Three years ago…
You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are gray. You never know dear how much I love you. Please don’t take… please don’t take my sunshine away.
Don’t stop singing now, Momma. Not now. I’m sorry I left. I just wanted to live a little. I’m not scared like you are. I need you to sing. Please sing for me. Don’t do this. Don’t go to him. He wasn’t real. Don’t you see? He was never real. He died sixteen years ago.
I should have told someone about you. This is all my fault. You needed help and I didn’t get you any. Maybe I was scared after all… scared that they would take you away.
“Della, sweetie, give me your hands. I need to clean them off. Look at me, Della. Come back to me. She’s gone but you’re gonna be okay. We need to clean you up. They’ve taken her body and it’s time to leave this house, for good. No coming back. Please, Della, look at me. Say something.”
I blinked away the memories and stared up at Braden, my best friend. She was cleaning the blood from my hands with a wet washcloth and tears were streaming down her face. I should get up and go clean this all off myself but I couldn’t. I needed her to do it for me.
I always knew that one day this would happen. Maybe not the exact way it was happening. I hadn’t ever imagined my mom dead. Most days when I let my daydreams turn to this moment, I’d feel guilty. It wouldn’t stop me from thinking about it, though. The guilt wasn’t enough to keep me from imagining my freedom.
I had always thought someone would realize my mother wasn’t all there. They would figure out that I wasn’t some strange child who wanted to stay inside all day and refused to come out into the real world. I wanted them to… but then I didn’t. Because getting my freedom would mean losing my mom. As crazy as I knew she was, she needed me. I couldn’t let them take her away. She had just been so scared… of everything.
Four months ago
When Braden had given me her old car and told me to get out and see the world, neither of us had thought about the fact that I didn’t know how to fill it up with gas. I had only had my driver’s license for three months. And I’d only actually had a car to drive for five hours. Pumping gas had not been something I needed to know until now.
I reached into my purse and pulled out my phone. I’d call Braden and see if she could talk me through this. She was on her honeymoon and I hated to interrupt her though. When she’d shoved her keys into my hand earlier today and told me that she wanted me to “Go explore. Find your life, Della.” I’d been so caught up in the awesomeness of her gesture that I didn’t think to ask anything else. I’d simply hugged her and watched as she ran off with her new husband, Kent Fredrick, and crawled into the back of a limo.
The fact I couldn’t pump gas had never crossed my mind. Until now. My tank was so empty I’d coasted into this small service station in some beach town in the middle of nowhere. Laughing at myself I listened as Braden’s voice said, “I’m not available. If you want to reach me I suggest you hang up and text me.” Her voicemail. She was probably on a plane. I was going to have to figure this one out all on my own.
I stepped out of the small faded red Honda Civic. Luckily I’d pulled up to the gas tank on the correct side. There was the little door I knew the nozzle went in. I had seen Braden do this before. I could do this. Maybe.
My first problem was that I couldn’t figure out how to open this little magical door. It was there. I could see it but it had no handle. I stared at it a moment then glanced around to see if there was anyone near me who didn’t look scary. I needed some help. It had taken two solid years of counseling to get me to speak to strangers. Now I did it often. Braden really had more to do with that than the psychologist I’d been forced to see weekly. She’d pushed me out into the world and taught me how to live.
I had the quote, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” by Franklin D. Roosevelt, taped to my bathroom mirror. I read it daily or at least I had been, for the past three years. I silently quoted that in my head and my body relaxed. I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t my mother. I was Della Sloane and I was on a road trip to find myself.
“You okay? Need some help?” A deep smooth drawl startled me and I jerked my head around to see a guy smiling at me from the other side of the gas pump. His dark brown eyes appeared to twinkle with laughter as he stared back at me. I didn’t have much experience with guys but I did have some. Enough to know that even when they were gorgeous, like this one, it didn’t make them a good person. I had lost my virginity to a smooth talking southern boy with a smile that made panties drop all over the place. It had been the worst experience of my life. But this one might be helpful. He wasn’t offering sex. He was offering to help me. At least I thought he was.
“I can’t… I, um… See, I’ve never...” God, I couldn’t even say it. How did a nineteen–year-old girl explain that she didn’t know how to pump gas? Laughter slowly bubbled up in my chest and I covered my mouth. He was going to think I was insane. I swallowed my laughter the best I could and smiled up at him. “I don’t know how to pump gas.”
The guy’s elegant dark eyebrows shot up and he studied me a moment. I guess he was trying to decide if this was true or not. If he only knew. There was so much I didn’t have a clue about. Braden had been trying to educate me in the ways of the world but she was married now and it was time I figured things out without her as my crutch.
“How old are you?” he asked and I noticed his eyes slowly scan my body. I didn’t look like a teenager. My body had been fully developed by the time I was sixteen. I could tell he was trying to figure this one out. Youth would be the only explanation he could come up with for the fact I couldn’t pump gas.
“I’m nineteen but I’ve not been driving that long and this is the first time I’ve had to pump gas.” I sighed and then chuckled. This sounded ridiculous, even to me. “I know it sounds hard to believe but honestly I need some help. If you could just get me started, I can do this.” I looked back at his big fancy truck. It was all shiny and black. It fit him and his tall, muscular body, olive complexion and dark hair. He was one of those sexy, beautiful, dangerous ones. I could tell that by the smirk on his face.
When he stepped around the corner, I realized that he was much taller than I had originally thought. But then I was only five-foot-five. The snug fit of his jeans and dark brown leather work boots did really good things to his legs. I realized a little too late that I was staring and jerked my gaze up to meet his amused one. He had a really nice smile. All white perfect teeth framed by a face that looked like it hadn’t seen a razor in a few days. His scruffy appearance didn’t fit with his expensive truck.
“You need to pop this little door open first,” he said, tapping his knuckle on it. The way his lips curled seductively around his words fascinated me to the point that I worried I’d missed further instructions. I was just about to ask when he walked around me and opened the driver’s door to the car. He bent over, giving me an unobstructed view of his very delicious jeans tightening over an equally firm backside. I really liked this view.
The magical door that had baffled me sprang open and startled me. I squealed and spun around to see it now standing open. “OH!” I exclaimed in excitement. “How did you do that?”
His large warm body came up behind me and I could smell grass and something richer…maybe leather. The alluring scents engulfed me. Seeing as I wasn’t one to miss an opportunity (I’d missed too many of those in my life), I moved back slightly, just enough so my back was touching his chest.
“I pressed the gas door button. It’s in your car just under your dash.” He didn’t move away from me invading his personal space. Instead, he’d lowered his head to talk into my ear. His voice was low and rumbled deliciously.
“Oh,” was all I could think of to say as a response.
A low chuckle in his chest vibrated against my shoulders. “You want me to show you how to actually put the gas in the car now?”
Yes, that would be nice but I really enjoyed standing like this, too. I managed a nod thankful that his body didn’t move. Maybe he liked it just as much as I did. This was really a bad idea. I should move. Guys like him didn’t treat women well. Why did they have to smell and look so wonderful?
“You’re gonna have to let me get around you, sweetheart.” His warm breath heated up the hair covering my sensitive ear. I tried not to shiver as I managed a nod and hurriedly moved away to press my back against the car so he could get past.
Our chests brushed lightly as he maneuvered around me, holding my eyes with his penetrating gaze. The warm chocolate brown with golden flecks in them didn’t seem so amused anymore.
I swallowed hard and glanced down. Once he was safely away from my body, I decided it was time to watch him pump my gas. I needed to remember this was a lesson. One I’d desperately needed.
“You have to pay first. You got a card or are you paying cash?” His voice was back to normal. No more sexy low whispers in my ear.
Money. I’d forgotten about the money. I nodded and leaned into the car to dig in my purse and pulled out my wallet. I grabbed my debit card and stood back up to hand it to him. His eyes were on my bottom this time. The thought of him checking out my backside made me smile. A little too brightly.
“Here,” I said, handing it to him as his eyes ran back up my body. He took the card and winked at me. He knew I’d caught him looking and he was enjoying it. This one was a player, the kind a smart girl ran from. I wasn’t that smart though. I’d given my virginity to a guy just like him. It had been in the guy’s best friend’s apartment. Little did I know his “best friend” was actually a girl who was madly in love with him. That had not ended well.
He was scrutinizing my debit card. “Della. I like that name. It fits you. It’s sexy and mysterious.”
At that moment, I realized I didn’t know his name. “Thank you, but now you’re one up on me. I don’t know your name.”
He smirked. “Woods.”
Woods. That was unique. I’d never heard the name Woods before.
“I like it. Fits you,” I replied.
He looked like he was going to say something else but his smile turned serious and he held up the card. “Lesson number one is how to pay for it.”
I watched and listened carefully as he explained each step of working a gas pump. It was hard not to get sidetracked by the commanding way he carried himself. Sadness swept over me when he placed the pump back on the machine and tore off my little slip of a receipt. I didn’t want this moment to be over, but I had a road trip to get back to. After all this time, I needed to concentrate on finding myself. I couldn’t stop now, just because a guy caught my attention at a service station. That would be silly.
“Thank you so much. Next stop won’t be so hard,” I said, taking my card and receipt clumsily trying to shove them into the pocket of my shorts.
“Anytime. You vacationing here?” he asked.
“No. Just driving through. I’m on a road trip to nowhere and everywhere.”
Woods’ eyebrows narrowed and he studied me a moment. “Really? That’s interesting. Do you know your final destination?”
I didn’t have a clue. I shrugged. “Nope. I guess when I find it I’ll know it.”
We stood there a moment in silence. I started to move when Woods’ hand reached over and touched my arm. “Have dinner with me before you get back on the road? It’ll be dark in an hour. Won’t you be stopping in a town soon to get a place to spend the night?”
He had a point. This was a nice little town- very classy and coastal. It seemed to be a safe option. I really wasn’t worrying about safe though. I was finally living. I was throwing caution to the wind. I stared up at the dark stranger in front of me. He wasn’t safe. Not in the least.
“Dinner sounds nice. Then maybe you can point me to the best place to get a room for tonight.”