Sydney's always been a strong, independent woman, and since losing her beloved boyfriend Will, she's had plenty of opportunities to prove it. Especially when he reappears and helps open her heart to healing Marine veteran, Logan Carter.
My life has come full circle. Except this time, I refuse to let the last time I see the man I love be at his funeral.
No. I need to find him and set my mind at ease. He needs to know how sorry I am. That despite how selfish I’ve been, all I want is for him to be happy, healthy, and safe. That he deserves more than he allows himself to have, and he’s not broken. Far from it. If anyone’s broken around here, it’s me. I haven’t been myself lately. Just a jagged shard of who I thought I was—who I want to be—and I’ve made so many mistakes.
But despite all the mishaps during our relationship and how horribly I treated him the last time we were together, I no longer think he’s left me. Not entirely. All the evidence points to something else I can’t understand yet, and I'm tired of sitting around, waiting for answers. I’m ready to fight for him. For us.
With every ounce of my being, I believe that he wants me and my son in his life. That we can get beyond the pain we both harbor. That we are better than our pasts—better together—and we deserve a happy ever after.
But if I’m wrong, and he doesn’t see a future with me or can’t forgive me, then I’ll let him go. It will hurt like hell, but at least he’ll be free to wander and free to find the happiness he deserves. And I will have said what’s on my heart, ridding me of the weight regrets and unspoken words put on a weary soul. After all, I already have more of those than I can carry.
Eight Months Earlier
If William would stop taking off his diaper and running through the house naked every chance he got, especially after she’d already redressed him twice since breakfast, maybe she wouldn’t be running late. But it wasn’t his fault. He was a carbon copy of his father Will, which meant there could be no slowing him down or dimming his light.
She glanced at her reason for everything, playing with his toy action figures in the back seat, and couldn’t stop herself from wondering. How could he not be the center of her parents’ world as he was hers? How could they not want to hear his sweet voice? Whether he preferred cake or cookies. Liked to ride in a stroller or run free. What about how affectionate he was while listening to a book being read aloud or the few precious moments after he woke up from a nap? Not that he took many of those anymore, she sighed, checking to ensure the pesky bags under her eyes were still masked under the layer of concealer she managed to apply before leaving. How could her parents go about their days and not care about any of that? About their only grandchild.
But she was a perpetual disappointment to them. Why would they treat her child any different? After all, they’d turned her away when she was grieving, broke and pregnant. If it hadn’t been for Will’s parents, Caroline and Jonathan, taking her in, she would have had to somehow provide for her newborn on her own. It was bad enough facing a future without the love of her life by her side. But doing that with a child? She was clueless on all accounts, but she’d managed to pick up her shattered heart and put one foot in front of the other as best she could every single day. She had to.
I am strong. I am a survivor. Her mantra since her family turned her away like an annoying stranger.
There were many reasons why she had to be strong over the years and even more that had molded her into a survivor. But damn it, she was tired of surviving and would give anything to feel alive and free again. More like the person Will had fallen for. But after enduring more heartache and disappointment than most people her age, she’d forgotten how to have fun. How to do more than just get by.
Speaking of disappointment…why in the world had she come this way? Yes, it was a short cut to the Vane estate, and she was running behind, but it meant having to drive by her parent’s house. As she approached the small yellow Victorian home where she grew up, the walnut-stained door—the same one she slammed when she stormed out for the last time—swung open.
Stomping on the gas pedal, she sped away with a screech of the tires, but not before catching a glimpse of her mother stepping onto the porch. Judith Norman had the stereotypical Irish red hair, matching Sydney’s. But this was the first time she’d ever seen it short. The shiny, thick locks Sydney admired when she was young were dull and thinning now. Gone were the perfect little spirals at the end of her youthful mane that would bounce like springs when she walked.
Her mother’s skin was a little more pale than usual, but the tilt of her chin and the blank coldness of her green eyes were still arrogant as ever. She was tough in body, mind, and spirit, despite how delicate she looked on the outside, and stubborn as an ornery mule.
“Unca Jax!” William pointed a few minutes later when he recognized the black iron entrance gate at the estate.
“That’s right. And Aunt Emily will be here, too.” Sydney punched in the security code, then smiled into the rearview mirror. “I bet Ms. B made your favorite cookies today.”
William pounded his heels against the seat and squealed, a new talent he picked up recently. Whoever taught him that octave was going to get an earful from her—if she ever found them.
By the time she parked in the little roundabout beside the large stone house, William was a lit firework, his energy too explosive for his confinement.
“Hold on, Little Man. I know you’re excited to see Uncle Jax.” When she shifted to face him, he’d already pushed the button to release the car seat’s shoulder straps and was trying to press the button between his legs. “I’ll get that one,” she said with a grin and pushed the only button in the darn contraption doing its job. But in all the distractions his sparkling energy ignited, she hadn’t prepared herself for how quickly that firecracker would go off. Upon release, like a firework show finale, he slid down, climbed over the console between the front two seats, and into her lap in rapid succession.
“Whoa, there buddy,” she snatched up his hand when he reached for the door handle and kissed his soft knuckles. The dark-chocolate eyes he got from Will watched her while he bounced, giggled, and tugged to get free. “Didn’t you forget something?”
She tapped an index finger to her lips. Recognizing the request immediately, he lunged forward, his lips connecting with hers with more slobber than she would have liked. But she’d take a buckle full if it meant having more moments like this.
“Alright. You can go see Uncle Jax now.”
With a squeal that rivaled a baby hyena, she swung open the door. His bony knees dug into her thighs as he climbed down and while rubbing her new bruises, she watched him clumsily run toward the side door of the estate. He pulled open the screen door that was propped open for him and entered as if he owned the place. Well, he spent enough time there, she thought, and that’s what Jackson wanted. For his godson to feel he belonged there.
But William was at home in Jackson’s arms the moment they met. It wouldn’t matter if Jackson lived in a shack or a tent in the unforgiving desert. With his father’s best friend was where William wanted to be.
She watched him duck inside, shaking her head at her resourceful two-and-a-half-year-old. He was proficient at pushing all kinds of buttons, including the one on his car seat buckle, and no doubt Jackson had taught him that trick. The kid was strong and smart, and if Jackson showed him something, he listened and absorbed every word. Sometimes, it seemed William loved Jackson more than her. But that was okay. The boy needed a good man in his life to be the influence Will would have been. Their bond was special, and there was no doubt Will had something to do with that.
Will’s spirit came to her for the first time at his parents’ house in Murfreesboro, North Carolina after Jackson stopped by during his Memorial Run from Richmond, Virginia to Orlando, Florida. She couldn’t see Will, but she sensed his arms around her while she slept, and it was the only time she’d felt whole since she lost him. He hadn’t been back, but she was convinced Will had guided Jackson to her that day. To William.
Of course, Jackson hadn’t known she was staying with the Masons or that William even existed. But Will knew Jackson better than anyone. He knew Jackson would love William as his own. That he would be there for her, support her, and provide stability to her turbulent reality. And Jackson, in all his selfless glory, never hesitated.
That was almost a year ago.
“Are you hiding in there?” Jackson’s girlfriend Emily said as she rounded the hood of the car.
Sydney hadn’t seen her coming, her mind lost in the past, and her heart jumped into her throat from the surprise. Trying to calm her nerves, she leaned back against the headrest as Emily bent down to see her.
“What took you so long?”
“Don’t ask,” Sydney answered, climbing out with a long sigh. “I got your flowers. Did you have to order every kind in bloom right now?”
“It’s a special day, and special days require a lot of gorgeous flowers. Plus, I’m going to take some arrangements to VETS for the grand opening tomorrow.”
Sydney surrendered. “Good idea. The place could use more color.”
“What do you mean? Everything’s crisp, clean, and brand new.”
“I just mean it’s very…male. There are female veterans who need help, too, you know.”
“Of course, I do.” Emily smiled. “Why do you think I’m taking the flowers?”
“I should have known you’d have it covered.” Sydney pushed the door closed and walked around to the passenger seat to help Emily unload the long boxes.
“Thank you for picking these up. Time got away from me, Ms. B is still cooking, and Jackson’s a mess trying to get the last details ready for tomorrow.”
“How is he?” Sydney asked and accepted another box from Emily.
“He’s healing. Most of the bruises have faded, thank goodness. They were nasty reminders of what we went through and what could have happened, but he was more worried he’d look like he lost a boxing match during the grand opening.”
Emily grinned, but Sydney knew the residual effects from the attacks were still fresh. It was for all of them. None of them could ever forget seeing Jackson tied up and bloody, Emily frightened and bruised from being assaulted in multiple ways, and the betrayal they all felt as the terrifying night unfolded. But if Jackson’s fellow Marine veteran and friend hadn’t arrived when he did, none of them would be there that day, talking about flowers and celebrations.
“Enough talk about that,” Emily demanded to bring Sydney back to the present. “It’s time to have some fun.”
“I don’t know how you stay so positive all the time.”
“It’s a gift.” Emily kicked up her leg and batted her long lashes before opening the screen door of the historic house she now called home. She held it open for Sydney to squeeze through with the four heavy boxes she carried.
Entering the kitchen through the mudroom and butler’s pantry, they found Ms. Beasley chopping vegetables at the island—a stark contrast to the sweet aroma of cookies baking that filled the large room.
“My goodness.” Ms. Beasley, Jackson and Emily’s live-in housekeeper, cook, and steadfast support system, wiped her hands on her apron and stepped around the counter to assist. “What’s all this?”
“The florist’s entire inventory,” Sydney complained as she and Ms. Beasley lowered her boxes onto the nearby table. “Did you see William fly through here?”
“Yes, I did. I caught him long enough to get my sugar before he made a bee line to Mr. Vane’s office.”
“Good.” Sydney sighed, dropping into a chair. “Then, he’s happy and supervised.”
“Here.” Ms. Beasley handed Sydney a champagne flute already full of her special blend of orange juice, champagne, and grenadine.
“Bless you, Ms. B. Your mimosas always taste way better than mine.”
“That’s because mine are made with love, and yours are made with stress and desperation.” With an all-knowing chuckle, Ms. Beasley sauntered back to finish dinner prep at the island.
“Ha. So true.” Raising the petite glass, Sydney drained it. There would be a few more of those in her immediate future.
“Alright.” Emily set four crystal vases on the table. “Who wants to help?”
“I’d love to, sweetie,” Ms. Beasley began, “but I still have a lot to do before everyone arrives.”
“No problem.” Emily turned her attention to Sydney. “That leaves you.”
“Come on. It’ll be fun,” Emily urged, despite the scrunched-up skepticism on Sydney’s face.
“You know I can’t cook or garden, and you’ve seen the lack of anything masquerading as decorative in my house. What makes you think I can do this without screwing it up?”
Emily opened a box and held up a yellow rose. “This is not gardening or decorating. Arranging flowers is art.”
“If you say so.” Sydney snatched a vase from the lot. “But I’ll do anything so long as Ms. B keeps the mimosas coming.” She flashed a hopeful smile when Ms. Beasley winked over her shoulder.
“What about a girls’ paint night?” Emily offered.
“Well, anything but that.”