Abigail Dawson was always the perfect preacher’s daughter. Pure of heart, body and soul. Until Johnny Williams broke her heart into a million pieces and she retaliated in the most stupid way possible. A mistake she can never take back—or face. Her only saving grace is that no one ever found out.
Johnny screwed up, big time, and lost the woman he loves in the process. Resigned to do anything to get her back, he puts himself front and center in her life. Not difficult to do in the tiny town of Liberty, Alabama. But just when he thinks he’s making headway, she pulls back. Way back.
With time Abigail starts to forgive herself—and Johnny—and can see a future between them. But just as she’s about to open her heart to him again, her mistake comes back to haunt her. With no place to hide in this little slice of the South, Abigail must own up to her transgression. Or walk away from Johnny forever.
— Prologue —
University of Alabama, Huntsville. Spring Semester, Sophomore Year
Abigail Dawson blinked awake in the darkness, her eyes gritty, her mouth dry as a desert. The room was spinning. Or maybe it was just the bed that was spinning. She didn’t even remember going to bed. The last she remembered, Shelby had suggested—
Oh God. Johnny.
Pain lanced her chest, sucking the breath right out of her. Last night at the party, Johnny had confirmed what she’d feared for the last couple of weeks.
She’d believed him when he said he’d wait, that he loved her enough to wait, despite how much he wanted her. And then she’d seen him, on the back porch of his Delta Chi fraternity house, arguing with a girl who sat behind Abigail in Theology class. When he’d turned to look at Abigail, she knew. His expression said it all.
He’d had sex with Missy Patton.
A muffled snore ripped her attention to her right. In the dark, and in what she now realized was not her bedroom, lay a body. The moonlight showed it was a male body. A naked male body.
Memories flooded her, and she capped her hand over her mouth, stifling a gasp. What had she done?
After she’d escaped Johnny’s attempts to talk to her, to beg her forgiveness, she’d found Shelby and became what could only be described as a hysterical mess. Her friend had listened as she’d sobbed the story, Shelby’s brow furrowed in a scowl. When Abigail ran out of steam and fell silent, Shelby stood and held out her hand. “Come on. There’s a party at the Alpha Phi house tonight. Let’s get you a drink, or three, and you can forget you ever wasted your time on Johnny Williams.”
Tears stung the backs of her eyes. “Wasted a year, you mean.”
She pulled Abigail to her feet and handed over a large red Solo cup. “Here, drink my pre-party beverage and forget about him. At least for tonight.”
And Abigail had forgotten about him.
And everything she believed in, apparently.
She didn’t have to peer under the covers to know she was completely naked. The terrible taste in her mouth, the pounding in her head, and the raw, burning sensation between her thighs only confirmed what she already knew. She’d gotten drunk and given her virginity to a stranger. A stranger.
She blamed Johnny for all this. If he hadn’t hurt her so completely, she would never have been in this situation in the first place.
Abigail looked at the man in bed next to her, sound asleep. She remembered meeting him. He was visiting his frat brothers—and someone else, maybe his sister…she couldn’t remember—from out of town, and had graduated a couple years before. Bruce? No, not Bruce. Shame coiled tight in her belly. Brice? No, that wasn’t it either.
His phone lit up with a text on the bedside table and she craned her neck to look at it. Someone wasn’t happy that Ben hadn’t called her back. Okay. So she’d lost her virginity to some guy named Ben. Not that she’d be confessing that tidbit to her preacher father anytime soon.
Abigail eyed her clothing scattered all over the floor by the side of the bed. She slithered off the mattress, inch by inch, desperate to not wake Ben. The sooner she got the hell out of here, the better. And to do so without witnesses of any kind was her main objective. She’d have to live with this sin the rest of her life, but the fewer people who knew, the easier it would be on her. She could only pray she hadn’t made some sort of spectacle of herself at the party before winding up here.
Once both feet were on the floor, Abigail slowly shifted her weight until she was completely out of the bed. A glance over her shoulder told her Ben was still dead to the world.
She began to dress, and when she picked up her foot to pull on her jeans, she noticed something was stuck to it. Abigail plucked it off and held it up to the light coming in from the window. Condom wrapper. Panic gripped her when she realized just how dangerous this situation could have been. She didn’t know this Ben person, but was grateful he had the presence of mind to use protection.
Abigail got all her clothing in place and spared one more glance to the bed, and her gigantic mistake.
Tears welled as she tiptoed to the door and let herself out. What kind of girl does something this stupid?
The kind of girl whose heart was just shattered into a million pieces by the man she loves.
Abigail shook off her rationalization, no matter how true it probably was. She didn’t deserve to feel sorry for herself, and didn’t have time right now anyway. She needed to get out of this fraternity house without being seen.
Abigail pulled her phone from her back pocket to check the time. Five thirty. She groaned when she saw the string of text notifications from Shelby. Her friend was going to kill her.
Grateful to see no one up and about, Abigail scurried to the end of the hallway and down the stairs. After peering to her left and right, she darted to the front door and then outside. When the silent early-morning air embraced her, she heaved a sigh of relief. She knew it would be short-lived, however, when she pulled up Shelby’s contact and dialed.
“What the actual fuck, Abigail!?”
“You are getting a friend locator app, do you hear me? I don’t care if your mother sees it on your phone and asks to be a part of your network. As nutso as she is, I’m surprised she hasn’t insisted you have one already. She can track you while you go to the bathroom, for all I care. Do you realize I’ve been imagining you in a ditch somewhere for the last four hours or so?”
Abigail squeezed her eyes shut. “I know, Shel, I’m sorry.” Silence fell heavy over the line, then she heard Shelby’s sigh.
“Are you okay? Where are you?”
Abigail glanced behind her at the Greek letters on the wall of the second story, just to be sure. With the way her night was going, she couldn’t be certain of anything. “I’m outside of Alpha Phi.”
“What? I left there at one. I looked all over the flippin’ place for you.”
“Look, Shelby. I’ve done something bad. Really, really bad.” A sob caught in her throat. “Can you please come get me and take me to your apartment?”
— Chapter One —
Fall Semester, Senior Year
Part of Abigail had known returning to Liberty, Alabama, no matter how brief she’d thought the visit would be at the time, was just about as idiotic as she could get. He was here, after all. But she had done some pretty stupid things lately, so it really was no wonder she’d found herself rolling into town three months ago with her summer stretched before her like a giant disaster in the making. She’d decided not to stay on campus and take classes in order to work full time and save up some money. A smart decision financially, yes, but not one without consequences. She needed to make peace with the not-so-distant past, before it ate her alive.
She’d had no idea back then what she was doing, and she was no better off now. No better off at all.
Abigail had had the good fortune to go mostly unnoticed growing up in their household. Her hellion of a brother Wren had always been the one under scrutiny. Rightfully so. But he’d made good when he fell hard and proposed to the love of his life, Roslyn. Their mother disapproved of course, but that was no shock. The Virgin Mary would have a list of shortcomings in the eyes of the preacher’s wife, the woman who prided herself on being holier than thou.
Most people didn’t understand the stress of growing up in a strict religious household, with an overbearing, judgmental mother. And her mother was the most overbearing and judgmental of them all. Abigail had learned early on from watching her brother it was best to avoid upsetting Lynne Dawson. And she had, for the most part. Abigail had enjoyed somewhat of a pass, because when Wren’s life was in chaos, anything Abby was doing went unnoticed. But that wouldn’t be the case anymore. Now that her brother’s life was all but settled, Abigail’s actions would be front and center in her mother’s eyes. And for the first time in her life, Abigail had something to hide.
And Johnny was everywhere. In Town Square, in church, in her freaking parents’ house. She couldn’t escape him. And he seemed pleased as punch about that. He was always looking at her, with that intensity of his that made her want to do reckless things. Things she’d never allowed herself to do. At least not with him.
Abigail gripped the wheel of her Corolla as the memory of her transgression sent a shiver through her. She’d never been impulsive, or—God—easy. But she had been both those things that stupid spring night. The pain of her broken heart had overwhelmed her, made her careless and stupid. Made her turn her back on what she’d thought of as steadfast morals and beliefs. The fabric of who she was always taught to be. Of who she thought she was. All that was gone in the blink of an eye one drunken night in a frat house, for crying out loud. Could she have been more of a cliché?
Shame flamed her face and she groaned before forcing long, slow breaths to calm herself. She was nearly to church, where she was sure her mother had already assigned all the volunteer groups without her, and her dear, sweet father was most likely rehearsing his sermon for the following Sunday. It wouldn’t do for her to walk into the sanctuary, her face the color of a tomato, tormented by her guilty conscience.
Wheeling into a space next to her father’s car, she allowed herself a few seconds more of deep breathing before cutting the ignition, grabbing her purse, and sliding from her sedan. With a bump of her hip, the door closed, and Abigail walked toward the concrete steps that led inside.
Bright sunshine made the interior of the church difficult to make out at first, but then Abigail saw her mother with the group of volunteers to the right of the pulpit. A glance at her watch showed she was less than five minutes late. If she’d just let that call from Shelby go to voicemail, she would have been five minutes early, and less likely to get stuck with some task she may not want.
Her mother sent a disapproving look her way.
Whatever task she would get stuck doing would most definitely be something she didn’t want to do, if that look had anything to say about it.
“Abigail, how nice of you to join us,” her mother said with a convincing smile. Abigail knew how difficult it was for her mother to leave off the word “finally.” Abigail, how nice of you to finally join us.
With the politest smile she could muster, Abigail sank into a pew and nodded in greeting to the group at large.
Lynne held a clipboard in front of her and slid her glasses up her nose. “I was just divvying up the volunteer positions before you got here, Abigail.”
“James and Cara will be working with Belle’s Buds on the landscaping project around the playground, Melinda and Karen will tend to the nursery during Wednesday night suppers, Stewart and Brooke…”
Abigail zoned out as her mother droned on and on. She really should have joined Shelby on that beach trip for the long Labor Day weekend, but if she were ever to get out of her parents’ house after she graduated, she needed to keep every dime she got her hands on.
“…and you, Abigail, and Johnny Williams will run the weekly abstinence workshop for the local high school.”
She imagined she must look like one of those cartoon characters with her mouth on the floor and her eyes bugging out. Fighting to hide her reaction, Abigail shifted in her seat and pressed nonexistent creases from her skirt. “Oh, I’m not sure, Mother. That doesn’t seem like something Johnny would be, um, comfortable with.” And how. “And anyway, I believe he’s leaving town soon and may not be able to complete the workshop. Perhaps we should run this by him first?”
Lynne placed the clipboard in her seat and folded her hands in front of her. With the look of an angel, she said, “No need, dear. It was his idea.”
* * * * *
Abigail had learned long ago that it was so much easier to just go along with her mother than to try to fight her. That was emotionally exhausting, and no good ever came of it.
She wouldn’t even pretend to know what in the hell was going through Johnny’s mind, though. His hanging out in Liberty for another summer after he graduated was one thing. He’d said he was saving up money for a move. He and his cousin were going into business together in Birmingham. Or something along that line. Abigail had never gotten all the details, because her life’s mission had been to get as far away from him as quickly as possible whenever she found herself in his presence. On the rare occasion she was with him for more than five minutes, everything came rushing back. How much she’d loved him, the future they’d planned together, his infidelity.
That was the worst of it. Blaming Johnny had only gotten her so far in the grieving process. At the end of the day, she knew it was her doing, her mistake. One she’d managed all on her own. She couldn’t hate Johnny for the pain she’d caused herself by her own actions.
But she could hate him for sleeping with Missy. And oh, how she hated him for that.
Her old Corolla creaked in protest when she took a turn a little too quickly. Abigail eased up on the gas and flexed her fingers on the steering wheel. Where in the hell was he? His truck wasn’t at his dad’s place, and she hadn’t seen it parked in Town Square either. A turn down Ellen Reed’s street showed he wasn’t helping her out at Belle’s Buds. With a frustrated groan, she turned around in Ellen’s drive and headed back toward town. That’s when she saw his red truck leaving the Stop ’n’ Shop parking lot.
“There you are, you little rat.”
Abigail followed him and knew the minute he recognized her in his rearview mirror. He slowed and gave her a wave.
“Yeah, whatever. Hello, asshole,” she muttered under her breath, before giving the obligatory return wave. He drove on, and she continued to follow. By the time they pulled into his driveway, she was fit to be tied.
Abigail threw the door open and stomped over to Johnny’s car window. Sunlight hit his tanned arm, then bounced off golden hair as he leaned his head out the window with a smile. Something else she hated… How absolutely gorgeous this man was. Abigail shook that thought from her mind and planted her hand on her hip.
“Jonathan Bixby Williams. Just what on God’s green earth do you think you’re doing suggesting we run an abstinence workshop together?”
* * *
Not that she was in any way, shape or form trying to be subtle, but Johnny couldn’t help but hear the clear annunciation of the word abstinence. Abigail would have spat it were she able, he was sure of it. But she wasn’t able. Abigail was too sweet. And kind. And innocent. She would never let out her claws, even when he deserved to be shredded to ribbons.
She looked adorable, standing there in her sundress, her skin golden from the summer, her hand on her hip and her chin thrust up in indignation. And those sea-glass-green eyes. They always slayed him. She also posed a good question. One whose true answer he wouldn’t give her. Telling her he’d purposely trapped her so she couldn’t run away from him would go over like a lead balloon. He was sure she suspected that, but could never know where his head was truly at. He had told her he was leaving. Her uncertainty was the only thing he had to work with, as the past summer had proven.
His Abigail was a slippery one.
Only she wasn’t his Abigail anymore. A fact he’d been trying to rectify for over a year now, with no success. He had to prove to her that what he’d done was a one-time thing. What better way than to spend hours with her teaching high-school kids how important abstinence is?
Well, how important not fucking up and losing the love of your life is, more truthfully. But he could stand next to Abigail and tell those kids it’s best to wait, if that could possibly prove to her he respected her beliefs and morals, and understood that being a preacher’s daughter brings with it a whole lot of baggage.
Sexually frustrating baggage…
But he was getting off track.
“What I was thinking was—”
“And I thought you were moving, anyway.” She cocked an eyebrow. A very hopeful eyebrow, he observed. “Don’t you have some business or something or other?” She waved her hand around like she was trying to rid the air of something foul-smelling. “Someplace other than here? Other than right here?”
Wow. If he didn’t fear getting himself further in the hole, he would have smiled at the look on her face and how worked up she was. That would mean there’s hope, because she might be a lot of things right now, but indifferent wasn’t one of them. Since he’d planted himself in Liberty, front and center in her life, she’d never given him any concrete reason to think she gave a damn about him or what he did anymore.
Hope bloomed in his chest. His cousin would be all kinds of pissed when he found out Johnny was staying on in Liberty a while longer, instead of getting his ass to Birmingham as agreed upon. But how was he to know he would get nowhere with Abigail all summer long? Hell, all last school year too. He was not leaving without her forgiveness. But he wanted her heart.
This idea of his to go to her mom and suggest the two of them run this workshop? Well, that turned out to be brilliant. And if Mrs. Dawson knew anything of his and Abby’s history, she didn’t let on. He’d bet the farm she didn’t even know he had dated her daughter. In that household, it appeared one’s best course of action was to keep one’s trap shut.
“Abigail,” he said, gently easing his door open so he wouldn’t knock over her stiff-as-a-board frame. When she stepped back, he dropped down from the cab and shut the door. “Why don’t we go inside and talk?”
She narrowed her eyes at him and the hand on her hip curled into a fist. “What makes you think I have anything else to say to you?”
He did smile at that. “You middle-named me.”
“When we were going out, if you were going to let me have it, in detail, about something, you would throw the Bixby out.”
Just a hint of a smile ghosted her lips, but he saw it. She let her arm fall to her side. “Fine. I’ll go inside with you. Because I am going to let you have it.” She spun on her heel and powered up to the front porch.
“I wouldn’t expect anything less,” Johnny murmured and followed her into the house. “Can I get you anything to drink?”
Abigail was already pacing circles in his living room, her arms wrapped around her waist. She shook her head. “Um, did you have groceries or anything to bring in?” She gestured to his truck through the front bay window.
“No. I was just using the ATM inside the Stop ’n’ Shop.” Johnny crossed his arms over his chest and studied her. She’d never been in his dad’s house, much to Johnny’s disappointment. But in all the times he’d imagined her here, it wasn’t exactly in this context. That context being getting ready to let him have it, as she’d said.
He waited for her to talk, but she only seemed to want to fidget.
Johnny walked to the sofa and lowered himself onto the cushions. “Abby, come over here and have a seat.”
She hesitated briefly, but did what he asked, taking a seat as far away from him on the sofa as possible. Abigail rubbed her temples, then settled her gaze on his. “Why in the world would you suggest we do this workshop together? Abstinence? Really?”
“Considering our history, I know this seems…hypocritical on my part.”
She raised a brow.
“But when I saw the list of volunteer opportunities in the church bulletin last Sunday, this workshop really spoke to me.” He ran his hand through his hair. “I mean, who better to speak of the negative consequences of having sex outside a marriage than a guy who lost everything because of it?”
Abigail didn’t look convinced. In fact, she looked downright put out.
“Well, Missy wasn’t the first girl you had sex with, Johnny. She was just the first that cost you something, I’m guessing.”
That was the understatement of the decade. What he did that night was the wakeup call of all wakeup calls.
His mother had drunk herself to death when Johnny was in grade school. She had never been abusive toward him or his father, but Johnny remembered she always seemed very sad, and he could never figure out why. Despite his father’s warnings about a potential predisposition to alcoholism, Johnny had embraced college social life full throttle, assuming he would know if alcohol would be a problem for him, like it was for his mom.
He’d been drunk off his ass when he’d slept with Missy.
So alcohol clearly was a problem for him. Not so much as a sip had passed his lips since that night. But the damage had been done.
“No, she wasn’t, that’s true.” He eased closer to her, and when she didn’t move, he gently placed his hand on her knee. The muscle tensed beneath his fingers, but aside from that she showed no more reaction. “And although I may seem like an unlikely candidate to work with these high-school kids, I believe I have something special to bring to the table. And… Don’t take this the wrong way, okay?”
“I can’t promise anything.” The sentence dripped with sarcasm.
Fair enough. “You’ve made a commitment to yourself, to your parents, and to God to wait until marriage to have sex.”
She averted her gaze and crossed her leg, causing his hand to slip from her skin. When she angled her body away from him, he knew he was losing her and had to make his point fast.
“Abby, look at me.”
When she turned to him, her eyes showed the first signs of tears, but Abigail quickly schooled her features.
“The point I’m trying to make is that your beliefs and morals are admirable, and because you’re a preacher’s daughter, some may feel it’s easier for you to speak of the value of waiting. But a lot of these kids will be of the easier-said-than-done mindset. Then there’s me…”
“And then there’s you.” A hint of distaste. He deserved that.
“I’m someone who didn’t wait. I know what it feels like to give in, to let physical desire take precedence over everything else. And then that night with Missy.” He shook his head, hating himself all over again. “I was drunk. Really drunk. And, well, you know the rest.”
Hurt played over her features, and Johnny knew he would do anything, or give anything, to not be the person who put it there. He was, though, and all he could do was continue to try to fix it. And if the only success he could claim at the end of this workshop was that she hated him slightly less, then he would learn to live with that little bit of grace and move on without her. No matter how much that would kill him.
“Anyway, I just think that I could bring something special to the table. As someone who has lost a lot from bad choices, I can give them something to consider, a different side of it, other than just telling them that abstinence is what God would want. What God expects of them.”
* * *
Abigail really wished she could make like a snake and slither away. She thought she knew guilt from growing up under the judgmental eye of her mother, and from that horrid night when she’d served herself up like some sort of tart on a silver platter, but that couldn’t even begin to compare to what tore at her heart now.
The reason she’d avoided Johnny whenever possible over the last year was complicated and multilayered. On the outside, to Johnny and her circle of friends, it was the fact he’d cheated on her in such a crass way with such a crass girl. Unforgiveable, and something that gave her every right to toss him aside without another thought.
But she and Shelby knew the truth. The reason Abigail still lay awake at night, tormented by the past.
She was no better than Johnny Williams. In fact, she was far, far worse.
She’d preached her values to him, insisted she had to wait to consummate a relationship within the bonds of marriage, cited her brother’s mistakes and all they had cost him, and hoped Johnny would respect that. Then within hours of breaking up with him, did the exact same thing. With a stranger. Now she was the crass girl who’d done a crass thing.
So, avoiding him had been self-preservation at its finest. The less time she was in his presence, the less she felt like the scum of the earth. The less she felt unworthy of her father. The less she felt unworthy of herself.
She deserved no less than what Karma was serving up to her right now. But she had to know one thing still. And that was why.
Abigail cleared her throat and forced her voice to come out even, despite the fact she was about to choke on tears. “Why, Johnny? What you’ve said makes sense, as far as what it could do for the kids taking this workshop. But what’s in it for you? What do you get out of this?”
He opened his mouth to answer, but she was ahead of his train of thought and held up her hand to stop him.
“And don’t tell me it’s because you’re concerned about these kids. You had plans to leave. Unless you’ve decided to throw away your degree and this job opportunity and settle into mediocrity here in Liberty, there’s got to be a reason beyond just being a nice guy. You went to my mother, it’s not like she worked her special brand of magical manipulation on you.”
“Mediocrity, huh? Why, Miss Dawson, I believe that is small-town blasphemy.”
She couldn’t help the small smile that comment brought. His sense of humor was one of the things she treasured most about him. “Maybe so, but that’s not an answer to my question.”
His face grew serious and he took her hand, weaving their fingers together. She looked at their entwined fingers, and emotion rushed through her. Memories of him doing this same thing hundreds of times before hurt her heart. Loving Johnny had never been a problem. It’s just everything that happened after that had wrecked her. When he squeezed her hand, her gaze shot to his.
“Honestly, I do want to help these kids. But you’re right, I have reasons beyond that.”
Johnny made small circles on the back of her hand with his thumb, and that simple gesture, one he’d done countless times before, was doing crazy things to her heartbeat. Looking into the dark blue of his eyes, she felt herself sinking. Their color had always been striking, but the sincerity swimming in their depths was almost too much to look directly at right now.
“Abby, the truth is my motives are also somewhat selfish. I am so consumed by guilt over what I did, both to us and to myself, because of the fact I was drunk.”
Oh God. His mother.
The one and only time she’d ever seen Johnny cry was when he’d told her that his mother had drank herself to death. How he’d come home from school when he was eight or so to find his father beside himself with grief, his grandmother sitting on the sofa next to him. When Johnny asked where his mother was, his father let out the most mournful sound, and Johnny’s grandmother took his hand, led him to her car and drove away.
When she’d returned him hours later, Johnny’s dad was no longer crying. Once the funeral was over, her death wasn’t mentioned again.
Abigail remembered thinking that could have been the most tragic part of the entire story.
In her own grief and anger, Abigail never even thought of how the fact alcohol had played into it would affect him. Of course it would. She’d given that statement no thought when he’d called after her, pleading his case when she’d figured out what he had done.
Then she’d gone and drank herself into a stranger’s bed.
Remorse ate at her gut. She was wrong to think she couldn’t possibly feel any worse. He’d hesitated in his explanation, but his voice drew her back into the moment.
“If I can do something, even something as small as this may seem, it could go a long way in easing some of this guilt that feels suffocating on most days.” With his free hand, he tucked hair that had fallen from her loose knot behind her ear. “And if in the process, I look better in your eyes, that would give me some peace.”
But what would give her some peace? Certainly not seeing Johnny at least once a week for a couple of months. As far as she could tell, though, she didn’t really deserve to have peace right now. Until she came clean and cleared her conscious, as a good preacher’s daughter should, she probably never would. But coming clean held its own host of horrors, as far as she was concerned.
“And my cousin is fine waiting a couple of months on the business startup. So, this just seems like the right thing to do.”
Resigned to her fate, she squeezed his hand before withdrawing her own from his warm grasp. “I understand. So…I guess I’ll see you soon, then. I imagine my mother has the entire program mapped out.” She frowned. “Far be it for anyone else to have any input, right?”