August 25th, 2015
After five years, tragedy brings Hannah Casey back to Hurricane Creek to bury what’s left of her family. She’s flunking out of college, haunted by scandal, and the only person who cares is Sean Whitlow, an irresistible bad boy with a soft spot for her. The problem? He’s her dead sister’s ex.
Sean doesn’t bleed red, he bleeds motor oil. During the week, he struggles to turn his auto repair shop into a profitable business. But when Saturday night rolls around, he’s the reigning stock-car king of the local race track. He doesn’t know how to lose–or how to walk away and leave Hannah alone with her grief.
Between her grades and her wealthy family’s dark secrets, Hannah’s barely holding her life together. And the last thing Sean needs is to get tangled up with another Casey girl. As the attraction between them spins out of control, they’ll either find a love with no limits–or go up in flames.
»» hannah ««
Five years, and the place is as cold as I remembered. It still smells the same, feels the same—empty and hollow, starving for something no one ever knew how to give.
A damn, maybe. Welcome to the Casey house, where everything is fucked up, but don’t you dare say it isn’t perfect.
The hell of it is, my parents’ house is perfect. Except for the clothes in the closets upstairs and a few family photos carefully placed to give the right impression, it could be uninhabited. A new construction on the parade of homes.
If I decide to sell it, the realtor will have it easy. Between the weekly maid service no one has thought to cancel and my mother’s cool, detached sense of style, the house already looks like it’s been primped for a photo layout in a living and style magazine. Dust off the shelves and throw some cookies in the oven and it’s ready for the open house.
Four bedrooms, three baths, a finished basement, and lake access. Just don’t mind the ghosts.
I can feel one of them as I climb to the second floor—a prickle at the back of my neck that’s more than just memory. I was fifteen the last time I ran down these stairs, headed for summer vacation with my grandmother in South Carolina. Two months in the Lowcountry, away from my parents, away from structured rules and activities and the stress of having to pretend. I remember hitting the bottom step and wishing fervently that I could escape the house and never come back.
I’ve learned to be careful what I wish for.
My room is the first door on the right, and it hasn’t changed in five years. Baby pink, a color I had already outgrown, with ruffles and shams that didn’t fit who I was then and feel even more ridiculous now. Everything that meant something to me was packed up and shipped to my grandmothers’ after the funeral, but this room remains. Like the rest of the house, it’s meant for showing, not living. A shrine to a girl who never existed outside my mother’s manufactured image of the perfect daughter.
I can’t drop my carry-on onto the pink-and-yellow quilt. I can’t imagine having to shove aside teddy bears hugging hearts that say I love you in pretty script before I can crawl into bed. I’d rather crawl into a bottle of tequila, and where does that fit into this picture? Maybe next to the line of trophies on my desk. Honor roll and attendance and all the things they reward you for when you’re quiet and well-behaved and too boring to have accomplished anything deserving of note.
Cait got all the real trophies. Dance, gymnastics, volleyball. She joined debate on a whim and made it to State. She threw herself into it all with a passion everyone praised—and an obsession no one ever seemed to notice. My sister burned bright until she burned out, and the bright times were always blinding.
The door to the bathroom is propped open, so I push it wide. No trace of us has been allowed to linger here. It’s showroom perfect, with polished mirrors and sleek black-and-silver decor. There’s a pristine bar of soap in the dish and a brand-new toothbrush in the holder, all the trappings of life without the messy side effects of living.
It makes my stomach roil. I know what I’ll find when I cross the tile to the opposite door, but I do it anyway. Because today hasn’t sucked enough, and because I have to see it.
This may as well be my house now, but it still feels wrong to reach for that doorknob. Too many years of habit, of knowing I’d be dead if Cait caught me trespassing in her bedroom. My hand is clammy, and the chill is back. The Ghost of Hannah Past, warning me not to do it.
I twist the knob. Pull.
And I hate my parents a little more.
My room is a shrine to the perfect daughter. Cait’s room has been turned into a home gym. Nothing of her remains, no hint that she was ever there. There’s a TV mounted on the wall, an elliptical machine in the center of the room, and a yoga mat propped up in the corner. The only other thing here is a shelf of free weights under the window that Cait would sneak out of when Sean came to pick her up. At least the tree she used to climb down is still outside.
It probably adds to the property value. Unlike daughters.
The house is kept to a careful seventy degrees, but it’s stifling. Unbearable. I don’t remember walking down the stairs, but suddenly I’m standing in the kitchen, staring at a breakfast table choked by sympathy cards and wilted flowers. The fridge is probably full, too. My mother’s best friend said something about it at the funeral, but all I heard was that I had to come back here.
This is supposed to be my home, but I can’t stay. Not tonight. Maybe not ever.
I head to the door and slip my feet into a waiting pair of sandals—Shoes don’t belong in the foyer, Hannah, they belong in your closet—and snatch my keys up from the polished table by the door. They scratch the slick surface, digging tiny furrows into the expensive wood, and I have to bite my tongue to hold back a laugh.
Maybe the doctors are right. Maybe this is it, the beginning stages of grief digging hooks into my soul, one inappropriate giggle at a time.
The night air hits me like a blow, heavy and thick. There’s nothing in the world as vicious as a Georgia summer. It will take hours yet for the lingering heat of the sun to lift. Until then, even the cicadas are too hot to do anything but chirp lazily, their noises far apart and labored.
But the leather seats in my car are cool, and sliding behind the wheel is exactly the escape I need. It’s entirely mine—there are no memories there that I didn’t make, nothing I don’t control. So I roll down the window and point it toward the end of the long, winding drive, intent on being anywhere but there.
At first, I try to tell myself that I’m just driving, that I have nowhere in particular to go. But I’ve listened to so many lies in my life that I’ve learned to recognize them by the sick prickle at the back of my neck and the goose bumps that rise on my arms, so I know.
I know where I’m going.
Gravel crunches beneath the tires as I pull to a stop just shy of the cemetery gates. Everything is locked up for the night, because normal, polite people don’t visit their dead loved ones after dark.
I’ve never been normal, and I’m tired of being polite.
I clench my keys in one hand and squeeze through the bars of the giant, wrought-iron gate. Everything is silent except for the rushing of blood in my ears as I face the landscaped paths and take the one on the left, toward the family plot.
I ignore the fresh grave and kneel beside the older one, tracing out the letters carved in the granite headstone. Caitlyn Elizabeth Casey. There are no platitudes beneath the name and dates, no Forever in Our Hearts or Beloved Daughter, Sadly Missed, just two clusters of lilies.
“You hated lilies, Cait,” I whisper. “But it fits. They never got anything else right. Why would this be any fucking different?”
My fake ID was my first bad-girl rebellion. It cost me two hundred dollars and says I’m a twenty-nine-year-old from North Dakota. The first time my roommate dragged me to a club, I spent the entire night too worried about cops to do more than sip nervously at a strawberry daiquiri. I imagined myself in jail, my parents refusing my one phone call because a criminal daughter didn’t match their personal brand.
I got over it by midterms.
Sitting in the parking lot of Hurricane Creek’s seediest bar, I rub my thumb over the hard plastic edge of the license. It worked well in the city, where no one had ever heard of me or my family. But I don’t get to be some anonymous blonde who wandered in off the street, not today.
Today, I’m that poor Casey girl. Maybe they’ll “forget” to card me just for that.
My hand shakes as I lean across the seat to stow the fake license in my glove compartment. I don’t need to worry about pity. I picked this bar because even at fifteen, I knew kids who’d been served here. Not that anyone in my immediate social circle ever ventured into the rougher side of town, but Cait delighted in going where she wasn’t allowed.
The muggy air hits me as soon as I push open my car door, worse after the arctic chill of my AC. The parking lot is cracked, the lines between the spaces all but obliterated, and littered with cigarette butts. Two men climb out of a truck across the lot, sporting battered jeans, scuffed work boots, and Bulldogs T-shirts.
I’m still wearing a pretty silk dress—the last one my mother ever bought for me—and I hesitate for a heartbeat, torn. I should go home and change into something that won’t stick out so badly—but I need to get into the bar so I can blur the sharp edges off all these jagged feelings.
And there’s no way in hell I’m walking back into that house sober, so that pretty much decides that.
The bar is smoky and loud. Music blares from one side, all guitar and twang, cut through with the click of pool balls colliding. I ignore all of it and stride to the bar. The stools are covered with cracked black vinyl that snags my dress as I slide onto one and look the bartender dead in the eyes. “Jack and Coke, please.”
He eyes me with one upraised brow, and I wonder for a moment what he sees. But the skeptical look doesn’t stop him from scooping ice into a glass. He upends a bottle of Jack Daniels, amber liquid spilling from the metal pour spout, and he’s already picked up the soda gun before he speaks. “Got your ID?”
Panic makes my heart thump, and I hate that it isn’t fear of getting caught that’s driven my pulse higher. I can smell the whiskey from here, and my hands would be trembling if I didn’t have them wrapped tight around my clutch.
I need this. Hell, no one can blame me for needing this. Not after the day I’ve had.
Maybe it’s good that I didn’t change my clothes. My dress has narrow straps and a plunging V-neck that only plunges deeper when I lean my elbows on the bar and smile my roommate’s smile at him. Carly can make a man do anything with her smile. Mine’s a hollow copy, but it’s all I have as I pull out my license—my real one. I’m only a few months shy of legal. It’s not like a few months should make a difference, right?
He squints at the card for a few seconds, and discomfort washes over his face. Oh, shit. He mouths the words, then inhales sharply and shoves my license across the bar, next to my hand.
I’m on the verge of thinking I’m busted, but my drink follows the same path, only now the bartender won’t meet my eyes. “Jack and Coke,” he mutters. “You want to start a tab or something?”
Someone steps up beside me, someone solid and very, very male. “I got it, Joe.”
The voice alone makes me shiver. I haven’t heard it in five years, but I’ll never forget it. I sure as hell wasn’t expecting to hear it tonight, but maybe that’s what happens when you go chasing ghosts. They start popping up all over the place.
This one’s standing close enough for me to feel the heat of his bare arm across the tiny space between us. I stare straight ahead, because I’m not ready to find out how much more handsome Sean Whitlow has gotten in the last five years. “Hi.”
“Hannah.” He climbs onto the stool beside me with a sigh. “When did you get in?”
“This morning.” Just in time for the funeral I didn’t plan. My mother really took no chances when it came to the Casey family image. She arranged their funerals with the same attention to detail she put into decorating the house. Tasteful, classy, no expense spared.
I can imagine her writing out the plans, shuddering at the thought of relying on her daughter to make the right choices. Though, to be fair, making the right choices isn’t really my strong suit this year. “I had a midterm yesterday, and the professor’s a real hardass.”
“Yeah? Where do you go to school?”
“Emory.” Condensation is forming on the outside of my drink. I watch a drop roll down the glass and make myself reach for it slowly. Not desperate, not crazy. Just a girl, having a drink with her dead sister’s ex-boyfriend, lying about how bright her future is. “I’m pre-law.”
Oh God, I have to look at him. It would be weird not to, and I’m trying so hard to be normal tonight. So I take a sip first, a small one, and turn my head.
The sight of him slams through me.
He’s a memory come to life. Sean Whitlow was my first crush, the first boy who ever made my heart skip a beat—even though he belonged to Cait. He was her boyfriend, her partner-in-crime, her first melodramatic love.
Her first heartbreak.
Everything that happened that summer is so tangled up in Sean that it hurts to look at him, which sucks because if he’d been a stranger in a bar in Atlanta, I’d be staring. Sean is the kind of guy who keeps you sneaking glances, trying to figure out why you can’t stop even though there are prettier men around. There’s nothing remarkable about his short, light brown hair or his blue eyes, but it doesn’t matter.
Sean’s magnetic. Tough. A little bad. He belongs in a bar full of drunks and hustlers and other dangerous people. He looks like he gets in fights and wins them, just to blow off steam.
He looks like he has a lot of steam to blow off.
He was always like that, just like Cait. Alive, drawn to excitement and doing wild, crazy things. My cheeks feel warm, so I take another sip and blame it on the booze.
Right now, he’s puzzled, maybe even concerned. “I didn’t realize you were so close,” he explains. “You don’t come around— I mean, shit. It’s none of my business.”
It’s weird to imagine that Sean noticed my absence. Flattering, too, in a way that makes me feel a little guilty. In my head, he still belongs to Cait. “You know how my parents are.” The word trips me up—my parents aren’t anything anymore. My dad was. And my mother…
I finish the drink and shove it across the bar, hoping the bartender opened a tab after all.
“Yeah.” Sean taps the bar and nods toward me, and Joe starts making another drink. “Listen, take my number. If you need any help or anything.”
I don’t know if I’d ever have the nerve to use it, but that doesn’t stop me from taking out my phone. He’s familiar, something solid in a world spinning quickly out of my control, and I don’t want to lose that yet. “Ready.”
He gives me his number, watches as I tap it out and save it to my contacts list. “My sister Sadie works at the hospital, you know.”
“I didn’t.” I only vaguely remember Sean’s sister, and now I’m hoping I didn’t stare through her and insult her. “Is she—? I mean, does she work with—?” I reach for my drink before remembering it’s empty, and the bartender slides a new one smoothly into its place. “Sorry. There were a lot of people talking at me. I don’t remember everyone I saw at the hospital.”
“She works with the babies. Labor and delivery.”
A nicer job than dealing with patients who are never going to wake up because they’re just not in there anymore. “That sounds nice.”
That sounds nice. Yes, I’m an amazing conversationalist. I can sound politely bored by anything, even when I’m sincere—a skill for which I can thank my mother.
Sean isn’t offended. He half-smiles, more out of sympathy than amusement. “She’s there, is all. If you have any questions about anything, she can explain it to you.”
I meet his eyes for the first time, really meet them, and this is why girls can’t stop looking at Sean. Because he’s rough around the edges and exudes bad boy, but when he notices you, even just for a few seconds, you’re the center of his world, and you know things aren’t as bad as they seem.
No wonder Cait came back to him, no matter how many times they fought. Sean’s acted more concerned about me in the last five minutes than my parents managed in the past five years. And I’m just his ex-girlfriend’s kid sister. The poor Casey girl.
“Thank you.” Unlike the thirty-five other times I’ve numbly repeated the words today, I mean it.
I try to think of something else to say, something to keep him sitting next to me, but a voice from across the bar shouts his name. “Sean, are you taking your shot or not?”
“In a minute,” he yells back, his eyes still locked with mine. “Gibb’s getting antsy. I’ll see you around.”
I twist on the stool. No one would ever wonder why girls stare at Gibb Blair. He’s sexy in all the usual ways and has been trouble for as long as I’ve known him. If my parents had their way, I never would have. Sean may have provoked their stern disapproval, but the one time they came home to find Gibb sitting at our dining room table, my father made it clear that Cait could find a better class of friend or he’d help her do so.
Boarding school was always my family’s version of threatening to send us to a convent.
Gibb’s dad has been the town drunk since before I was born. My father did his drinking in secret, while rich, which made it socially acceptable—until he wrapped his car around a tree. From the look Gibb is giving me, he remembers being tossed out of the house by my hypocrite of a father. He probably won’t offer to put his number in my phone in case I need anything.
The silence has stretched into awkwardness, but I still manage a smile. “Sure, Sean. Thanks for the drink. And…it was good to see you. I never really got to say goodbye. To either of you.”
“Same here.” He hesitates, his gaze flickering to my second drink. “Do you need a ride home, Hannah?”
I don’t know him well enough to tell him the truth. I don’t have a home—at least, not one I want to go to—but my options are limited. Find a hotel. Sleep in my car. Or go spend the night with all the ghosts in a house I never want to see again.
It’s going to take at least one more drink before any of them seem manageable. “I won’t be stupid, Sean. I promise.”