The Seven Series
Seven years ago, my world ended.
Seven years later, my new life began.
Much love to all the readers who have been there every step of the way, eager to start a new paranormal love story with fresh new faces. Big thanks to Viviana Izzo and Nina Lillard for being my guinea pigs and giving me the thumbs-up. Thanks to my amazing betas for not just your hard work, but falling in love with the stories I write. And where would I be without the crazy support I’ve received from book bloggers, reviewers, Facebookers, and book junkies?
You know who you are, and you rock.
I don’t care what anyone says, every girl needs to have a good long cry once in a while. The kind that weakens you, swells your eyes shut, and strips away every shred of emotion from your body until the pain subsides. The pain of… whatever. Death, heartbreak, solitude, desire, jealousy. All the crap that becomes a badge of honor among women—like those little merit badges Girl Scouts have sewn on their uniforms, only these badges are stitched across our hearts.
Of course, the last place I needed to have a meltdown was in a candy store by the gummy worms. Sweet Treats had closed half an hour ago, and I was restocking the shelves while April handled the cash drawer.
It used to be a fun place to work… when I was twenty-one. But now I was twenty-seven and this shit was getting old. Maybe it was the smell of chocolate in the air playing tricks on my hormones, or watching all those rug rats screaming up and down the aisles and wishing I had one. Or maybe it was the fact that Brooke Worthington (although in high school she went by Brooke Jenson) had walked into the shop wearing a business suit with three kids in tow and asked, “Is this what you’ve been doing since high school?”
“Alexia, what’s the matter?” April peered at me from around a stack of canisters, her charcoal-lined eyes wide. “Did someone die?”
Which brought another gasp to my sob.
Yeah, that too.
Tomorrow will be the seven-year anniversary of my brother’s death. My older brother by three years, who taught me how to ride a bike because our dad was a total dick and ignored me. My older brother, who piled our beanbag chairs in front of the television and made awful microwave popcorn while we watched a scary movie whenever our parents went out. My older brother, who was into muscle cars and hung out with all the bad boys my best friends for life (whom I haven’t seen since high school) wanted to marry. My older brother, who gave me Indian burns, hid my pink razors, and intimidated the hell out of my boyfriends when I started dating in high school.
My older brother, who was killed in a motorcycle accident when he was twenty-three and found two days later by passing motorists when they spotted his bike in a ditch off Highway 71.
April didn’t know about my brother, Wes. Sometimes there are chapters in our lives we don’t want others to read. She’d started working here a year ago when she was twenty-one, but the girl had plans. She had been submitting her résumé to the top companies in the area in hopes of getting her corporate career started. Her long-term goal was to be a project manager, but handling the register and the books stretched her experience in the meantime. Our boss even added on a few additional duties to give her an incentive to stick around. Plus, she had a backup plan of becoming a store manager if the corporate gig didn’t pan out.
I didn’t know much about April’s personal life because she wasn’t one of those girls who put it all out on the table. I once asked about her mom and she clammed up, so I never brought up the topic again. All I knew was she was a workaholic who talked about books, complained about her younger sister, adored animals, and possessed a charismatic laugh that turned heads. I always found myself doing or saying silly things to bring a smile to her face.
“I’m fine,” I lied, but it came out all garbled, so I cleared my throat.
“You don’t sound fine. Does this have to do with Beckett?”
She smiled innocently and lifted her shoulder. “You’re still separated, right? Sorry, but he’s hot and you can’t blame me for assuming you worked things out.”
“He’s also an asshole with a temper, not to mention he has a disturbing obsession with professional wrestling.”
“Thought you liked the bad boys?”
I bit my lip. Yeah, I kind of did. Not that I sought them out intentionally, but maybe I was subconsciously searching for a tough guy—one who would help me forget how out of control I felt at times.
“Learn from my mistakes, April. You’re a sweet girl and guys like that will only drag you down. They’ll make you forget you ever aspired to do anything meaningful with your life. Then one day you’ll be crying over the kitchen sink, scraping at a piece of dried macaroni that’s stuck to a plate because the dishes haven’t been washed in two days.”
“Holy smokes, Alexia. You really need a happy pill in the worst way.”
Her fingers dragged through the chunky strands of her blond hair. She styled it short with fashionably long bangs angled over one side of her face. The duality with April was interesting because her appearance was trendy and rockerish, but her personality was anything but. She kept her hair a platinum blond that looked so natural I wasn’t sure it came from a bottle—I’d seen girls born with that hair color before. It was a stunning look. She often wore smoky eyeliner that added an allure to her jaw-dropping hazel eyes, and I would have killed for her flawless complexion. April was as pretty as a pixie but lacked a social life from what I had gathered. Her personality shined at work, but in private conversations, she possessed a shy demeanor.
Maybe shy wasn’t the right word.
Sensitive. I caught onto this because April was clumsy, always bumping into things or stumbling over her feet. When kids made fun of her, she’d laugh it off. It only bothered her when someone our age or older made a joke. Men in particular, but I could relate to that. A few years ago, I stepped in a hole on the street and almost broke my ankle. All I could think about was how embarrassed I was that everyone saw me fall on my face. Never mind the fact I almost ended up in an ambulance. Only later was I mad no one had bothered to help.
April was an introspective girl with a big heart, even if she didn’t have the gift of gab. A bird had once slammed into our shop window and died on the sidewalk. She’d tried to help it, but it was pointless. I’d ended up sending her home when I saw how upset she was. I’d never had any pets, so maybe I just couldn’t relate. But it spoke volumes about her character.
“I’m closing up; are you done restocking the supply?” she asked.
I glanced at a jar of circus peanuts and nodded.
Normally, the black cloud of depression didn’t follow me. I’d learned to embrace life no matter what was thrown my way, but today was one of those off days when rolling with the punches just meant getting beat up.
It usually did at this time of year.
I wiped away my tears and stood up, straightening out the wrinkles in my skirt. I’d been mistaken for a waitress on more than one occasion while wearing our uniform—and that was a compliment. Nobody was impressed when I told them I sold candy for a living, especially not anyone with two kids and a mortgage. My white skirt stopped two inches above my knees, paired with a tight-fitting orange shirt. To top off the ensemble, we wore white aprons and looked like we’d been slaving away in some magical candy kitchen, creating fantastical sugary treats.
We opened a bag and poured candy in a jar. End of story.
Our boss emphasized presentation: perfectly aligned canisters, attractive displays, and a well-groomed staff. He even gave us plastic hairclips to use if we wore our hair up. Cherries, orange slices, or little multicolored candies were our options.
Needless to say, I always wore my hair down.
“Are you sure you’re okay, Alexia?” April asked, touching my shoulder as I walked by.
“I’m outta here,” I announced, grabbing my purse from the drawer behind the register and digging for my keys. “You coming?”
“I’m going to be five more minutes,” she said from behind me. “Go ahead and take off.”
“Okay. Just remember…”
A lump formed in my throat. “Just remember you’re taking my shift tomorrow.”
“Will do. Remember you’re taking mine on Saturday,” she sang melodically.
Damn. Saturdays sucked. The store was like a zoo because we were located near a pizza shop, not to mention the movie theater was just a short walk up the street. Parents often dropped their kids off in herds, and telling a bunch of rowdy eleven-year-olds to behave when their moms weren’t around was an exercise in futility.
“I won’t forget,” I replied with a sarcastic smile. “Can’t wait.”
The silver bell at the entrance jingled as the door closed behind me.
Then the sight of my own damn car made me want to start crying all over again. “What the hell is wrong with you, Lexi? Can’t you keep it together for one day? It’s not even the day and you’re already a hot mess,” I muttered.
“Alexia!” April yelled out. Only my close friends and family called me Lexi, but at work and otherwise, I went by my full name.
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