Here we are. Our first official Men of Honor Monday.
Don’t expect them to all be this long. Lol! I had to force myself to quit with this one.
Hope you all enjoy it as much as I do. XX
Fifteen years old
The sound of laughter and conversation drifts in my open bedroom window as I change out of my wet swimsuit and throw on a pair of cutoff denim shorts and a white eyelet halter top to wear to the fireworks show.
Everyone has been here since early afternoon, celebrating Independence Day. I love days like this when we’re all together, it’s always so much fun and a good reminder of how blessed we are to have each other.
Tonight though, it will be only a few of us kids at the beach for the fireworks. Annabelle, Braedyn, Beckett, Ella, Hope, and Parker…
Just thinking about the last person has my heart skipping a beat. I’m around that boy almost every day, but no matter how much time passes, my feelings never fade, they only grow stronger. Because it’s not some ridiculous crush like most of the female population in this town have on him. It’s so much more than that for me.
I’m in love with him.
I have been for as long as I can remember, and I fear I always will be.
The kicker? He sees me as a little sister—a child—even though I’m fifteen. He’s only two and a half years older than me but to him I may as well be ten.
Only my closest friends know about my feelings for him. Ella, Annabelle, and Hope. We tell each other everything, we’re more than best friends, we’re sisters.
Parker is too wrapped up in all of the female attention he receives on a daily basis to notice. Just the thought has my tummy twisting into a giant knot. In all fairness I can’t blame him, since he has no idea how I feel and probably never will. I don’t think my heart could handle his rejection.
“Hey, Country, you ready or what?”
My body hums with awareness at the sound of his deep, smooth voice and the use of my nickname. A name he’s called me for as long as I can remember, because his dad calls my mother that from time to time. Even though I look more like my father, I am everything my mother represents. From my love of music and horses right down to my cowgirl boots.
I’ll take it. It’s better than being called Half-pint, which he uses once in a while.
“Coming,” I call out, but am unsure if he heard me from all the noise down there.
I run my fingers through my long, damp, wavy hair and give it a shake, hoping to bring it more life. When it doesn’t happen, I eventually give up and reach for my pink cowgirl hat that my sister, Ruthie, bought me for my last birthday.
My eyes draw to my worn boots that sit in the corner of my room. I stare at them longingly while slipping on my flip-flops. Boots in the sand don’t work.
Shutting off my light, I close my bedroom door then skip down the long staircase and join the others outside, noticing how much darker it’s gotten in the few minutes I was changing. I give all the little ones a quick hug good-bye then put a little more speed in my step when I see the group waiting for me next to Braedyn’s truck.
“There she is,” Beckett announces.
Parker swings around with that sexy smirk of his, making my heart tumble in my chest. He’s changed into black board shorts and a white fitted T-shirt with the brand name written across the chest in black. It stretches across his broad shoulders and lean muscular frame that came from working out at our fathers’ gym and playing hockey. The backwards hat he wears pushes his usually messy hair away from his handsome face, making his strong cut jaw more pronounced.
His smirk falters and eyes drop to my feet before slowly traveling back up to my face, making butterflies dance in my tummy. By my body’s reaction, it may as well be his hands touching me.
Is he actually checking me out?
Flashing me his famous lopsided grin, he starts toward me, his gait easy and confident. My breath traps in my chest as I become rooted to my spot; my head craning back to keep contact with those amazing sea green eyes of his as he closes the distance between us.
The world shifts beneath my feet as he tosses me over his shoulder, all the air from my lungs exploding on a whoosh.
“’Bout time, Half-pint, thought maybe you were bailing on us.”
I grab my hat before it can hit the ground, all the hope I had moments ago deflating on a rush. “Yeah right, Evans. You’re not getting rid of me that easily,” I toss back, putting as much muster into my words as I can manage.
With a chuckle, he lays a playful hand across my butt before placing me to my feet.
I swear, this boy wreaks nothing but havoc on my hormones.
“Hold up!” my dad calls out when we head for Brae’s truck. He strides over to us with Uncle Cooper, Uncle Jax, and Uncle Sawyer following close behind.
All of us girls groan, knowing what’s coming.
“You all stay together. Don’t stray from one another,” he lectures. “No drinking, no boys except for the ones you’re with. Come back right after the fireworks are over. Got it?”
“Got it!” Ella salutes him, her tone deep as she mocks him. “Don’t worry, us girls will take good care of the boys. We won’t let anything happen to them.”
We snicker while the guys grunt in amusement, because we all know the warning is directed at us and not the boys.
It never is.
However, none of them find Ella as funny. My father’s eyes narrow, making that pain he keeps buried deep inside more prominent. It’s a pain he always has whenever he looks at me. Because he doesn’t see me. He doesn’t see Mia, his daughter.
He sees Mia, his sister.
A girl whose baby picture is a replica to mine. I’ve heard him tell my mother before that if she would have lived he has no doubt she would look exactly like me.
It’s like a dagger straight to the heart. He’s the most important man in my life and it hurts to know it causes him pain just to look at me. It hurts even more that I’ll always be compared to her in his eyes. He will never really see me.
Swallowing back my emotion, I walk up to him and lift to the tips of my toes to hug him. All of the other girls follow suit, each one giving their dad a playful kiss on the cheek. They’re eventually released with a warning to be careful, but my dad doesn’t let go. His arms are like a steel band; locking me in the protective cage he has always kept me in. I can sense the fear and desperation in his tight muscles, an unhealthy fear of worrying that every time I leave I may not come back.
I make no effort to break that hold, allowing him all the time he needs, because as hard is it is to feel imprisoned, his pain hurts so much more.
“I love you, Dad,” I whisper, turning my face to the side so he can’t see my emotion.
“Be careful, Mia.”
I try not to let it sting that he didn’t return the words. “I will.”
He kisses the side of my head before forcing himself to step back. When I turn to walk away he snags my upper arm. Closing my eyes, I take a deep breath before twisting back to him.
“I love you.” The pain in his voice is as dark as the one in his eyes, proving how hard it is for him to say those words to me.
I give him a small smile but my chin quivers. “I know. I’ll see you in a bit.”
Everyone’s eyes are on me as I climb into the back of Braedyn’s truck. I slide in next to Hope where Annabelle sits on her lap because there are only so many spots.
“You okay?” Hope asks quietly, reaching for my hand.
I give her the same fake smile I gave my dad and nod before adverting my eyes to the floor. Ella grabs my free hand where she sits on the other side of me, silently offering comfort. My friends don’t need to say anything. They know how it is with my dad and me.
Once we’re far enough down the country road, Annabelle leans over Braedyn’s seat and wraps her arms around his neck.
“No!” he says, already knowing what she’s going to ask.
“Come on, Brae, please? It’s only down the road. We’ll sit on our butts and lean flat against the cab. Promise.”
There are a few moments of silence before he relents with a growl. “Your dad is going to fucking kill me if he ever finds out I let you do this,” he grumbles as he pulls off to the side of the road.
He’s never been able to deny her.
Annabelle squeals excitedly and begins kissing his cheek. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
“Yeah, thanks,” Ella adds. “And don’t worry, I have ties to the sheriff. If we’re busted I’ll put in a good word for you.”
We giggle at her commentary while jumping out of the truck and heading around to the back to drop the tailgate. Climbing onto the bed, we sit on our butts with our backs against the cab like we promised.
Parker slides open the back window, giving us a view of his handsome face. “Keep your asses planted, ladies, and enjoy the ride.” He gives me a sexy wink that makes my heart pitter-patter before turning back around.
Moments later, we’re moving again. As the truck picks up speed, I remove my hat and tilt my head back, basking in the warm wind on my face.
Ella’s cheering draws my attention over to her. Her hands thrown in the air, the American flag scarf she has tied around her head blowing wildly behind her.
“Do you feel this, girls?” she yells through the whipping wind. “It’s what freedom feels like.”
“Amen,” the rest of us say in unison, then share a look that has us bursting into laughter. It’s exactly the remedy my heavy heart needed.
The air becomes saltier the closer we get to our destination. When we pull up to the beach, Ella hands each of us sparklers then reaches in her pocket for a lighter. We shield her enough from the wind to get them lit then find the guys waiting for us at the tailgate.
Braedyn grabs Annabelle’s waist to help her down, then they’re locked in a fiery kiss; something I’m sure they have been dying to do since leaving my house. No one knows about their relationship but us, especially Uncle Jax. I think we’re all a little afraid for his reaction. He loves and cares for Braedyn like a son, but when he finds out they have been together behind his back I’m worried it will destroy that relationship. I know Annabelle is too, which is why she’s keeping it a secret.
Beckett helps Hope down, and I smile when he holds her longer than necessary. Those two think they fool everyone, but we all know better. Whenever we’re together and they suddenly go missing for a few minutes, we all know they’re sneaking in those kisses they think none of us know about.
Parker reaches for Ella but she sidesteps him and jumps down on her own. “I don’t need a man to help me down, but thanks anyway.”
Beckett shakes his head, knowing how his sister is. Parker chuckles, his hands rising in surrender. “By all means, Miss Independent.” He turns his charming smile on me next and offers me his hand. “How about it, Country? You going to let me help you so I can tell my mom what a gentleman I was?”
I roll my eyes with a smile. “Like you have a problem telling anyone about how great you are, Parker Evans.”
Another chuckle escapes him because he knows it’s true. “But in all fairness, I do always speak the truth.”
Biting my lip to stifle my giggle, I move closer and let him help me down, bracing myself for the jolt of electricity that I know will come with his touch.
My hands remain at my sides with each sparkler still burning while he spans my waist, his fingers gripping my hips. My breath catches as he slowly slides me down the front of his hard body, keeping me close as my feet touch ground. I stare up into his handsome face, his sea green eyes more pronounced due to the moonlight reflecting in them.
“Thanks,” I whisper, my voice hoarse.
He says nothing back, only gives me his signature wink that has my tummy dancing, then slings an arm around my shoulders as we make our way to the congested beach. I absorb his body heat as we walk side by side and try not to get lost in how right it feels to be with him like this.
My euphoria is short-lived, because as soon as we reach the crowd he and Beckett are swarmed. Then just like that, he’s gone from my side.
All the guys welcome them with knocks to the shoulders or a fist bump while all the girls rub against them like dogs in heat. Braedyn used to be in this circle until he and Annabelle officially started seeing each other; now the girls keep their distance from him. Annabelle may be as sweet as her mom but she also has her father’s temper. No one messes with Brae and he’s as protective over her if not more. No guy in their right mind would mess with him anyway, not with his skills. He’s the best fighter in the circuit right now and it’s only a matter of time before he’s the champion. Uncle Jax works hard as his manager.
“Typical,” Hope grumbles next to me, the same pain in her eyes that I feel in my heart. However, she misses the way Beckett’s eyes remain on her the entire time. Parker, on the other hand, eats it all up and is oblivious to everything else.
Since my sparklers have fizzled out, I walk over and toss them into one of the dumpsters. When I start back to join the others again, someone calls out to me.
“Mia, wait up!”
Turning around, I see Stephan Brooks striding toward me, a guy I go to school with. “Hey, Stephan.”
“Hey. It’s good to see you.”
“You, too,” I respond with a smile.
His hands find their way into his pockets. “Are you enjoying your summer so far?”
“I am, thank you. How about you?”
He shrugs. “Yeah, it’s all right. I don’t have much going on. I’m heading to Hawaii for a week with my family at the end of the month, but other than that it’ll be pretty low-key. How about you? Going anywhere?” he asks.
“Not really. I have a few riding camps lined up, and I’m going to Nashville for a weekend,” I tell him, excitement rushing through me. “I’ve been invited to sing at the Grand Ole Opry.”
“Wow, that’s cool. Not that I’m surprised, we all know you’re going places with that beautiful voice of yours.”
I give him a shy smile, the compliment warming me. “I don’t know about that, but it’s always been a dream of mine to sing at the Opry, so I’m really excited about it.”
“Trust me, Walker, you’re going big. I’ve never heard anyone sing like you.”
My eyes drop to the sand as I feel my smile grow. “Thanks.”
An awkward silence descends on us now.
“So, do you want to come watch the fireworks with us?” he asks, jerking his thumb behind him to the group he’s with.
“No, she doesn’t,” Parker interrupts, coming to stand beside me. He drapes an arm around my shoulders and glares down at Stephan whose own eyes are now narrowed. “Who’s your friend, Country?”
Biting back my annoyance, I introduce them. “Parker, this is Stephan, a friend of mine from school. Stephan, this is Parker.”
“The famous hockey star, Parker Evans. Yeah, I know him.” By the bitterness in his tone, it’s clear he doesn’t like him.
His response seems to amuse Parker. “Well, I’m sorry to say I have no clue who the hell you are.”
I glance back and forth between them, wondering what’s with all the tension.
“You wouldn’t,” Stephan says before bringing his attention back to me. “I’ll see you around, Mia. Maybe we can meet up one night.”
“Actually, she’s busy all summer,” Parker says, earning himself an elbow in the ribs from me.
Stephan ignores his outburst. “Enjoy the rest of your night, Mia.”
“You, too,” I call out to his retreating back. Glaring over at Parker, I punch him in the shoulder. “What the hell was that about?”
“What?” he asks innocently.
“That!” I point at Stephan. “Why were you such a jerk?”
“Hey, I wasn’t the one being an asshole. He’s the one who has a problem with ‘the famous hockey star.’”
Shaking my head, I start off.
“Whoa, hold up.” He grasps my arm, spinning me around. “What’s with the attitude?”
“Next time, Parker, I can speak for myself. I don’t need you answering my questions for me.”
He shrugs. “I’m just following the rules. Remember, no boys except for the ones you’re with… Like me.” He winks, flashing me that dimple of his, trying to be cute.
My eyes narrow further. “I’m surprised you even noticed since you were so wrapped up in your fan club.”
He gapes at me, affronted. “Excuse me, but can I help that I have a fan club? No, I can’t. God and my parents blessed me with these genes, Country. I can’t help that I’m this awesome and everyone loves me.”
I try so hard to keep a straight face, I really do, but it’s no use. A laugh bubbles up my throat and explodes past my lips as I shake my head. He graces me with that sexy lopsided grin of his, proud of himself for achieving what he set out to do.
Make me laugh.
This boy definitely has an ego but it’s not that bad. His head might be big but his heart is much bigger. Something a lot of people don’t know about him because they only see the hockey star. They only see the good looks but in reality, Parker has the biggest heart out of anyone I know. He’s loyal and takes care of the people he loves. He would also give the shirt off his back to a complete stranger if they needed it.
“I knew you couldn’t stay mad at this face,” he says, tapping his chin.
Shaking my head, I walk up to him and poke him in the chest. “Next time, Evans, I give my own answers. No one speak for me, not even with a face like yours. Got it?”
“Got it,” he complies. “Or…maybe next time you just don’t talk to any boys and then there won’t be a problem.”
“Parker,” I growl.
A laugh barrels out of him as he slings his arm around my neck again. “Come on, Country, let’s go join the others and enjoy the rest of our night.”
We find the others sitting on the beach.
“Hey, there you guys are,” Annabelle says from where she sits between Braedyn’s open legs. Ella is on one side of them while Beck and Hope are on the other.
“Half-pint got lost, but don’t worry, I found her.”
I shoot Parker a look of annoyance. “Actually, I ran into a friend,” I explain, taking the spot beside Hope.
“A friend who seems to really like me and wants to join my fan club,” Parker says with a chuckle, sitting next to me.
My elbow meets his ribs again, which only amuses him more while everyone else looks at us in confusion. Thankfully, I’m not left having to explain anything more because the beach erupts in cheers at the first crack in the air, the dark sky lighting up above us.
I remove my hat as we all drop to our backs to enjoy the show. A smile takes over my face as I watch the sky light up red, white, and blue and think about what today represents. About how blessed we are to live in one of the greatest countries in the world, having the freedom that we do. Not everyone is as lucky. And it’s all thanks to honorable people like my father and uncles who fought not only for our freedom but also for my mother’s life. The scars they bear a constant reminder.
A familiar spark ignites deep inside of me, and before I can stop myself, I begin singing the national anthem.
I feel Hope reach for my hand as the other girls follow suit, their voices not as loud though. Eventually the rest of the beach joins in.
My smile expands and so does my heart as I lose myself not only to the words of this song but also to the sense of patriotism that comes with it.
When I get to the final chorus I don’t hold back, belting out the last of the lyrics, letting it flow from the depths of my soul. Everyone else trails off until my voice is the only one penetrating the humid air and mixing with the explosion of light.
Once I finish, the entire beach erupts in applause.
My cheeks burn as a smile graces my face. I keep my gaze on the beautiful sky above me, a sense of peace warming me right down to the tips of my fingers and toes.
Feeling someone’s gaze burning into the side of my face, I turn my head, my smile dying when I see Parker staring at me. His green eyes are bright with something I can’t decipher but it has my breath ceasing.
For the first time I see no amusement on his handsome face. He’s not looking at me like a sister.
He’s looking at me as if I’m the only other person on this beach right now.