Read an Excerpt from This Heart of Mine

Whiskey Creek Series, Book 8

Chapter 1

It was the first time she’d seen her son since the day she gave birth to him. Phoenix Fuller had spent an eternity waiting for this moment. She’d counted every single breath, it seemed, for sixteen years, waiting to lay eyes on Jacob again.

But as anxious as she was, she’d promised herself she wouldn’t cry, or try to hug him, or do anything else that might make a teenage boy feel uncomfortable. She was a stranger to him. Although she hoped to change that now that she was back in town, she couldn’t come on too strong or he’d likely shut her out—even if his father didn’t make sure he kept her at arm’s length. She had to be an embarrassment to both of them. They were all from the same small town; it wasn’t as if they could hide the fact that she’d spent Jacob’s entire life in prison.

Her heart leaped into her throat as she watched Jacob and his father, Riley Stinson, get out of a large Ford pickup and stride toward the entrance of the restaurant.

God, her son was tall, she thought, hungrily devouring the sight of him. How he’d gotten so big, she had no idea. She barely topped five feet. Even at thirty-five, she could be mistaken for a much younger person when she wasn’t wearing makeup and had her hair pulled back. But Jacob took after his father in size and shape, had the same broad shoulders, narrow hips and long legs.

“Excuse me. Your table’s ready whenever you are.”

Phoenix wouldn’t have heard the hostess if the woman hadn’t touched her arm when she spoke.

It required real effort, but she dragged her gaze away from the window in order to respond. “Thank you. The rest of my party will be here in a second.”

“That’s fine. Just let me know when you’re ready.” With a polite smile, the young woman seated a couple standing nearby.

Once again, Phoenix’s eyes riveted on her son. Only this time, she felt such a surge of emotion she almost darted into the bathroom. She could not break down.

Please, God, don’t let me cry. He won’t come within ten feet of me if I do.

But the harder she tried to hold back her tears, the more overwhelmed she became. In a panic, she slipped around the corner, into the small alcove by the bathrooms, and leaned her head against the wall.

Breathe. Don’t blow this.

The bell over the door jingled, telling her that Riley and Jacob had stepped inside. She imagined them looking around, maybe getting annoyed when they didn’t find her. But she was frozen in place. She absolutely could. Not. Move.

“Hey,” she heard the hostess say with a familiarity that hadn’t been present in her greeting to Phoenix.

“We’re busy this morning, like we are every Saturday. But if you can wait for a few minutes, I’ll get you a table.”

“We’re actually meeting someone who should be here.”

That had to be Riley, but Phoenix couldn’t say she recognized his voice. Her memories of him were vivid. But they’d both been so young, and he’d changed a great deal. No longer the skinny teenager she’d known in high school, he was a man with plenty of hard muscle on his solid frame, a man in his prime, and that had been more than apparent as she’d watched him walk, shoulder to shoulder, with their son a few seconds earlier.

“Who are you here to meet?” the hostess asked.

“Name’s Phoenix Fuller,” came his response.

“What does she look like?”

“I’m not sure these days,” he said, and Phoenix winced. Her shoulder-length dark hair wasn’t bad. It was thick, probably her best asset. Her hazel eyes weren’t unattractive, either. She didn’t feel she was ugly. But the scars on her face would be new to him. She hadn’t had those when she went to prison.

“She wasn’t very tall,” he added, as if that might be the only detail still applicable.

“There was a woman who said she was expecting two more to join her,” the hostess said. “But I don’t know where she went…”

Determined not to miss this opportunity after waiting so long for it, Phoenix curved her fingernails into her palms, took a deep breath and stepped around the corner. “Sorry I…I had to wash my hands.”

The frown that appeared on Riley’s face brought heat to her cheeks. He wasn’t happy to be in her presence. No doubt he’d spent the past seventeen years hoping he’d never have to see her again, especially since her release date had been extended twice beyond her original sentence.

But she’d known this first meeting would be difficult. Squaring her shoulders, she ignored his disapproval and turned to Jacob. “Hello, I’m your mother.”

She’d practiced saying those words so many times and still almost choked up. Only by sheer will did she manage to retain control. “You can call me Phoenix, though, if that feels more natural to you. I don’t expect…” Her tongue seemed so thick and unwieldy, she could hardly speak. “I don’t expect you to do anything you don’t want to do, not when it comes to me.”

He seemed surprised she’d throw that out there right away, but she also thought she detected a slight lessening of the tension gripping his body. So she extended her hand. “It’s very nice to meet you. Thank you for coming. I hope this restaurant is okay. Just Like Mom’s was always a favorite of mine when I lived here so I hoped maybe…maybe it’d still be popular.”

Jacob glanced at his father before shaking her hand. “Hello,” he mumbled, but wouldn’t quite look her in the eye.

Telling herself that was normal, that a certain amount of reluctance was to be expected, she let go as soon as they touched. She didn’t want him to notice how badly she was trembling.

“Are you folks ready to sit down?” The hostess, who’d been distracted saying goodbye to some departing patrons, was now watching them with avid curiosity. She’d probably figured out that this was “the” Phoenix Fuller everyone had been talking about—the one who’d been convicted for running down a rival with her mother’s old Buick just before graduating from high school.

“Yes, please.” Supremely conscious of the two people trailing behind her, Phoenix followed the hostess across the restaurant to a corner booth.

Once they sat down, she leaned back as another woman came to bring them water.

“You can have anything you want,” she told Jacob as he opened the menu.

It was too soon to mention that. But she was nervous. And she’d worked so hard in the weeks before she was released to be able to provide this meal. She really wanted him to enjoy it.

“I like the Belgian waffle with the ice cream and strawberries.”

Grateful he’d chosen something rather celebratory and elaborate, she smiled. “Then you can have it.”

Belatedly, she realized that his father should have a say in the matter; it wasn’t a healthy meal and she held absolutely no power in Jacob’s life. So she appealed to Riley. “If that’s okay with your father.”

Once Riley had given his permission, she dropped her gaze. It was easier not to look at him. If she could’ve invited Jacob on his own, she would have. The emotions she felt where her son was concerned were poignant enough. Adding his father to the mix just complicated an already complicated situation.

“You can get whatever you’d like, too, of course,” she told Riley. “My treat.”

The second she got those words out, she felt her face burn even hotter. What a stupid thing to say! Riley was a successful building contractor. He didn’t need an ex-con to pay for his breakfast. And she knew that although she’d sent every dime she could spare to the support of her son, her contributions had been paltry compared to what he’d done for Jacob over the years. Riley probably found her offer to buy him breakfast laughable. But she’d meant to be generous. She was struggling so hard to get by that thirty dollars was a lot of money to her.

“The shrimp omelet’s good,” he said, and set his menu aside without really studying it.

The shrimp omelet and the Belgian waffle were the two most expensive meals on the menu, but Phoenix didn’t mind. She quickly calculated how much money she’d have left over and started looking for something under five dollars.

“I’m not very hungry,” she mused so they wouldn’t find it strange when she ordered light. “I think I’ll just have some toast and coffee.”

The minute she lowered her menu, she nearly raised it again to use as a shield. Both Riley and her son eyed her appraisingly, skeptically. Although she’d expected close scrutiny, it was still difficult to be examined like some kind of unusual—and not particularly welcome—bug. Not only that, but she was self-conscious about the scars on her face, didn’t want them to become a focal point.

“How long have you been home?” Riley said, breaking a silence that was growing awkward.

She slid her menu to one side and folded her hands in her lap. “Three days.” She would have contacted him immediately, but it had taken some time to summon the nerve. He’d made it clear that he wished she’d settle anywhere but Whiskey Creek.

He clutched his water glass. “Who picked you up?”

She’d had to pay for a taxi, but she didn’t want to admit that. “An acquaintance who…who’s sort of a friend.”

That was nebulous, but he didn’t seem to question it. “I thought maybe your mother…”

“No. She can’t—doesn’t—drive these days.” At nearly six hundred pounds, she couldn’t fit inside a car. Her mother had been a recluse since Phoenix and Riley were dating. In addition to her weight, Lizzie had significant issues with hoarding and depression. She didn’t own a working car or have internet service. If not for the kindhearted guy from the Baptist church who’d brought groceries and performed the occasional vet run—for only ten dollars a week—while Phoenix was in prison, Lizzie might not have survived. It wasn’t as if Phoenix’s father cared about either one of them. Or her brothers, for that matter. He’d left shortly after Phoenix was born; no one even knew where he was these days. And her two older brothers, who’d been so devastated when he left, had washed their hands of Whiskey Creek and everything that went with it when she was still in school.

Riley had to be aware of Lizzie’s situation. So was he merely trying to reiterate the point he’d made in his last letter—that he believed Jacob would be better off without her involvement in his life? He’d mentioned her mother as a less-than-positive aspect of associating with her. Lizzie’s many problems were the reason Jacob hadn’t been allowed to visit his grandmother more than three or four times during his life, and of course her mother had never reached out. Although Lizzie often couched it as a gruff rejection, she felt too unworthy, especially when she came up against a well-established, well-respected family like the Stinsons.

Riley took another sip of his water. “How’s she doing?”

Phoenix refused to be drawn into a conversation about her mother. She wasn’t willing to address any subject that might make him less likely to let her see Jacob. “Fine.”

“Fine?” he repeated. “That’s it? I haven’t seen her around town in years.”

Jacob scowled at him. “You know what she’s like, Dad.”

Phoenix cleared her throat. “She’ll be better now that I’m home. I’ll see to it. And she won’t bother you or Jacob. I’ll make sure of that, too.”

“How can she bother us if she can’t leave the house?” Jacob asked, glaring at his father. “Has she bothered us so far?”

“I’ll handle this,” Riley said, but Phoenix felt the need to chime in. She couldn’t allow Riley to think Jacob was supporting her side of any argument. Riley held her heart in his hand because he controlled what she wanted most—a relationship with Jacob. So, first of all, she had to protect her relationship with him.

“Your father’s right. She can be…an embarrassment. I remember what it was like when…when I was in high school. But she’s, um, well, like you say, she doesn’t go anywhere, so I highly doubt she’ll be an issue.” Except for when he came to her place, but she’d figure out how to handle that if and when it happened.

Obviously annoyed that his father was being so protective, Jacob grumbled, “I’m not worried about it.”

She hoped that was true. He had enough to cope with just being her son. Not many other kids had to live with the stigma of having their mother labeled a murderer. “I hear you’re a talented baseball player,” she said, eager to change the subject.

This elicited a shy smile—one that revealed how very handsome and charismatic her son was. He looked even more like his father than she’d initially thought, with those amber-colored eyes and his nearly black hair.

“I like to play,” he said.

“It’s really something to be the starting varsity pitcher as a junior,” she told him. “Baseball’s a big deal around here.”

Riley’s mood seemed to improve as he gave his son’s shoulder a little shove. “Last week he almost pitched a no-hitter.”

Jacob lifted his eyebrows. “Almost but not quite.”

“The season’s young,” Riley responded.

Phoenix loved the pride in Riley’s voice. She felt that same pride. But right now, carrying on this conversation was a chore. For one thing, except for a few close friends she’d made in prison, she’d kept to herself. She didn’t consider herself particularly entertaining. For another, she just wanted to sit and stare, memorize all the details of her son’s face. The pictures she’d been sent had been far and few between and hadn’t done her boy justice. He’d had braces on in the last one, which had come in a Christmas card two years ago. Small effort though it required on Riley’s part, she was grateful to him for sending that. She still had both the card and the photo. They were among the scant belongings she’d brought home from prison.

“Do you have plans to play in college?” she asked.

“Definitely,” he replied. “I’ve got a few universities interested in me. Great ones, too. I’m hoping for a scholarship.”

He had so much going for him, so much to look forward to. She owed Riley for that. He’d done a great job with their son. “How exciting!” she said. “I’m sure you’ll get one.”

The waitress came to take their order, so Phoenix quickly added up what the tab would be, after they asked for orange juice with their meals. She didn’t want to embarrass herself when it came time to pay by running short. “Just coffee for me,” she said to be safe.

“That’s all you want?” Jacob asked.

“I don’t usually have much for breakfast.” Hungry though she was, she was too nervous to eat, anyway.

“No wonder you’re so small. Most of the girls in school are twice as big as you,” he said. “And some of them aren’t finished growing.”

“I might be small, but I’m strong,” she teased, flexing one arm.

“I heard. You got into a few fights in—”

“Let’s not start with that.” When Riley interrupted, her son flushed and fell silent.

“It’s okay, he can say what he wants,” she told Riley before answering Jacob. “I was forced to defend myself, but…I managed.” Sometimes better than others. It always depended on how many people jumped her at once.

“What happened?” Jacob asked.

During which incident? She supposed the one that had left the scar on her lip. She didn’t want to get into what life was like on the inside, but she also didn’t want him to feel there were subjects he had to avoid.

“The women in that prison could be…territorial,” she said. “There were times I had to fight or I’d be picked on for the rest of my stay, you know? I’m sure you’ve seen that type of behavior in school.” The fact that she was fighting for her life had given her little choice in the matter, but she didn’t want to make it sound quite so dire.

Jacob wrinkled his nose, clearly doubtful. “So you didn’t start the fight?”

“Would you start a fight if you were my size?” she asked with a laugh, hoping she could get him to smile.

He didn’t, but some of his doubt seemed to slip away. “No. I can’t even imagine how you defended yourself.”

“I told you.” She winked to cover a reservoir of much deeper feeling. “I’m stronger than I look.”

He studied her for a few seconds. “Is that what those scars are from?”

Phoenix’s tongue automatically sought the one on her lip. She’d gotten it just before she was due to be released two years ago—the cut and twenty stitches. The scar had come later. “Yeah.”

“From a fist?” he clarified.

“No, it was a razor blade.” She shifted in her seat, conscious that Riley couldn’t approve of her describing such a gruesome scene. But she wanted to satisfy Jacob’s curiosity so they could move on. She didn’t want him feeling she’d brushed his questions aside.

He frowned at her. “Must’ve hurt.”

It had, but the pain hadn’t been the worst of it. Those women, with the help of one guard who’d always had it in for her, had purposely set her up. She’d been blamed for starting the fight, which had added more than two years to her sentence. That had to be why Jacob was questioning her so carefully. He must’ve been told she was a troublemaker when she didn’t get out.

Although that day had been one of the darkest of her whole life, Phoenix shrugged so he wouldn’t have to know it. “Not too bad. Anyway, I’d like to see you pitch sometime, if you wouldn’t mind having me at a game.” She waved a hand before he could respond. “I’ll sit on the visitors’ side, so don’t worry about that.”

Confusion created lines in his forehead. “Why would you sit on the visitors’ side?”

Because she couldn’t imagine he’d want a mother who’d been in prison for murder showing up where people might recognize who she was and connect them. “I’d rather not cause a stir.”

She looked to Riley for confirmation. He’d used the stigma of her crime as one of the reasons Jacob would be better off without her, so she was hoping to reassure him that she wouldn’t make things difficult. But he didn’t comment one way or the other, didn’t say she couldn’t come as she feared he might. He covered his mouth for a few seconds, rubbed his jaw, then straightened his silverware. It was Jacob who insisted she could sit wherever she liked. But a polite boy would say that.

“Okay, just…just let me know when you have a game.” She figured if he never came forward with that information, she’d have her answer as to whether he preferred she stay away from him in public.

“How am I supposed to let you know?” he asked. “Do you have a home phone or a cell?”

She didn’t. She couldn’t afford either. She had far too many other necessities to buy first. “Not yet. But I have a laptop, and I learned that Black Gold Coffee has free Wi-Fi. I could set up a Facebook page, and you could message me that way—with your father’s permission.” He could also get hold of her through her mother, who lived in a separate trailer on the same property, but she hesitated to suggest that, given Riley’s disapproval of Lizzie.

“You have a laptop?” he asked.

“I do. It was a gift from one of the correctional officers when I was released. It’s an old one, but…it works.”

“So you’ll friend me? You know how to do that?”

She sipped more coffee. The caffeine was making her jittery on an empty stomach, but it helped to have something to do with her hands. “I took some computer classes when I was…I took some classes.”

“Oh.”

“What are your plans now that you’re home?” Riley asked. “Are you looking for a job or…?”

“Not quite yet,” she replied. “I have to finish cleaning out the trailer where I’m living before I do anything else.” She almost expounded on how bad it was, how unsanitary. Her mother’s hoarding was worse than ever. But she caught herself. If her primary goal was to provide a room for Jacob that Riley would deem safe—in case her son ever agreed to stay with her for a night or two—it wouldn’t be wise to regale his father with the gritty details. When she’d first begun cleaning it up, the trailer hadn’t been fit for pigs. Although it was a lot better now, it would be spotless by the time she was done.

“Where will you apply after that?”

“Anywhere there’s an opening.” Riley had also pointed out how difficult it would be for her to make a living in Whiskey Creek, a town of only two thousand. The school had allowed her to graduate in spite of the fact that she’d missed the last three weeks of her senior year, but a high school diploma wouldn’t do much to offset her criminal record. She hadn’t mentioned the business she’d started while she was still incarcerated. She had no idea if it would succeed. But she’d established a small income making leather bracelets for men and boys. The woman who’d given her the laptop, Cara Brentwell, had been putting the bracelets up on Etsy.com and eBay for the past three years. That was where, most recently, she’d gotten the bulk of the money she’d been sending to Jacob. She and Cara had split the profits but, as a free woman, she no longer needed Cara’s help.

“I, um, have a small gift for you,” she told Jacob. “Don’t get excited, it’s nothing big. You don’t even have to wear it if you don’t like it. I just wanted to see if…you know, maybe you’d think it was cool.”

She reached into her bag and pulled out the leather pouch she’d put the bracelet in instead of wrapping it. Somehow that seemed more masculine than paper and bow.

“Thanks,” he said as he accepted it.

She didn’t say that she’d made it. She didn’t want to give him or anyone else any reason not to like it. “If you’d rather open it later,” she began, but he had his hand inside and took it out before she could finish.

“What is it?” Riley asked.

“A bracelet,” Jacob piped up, and the pleasant tone of his voice was slightly reassuring. He didn’t sound as if he hated it.

“So you’ve seen them before?” she said, trying to gauge whether he was just trying to salvage her feelings.

“Yeah, but none quite like this.” He turned it over in his man-size hands. Fortunately, the braided leather she’d embellished with a piece of petrified wood that was carved in the shape of a bird—a play on her name that she wasn’t sure he’d understand—fastened with a tie so it couldn’t be too small. “It’s awesome. Where’d you get it?”

The waitress arrived with their food, and Phoenix pretended she hadn’t heard the question. Jacob became so distracted putting on the bracelet, and then eating, that he didn’t pursue an answer.

From there the conversation became a bit stilted. Phoenix asked about his grades, expressed pride that he was doing so well and encouraged him to continue. Then she asked if he had a girlfriend. He said he didn’t, that he was interested in a few different girls, but mostly just as friends, and then the conversation lagged again. It would’ve been more natural to talk to Riley, too, but Phoenix was careful not to direct a single question to him. She didn’t want him to worry that she might still have feelings for him. Sometimes their brief relationship played out in her mind, usually late at night. Those memories were some of the best she had. But she told herself they continued to matter simply because she hadn’t shared the same kind of intimacy with any other person. She’d been barely eighteen when she went to prison and, although she’d been approached by various male guards over the years, which some of her fellow inmates resented, she’d never even kissed anyone besides Riley. One guard sent her a few letters after he quit his job at the prison, but she never responded. He lived in the Bay Area, and she’d planned to return to Whiskey Creek; she’d realized all along that she’d have a very brief period to get to know her son before he reached adulthood. She didn’t want to waste time on a man, especially considering how fickle and unreliable they could be, judging by the speed with which Riley had fallen in and out of love with her.

Even without being addressed, Riley added a comment here and there to support what Jacob said. Whenever that happened, Phoenix would turn a polite smile on him to acknowledge his remark. But she kept her attention on her son, which worked fine—until the check came. Then she had to engage Riley because he tried to pluck it off the corner of the table.

Thankfully, she managed to grab it before he could. She wouldn’t allow him to buy her a meal, to buy her anything. This was a matter of pride, what little pride she could salvage, anyway. She’d extended the invitation; she’d pay the tab. Anything else might make him believe she was out to get something from him when, other than his blessing for her to see Jacob, she definitely wasn’t.

“I don’t mind,” he said, as if he wasn’t sure whether to insist while she counted out her money.

Even with the tip, she had enough—thank God. “It’s my treat, but I appreciate the offer,” she said firmly.

Leaving the money on the table, she slid out of the booth.

“Breakfast was good,” Jacob said.

A jolt of hope and happiness shot through her that he seemed to have enjoyed himself. The path ahead of them would not be smooth, but she’d survived her first breakfast with Jacob and didn’t feel she was about to fall apart. It probably helped that she’d had a lot of practice with disappointment. She hoped the next encounter would be easier, and the next even easier and so forth. She had to start somewhere.

“It was my pleasure,” she told him.

Although she tried to lag behind, they waited for her to precede them. She didn’t own a car, which meant she’d be walking five miles to the barren spot of land her mother had inherited from her own parents. Lizzie had two old trailers on that property—the one she’d filled so full of junk she could no longer live in it, which was now Phoenix’s home, and the one she occupied herself, with her five dogs, two hamsters and a parrot.

Once they got outside, she stepped out of the way so they could move past her and into the parking lot.

“Thank you for meeting me.”

Riley squinted against the bright spring sunshine and gazed around, as if he expected someone to be there to pick her up. “How are you getting home?”

She didn’t answer that question directly for fear he’d take it as a hint that she wanted a ride. “Oh, don’t worry about me. I’ve got it covered.”

“You’ve got what covered?”

“Aren’t we talking about a way home?”

“Someone’s coming to pick you up, then? When will they be here? Do you need to use my phone?”

Now that he’d pinned her down, she had to tell the truth. She couldn’t use the cell he offered. She had no one to call. “There’s no need to bother anyone. It’s such a nice day I’m happy to walk.”

He glanced down at her strappy sandals. “You can make it that far in those?”

“I made it here,” she said. “They’re very comfortable.” Whether that was true or not wasn’t important. They were all she owned.

He didn’t seem convinced, but when she waved and turned to go, he started toward his truck. Jacob was the one who called her back.

“Mom?”

Phoenix’s heart hit her chest with one giant thud. He hadn’t addressed her as anything yet, let alone Mom. She hadn’t expected to hear him say that, not right away, especially since she’d given him permission to use her first name instead. “Yes?” She hoped her voice didn’t sound as strangled to him as it did to her.

“You told me I could say anything.”

“Jacob.” Riley spoke their son’s name as a warning, but Phoenix ignored that, along with his frown.

“You can. It’s absolutely okay.”

“No matter what it is?”

She swallowed hard. She hadn’t expected the questions to begin quite this soon. “Of course.”

Jacob looked at his father, but his inner turmoil was obviously driving him to disregard the quick shake of Riley’s head. “Did you do it?” he asked. “Because I have to hear that answer from you. I want to know the truth after wondering about it all these years.

She didn’t mind him asking. She longed to tell him the truth. But it would’ve been much easier to discuss this some quiet night when Riley wasn’t with them, because she knew Riley would doubt every word she said. She was afraid he might even scoff at her denial, if not in front of her, then once he and Jacob got in the truck.

Still, now that she had the chance to tell Jacob she was innocent, she had to take it. Kids didn’t always wait for the best time or place, and if she missed this opportunity, maybe she’d never have another. Not like this, with her son so…open.

Tempted to grab his arms or do something else to impress on him just how fervent she was, she stepped forward. But she was still afraid that coming on too strong would scare him away. So she stopped there and lowered her voice for emphasis. “I didn’t do it. I swear I didn’t do it.”

“But you were driving the car! You had to have done it.” Although he sounded argumentative, he spoke as if he wanted her to persuade him otherwise, and she appreciated that more than he could ever know.

“There was someone else in the car, Jacob. Have you heard about this?” He must’ve been told bits and pieces over the years. But he hadn’t even been born when the trial took place, and he would’ve been ten or twelve before he was old enough to hear what had happened. That meant that whoever told him the story had very likely simplified an incident that was over a decade old. And once Jake entered his teens, maybe he felt it was a subject his father didn’t want to touch, so he didn’t push.

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “Who was it?”

Did this mean that Riley was so convinced she’d been lying when she gave her side of the incident that he didn’t even present it?

She didn’t know how else to interpret it. “A girl my age—a friend of sorts that I was supposed to be doing a homework project with,” she said. “My mother let me take the Buick so we could go to her house after school. When we spotted Lori Mansfield walking back to the high school after finishing her cross-country run, the girl who was with me said we should give her a little scare. I laughed. Maybe I said something that she took for agreement—I don’t remember—because the next thing I knew, she yanked on the steering wheel.”

His Adam’s apple moved as he swallowed. “Someone else turned the wheel?”

“Yes. I don’t think she meant to kill Lori. She had no reason to harm her. I’m guessing she thought I’d be able to correct in time, but I couldn’t.” She winced at the memory. “It all happened too fast.”

He spread out his hands, beseeching her. “Why didn’t you tell everyone that?”

Another group came out of the restaurant. She fell silent until they’d regained their privacy. Then she said, “I tried.” She’d told everyone in the courtroom. Riley hadn’t been there the day she testified, but surely he’d heard what she’d said from someone. “No one would believe me.”

She wondered how Riley was taking all of this but was afraid to look at him. “It’s the truth, but the girl who was with me denied it.”

“You’re saying she lied?”

Penny Sawyer had left Whiskey Creek right after high school and never come back, and Phoenix knew she probably never would. “Yes. Under oath.”

“Why would she do that?”

“I’m sure she was scared, Jacob. She didn’t want what was happening to me to happen to her.”

“So she let you take the fall.”

“Essentially.”

“But…why would her word be any better than yours?”

At this, Phoenix couldn’t stop her gaze from shifting to Riley. She found him watching her as intently as Jacob and got the impression he was trying to figure out whether he could believe her any more than he had before. So she decided to tell the down-to-the-soul truth, regardless of the embarrassment certain admissions might cause her. “Because they knew I had a…a terrible crush on your father. They called it an obsession, and maybe it was. They also knew by then that I was pregnant. You see, I hadn’t told anyone about you before the accident. I was too scared my mother, the school counselor and anyone who knew your father would want me to…to end the pregnancy or put you up for adoption. I wasn’t willing to do either.”

“They thought you were jealous of Lori.”

She guessed he’d heard that part before, since the entire story hinged on it. But had Riley provided the information? Or was it Riley’s parents? Or even others in town? She’d always wondered what people were telling Jacob about her. “They assumed I thought your father would come back to me if she was out of the picture. And the girl in my car had no motive. She was just being…silly.”

“That’s so unfair!” Jacob turned as if to gain the support of his father, but Riley remained silent, his hands jammed into the front pockets of his jeans.

“If what you’re saying is true, you served all that time for nothing,” Jacob said when he faced her again.

“Why didn’t you fight harder to get people to believe you?”

Because she’d been an odd, unfortunate eighteen-year-old girl struggling to grow up with an obese, hoarding mother who wouldn’t even leave the house. Without champions, without the money to hire a decent attorney instead of the public defender who’d done a halfhearted job at best, she’d had nowhere to turn. To make things worse, Riley’s parents were so sympathetic to Lori’s family that they complained about how many times she’d phoned Riley or driven by their house, told everyone how she’d followed him around town. The fact that she’d also crank-called Lori after Riley had started dating her, had become a big part of the case against her.

Everything that could go wrong simply had.

“I didn’t have the tools,” she said. “I was only two years older than you are now and I was pretty well on my own. There wasn’t a lot I could do.” Especially because she couldn’t claim that she hadn’t been absolutely consumed with Riley. The day he came into her life everything had changed; it’d been like feeling the sun on her face for the first time. But after only six weeks of an intense “I have to be with you every second” affair, he’d suddenly broken up with her.

As rocky as her life had been, she’d never felt pain to equal that.

But she hadn’t killed anyone.

“The girl, the one who lied, this is all her fault,” Jacob said. “Do you know where she is? Are you going to try and find her and make her admit the truth?”

Phoenix had spent seventeen years thinking about getting out of prison and going in search of Penny. She craved vindication. But she knew chasing after it would be a waste of effort. Even if she could find Penny, it would still be her word against that of someone more credible. No one wanted to consider the possibility that an innocent woman might have been in prison for so long. And even if Penny suddenly and miraculously came forward on her own, it wouldn’t change what Phoenix had been through. It probably wouldn’t convince the people she needed to convince, since they didn’t want to believe the truth, anyway.

“No.” In the beginning, she’d sent so many letters to Penny, pleading with her to tell the truth. All the ones she’d mailed after the Sawyers left Whiskey Creek had been returned. She didn’t even know whether the early ones had reached the girl who could’ve made such a difference. “I have to focus on moving forward, forget the past.”

Jacob stared at his feet. When he lifted his head and spoke again, he sounded torn. “I’m not sure I can believe you.”

“That’s okay.” She forgave him easily, was grateful he was actually trying. “I understand how hard it is. I won’t put any pressure on you. We don’t have to talk about it again, if you don’t want to. We—”

“I think that’s enough for today,” Riley broke in. “Jacob, let’s go. We’ve got to work.”

Anxiety-induced sweat rolled down Phoenix’s spine. But she smiled so her son would know he could leave without feeling bad about anything. She didn’t blame him for being confused, and she certainly didn’t want to detain him any longer and get him in trouble with his dad. She’d known from the beginning that she’d have to earn Jacob’s trust over time.

Clasping her hands in front of her, she watched them get in Riley’s truck. She’d just taken a deep breath and was about to start her long walk home when Jacob turned and waved—and she knew she’d carry the memory of that tentative smile for the rest of her life.

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