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By Jessa Martell All Rights Reserved ©

Romance / Mystery


When the one person she could always depend on, dies, Emma finds herself in an unusually vulnerable place. Suddenly, her brother wants to reconcile, her estranged mother pops back up like a bad case of herpes, and a close friend is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Even more confusing: Her childhood irritation, Ryan Cameron, suddenly wants to pursue a romantic relationship. Then, strange things start to happen. Break-ins, an assault, a secret stalker, and a mysterious safe lead her on a path of self-discovery that promises to change her forever. As she navigates the minefield of love, forgiveness, friendship, and grief, amidst danger, will she find the answers she needs and figure out what's most important before she loses everything?

Prologue | Innocence


Emma, where are you?”

Please come out, Emma, I’m sorry!”

The scrawny, wild-haired little girl hid high up in the large crook of the old willow, biting the inside of her cheeks to stifle the sound of her crying. Despite her efforts, angry tears still squeezed out of the corners of her eyes, making dirty tracks down her face. Clenching her fists, she resisted the urge to drop onto the tall red-headed boy beneath her, and pummel him into the ground.

Go away… just go away, she willed him, squeezing her eyes shut.

It started out as such a good day. For the first time, Evan let her tag along with him to the pond. Granted, her big brother wasn’t exactly happy about it, but Grandma said if he wanted to go, he had to let her come with. She was ecstatic.

She chattered excitedly all the way to the huge cottonwood tree that stretched out over the large pond. Years ago, someone had tied a long, thick rope to the thick branch that stretched farthest over the water, and put a big knot on the end. The knot was meant to stand or sit on-it was a swing-and better than any roller coaster in the opinion of most of the neighborhood children.

Ryan Cameron was already there when they arrived, leaning against the trunk, waiting for Evan. The boys had been best friends for as long as Emma could remember. He was also their next door neighbor. She didn’t like him much. He was three years older than her seven years, and always seemed to want to annoy her.

At first, the boys ignored her, settling down to compare their new baseball cards. Finally, after pestering Evan with unwavering tenacity, he turned on her:

“What is it, Emmy?” he demanded exasperatedly.

“I want to swing!”

“Just wait a minute!”

“Come on,” she pleaded, “You promised you’d show me how!”

Evan ignored her. A few more boys had shown up, and now they all had cards out, absorbed in whatever complicated system of selling/trade they had settled on. Emma was getting impatient though. Just as she was about to start whining at him again, she was interrupted.

“I’ll show you, Em,” Ryan grinned.

Emma glanced toward her brother and whined, “Evan!”

He was still focused on his baseball cards. “Ryan can show you,” he shrugged.

“Fine!” She turned back toward Ryan, “Let’s go!”

“Okay,” Ryan smiled again, “So, first, you grab the rope really tight.”

“Yeah…” Emma was getting annoyed. She was younger, but she wasn’t stupid. “What next?”

“Then, run back. Like this,” he scurried backward, holding onto the rope with both hands. “Then run forward as fast as you can. When you get to the end of the bank, you have to hold really tight, and then jump on!” Instead of running forward, he turned toward her. “When you’re on, pump your legs up and down to go higher. When you’re high enough, jump off over the water. Okay?”

“Yeah, yeah! I got it!” She tried to grab for the rope, but he held it out of her reach.

“Uh-uh, my turn first, little girls second.” He smirked, and she stuck her tongue out at him.

“Hurry up! I want a turn!”

“Okay, jeez!” He ran back, and called to her, “Watch what I do.”

He raced forward, jumped on, and then flew past her. When the rope jerked tight, he crouched down, his feet balanced on the knot and pushed up, making himself swing back. He repeated this a few times until he was flying high, and the rope almost went slack every time he reached the end. When she thought he couldn’t go any higher, he whizzed past her over the water, and he jumped!

Emma squealed in excitement. “Oh! It’s my turn, it’s my turn!” She waited for the rope to swing back toward her, and slow down enough so she could grab it.

She was just about to start running, when Ryan grabbed the rope from her, pushing her so that she fell on her bottom. She clawed for him, but he jumped onto the large knot, and swung out over the glassy surface once again.

There was another, gigantic splash in the pond, with him yelling, “Sucker!” back toward her. When he came trudging out of the murky water near shore, she was on him.

“Ryan!” she bellowed, shoving him, while he just laughed, “it was my turn!”

“You’re too little to play with us, Emma-go home.” He pulled her hair, laughing, with a cocky, stupid smirk on his face. She could feel anger bubbling up inside, and was on the verge of scratching that look right off his face. But then, her face reddened as she realized that they weren’t alone anymore.

The hot, humid weather had drawn out the rest of the neighborhood kids, and they were laughing at her too. Infuriated, her face turning a shade darker, and she shoved him as hard as she could. He stumbled backward, making a satisfying ‘plop!’ as he landed in the soft, gooey muck in the bank right below the tree.

She giggled, a self-satisfied smirk on her face as she watched him struggle and flounder in the sticky, thick muck. When he finally emerged, he was covered in black goo from head to toe, and huge, plump leeches were suctioned onto his arms, legs, and even his face.

“I’m not that little!” Emma said smugly.

The shock on Ryan’s face after she pushed him, slowly turned to a grin, and then he started chuckling.

“I’m gonna get you for that, Emma!” he hollered, an evil smile on his face as he ran toward her with open arms, covered in clumps of muck.

She shrieked and turned to run away.

They probably would have returned to playing if it hadn’t been for her running straight into Matt Hearshman, and his big mouth. He was the closest thing they had to a neighborhood bully. He wasn’t even very scary-his spindly arms and legs reminded her of a daddy longlegs. Not to mention, the intimidating glare he was trying to stare Emma down with, was ruined by the stringy, dirty blond hair that hung over his muddy, green eyes. Emma hated him-he targeted her often because of how easily she lost her temper.

“Why are you here, Emma?” he sneered. “You’re a pest. You’re going to be in trouble for pushing Ryan in the leeches, and now for pushing me, too.”

“It was an accident!” she protested, afraid that if her Grandma heard about this, she wouldn’t let her come back to the pond again.

“Nope, you did it on purpose, and I’m gonna tell on you.”

Emma’s eyes sparked, and she opened her mouth to tell him off, when he said it...

The thing that actually made her cry.

“My mom says you’re so bad, because your dad was a criminal, and that’s why he’s dead. And you’re just like him.” He taunted in a sing-song voice that tipped her over the edge.

All the kids that had been watching, just stood there, stunned for just a second. Unaware of anything or anyone else, Emma let loose an anguished shriek and launched herself at him. Before she connected, Ryan’s long arms snaked around her waist, yanking her back.

“Let it go, Emma,” he ordered, “he just wants to get you in trouble.”

“I don’t care!” Wriggling and clawing, she finally broke free.

She needn’t have bothered, someone had gotten Evan’s attention, and as soon as he heard the last words out of Matt’s mouth, he torpedoed himself onto him and was currently pounding his face much more effectively than Emma could have.

Avoiding the stares of the other children, she fled barefoot, her face hot with embarrassment and shame, uncaring that she was now covered in mud, and crying.

She didn’t stop running until she reached the big willow.

Roughly, she swiped dirty hands across her cheeks, looking down on Ryan. He probably guessed where she would go, but if she was careful, he wouldn’t actually see her.

She sniffled a little too loudly, and he looked up, worry written across his face.

“Emma! Don’t leave, I’m coming up there.” He grabbed the lowest limb and used his feet to climb up the trunk. When he was high enough, he walked his hands forward on the limb, and heaved himself up.

“Go away, Ryan,” she said belligerently, while she avoided looking at him.

“No, and you can’t make me,” he said with a little grin.

“I could push you out,” she retorted, crossing her arms defiantly over her chest.

Unconcerned, he straddled the limb, facing her, swinging his lanky legs on either side of it. “Matt’s an asshole,” he said, grinning more widely. “Ev gave him a bloody nose, maybe even broke it.”

Shocked, Emma’s mouth gaped open, “You aren’t supposed to say that word, Ryan!”

“Well, it’s the truth,” he replied, shrugging his thin shoulders. “You can tell my Ma’, but she’d probably say the same thing when I tell her what he said to you.”

“No,” she pleaded, “don’t tell her!”

“Why not, Em? Matt’s wrong, and he’s mean-he shouldn’t have said that to you.” The expression on Ryan’s young face was serious. “I won’t tell her about you pushing me-I kind of deserved it.” He sent her an impish smirk.

“He’s not wrong about my dad,” she whispered.

“He had no right to say that, Em.” Ryan’s expression sobered once again. “And even if your dad did bad stuff, it doesn’t mean you’re bad.” He gave her a small smile. “My dad is gone too-and he wasn’t very good, either. Grandpa says we all have to make our own choices. That it doesn’t matter what my dad did, it matters what I do.”

Emma burst into tears again, and Ryan swung one of his legs over the limb, and scooted closer, swinging an arm around her shoulders.

“Don’t worry, little girl, we can stick together. I’ll protect you,” he said, puffing out his ten-year-old chest with all the bravado he could muster.

“I don’t need you to protect me,” Emma stated, jabbing one bony elbow into his ribs, “’sides, you’re mean to me, too.”

“I just tease you a little, Em,” he replied, taken aback. “I would never say something to really hurt your feelings, and if anyone else does, I’ll beat ’em up,” he said with finality.

She leaned against him, swiping at her face again with the back of a dirty hand. When she was all done, Ryan turned to her, and his grin was back. Before she could react, he planted a big, wet, childish kiss right on her lips! Her brown eyes went huge, and she opened her mouth to yell at him, but he jumped down from the tree and started to run toward the house, calling back to her.

“C’mon, Em! Ma’ got the big cherry freezies. I’ll race ’ya!”

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