★ Goodreads Readers Choice Awards Finalist ★
Their families may have been friends for their entire lives, but Attie and Riley drove each other crazy. He locked her in closets and trapped her in dirty clothes hampers, and she retaliated. He even has the scars to prove it.
Then, the unthinkable. Attie’s mother and Riley’s sister perish in an automobile collision - an accident Attie survived. Her guilt and anxiety only mount when she moves in with Riley and his parents for the summer. The former enemies must find a way to become friends.
Bonded by grief, Attie and Riley push aside their differences and he steps forward to help her fight off terrorizing nightmares. But soon, Riley has to fight a battle of his own. His growing love for Attie.
When Attie is unable to forgive herself for surviving, the power of unconditional love is revealed and together Attie and Riley learn that no one is ever truly lost. All things can be salvaged.
In this enemies to friends to first love story- hearts soften, wounds heal, and love finds a way.
Looking back, some might think the summer I turned seventeen changed my life for the better, but I beg to differ. As impossible as it sounds, in one significant way, it was the summer before.
As it turns out, the accident that almost took my life ended up being the tragedy that saved it. If not for the events of that day, I never would have experienced the dream that set my life on a new path--a new adventure.
The dream, his presence, and the events that followed prepared me for the most prominent blessings of my life; and even though I didn't realize it, those blessings started to unveil themselves as Gramp's old Ford made its way toward home.
* * *
The mile markers passed by in a blur. I allowed my eyes to stay unfocused on the dry, yellow grass outside the window as the knot in my stomach doubled in size. The fear of the unknown left me terrified. Not in the normal, death is knocking at my doorstep sort of way, but the kind that leaves you shaken to the core. Scared to move. Lips numb and fingers tingling as every possible adverse scenario runs through the mind and exits unresolved.
"You know they can't wait for you to arrive." Gramps talked nonstop since picking me up at the Will Rogers Airport. "Molly's been talkin' about you constantly. She's made sure to tell everyone you'll be livin' with 'em this summer."
My exhaustion level reached maximum capacity, and I wasn't in the mood to talk, but I sensed his growing concern about my silence and didn't want to cause him any more worry.
"Has she?" My first words since I climbed into the cab of the farm truck.
"Yep. I hope you've prepared for the welcome wagon.”
I propped my feet on the cracked vinyl dash and watched as he moved into the fast lane so we could take the Guthrie exit, which merged to the left. "They want to come see the freak show."
Used to my bouts of exaggerating, he allowed my comment to go unchallenged. "I hear Riley's lookin' forward to seein' you."
"Highly doubtful," I refuted with a groan. "Who in their right mind decided we should spend another summer under the same roof?"
"--it's the best we could come up with under the circumstances. Our choices were this or you sleepin' on a cot alongside the animals in my clinic."
"The clinic would be better than Riley torturing me for three months. That boy lives to make me miserable." My face warmed and it wasn’t due to the heat of the Oklahoma summer. Just thinking of Riley Bennett made my blood boil.
"Oh now, you're just bein' silly."
"Remember the time he shot me in the eye with an arrow? Or when he locked me in the dirty clothes hamper?" I ignored my grandfather's snickering and kept building my case. "To this day the smell of dirty socks makes me feel claustrophobic. If not for Melody, her brother would’ve kept me in the hamper for days."
"You were in there for less than five minutes. And you're no angel either. You did some harassin' yourself."
I eyed the drive-in theater as we passed. "Self-defense. Survival instinct at its best."
"You two were young, and he was ornery."
"Ornery?” My mind rumbled through childhood memories of summers with Riley. He was much more than ornery. “Try devil-child,” I suggested.
"Atticus, you shouldn't talk like that."
"I only speak the truth."
"You speak the exaggerated truth. You've always had an active imagination and bend toward the dramatic."
"Thank God Pops came to my rescue a hundred times a day; there's no telling what would happen to me. That boy hated me before." I looked down at my sneakers and took a long, deep breath. "He must truly hate me now."
"He doesn't blame you, Atticus--"
"He's changed a lot, grown up. Heck, who wouldn't given the situation?"
"Right. Another thing to hold against me." I looked back out at the sun-baked grass. "Ruin boy's summer before junior year--check. Cause boy to grow up faster than necessary--check, check. Now ruin boy's summer before senior year--check, check, check."
"Well here I thought we were havin' a welcome home party, but it seems to me you're much more interested in havin' a full-blown pity party."
I gnawed on my thumbnail and looked back down at my sneakers again as we approached a street corner. "I'm just nervous. And scared."
"I know you are, but I promise, you're gonna be pleasantly surprised."
When I felt the truck make the turn, I closed my eyes and cinched them tight until I knew we made it around the corner and past a few homes. Once the anxiety passed, I looked back out the window and took in the view of the Bennett home as we pulled into the driveway.
Not much about the house changed since my visit a year before. It had the same white exterior with charcoal gray shutters it always did. Weathered white wicker furniture dotted the patio, and green ferns hung above the railings between round white wooden columns. The only new addition I saw was a porch swing, which hung on the right side of the patio.
The old oak front door with its large oval window beckoned guests to enter the once happy home, but I was hesitant to oblige and not sure I was one of the guests it wanted to welcome. Even with the open invitation to stay with them for the summer.
I rolled down the window and closed my eyes, concentrating on the sound of the sprinklers jetting water across the flower beds in a frantic attempt to keep the greenery and blooms alive under the hot Oklahoma sun.
I pulled down the visor, flipped the mirror open and regretted it. "Ugh, what's the point?"
"Shush now, Atticus." I looked back at him. His crumpled forehead ever so slightly showed under his old brown cowboy hat. My comment bothered him. He wasn’t one to let someone complain about God’s creation, especially if you were complaining about yourself. "God created you-“
“…and he created you perfectly,” we said, in unison. He’d said it at least a thousand times in my lifetime, and each time, I earnestly thought he believed it.
Several months of a lack of sleep caught up with me. My hair hung flat on my head, looking stringy, and my dull eyes reflected a tiredness that made me look much older than my almost seventeen years.
I slammed the mirror shut and flipped the visor back against the roof just as Pops and Marme entered my line of vision.
My muscles tensed. I stared down at my sneakers for the umpteenth time to give myself a moment to calm, and then looked back out the truck window.
Marme jumped up and down, clapping her hands like a seal performing for a fresh fish. In an instant, her excitement dissolved the remaining tension in my muscles. Perhaps they honestly did want me to stay with them. Maybe they had moved forward, and they could show me how to do the same.
Pops stood motionless beside her but wore a broad grin on his face. The appearance of the odd couple caused me to laugh, which felt amazing since I hadn't done it in a year.
"Attie!" Marme hopped up and down and flapped her hands in the air. "Get out here and let me give you a hug."
"Look at you," she chirped. "Look at her, Tom; doesn't she look amazing?"
"Yep." The man of few words walked to the truck door and stuck his head through the window. “So much better than when you were ripped away from us last year.”
“That’s not saying much, Pops.” I noticed I was rubbing the scar on the base of my throat, forced myself to stop, and placed my hands in my lap.
“Still.” He grinned and ran his hand over my hair, then rooshed it a bit. “You’re a sight for sore eyes.”
The last time they saw me I was unconscious in a hospital bed, so just the vision of me breathing on my own was a serious upgrade. And thinking about it made me itch to rub the scar again, but I resisted.
Being the same age as my dad meant they weren't quite forty years old, and with Riley leaving for college in a year, their whole life lay ahead of them. One Molly probably dreaded. Her kids were her world. A world drastically changed in the previous three-hundred and forty some-odd days.
Thomas Bennett, being at least six feet six inches, with a stocky build, towered over his much shorter and slimmer wife, Molly. And his quiet nature balanced her constant state of excitement. As different as they looked, they were equally enjoyable, and they loved me. Always had, and I regretted ever fearing their feelings changed.
I climbed out of the truck and out of the corner of my eyes, caught a figure step out onto the porch.
The tightness returned to my neck.
I looked past his parents and noted his slumped shoulders. Riley Bennett was incapable of hiding his emotions. His body language always gave him away. His chin nearly touched his chest due to his focus staying at his feet, and even with his brown hair partly hanging in his face, I read his disapproval of my arrival.
"Thanks for letting me come stay with you," I muttered, eyes still on Riley. "I know this can't be easy on you."
“Don't you talk like that, Attie," Marme said. "We're thrilled to have you here."
“Attiline, this'll be the highlight of our year."
Pops calling me Attiline calmed my nerves back to a manageable level. He called me Attiline for as long as I could remember, and the fact he still referred to me with his unique term of endearment confirmed his feelings towards me hadn't changed in the slightest.
I continued studying Riley. He shoved his hands into his blue jean pockets and tensely curled his toes over the edge of the porch step. His annoyance left me feeling guilty for intruding on his life, but I couldn't put off the inevitable any longer.
I took one step his direction and forced a smile. "Good grief, it's Riley Bennett."
His eyes stayed focused on the ground. “Hey, Charlie.” Like his father, he had his own term of endearment for me, although I doubted it was meant to be endearing at all.
"Are you happy to see me?" I asked.
He shrugged. "Sure, why not." His feet shuffled on the patio for a few more seconds before he turned and started to make his escape back inside.
"Riley," Marme snapped, stopping him in his tracks. "Make yourself useful for cryin' out loud. Grab Attie's bags and take them up to her room. "
Slowly turning on his heels, Riley glanced at me and rolled his eyes. It was the first time we'd made eye contact since I arrived.
In an attempt to convey a certain amount of solidarity, I rolled my eyes as well. I couldn't help myself; I felt terrible for him. He didn't want me there, yet was stuck hauling my bags inside like a disgruntled bellhop at a three-star hotel.
"Sorry," I whispered.
"It's all right," he muttered.
We simultaneously reached for my bag, and as soon as our hands touched, we both withdrew as if we’d been shocked.
“I got it,” he muttered. He yanked on the handle, tugged the bag up the steps and followed his parents inside.
Gramps drove his old truck out of the Bennett's driveway and turned onto the street. The ticking seconds off the clock gave me time to calm my heart and prepare myself to walk back inside the house for the first time in almost two years.
I stood and let my mind roll back to a year before.
* * *
The rental car pulled up to the curb and stopped. Mom didn’t bother pulling in. We needed to take a quick trip to the mall for some items we forgot to bring and left back in New York. Carrying in our luggage and greeting the family could wait for a few hours.
It was only my anticipation of seeing Melody that forced my mother to go way out of the way to drive to Guthrie and pick her up so our reunion could include a shopping trip.
Mom put the car in park and waved to Riley who was busy loading football gear into the trunk of his car.
I climbed out and sauntered up behind him. "Where are you off to?"
"Got word you were back for a visit. Thought I'd escape the insanity.”
"You escape me? You're the one who makes my life miserable, Riley Bennett."
He closed the trunk, turned to me, leaned against the back of the car and smirked. "It's what I live for every summer."
"Tell me something I don't already know." I walked toward the Bennett porch and noticed small school signs reading Riley Varsity Football, and Melody Varsity Cheer stuck side by side in the flowerbed. "Where's your sister?"
"Inside." As my bare feet stepped onto the first porch step, he called out to me again. "Hey, Charlie?"
I turned to him with a roll of the eyes. "The name's Attie, in case you forgot."
"Right." He nodded. Shrugged, and grinned again. "Hey, Charlie, don't forget, when I get back, you owe me a date."
“A date? Why would I go on a date with you?"
"Because I'm amazing." His shtick never changed, no matter how old he was. He did and said whatever he thought might annoy me.
"Not quite," Melody rushed out the door ending our ridiculous banter.
Her brown curls bounced around her shoulders as she bounded down the steps and hugged me in a near bear grip that forced the air out of my lungs. We walked back to my mom's rental car without me stepping into the house to say 'hello' to their parents.
"Hey," Riley called out as I opened the car door. "How long are you gonna be gone?"
I placed my foot on the floorboard, turned and looked over my shoulder at him. "Not long enough for you to miss me."
I climbed into the car and watched him through the passenger side mirror until a song diverted my attention and I reached down to turn up the volume.
Seconds later, a planned trip to the mall changed dramatically, and Riley and I ended up being apart far longer than expected.
A year, to be exact.
* * *
If only I had taken a few seconds to go inside and say hello.
Things would be so different.
Standing inside the front door, brought a sense of security and nostalgia. I was home, safe and loved --except by Riley of course.
The first thing I laid eyes on was the grand craftsman-style staircase. The dark brown oak wood stood out against mossy green covered walls, and hardly revealed its age of over one-hundred years. Sixteen years of Riley and Melody running up and down the stairs left a well-worn path on the tread plates, but other than the worn spots, the wood practically sparkled in the sunlight through the leaded windows that were original to the home.
I walked halfway up the stairs to the landing, studied the old window and spotted the small puncture mark left when Riley misfired his bb gun as he chased me down the steps. Below it, the same fake plant on a tall planter in the corner of the landing. Riley and I hated that plant. We hid the dust collector several times during each of my visits, but Marme always found it and put it right back in place under her framed postcard collection.
I sent several of the postcards during our many family trips around the country. Every time Dad received an invitation to speak at a university, he turned the visit into a family vacation. By my sixteenth birthday, I visited almost every state in the continental U.S. but never left the country.
Every time we found ourselves somewhere new I made sure to purchase two postcards: one for myself and another for Marme. It was always an honor to come for a visit and see my latest postcard on her wall.
I walked back down the steps and into the living room, where I caught another horrifying glimpse of myself in the old mirror hanging above the mantle, and continued into the family room. A brand new television sat on an antique dresser. I was pleased to see that although it took them several years, Pops finally gave in and officially entered the twenty-first century by tossing out his old tube-style television.
"Isn't it great, Attiline? A fifty-inch flat screen HDTV." His chest puffed out, and a large grin filled his face. "The family Christmas gift this last year."
I nodded enthusiastically. I grew up under the saying of fake it til you make it, so the forced nod seemed justified. If I acted excited to be back in the house, I might start to believe it. "I guess there's no doubt where I'll watch football this year."
"Oh, you'll love it." He talked with as much enthusiasm as I ever heard him use. His excitement caused me to wonder if he faked his enthusiasm a bit as well. "The picture is so clear you can see each blade of grass."
Football season was my favorite time of year, and Saturday through Sunday nights ran together as I sat and watched game after game. My ritual usually started Saturday mornings with College GameDay and progressed through the weekend with professional games.
"A lot of great players are returning to the Sooners this year. Should be a great season."
"Dang straight," he agreed. "Everyone on sports radio is talking about a National Championship. I think it'll be exciting, and -“
Marme yelled for me to join her in the kitchen. "Time for girl talk. It's been awhile since I had another girl in the house."
"You poor soul." Pops pulled me to him and gave me a bear hug, much like Melody used to. "She's been preparing for this moment since she found out you were coming. It could be a long night, so I hope you got some rest on the plane."
I couldn't bear to tell him I was tired and only wanted to crawl into bed. I hadn't slept since the night before, and even then I spent most of the night awake. A bad dream woke me up, and I never fell back to sleep.
He gently squeezed my shoulders and pushed me toward the kitchen as I braced myself for what could amount to hours of listening to Marme have girl talk.
I stood in the entry between the kitchen and dining room and looked around the space as she finished loading the dishwasher. Boomer, their aging beagle, slept on a dining room table chair, and music blared from a laptop sitting on the kitchen counter.
Bon Jovi. They'd always been her favorite.
I glanced around the red kitchen. An avid collector, knickknacks filled every inch of her space. Her decorating style perfectly matched her personality--busy. Chaotic, even. Handmade gifts from Riley, Melody, and years of students, littered shelves she hung randomly on the walls, and trophies of all sizes and shapes. Not just knickknacks, the items were memories. They kept her attached to her past and now, in many ways, connected to Melody.
Her continued flurry of words regained my attention, and I wished we would acknowledge the massive elephant in the room. “Have a seat!” she urged, removing her apron.
She followed me back into the dining room, and we sat down at the table. Marme began fanning herself. "Someone crank up the air!" She looked over at me. "So, Attie Reed, let's get caught up on your life."
Riley stood from the chair in the next room and started to make way his way through the dining room into the kitchen, but she held out a hand and shushed him away. "We're having girl talk. You get on out."
He continued on his path. "I need a drink."
"Drink your spit.” She playfully shoved him toward the living room. "You can get a drink later."
"Mom, seriously, I need a drink, and I'll leave you two alone."
"Fine." She threw her hands onto her hips and tapped her foot on the hardwood floors. "I'll give you fifteen seconds."
He rolled his eyes for the second time since I arrived, stepped into the kitchen and grabbed a bottle of water out of the fridge before walking back out of the room in a huff.
Marme turned to face me again. "So is there a boyfriend?"
She didn't waste any time trying to find out the good stuff. To avoid her gaze, I reached for an oatmeal cookie from the plate in front of me. "No. No boyfriend."
Embarrassed to have the conversation within earshot of Riley, I glanced up at him. His eyes were entirely on the television. "Guys don't pay me any attention," I admitted. "I think boys see me more as buddy material. Like someone, they want to hang out with but don't necessarily want to make out with. I'm beginning to believe that's my lot in life. Every guy's best buddy."
"You're gorgeous; always were. I bet the boys are intimidated by you. You're self-confident, and you understand what you want. That scares boys off."
"I wouldn't say I'm self-confident. Clueless maybe. And anyway, you know what guys want, and I don't have them."
Her eyes grew wide. "What do boys want?"
"They want girls with big boobs, and I don't have those."
A clammer rose from the family room. I looked up to find Riley sprawled on the floor and the rocking chair on its side.
"Stupid chair," he said, climbing off the floor. He kicked the chair and moved to the couch.
Marme laughed. "Oh, Attie, if there's one thing boys want more than big boobs, they want a challenge. Stand your ground, hold on to your values, and make 'em wait. You do, and they’ll fall all over you."
"That's what Mom always said. 'Boys like a challenge.' But I don't think I'm trying to be a challenge as much as I just am one. By nature, I'm a challenge. Mom always told me I was a handful and only a special guy would be able to put up with me."
"She always had a sense of humor.”
I grabbed another cookie.
“Where are you going?” she snapped.
I looked toward the family room in time to see Riley heading for the front door.
“Answer me,” Marme squawked.
I remembered he once said the shrillness of her voice sounded like fingernails dragging down a chalkboard.
He tossed an angry glare my direction, which caused me to pull my legs up to my chest in defense.
"Where do you think you're going?" Marme excelled at intruding in other people's lives. Nothing sacred or secret existed with her around. She lived to know everyone's business.
He removed his stare from me and transferred it to his mother. "I'm goin' for a walk for cryin' out loud. What’s with the sudden interrogation?"
"Why don't you invite Attie to go? She's been cooped up in airplanes all day." It wasn’t a suggestion. Her words were a demand and Riley and I both knew it.
"Fine." His lower jaw tightened. His eyes turned cold. "Wanna come, Attie?"
"You go ahead. I wouldn't want to intrude. I think I'm doing that enough already."
"Riley!" she yelled.
He glanced back at me. His eyes practically begged me to let him off the hook, and entirely unlike me, I obliged. "It's okay, Marme; I need to unpack anyway."
"Sorry," he mumbled.
I rose out of my chair and stepped towards him. The top of my head barely reached his shoulders, but I stood on my tippy toes and patted him on the head. “Don’t you worry your shaggy, big head. I’m a big girl. If I want to go for a walk, I can go by myself."
And with that, I skipped out of the room and up the stairs toward my room.
Riley Bennett tried to get the best of me and failed miserably. I won round one.