Authors: Diana Gardin
A Nelson Island Novella
New YorkÂ Â Â Boston
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To anyone who has been hurt, physically, by someone they loved. I hope this story finds you in a better place. If not, please let Ever's story give you the strength to keep on going. You are strong, you are capable, and you are loved.
I'm blessed. I thank God every day for giving me the drive and the passion to be a writer.
When it came to putting words on paper for
, I had an interesting time, to say the least. I really wanted to redeem Ever from
, and I needed a few readers in order to make sure I actually did it. Thank you to Kate, Annie, and Skillet for being my first sets of eyes on this novella, and for helping me keep Ever and Hunter on the right track. You three were beyond amazing!
None of this would be possible had I not entered a pitch contest on Twitter and thus collided with my incredibly beautiful and hilarious pit bull of an agent, Stacey Donaghy. Thank you for being the feisty go-getter you are and for believing in what I do! Support like yours is a pure blessing, and I look forward to many years together.
To my fabulous, super-smart editor, Leah Hultenschmidt: Nelson Island is coming into the light because you loved and believed in Sam and Aston! Now you've also helped shape Ever and Hunter into something wonderful, and I'm so lucky to have you as an editor.
To my love, who has actually started reading my books: Thank you for loving me enough to read romance novels. You're my hero.
Thank you to my amazing little family who lives with my crazy every single day. Our two little wild things are my entire world, and my husband is the sun in our galaxy. Without you all, I wouldn't have a purpose or a reason to want to make our lives even better with this amazing career. Thank you for being perfect for me.
There will be readers who take Ever's story to heart. If that's you, I am so sorry you had to go through something painful. Just remember that there is always someone you can turn to in times of struggle and strife, and if you can't find that person, I'm only a Tweet or a message away. Keep your head up; you are strong and beautiful.
addy, please don't.”
Ever's voice trembled with fear. Her father had too much to drink. Again. And again, she was going to be the one who paid the price.
“Please, Daddy.” She backed up a step, never tearing her gaze away from the man in front of her.
Don't. Please don't.
“If you'd just
do it right
,” he said, stumbling closer. “I don't ask for much, Ever.”
He didn't ask for much? She could write three essaysâone for each of the colleges she desperately wanted to go to but never had the chance to apply forâon how much he asked of her. She was twenty years old, and it felt like all she did was cook and clean and work at the bakery. She did absolutely everything for her father. Every time she missed a spot of dust or forgot enough salt at dinner, his anger boiled over to a violent level. Last time she hadn't folded his laundry just right and ended up with a broken rib.
“I'm so sick of this shit,” he declared, gesturing around them wildly. “I've tried to be patient with you, Ever. But enough is enough. You need to learn some obedience once and for all.”
She took another step backward. He lurched toward her.
And suddenly, she was running. Flying down the hall and into her room before he registered her escape. She slammed the door behind her and the flimsy walls shuddered in protest.
It was a tiny house perched on gray cinder blocks, barely bigger than the trailers across the field. The walls shook when Ever's father began to pound on her door. It wouldn't take him long to knock the whole damn thing down.
I will huff, I will puffâ¦
She would have laughed if not for the paralyzing terror.
“No more runnin'!” her father shouted from the other side of the door. “You won't run from me ever again!”
With shaking hands, she grabbed her cell phone. There was only one person she could call.
The wood splintered under his fists, and she screamed into the phone before the words came.
“Ever! Ever, sweetheart!”
Sam's deep, familiar voice on the phone cut through her screams.
“Sam! I think he's going to kill me this time.” She'd never been so panicked in her life. The beatings were bad, but there was a sinister new tone to her father's voice. Instinctively, she knew that if he got to her, she was going to be permanently damagedâor, even more likely, dead.
“I'm on my way,” Sam said. “Stay with me. Are you in your room?”
Another earsplitting thump on her bedroom door, and she screamed again.
“Hurry! He's trying to break down the door.”
“I'm coming,” Sam said, out of breath from running. “But Everâ¦use it if you have to.”
He was talking about the gun. He'd told her it was
. At the time he gave it to her, she'd been horrified. Now she was grateful Sam and his brother, Hunter, were always looking out for her.
She glanced at her window, the one she always used to get to Sam when she needed him. Shaking her head frantically, she turned back to face the door. She couldn't run away from this. It wasn't possible. The threat lived right down the hall. She had to face it.
Her hands shook so badly she was unable to hold the phone. Dropping it, she knelt next to her bed and pulled out the wooden box Sam had pushed far into the darkness.
Bam. Bam. Bam!
With one final effort of fist and foot, her bedroom door burst open.
Her father was wielding a baseball bat.
In an instant, she leveled the loaded weapon directly at his chest.
“Daddy,” she whispered. “Please don't come any closer.”
His green eyes, so much like hers when they weren't dulled by liquor, widened slightly. “Where in the hell did you get that? I'm gonna beat the shit outta you!”
No. This time, she knew, he would beat the
out of her.
As he lunged, she squeezed the trigger.
Movies depicted someone being shot falling gracefully to the ground, clutching their chest as blood blossomed with an artful spread through their shirt.
That wasn't at all how it happened in real life.
Ever's steady hands finally failed her as her father jerked backward into the doorway like a puppet tethered to a string.
The words were a breath from her mouth, a string she couldn't contain as it flowed away from her.
He stumbled backward from her doorway and out into the living room, making it five whole steps before he finally fell with a decidedly ungraceful thud to the wooden floor.
She was drawn forward, almost as if she were attached to the man who raised her. She fell alongside him, dropping to her knees. He stared straight up at the ceiling, and she watched as he drew in one last, strangled breath. He never let it go.
Her eyes slid downward, to where the floor around him was slowly turning red with the puddle of his blood. She lay down, squeezing her eyes shut. She was cold all over, and her thoughts weren't coming in any pattern that made sense.
She killed her father.
She killed her father.
She killed her father.
The front door burst open, banging against the wall. Sam was there, slipping next to her in a baseball slide, pulling her into his lap.
“Ever,” he breathed into her ear. “You're safe, baby. He can't hurt you anymore.”
Ever looked up at him, barely seeing him through the haze of what she'd just done. “I killed him. I pulled the trigger and just like that he's gone. Are they going to take me to jail? He knew the sheriff, Samâ¦they were like brothers. I'm going to jail for this. I know I am.”
It was all she could think of. Her life had never really begun, and now it was definitely over. In a different way than she'd expected, but over nonetheless. She buried her face in Sam's chest.
“No,” Sam said firmly. “You're not.”
She pulled back and met his eyes. “Butâ”
“You're not going to jail,” he repeated. “Because we're going to tell them that I shot him.”
“Sam!” Hunter's voice came from the door. “No. You aren't doing this.”
Until then, Ever hadn't looked past Sam. But of course Hunter was there. She couldn't recall an event in her life when both Waters boys weren't present.
“You know it's the only way to keep her safe,” Sam said, his eyes still locked with Ever's. “Should have been me who killed him anyway.”
Ever knew Hunter well enough to know that he would not be okay with this plan. Hunter was practical; he planned things out. His fuse was slow burning, whereas his brother reacted on emotional impulse most of the time. Her thoughts were still so fuzzy; she didn't have the wherewithal to argue with Sam, or to think clearly through the situation one way or another. But Sam tossed Hunter the keys to his motorcycle, and Hunter was off and running toward the trailer to fetch the bike.
Sam pulled Ever up with him and asked her to show him the gun. He wiped it carefully with the flannel of his shirt and then handled it deliberately before leaving it on the floor in the living room.
Then they were running, Sam pulling her across the field, navigating the maze of trailers in the park, and into the woods the three of them knew and loved. When they arrived, breathless, within sight of the highway that ran right out of Duck Creek, Sam finally stopped and pulled her in front of him with a tight grip on her shoulders.
A coherent thought was finally making its way into her muddled mind.
She couldn't let Sam take the fall for killing her father. Maybe they would listen to her self-defense explanation, maybe they wouldn't. No one had ever listened to her beforeâher dad's buddy the sheriff made sure of that.
But Sam was a poor kid from the roughest part of town. There was no way they were going to take his word for it.
If she let him do this, she was the worst kind of coward. After all Ever had been through, all the pain she'd felt in her life, one thing she'd never been was a coward.
She opened her mouth to speak, but Sam beat her to it. He always beat her to it.
“Listen to me,” he said fiercely as he grabbed both sides of her face in his calloused hands. “I promise I'll be back for you. Don't spend a day missing me. Don't drop your guard. I'll come back, and when I do, we'll go away together and we won't look back at this godforsaken town. You hear me?”
She nodded. Sam had always hated Duck Creek. He'd been looking for an escape for as long as she could remember.
He kissed herâhard. Sam's kisses were always like that, a touch of desperation mixed with a promise of tomorrow. Tonight was no different.
And then he was gone. Before she could say a word, he was racing down the highway, charging into an unknown future.
And wasn't that just like Sam? To take charge and assume that he knew what was best. Usually, though, he did. He and Hunter had looked out for her as long as Ever could remember. She couldn't count how many nights she'd snuck across that frost-covered ground in the middle of the night and into Sam's waiting window. He'd hold an ice pack to her face or wrap a sprained wrist with an ACE bandage. They were her very own personal saviors.
She stood staring into the trees where Sam had disappeared and heard the wail of sirens coming from the other direction.
“You ready?” Hunter asked, stepping up beside her and reaching out to brush the tears from her cheeks.
She turned to look at his face, so beautiful and familiar to her even shrouded in darkness. She nodded.
“I'm always ready, Hunter.”