Sebastian Kelly believes he isn’t worthy of redemption, of a chance to right his wrongs. But an unexpected trip home, the place he dreads most, calls in question everything he’s come to believe. And who knows, he may find exactly what he’s been waiting for.
One broken promise. Two pink lines.
Autumn Norris knew in an instant her life would never be the same. Years have flown by in a flurry of sparkles and dress up, and Autumn has refused to let the anchor of regret pull her under.
Until she lays eyes on Sebastian, and the wave of why, where, and how could you flood her every thought.
Old hurt and new betrayal twist first love into a reluctant partnership, and theirs may be a bond even pigtails and butterfly kisses can’t mend. But the past five years have felt like a lifetime, and Seb is willing to wait as long as it takes.
Because the truth is, he’s always been waiting for Autumn.
“My Lord, this book was the most uplifting thing I’ve ever read.” – Little Red Reading Hood
“…J.A. DeRouen’s exquisitely beautiful writing to all of that and you have the makings of this 5-Star read…” – Bewitched Reader
Do you love me? Circle yes or no.
P.S. – If you show this to my brother, I’ll tell everyone you cried at the end of Where the Red Fern Grows.
The afternoon sun hangs heavy in the Louisiana sky, like a fiery basketball drooping from a sleepy hammock. The blistering heat burned off any remnants of clouds hours ago and singed my exposed thighs right along with it.
Who wears cutoffs for a day of mudding with Sebastian Kelly? After all these years, I should know better than that. When he showed up on our doorstep bright and early with an ice chest, four-wheeler, and his jam-box, circa 1980, all signs pointed to this being an all-day affair. I threw on the first clothes I could find, wrapped my hair into a high bun, and hit the fields with my boyfriend and my brother. Now, at the end of the day, my bun has taken a precarious plunge south, and sweaty, blonde curls stick to my flushed cheeks and neck.
“Ty Landry’s having a bonfire behind his dad’s old barn tonight. Who’s in?” I ask, knowing exactly on which side of the fence both Brady and Sebastian will land. Brady, the altar boy, and Sebastian, the devil on Brady’s shoulder. A hot, harmless devil … well, mostly harmless.
Me? I’m the cheerleader for all hair-brained schemes. You only live once, and I plan to skid into those pearly gates with a boatload of epic tales. That’s part of the reason why Seb and I are meant to be together. Well, that, and a thousand other reasons adding up to forever.
“I’ll pass,” Brady says after turning off his four-wheeler and running a hand over his neatly cropped hair. He swears the haircut helps to keep him cool. I say he looks like he battled with the clippers, and the clippers won. We agree to disagree.
“Like hell, you’ll pass.” Sebastian purposefully hits the brakes late so his tires bump into Brady’s with a jolt and a muttered curse.
“Not this time.”
My brother’s clenched jaw and puffed chest only serve to amuse Sebastian. Brady’s drank one beer too many if he thinks that’ll be the end of it. Sebastian and I never take no for an answer. We’re all too familiar with lassoing a reluctant Brady.
Cow-tipping in Old Man Johnson’s field? What’s the harm? Everyone conveniently forgot about Mr. Johnson’s penchant for firing his shotgun first and asking questions later. I don’t even need to mention his notoriously bad eyesight.
Driving lessons, better known as donuts, in the field behind the neighborhood? At the age of twelve? Yeah, only Sebastian could make that one sound like a good idea. Good thing Seb’s older brother came to the rescue with a four-wheel drive truck and an alibi.
Skinny-dipping in the country club’s pool at midnight? Who’ll ever know? Thanks to security cameras, the entire country club staff. The phone rang off the hook that summer when the girls in town got a peek of the goods. A gnarly case of the flu saved me from that fiasco, and I often thank Bernadette Jenkins for not covering her sneeze and saving my tits from going viral.
“What kind of friend would I be if I let you miss the biggest blowout of senior year?” Sebastian chides with a theatrical groan. Hands thrown up in frustration, his beer sloshes and splashes onto my bare thigh. He wipes the spill with his thumb, then sucks it into his mouth, shrugging his apology.
“And what kind of sister would that make me? I’m Team Seb on this one. You’re comin’, and that’s the end of it.”
“Come on, give it a rest. I’m tired as hell, and I’ve got to work at the feed store bright and early tomorrow. You know what’s worse than schlepping fifty-pound bags of feed? Doing it hungover. I need to sleep off this beer.” Brady peers at his watch and then throws back the rest of his Budweiser.
“All work and no play makes Brady the worst best friend ever. Am I right, Autumn? Brady the Buzzkill strikes again.” Sebastian casts a glance over his shoulder, and I nod in agreement. I shrug and blow a kiss when Brady glares at me.
“Our time for screwing off is coming to an end. Soon enough, you’ll be neck-deep in two-a-days at LSU, wishing all you had to do was schlep bags of feed. Let’s blow off some steam before you become the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy for being the best fucking quarterback the SEC has ever seen!”
“Hell yeah!” I cheer, with a fist pump to the sky. My brother tips his head and sighs, while Sebastian pulls me closer and leans his weight against me.
My arms curl around his waist, and I lay a flushed cheek against his damp back. He tugs my hands to his lips and kisses my inner wrist. God, I’ll miss this when he leaves for college in the fall. A day is too long to be away from him, let alone an entire year. It’s a done deal; I’m all set to meet him next fall, but next fall feels so far away. As soon as that diploma hits my hand, I’ll have lightning shooting out of my heels to get to him.
Truth is, I’ve been following Sebastian since the day I learned to crawl.
Trailing behind, griping for them to let me play, too.
Holding his hand as we ran down the block, narrowly beating the streetlights home.
Arms circling his waist as we splashed through mud and muck on his four-wheeler.
And finally, finally, my lips pressed to his, when he opened his eyes and saw the little girl with pigtails was more than just a tag-along.
“Hurry, Autumn. Catch up, I’ve been waiting for you.”
He squeezes my clasped hands, and I slip my fingers under the seam of his shirt. His skin is warm and sticky, and his hair is drenched with sweat. I press my mouth to the curve of his neck and lick his salty taste from my lips. He lets out a low, tortured groan, only loud enough for me to hear.
“No play? We’ve been riding all damn day!” Brady raises up the empty twelve-pack carton and waves it in the air. “Beer gone. Sunburnt. Tired as hell. I’m tapping out, man. Y’all are gonna have to party without me. I’m sure you two can figure something out.”
Honestly, a night alone with Sebastian sounds perfect to me. I’m usually first in line for a party, but I feel our time together slipping through our fingers. I want every second with him to count in some indelible way. The future pulls and frays the ties that connect us, and I’m not the only one feeling it. It’s all in his eyes—Seb wants us all together, all the time, the way we’ve been since we were kids. Like keeping those he loves close will dull the hurt when it’s time to go. Brady leaves for LSU next month, and Sebastian moves the month after for Southern Louisiana University … and I’ll be all alone in Prosper without my partners-in-crime. My best friends.
The boy I love.
“How about this—” Seb starts.
“Nope,” Brady interrupts, leaning back and crossing his arms.
“Race me for it.”
“Screw you, man.”
“I win, you come. You win, your momma can tuck you in before dark.”
“No,” Brady repeats.
And the silent stare down begins.
Softly, almost unintelligibly, Sebastian mutters under his breath, “Pussy.”
The whispered taunt lingers in the air like the kicked-up dust dancing all around us. Brady fires up the four-wheeler with a kick of his heel, the sound piercing the silence around us. “You’re on. First to the fence, and when I beat your ass, you’re gonna clean my bike, too.”
Sebastian barks out a laugh and cranks his bike while I hop off, kiss him fast and hard, then grab one of the empty cans out of his front crate. Standing between the two of them, I raise the crumpled beer can high in the air as their bikes growl on either side of me. Seb presses play on his damn near antique jam-box, and “Welcome to the Jungle” howls through the speakers. Guitar riffs amp up, and the air crackles with anticipation.
My hands stay high in the air as I look at Brady … then Seb. I mouth “I love you” to him, and his eyes close as if he’s caught the words mid-air. I grin, the excitement bubbling up inside me, as they both sit poised and ready for my cue.
“Ready … set…” I bite my lip as two weighted seconds pass, then hurl the can high up into the air. “GO!”
Kicked-up dust swirls and grits between my teeth as I spin around to watch them shoot across the field. Axl Rose’s primal cry pierces through the air, intertwining with the screaming engines as they’re pushed past their limits. Chasing their trails of rolling dust, I race up the hill behind them.
“Faster Autumn, I’m right over here.”
Tires devour dirt, and engines grind like a deafening thunder. Brady shoots to standing as he nears the hill, arm fisted in the air, and lets out a bellowing battle cry before he races over the top. Sebastian follows closely behind, and they both disappear from my view, as I race to catch up. My lungs burn from the effort, sucking in filthy air in short bursts as I squint to see what’s ahead of me.
My legs pump harder once they vanish from sight, thighs burning with each pounding step. I race to the finish line without even a care about who wins, just caught up in the moment with my two best friends—my brother and the boy I love. The Fearsome Threesome.
The grinding hum of motors morphs into something high-pitched and sickly, turning my insides to acid. My gut twists as an engine whines in the distance, out of my range of sight. Something’s not right … something’s very wrong … something’s—
An agonizing howl shoots from the other side of the hill and steals the breath from my lungs. I trip over my frantic feet, dirt and grass filling my mouth as I fly forward and hit the hard ground.
“I need you, Autumn. I need you, hurry!”
I stumble to my hands and knees, bits of stray rock piercing skin as I fight my way to standing … running … flying across the field.
“Brady, oh fuck, Brady! Christ!” Sebastian’s voice sinks its teeth into the stagnant air and rips it wide open, all sounds bursting into high velocity and waves of technicolor horror.
I’m trudging through tar to get to them, stumbling the entire way as the world whips around me in a haze of terror. I round the top of the hill, and my knees buckle. I can’t see … I can’t see … I don’t want to see …
“Hurry, Autumn, help me. Fuck, help me get the bike off him. Please, Brady, do you hear me?” Sebastian howls like a wounded animal as he frantically wrenches the crumpled four-wheeler off my brother’s limp body. “Please, please, please,” he whispers as tears spill and splash onto my dusty cheeks, streaking them with rivulets of salty mud.
The sickening groan of the motor dies away, amplifying Sebastian’s cries and a piercing scream I only then recognize as my own. I fall to my knees at Brady’s side, drowning in paralyzing fear.
I will never forget Seb’s frantic pleas as he heaves the four-wheeler off my brother … or the absolute stillness of Brady’s body twisted and contorted in a way that tells me, with utter certainty, our lives will never be the same again.
Present Day – Five Years Later
“Cappuccino, one sugar, light foam!” Lexi calls out, sliding the coffee mug to the edge of the pick-up counter. The customer doesn’t notice her forced smile as she picks up her drink.
“Simmer down, woman. Your inner snob is showing,” I whisper as I wrap a friendly arm around her shoulders and smile at the retreating customer.
“Light foam,” she mutters, lowering and shaking her head. “A cappuccino is all about the foam, Seb. Who are these heathens we’re serving?”
“Customers, Lex. Paying customers.”
I slide the double shot espresso ticket in her direction, and she nods her approval.
“A man after my caffeinated heart,” she sighs, her lips quirking up into a quasi-smile. She pushes up her sleeves, revealing a tiny sliver of the Alice in Wonderland mural tattooed on her forearms, and gets to work.
We’re all mad here. Truer words …
Lexi’s been with me from the very beginning when Fuel was a run-down coffee shop named Marge’s Cup of Joe, run by … Joe and Marge Reynolds, of course. Joe is an ornery old man with glass packs in his lungs and a weathered saddlebag for skin due to centuries of smoking. Marge has never met anyone she didn’t want to mother to death and is as tall as she is wide. I take that back—there’s one person Marge doesn’t want to mother—Joe. Her favorite pastime is nagging the old man to death. Luckily, she mothered the hell out of me the day I showed up in Haven five years ago, broke and broken.
Marge took one look at me holding her help wanted sign and realized I needed a shitload more than just a job. She started with an unfinished apartment upstairs and an offer for free rent in exchange for fixing up the place. Once my apartment was transformed from open walls and concrete to exposed beams and graffiti murals, I got to work on downstairs. Diner chairs with cracked and frayed vinyl were swapped out for galvanized metal barstools. Stained Formica tables were replaced with distressed wooden plank tables and benches. And when Marge and Joe were ready to retire, a lease-to-own agreement between a generous couple and their wayward employee transformed me into a business owner. The exiled black sheep of Prosper, LA turning into a contributing member of society. Who would have thought it was possible? Definitely not me.
And that was when the big changes came.
Espresso machine instead of old drip coffee pots.
Eminem instead of Chuck Berry.
Fuel instead of Cup of Joe.
And with every addition, every step in the direction of making this place my own, I became less of a dejected boy and more of a confident man. A confident man with a chip on his shoulder, but miles away from the screwup I used to be. Hell, on a good day, that ever-present chip looked more like a tiny speck of lint.
Brush that shit off, man. You can’t rewrite the past.
On a bad day … well, we won’t talk about the bad days.
“Hey, welcome to Fuel. What can I get started for you?” I ask the striking brunette opposite me. Her blue eyes saunter over my lips, chest, colorful arm art, then land squarely on my dick. I smirk at her appreciation and resist the urge to return the perusal. When her eyes return to mine, I raise my eyebrows in the universal “like what you see?” gesture.
She chuckles and leans closer, like she’s got a secret she’s dying to tell. I meet her halfway, all too eager to hear where she plans to meet me later. Her lips curve up, and she whispers, “Your barn door is open. Thought you’d want to know.”
I can’t help it—I grin and let out a laugh. I place my hand on my zipper and watch her eyes make their descent … again.
“Thanks for the tip. We wouldn’t want the rooster to get loose,” I quip, slowly pulling up my zipper as I smirk. “Cock-a-doodle-dooooooooo,” I singsong.
Lexi’s groan drowns out my rooster crow, and we both turn in her direction. “Seriously, have you no shame? And that goes for the both of you, since I have no doubt she’ll be handing over her number shortly. It’s hard to watch sometimes.”
After taking her order and getting her to sign her receipt, which she wrote both her signature and phone number on, I might add, I narrow my eyes at my insolent employee.
“Cock-a-doodle-doooo,” she sings, and then bursts out laughing.
I open my mouth to ban her from speaking for the rest of the morning when the ringing phone interrupts me. I grab the portable off the back counter and check the caller ID. If the 318 area code doesn’t grab my attention at first, the Prosper, LA across the screen punches me square in the gut. No name, just Prosper, LA.
I don’t give a fuck who it is—there’s no one in Prosper who’s got anything good to say to me. And there’s nothing I can do or say to change that.
“Telemarketer. Let it ring,” I say in a clipped tone as I toss the stick of dynamite on the counter and stalk to the back.
I pace the storage room as the incessant ringing rattles my brain. I clench my eyes shut and push out every thought of that godforsaken town. Over the last few years, I’ve become adept at locking those memories away in the deepest part of my heart, never letting them see the light of day. It’s funny how a two-inch-by-four-inch illuminated screen can dismantle five years’ worth of work … suppression … denial … whatever.
When the ringing finally stops, I fold in half, hands gripping my neck and head hanging between my knees.
If I could just breathe.
The answering machine flips on, and my recorded voice ricochets off the walls, punctuated at the end with an ear-piercing beep. My lungs seize in my chest as a voice I’d know from anywhere fills the room, deliberate and somber.
“Seb? It’s Lance … your brother.” He sighs into the phone, sounding like a harsh, piercing whistle. “I’m here … in Prosper. Look man, you’re gonna need to come home.”
Home. Home. Home.
The unrelenting guilt I battle every time I think of Prosper rushes over me. There’s a reason I’ve shoved those memories to the furthermost corner of my mind. Tentacles of regret pull me under like a thousand-pound cinder block at the bottom of the Black Sea. Memories, emotions, and sorrow for the mistakes I’ve made barrel through me. Brady … my parents … Autumn … my Autumn.
One phone call unravels me as I’m pummeled with the only truth I know with any amount of certainty.
I lost my home on a summer day five years ago, and I’ll never get it back.