Ahhh! It’s getting so close to the release of Return to Us! I am so excited and this book was incredibly special to me. Anytime I get to create a new world, it’s wonderful and freeing. This family is filled with all the things I love most. They are loyal, fun, sweet, complicated, and have a way to go to find their happiness. Jessica and Grayson are a couple that have hurt to overcome and I promise, he’s going to make your swoon out of your chairs.
I hope you enjoy this first look at an incredible couple!
I hear the bing from the cockpit, the one that we train for. The one that makes my heart fall to the pit of my stomach because I know everything in my life is about to change. Training is great, but reality is a bitch.
There is a problem with the plane.
I lift the receiver and hear the pilot’s voice. “Engine failure. Emergency landing. It’s going to be rough, Jessica. Brace.”
I don’t reply to Elliot. I just slip into survival mode. There’s only one passenger on the plane, and I need to ensure that we’re both safe. Of course, he happens to be a famous celebrity, so I guess if I’m going to die, at least it’ll be with Jacob Arrowood.
“What the hell is going on?” Jacob asks as I approach.
Somehow, I keep my voice calm. “There is an engine failure. We are going to make an emergency landing. I need you to get into a bracing position and try to stay calm.”
I want to laugh because, on the inside, I’m anything but calm. However, if I don’t do what I’ve been trained to do, we will die. There’s a chance that Elliot and Jose can land the plane safely. There’s also a chance they will not, and for that, I have to give him instructions.
“Where are you going?” he asks.
Keeping my eyes on him, I speak clearly and with as much confidence as I can muster. “I need to go to my jump seat, but I’m going to be right here with you. I need you to know how to get out of the plane if something happens to me. This is the door. You need to pull the lever up and then you’re going to push. If I’m incapacitated, I need you to unbuckle me and take me out of this aircraft with you if you’re able to.”
“We’re going to crash?”
“We’re going to make an emergency landing.”
I buckle the first of two seatbelts, and thank God that if I die, I won’t be leaving behind a spouse or kids.
But my heart sinks because if I don’t make it, then my sister will be left to deal with my mother by herself. I hope she finds someone strong who can help shoulder her burdens. I’ve tried to help financially, but I haven’t been back to Willow Creek Valley in years, and now, I probably never will be again.
And then there’s Grayson. Grayson Parkerson is my one regret in life. I loved him so much, and yet, I let him go. Now I’m going to die, and he’ll never know that leaving him is my biggest regret.
All these thoughts jumble in my head as I try to buckle the second connector. My fingers are trembling as I fumble with the latch.
I close my eyes, trying to focus. I have to get strapped in or death is a certainty.
I check over the panels, making sure everything is locked. The door handle slides up and I look at it, visualizing what I’ll do if I need to. My job is to get off this plane, not worry about all the things I haven’t done or the love I lost.
“Jacob?” I say, needing him to focus on what matters. “Do you remember what I said about the door?”
He nods, and I see the fear in his eyes. I pray he doesn’t see mine. “Stay calm and just follow my directions,” I instruct.
Jacob’s gaze stays on me. “What’s your name?”
My heart is pounding, and the only thing holding me together is my training. If we panic, we don’t make it out of here. All of us will have to be a team, and that means one of us has to be the voice of reason. I’m shaking, feeling a sense of dread like I’ve never known, but there’s nothing I can do but pray.
Jacob’s voice is much stronger as he speaks again. “Okay, Jessica, it’s great meeting you, and we’re about to go down in a plane crash together, so that means we’ll be lifelong friends if we survive.”
I try to smile, but it feels mangled. “Get in your position, Jacob.”
He nods. “If I don’t make it, I need you to tell Brenna I loved her and I was thinking of her.”
“Don’t think that way.”
“My family. I need them all to know that I love them.”
“Focus, Jacob. Remember, getting off the aircraft is imperative.”
“Will you tell them?”
I’m not making that promise. We aren’t going to even discuss it. There is one final ping, alerting me that it’s time and we’re nearing the ground.
“Jacob.” My voice is strong and forceful.
I look to Jacob, keeping my gaze on his. He mimics my position, and I start to chant, all the while praying this isn’t our last moment. “Brace. Brace. Brace.”
I sit up, gasping for air, clutching my throat as I struggle to breathe. Sweat soaks my shirt, and my heart is beating so hard I wonder if it’ll bruise my chest.
It was just a dream.
It’s okay. I’m okay. I survived.
I’m in my room, in my bed, and I’m safe.
I repeat that over and over until I can feel my heart rate starting to decrease. Every night, it’s the same dream. The same panic that makes it so I have to fight for air. Then it’s the same inability to sleep for the rest of the night.
The last three weeks have been absolute hell. I’m so tired of being tired. The crash haunts me. The memories, fear, and darkness make it impossible for me to move on when all I really want is to move forward.
I throw the covers off my legs and head downstairs.
Over the last few weeks, my mother has grown accustom to the nightmares, no longer waking when she hears me—or maybe I’m not screaming anymore. If that’s the case, I’d really love it if the dreams would just stop. Since tonight is not that night, I start my ritual of coping with a few hours of rest.
I make myself a cup of tea, grab the blanket off the back of the couch, and head out to the front porch. The swing that my father hung the weekend before he walked out on us is still there, welcoming me to rock and ignore the world.
I curl up, holding the warm mug in my hands, and slowly sip while surrounded by silence.
Willow Creek Valley used to be my favorite place in the world. It’s quiet, beautiful, and allows total seclusion. We’re surrounded by woods, and even the poorest members of the town—my family—get to feel as if we at least have privacy.
I would sit on this very swing, dreaming of a life just like my mama and daddy had. I wanted the husband, kids, and the perfect Southern life.
It was all there. In a perfect world, I would’ve opened an inn with Grayson and lived the life we talked about. It was all within reach. And then I realized that dreams are lies we feed ourselves.
Daddies never call.
Kids are destroyed by it.
And I want no part of it.
Instead, I wanted to see the world, which I did until it ended with the plane coming down.
My head is beginning to ache, and I start to rub my temples.
Please don’t let this be a crippling one this time.
My phone pings with a text from the only friend I kept in touch with from Willow Creek.
Delia: Want to get breakfast?
Me: Why are you awake?
Delia: I never went to sleep. So . . . food?
She works in the factory a few towns over, which is one of the few job options around here. The thing is, the idea of leaving the house makes tears form in my eyes. For weeks now, since I’ve been back in Willow Creek Valley, I haven’t left unless it was to see the doctor. I’ve been here, and no one really knows I am in town other than my mother, my sister Winnie, and Delia. Going out and seeing others will solidify that I failed and had to come back.
Going to get food early, though, might be the safest way to ease myself out.
My therapist has been trying to encourage me to take one small step, and in the back of my mind, I hear Dr. Warvel saying, “Take the hand outstretched when you’re weak and let it lend you strength.”
I gnaw on my thumbnail, take two deep breaths, and reply.
Me: Sure, but you’ll have to pick me up. You know, TBI and all means no driving.
Until the fainting, debilitating migraines, and periods of confusion go away, I’m not allowed to drive, ride a bike, or do anything that could throw my equilibrium off. Yet another awesome side effect of my plane crash.
Delia: Be there in fifteen.
More like ten if I know her driving. I head back inside and throw on a sweatshirt, brush my hair and teeth, and sigh as I see my reflection in the mirror. The dreams may make me feel as if it were just yesterday, but all my visible injuries have healed.
There are no more bruises on my face, and the scar from where they had to drain the fluid from my brain is still healing but hidden beneath my hair. My ribs are still healing, but again, that isn’t something you would look at me and know. To anyone on the street, I look like the same Jessica Walker who was ready to take the world by storm.
Inside, however, I’m something else.
I can’t always speak correctly, I can’t drive, and I will probably never be able to fly again due to the air pressure changes.
Being here is a different sort of pressure. The kind that gives me a whole other thing to be anxious about, the boy I left. The man he’s become and the people who made me feel small, all of them are still here and probably salivating over the chance to be cruel.
“She’s not good enough. She’ll never fit in to do more than scrub the floors. You’ll see, she’ll never amount to anything and will end up just like her mother.”
I hear the words, the voice of a woman so disgusted with the idea of being in my presence, playing in my head like a lyric that won’t be forgotten.
There’s a knock on the bathroom door. I open it to see my mother. “Oh,” she says looking startled. “I didn’t know you were awake.”
“Had another nightmare.”
She gives me a sad smile. “I thought they ended.”
“No, I wish.”
“Where are you going this early?” she asks as she looks over my outfit.
“Delia is calling in. Eating.” I stop myself, knowing the words aren’t right, and take a few seconds. This is what I can’t handle. My brain says: Delia is coming over so we can go get breakfast, but my mouth says something else. My mother doesn’t say a word, she allows me the time I need to collect myself and try again. “Delia is taking me to breakfast.”
“Is that a good idea? To go out and see the people in town?”
And here is where I want to rail against the world. For the last fourteen years, I’ve been on my own. The day I left for college, I learned how to survive on my own and be worth—something. I’ve spent my time taking care of myself, proving that I don’t need anyone to make it.
More than that, I’m getting better each day. I’m trying to do more so that I can stop living in this prison and get back to the life I want. “Mom . . .”
She raises her hands. “I know, I know, you’re grown now and don’t need me to worry over you. I just don’t want to see you struggle, honey. That’s all. I know how the people here are, and there’s a lot of gossip around you returning.”
I exit the bathroom and lean against the wall. “I have to try.”
“Yes. You do.” There’s defeat in each word, but there’s also a bit of pride. “Did you take your medicine?”
I swear she just said I didn’t need her to worry.
If I don’t, I’ll be curled in a ball, begging for someone to put me out of my misery.
“Then I guess have a good time.”
I walk over, squeeze her hand, and smile. “Thank you, Mom.”
She sighs. “I’m trying, sweet girl.”
“I know. We both are.”
“Go on now.” Mom kisses my cheek. “I love you.”
“I love you too.”
For all the things that my mother has struggled through, giving love has never been one. My father leaving her was a blow she never recovered from. Winnie and I knew that my mother was doing her best. She loved us and did everything she had to in order to make sure we survived. Her heart was broken, but all we saw was strength.
My father, on the other hand, is a piece of shit. He walked away from his daughters without a second glance.
I get downstairs in time to see the headlights shining through the window. Delia made it in fewer than ten minutes, which is somewhat impressive.
Since I’ve been back, she’s the only person outside of my family who I’ve allowed to see me. The first few days were terrible because I was in so much pain and the bruising was awful. As all of it started to heal, it became more of a protective shell. Staying here meant I didn’t have to explain what happened.
I could pretend this was just an extended vacation.
As soon as I’m in the car, my hands tremble as fear starts to grip me.
Delia reaches over, taking both of them in her hands. “You’re okay. We’re just getting breakfast on a random Tuesday morning.”
I release a deep breath and force a smile. “It’ll be fine.”
“Yes. It will.”
I do the breathing exercise, and Delia backs the car up. Thankfully, she doesn’t give me time to work myself up too much as she drives toward town. I close my eyes, allowing my thoughts to center on the techniques I’ve been learning the last few weeks.
The drive doesn’t take very long to get to the diner since we are not considered to be on the wealthy side of Willow Creek Valley. Those houses are far away from the center of town. Which is not where Delia and I grew up. We’re from that side of town. The one the rich kids avoid at all costs because they don’t want to be seen with us.
However, there was always one boy who never treated me that way. Regardless of his parents absolutely hating that we were together, Grayson Parkerson didn’t care. He loved me even though my mother worked at the grocery store, cleaned rooms at the inn, and then at the bar just to cover our bills. He didn’t see rich or poor, he just saw me.
Well, if he could see me now.
Last I heard, he was married and had a beautiful little girl, running one of his family’s inns somewhere in the country.
I sure showed him.
I could always ask Delia, but we made a promise not to ask a question we really didn’t want the answer to, and I definitely don’t want to know this one.
Leaving him was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I saw what our future would be after his mother told me I’d never be a part of their family. He would leave me, so I left him first, and it broke me in half.
Delia parks the car and turns to me. “All right, let’s go get some food, I’m starving.”
Inhale. Five, four, three, two, one. Exhale.
I repeat that three times and then nod. “Okay, let’s go.”
We enter, and sure enough, Ms. Jennie is still working as the waitress. “Well, if it isn’t Jessica Walker! As I live and breathe, my God. You are just as beautiful as the last time I saw you.”
I smile as her warmth fills the space around us. She’s always sweet and loving. I doubted the woman had a mean word to say about a soul. “You are the best part of this town,” I say with a smile.
“Vernon!” she yells over her shoulder toward the kitchen. “You come out here and see who came for your famous breakfast.”
Her husband peeks his head out of the door. “Hello there, Miss Jessica.”
A sense of calm settles over me as I realize that I had been worried about a town that loved me and wished me well as I ran away to avoid having my heart broken. “It’s good to see you, Mr. Vernon.”
He gives me a wink and then heads back in.
“I’ll give you my best table. Come on, girls.” Jennie grabs two menus and walks us over to the only open table.
“This place hasn’t changed,” I muse as I look around.
There are still the same deep-red booths with black-lacquer tables, checkered black-and-white floors, and football jerseys hung on the wall.
Jennie smiles. “No need to fix things that aren’t broken. This town hasn’t changed because we don’t need it to.”
I smile at her, taking the menu from her hand. “It’s good to see you.”
“It’s good to see you too, honey.”
“Table three!” Vernon yells from the kitchen.
“I’ll be back with your food in a few. I’ll just get you your usual.” Jennie rushes off before I could give her another option.
It shouldn’t surprise me that she would think I still ate pancakes, but when we pulled up, it was all I wanted.
After Grayson’s games, we would all pile into his truck and head here, craving carbs and sweets. He and I would sit in the corner booth, his arm around me while I wore his letterman jacket. If I had been a cheerleader, we would’ve been that all-American couple everyone talked about. I couldn’t afford to play sports, and there wasn’t any way around it. I didn’t get to sit in the stands each Friday because I was usually working, but Grayson was always there at the end of my shift.
I didn’t have to be embarrassed, he just loved me. The poor, sad, and angry parts were held together by him.
It just wasn’t enough in the end.
Delia looks at me, a smile on her lips. “Thinking of something?”
My hands are folded in front of me, resting on the menu. “The past.”
“It’s in every crevice of this place.”
“That it is.”
Her past is still the present, unfortunately. She’s been in love with Joshua Parkerson since we were kids. The oldest and most elusive of the Parkerson brothers. She has watched, wondered, dreamed of a time when he would see her as more. Joshua has always pushed her away, except for one night when he kissed her in the hallway by the payphone in the diner. A moment she’s clung to for years.
I watch as her gaze moves there, almost as though the memory calls to both of us.
“How is Josh?” I ask.
“I wouldn’t know.”
“He’s gone too?”
Her eyes narrow, and she shifts. “Too?”
I nod. “Well, yeah. Aren’t the Parkersons all scattered now? You don’t need an entire family to work at the same location. Their parents always had the grand plan of having their own chain. Last time my mother said they opened another location in Wyoming and Oliver went to run it.”
Delia shakes her head subtly. “Yeah, but . . . I mean, they’re not all gone.”
“I’m sure Stella stayed here.” She was the baby, even if only by six minutes of her twin, Oliver, and spoiled beyond belief. I can’t imagine their father allowed her to leave his side. “She and Winnie still hang out.”
She bites her lower lip. “Well, Stella is here, yes, but . . .”
“Did Alex stay?” I ask.
“No, Alex went to their Savannah location,” she says.
I can picture him loving that. Alex is our age and he used to love to party. Savannah would be the perfect mix of fun and seriousness for him. “How is he?”
Delia leans back in the seat, watching me. “Last time we talked, he was doing really well.”
“I always loved him.”
Delia grins. “Alex is the best.”
I would argue that. In my heart, Grayson was the best, but she was very close with Alex and always hung out at his house. Partially because it meant she could be around Josh, but that was beside the point. We were Alex’s friends . . . annoying, young, and stupid.
“Yeah, he’s probably coming back to visit soon, they all do around their parents’ anniversary.”
“It was always a big deal for them.”
Delia pushes the salt shaker back and forth. “Can I ask you something?”
“Why did you break up with Grayson?”
I feel the blood drain from my face. “You know why.”
“I know what I heard, which was that you ended things when you went to college because it wasn’t going to work long distance with him being in a different state.”
He was two years older, and I was so sure we’d always be together. Not because of any other reason than we loved each other that much. Surely, two people couldn’t love each other the way we did and not work. It was unfathomable.
But loving someone when their family despises you is something else. Grayson shielded me, or he tried to, but I heard their barbs. I felt their disdain, and when push came to shove, I knew he’d choose them because they held the keys to his future. Like my father had, Grayson would’ve chosen his happiness over the people in his life. I was young and dumb and thought if I left him first, it wouldn’t hurt.
That proved wrong. It hurt and I was too immature to go back to him.
“Does it really matter? Do any high school sweethearts ever last?” I ask. “He’s gone and living what I’m sure is a perfect life.”
She looks down, blowing a long breath through her nose. “How does your sister literally spend every other day with Stella and you know nothing?”
Before I can answer or clarify, Jennie brings our plates and my stomach growls. It’s been so long since I’ve had breakfast like this.
I stare at the plate, touching the rim, not sure how to start or if this is real. Before the crash, life was about efficiency. I was often flying early in the morning, which meant I needed to work out and then prepare for whatever trip the celebrity we were flying requested. I can’t remember the last time I sat down to eat where it wasn’t about running to the next thing. Let alone that I got to have carbs like this.
“Are you planning to eat it or make love to it?” Delia asks with a snort.
We giggle and then the chime rings on the door.
I look up, not knowing what possessed me to care, but when I do, it’s as though not only the plane is crashing around me but also the world. A pair of blue eyes, dark brown hair, and a smile that I couldn’t forget if I tried is there, and I can’t breathe.
Grayson Parkerson is in town and staring back at me.