Growing up, Ramsey Stewart branded my soul in ways time could never heal.
At twelve, he asked me to be his girlfriend.
At thirteen, he gave me my first kiss.
By sixteen, we’d fallen in love, planned a future together, and had our eyes set on the horizon.
Love never fails, right?
But for Ramsey, it did.
Love failed him.
I failed him.
The entire world failed him.
At seventeen, Ramsey was convicted of killing the boy who assaulted me.
Move on,he wrote in his first and only letter from prison.
Start a new life, he urged.
I don’t love you anymore, he lied.
There was no such thing as giving up on Ramsey. Love may have been our curse, but he was mine—then, now, and forever.
So here I am, twelve long years later, waiting for a man I don’t even know to emerge from between the chain link gates.
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It was funny. I’d spent almost half my life surrounded by the biggest, baddest criminals the state of Georgia had been able to capture. Yet, I was terrified of a five-foot-five woman who for some asinine reason was still in love with me.
I couldn’t be around her. Not if I wanted to keep my head straight and my eye on the prize. I had three years before I got off parole. I needed to get a job, tuck away some cash, and, the second I was allowed to leave Georgia, get the hell out of there. Maybe, if I was lucky, I’d be able to convince my sister to come with me. We didn’t have to go far. We could stay in the south if she wanted. South Carolina, North Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee—there were schools everywhere. Nora wouldn’t have trouble finding a job. The hardest part would be convincing her to leave Thea.
However, maybe if she did, Thea would finally move on with her life and stop obsessing about me.
I’d known they lived together for a while. I didn’t want anything to do with Thea while I was locked up, but I was happy as hell Nora had someone to lean on. I had been under the impression that Nora had gotten her own place when she found out about my release. I had been under that impression because Nora had straight-up told me she was getting her own place after I’d declared there was no way I was living with Thea.
Now, I was hiding in my room, waiting for Nora to wake up, open my door, and escort me to breakfast like a damn bodyguard so I could avoid confrontation.
Next up in my efforts to kill time was a workout. Sit ups, push-ups, planks, running in place. This was when I realized Nora hadn’t bought me any deodorant.
Another naked lap around the bedroom, and this time, I managed to keep my hands off my cock.
Finally, I got dressed. This required me to pick through a bunch of preppy shit Nora had bought for me to find tattered jeans and a fitted green tee that clung to my chest like a damn glove. In my closet, I found a belt and a pair of distressed brown lace-up boots that maybe could have doubled as combat boots if the war was taking place on a runway. But what the hell did I know about style? I’d been wearing orange or puke beige for almost half my life.
When I was done with all of that and there was still no sign of Nora, I sat on the edge of the bed and decided to give the phone thing a try. I wasn’t totally out of the technology loop. We had computers at the library and we were allowed to use them if we earned the privileges. But they might as well have been dinosaurs compared to the phone she’d bought me. I couldn’t even get it to read my face with the fancy secret laser thing. I gave up trying pretty quickly.
So there I was, bored out of my mind, starving, and poking at my newfound wrinkles in the bathroom mirror, when I heard a knock at my door.
I froze, my eyes locked on the mirror, panic staring back at me.
Jesus. I needed to find somewhere else to live.
Leaning out of the bathroom, I stared at the door. If I was super quiet, maybe she’d think I was still asleep and go the hell away.
When I didn’t reply, she knocked again. Her voice was timid and sweet, not at all like the fearless girl I’d grown up with. I hated it.
“Ramsey? You hungry? I’m making breakfast? I was wondering if you wanted something?” Everything from my name to the fact that she was making breakfast was a question, as if maybe she was asking permission to cook in her own house.
My stomach was currently feasting on my backbone. Still, I said nothing.
She sighed. “Okay. Well, if you change your—” There were several seconds of silence.
I quirked my eyebrow at the door, trying to figure out why she’d abruptly stopped talking, and then cursed my inability to develop x-ray vision.
I held my breath, hoping to hear her footsteps as she walked away.
No. Such. Fucking. Luck.
The door swung open and she came walking inside with her hands stacked over her eyes. “Look, I know you’re awake. I heard you running earlier. I also heard you take at least three showers. Sorry, but the house isn’t that big. Neither is the hot water heater. Are you at least dressed so I can open my eyes?”
Brave. Unapologetic. And completely oblivious to boundaries. Now that was the Thea I knew.
“Get out,” I barked.
“Dressed? Not dressed? Help me out here?”
She kept her eyes closed. “You gotta eat, Ramsey. You can’t stay locked up in this room forever.”
I wanted to tell her to get the hell out again. Honestly, it was on the tip of my tongue. But it never made it past my lips because my traitorous eyes stole a head-to-toe of her lithe body. She was barefoot, wearing jeans—tight ones that tapered at her ankle. They looked like mine in the sense that they had a rip in the knee. They didn’t look like mine in the sense that they hugged the curve of her hips and more than likely her ass too. A pink tank top stretched across her chest, and I swear on my life, fuck x-ray vision because I could see the pebble of her nipples beneath the fabric.
It wasn’t a ridiculous dress.
It wasn’t stupid fucking heels.
She wasn’t wearing a face full of clown makeup.
She was just Thea.
The nostalgia pumped through my veins like acid even as my cock stirred. Fuck, I should have jerked off again in the shower.
“I’m dressed,” I bit out, desperate for her to put her damn hands down and maybe use them to cover her tits instead.
Her long, brown lashes fluttered as she opened her eyes. Those fucking eyes had once owned me. As a huge smile lit her face, I felt the claim all over again.
“Oh, look, you chose one of the outfits I picked out for you.”
Of course I had. Of fucking course. As soon as I got her out of my room, I was going to take the outfit off and light it on fire.
Originally from Savannah, Georgia, USA Today bestselling author Aly Martinez now lives in South Carolina with her husband and four young children.
Never one to take herself too seriously, she enjoys cheap wine, mystery leggings, and olives. It should be known, however, that she hates pizza and ice cream, almost as much as writing her bio in the third person.
She passes what little free time she has reading anything and everything she can get her hands on, preferably with a super-sized tumbler of wine by her side.
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