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She’s not a secret. She’s a second chance.
Six years ago, the good, upstanding men of Stonecut County ran me off. I took a secret with me. An inconvenient truth they wanted buried.
Actions have consequences. Their perfect golden boy maybe wasn’t so perfect after all.
Then life hands me one too many lemons. I’m forced to go back, and in Stonecut, nothing ever changes.
Kellum Wall is still golden.
I’m still unwanted.
And falling for his cocksure smile will most certainly ruin my life all over again.
I believe there are still good men left in this world, and I strive to be one. I was raised to live by a code. God and country. Protect and serve.
I always do the right thing, even when it’s hard—and yet, somehow, I’ve made an unforgivable mistake.
I want what I lost. The woman, the child, the white picket fence. But it’s not gonna come easy.
Shay’s a survivor. She doesn’t believe in happily ever after, and earning her trust might be the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
She’s got my heart in her hands, though, and this time—I’m not letting her slip through my fingers.
Hitting the Wall is a steamy, small town romance featuring a secret baby and a second chance at love. It’s the first book in the Stonecut County series. Intended only for adult readers.
Ten minutes ago, three men rolled up in a brown-and-tan sheriff’s cruiser. Grandpa’s out front talking to them now.
I’m in trouble.
My hands wanna shake, but I force them steady so no one notices I’m peeking out the blinds. Grandpa’s lady friend, Connie, is shuffling around at the sink. She’s spying, too. Bet she’s steaming mad. She knows this has to do with me. Ever since I came up from South Carolina to stay, she’s been praying for me. And she makes damn sure I can hear.
I know these men. Everyone in Stonecut County does. I see them all the time in the diner where I wait tables.
The tall man in muddy boots is Mr. Wall. He owns the horse farm where Grandpa works. The business man in the pleated pants is Mr. Price. He tips well and gets handsy. And then there’s the sheriff. He’s straight from an old cop show—ruddy nose and cheeks, bushy mustache, and a star on his chest. Connie says he’s a fine-looking man, and I guess he used to be. He’s got that swagger.
The sheriff claps Grandpa on the back. Guess they’re done talking. Grandpa hangs his head and ushers them into our trailer. My belly clenches, and I burst out in clammy sweat. This is it. Time to pay the piper, as my grandma used to say.
I didn’t think three old guys would show up, but they do things strange in Stonecut County. This place is unbelievably old-fashioned. Everyone is upstanding, and everything is picture-perfect, neat and tidy, and just so. And if it isn’t, everyone pretends they can’t see it.
“Shay!” Grandpa hollers.
I tug an oversized sweatshirt over my tank top as quick as I can. No time to slip on shoes. Connie’s gonna give my bare feet the evil eye; I can feel it coming.
I slip through my bedroom’s folding door and step through the kitchen. I come to a stop where the linoleum turns to carpet. The men have completely taken up the living room. Grandpa’s trailer is small—a single wide—and we’re cheek by jowl when it’s only the three of us. Probably why Connie’s not so keen on having me.
“Sit.” He waves at the couch.
All four men are wearing stone faces. I scuttle past the sheriff and sit. They loom over me, blocking the door and the window. Mr. Wall moves so he’s between me and my bedroom. A knot coils in my guts.
Grandpa’s holding his hat in his hands, worrying the brim with his fingers. He never takes his hat off inside.
The other men are holding their hats, too. Except Mr. Price. He’s doesn’t wear a hat. Not with all that product in his thinning hair. He keeps his aviator sunglasses on, and he folds his hands in front of his midsection like he wants to make sure he doesn’t accidentally touch anything.
“Shay,” Grandpa starts, and then his words seem to fail him. His rheumy eyes take on a shine like they do when he’s overcome.
I flash him a sad smile. I didn’t mean to screw things up so badly. He really saved my ass when Mama said I’d have to pay my share of rent if I wanted to keep on living with her. I would’ve had to drop out if he didn’t take me in.
He gave me a shot, and I blew it. My heart aches over that.
“Shay,” Mr. Wall awkwardly clears his throat and takes over. He looks like his son. Handsome. Blue eyes so pale they’re unnatural. Muscular and weathered from hard, outside work. “We’re, uh, here to talk to you.”
He pauses. Waits.
What am I supposed to say? Eventually, I kind of nod.
He nods back and begins again, gruff and uncertain. “The other day—uh—my boy, Cash, he came to me with a—uh—very disturbing rumor.”
Mr. Wall focuses awkwardly over my shoulder out the bay window. Nothing to see out there except the cans where we burn trash and the creek that floods when it rains.
“Shay.” Mr. Price interjects. His voice booms. Confident. Irritated. “There are rumors going around the high school—and we’re not accusing you of spreading these rumors, necessarily, but we need to put this to rest because rumors like this can destroy lives. Do you understand that?”
Connie glares at me from the kitchen. Grandpa’s face is crest-fallen. I’m his favorite. He loves me almost more than the horses. Of all his grandkids, I’m the one he calls when a mare foals or the Walls buy a new stud. I don’t care much for horses, but I will never let on; he loves them, and I love him.
When I don’t answer quick enough, the sheriff takes over. “If this rumor was true, and obviously it ain’t, but if it were, one of my men, a stellar, up-and-coming young officer—” The sheriff flashes Mr. Wall a prodigiously butt-kissing look. “Well, he could lose his job. His livelihood. His future.”
“Why?” I know the rules are different in Stonecut County, but come on. The town golden boy is gonna lose his job over loose talk?
“Because if the rumor is true—and it’s not, of course—but if it were true, I would have to arrest Kellum for statutory, uh, offenses,” the sheriff stutters, avoiding the other men’s eyes. He’s treading very carefully. Everyone knows that Mr. Wall and Mr. Price own this county.
They breed derby winners at Stonecut Farms, and horses that foreign princes buy for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Everything new and nice in this county has a plaque on it thanking the Wall or Price families.
“If an officer is accused of that kind, of, uh, crime—he can’t be a police officer,” the sheriff finishes, falling silent.
No one speaks.
Everyone stares at me.
My cheeks flame. Well, shit. I didn’t know that.
I have a rock lodged in my throat. I cram my hands in my sweatshirt pouch. There’s an old lollipop in there that Pandy gave me days ago. I twirl the stick in my fingers.
The men cast stern looks in my direction. The sheriff shuffles in place. Mr. Price coughs to prod me along.
“I’m seventeen,” I say.
Connie sniffs in the kitchen. Outside, a vehicle skitters down our asphalt road. Pandy’s husband, Lonnie. His truck door slams, and his boots pound up the steps to their trailer. There are only four units here for people like Grandpa who work at Stonecut Farms, but they’re close together. You can hear everything.
After a minute, it gets quiet again.
Finally, the sheriff breaks the silence. “See, uh. Miss Crowder. There’s a corruption of minors statute in this state. Age of consent is sixteen, yes, but not if the, uh, fella is twenty-four.”
Kellum Wall is twenty-four? I knew he was older than me, but I figured he was closer to twenty, although twenty-four makes sense if I stop a minute to do the math.
The first time I saw him, I was nine or ten. Mama was between places to stay, and she’d foisted me off on Grandma and Grandpa for a few weeks. It was fall. On Friday nights, they religiously attended the Stonecut County high school football games. Everyone in town did.
Kellum was the star quarterback, even though he was only freshman year. He sprinted up and down that field like there was a force field around him. No one could touch him. I’ve never seen anything like it since, and the high school back home regularly makes it to states.
The sheriff draws in a deep breath, and I shake off the cobwebs. “Not sayin’ that Kellum did what the rumor mill says. That’s why we’re here. To clear this up. Before lives get ruined. These kinds of accusations…they can take on a life of their own.”
“Listen,” Mr. Price interjects, sliding off his sunglasses. Kellum’s uncle is what Grandma would have called a cool customer. “I think we can be blunt. Miss Crowder, we all know that Kellum Wall did not get you pregnant. We’ve all known him since he was a baby—even your grandfather here has known him his whole life.”
Grandpa’s ruddy cheeks flame a deeper red. He better have been taking his medicine. Oh, Lord. My heart skips and my palms slick with sweat. The lollipop in my pocket keeps slipping from my fingers.
“Varsity his freshman year, took us to state three years in a row. He got offers from Ohio, Mississippi, everywhere.” Mr. Price lists out on his fingers. “But Kellum decided to stay in his hometown to serve his community. This is a good kid. Always has been. He’s got himself a really sweet girlfriend. He’s getting ready to settle down and start a family. You might think you’re just getting yourself some attention, young lady, but he has a future. You’re playing with fire.”
He has a girlfriend? My heart sputters and sinks until I’m weak-kneed and trembling. Thank the Lord I’m sitting.
How can he have a girlfriend? No one at that party said. And people would have talked. We were dancing so everyone could see.
And not just a girlfriend, but a woman he’s gonna marry. ‘Cause he’s twenty-four and a cop. And he has a future.
My ears ring. I’m in trouble. Trouble, trouble, trouble. And I was so stupid.
“Van, please.” Mr. Wall puts a hand on Mr. Price’s arm, urging him backwards. Then Mr. Wall squats down, inches from my face.
I have no room to breathe at all now. I press my spine into the back of the couch.
“It can’t be easy making your way in a new place. People make mistakes. It’s what they do after the mistake that’s important.” Mr. Wall’s pale blue eyes bore into me, fixing me to the spot, a bug on a pin.
It’s boiling hot in here. So stuffy. It’s early fall, but we’re having a heat wave, and it’s in the high eighties. Sweat trickles between my boobs.
I can’t breathe, and I’m being cooked to death.
I’m so screwed.
The men have shifted, edging Grandpa out to the kitchen with Connie. Her face is scrunched and sour. She won’t meet my eye.
Neither will Grandpa.
“All we want is the truth.” Mr. Wall lays his hand on my knee. I want to jerk, knock it off. I don’t dare.
“You tell the truth, this ends here. Buck is one of our best hands. We don’t want to lose him,” Mr. Price says. Mr. Wall shoots him a look over his shoulder.
Grandpa sucks in a short gasp and stiffens.
Oh, shit. Oh, shit. Oh, shit.
Grandpa can’t lose this job. It’s his life. He loves those horses more than anything in the world. And if he loses the job, he’ll lose the trailer. Where will he live?
These men are all too close. And they reek. Two different types of cologne, tobacco, and the sheriff had Italian for lunch. My stomach heaves. I swallow hard.
“We have to consider, there is a point where spreading rumors is slander. And slander is against the law in Stonecut County.” The sheriff tucks his thumbs in his belt and sways on his feet.
Mr. Wall shoots the sheriff another agitated look. Mr. Wall wants to play this nice, but his friends aren’t going along.
That slander thing’s an obvious lie. If rumors were illegal, everyone in America would be in jail. That’s not saying the sheriff wouldn’t find something else. Back home, if you get on the wrong side of the guy who rides around the trailer park in a golf cart, looking to hassle people, he’ll get you towed. And he’s only a guy in a black T-shirt that says SECURITY.
Mr. Wall turns back to me, holding me fast again with those strange blue eyes. “Young lady, all we want is the truth. If my son did what he’s accused of doing, we will make it right. If he committed a crime, he will face the consequences like a man. But if this is a story, if you had anything to do with spreading it around, you need to do the right thing. Tell the truth. My son could lose his job, the woman he plans to marry, the respect of this community. I’m asking you, one person to another—tell the truth.”
What does he mean—face the consequences? Could Kellum go to jail? They’d never arrest him. Would they?
Back home, the rich kids get away with everything, and from what I’ve seen so far, that’s how Stonecut County works, too.
But I don’t want Kellum Wall to get arrested. Even after everything, I still have a stubborn sweet spot for him.
My gut churns.
There’s a patch in the couch, next to my thigh, where the upholstery has worn through. You can see the orange cushion poking through. Grandma would have been absolutely mortified. All these important men in her house, and there’s a hole in the couch. Not to mention Connie in her kitchen. She’s turning over in her grave.
What am I gonna do?
I’m in such big trouble.
And where’s Kellum? His father, his uncle, and his boss are here. Where’s he?
Goddamn Pandy Bullard. She’s the one who got me in this mess. She convinced me to get all dolled up and go to that bonfire. She told Kellum Wall that I was her cousin from Pyle when I caught his eye. Made up a whopper about how I’m a hair dresser. She’s the one running her mouth all over town now.
My fist clenches around the lollipop stick in my pocket.
“Maybe we should take this conversation down to the station.” The sheriff breaks the silence. “We are talking about a crime here. We’re trying to settle this privately, but if you’re not going to cooperate Miss Crowder…”
Grandpa shuffles in alarm.
Connie sneers at me, victory in her eyes. She knows. After this, I’m out of her hair, one way or the other.
These men can do anything they want. They can walk in this house like they own it. ‘Cause they do. All these trailers belong to Mr. Wall. He’s the landlord. Doesn’t matter that Grandpa has lived here my entire life. They could put him out tomorrow.
The sheriff could arrest me for slander or anything he can make up. Who would stop him?
And Mr. Price. That man has grabbed my ass or grazed my boobs a half-dozen times down at the Over Easy Diner where I work. Because he can. He’s got his own helicopter, and he flies in for weeks at a time from the city, and then he flies out again whenever he wants.
If I say anything, I don’t work at the diner anymore. That’s for sure.
I’m a problem to these men.
I’m a threat to their golden boy.
“Young lady, we know Kellum Wall never touched you. That never happened.” Mr. Price drops his good manners. His black eyes glitter. “We aren’t going to let a girl like you ruin an innocent man’s life.”
My heart pounds. The living room shrinks. The hot air is thick and suffocating. My eyes flit from face to face, settling on the far wall, above the TV. Connie hasn’t gotten around to taking down the pictures yet.
There’s Grandpa with his favorite horses over the years. Itchy Bramble. Geodesic. Frampton Lee.
There’s an old picture of Mama and her four brothers and sisters, like stair steps. Grandpa’s standing off to the left. Grandma’s in the middle, hugging Aunt Donna and Mama close to her sides.
Grandma raised five children on her own while Grandpa raised horses for the Walls. Five. And except for Mama and Uncle Pete, they all turned out more-or-less fine. They live all over the place now: Texas, Kansas City, the Carolinas. They all made their way.
Mr. Wall is right. It’s what you do after you make the mistake that matters. I can’t reverse time. I can’t take anything back.
“Where’s Kellum?” I ask, but I’m stalling now. I know what I have to do.
There’s a pause, and then Mr. Wall says, “If he did this thing you’re accusing him of, it’s not appropriate that he be here.” His gravelly voice is strangled, and his face flushes dark.
I’m not accusing Kellum Wall of anything. I never did. Goddamn Pandy Bullard’s the one who can’t keep her mouth shut.
“Miss Crowder, I have to insist you answer the question. Are you saying you’re pregnant by Kellum Wall?” The sheriff rests his hand on the butt of his pistol.
My breath stills in my lungs.
“No, sir,” I say, my voice reed thin and unnaturally high. I take a deep breath and try again, making it firm. “There must have been some mistake.”
Every person in the room sighs in relief.
Mr. Wall rises to his feet. “Young lady, you need to set this right.”
I swallow. My mouth is bone dry. “I’m actually planning on goin’ back to South Carolina. To finish out the school year.”
“That’s not good enough.” Mr. Price looks at Grandpa meaningfully, the threat clear on his face.
That’s not how this works. Grandpa can’t lose his job.
“Mr. Price.” I don’t know how to do what they do. Talk and say one thing, and make sure people know that you mean something else. But Grandpa can’t pay for my stupid mistakes. I have to try. “As soon as I’m gone, the rumors will die down. Grandpa goes back to worrying over horses and not over me. And I finish school in South Carolina.”
I catch his gaze, and I hold it. I try to put everything I mean into my eyes.
I’ll go quietly. I won’t be a problem. I understand what they’re saying.
They are big. I am small.
What they say is possible, what they say is true, that’s what happened. That’s the truth.
I understand how the world works.
They don’t need to fire Grandpa and kick him out of his home.
“All right, Miss Crowder. I see we understand each other.” Mr. Price nods, dips his head to Grandpa and Connie, and ducks out the front door. The sheriff follows him. Mr. Wall stares at me a few moments longer, a question lingering in his pale-blue eyes. Then he leaves, too, shutting the door carefully behind him.
Connie’s massive bosoms rise as she sucks in a deep breath, getting ready to rip me a new one.
I bolt for the bathroom. Like I did for the first two months or so, I turn on the fan and flush the toilet as I puke.
Grandpa and Connie’s voices raise in the kitchen. They’re having it out.
I slide to the floor, resting my head against the wall and drawing my knees to my chest. In this position, I can feel her. The baby. It’s like soda pop bubbles really low in my belly. I’ve only been able to feel her for two weeks or so.
“It’s all right, little one,” I whisper so low I can hardly hear myself. “You’re okay. Little bit of a change in plans, but when God closes a door, he opens a window.”
Grandma always used to say that.
I don’t believe in ghosts. Not all the way. But ever since I figured out the condom must have broke, and I’m expecting, I swear, I feel my grandma. Out by the line when I’m hanging up the wash. Walking next to me the quarter mile to the school bus stop.
Lord knows, Mama and Uncle Pete turned out as disappointments to her, but she never stopped loving them, and she loved her grandkids so fiercely that we all know what a mother does, regardless of whether we had a good one or not.
Grandma would have never let those men near me. Grandma would kill Kellum Wall.
“We’ll go back to South Carolina. I’ll get a job. Everything’ll be fine.”
That’s what a good mother does. She tells her baby everything is going to be okay.
Even if it’s not.
I unwrap my pocket lollipop and stick it in my mouth. It’s butterscotch. It takes away the awful vomit taste in my mouth, but my heart’s still racing, and my fingers tremble.
“Everything’s okay, baby.” I wind my arms around me knees. “We’re gonna be just fine.”