If Only, page 1
Copyright 2012, by Ashlyn Mathews
Published by Commencement Bay Publishing
All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without written permission from the author
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is purely coincidental.
Cover Design and Interior Design by
The Killion Group, Inc
The Willowbrook Series:
Book One – If Only (a novella) –Asa Chanthavay and Rhys Miles
Book Two – What If (a novella) – Emma Lombardi and Andrew Hazard
Book Three – Only You (a novella) − Eve Thomas and Lucas Montaine
More books by Ashlyn Mathews:
Shadow Watcher – Available Now
My Fallen — Available January 2013
IF ONLY. . .
One night. One accident. A friendship torn. A chance at love lost. If only she hadn’t slept with her best friend. If only she hadn’t made the fatal left turn.
When her high school crush, Rhys Miles, returns to the small town of Willowbrook for his grandmother’s funeral, Asa Chanthavay realizes a year is too long for her to let Rhys believe he was at fault for her father’s death. But if she asks Rhys for his forgiveness, she’ll have to tell him the truth behind her accusation. And for a woman raised to hide her intense emotions, the thought of being vulnerable again has her fighting her feelings every step of the way.
One night with Asa hadn’t been enough. He wanted more. But scared by how much he was willing to give up to be with her, Rhys slips and says the opposite of what he means. Now with his ties to Willowbrook gone with the death of his grandmother, he decides to apologize to Asa for his crude words. Yet once she accepts his apology, can he walk away from her, never to return? Or will he risk his dreams to be with his best friend and the only woman he’s ever loved?
Asa flung open the workshop’s doors and marched inside. “You can’t leave every time your emotions surface, Rhys.”
The workshop was sweltering, the heat cranked up to God-knew what temperature. Perspiration trickled down the side of his face, reminding her of another time when he’d sweated in a warm room. Her irritation disappeared, replaced by lust.
“Look at me like that some more and I won’t be able to stop myself from taking you right here and now.”
Her panties dampened while her nipples hardened. For the life of her, she couldn’t utter a feisty comeback. All she could do was lick her dry lips. He groaned, his gaze darting to her mouth.
“Please —” She bit her lower lip.
He stalked forward until they were toe to toe.
“Please, what?” His voice came out husky, sexy, just like the way it had sounded a year ago the night he had said her name right before he gently pushed inside her and took her virginity.
“Oh, God, Rhys.”
She wanted to throw herself into his arms, to beg him to make love to her until the pressure deep inside disappeared. Instead, she ran a shaky hand over her eyes.
“Turn off the heat. You’re gonna burn the place down.”
He laughed, and the sound washed over her in waves. “Is that all you want?”
Dedications and Acknowledgements:
I have so many people to thank for helping me with If Only. Thank you to my beta readers, Jen and Jan, for their unwavering belief in me; my editor, Kim Wollenburg, for her guidance through those serial commas and massive amounts of pronouns; Jennifer and Kim at Hot Damn Designs for the awesome cover; and indie author and friend, Christina McKnight, for inspiring me to take the chance to explore a different path.
And to the awkward and geeky girls in high school, who later grew up to become strong and independent women, I dedicate Asa and Rhys’s story to you. May you find your happily-ever-after.
A funeral was the worst place for a reunion.
Beneath her umbrella, Asa kept her head lowered, otherwise, she’d stare at the man standing in front of the casket. Beneath his black suit, his shoulders drooped. Cold rain fell, and Asa wasn’t sure if he kept his gaze downcast to shield his face or to hide his grief.
Rhys Miles. The man who had hurt her with an insensitive comment during one of the most memorable nights of her life, and a man she had hurt in return with her own cutting words.
The minister said a final prayer, and in unison with the other mourners, Asa whispered an “Amen” and gave the casket one final glance before she hurried away. Unfortunately, she wasn’t quick enough.
“You weren’t invited, Asa.”
It would’ve been easy to dismiss his grief and walk away from him, the harshness in his tone a reminder of what had happened between them a year ago. But no matter how much Rhys disliked her, it wasn’t the right thing to do.
Gripping the handle of the umbrella, she took a deep breath before pivoting to face the man who meant more to her than the good friend he used to be.
“I loved your grandmother, and she cared about me. I have every right to be here.”
Unlike the other mourners who came prepared with an umbrella in hand, Rhys appeared to enjoy the rain as he shoved his hands into his pant pockets and glanced up at the sky. Water dripped off his head and down the sides of his face, drawing her attention to his loosened tie and the hint of tan skin beneath the collar of his shirt before her gaze drifted back to the raindrops clinging to his lashes.
If things were different between them, she’d share in his sadness and settle her head on his chest, over the spot above his heart. She’d run her fingers across the straight brows over his intense hazel eyes then down the chiseled plane of his face before she’d press her lips to his cheek.
But their situation remained the same as it had for the past year. He avoided her. She tried to forget him. It hadn’t been easy. Asa waited for him to say something, anything. The rain continued to patter about them while his silence echoed in her ears.
The umbrella, with its edges tilted upward, should’ve distanced them. Instead, it sheltered them from curious stares as the others filtered to their cars leaving her alone with him.
Crossing his arms over his chest, he leaned forward and crowded her space. “You might’ve been Jo’s neighbor, and yeah, she might’ve loved you like you were her own flesh and blood, but she damn well knew how I feel about you.”
How I feel about you. His last words whispered hot on her forehead. Yes, Jo might’ve caught on to why he disliked and had avoided Asa whenever he was in town. But she and Jo had never discussed how Asa felt about him.
What would she say to Jo? Yes, I’m in love with your grandson and have been since I was sixteen, and oh by the way, he hates me because I blamed him for the car accident that killed my father.
No, she couldn’t tell his grandmother that piece of news. Biting the corner of her lips, she mentally counted to ten and tried to forget the hurt on Rhys’s face that day. The task proved difficult. She hadn’t been this close to him since they had slept together at a party almost a year ago.
At the memory of that unforgettable night, her gaze strayed to the hollow at the base of his throat, lingering on a spot she had flicked her tongue over, the salty taste of him from their lovemaking still embedded deep in her memory. Through the smell of the water washing the sky clean, she caught a whiff of his deodorant. Old Spice. Sexy, familiar, and very much Rhys.
Suddenly, without another word, he straightened and barged past her, leaving her alone to wonder whether their close proximity had affected him as much as it had her.
With a sigh, Asa loosened her grasp on the handle of the umbrella and prepared herself for the long walk home on a dirt path flanked by tall grass. Along the way, she tried her best to not think about Rhys. There’d be plenty of time for that since he was staying next door at his Grandma Jo’s place, making it very likely they’d run into each other again.
Jo. A heart attack took her in her sleep, that’s what the doctor had said. Good for her she hadn’t suffered, providing Asa some comfort. And she’d meant it when she told Rhys she loved his grandmother.
Maybe if she was raised to believe that showing emotions was a good thing, she’d have cried for Jo at the service. Instead, she had stared at the ground to hide her grief, hoping to God no one thought of her as a cold and unfeeling person.
As a child, her mother encouraged her to suppress her temper. Angry little girls weren’t well liked, that’s what she’d said. When her parents’ marriage started to get rocky, her father convinced Asa to keep her anxiety and sadness over their fights hidden behind closed doors.
“Smile, Asa,” he’d said. “Then the world wouldn’t know of our family’s problems. Believe in it enough, and you could fool yourself, too, that everything is fine,” he kept saying. Just like he had done.
And being the agreeable daughter she was, she had listened to her parents. During their fights, she’d hole herself in her bedroom. Often times, she cried herself to sleep. But the majority was spent imagining the pillow in her bedroom was her mother’s head as she hurled the nearest heavy object at the innocent target, her anger consuming her at what her father tolerated from his wife.
Eventually, her bedroom became less about hiding her emotions and more about immersing herself in the angst of a great book and an even better song. But when Rhys had left town after graduating from high school, those two things weren’t enough. Soon, she took up a different activity that had her feeling closer to him while giving her an outlet to release her anger and sadness over her parents’ failing marriage.
Unfortunately, the activity she had chosen was dangerous. Oh well. No one would ever know. Hell, even Jo hadn’t suspected, and they were neighbors.
Half an hour later, two houses came into view, the sight of Jo’s place causing her chest to constrict. Tonight, while Asa lay curled up in her bed, she would cry for Jo and the grandson who loved her. For now, she needed to get out of the cold, wind, and rain. Her fingers were numb while her teeth chattered.
Catching sight of the pickup truck parked in the driveway separating her place and Jo’s, her gaze swiveled to the picture window of Jo’s living room. The curtains were drawn, giving her a full view of Rhys. He appeared relaxed, dressed in a pair of low hung blue jeans, and a black t-shirt that hugged all the right muscles. God, why did he have to look so sexy and dry to boot?
When he noticed her examination, he lifted a brow. Butterflies danced in her belly, and she nearly tripped over her feet. Darn him for affecting her with such a small gesture.
Well, she’d show him he wasn’t all that. Straightening to her full height of five-foot-three, she tipped her chin, squeezed the umbrella handle until her knuckles turned white, and stared forward.
Almost there. A few more steps and she’d be out of Rhys’s line of sight. Just her luck, the wind chose that moment to blow a gust big enough to tilt her umbrella back, leaving it inside out while torrential rain drenched her clothes, making them sopping wet in seconds.
Strands of her long hair plastered across her face and whipped into her eyes. She and the umbrella fought, and the umbrella won. Disgusted, Asa salvaged the mess of metal and cloth and scrunched the umbrella in her hand. Jo’s door flung open.
“Issues?” Rhys called after her.
“Nothing I can’t handle.” She stormed toward the comfort and safety of her house, her cheeks stinging from the cold and rain.
Asa couldn’t tell if he heard her or not, but she thought she detected a trace of bitterness in his laughter, carried to her by the rough wind.
Past hurts divided them, creating a chasm neither were willing to jump. How to make things right? If she confessed her guilt in her father’s death, she would have to tell Rhys how she truly felt about him, and Asa wasn’t ready to be that vulnerable again.
Dropping the broken umbrella on her front porch, she fumbled in her coat pocket for the house keys. With his grandma’s death, the chance to settle things between them would disappear. Rhys had no other reason to return to a dying town. The loss of the lumber industry had forced people to move closer to Ashton, a big city two hours from Willowbrook.
Once inside her house, Asa closed the door, pulled her cell phone out of her coat pocket, and glanced at the time before she set the phone on the small table next to the door. Almost noon. Business at the Magic Pages Café was slow, but she had promised the café’s owner and her friend, Eve, she’d return to work after the funeral.
After grabbing a hanger from the closet by the door, Asa hurried to the bathroom, shrugged off the wet coat, and hung it on the curtain rod. Water dripped off the sleek black material, creating a pool on the linoleum floor. She quickly tossed a towel over the spot and rushed to her bedroom to change.
The house was small — one bedroom and bathroom — but it was hers, and that’s what mattered. To have something to call her own even if the house was bought with the life insurance money from her father’s death.
As soon as she was dressed in a pair of jeans and a navy blue hoodie over a gray t-shirt, Asa put on a waterproof jacket, snagged another umbrella from the closet, and darted out the door toward town.
Ever since the car accident, she walked or used public transportation. It wasn’t because she didn’t have the money to buy another car after her Honda Accord was declared totaled by the insurance company.
No, her unwillingness to get behind the wheel had more to do with the guilt she shouldered from her father’s death. When her mother had discovered her reluctance to drive again, she suggested counseling, implying Asa was crazy. But she hadn’t budged.
She wasn’t ready to let go of the guilt, her refusal a constant reminder of her role in her father’s death. If only —
Stopping, she slanted the umbrella back and lifted her face to the sky. That day, metal had slammed into metal and darkness had swept over her. Later, after she regained consciousness, the news of her father’s death drifted into her haze of pain before the realization sliced her heart in one agonizing cut.
If only she and her father hadn’t argued at that instant. If only her tears hadn’t obscured her sight as she took that fatal left turn.
People say when a car accident happens, don’t admit fault. Asa owned and accepted the truth — she was responsible for the wreck. If only she’d spoken those words when they had mattered the most.
Instead, while Rhys held her hand and said everything would be okay, she had blamed him for her father’s death. He drove too fast, and her father hadn’t stood a chance when Rhys’s jacked up truck rammed into the front passenger side of her Honda Accord.
After he’d released her hand, he stood and turned his back on her as she lay on the medic’s gurney, her cheeks wet from her tears.
Since that time, he had dropped by town now and again to visit his grandmother, but rarely acknowledged Asa except for an occasional nod from a distance. To her, his small gesture seemed full of hurt and sadness over their broken friendship.
Beneath the shelter of her umbrella, Asa stared at the ground and took deep, trembling breaths. Was it crazy to crave the need to feel guilt over and over, to hold onto the fresh pain of loss every time she walked or bused the distance rather than drove?
Looking ahead again, she realized it wasn’t crazy at all. Her refusal to drive was satisfying in a penance kind of way. She had loved her father.
Punishing herself was fine, but to
Maybe it was best to leave the past alone and forget him in the hope he’d eventually forgive her. It seemed like a good option until she remembered the way he had treated her at the cemetery. He obviously hadn’t forgiven her.
Yes, while he was in town, she should ask for his forgiveness. But acting on her decision took guts, and after their brief but disastrous run-ins, she didn’t think she had any. Groaning, she swiped the back of her hand over her brow. For now, she’d give the decision more thought. There wasn’t a need to rush.
He might not have a reason to return to Willowbrook again after his grandmother’s death, but he’d stay longer than usual to settle her personal affairs. In the meantime, she’d attempt to gather her guts together and find the courage to finally ask for his forgiveness.
The wind died and so did the rain. A haze of condensation blurred her view of the dirt path, and thinking it was safe, she closed her umbrella and let it hang on her wrist by its strap.
When she had left her place, Jo’s truck wasn’t in the driveway. Had Rhys gone to Ashton to see Eve’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, Lucas Montaine? They were friends; it made sense. The rest of Rhys’s buddies had moved out of the state.
The dirt path ended at a sidewalk, a reminder that she should focus on the work day ahead rather than on her current mess with Rhys. After hurrying another three blocks, she stopped in front of the Magic Pages Café, opened the door, and inhaled. Why did she smile so big whenever she stepped into this place with its smells of old books, baked goods, and coffee? Ah, but those were her three favorite things.