There are defining moments in life when everything changes.
For Dani Mays, the day she witnessed her brother’s murder changed the course of her life. She bounced between her alcoholic mother and foster homes until she found a permanent home. And a reason to want to stay: Reece Tyler.
After eight years of being best friends, Dani is resigned to her place in the friend zone. Then one little kiss has her questioning whether friendship is still enough. She wants more from Reece, but at what cost?
Faced with the prospect of losing Reece, Dani struggles to escape the power her memories have over her. But the past isn’t so easily laid to rest, especially when the people who hurt her the most reappear. Discovering their motives may make the difference between moving on with her life or forever being stuck in the past.
I was six when Jace died.
He took me to the park while babysitting me. He always did things like that. At sixteen, he was my superhero. It didn’t matter that we only went there so he could make out with his girlfriend, Kayla. What mattered was he took me.
Mom and Dad never bothered. Dad was always too busy working or drinking, and Mom couldn’t leave the house or people might have questioned the bruises lining her jaw.
That last day at the park, I felt like a beautiful bird. I sat on the swing with Jace behind me, pushing me higher until I soared toward the sky, the air rushing through my hair. I gripped the chains harder and let go at the highest point, gliding down to the ground. I landed on my feet, and, with a laugh, I let myself crumble on to the prickly grass before rolling over.
“Dani Blair Mays, I’m gonna get you!”
Before I could scamper away, he pounced on me, tickling me. I giggled uncontrollably until he finally let me up. I hugged him around his waist. There wasn’t anyone I loved more than Jace. He spun me in a wide circle, and my legs flew out. When he stopped spinning, my feet dropped back to the ground, and my knees gave way. I held on to him, laughing as I let myself sag against him.
“Hey, squirt. Kayla’s here. You’ve got thirty minutes.”
He gave me a shove toward the playground, and I ran for the equipment then scurried up the rope ladder, climbing in to the large, red tunnel bridge. This was my hiding place. From outside, no one could see me, but I could see out. At some point, a teenager had taken a cigarette and burned holes in to the plastic, creating perfect peepholes for me.
I pulled a marker from my pocket and scrawled my name inside the tube. I didn’t like peeking out when Kayla was there. They were always kissing. Yuck!
I didn’t mind Kayla. She was always nice to me. Not like Jace’s last girlfriend. Kayla sometimes even pushed me on the swing while they talked, her black curls bouncing around her pink cheeks. I wanted hair like hers. The kind a person wanted to pull out straight then let spring back into its wildly haphazard place.
Most important was that Jace loved her. He always said things like, “Kayla likes roses. Kayla’s gonna be a lawyer.”
That he loved her was enough for me.
I put the cap back on the marker, and was shoving it in to my pocket when I heard the first blast. I twisted around and plastered my face to the side of the tunnel, staring through the hole in terror at what I saw beside the swings.
“Boy, I told you to get your ass home!”
His blue Chevy was parked crookedly, one of its front tires pushed up on to the grass. He was weaving his way toward Jace, flailing his arms, holding his gun in one hand. My heart thumped wildly, and my hands slid along the warm plastic as sweat slickened my palms.
I’d never seen Daddy with his gun before. He quit the force before I was born. My stomach churned and cramped, seeing him hold it now.
“Dad, I did go home after school. Mom told me to take Dani out while you guys went to Grandma’s.”
Jace moved in a wide circle, forcing Dad to turn. Once Kayla was out of his line of sight, she ran. I wanted to run with her. I wanted Jace to run, too.
“Well, I don’t see the little shit, now do I?” Saliva sprayed from his mouth. “You’re always goddamn mouthy, aren’t you? Stop moving!”
“Dad, I dropped Dani off at Samantha’s. I was just about to go get her, okay? I’ll meet you back at home.” Jace took a tentative step to the side, but froze and lifted his hands up as the gun pointed directly at him.
“Shut up, boy! I’ve had enough of you and your piss ant sister. Your mother is a goddamn whore, and ain’t either of you mine. She’s been sucking my money away ever since I met her. I shoulda kicked the three of you out years ago.”
I didn’t understand what he meant, but the words filled me with fear. When Daddy started with the yelling and cussing, it was never a good sign. Jace usually ended up with bruises. I didn’t know why they called it black and blue. Our bruises always went from black to purple. Sometimes green. I’d never seen Daddy like this outside, though. He was always real careful to be nice when we weren’t at home.
“Dad, I’m gonna go get Dani now. I’ll bring her right home.” His voice soft, he stepped back, away from my secret hiding place. I could see the terror on his face. His eyes darted around the park, looking for help or a place to run.
“I said, stop moving!” Daddy’s words rang through the park, followed by another boom.
The terror on Jace’s face faded, replaced by shock and pain. A red bloom formed on his white shirt, a brilliant flower. His legs gave out, and he dropped to his knees, then fell on to his side. Gasps and sobs of pain floated through the air to me. My fingers dug at the red plastic tunnel. Daddy stood there staring at Jace, his eyes as wide open as his mouth. I wanted to scream at him to go away, but fear choked my words.
“Oh shit. Oh shit,” Daddy repeated as he ran, stumbling toward his car.
I squeezed my eyes shut as the engine revved and tires squealed as he pulled away from the curb. When the screeching echo receded, I opened my eyes and peeked out through my hole. He was gone, and Jace lay on the ground, not moving.
I bolted from my secret spot and jumped from the tower. I heard a loud snap, at the same instant an excruciating pain exploded in my ankle, but it was nothing compared to the pain ripping my heart apart as I watched Jace continue to gasp for air. I tried standing, but couldn’t. I dragged myself to his side and tugged him over on to his back.
His eyes were closed, his raspy breathing barely there.
“Jace? Jace?” I sobbed.
His eyelids fluttered open, but they didn’t look like his eyes. My reflection stared back in the glassy surfaces. I could barely see the soft blue for the large black pupils.
“Hey, Dani girl.” His words were stilted, coming through between his gasps. “You okay?”
“Why did Daddy shoot you, Jace?”
“I don’t know, squirt.”
His words disappeared in a cough, his lips tinged with red.
“Are you gonna be okay?”
I’d seen lots of blood before, when Mama had a bloody nose after Daddy hit her, but never this much. His shirt was saturated, and with each frantic beat of his heart, more pulsed out. I gagged as a warm metallic smell drifted from his wound.
“Yeah, squirt. I’m gonna be fine. It just hurts a bit.” I wanted to believe him. “Why don’t you sing to me? You know I love to hear you. I’ll close my eyes, and you can sing me to sleep.”
Tears rolled down my face and splashed on to his pale cheeks. I didn’t believe him, but he wanted me to. I knew he wouldn’t sleep, but I could pretend. He taught me how to pretend when Dad pushed me down the stairs and broke my arm.
This time, I pretended Jace was going to be fine. I pretended for him.
“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine, let—” My singing stopped as heaving sobs wracked my small body. His eyes were closed, and I couldn’t hear his gasps anymore. I rested my head on his chest. He didn’t move. “I’m gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine…”
The wails of police sirens drowned out the rest of the song, and once the screaming cars pulled up to the park, everything became a blur.