank in. Had she felt the same way about him when he was wallowing in his own misery?

"I can't make you give me a second chance," he continued. "And I promise I won't try to force it anymore. If you need time and space, you have it. I'll leave you alone."

He touched his lips to her forehead then backed up, needing to put more space between them. Every inch of his being still ached to finish that kiss. He needed to get out of there before he changed his mind.

"I'll always love you," he said. "Always. If you ever need me, or want to talk, call me. I'll be here for you."

Then he turned and walked up the hill as fast as he could. His head throbbed and his stomach swam with nausea. He had just let her go again. How could he have done that? Hadn't he come here to do anything to hold onto her?

When he reached his car, he pulled open the door and took one last glance at the back of the gym. She was gone.

Lily scrubbed her hair with the towel one last time and tossed it over the top of the shower curtain. She stepped in front of the mirror on the medicine cabinet, running a comb through her hair then paused for a moment. Her eyes were still a bit red, but the shower had helped to wash away the remnants of her frustrations from the long afternoon.

Stepping out of the bathroom, she crossed the small dorm room she shared with Emily and sat down at her desk, thankful for the quiet. The team had all gone to dinner after practice, but Lily had complained of a headache and headed back to the dorms. She'd noticed the look from Emily and knew she'd have to explain better later on, but for now it was enough to have the room to herself.

They'd spent the better part of the morning figuring out how to arrange the furniture. Not that there was much to arrange—a couple of desks, two beds, a couple of waist-high chest of drawers. But with two workouts and a three-hour practice all in the first day back, there hadn't been much time to unpack her things, and the room still felt empty.

She debated on unpacking her clothes, but her body was already beginning to ache, so she opened her laptop instead. She opened a web browser and checked her email. It was mostly junk, with several notifications from Facebook, but one of them was a complete surprise. Chloe Walker had sent her a friend request?

She was sure Chloe had disliked her, but maybe she'd been wrong. Maybe she'd just been having a bad day. She started to click on the link to her Facebook account, but her phone rang on the desk beside her, and she grabbed it.


"Hey beautiful." Alex's voice still made her stomach take a quick dip.

"Hey, how's your day going?"

"Can't complain. How about you? How was your first day of practice?"


She grimaced as she thought of her terrible performance that afternoon. She'd been a step behind in every drill.

"Just okay?"

"Guess I'm a bit rusty. It wasn't my best practice, and Coach laid into me a bit, but I'm sure tomorrow will be better."

"I'm sure it will. Besides, if volleyball doesn't work out you can just move down here and hang out with me every day."

She laughed and shook her head. "Nah, you'd just get sick of me. Toss me aside with all the others."

"Please," he said, lowering his voice. "I could never toss you aside."

Her cheeks flushed as she smiled to herself, and she suddenly missed him so much it ached.

"So practice didn't go well," he continued, "but how about the rest of your day? You getting settled in?"

She cleared her throat and wondered whether she should mention Jackson's visit. But if the roles were reversed, she had to admit she'd want to know.

"The rest of the day was okay too." She paused. "Jackson dropped by, but that turned out to be nothing."

"What do you mean he dropped by?"

"When I went out to my car, he was outside waiting. He just wanted to talk. I told him to leave me alone, and he said he would."

"I don't like that he thinks he can just show up whenever he wants. Doesn't he know about us?"

"Of course. That's why I told him to leave me alone from now on."

"I thought things were over between you two."

"They are!"

"Then why is he always around? First it's his mom, and now he's just showing up at your dorm. Are you sure you're over him?"

Her chest heaved, and she leaned her head into her other hand.

"Alex, listen to me. It's over. I'm over him. We tried to be friends, but it didn't work out. He's gone for good now. Can we please not talk about him anymore, and just move on?"

He sighed and mumbled more to himself than to her. "This is crazy." Then louder. "Is this crazy?"

"What do you mean?"

"You and me. I've barely spent any time with you, and you're all I can think about."

She smiled and felt the building tension evaporate.

"It's definitely crazy. When am I ever going to see you again?"

"Soon. I promise."

They sat in silence for a moment, and Lily imagined his arms around her. She could still smell the salty air, still feel the heat off his skin. She shook her head, pushing away the daydream.

"Hey, your sister sent me a friend request on Facebook. Maybe she doesn't hate me after all."

"What does that mean?"

"You know, on Facebook. She sent me a friend request."

"I don't use Facebook. And I didn't know Chloe did." He paused, and the silence grew uncomfortable. "Maybe that's not such a good idea."

"What's not a good idea?" she asked.

"You and Chloe being friends. She's a little…"

"What?" He didn't answer. "Come on, Alex. What's the deal with you and Chloe?"

"Look, there's no deal. We just don't see eye to eye on things, and we haven't been getting along lately."

"So you don't think I should be friends with her?"

"I'm not saying that." He forced out a hard breath. "Look, do whatever you want. I just don't know if it's a good idea. That's all."

She looked at the email again, an uneasy feeling working its way through her. She hadn't imagined Chloe's cold demeanor toward her, or the tension between the two of them that day at the cafe. She was beginning to think their disagreement had something to do with her, but she couldn't imagine why. And if Chloe didn't want Alex seeing her, why would she reach out to be her friend?

August 13

Birmingham, Alabama

It wasn't until a couple of nights later when Lily had a chance to go through her email again, and as she cleaned out her inbox, she noticed the friend request from Chloe again. This time she clicked on the link, and it took her to her friend page where she confirmed the request.

She clicked on Chloe's page, but there wasn't much there—several friends and a few photos. She scrolled down the friends list, wondering if she'd see anyone she knew, though that seemed impossible. Alex had been pretty tight-lipped about his family, but maybe Chloe would lead her to more information.

None of the names rang a bell, but a couple had the last name of Walker, and she wondered if they were related. Maybe his mother was on Facebook, or some cousins. Had he even mentioned he had cousins?

She went to the first name and tried the page, but everything was blocked. So she went back to Chloe's page, and there she noticed something interesting. The first name on Chloe's friend list had been an Adrian Walker, and though she couldn't see the page, Adrian also had a fan page, and Chloe had recently subscribed.

Lily clicked on it, and the page loaded with the beautiful picture of a blonde woman seated on the edge of a desk, her long slender legs crossed at the ankle. She smiled at the camera, her high cheek bones and pale skin giving her an almost haunted look. In fact, as Lily looked closer, something about her eyes seemed hollow, as if only her mouth were smiling while the rest of her was miserable.

Lily looked over the page. She was a journalist in New York, and there was a link to an article. Lily followed it, curious now about the haunted woman whose last name was Walker and how she might be linked to Alex.

She picked up the phone and decided to try his cell. No answer, so she left him a message.

"Hey, I know you said it might not be a good idea, but I accepted Chloe's friend request. I thought it might be interesting to see if you had any cousins or relatives out there, and I ran across an Adrian Walker, a journalist in New York. Just curious about her. Call me when you get a break."

She hung up the phone and scanned through the article profiling the newest hire at the paper, Adrian Walker from Brunswick, Georgia. There had to be a connection to Alex.

She read through a short description of Adrian's accomplishments and her freelance pieces that had been published around the country, including a major article on women in the work place. She'd almost reached the end when her phone rang. It was Alex.

"Hey," she said.

"What are you doing?" The abrupt tone in his voice caught her off guard.

"Just sitting at my computer. Why? What are you doing?"

"Look, uh, we probably need to talk." His voice sounded strange, almost panicked.

"Alex, what's wrong?"

"Just, stop what you're doing and let me talk to you for a minute."

She looked back at the computer screen, and a vague sense of dread started working through her.

"Are you getting freaked out because I'm asking about your family?"

"No, it's not that. I'm not freaked out. I just need you to hear me out."

She looked at the last paragraph of the article, and Alex's name practically jumped off the screen at her. She had to back up and read it again. She'd read it wrong somehow.

"Lily, I have to tell you something, and it's not easy to explain."

"You're married."

Her eyes swam, and it felt like she might fall out of her chair for a second.

"Not…exactly. Just listen to me."

"Wait." She dropped her free hand to her knee to support herself. She suddenly felt nauseous. "You're not married? What, are you divorced?"

The line was silent, and she wanted to reach through it and grab him by the throat.

"Alex! Are you married or not?"

"Technically, yes," he said. "I am still married. But we've been separated for nearly a year."

The room tilted, and the walls swayed around her. Somewhere in her head he spun sentences around and around, but nothing made sense. All she could hear was his voice crushing the bud of trust that had been growing between them.

"Lily? Are you still there?"

"I can't do this. We can't see each other anymore."


"Because you're married!"

"No, listen. When I go there and she signs the papers-"

"It doesn't matter. You lied to me." She heard her own voice like it was coming from somewhere else, raspy and defeated. No amount of talking to him was going to change anything, and all she wanted to do was find a dark hole to crawl inside and hide.

"I didn't lie to you," he said. "I just kept thinking it would be over soon and it wouldn't matter. Then she kept stalling, and I wasn't sure how to tell you, or when the right time would be."

"A thousand times before now would have been better! I can't believe you've been hiding this. You know how important my faith is to me, Alex. How could you make me commit adultery?"

"What? Adultery? You haven't committed adultery. Don't be ridiculous."

"Ridiculous? You're calling my beliefs, my faith, ridiculous?"

"No, I-"

"I'll tell you what's ridiculous. What's ridiculous is that you would expect me to just smile and say it's okay that you're still married, and that it doesn't matter that you never told me."

"I'm not really married-"

"Yes you are!"

Her face grew hot, and she couldn't sit still any longer. She jumped up and paced the room. If only he was there so she could strangle him!

"Alex, I believe marriage is sacred. It's a promise to love each other forever. I can't be your girlfriend while I wait for you to get divorced from your wife, and still be true to my faith. It's adultery in God's eyes."

"I don't know about God's eyes. I do know that my marriage is over, whether you choose to stay with me or not. You're not breaking it up. Believe it or not, I think marriage is sacred just as much as you do-"

"Then why aren't you doing everything you can to save it?"

"What makes you think I haven't?"

She paused and tried to gain control of the shaking inside of her. She didn't know him at all.

"Let's just calm down and talk about this reasonably," he said. "You're hurt and angry, and you have every right to be. I should have said something sooner."

"Why did you wait so long to tell me?"

He sighed, but said nothing. Her body had run out of steam, so she sat back down on the bed. Could this really be happening?

"Look," he said. "At first, I didn't say anything because I barely knew you. I had no idea where things were going with us. And I really hate talking about it."

"You should have told me before I came back down there."

"I couldn't. I wanted to see you, and I didn't want to mess everything up. She was supposed to sign the papers the Monday after you left, and I thought I could talk to you about it then. But she never showed, and now everything is all screwed up."

"What doyou want from me?"

She dropped her head into her hand, massaging her temples. This was exhausting. None of it really mattered anymore anyway.

"You know," he said, his voice softening. "I was drowning till I met you. I thought what I wanted wasn't possible, wasn't real. I thought I'd never give another thought to marriage. But all I can do since you came down here is think about a life with you."

Her eyes ached, and her throat knotted. How could he have found another dagger to drive into her? What a fool she was. She'd been dreaming of a future with someone who had already committed to sharing his life with someone else. No matter what either of them wanted, she couldn't be a mistress, not even for a short time. She laid her head down and buried it in her pillow, yearning for him and hating him at the same time.

"I need to go," she said. "I can't talk to you right now. You don't get it. I can't do this."

"Don't hang up yet, Lily."

"I have to go. Please don't call me again."

"Lily wait-"

She ended the call and crumpled into a heap on her bed, gripping the terrible ache in her chest.

Not again, God. Please, not again.

She pulled the pillow over her ears as the phone began to ring. He could call until the end of eternity for all she cared. She was through with Alex Walker.

Author's Note: Dear Kind Readers, thank you so much for hanging in there this long. I hope that by now you're as in love with these characters as I have been for some time now. It is not my intention to pull a "bait and switch" but I also hope to build a writing career in the years to come, so I can't just give away my work for free. I hope that these thirteen chapters have been enough to convince you of whether it's worth the purchase on Amazon (only $3.99). Please look it up and enjoy the rest of the story to discover what becomes of Lily, Alex, and Jackson. And if you feel so inclined to leave a review either here or on Amazon, I would be eternally grateful, and return the favor. Thank you!