When Wren Hart returns to her sleepy little Midwest town after years on the road, she finds the last thing she'd ever expect-a reason to stay. And that reason has a hard body, a knowledge of vinyl, and a crooked smile that sends her reeling.
Preston is a gorgeous, mysterious man, whose life is ruled by routine and order. Yet somehow, he finds Wren and her wild ways captivating. While their relationship grows in a delicate dance of chaos and control, the danger Wren thought she'd left behind during her travels is inching ever closer...and just may destroy them both.
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|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.74(d)|
About the Author
Season Vining is a writer, a bookworm, a cook, a night owl and always a student. She is the author of the romance novels Beautiful Addictions, Held Against You, and Perfect Betrayal. She lives in Louisiana, where she works as a graphic designer.
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I am Dorothy, yanked from that Technicolor land and dropped back in the middle of Kansas. Two highways intersect. With stop signs stolen and missing, it's the most danger this county has to offer. The old pickup truck pulls over, the crunch of gravel announcing its leave of the road.
"This is as far as I can take you, sweetheart. I'm headed west." The man whose face looks like worn leather gives me a smile. It's the most genuine thing I've seen in days. "Only a few miles to town," he finishes, crooked fingers pointing straight ahead.
"Thanks. I remember. And if anyone asks, you never saw me."
"Darlin', I'm at the age where no one asks me anything anymore."
I grab my bag and slide from the bench seat. He offers a wave through the back glass, turns left, and disappears. I stretch my hands above my head before bending over and hooking my fingers under the toes of my boots. The pull and stretch of dormant muscles summons a tingling feeling to my numb ass.
A breeze flies past, bringing that familiar Midwest perfume: wheat and cattle. It carries memories and feelings I'm not yet willing to process. I step to the middle of the intersection and spread my arms like a bird about to take flight. The wind whips around me while the sun warms my shoulders. My yellow brick road is black asphalt, but it holds the same promise. Good or bad, there's no place like home.
When I get to town, I find a bench in the shade and take a seat in front of Doorman's Drugstore. It's so annoying how every business in this town is named after its owner. I guess it's supposed to be endearing. Doorman's Drugstore, Boone's Grocery, Millie's Diner, Tiny's Used Car Lot — they all conform to the Small Town, USA demands of sameness and predictability. Crowley never changes, stagnant like an old sitcom's Main Street.
I pull a bottle of water from my bag and suck the thing dry. Heavy hitting bass and guitar riffs continue to race my pulse as I cool down. There aren't many people out and about. It's late afternoon, so the old ladies are home watching their soaps, the men are away at work, and the housewives are fighting toddlers for nap time.
A middle-aged woman passes by. She does a double take before clutching her purse closer. I want to laugh at her "stranger danger" assumption. I can pinpoint the exact moment she recognizes me: the grip on her purse loosens, and she stops on the sidewalk. I ignore her leering, throw away my empty water bottle, and get moving. Word spreads fast around this town, and I want to surprise Bennie before she knows I'm coming.
Three blocks later, on the corner of Apple and Minor Street, I see it. The large neon sign displays vinyl, luring me in like a homing beacon. Not much has changed aside from the front window display. Adele, Steve Miller Band, Dolly Parton, and Metallica are all pressed against the glass, their price tags hidden.
There's no ringing bell when I push the door open, only an electric chime from somewhere in the back. That's new. I scan the front counter and find no one. The scent of old paper and vinyl hits me, and in this uncertain homecoming, it's welcoming. I inhale deeply and make my way down the second aisle toward the back when a Van Morrison album catches my attention. Tupelo Honey. It is pristine, perfect, still shrink-wrapped. This should be in the case up front, not filed here in the general population between Morrissey and Motley Crew.
"Can I help you?" a deep voice asks from behind me.
I spin, the album clutched to my chest, and find a boy — no, a man — waiting for a reply. He's got jet-black hair shaved short on the sides, longer and swept back up top. His fair skin looks flawless, like he's never stepped foot in sunlight. Gray eyes appraise me from beneath thick black lashes. A couple of days' worth of black stubble speckles the bottom half of his face and frames what looks like an anxious grin. He is a lot of man — wide shoulders and muscled, so tall I feel tiny in his shadow. I can tell he cares about his appearance. His clothes fit impeccably — hugging that body in all the right places. A chunky watch sits on his left wrist, and for some reason, I find it sexy as hell. My gaze is drawn down to his Jack Daniels belt buckle, but I work my way up each pearl snap on his plaid shirt to get back to those eyes.
"Did you want to buy that?" he asks, pointing to the record I hold, before his thick arms cross over his chest.
"You're pretty," I say. He frowns at me.
"No, I'm Preston. And that's Bennie." His head tips to my left.
I turn and spot Bennie wearing a smile brighter than the sun. She has that knowing look in her gaze, something she'll never share. Abandoning the album into Preston's waiting hands, I hurry around the aisle. Her eyes are glassy, but she's not a crier. Her hand lifts and sweeps my short bangs to the side before resting on my shoulder.
"Been a long time."
"Yeah," I answer.
"You cut all your hair off. And what is that color?"
"You look good, Wren."
"Thanks. You look thinner. Are you doing that green tea cleanse diet again?"
"No," Bennie answers, barely a sound.
"I came to get my job back, but it looks like you've filled the position."
"I couldn't wait forever."
I nod and drop my eyes to focus on a crack in the green linoleum floor. Guilt grabs hold of me, and suddenly, I am ashamed for abandoning my sister. Bennie was the one bright spot, and I left her here to fight off small-town assimilation on her own. Seeing her unnaturally red hair and patchwork peasant skirt, I guess she did okay.
"Bring it in, kid."
I throw myself at her and wrap my arms around warm, soft, unconditional love and all that is Bennie. Essence oils and hemp shampoo dull my senses as I bury my face in her wild hair. One hand still holds my shoulder while the other cradles the back of my head. I feel that thickness in the back of my throat, the one that means to choke me unless I cry it out. Squeezing my eyes shut, I swallow it back down and refuse to set it free. I can't stop the one tear that escapes and soaks into her vintage cardigan.
It's then that I remember Preston, a stranger, witnessing this reunion. I turn my face toward him, but all I find is an empty aisle and the Van Morrison album back in its place.
"Three years," Bennie says. She pulls a Diet Coke from her private stash and opens it before sliding it across the counter to me.
"Three years," I confirm. "Doesn't look like much has changed in this town."
She shrugs and stares out the storefront window. "Nothing much ever does. How long will you be staying?"
"I don't know yet. I felt like I needed to be here, but there's a big world waiting for me to explore. So who knows?"
Bennie frowns, but I can't give her any more answers than that. I don't know how long I'll stay in Crowley, but I do know I won't be staying. From my spot behind the counter, I watch Preston start with the A's on the first aisle. He flips through albums, one by one. Every once in a while, he pulls one and places it somewhere else.
"What's his story?" I ask, sipping my soda.
"Wren, you've been gone for three years. Our only communication has been random postcards sent along the way with no way to reply or check on you. And now you want to talk about my employee? Why did you come back?"
I turn to face her, shocked by the strange bite in her voice. "Am I not welcome here?"
"You're always welcome here. You know that." Bennie sighs and places her hand over mine. "I'm really happy to see you. I'm just reeling. I mean ..." She stops and waves her hand across my body. "Look at you. All grown up. Purple pixie cut. That stud in your nose. And who knows what else."
"You taught me to be myself. Does any of the rest of this matter?" I ask, combing my fingers through my short hair.
"Not at all. I just want you to be happy. Were you happy out there?"
My gaze flicks to Preston again, who seems to be stuck in the C's. I watch him flip through the albums and notice his lips moving.
"Sometimes." There is a beat of silence between us. It's charged with unasked questions and unwanted answers. "What the hell is he doing?"
Bennie gives me a grin. "He's very thorough."
A late afternoon of dust mites and vinyl and then She walks in Not just a she as in the female form, but a she as in There is nothing else This girl stands in vibrant colors and sharp lines against A blurred background The afternoon sun pushes through glass just to Seek her out Short hair frames that face like lilac feathers A pretty bird One look and I have forgotten myself, my habitual habits Dropped like baggage at my feet She is all appraising eyes and anarchist clothes Holding that vinyl The delicate way she handles it, fingertips and edges, I know She knows records Her words say I am pretty, the fire in her gaze Says something else My body responds, every muscle pulled tight in its Effort to stay put Like a ghostly hallucination that I often dream of She leaves me on aisle two I am left holding Tupelo Honey and reeling In her wake
"Aww. You painted. I loved that color," I say, stepping through the door into Bennie's kitchen. The mint-green wall color is gone. In its place is a pale yellow color that seems to make the walls glow like sunshine. Other than the color change, everything is exactly as I remember. Her vintage appliances are still pristine and tucked into their respective corners. The wood table with my name carved underneath sits in the front window nook. Daisy placemats and a large candle decorate the top.
"Yeah. I just needed a change one day."
"Well, I think you should have kept it." I let my bag fall off my shoulder. It hits the floor with a thud and rolls over.
"Well, you lost your vote when you left Crowley."
I flinch at her jab and lean against the fridge. "Ouch."
"Since Preston is in your old apartment, you can take my extra room," Bennie says. She fills a teakettle with water from the faucet and places it on the stove but doesn't turn on the burner. "The sheets are clean."
"Thanks, Bennie. I won't be in your way. Promise."
"It's no problem. I have a few boxes of stuff you left behind tucked away in that closet." She pulls out a chair and takes a seat, gesturing for me to do the same. I sit and kick up my boots on the chair across from me. "I just have a few rules."
"Let's hear them."
"Keep out of my room and my bathroom. You know I need my space."
"Yeah, I used to think you were meditating or something else admirable. But, I know you're really reading romance novels and hoarding Mint Milanos."
Bennie raises both hands, palms toward me. "It's true. You've discovered my secret. Still, stay out of my room. Got it?"
I sit up tall and give her a salute. "Aye, aye, captain!"
"Now, why don't you get settled in and we'll go for a birthday drink later."
"Uh, your birthday isn't for three months, Ben."
"Not mine. Your birthday, kid. I missed twenty-one. The least you could do is let me buy you a drink now that you're legal."
Grabbing my bag from the floor, I give her a grin. Of course she wants to celebrate that. No more sneaking berry-flavored vodka in water bottles or letting me steal a beer or two from her fridge.
"I wouldn't dream of denying you that. Let me unpack and take a shower. I've got three days of road dirt covering me."
"That's disgusting," she says, wrinkling her face. "Be ready by eight."
"You're so bossy." I stick my tongue out at her before stomping to my room.
Bennie chuckles as I close the door and lean against it. My room smells like incense and fresh laundry. Cream-colored walls display vintage concert posters. The bed is the one I left behind three years ago. It is a heavy wrought iron, painted white, with a homemade quilt for cover. It's homey and quaint, and exactly what I expect.
It feels so strange and familiar being back here. I never thought I'd step foot in this town again, and here I am. Three years is a long time to be on the road. I found myself in plenty of sticky situations and plenty of fun. I always thought I was invincible, strong enough to take on anything. It turns out, it only took one possessive, abusive boyfriend to show me just how little I am in this world. Coming back to find my apartment taken, my job taken; it's a little surprising. I guess I figured Bennie would handle things on her own. Still, it's comforting to know that no matter what, she still has a place for me in her life.
I slip out of my boots and try not to cringe at how militant and out of place they look on the beige rug. They stick out like I do in this small town — hard edges and beat to shit, but still worth something. Dumping my bag out on the bed, I sort through the clothes and pick out what's clean. My little glass snow globe from Niagara Falls rolls off the mattress and hits the floor. I drop to my knees and pick it up, inspecting it for damage. The snowflakes dance around in the water, eventually settling over the miniature boat at the bottom.
Memories flood my head, pictures of that day appearing behind closed eyes. A smile pulls one corner of my mouth up as I remember the sound of crashing water, the mist on my face, and meeting the stranger who would eventually send me running back home. Before my thoughts turn dark, I stand and place the snow globe on my windowsill. The orange and magenta light from a Kansas sunset shines through, turning the snow into gold flakes.
In the bathroom, I start the shower and let the steam fill the room. I peel off my clothes and study myself in the full-length mirror. The last couple of months have taken a toll on my body. I am thinner now — too thin. I've lost the nice round curve of my hips and the fullness in my breasts. I cup each of them and hate how they feel light and unfamiliar. When I release them, they don't even jiggle like they used to. I frown at my reflection as the shadow of a bruise catches my eye. The blue-and-purple mark taunts me from its place on my ribs. I try to piece together the story of its beginning as I run my hand over it, feeling the heat beneath my fingertips just as the mirror becomes foggy and erases me completely.
By eight o'clock, I am dressed in my favorite jeans and a too-big T-shirt that hangs off one shoulder. I stole it a while back, from some boy in some town a thousand miles away. I tie a knot in the bottom, letting it hug my waist, and step into my only pair of flats. They are shiny black with silver studs, showing just a little bit of attitude.
"Wren, let's go!" Bennie shouts from the kitchen.
"Coming," I answer. I grab my wallet and join her near the front door. "I'm assuming we're going to The Haystack?"
Bennie turns and gives me a smile that I know will immediately be followed by bullshit.
"No, hon. Someone opened a great new place just up the road. They play indie music and hire local bands."
I roll my eyes and step into the hall, laughing at the absurdity of anything new or cool happening in this town. Preston is there, his key in the doorknob to his apartment — my apartment.
"Oh, hey, Preston. We're headed for drinks. Want to join us?" Bennie asks.
His eyes stay on the door, and he shakes his head. "No, thanks."
His voice is so deep and scratchy; it seems to vibrate through me. It's what wet dreams and bad-boy fantasies are made of. I have a vague recollection of our conversation in the store earlier, but this feels like the first time I am truly hearing him. I want more.
"Do you need help with that?" I ask, stepping closer. I can see now that he's dirty and covered in what looks like sawdust. I inhale and find the scent of sweat and wood completely appealing. "Sometimes you have to shake the knob and lift up at the same time."
Preston freezes when I stand next to him. He keeps his head down, his shoulders tense.
"I've got it," he says.
He pulls the key out and pushes it back, jiggles it twice, and repeats this process three more times. I stare at his profile unashamedly. He's so handsome and manly looking, a definite fittest-of-the-fit in the gene pool.
"Let's go, Wren," Bennie says. "Good night, Preston."
The muscles of his forearms tighten as his hand grips the doorframe. He nods as Bennie pulls me away. Once we're on the street, walking toward the edge of town, I turn to Bennie.
"What the hell was that?"
"What?" she asks, feigning ignorance.
"He's so weird — fucking gorgeous, but weird. Why does he have an aversion to me? Did you tell him something?"
She stops walking and props her hands on her hips. "And what would I tell him? I haven't seen you in three years. I didn't know you were coming back, and I doubt I even know you anymore."
Excerpted from "Chaos and Control"
Copyright © 2017 Season Vining.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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