My heart was being crushed under the weight of my own decisions but I was already on the ride and there was no stopping it as I barrelled straight ahead, hoping I would make it out alive.
“I don’t understand why you have to leave,” Lo sobbed. My white t-shirt was already stained with her tears as she gripped it tightly in her dainty fists, refusing to let me go.
I stroked her silken strands with my calloused hands, tilting my head back slightly to make sure my own tears didn’t leave their mark on her. This perfect young woman who’d been mine from the moment I saw those gorgeous blue eyes when we were kids. I was entranced and even if it meant I only got to be her friend for the rest of our lives, that would have been enough for me. Because having any part of Willow Mae made me a better man.
But when she gave me her heart, I knew there was no version of our love story that would survive if I stayed in Pebble Brook Falls. There was too much bad blood running through my veins and everyone in this small town saw it—except for her.
“I…” Every time I opened my damn mouth I couldn’t find the words to tell her that I was doing this for us. This town was full of military veterans and I had a knack for listening to those who had stories to tell. Every single one of them talked about the structure and the discipline the military provided them and how they were all the better for it. And I could save up all my money, come back to our home and buy her that little white house she’s always dreamed of having.
All of it. The breath in my lungs. Every step I took. The very beat of my heart. It was for her.
But I couldn’t get those words out of my head and onto my tongue for the life of me. So, I settled for, “I know, darlin’. This is just something I have to do.”
Lo leaned her head back, those bright blue eyes glistening with tears. The moisture had her eyelashes stuck together and the tip of her button nose was red from her sorrow. It devastated me. Cracked my heart wide open to see her like this. And it was even worse knowing I was the source of her pain.
I tried again. My lips parted to tell her that I’d come back for her and when I did, I’d be worthy of having her. Because Lord knew I certainly wasn’t worthy of her right now. The one secret I hadn’t spilled to her haunted me every damn day. That the stares and the snide comments everywhere we went were starting to wear on me. If I was truly honest, I would say they’d been a burden for a long while and I was sick and tired of carrying the weight of my parents’ mistakes. I wanted to prove them all wrong. To show the world—and myself—that I didn’t have to live up to their expectations and become an alcoholic or waste my life away from the tip of a needle.
I could be better.
I would be better.
For her. And for me.
But the words got lodged in my throat. Refusing to come out. And maybe that was for the best because if I failed… Oh, God. What if I failed?
I stomped out that thought. There was no option other than success because if I failed, I would lose the one thing that mattered to me. The only person in my life who was worth fighting for.
“I hate this,” she cried. The redness on her nose crept over her cheeks. I brushed the tears away with the bad of my thumb before I trailed it downward until it rested just below her chin.
My throat constricted with emotion as I choked out, “Me too, Lo. I hate the world we were brought up in and how few options are given to people like us.”
“Will you write to me?” Her hands twisted further in my shirt like I was the only thing keeping her from sinking into a hole and drowning. Little did she know that her fists against my chest were doing the same thing for me.
I tilted her head back and her eyes fluttered. The smell of sweet roses surrounded me as I leaned down, grazing my lips lightly against hers. I closed my eyes and breathed in the scent of her, taking notice of the comfort my soul felt when she was near.
“Every chance I get, darlin’. I’ll write to you.” Her lips were the softest thing I’d ever felt as I pressed mine to them. Like a beautiful sunflower in need of sunshine, she opened for me. The velvety smoothness of her tongue rolling against mine sent a shiver over my back, and my chest, as I threaded my fingers through her hair.
I battled with myself at that moment. Not knowing how the hell I would be able to leave her. Not when she was the match that lit my soul on fire. The lighthouse that guided me to safety when I was stuck in the tumultuous sea of my past.
But I already signed the damn papers. I was no longer a free man. I was bound to the government of the United States and the last thing I could do was end up AWOL. That would ruin me and any chance I had of building a life with the woman I loved.
So I broke the kiss, letting her tortured whimper crash against my heart, cracking it a little more.
“The war, Johnny,” she breathed against my shaking lips. I could hear the panic in her voice. “What if something hap—”
I kissed her again. Cradling the back of her head in my palm as the whisper of her worries faded and she wrapped her arms around my neck, drawing us closer.
It was stupid and reckless because I knew—better than anyone—that there were no guarantees in this world, but I couldn’t stand the thought of her losing sleep over me. So I made another promise. One I hoped I would never have to break like the one I was breaking right now.
“I promise nothing will happen to me.” I forced out a confident laugh. “If there’s one thing about us Moore-folk, it’s that we survive stupid shit we probably shouldn’t. So, keep me in your heart, darlin’. But not your worries.”
She nodded slowly. Those blue eyes were distant as she stared absently at my chest. “Okay,” she finally said before looking up at me. “I’ll wait for you, Johnny.”
A promise made on quivering lips that had me second guessing every fucking decision that led to this moment, but the sun was dropping fast behind the treeline edged along our field. If I didn’t leave now, I’d miss my bus and I was already cutting it close. The last thing I needed was to be found AWOL before I’d even begun.
“It’s time for me to go,” I whispered.
She nodded again as fresh tears welled in her red-lined eyes. “I love you, Johnny.” Her voice cracked as she said my name and another piece of my heart went with it. I only hoped I’d be able to rebuild what I’d broken when she phased out and she joined me wherever I ended up.
I squeezed my eyes shut against the moisture gathering behind them as I brought her closer to my chest. “I love you too, Lo.” I pressed my lips to the top of her hair, breathing in the smell of roses one last time before I leaned down and grabbed my small black duffle bag that contained everything I owned.
Maybe I was a coward for not looking at her one more time before I took the first step away from her. But some part of me knew that if I had, I probably wouldn’t be able to walk away.
The rising summer moon was the only witness to the mistake I made that night. Because the world was cruel and didn’t care if you loved someone more than life itself. Everything was up for grabs and the world always took what you didn’t protect.