BLATANTLY BLYTHE

CHAPTER ONE

Blythe Barrows loved Eric Evans. Every inch of him. Standing with his back to her, his attention on the awakening view outside his bedroom window, his towel white against the taut, tanned muscle of his back, just the sight of him filled her heart to overflowing.

Which made this morning the worst morning of her life.

As he raised his coffee mug to his mouth, the light caught the intricate tattoo work down one arm. She’d traced every swirl, dip and spike of his ink with her fingers, and her tongue. The taste of his skin lingered in her sense memory along with the musky scent that was all him.

Loving him had become a habit so long ingrained she no longer remembered when it had started.

Eric leaned one arm on the architrave above the window.

She loved his gorgeous body, his quick mind, his irreverent sense of humor and even his stubborn, heart-gouging inability to love her back.

Since she had doodled Blythe Evans all over her Algebra 2 exercise book until the entire cover had been so embarrassingly covered that she’d had to rip it off and stuff it into the bottom of her book bag, up to and including right now.

Clueless shit that he was, and she needed to keep it that way. Sooner or later those three words would slip out: I love you. Eric would never dump her, he was too awesome of a guy for that, but he would slowly slip away from her and keep putting distance between them. 

Blythe didn’t blame him, couldn’t even work up a decent head of angry steam. He’d never wanted what she did, and he still didn’t. She had changed. She wanted the entire enchilada; love, marriage, children, family dog and picket fence. Eric just wanted things to stay as they were. 

He looked over his shoulder and gave her his slow, satiated post-sex grin and a chin jerk. “What are you looking at?”

“I don’t know but it’s looking back.” Not much had changed in eighteen years. Ghost Falls would die laughing if they knew how she felt about him. Right after they tarred and feathered her and ran her out of town for daring to touch one of the cherished Evans boys.

He sauntered over to the bed, muscle playing beneath his skin. “Look at you,” he murmured. “All sleepy and sexy.” He leaned over the bed toward her. “Come here, sweet thing.”

“What for?” She gave him the pert response he expected. This time though, the words lacerated her heart.

He whispered against her mouth. “You’ll find out when you get here.”

Blythe pressed her mouth to his to hide the tears threatening to break free.

“Hmm.” He sucked her bottom lip. “I wish I had time to stay and wake you right.”

Blythe counted on his early meeting giving her the escape she needed. After today she would never get to kiss that beautiful mouth again. Blythe tightened her grip on the silky dark hair at his nape and tugged him closer. Fastening her mouth to his, she poured everything into this one last kiss, all her heartbreak, all her pointless wishing and waiting, all the years of longing and those that would follow.

Eric groaned and took control of the kiss. His tongue slid into her mouth, owning her and demanding her response. His hands tightened on her face.

Blythe allowed herself this. Her body heated with their kiss, a kiss full of the promise of naked skin sliding against naked skin.

“Sweet thing.” He pulled away with a soft laugh. “You don’t play fair.”

She let him go.

Stepping back from the bed, Eric dropped his towel and gave her a peepshow of the taut globes of his amazing ass. An ass she knew well enough to trace in her mind long after he’d left her. And he always stayed too little and stayed away too long.

“So.” He hauled on his boxers and disappeared inside his closet. Muscle flexed in his arms as he reappeared fastening his charcoal gray slacks. “I’m going to be a bit tied up for the next few days.”

Blythe dropped to her back and stared at the high cathedral ceilings of Eric’s bedroom. He’d built this house himself. A labor of love and dedication reflecting Eric in every elegant, powerful sweep of wood, steel, brick and mortar.

She stayed silent, waiting for what was sure to come next; the good excuse, the inarguable logic that put distance between them. She could end his efforts in two words—no problem—and give them both a break but she couldn’t quite summon the words. The pain, like two hard fists on either side of her ribcage, wouldn’t let her speak yet. Instead she tucked the sheet over her breasts.

Subdued, tasteful lighting made macabre early morning shadows on the ceiling.

Eric shrugged into his crisp white shirt and did the buttons at the cuff first. Always the same order. Left cuff, flick of the wrist to settle the right cuff, and then those buttons. Next, his large hands fastened on either side of the front placket and jerked them neatly into place. Then he buttoned from the bottom up. “Do you need anything until we see each other again?”

Always the same question, and her answer remained unchanged. “Nope. Thank you anyway.”

“You wouldn’t tell me if you did.” He gave her his wry half smile that she adored.

“Probably not.” She couldn’t force her facial muscles into the smile he expected. Not this morning. They’d been over and over the help thing. He didn’t get it and now he never would. In Ghost Falls the freeloading Barrows were legendary. She couldn’t do anything about being a Barrows, but she could not and would not keep her hand held out.

Turning to the long mirror above the dressing table Eric watched his reflection as he tied his bright red tie. “I’ll give you a call when I get some time. See if you’re free?”

It wasn’t really a question and they both knew it. He called and she made herself free.

Except. Not after today. Not anymore.

“Hey.” She rolled to her side and propped her head on her palm. Despite the hammering of her heart, she kept her tone calm. “I need to talk to you.”

A flicker of annoyance flit over the handsome planes of his face. “Now? Can it wait? I have a meeting.”

“This won’t take long.” She sat up and dropped her legs over the side of the bed. After she got through saying what needed to be said, she needed a quick escape to the bathroom before she gave in and cried her river. “We can’t do this anymore.”

He stilled and cocked his head. His dark eyes studied her. “By this you mean us?”

“Yes.” Dragging the sheet up with her she stood. She felt stronger standing anyway. “I’m ending it. I’m ending this.” She motioned from her to him. “This thing between us.”

“Right.” He raised his eyebrows and adjusted his tie. Annoyance flickered on his face as he met her gaze in the mirror. “I need to go. Help yourself to whatever you want. You know the way out.”

He shoved his arms into his suit jacket in controlled, angry motions. In four long strides he was out the door, his feet clopping along the hardwood floor.

And that was that.

Blythe stood with her feet stuck to the floor as he made the small sounds preceding his departure: grabbing his laptop from the dining room table, the rattle of small change in the bowl by the door as he dug out his car keys, and the awful finality of the door to the garage slamming behind him.

She’d done it. She’d broken up with Eric Evans. Like the moment before the pain registers when you cut yourself, when you watch with detachment as the blood oozes out of the wound she calmly walked into the bathroom and turned on the shower.

Eric’s wet towel hung in a haphazard bunch over the rack and she straightened it. The citrus tang of his aftershave lingered in the humid air. Littered over the white marble countertop were his toothbrush and toothpaste, drops of foam from where he had shaved and tiny puddles of water.

This was all she had left of him, and it would have to be enough to last a lifetime.

Blythe Barrows loved Eric Evans with every fiber of her being, and because he’d be mortified if he knew—trapped between not wanting to hurt her, and not feeling the same—she needed to leave him, and this time she needed to stay gone.

****

Eric backed his black Jaguar XJ out of his garage and onto the circular driveway outside his house. He repressed the desire to thrust his foot down on the gas and send the three hundred and forty supercharged horses beneath the hood roaring.

Blythe knew he had an important meeting this morning, and yet she’d chosen to break up with him anyway.

Again.

He nosed his car into the still, quiet street. Long morning shadows stretched out to stroke over the car’s hood.

Calling it a breakup gave whatever the hell it was between them too much credit. You could only break up if you were in a relationship, and he and Blythe were not now—nor had they ever been—in a relationship.

They hooked up from time to time. Fuck buddies. When the mood struck them, they gave each other a call. The mood struck them often enough, and the sex was good enough that they had been doing this on and off for more years than he cared to count.

The sex was great to be honest and it kept him coming back time and time again.

He didn’t date. He didn’t have time to date. He certainly didn’t have the energy to date either. Dating led to expectations. Expectations he’d never fulfill.

Love and marriage were great. For other people. His brothers Matt and Nate had stumbled onto their happily ever after with two great women. Eric loved his sisters-in-law and the nephews and nieces they would soon add to the one niece he already had.

Behind the hills ringing Ghost Falls the sun painted the sky roseate. He liked to get to the office before anyone else and get his head together.

He needed to get his mind on this morning’s meeting. Evans Construction, which he ran with his older brother Matt, sat poised on the edge of do or die. He and Matt had built it up to this point, taking the town of Ghost Falls with them. They’d done their job well, too well. The growth happening in Ghost Falls had brought the big Denver and Salt Lake City companies out to play. They didn’t give a shit about Ghost Falls or who they had to squeeze to make a buck.

Evans Construction needed to grow, and fast. The sort of growth this morning’s meeting could make happen.

Still Blythe’s huge green eyes nestled burr-like in the back of his brain. How a woman that tough could look so wounded was beyond him. Like he’d opened her main artery and left her bleeding to death.

That wasn’t fair. He was probably one of the few people alive who knew Blythe wasn’t half as tough as she pretended to be. She’d upset him enough this morning to bring out his inner asshole. 

What they had might not be traditional but it was good. Blythe was special and he knew that better than anyone. He hated the idea of there being no more them and she deserved better from him.

Sure, they’d walked this path before. Any other time he’d have taken a seat beside her, held her close and talked it through. Then they would have made love and healed the hurt between them. It had only gotten to him this morning because of the importance of his upcoming meeting.

Some patience and caring on his part and her time and attention always put things back on track. And he and Blythe always got back on track. Always.

 

Chapter Two

By the time he nosed into his parking space outside the large brick building that housed Evans Construction, Eric had his A-game on. He thrived on the cut and thrust of negotiation. Pitting wills and wits against a worthy opponent got his blood up, gave him the high he craved.

He unlocked the glass front door and pushed it open. Always the first to get here in the morning, he flipped on the lights.

The receptionist, Mrs. Cameron, wouldn’t arrive for another two hours. Matt had employed her when the school district had laid her off after many years of being the high school receptionist. She still made Eric want to check his shirt was tucked in. Despite her scary exterior, she did her job well. It had taken Eric weeks to soften her up, and now he was her favorite. It earned him first dibs on whatever cookies she brought in, and a constant supply of hot coffee. 

Walking through the open plan office, Eric flipped on lights as he went. Their dad had started this business before Matt had been born. Back then it had been only one floor of one building. Under Matt’s guidance the business had grown and swallowed up the two neighboring buildings.

A couple of years ago he’d come back to Ghost Falls and talked Matt into going into business with him. Matt had sacrificed enough for this family and it had been way past time Eric stepped up. As a tribute to Dad they’d kept the name of his business, but they did way more than construction now.

Eric let himself into his office. Outside his window, the sun turned the horizon above the mountains into a gaudy child’s painting. All the years he had lived in Denver, he hadn’t known how much he’d missed Ghost Falls.

Fresh out of college, he hadn’t been able to wait to shake Ghost Falls like a bad habit.

Being back had given him the chance to take his place as a member of the Evans family, and also to reconnect with the angry, heartbroken teen who he’d been running from for most of his adult life.

Blythe had been one of two who understood that broken boy. And he’d been a total dick to her this morning. They may not be heading for love and marriage, but they had been lovers for enough years for her to deserve his respect and consideration.

He dug out his phone and pulled up her contact info listed under Sweet Thing.

She’d hated that name when he’d first come up with it. Eric chuckled at the memory of her horrified face. Over the years it had become a joke they shared. Now the nickname was who she was to him, one of the sweetest parts of his day.

Sorry for being a dick,he typed. Had a lot on my mind this morning.

The message stayed dormant, without even the three dots indicating she was typing a reply.

She was mad and he didn’t blame her. His meeting wasn’t for another two and a half hours. He could have taken a few minutes to cajole her out of her mood. He should have taken the time to make love to her. Making love with Blythe only got better every time.

Let me make it up to you????For insurance he added a series of emojis, and then laughed as he imagined her face when she saw them. Blythe loved emojis. There were always a row of them on any text she sent him. He teased her about it. About how sometimes her texts were more like deciphering hieroglyphics. 

They had a history and that history was made up of a series of great moments.

Still, she didn’t read the message.

So, she was really pissed. This would take an in-person intervention and some fancy footwork. Flowers were too meh. Only a clueless asshole sent flowers when he wanted to climb out of the hole he’d dug for himself. Same with chocolate and Blythe didn’t eat it anyway.

His libido hummed into life at the thought of Blythe’s body. Genetics had been kind to Blythe and she worked hard to keep it that way. He still got hard thinking of those long, toned legs that flowered into the full curve of her hips. A woman’s hips, not the shape of a preadolescent boy. He could almost span her waist with his hands. The full curve of her breasts turned her into a pinup.

A man didn’t let that kind of awesome stay mad at him for long,

Eric pulled out his laptop and fired it up. He would deal with Blythe later. Right now, he had the most important meeting of his life to get through.

None of them had had a clue when Dad died when Eric was eighteen how much trouble Evans Construction had been in. In a desperate silence, Dad had almost run it into the ground.

Eric got up and went to the kitchen in search of coffee.

Thinking about his dad always brought with it that slow burn of an anger so old it no longer sparked, but the coals stayed hot.

In the kitchen, the coffee pot sat empty in the maker. He filled it with water and found the grounds. He drew a blank on filters.

Matt had taken over the company at nineteen, turning down a full ride football scholarship to shoulder the burden. Eric would owe his older brother for that for the rest of his life. Matt had these touches of nostalgia around the office and the ancient coffee filter machine was one of them.

He opened cupboard door after cupboard door. At this rate he was going to have to make the trip to the coffee shop.

Screw this. When she got here, he was going to tell Mrs. Cameron to get a Keurig or something like it. This old school crap might make Matt happy, but it wasn’t doing much for him this morning.

Footsteps pulled him out of his head.

“There you are.” Grayson poked his head around the kitchen doorjamb. “I knew you had to be here already.”

Eric smiled at his assistant. “What are you doing here so early?”

“If you’re here”—Grayson spread his hand over his chest—“then my place is by your side.”

Jerking his head at the coffee maker, he asked, “Can you?”

“I can do you one better.” Grayson held up a takeout tray with two coffees on it. “You don’t pay me enough, you know.”

“Oh, I know.” Eric grabbed the coffee and took a sip. Grayson had followed him here from Denver. Despite Eric’s attempts to promote him, Grayson resisted. He liked what he did, and Eric was painfully grateful he did. Over the years Grayson had learned to read his mind. Like this morning. Grayson knew he would be keyed up about the meeting.

Grayson followed Eric into his office. “I did some more research on Gunning last night,” he said and took the visitor’s chair opposite Eric. “Personal stuff.”

“And?” They’d done their due diligence on Gunning Contracting as soon as Gunning had first approached them. Chase Gunning ran a rock-solid business. A business that lacked the flair Evans Construction brought to everything they did. Evans took more risks and sometimes that cost them. The merger would work for both companies and Gunning and Evans together would have the weight to keep the big dogs from eating them alive.

Grayson put his laptop on Eric’s desk and flipped it open. “Gunning is a bit of social media dinosaur,” he said. “No surprise there. It fits everything we know about him.” Grayson grinned at Eric. “Strictly LinkedIn and Facebook.”

“Not even Twitter?” Eric played along.

“He has an account, but he barely uses it.” Grayson tapped on his keyboard. “Three wives, last one Terri, now divorced. Seven kids.” Nothing Eric didn’t already know. “He likes blondes.” Grayson slid the laptop around. “Several pictures of Chase with interchangeable blondes. He likes them young and hot and happy to selfie.”

“The man has an ego.” Eric shrugged. He had worked that out within minutes of meeting Gunning. Egos weren’t a problem. Eric had a healthy one of his own. He looked at a picture of an early twenties hottie cuddled up to Gunning. “And a bit of a midlife crisis going on.”

“Right!” Grayson raised his eyebrows. “He doesn’t post pictures of his kids though. Not much of a family man. More of a trophy man.”

Now that Eric could use. Once you understood the person across the boardroom table from you, it gave you that missing edge.

Game on. God, Eric lived for this shit

****

Matt arrived an hour later, looking exhausted. He stumbled into Eric’s office and sucked back one coffee and then looked disconsolately into the bottom of the cup.

With a laugh, Grayson filled it up. “Late night?”

“Early morning.” Matt grimaced. Tall and dark just like Eric, Matt’s eyes were lighter than his. They both looked a lot like their father. Nate, the next brother in line, was the pretty one. “Jasmine decided three am was a great opportunity to spend time with her dad.”

Eric adored his new niece. Six months, and with the lights just coming on behind her green eyes, an exact replica of her gorgeous mother’s, Jasmine had them all wrapped around her chubby finger. “How’s Pippa doing?”

“Great.” Matt always got this part goofy, part smug smile on his face when he spoke of his wife. “She’s been doing most of the nights, Last night she was so wiped she didn’t even hear Jasmine.” He took the seat beside Grayson. “Okay! Chase Gunning. What’s the play?”

Gunning arrived five minutes before their meeting was due to start. Being late and making the other party wait for you was strictly for amateurs. Eric would have done the same as Gunning, which was a plus for this potential deal. They had similar values.

He and Matt went to the reception to meet Gunning.

Fifty-one, about six one, two hundred pounds, Gunning was in great shape. He worked out every morning, didn’t touch caffeine and only drank in moderation. Mostly martinis, but he would occasionally have an amber ale.

“Chase.” Eric held out his hand and got a firm shake in return.

Gunning smiled at him and then greeted Matt. “How are you?”

A young woman accompanied Gunning. In a severe black jacket and tight skirt, with sky high heels, she worked that whole clever, scary and fucking sexy thing.

Gunning motioned her. “This is Miranda Patel. She’s working with me on this.”

“Pleased to meet you.” Her dark hair was pulled into the nape of her neck and highlighted the delicate precision of her cheekbones. Red lipstick drew attention to her full mouth.

Gunning had brought a secret weapon to today’s meeting.

Eric didn’t need to look at him to know that Grayson would get right on the mystery of who, where and what concerning Miranda Patel. If another player entered the arena, they became fair game.

Patel was exactly the sort of woman Eric would have dated. Smart, successful and driven with a body that didn’t quit. Clearly, Gunning had also done his homework.

Smiling, Eric shook her hand. “Pleased to meet you.”

Her dark gaze did a lightning fast sweep of him, assessing him, rating him, deciding who he was. She smiled with a touch more warmth. “And you.”

Ten minutes later personal considerations had been shoved aside as negotiations begun.

Matt sat back and let him take the lead. He and Matt worked well together. They understood and respected each other’s strengths. Matt ran the operations side and did it damn well.

More comfortable in his construction boots than a suit, Matt had the normal guy touch on site that kept everyone working to budget and on schedule.

With Jasmine’s birth, and Pippa taking some time to recover, Eric had been taking up the slack of Matt’s role recently. But the boardroom was where he shone. This is what he brought to Evans Construction. Negotiation. Finessing the deal.

Gunning knew it too and addressed most of his remarks to Eric.

Next to him Miranda Patel made the same assessment. Over the boardroom table, her dark gaze sent him the clear message. She liked what she saw.

 

Chapter Three

Blythe had picked her day to shatter her own heart carefully.

She deleted Eric’s messages without reading them. He had that big meeting today with Gunning Contracting and would be focused on that.

After leaving Eric’s house she climbed into her secondhand Prius and drove home. The house that would no longer be her home after today, that is.

She’d also chosen a day on which she would have enough distraction to keep the heartache at bay.

Today Blythe moved out of the house she’d grown up in, and despite the persistent tightness in her chest, that thought still gave her a thrill. She’d always be a Barrows, and in a town as tiny as Ghost Falls, that name stuck like dog shit to the bottom of her shoe and stank up anyone who heard it.

She accepted that it was too late for her to be anything else in the eyes of Ghost Falls. Blythe Barrows was no good, the town slut, just like her whore of a mother. No better than her petty criminal of a father, and those dreadful brothers.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. She got it. She’d heard it often enough for the sting to lessen, but there was still time for Will, and sweet little Kim. Blythe meant to make it that way. It had taken her far longer that she would have liked to get to the point where she could offer Will and Kim the stability they deserved. 

She passed the center of town with its quaint Victorian lampposts. Rumor had it Philomene St Amor had decreed the old ones to be too ugly and upsetting to her artistic constitution. Blythe didn’t know the diva well, but anyone who lived in Ghost Falls had heard of her. Will worked for her from time to time and he really liked her. Of course, the diva like everyone else, still called Will that ridiculous name their father had saddled him with.

Out his mind drunk, ostensibly celebrating the birth of another kid, Pat Barrows had thought it hilarious to call the new baby Wheeler. Hardy-har-har, with the joke on Will for the rest of his life.

God, Pat was a dick. He drifted in and out of their lives when it suited him. He’d been blessedly absent this time for eighteen months, but that didn’t mean they’d seen the last of him. And, of course, Mom would take him right back again.

As much as Blythe resented the brush Ghost Falls had painted her with, she couldn’t say her family hadn’t earned it.

Bella Erikson, now Evans, was opening her high-end clothing store as Blythe drove past. Despite the gorgeous clothes, Bella’s was the last place on earth Blythe would shop. Most of this town behaved like Bella was a cross between Mother Theresa and Tweetie Bird. Only Blythe had seen the bitchy side of Bella.

Bella liked to stare down her nose at Blythe and do her best to make her feel like trash. It had worked all through elementary and then middle school. In high school Blythe had gotten her own back by taking all the male attention away from Bella.

Of course, she had sacrificed her reputation for her efforts, but being a Barrows gave you a strike out in that department from birth.

Blythe took a left into Elm street. Neat patches of garden fronted pretty homes on either side of her. One day she would buy a little patch of paradise for herself along Elm street. With her business taking off and her getting new clients every day, it was starting to look possible.

Two kids played in one of the front yards, chasing each other with piles of leaves and shrieking with delight.

The pain in her chest eased a mite as she watched them. That could be Kim one day, playing with a kid from next door.

Blythe didn’t need one of the palatial houses on the top of the hills surrounding Ghost Falls. The sort of homes Eric built for people who often had more money than brains. That sort of affluence didn’t appeal to her. All she wanted was here on Elm street. A nice, tidy little house behind a pretty patch of green. A place she could plant some flowers and maintain easily. A place in a good school district with lots of families all around them where Kim could grow up away from the Barrows stench.

From Elm she made her way further from the town center. The homes grew smaller, and the green grass gave way to overgrown patches of weeds and dirt. The houses themselves glared at her as she passed, daring her to pass judgment on them.

She left the residential neighborhoods behind and followed a rural road deeper into the patchy brush this side of town. Sherman’s gas station hadn’t opened yet. As soon as Mandy had slept off her hangover and crawled out of bed, it would open. As kids, Blythe and Blake had walked down there when they could get a few coins for candy and magazines. Most of the time Brett had been the source of those coins.

Pat didn’t have any money and Mom kept what she had for her booze. Blythe never brought money into the house if she could help it. Her brothers regarded her money as theirs. For Kim and Will’s sake, however, she had been buying all the groceries and keeping up with the rent. The free ride ended today.

Hanging drunkenly on the truncated remains of a dead tree was the number seven twenty-two. Home sweet home. She slowed over the rutted drive. Weeds grew so high between the cracks in the asphalt that she might have to fight her way out of her car.

A rusted-out car hulk had found some friends and they made a skeletal junkyard to the left of the house. The house itself didn’t look so bad. Between her and Will they’d managed to keep the worst of the decay at bay. Even managed to give it a coat or two of paint a couple of years ago. This house was one to the reasons it had taken so long to be able to afford her own place.

Blythe parked, took a deep breath and stepped out of her car.

Beneath some scrub oak two motorbikes gleamed in the morning light. Two of her older brothers were here it seemed. It amazed her that they could take such care of those bikes and live like pigs.

A rambling ranch style, it might even have been a good-looking house if someone had given enough of a crap to make it so. A large, top loading washing machine with its matching dryer took up most of the front porch.

Raised voices came from inside the house as she eased open the door. The familiar stench of cigarettes and mildew welcomed her home.

Will sat on the bottom step of the staircase to the right of the door. He gave her a tight smile when he saw her. “Barron’s here.”

“Damn.” She had hoped to get this done early enough that they were either still out partying or hadn’t recovered from the night before. “Anyone else?”

“He has some loser friend with him.” Will kept his voice low as he glanced up the stairs. “They’ve been upstairs all morning. They haven’t noticed the bags.” He jerked his head to the pile of luggage lying inside the sitting room.

That was something at least. “Kim?”

“At St Peter’s.” Will nodded. “I got her to kindergarten before they pitched up. I left my car at our new place.” He jerked his head toward upstairs. “Don’t want them to see it.”

“Perfect.” Blythe kept it cheerful. If her other brothers caught sight of Will’s new car, they’d take it from him. “We can pick her up later.”

“Motorcycle Man” pounded out from Barron’s room. Barron thought of it as his personal anthem and any time he was around, it was only a matter of time before it got played.

“Fuck yeah!” Barron yelled and Blythe could almost see him up there, hands in the air, fingers working air guitar as he headbanged.

She played it cool for Will. “You ready?”

“Yeah?” His sweet, shy smile warmed the cold place inside her. If she had to take on Barron today, she’d do it to make sure Will smiled more often. “I got Kim’s stuff all packed as well.”

“Thank you.” She touched his cheek. At nineteen, Will didn’t yet have a full beard and his skin was still baby soft. Of all of her brothers he looked the least like her. Dark haired like their father, with hazel eyes, he had inherited the more rugged bone structure that Brett and Barron shared. Will looked exactly like their father.

“You okay?” He cocked his head and studied her.

But his gentle, pure soul was all his own. God knows how he’d managed to shine through the genetic crapshoot of their parents. Bless him, he had, and done so with a determination to better himself that none of their other brothers came close to understanding.

“I’m good.” Not even close but she managed a smile.

“Little fucker?” Barron’s voice rose over the music. “Bring us a beer.”

Will’s face tightened.

“Do it.” Blythe nodded up the stairs. “Maybe it will keep him out of our hair while I get us all loaded up.”

“Cool.” Will dragged his feet toward the kitchen.

From now on Barron could buy his own beer. Once she got the kids out of here, she felt no obligation to the others.

Will had an odd assortment of backpacks, threadbare kit bags and trash bags stacked inside the front door. It took Blythe three trips to load up her car, all of them with her eyes on the stairs.

Not vicious like the oldest, Brett, had been, Barron still had an unpredictable temper.

After taking them beer and chips, Will helped her with the last few bags.

Despite her heartache, she felt lighter somehow. As if getting out of this house had lifted a burden. The burden of being a Barrows.

****

The master bedroom was situated on the ground floor to the right of the stairs. To the left was the sitting room that led into a dining room and kitchen. Blythe had given up on the kitchen years ago. The only things eating in that kitchen were the cockroaches.

Praying her mother was lucid, Blythe tapped on the door.

Carly Barrows must have been a knockout in her time. Some of that former beauty still clung to the delicate lines of her face. Time and being married to Pat had done a number on the rest of her though.

She turned bleary green eyes to her as Blythe stepped into the room. “Baby girl.”

“Hey, Mom. I came to say goodbye.”

Carly’s face crumpled. “You’re still going to do this?”

“I have to.” At least Carly looked reasonable sober. Propped in bed, Carly’s lank, blonde hair hung on either side of her drawn face. With a shaking hand she reached for a pack of cigarettes and pulled one out. “You got a light?”

“No.” Blythe wished her mother wouldn’t smoke, but it wasn’t a battle she had a hope of winning. “Will and I are leaving now.”

“Taking my little girl with you.” Carly’s voice shook. She scrabbled in her bedside table and produced a hot pink lighter. “My pretty little Kyberlee. You were pretty as a baby but nothing on Kyberlee.”

Not Kyberlee at all, but Kimberly, because Blythe had filled in the birth certificate before Carly’s obsessions with the Kardashians had followed her baby sister around forever. Wheeler was bad enough.

The flame turn the cigarette tip to a cherry as Carly sucked on it. “You know why. We’ve spoken about this.”

“Talking.” Carly made a face and pulled on her smoke. “You’re always talking at me until my head hurts.”

“You can come and see her.” Under certain conditions, which Blythe had outlined painstakingly. No showing up drunk. No sloppy scenes. No smoking and no brothers. “And if you need anything, ask Dixie. She can let me know, and I’ll come and see you when I can.”

Carly didn’t seem to hear her and stared past her through the grubby net curtains into the yard. An old bathtub leaned on its side, a dirty pool of rainwater gathered inside it. “I didn’t set out for things to be like this.”

“I know, Mom.” Nobody could have wished this existence on themselves. Mother to ten children, at least seven of whom had an up close and personal relationship with law enforcement, wife to a drunken lout who stayed only long enough to plant another baby in your belly. She also knew her mom really did want more for them. “You know I’ll take care of her, and when you’re back on your feet I’ll bring her right back to you.”

“When I’m back on my feet.” Carly jumped on the rescue line. She smiled showing gaps between her teeth. One for each baby they said, and Carly had brought ten full term and buried another three.

God, Blythe didn’t want this to be her story. The walls pressed down on her and she stood. “I’ll call you and let you know how we are.”

“You do that.” Carly stubbed her cigarette out in an overflowing ashtray and found a sixty-ounce bottle of Skol tucked in her bedclothes. Unscrewing the top, she paused with it halfway to her mouth. “Do better, baby girl. Be better.”

Blythe left the room and took a moment in the clothes littered passage outside to breathe and remind herself that this was not her life, not her fate. Everything she’d done since she left high school had been about making sure she had choices. That those choices extended to Will and now Kim.

Striding into the entrance hall, she stopped.

Barron had Will by the nape and shook him like a rat.

“Put him down, Barron.” Blythe kept the fear out of her voice. Gut deep feral, Barron fed on fear.

Barron turned bloodshot eyes her way and sneered. “After I teach him some manners.” He shoved Will against the wall. “Mouthing off to me.”

“He’s sorry, Barron.” Will’s skull made a dull thwack against the wall. “I’m going to take him out of your hair now.”

Will’s gaze met hers. The silent message that had passed between them countless times there again, it’s worse if you fight back.

Barron kept his grip on Will as he thought it over. His eyes were cunning in the harsh cruelty of his features. Dark unwashed hair hung halfway down his back. His heavily tattooed biceps strained his Motorhead T-shirt. “Where you going?”

“Out.” No way she was sharing her plan with Barron. They’d told Kim as little as possible to avoid Barron knowing. Not as big as Brett, Barron still had enough bulk to do some serious damage.

Fortunately, he wasn’t as bright as Brett and he let Will go. “We’re out of beer. Make sure you bring some back.”