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Warning: Spoilers Ahead

 
Promise of Home is the second book in the Promise series. This novel picks up at the end of Sweet Promise, Georgia's story. If you plan to read Sweet Promise, you'll enjoy this book more if you finish that novel first so you don't get spoilers about the outcome of Georgia's story. 
 
You might fall for Mike Pennington, the male main character in Promise of Home. Hard. He's a determined, swoon-worthy southern boy who is big, strong, handsome, and would do anything for the people he loves. 

 

CHAPTER 1

Celia

 

 

            It had been too long since I’d been home. It’d been my own doing. Daddy and Rome had been home on their own for weeks since Georgia had headed out on the filming tour for her new show. She had called to ask me to check in on them, and my intentions had been good, but when it came down to it, the thought of going home was more than I could stomach. Things had been complicated when I left for my sophomore year of college. After our Mama had died, it was hard for me to go back.

 

My twin siblings, Rome and Georgia, were celebrating their twenty-first birthday, and I had promised them I’d be there. Georgia brought her boyfriend and co-star, celebrity chef Lucas Nash, home with her to meet the family. From the looks of things, they had gotten pretty serious. Georgia had been in an accident on the street in Barcelona during filming and was in the process of recovering from her injuries. While she was in the hospital, Lucas had been a complete wreck.

 

Georgia told me how, before the accident, she had run into someone from back home, and he was there when she was

hit. I was glad she hadn’t been alone and had gotten the help she needed. She was in a strange place, after all, injured and vulnerable. Of all the people in the world for her to run into, though, why did it have to be him?

 

We were all standing in the dining room, putting the plates on the table for dinner when there was a knock at the front door. Rome answered it and returned with our guest.

 

“Hey, ya’ll,” he said as he walked in. I knew the voice immediately, even before I turned to see him. It suddenly felt as though my heart had stopped beating. Mike Pennington. Pen, they called him in school. I had known him forever, and yet, no one could have made me more nervous and uncomfortable in my own home than one of the people I knew best in the world.

 

“Mike!” Georgia exclaimed, jumping up from her seat. “How sweet of you to come!” He handed her a small spray of flowers.

 

“Happy birthday, Georgia. Hope you don’t mind…Rome invited me, and well, after everything, I really thought it’d be nice to see ya’ll.” Mike nodded to our Dad, then walked over to Lucas, Georgia’s boyfriend. “Lucas, I hope you don’t mind? I’m glad to see ya’ll – really,” he stuck his hand out for Lucas to shake.

 

“Thank you for coming,” Lucas said, his thick British accent standing out against all the Southern ones, “and listen…at hospital…,” he started, and Mike cut him off.

 

“Don’t say another word about it, brother. You were in pain. It’s forgotten. I know what it’s like to be crazy when it comes to the woman you love,” he said the words as he shook Lucas’ hand, but his eyes were already fixed on me. He walked toward me and handed me the rest of the flowers he was holding. “I know it ain’t your birthday, but I thought you should have flowers too.”

 

“Thank you,” I replied, my voice sounding as weak as I felt.

 

I hadn’t seen him in years. I’d managed to successfully avoid him on every visit home since I’d moved to Chicago. I thought that I had built him up, in my memory, to be more handsome than he was. I was wrong. His hair was combed back, neatly. He wore a crisp, white dress shirt and slim jeans. His skin was tanned, setting of those beautiful green eyes of his. He was clean-shaven, and when he smiled at me, it all came flooding back. The excitement, the fear, the heat…I felt like a teenager again, standing in front of her lifelong crush.

 

“You look beautiful, Celia,” he said softly enough so that no one else could hear.

 

As I sat down to dinner, I tried to focus on my family. The accident Georgia had been in was severe. She had been unconscious for several days, laying in a Spanish hospital. Thankfully, Mike had been there and called for help as soon as it had happened. Georgia had told me all about it. She had even mentioned, off-handedly, that she had wondered why Mike and I had never dated. What she didn’t know was how just hearing the name Mike Pennington was enough to rip my heart out.

 

***

 

Six Years Earlier

 

Our mother died during the summer after my freshman year in college. It started off the way it so often does. A cough she couldn’t quite shake turned into what she thought might be the flu. She was busy, though, with the kids and the farm, and so she shrugged it off. As the days turned into weeks, and she felt worse and worse, Daddy wouldn’t take no for an answer. The visit to our local doctor turned into a follow-up at the hospital in Nashville. It didn’t take long for them to confirm the diagnosis. Cancer. Advanced. They would do what they could, but in the end, they thought she might have about a year.

Instead of shopping for my dorm and planning a spring break trip after high school graduation, I was trying to come to terms with losing our mother. I had tried to be there for my little brother and sister, and our poor Dad was falling apart. I was so wrapped up in my own pain, though, it was hard for me to be what they needed. I had somehow managed to get through finals my freshman year of college and came home for the summer a little early. It was a good thing. I had only been a couple of weeks when we lost her.

 

Like all my other friends, Mike had shown up for the service, and his family had brought food by in the days that followed our mother’s funeral. As the days wore on, fewer and fewer people showed up at the house or called. They went on with their lives, the loss of Catherine Graham a sad footnote in their summer. For Georgia, Rome, Daddy, and me, our world had fallen apart.

 

Mike was the only constant. He called or texted to check on me every single day. He was home from the University of Tennessee where he went to school. About two weeks after the funeral, he showed up at the house and insisted that I had to get out for a while.

 

“You gotta keep movin’, Celia,” he said. “You can’t just sit around here forever. I know you’re hurtin’, and it’s okay to hurt, but your Mama wouldn’t want you to just shut down like this,” he had said. “I knew her all my life…she was a strong woman, and she’d expect you to be one as well.”

 

***

 

We drove out to the lake, and he pulled a blanket, a cooler, and a couple of fishing poles from the bed of his truck. “I don’t fish,” I said.

 

“You fish today. Fishin’s good for the soul. It helps ya quiet your mind,” he told me.

 

We walked down to the dock where a small john boat was tied up. He put the supplies in, then stepped into the boat and helped me down.

 

“Did you know my parents met on this lake?” I asked him.

 

“No, I didn’t. I thought your Mama wasn’t from around here, though,” he replied.

 

“She wasn’t. She was from Tampa. She was here on spring break, visiting a friend at school in Nashville. They came to a party on the lake. She said she laid eyes on my dad and knew he was the one. They weren’t much older than we are now – just out of college.” I fought back the tears, thinking that she was still so young – far too young for us to lose. I was only twenty. She’d been twenty-six when she had me. She was supposed to see us graduate from college and help me and Georgia plan our weddings. She was supposed to spoil her grandkids and complain about my dad turning into a curmudgeon and grow old with him. Instead, she got sick, grew weak, and died.

 

“She was one helluva woman, your mama,” Mike said as he pulled the boat into a small inlet that was shaded by trees and cut the motor. “Do you remember the time she caught us eatin’ all those peaches?” He smiled that smiled that big, broad, easy smile of his.

 

“Oh my God! I had forgotten about that,” I said and started to chuckle.

 

“That peach tree she’d been nursin’ along…when it finally got some fruit on it, and I shimmied up and tossed the peaches down to you,” he laughed.

 

“Yes! And Rome and Georgia caught us and said they’d tell on us if we didn’t give them half the peaches! They must’ve been what, six or seven then?” I smiled thinking of my little sister, in pigtails, fists on her hips, threatening to tell our mom if we didn’t share.

 

“And I was busy throwin’ the peaches down, and you weren’t payin’ any attention. By the time I came down, they’d each eaten three or four…they were both literally green,” he threw his head back and laughed that full-body laugh that came so easily to him.

 

“You know, Rome still won’t eat peaches? Can’t stand them!” I laughed, a deep, full, real laugh. It was the first time I’d laughed in weeks.

 

After that, we sat quietly for a little while, I said, “Thanks for that,” as he handed me a can of Coke out of the cooler. “I haven’t laughed that hard in weeks…months, maybe,” I told him.

 

He smiled at me sweetly. “I’m glad I can make you laugh, Celia. Your smile is about the prettiest thing I know.”

 

He handed me a pole, and we started to fish. He distracted me with small talk, telling me about his classes in Knoxville and asking me about mine. My bait must’ve slipped off the hook three or four times at least. “Come on, now, Celia. You don’t catch anything, we’re gonna go hungry,” he joked.

 

“If you’re counting on me for supper, you might have to make due with twigs and leaves,” I replied.

 

“No way,” he said. “You got this. Here, let me show ya.” He moved to my end of the boat and straddled the seat behind me. “Here’s one problem…you gotta cast it out farther than that.” He put his arms around me and took my rod, reeling in the line. Then he put the pole back in my hand and put his hand over mine. “Here, back like this…and now…release!”

 

“Hey, that’s way better!” I giggled.

 

“Told ya,” he smiled and put his hand on my shoulder. “You can do anything you set your mind to, Celia.” He stood and went back to his seat, and I couldn’t help but miss his presence next to me.

 

After a few minutes, I felt a tug on the line. “Whoa! I think there’s something there,” I said. The line started pulling and went taut.

 

“Okay, okay, easy,” he said, standing and coming back to my seat. He braced himself against my back as he reached over me and grabbed the pole. “Now reel it in – easy now, not too fast.”

 

I followed his instructions, and in a matter of minutes, he was holding up my line, a sizable fish dangling from the end of it.

“Holy shit! I did it!” I laughed.

 

Mike took a multi-tool from his pocket and plucked the hook from the fish, depositing the wriggling, bloody creature into a bucket. “Of course, you did, and that’s a respectable fish, too. Good job,” he put his hand up and high-fived me.

 

***

 

My mood was significantly lighter by the time Mike navigated the boat to the bank of a small island out on the edge of the lake. He set the anchor and jumped out. I started to step out into the surf, and he stopped me. “No need for that – I gotcha,” he said, standing by the edge of the boat and scooping me up, carrying me to the bank.

 

He started a fire in the clearing under a beautiful old oak that was wrapped with honeysuckle and then walked a little way down the beach to clean the fish on a piece of driftwood.  When he returned to the campfire, he put the fish, along with a handful of potatoes and some corn he’d brought, into the fire on a piece of tin foil to cook.

 

“I have to admit, this is pretty nice,” I said, looking up. We were far enough out from the city that you could see the stars beginning to twinkle in the early evening sky above us.

 

“You’ve had a good day then?” He asked, looking over his shoulder at me as he stoked the fire.

 

“I really have. You’ve really…been here for me through this whole thing. I don’t know what I would’ve done without you,” I said, wrapping my arms around my knees as I sat barefoot on the blanket.

 

“Celia,” Mike said, leaning back next to me, “We’ve known each other most our lives. You gotta know there ain’t a thing in the world I wouldn’t do for you.”

 

The green of his eyes shone with flecks of gold from the firelight as he looked at me. He was right – I’d known Mike almost my whole life and had a crush on him for nearly as long. At that moment, in my head, I knew I was vulnerable. In my heart, though, I felt like everything I had always hoped for was looking back at me.

 

“Smells like our supper’s ready,” he said, smiling at me with a wink. “You hungry?”

 

I nodded yes.

 

After we ate, Mike said, “I guess we’d better be heading back,” and stood, reaching for my hand.

 

“I’m not ready,” I said, grazing his fingertips with mine. “It was a good day. I’m not ready for it to be over.”

 

Alright, Celia. I suppose a little while longer won’t hurt.” He laid back on the blanket, stroked my cheek with his fingertips, and pulled me to his chest, cradling me in his arms. I wanted him to kiss me…to make love to me. I wanted him to tell me that he was feeling everything I was. He didn’t give me what I wanted. Instead, he gave me what I needed. He held me close, his strong arms wrapped tight around me, his cheek resting on the top of my head.

 

Later on, as he dropped me off at the house, he said quietly, “I got chores in the morning. Be around after?” I nodded and went inside.

 

After that, Mike came by every day. Some days, he’d pick me up and take me back to his family farm to hang out with him while he did chores. Some days we’d go to the lake, others, we’d just ride around the back roads together, talking, laughing, and listening to the radio. I needed to feel something that wasn’t pain and bitterness, and he gave me that.

 

***

 

The week before school started back, I was in my room, packing up some of my clothes. “What are you doin’?” Georgia asked, leaning against the doorframe of my room.

 

“I’m gettin’ clothes together. I have to head back in a couple days,” I replied, as I yanked a faded green suitcase out from under my bed.

 

“Go back? What do you mean you’re goin’ back?!” She crossed her arms and stepped forward, her dark brows furrowed over her pale blue eyes. She was about to be a freshman in high school, but she hadn’t hit her growth spurt yet, and she was still tiny, like a little kid.

 

“Georgia, I’ve gotta go back to school,” I said, stopping what I was doing to face her.

 

“Back to school? Celia, Mama just died. You ain’t gonna leave us,” she stepped forward, gesturing wildly with her hands. If I felt robbed of our mother at twenty, I could only imagine what she was feeling at fourteen.

 

“Sweetie…,” I started to try to explain, but she cut me off.

 

“No, ya know what? Go on ahead. Pack. Get the hell out. You ain’t never home anyway. Mike’s seen a lot more of ya since the funeral than the rest of us have. So that’s fine…you go run off with your boyfriend, then take off back to school. Rome, Daddy, and I can get along just fine without ya!” She stormed out.

 

She was right. I hadn’t been there for them.

 

I grabbed my keys and bolted out the back-porch door. By the time I got to the Pennington place, tears were streaming down my cheeks. I found Mike out in the barn. He had his shirt off and was moving hay into one of the stalls.

 

“Celia? What’s wrong, darlin’?” He asked, dropping the pitchfork in his hand as he walked to meet me.

 

“Georgia just laid into me,” I said, my voice breaking as the tears came. “She said I ain’t been there for them…she’s right, Mike. I’m just…I’m just such a mess. She wants me to quit school…stay here…,” he wrapped his arms around me as the tears poured down my face.

 

“What about you, Celia?” He lifted my chin to face him. “What is it that you want, darlin’?”

 

Everything else fell away. It was just me, and him, and the rest of the world could be damned at that moment. I slid my arms around his bare shoulders and leaned up, crushing my lips to his. My heart beat ferociously as my lips devoured him. My skin was on fire everywhere it touched his. A want that bordered on desperation pooled deep in my belly.

 

He wrapped his arms tightly around me, big hands sliding up and down my body as my lips parted and his tongue danced with mine. He slid his hand up to my face, tracing my jaw with his fingertips, leaving a trail of electricity in their wake. He pulled away for a moment, and I was afraid I’d been wrong – that I’d made a mistake. He looked at me, his eyes a fiery emerald, hooded and dark with desire. He bent forward and picked me up, carrying me to the corner of the barn.

 

He grabbed a blanket that was hanging from a nail in the wooden post, and laid it down, then took my hand, silently directing me to it. I sat down, pulled my t-shirt over my head and looked up at him. His chiseled jaw bore the stubble of having missed a shave that morning. His rippled chest glistened with the sweat of a hard day’s work. He was dirty, and hard, and beautiful, and he was everything I wanted.

 

He cupped my cheek in his palm and looked me up and down. He furrowed his brow a little and said in a throaty whisper, “You are the most beautiful thing I ever saw.” Then he pressed his mouth to mine again, and I wrapped myself around him, eager for the heat of skin against skin. He kissed my jaw and the side of my neck. When he put his lips to my throat, I raked my fingers through his hair and threw my head back, reveling in the feeling of lips and stubble against my skin.

 

Mike tugged the strap of my bra down, releasing my breast, and put his mouth to it. As his lips engulfed my nipple, I moaned, wrapping my legs around him, aching for more. He reached around to unfasten my bra, and tossed it hastily to the side, hungrily taking my other breast in his mouth. As he licked and sucked, his lips and tongue eking out more pleasure than I knew my flesh could feel, he reached down, and in one motion, pulled my shorts and panties down and off, taking my sneakers with them.

 

His mouth returned to mine, and I pressed myself against his chest and torso, my skin electric everywhere it touched his. His kiss liquefied me. I squeezed against him as if I was trying to permeate his very pores.

 

He slid his hand down my body, his fingers lingering as they ran down my sex. His lips danced on my neck as his fingers explored until they found their way into my folds, sliding into the heat there. He gave a quiet growl against my neck as his fingers slipped inside of me, and my hips rocked to meet his touch. The sensations of his hands on me after years of wanting and fantasizing about him was almost more than I could bear.

 

I let myself go, not thinking of my grief or insecurities or fears or anything in the universe but the utter pleasure of what he was doing to me…doing for me. My soul was lifted, and I soared high above everything else that mattered to a plane where nothing existed but me, and him, and the way he was making me feel. Wanton lust. Coursing pleasure. Intense love. Safety. Home. Being in his arms and letting myself succumb to that for which I had always longed felt like coming home.

 

His fingers moved, playing my body like an instrument, and I rocked with him, soon finding the crescendo. I cried out for him. He leaned back, unbuckling his belt. I looked him up and down, his cock straining against the tight denim, and reached for him, unfastening his jeans to hasten its release. He kissed me deeply, then stood, stepping out of his boots, and sliding his jeans and shorts to the ground.

 

He was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. His solid, muscular torso heaved in and out with every ragged breath. The sight of his thick shaft made my mouth water, and he looked at me with hunger in his eyes like I’d never seen before.

 

Kneeling down, he pressed his body to mine and kissed me deeply. I could feel the hard length of him pushing against my thigh, and it made me ache for him. He caressed my cheek and looked at my face thoughtfully, then raised an eyebrow. I raked my fingers across his skin, sinking my nails into his shoulders and nodded, silently agreeing to what his eyes asked.

He leaned back on his knees, grabbing his jeans, and rifling through the pockets. After a moment, he tilted his head back slowly and said with an exasperated groan, “Fuck!” He gave me a pained look. “No wallet,” he said.

 

I leaned up and grinned, grabbing his shoulders and pulling him down to me. “The pill…we’re good,” I whispered urgently as I pressed my naked flesh to his.

 

He smiled as he shifted his weight. I felt him there, hovering at the precipice for a moment, as he wrapped his arms around me. He kissed my lips, kneading them gingerly between his, then moved a little. “Yes,” I breathed into his open mouth, and he moved again, sliding deeply inside of me. I had one arm wrapped around his shoulders and raked along his jaw with the fingertips of my other hand, sucking in a deep breath as I took him in. His thickness and length stretched me further than I thought possible, and the sensation of being filled with him was the most decadent pleasure I had ever experienced. 

The feeling of him moving deep inside of me sent a jolt of exquisite pleasure to my core. “Yes, baby,” I whispered against his mouth, “Yes.” The barn was quiet except for the sounds of our bodies moving to become one. The taste of his lips and the hunger in the sounds he made enveloped me.

 

“Celia…,” he whispered in my ear as he moved, “I’ve wanted you for so damned long…you are…everything to me.” I found his lips with mine, and wrapped myself around him, sliding my leg up to urge him deeper inside. I wanted to consume him and to be consumed. I wanted to make his body quake with the intense pleasure I was feeling. His pace quickened, and the sensations were amplified.  We moved together, my hips rocking to meet his until we could take no more. “Baby,” he whispered, “Are you ready for me?”

 

“Yes, Mike,” I called out, digging my fingers into his flesh, “Yes!” He moved again, and I felt him quake inside of me as my body shattered around him.

 

He stayed with me for a moment, then shifted his weight, rolling over and pulling me on top of him. He laid back, one hand tucked behind his head, his hair matted against his face, our bodies slick with heat and sweat and each other. I laid with my face in the crook of his neck, his arm around me, my body still tingling with pleasure.

 

“You alright, darlin’?” He asked, kissing the top of my head.

 

“I am spectacular,” I replied, craning my neck to kiss his jaw.

 

“Damn straight, you are,” he replied, grinning. “Boy am I glad you came by this afternoon,” he said. “I wasn’t sure…I mean, we both gotta head back to school in a few days. With all the time we been spendin’ together…I wasn’t sure how we were gonna leave things.”

 

“I know,” I said quietly. “And I didn’t come over here plannin’ to…ya know. Do that. I just…knew I needed you. I didn’t know if you…I wasn’t sure how you saw us.”

 

He pulled his hand out from behind his head and tipped my chin up, so I was meeting his gaze. “Celia…darlin’, I been crazy about you since we were in third grade. You know that” He winced a little as if the idea that I would question his feelings was painful. “Hell, that ain’t even the first time we kissed,” he said with a grin. “Or did you forget?”

 

“Junior Prom? That was ages ago,” I scoffed at the memory. Becky Lindon’s older sister had gotten us some beer, and we were all down at the pond by her house, drinking after the dance. We played truth or dare, and my dare was to kiss Mike. The worst of it was, the truth question would have been, “Tell us who you’re secretly in love with.” Either way, it was him.

“Laugh all you want,” he said, stroking my arm with his fingertips. “It mighta been nothin’ to you, but it meant somethin’ to me. It wasn’t perfect, that’s for damn sure. I was a nervous wreck with everybody watchin’…but I’d been waitin’ for that kiss nearly my whole life.” He lifted his forehead and looked down at me. “I never thought in a million years I’d be lucky enough to hold you in my arms like this.”

 

His kissed me deeply, and we laid there, together, enjoying the newness of exploring each other.  It was perfection in a decidedly imperfect time.

 


 

CHAPTER 2

 

Mike

 

 

I walked into the house and went right to the bathroom I shared with my brother to take a shower. Mama had made my favorite for dinner – fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy.

 

“You sure didn’t get much work done today for havin’ such an appetite,” Dad said.

 

I shrugged, “Growth spurt,” as I grabbed another biscuit, slathering it with butter and raspberry jelly.

 

“Lord, I hope not! We can barely afford to feed you boys as it is,” Mama said, pouring me another glass of tea.

 

After dinner, I texted Celia.

 

ME: hey darlin – u good?

CELIA: im great. u?

ME: best day ever. spend day w me 2moro.

CELIA: ok

ME: ur house? 11?

CELIA: perfect

 

“Ain’t you the cat who ate the canary?” my brother Brett said as he walked in our room.

 

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked, but I knew he could tell something was up.

 

You been walking around with a shit-eatin’ grin all night. What’s that about?” My little brother was nothing if not a keen observer of my moods and habits. Call it self-preservation, but he always knew whether I was in a mood where he could test me, or if he should steer clear.

 

“Celia Graham,” I replied, flopping back on my bed, tucking my hands behind my head.

 

“Dude! We’ve known the Grahams our whole lives. She ain’t never give you a second look,” he lifted his chin, smirking.

 

“What can I say? Today…she looked.” I laid back and tried to sleep, but I couldn’t.

 

All I could think about was her. The salty sweetness of her skin, her beautiful face filled with desire, and the sweetest sound I’d ever heard – my name on her lips as her body quaked with pleasure…it was all burned into my mind. Being with Celia was etched on my soul with the vividness and permanence of a fresh tattoo.

I’d been in love with Celia ever since I could remember. When she went off to Illinois to college, I thought I’d lost her forever. I hated the pain her Mama’s illness and passing had caused her and her family. Her mama was a good woman. It was a pain I would take away if I could.

When I got home from school and heard how bad things had got, I knew she needed some time, but I knew I had to be there for her as well. I would never have laid a hand on her in the state she was in. I just wanted to comfort her and help her through as best I could. When she walked in the barn and kissed me, I wanted to tell her no. I wanted to tell her she was just caught up in her emotions. As soon as her lips hit mine, though, I was done. There was nothing in the world that could’ve kept me from taking her in my arms and loving her that day. Once I had her in my arms, I never wanted to let her go.

She was heading back to Illinois to school later that week, and I was headed back to Knoxville. After the time we’d spent together over the summer, I had realized that I’d been right all those years. She was the one. I went online and found a job on campus, and after a few phone calls back and forth, arranged to come to the campus security office when I got to school. It paid better than anything else that would work around my class schedule, and I needed to start saving up. I may have been only twenty, and we both had to finish school, but I had already decided. When we were home for winter break, I was going to tell Celia how much I loved her and ask her to be mine forever.

I loved that girl, and once I realized that I had a shot with her, I wasn’t gonna let her slip through my fingers.

 

***

 

Celia

 

On the drive home from the Pennington place, I felt high. As I replayed every kiss, every touch, every sensation of him in my mind, my skin turned to gooseflesh. I had fantasized about him a thousand times. I had looked at his lips and wondered what it would be like to kiss him – really kiss him. I had speculated on how he would be…whether he would be gentle or strong…how it would feel to be wrapped in his arms. No amount of daydreaming or speculation could’ve prepared me for the reality of the experience. Even as I relished in the soreness between my legs, I craved more of him. 

 

As happy as I was about having been with Mike, I didn’t like the way I’d left things with Georgia earlier. I found her in the kitchen, cooking dinner.

 

“Hey sis,” I said, “Can I help?”

 

“I dunno, can you?” She said, casting a scowl at me over her shoulder as she poured chicken stock into a pan.

 

“Georgia,” I said, but she didn’t turn around. I stepped forward, taking her by the shoulder. “Georgia,” I turned her to face me.

 

“How can you just…leave? How can you leave us alone?” Tears poured down her cheeks, her blue eyes rimmed with red. I pulled her to me, wrapping my arms around her and stroking her hair the same way Mama had done for us a million times growing up.

 

“I have to, honey. Mama wouldn’t want us to stop. She’d want us to keep moving forward.” I kissed the top of my sister’s head, as she sobbed into my chest.

 

“I’m scared, Celia. I don’t know how to…how to be without her,” she cried.

 

“I know honey. I’m scared too. But we’ll figure it out. You’re braver than you know Georgia. You’re stronger than you realize,” I told her with my own tears falling.

 

“How do you know?” She looked up at me.

 

“Because we both are…because we’re her daughters,” I smiled down at her, smoothing back her hair.

 

***

Mike and I had spent the last couple of days together before I had to leave for school. We hadn’t talked much about what would happen when we went back, but he was attentive and sweet, just as he’d always been. His appetite for me had been insatiable, too, and I couldn’t get enough of him. I wasn’t sure how I would be able to stand to be away from him with me in Chicago and him in Knoxville.

We had gone out to the lake and taken the little boat back out to the island and laid under the oak tree where we’d had dinner the night we fished together. “I can’t believe you’re goin’ back tomorrow,” Mike said as I laid in his arms.

“I know,” I said. “I’ve kinda gotten used to you bein’ around. I’m not sure how I like you bein’ so far away.”

 

“You could transfer to Knoxville,” he stroked my hair as I lay with my head on his chest.

 

“You could come to Northwestern,” I replied, smiling up at him.

 

“Well, we’ll be home for fall break before too long,” he said. “And ya know I’m gettin’ an apartment this year. It’s a studio – pretty small, but big enough for the two of us. You can come down and stay with me any time you want.”

 

“You might not want to say that,” I smirked. “You might get sick of me.” The thought of driving eight hours to spend a night or two with Mike sounded crazy, but totally worth it.

He furrowed his brow, tipping my chin up with his fingertips. “Celia, that’ll never happen. I told ya, I been crazy about you my whole life. If I could, I’d never let you outta my arms again.”

 

***

 

When I got back to school, I made myself busy with classes and getting settled into the school year. I was on a partial scholarship for volleyball, and practice started up the week after classes. Mike texted or called me every day, telling me he missed me, and that his class load was tougher this year than last. He had gotten a job on campus as well. I thought it was a bit too much, but he insisted he needed the money, and he could handle the load.

A couple of weeks after volleyball practice started, I threw up during practice. I was surprised to get the flu so early in the year, but I was exhausted and sick. Luckily my roommate, Sarah, helped take care of me, bringing me soup and keeping it quiet in our room. After a couple of days, I started to feel a little better, then I had a relapse. Sarah insisted that it wasn’t normal and that I should go to the clinic to get some Tamiflu or at least get checked out.

“When did the symptoms start?” The nurse asked.

 

“A couple of weeks ago,” I replied.

 

“And, when was your last period?” She continued.

 

“Um…I think…I’m probably due any day,” with everything going on, all the stress, not to mention all the sex with Mike before I left home, my body felt out of whack. I wasn’t really sure if I was on time or not.

 

“And could you be pregnant?” The nurse asked.

 

“No, I’m on the pill,” I replied confidently. “I’m sure it’s just the flu. I feel really run down.”

 

“I understand that you’re on birth control, but nothing is one hundred percent. Have you had unprotected sex?” She asked more firmly.

 

“Well, I…I mean, yeah, I have a…,” I stopped for a minute, unsure if I should even call Mike my boyfriend. “I have a boyfriend back home,” I replied.

 

“Let’s do a test just to be sure,” she replied.

 

I reluctantly agreed. The wait was interminable. I could hardly wait to get the dose of flu medicine and get back to the dorm to rest. I was behind in my classes and needed to get well enough to get back to practice.

 

“Ms. Graham,” the nurse came back in a few minutes later. “It looks like we know what’s causing your symptoms. The test came back positive. You’re pregnant.”

 

The room spun for a moment, and my heart felt like it stopped beating. “Pregnant? No! I-I can’t be pregnant!”

 

“These tests are very accurate, Ms. Graham. We’ve written down the name of some prenatal vitamins we’d recommend, and we’d like you to come back in four weeks for a checkup or see your regular doctor. Congratulations,” the nurse said, patting me on the shoulder.

 

I don’t remember the walk back across the quad or walking into my building. In our room, I pulled off my jeans, crawled into bed, and pulled the covers up around me. Pregnant. I was going to have a baby. Mike’s baby. My mind raced from what being pregnant would mean to my education – I’d lose my scholarship after all – to how Mike would take it, to how much I wished my Mama were around to help me…to tell me how I should handle everything. I began to sob and cried until I drifted off to sleep.

 

***

 

I responded to Mike’s texts for the next couple of days but avoided talking to him on the phone. I had no idea how I’d tell him, so I avoided the conversation altogether. Finally, after a few days of swinging through the full gamut of emotions, I decided I had better call Mike and tell him that we were going to be parents. It was about ten o’clock in Knoxville, and his cell was going right to voicemail. I thought he might have a dead battery or something and decided to try him at the apartment. He had apparently inherited a landline phone when he rented the place. I thought it might be the last landline in America.

“Hello,” the sleepy voice answered. It wasn’t one I recognized, and I wasn’t sure who she was, but whether it was the hormones or the fear of the unknown, I wasn’t a fan of her answering my boyfriend’s phone.

“Hi…is Mike there?” I asked, sure I must’ve dialed the wrong number.

 

“He’s in the shower so he can’t talk right now. Who’s calling?” She asked.

 

Who’s calling? Who the fuck did she think she was? “It’s Celia,” I replied. “And you are?”

 

“I’m Hillary…look, we’re kinda busy right now. Maybe you should call back later,” she replied and hung up.

 

What the actual fuck? I laid down on my bed and cried, wondering how in the world things had gone so wrong, so fast.

 

The next couple of weeks were a blur. I was uncomfortable – all my clothes felt too tight. I was sick almost every day, and since the phone call to Mike’s apartment, I had a knot in my stomach that wouldn’t go away. Mike kept calling and texting me, but I wouldn’t answer. One afternoon, when he texted me, begging for me to answer, I finally replied, telling him I didn’t want to talk to him, and not to text or call me again. I had to figure out how I was going to take care of myself and a baby. Worse than that, I had to figure out how to tell Daddy that his daughter was knocked up.

***

It was about a week later that I woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat.

“Sar-ah…,” I called to my roommate, my voice weak, my body shaking.

 

“Celia?” She said, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. “What’s wrong?” She flipped on the light, and when she looked at me, her eyes grew wide. “Oh, honey, you don’t look so good,” she put the back of her hand to my forehead. “You’re burning up! Come on – we’ve gotta get you to the infirmary,” she said, pulling back the covers. She looked down and gasped, her hand moving to her mouth. “Oh, honey, no! I’m calling for help. You’re gonna be okay Celia…it’s gonna be okay.” She grabbed her phone and dialed 9-1-1.

 

I was in the fetal position, shaking, my hands tucked between my thighs. I was suddenly aware of dampness on my fingers and pulled my hand up to see it covered in blood.

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