You Were Always Home cover is live. Does it give you Icy vibes?
This story is one that I can't wait to share with you guys. It's raw in a way that my other's stories haven't been but yet sweet. Keep reading for a sneak peek at chapter one.
Sorry to all of you that have to stay in this town. Have fun watching the dust settle when I leave this place. The inspiring words of my valedictorian speech rang in my ear as I turned the key in the lock of my new apartment.
As soon as I opened the door, I started coughing like a maniac. No, it wasn’t a dose of humility that was being shoved down my throat for being back in town. It was the dirt, musk, and stale air in my crappy new place.
Looking down at the lease papers, I felt pride. It didn’t matter that my new place was in a part of town the old me would have never been caught dead in or that all I had was a stupid full-size bed and not even a third of the closet I had back in Minneapolis. The papers in my hand said “Juliet Dunnett.” The owner didn’t give a damn if my ID said any different. For the first time in my life, I had something that was mine. My money—not my father’s, not my husband’s—mine.
Sure, I had things before that I thought were mine, but it didn’t take long for those things to be thrown back in my face when I did stuff my way, not the way it was expected. Daddy used to love throwing his money back in my brothers’ and my faces whenever we didn’t act the Dunnett way. It was funny how quickly it became his money and not our money. If we were in Daddy’s good graces, it was our money to do with as we wished. After all, we had an image to uphold.
An image I no longer cared about upholding.
My new place was empty—boring. Opening my bank account app, I cringed at the balance, and then I looked up at the barren space before me. Before my fall from grace, I would swipe, swipe, swipe and not worry a bit about the balance dropping. I could decorate with the best of them, but with the amount in my bank account, I was not up to that level anymore. I had enough money to sustain me for now, but I needed more clients ASAP. I had excellent credit and that afforded me credit cards, but I knew how that could become a black hole on its own. So right now they were practically nonexistent. Only for emergencies. Real life emergencies.
Never in my life had I been alone as I was now. There were always my brothers, and people who wanted to use me or exploit me— fake friends, haters, wannabes. I should thank my brother Max for my state of loneliness, but he would have to get off his high horse and talk to me.
Max was still mad at me, and I couldn’t blame him. Since his failed wedding, he refused to talk to me, and after I left Chad, I stopped trying.
My family had turned their backs on me; the message was received. I wasn’t going to beg them. My grandmother always said a lady didn’t beg, and after everything, I was still a lady. The last thing I would do was get on my knees for those who didn’t deserve my time.
I knew Daddy was waiting for me to fail, to come back home begging for his forgiveness. He could die holding his breath for all I cared, and while he was at it, he could drag Prescott with him. I looked down at my right arm and stared at the purple cast that covered it.
Yeah, I’m better off on my own.
The loud thumping on my door startled me. Scared out of my mind, I went to check the peephole, hoping it was the delivery guys. When I saw it was them, I took a deep breath. They didn’t bother to look me over as they made their way inside and put my crappy mattress in my bedroom. As I tipped them, I watched the numbers drop on my invisible calculator.
Was this how everyone lived? Did people just watch a mental calculator drop every time they spent something? For a second, fear went through my veins like a venom spreading all over my body. Shaking my head, I cleared those thoughts out.
I could do this.
I would do this.
Going to my car, I did the best I could to get some of the boxes out, but with one of my hands indisposed, it was hard. The first box I grabbed was a small Christmas storage box. It was the first box I’d stored in my car three years ago when I’d toyed with the idea of leaving. The boxes in my car were stored months in advance, and as sad as it was to say, it only took a few hours to unpack. It wasn’t enough; it was insignificant compared to what I used to have. Compared to my previous abundances of clothes, I had nothing now. A few boxes of clothes, and the rest were still in a walk-in closet that was tailored to my needs.
It made reality scarier. I wanted to believe I was strong and capable, but I felt like a fraud—a coward.
Before I went to sleep, I thought of my new place. It might be mine, but it didn’t feel like me. I needed to change that, but I was scared to do it. My last thought before going to sleep was of him, and I let the humiliation wash me of what I had done. I had done the worst things after him, but he was the calamity that had started it all, and it wasn’t even his fault.
How long had it been—a few minutes or hours? I needed to get out of the car or get my ass home before I burned off all the gasoline waiting outside of Pete and Son’s hardware store. My stomach was in knots, and I asked myself if I really needed to paint. The answer was yes—I was in dire need of it. I needed to put my stamp on my new place. I needed it to feel like it was mine. The only way that would happen was if I did what I’d always wanted to do and let loose on the colors. Something, I might add, I had never had a say in because Dunnetts had more important things to do than paint.
I couldn’t help but glance at my left hand. It was getting easier to ignore it. The wedding ring that used to adorn it was now gone, and a small faint tan line was left. Soon that would fade, and all would remain was bitter memories. Those would never go away.
Opening the visor mirror, I checked myself out before getting out. My auburn hair was beautiful and sleek, my bangs neatly trimmed. My porcelain face was almost makeup-free. Just enough coverage to cover my freckled face, something I’d done my whole life.
Getting one heeled foot out in front of the other, I was glad there wasn’t any snow. I already had a broken wrist; I didn’t need to add a broken foot. My left hand shook as I opened the door to the store, since I was still getting used to my right hand being broken. It sucked that my right hand was broken. It had to be my dominant hand. The smell of iron greeted me, making my nose wrinkle. I picked this time knowing the store would be empty. I didn’t need a witness to what could be a potential humiliation.
As soon as I walked in, I cursed my high heels as the sound echoed through the store. Making my way down the aisle, I hoped that anyone other than Jake “Bear” Carson was in attendance. Who knew, maybe he didn’t remember me? I mean, it wasn’t like we’d dated or anything. I guess you could say we were friends. You were more than friends—don’t play stupid. We had one class together for only one semester. It was nothing, I told myself. But it felt like a bitter lie.
I was a bitch to Jake; if I closed my eyes, I could still see the hurt in them, the vivid azure turning dark at my words. I was old enough to know the error of my ways. I knew the errors of my ways back then too, but back then I had everything to lose. I guess my sudden courage came from knowing everything was already lost. Things couldn’t get worse, could they?
When I rounded the corner, I wanted to curse and leave because it was Jake at the counter. I wasn’t as strong as I thought I was. Fuck courage; I was fine being a coward. I could drive an hour away to the nearest Home Depot, but of course Jake chose that exact moment to look up.
Oh, fuck me. Jake had changed since the last time I’d seen him at his high school graduation. He still had the body of a football player— long muscular limbs and broad shoulders. He wasn’t as tall as my brothers, but he was wider. Don’t get me started on his face. He was all male with his rugged square jaw. His hair was brown, but I knew it tended to lighten in the summer sun. Jake squinted those beautiful blue eyes my way, and it made me feel exposed. Not once in my twenty-six years had I ever stepped foot in his store, and just like him, I was wondering why I chose to do it now. Was paint that important?
Now the only question was, did I go for friendly or did I pretend not to know him? I looked up at Jake to see if maybe he would say hi, but instead he had crossed his arms and was glaring at me.
Yeah, I probably deserved that. Okay, I deserved that look.
My cheeks flamed with humiliation at the heat of his stare. This sucked—my pale skin tended to turn splotchy. Jake was unnerving me. The oxygen in the room wasn’t enough to sustain me. I was going to die in front of Jake, and he was going to let me. When I was finally at the counter, I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. Jake smirked at me. He was probably enjoying this moment a little too much.
Was that a thing, calling someone an asshole when you were an asshole first?
“Hi.” My voice creaked, making me feel like a loser.
Jake didn’t say anything back. His eyebrow raised, daring me to say more. I cleared my throat, putting my mortification on the back seat.
“You lost, Dunnett?” He spoke in that husky tone of his, making my legs tremble a bit. Years of wearing heels were the only reason I didn’t look like a newborn fawn.
“I’m… I’m looking for paint.” My voice came out shaky, and I hated that I cared what his opinion of me was.
“You’re looking for paint or buying some paint?” he repeated, his eyebrows raising to his hairline.
“Yes,” I said but immediately added, “to buy some paint… Please.”
He was looking at me like I’d grown two heads, and it made me wonder if I had been that horrible in high school. I guessed that was what happened when you became conscious in your mid-twenties—shit that was irrelevant in your teens was now vital.
Damn, I hated younger me.
He uncrossed his arms and got up to his full size, then went out through the little side door and started walking away from me. I stood there not knowing if I should move or if I should stay.
“Are you expecting me to know what color you want?” he yelled, and it spurred me into action, my heels echoing as I ran to catch up to him.
The paint was all the way at the back. I stopped until I was standing a few steps behind Jake. God, he towered over me a good six inches, and I was in heels.
I blinked a few times to get out of my stupid haze and looked at the paint swatches. My apartment was tiny, and there were so many beautiful colors to choose from. How would I ever pick? If Mom were here, she would tell me to pick an eggshell or soft gray, but I was done with it. I wanted my home to be something different, something fun. Something bold, so I could look at my house and know that this was me. The new and improved me.
My fingers went to a pretty neon green called Spring Green. I could imagine how vibrant my place would look if I were to paint the walls this color. It was a bright color that reminded me of lime sorbet and happiness. I could put painting tape in crazy lines so the white from the wall wouldn’t be completely painted over.
I was aware that Jake stood beside me watching me. I did my best and pretended like he wasn’t making me feel funny because he was. Jake affected me on a level my ex-husband never could.
I wanted to take more paint for the bathroom and living room, imagining my dingy apartment coming to life with colors. My fingers hovered over the paint chips, itching to buy more, but I had a budget now. I had to limit my options.
Grabbing the chip that said Spring Green, I handed it to him. “This one.”
Jake looked at the bright neon color, then did a slow once-over on my outfit. My long cream wool coat matched nicely with my gray turtleneck sweater, faded blue jeans, and gray suede heel boots. My outfit didn’t exactly scream neon green.
“This one,” he repeated with disbelief. When I didn’t reply, he made a face as if saying my it was my call.
“How much do you need?” he asked, and I had no idea how painting worked. I bit my lip, trying to figure out how much was needed without sounding stupid when I noticed Jake’s eyes were zeroed in on my lips.
“I… I don’t know,” I admitted, causing Jake to take pity on me.
“What do you need the paint for?” He sounded impatient.
“You’re moving back?” Surely that wasn’t interest in his voice, was it? I didn’t reply; instead, I just nodded. “Your husband must really love you if he’s letting you paint any room this bright-ass color.”
My eyes automatically went to my ringless finger, not missing the massive diamond ring that used to sit on it. If anything, when I took that 2.5-carat ring off, I felt lighter, like the world wasn’t on my shoulders. When I looked up at Jake, he was also looking at my ringless hand and then at my cast-ridden right hand. There was confusion in his handsome face, but I wasn’t going to be a fountain of information. My courtship, my engagement, and my wedding were broadcast all over town. Daddy was so proud; he wanted to show me off like I was some prize mare. The only reason no one knew about my divorce was that Daddy worked extra hard to keep it that way. I had tarnished his name, even if it wasn’t my fault.
It wasn’t technically true, not yet, but I said the words aloud for the first time, and they were freeing. Jake’s eyes didn’t leave mine at all; maybe he thought I was going to lose it and start crying, but there were no more tears left to cry.
“I’m sorry, Juliet.”
My breath caught the moment he said my name. It took me to another place in another time. I watched as Jake started walking back to the checkout counter, admiring him for being the better person. Shaking my head, I started walking after him before he could yell at me again. Jake went one of the machines behind the counter and started adding paint, and I watched in fascination as my color was produced.
“Are you staying with your parents?” he asked, breaking the silence around us.
“No, I got my own place. Do you honestly think Gwen Dunnett would let me paint my wall spring green?”
Jake smiled, and I felt like I got sucker punched in the stomach. God, he had the type of smile that was featured on toothpaste commercials. I used to love that smile, but it was just the fantasy of a teenage girl. We weren’t teenagers anymore, but that didn’t mean those sins didn’t stick with us.
“I think it would burn her retinas, then give her a heart attack,” he teased as he rang me up. When he handed me my paint, I was a little bummed my time with him had ended. How pathetic was I, that for the first time in years, I didn’t feel so alone?
“Thank you, Jake.”
At the mention of his name, his face became stony. Rapidly, I grabbed my paint to get out of his way. I started to walk away, but if I wanted to change, I needed to stop being a coward and start owning up to my mistakes. I turned around, surprised he hadn’t taken his eyes away from me.
God, this was embarrassing.
“I was a total bitch to you.”
“In high school.” I was surprised at how steady my voice sounded when, on the inside, I felt like I was trying to stay still against an earthquake. “I was a total bitch to you because I freaked out. If it weren’t for my dad and the pressure he put on me and my brothers, I would have loved nothing more than going on that date with you.”
I took a deep breath before I started slurring my words. Man, this whole honesty thing was exhausting and fucking scary as hell.
Still, I kept going.
“What I said to you, I didn’t mean it, not a single word. I didn’t like the person I was, and I certainly didn’t like the person I was after that—but I’m trying to do better now.”
Jake stood statue-still and silent. It wasn’t like I expected him to ask me out again or maybe not fully forgive me, but I also didn’t expect him to blow off my apology.
“Take care, Jake.” I turned around and left before I could make a bigger fool of myself.