The One Who Got Away (A Novel)
The One Who Got Away (A Novel)
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This is a love story featuring Small Town dynamics, a Guaranteed HEA and multi-racial couple (bwwm black woman white man). Includes discussions of faith by main characters who are Christian or are struggling with faith in Christ.
- Small Town
- Grumpy Sunshine
- Troubled Hero with Heart of Gold
- He falls reluctanctly, but he falls hard
There are no sex scenes.
This story is a bit spicier than general Clean & Wholesome.
Content references purposeful instances of strong language.
In the enchanting town of Fated, Missouri, Tory, a quiet and introspective woman, has found her true home. The warm embrace of the community has given her a sense of stability and belonging she desperately needed.
But when a looming threat puts the town in jeopardy, Tory faces an arduous task—to convince Jay, the man who mysteriously vanished a year ago, to return and save Fated from impending disaster.
Jay, once deeply connected to Fated, has since forged a new life far away from the town he once loved. Betrayed by those he trusted, he turned his back on Fated, vowing never to return.
Determined to honor his decision, Jay has no intention of coming back, until Tory, the persistent newcomer, appears on his doorstep. Sparks fly as their opposing wills clash.
Amidst this conflict, Tory and Jay are forced to confront the insecurities, trauma and warring beliefs that divide them. As they grapple with their unresolved feelings, the fate of Fated hangs in the balance.
Read Chapter 1
Read Chapter 1
Fated, Missouri – June 1991
“And I thought I was the crazy one. Whole world’s gone mad,” Johnny grumbles, slamming the front door behind him. The adjacent walls rattle and nearby panes of glass shiver against window frames like chattering teeth.
Heavy footfalls alert the empty home of the owner’s acerbic mood as he storms through the house and up the stairs.
“Breathe,” he pants upon reaching the landing.
But the air around him isn’t listening. It refuses to cooperate, choosing to remain too thick and gelatinous to suck down a grown man’s throat.
Before he knows it, Johnny’s standing in front of his bedroom closet, ripping shirts and pants off the rod, sending them sailing through the air. They land haphazardly upon the bed, forming an ever-growing mountain of fabric.
His body is all action and no thought as he moves to the dresser. The roar of drawers being ripped from their crevices soon follows; the open drawers hang helplessly off their tracks as two strong hands blindly move among their contents.
“I don’t even know what I’m doing,” he croaks as boxers, socks, t-shirts rain down upon the mattress and the floor just beside it.
Gulping air, he spins around.
Upon his bed, a lopsided mound of apparel stares back at him. On the floor beneath it rests an avalanche of clothing that’d traveled downward, pooling upon an antique, plush floor rug covering the dark-stained wood floor.
A cluster of boxers and socks, balled and bunched in his hands, suffer the clenching of fists as his grip involuntarily tightens, loosens and repeats.
“Get it together, Man,” he bites out through clenched teeth. “You got through a war, and you can’t handle a little town gossip?”
It’s just that…nothing seems to make sense anymore. Not like it used to.
Feels like the town he used to know has turned into a land even more foreign to him than Kuwait.
Or maybe he’s the alien here.
Looking down at his hands, at the trail of clothing leading from both his closet and where he now stands, stilted huffs escape him; a mirthless laugh.
“Or maybe, Johnny, maybe you’re just seeing things the way they are. The way they’ve always, really, been.”
He’s been talking to himself way more than he’d like to admit, these days. And not for the first time, Johnny wonders at his own sanity; but then he’s been wondering about that ever since returning home from Iraq.
Perhaps this is proof that he’s broken.
A couple years ago, he wouldn’t have run away like a coward—he would have fought the insanity rearing its ugly head in the home he loves, among the only family he’s known since his parents’ death.
He shakes his head.
The Johnny from before would have been able to talk to Brett before the man’s poison had spread, instead of responding by giving the older man a busted lip.
He looks at his fist, opens it, studying the stretch of his skin across his palm before clenching his hand again.
The man he is today—this man would punch Brett all over again without hesitation.
And that’s not the man he wants to be.
He closes his eyes as that last word echoes in unknown crevices of his spirit. The term, once released, seems intent on wreaking havoc within.
Sucking in deep, audible breaths. His chest begins to hitch and jerk as exhalations morph into a pattern of sobs that puncture the silence.
A growl rips from his chest as his elbow punches the dresser behind him, causing pain to shoot up his arm.
The sharp sensation brings him back to the present— gives him something to focus on besides the empty space where his certainty, his faith, his sense of a place in this world used to be.
Dragging in a shuddering breath, he leans against the antique dresser. Its rounded edge presses against his back, transferring his weight to the wall with a dull thud.
His eyes meander back to the pile of clothing, the sight spurring something solid and resolute to form behind his breastbone.
But can he really leave this town behind?
It’s meant just about everything to every Byrne that’s resided in Fated before him. That’s four generations worth of sacrifice.
Can he really just up and leave, and risk handing his hometown over to people who might very well tear it all down?
Then again, there’s a surprisingly growing number of folks in town willing to sacrifice him, his needs, his desires to secure their own good.
He lets his eyelids drift close and with the back of his wrist, he wipes at the wetness pooling above his cheek and beneath his nose.
He drags in one controlled inhale after another, just like he’d been taught in service.
For a moment, there is calm. A couple heartbeats later a clip of his last conversation intrudes upon the small bit of space he’s managed to unclutter in his mind.
Not an hour ago, he and Hank had been sitting at the counter of that new diner that’d opened up some months before Johnny had returned home.
They’d been having a decent chat, a rawness to it that Johnny hadn’t realized he’d needed. It’d felt real good to finally talk with someone who could sympathize with the experience of seeing battle up-close and personal.
If only Hank had kept it at that…why did he have to bring up the lunacy going on with Lacey?
“Now I hate to bring it up but, well, that son of Lacey’s could actually be a good thing for all of us, Johnny,” Hank had said, his words rushed as if forced.
Johnny had attempted an empty chuckle. "Aw, now Hank. Don't tell me you've been listening to Brett’s crazy talk, too?"
"Look, I'm a logical man. And I know you are, too. If nothing else, he makes some good points: another Byrne in town takes the pressure off you. Means you can take all the time you need to find the right woman and have some little Byrne's of your own. And if, uhm, that's not the direction you want to go, then you'd be free to do that, too. You know we all will, you know, accept you all the same. You know, if you have another direction you'd prefer?"
Johnny had looked Hank square in the eye, all pretense of good humor having all but disappeared. "And what other direction would that be, Hank?” He’d asked, tempering his voice. Hank’s eyes had widened slightly.
“And you're gonna want to think real hard about the next words you let slip from your lips, Hank. You already know I’m not sympathetic to gossip hens.”
Clearing his throat, Hank had averted his eyes, shifting in his seat. “Yeah, well, me either Johnny. Me either.”
Hank had taken a swig of his orange juice then, clearing his throat once more. “Uhm, look Johnny. All’s I’m saying is, we all know that ain’t your baby, Son. We all believe you…”
Hank had leaned in a bit; the smell of coffee and bacon riding his hushed tone, just barely noticeable above the smell of alcohol that always travels alongside the man. He’d still failed to meet Johnny’s eyes, again. “It’s just that, with the town so tied to all you Descendants, I can’t help but see what folks are saying.”
“Well you can tell all those folks that me being a Descendant doesn’t mean they can make choices about my name and about my life!”
“Look, they’re just thinking of the big picture. I mean, no one is trying to force you to get married before yer ready. And of course we surely respect your staying true to your Christian faith; you know, waiting for the right woman for…everything…and all.”
Johnny had immediately stiffened at that change in topic. “Hank, this isn’t just my faith we’re talking about. This is the faith that the very town was founded on—the town you seem so concerned about saving. You get that right?”
Hank’s hands had gone up in defense. “Right, of course. But we both know,” he’d snickered, “that there are ‘Christians’,” he’d said, air quoting, “And then there are people who actually believe in that stuff.”
After grunting, Johnny had asked, “Which one are you, Hank?”
The older man had sat back, his eyes taking in Johnny as if really seeing him for the first time—which was probably about right. This town hasn’t gotten accustomed to the Johnny who doesn’t laugh with them.
“I guess I’m none of the above,” Hank had admitted, his spine bowing as he’d looked away. “I used to believe in all of that, but then—then life happens, Johnny.” He’d peered into Johnny’s eyes then. “Seems like you know even more about that than you did when you left.”
“I'd known plenty about life even before I left town, Hank,” Johnny had said, his eyes narrowing. “A boy grows up real quick without parents. Even faster when he’s taking care of other people older than him. If anything, life has given me even more reason to believe in a God that knows right from wrong, up from down better than me or any other person I’ve met. Because I’ve witnessed a whole lot of questionable things from folks inside and outside of this town. Believers or not.”
Hank had nodded, the muscle in his jaw working. “Right, so,” he’d breathed. “So, then you and I both know that life isn’t always fair or just. Not fair that a whole town depends on the commitment of less than a handful of people. Not fair to you Descendants. Not fair to anyone else who’s thrown their lot in with this town and made Fated their home.”
His shoulders had sunk as he’d emptied his lungs of breath. “I guess I’m just saying, maybe just think about what this could mean to the town. Might be good to have a little insurance—would mean less pressure on you, too, Johnny. You get what I’m saying, deep down, right?”
“I get that you want me to lie and say that baby’s mine when we all know damn well it isn’t.”
“I don’t want you to, Johnny,” Hank had said, his voice raising and his fist thumping upon the table before he’d seemed to remember himself. “I’m sorry. It’s just…thanks to your great-greats, this town is in a bad way without you and the other descendents. You know that. Because of that contract we need each y’all’s family represented in this town until it’s paid off. And with you being the only one left to represent the Byrnes—”
“Hank,” Johnny had bit out. “Do you think I don’t know every damned word of that contract? I know my family’s responsibility to this town. It’s not the kind of thing a Descendant easily forgets.”
“I know, Son. And I can only imagine the burden you bear—alone.” Shaking his head, Hank had taken a swig from his glass of orange juice, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
Johnny had found it impossible to even look the man in the eye anymore. Not without punching him and every other loose tongue willing to throw Johnny under the bus. “No, Hank. You can’t. You can’t even imagine it,” he’d said, his tone weary.
“It’s just a hard situation for everyone, Johnny. I feel for you, I really do. But we’re talking about killing two birds with one stone, here. You could benefit from this as much as anyone. You wouldn’t bear the burden as the only Byrne in town, anymore. And, well, the town’s got itself a little insurance. Sometimes we gotta weigh the consequences, you know? We got to think bigger than right now—bigger than ourselves.”
Got to think bigger than ourselves.
Johnny’s fists clench around bundles of flannel and cotton.
Guess serving as a grunt in a war hadn’t been big enough.
He pushes himself off of the dresser. Its back legs screech against wood, its front legs lifting before falling, knocking a couple times against the floor.
By the time the large piece of furniture rights itself, Johnny’s thoughts have already completed a one-hundred and eighty degree revolution.
Guess spending all of his young adulthood maintaining two essential town businesses hadn’t been enough. Or being at the beck and call of his community whenever the need had arisen—that hadn’t been big enough, either.
Johnny’s lips twist before he stiffens them.
The fact that Little Johnny made it home alive when so many of his buddies hadn’t…
No. That’s enough. Not if he can’t be the same boy he’d been before serving in a war.
The fact that Johnny would have the audacity to make one choice on his own, like who bears his family’s name?
No. Nothing would be enough until Johnny was a drained husk for this town. That’s all he’s worth to them, it turns out. All they really want is a Byrne mascot.
His eyes search the room, landing upon the wad of plastic nestled among the trashcan’s contents.
Tossing his underwear onto the mattress, he stalks over to the waste basket and scoops up the ball of soft, white plastic. Grabbing hold of its thin handles, the bag crinkles like static electricity as he shakes it open; its wrinkled surface balloons with air as he stalks to the bed.
Boxers, socks, a couple t-shirts are thrown within. Grabbing a pair of jeans, Johnny slings the heavy denim over his shoulder.
The rest of his wardrobe, he’ll buy later.
Looking back at the dresser drawer, his eyes continue to move, hopping from one memory to the next as he scans the bedroom for the last time.
Everything in this room, in this old house, had been handed down to him from his late parents; from one generation of the Byrne family to the next.
Nothing here is his.
Starting today, that includes the family’s burdens.
Dragging in a deep breath that seems to flow without restriction, it’s like he can already taste a cleanness in the air; a crispness, a clarity—a certainty he hadn’t had for far too long.
Tastes like freedom. Smells like it, too.
He follows that scent, trailing it to the entrance marked by a thick, durable wood door that is not his; never was his.
Retrieving his keys from his pocket, he removes the key belonging to the one possession he actually owns.
The lonely object looks foreign in his hand; a far cry from the hefty set of keys he’d become accustomed to carrying with him on a daily basis.
In his other hand, he holds the house and town related keys, serving as a stark reminder of what he’s doing. He drags in yet another deep breath, pushing away the unsettling feeling attempting to foil his escape.
Tossing the solitary key gently into the air, Johnny catches it in his awaiting palm.
It is light.
Light—as—a—feather, just like the loads of “nothing” weighing upon his shoulders for the first time in his whole life.
So this is what it feels like to only be concerned about yourself.
Johnny smirks. He won’t need old things where he’s going. He’s starting fresh.
Gonna be whoever he is—or is becoming.
The bulky set of home and town keys clatter upon the entryway table where he’s dropped them.
Stepping out onto the porch, he lets the door click softly shut behind him.
He nearly dances down the short flight of steps leading down to the road; his hand lightly skipping along the wood banisters hemming him in on either side.
Looking ahead, a smile splits his face upon viewing his worn, red pickup. The vehicle always fills him with a sense of pride.
The sound of his eager strides upon the path’s red brick pavers barely registers in his ears as he approaches the truck’s drivers’ side door.
He still remembers the day he bought it. Him and dad had taken it off the hands of old Mrs. McCaffrey; a widow who’d hardly put any miles on it before she’d finally decided to sell. It wasn’t until later that Johnny had learned that she and his father had struck up a deal—she’d actually saved it for Johnny.
It’d become his and his father’s summer project to fix it up and get it going before Johnny’s sixteenth birthday.
One of his favorite memories.
The truck’s driver side door squeals in protest as Johnny opens it. Swinging himself into the cab behind the wheel, he sucks in another long, easy stream of breath, realizing that maybe everything old ain’t bad.
Some things, some memories, are worth keeping.
Pointing his gaze forward, he stares at the pavement before him, grimacing at the thought that pushes at the edges of his momentary nostalgia:
There’s only one road out of town.
He frowns, berating the part of him hoping no one’s offended when he passes them and doesn’t return their wave.
With a grunt, he shoves his key into the ignition and a twist of the wrist brings Miss Tank—short for Cantankerous—to life. Her engine’s familiar vibrations rattle through him. Smirking, he pats the dashboard, feeling once again at ease as Miss Tank reminds her driver who’s the real muscle here.
His eyes flick up to the rear view mirror, skimming the image of the man looking back at him.
His usual sand coloring is now bruised with pink that’s settled upon his glistening cheeks and brow. Straight, blond locks, so much like his dad’s, are still recovering from the standard military shave; resulting in short, sun-kissed spikes sticking out in odd directions due to his repeatedly combing his hand through his hair--a habit Mom had always gotten on both him and his father about. Through the frames of his thin wire glasses, his Mom’s clear green eyes study him now.
No matter where he is, his parents will always be with him.
He runs a hand over his square jaw, rustling stubble he’d failed to get to over the past several days. The hair is beginning to fill in and he realizes, then, that he’s never suffered a full beard before.
“Hmm.” He rubs his chin with forefinger and thumb, the coarse hair crackling with each stroke as he squints his eyes at the image reflected at him.
Maybe now’s the time to try something new.
His gaze skips over to the scene reflected behind him, through Miss Tank’s rear window.
Plumes of smoke announce Miss Tank’s willingness to depart, blurring the image of a white victorian house staring back at him from its dark gray shutters.
Time to test fate…time to determine his own.
He chuckles; and for the first time in a while the humor feels real.
“And a new man deserves a new name, right?”
His father’s name started with a “J”, too. Something else they have in common.
“Jay,” he says, tasting the name upon his lips. “Hmm,” he grunts.
He arches an eyebrow before addressing the man reflected back at him through the mirror. “You ready, Jay?”
The man in the mirror nods, a smirk tugging his mouth into a slant.
Lowering his gaze to the road before him, Jay shifts Miss Tank into gear.