17 years ago
“Mom says she has to sell the house.”
Ty played with the fanned strands of Reese’s light brown hair on his pillow. She kept her chin tucked in his chest—not looking him in the eye. Some Valentine’s celebration this was. Not at all what she’d envisioned when they made plans at New Year’s.
Why was he bringing up the one subject they agreed to ignore?
They were powerless. The future set in motion by his dad’s betrayal was an avalanche, burying them both.
Hank Milani, Ty’s father, was a thief. Lindsay Milani was likely an accomplice. Reese’s mom reminded her of their duplicity just that morning. They’d all been friends, and Ken and Theresa Star-Hunter gave Hank a good job at J.P. Star Energy. The oil conglomerate bore Reese’s grandfather’s name and was their family legacy.
Then Hank embezzled millions. Most of it hadn’t been found—yet. Reese refused to discuss what this meant for her and Ty. But Mom wouldn’t let it go.
“I can’t fault him for what his father did, but he’s living off money that doesn’t belong to him. I won’t look at him. He’s no longer welcome in this house.”
That conversation sent Reese straight to Ty’s. She parked a street over and walked between two properties behind the Milani home, following the creek bed that bisected the neighborhood. Then, she slipped through a side door and up to his room. Even before the blowup over Mr. Milani’s FBI arrest, she’d taken that same path many times.
Her having regular moonlight rendezvous with her high school sweetheart would make her parents’ heads explode. Neither of them was enthusiastic about her dating him, which never made sense. Hank went to college with her parents and had grown up in Hot Springs with her dad. Her mom seemed to like both Hank and Lindsay, but three years ago, when Ty asked Reese to be his homecoming date their freshman year, each of her parents subtly—and separately—discouraged her. Dad said a football star like Ty only wanted one thing. Mom said Reese shouldn’t get attached so young.
“Don’t choose a boy so quickly. You don’t want to get entangled in something you’ll regret,” she warned.
Well, now, they had their justification. If her dad knew she was there with Ty—naked, heart still racing from his kisses and more—Ken Hunter would burn the place down.
Of course, this one time, her mother knew she was there. Reese was supposed to say goodbye.
She ran a hand over the silken expanse of Ty’s skin and the ropey muscles that had broadened since freshman year. She wasn’t sure how to say the thing she was there to say. The plan had been to spit it out as soon as she got to his room, but then he looked at her with his ginger brown eyes flecked with green. His full lips stretched into a smile like she was an oasis in the barren landscape his life had become, and he’d pulled her into a warming bear hug that made her melt.
Why did his arms always have to feel like home? Settled, calming, loving, and safe. Even now, when his world had collapsed, they found serenity in each other.
His chest rose and fell, dampened by the tears sliding down her cheek pressed tightly to him.
“It’s not your fault. It’s my dad. I’m sorry,” he answered. “I still can’t believe he’s guilty.”
Reese shot up, taking the sheet with her like a shield. “He is. And the money is missing.”
“They say he took it to pay mom’s medical bills, but we still have those bills. Why would that be?” Ty shook his head and squeezed his eyes shut in a long, disbelieving blink.
Because his dad took the money and blew it, leaving the bills unpaid. Because her dad hinted Hank was a gambler. Because her mom said you had to be careful about trusting people.
“I don’t know, Ty.” She dropped back to his side, leaning her head on his shoulder.
“I may have to accept that football scholarship to A&M. My mom contacted the school,” he grumbled.
“But you didn’t want to play anymore. You’ve already had one knee surgery.”
“How else am I going to pay for college? The government froze all their assets—including the account with my college money.”
“There are other schools.”
Reese couldn’t believe he was talking about playing football when he’d already wrecked his knee once and when one of his best friends on the team had to quit because of concussions. They’d talked about this. Talented or not, football wasn’t his future.
“But this would keep me in Texas. Even though you’ll be in Austin and I’ll be at College Station.” He paused and laughed.
“Will you still want me if I’m an Aggie and you’re a Longhorn?”
He trailed his fingers up her arms and scooted lower, tipping her chin up to kiss her. Then he stopped.
“You’re crying. What’s wrong? I’ll be fine, Ree-Ree.” The sweet ripple of concern through his eyes as he uttered the assuring endearment made Reese’s stomach tighten.
“I…my mother…I c-can’t do this.”
Reese wiped her eyes with the sheet.
“Don’t take the football scholarship to stay close to me. Don’t.”
“But I can’t go to UT now. Not when I can get college paid for somewhere else. I don’t want to put that on Mom when she—”
“We can’t be together.” Reese spat out the angry words.
Ty paled. “Don’t say that.”
“Mom said she’ll cut me off. No college money. No inheritance. Nothing.” Reese cringed at the anguish in her own voice.
Mom hadn’t just said she’d take away Reese’s inheritance. She hinted she could ruin Ty, making sure he never got a job, never had a life. She said it was bad enough his father had stolen from them. Ty wasn’t going to steal Reese too.
She sent Reese on this errand to say goodbye and to slip into Mr. Milani’s home office and retrieve a book. At first, Reese refused. The thought of getting mixed up in this embezzlement mess made her ill. Facing her mother’s wrath only doubled her anxiety. But her mom explained it wasn’t business papers or anything. It was a novel. A leather-bound special edition she and her dad had gifted Hank. For whatever reason, it pained them to let Hank and Lindsay keep it. They wanted it back.
So before climbing the stairs to Ty’s bedroom, Reese found the book exactly where her mother said it would be—taking pride of place on a credenza shelf behind Hank’s desk—and dropped it into her backpack. She owed her family everything, right?
Ty stroked her stomach. “So we’ll make our own way. I love you.”
She heard the words. She felt the truth of them, and they changed nothing, which filled her with shame. She was a spoiled coward and didn’t deserve him.
“Mom said being with you is disloyal. What kind of future are we going to have if my family doesn’t accept you?”
“You mean what kind of future will you have if you’re cut off from your family’s money.”
“Why are you acting like that doesn’t matter? Aren’t you thinking about banging your head for four years so you can pay for college? It matters,” she shot back.
“So I’m guilty by association and not good enough for the almighty Stars? You know what? I’m not even sure Dad’s guilty. He looked me in the eye and swore he didn’t do it. Milanis don’t lie,” Ty said. “My dad has been telling me that as long as I can remember.”
Reese lifted her chin. “My parents wouldn’t lie to me either, and Mom said they have proof and have turned everything over to the FBI.”
“Dad says it’s complicated, but he’s going to straighten things out.”
“Complicated sounds like an excuse, Ty,” Reese replied. Her voice drifted low to a whisper. “It doesn’t matter because even if it’s not true, Mom is sure it is. I can’t be with you anymore.”
Ty rolled to his side and pulled Reese to him, running his fingers through her hair. “This doesn’t have to change anything. We belong together, remember? I’m yours. You’re mine. Forever.”
Reese cried harder. “I can’t.”
“Talk to your Granddad. He’s the CEO. He’s always liked me.”
“I don’t know. M-m-mom was so insistent,” she stuttered, continuing in a whisper. “She won’t change her mind.”
Ty shot out of his full-sized bed and paced. Lights from the backyard sent flickering shadows over his naked body.
“We have it all planned.”
“But we’re going to stay together through college. We’ll get jobs and start our life.”
Those plans sounded like childish dreams now.
“No. We can’t. Not anymore.” Reese croaked out the denial between sobs.
He turned to her, angry. “None of this makes me stop loving you, but I guess you don’t feel the same.”
Reese rolled to her knees, clutching the sheets, and begged.
“That’s not true. I still love you, Ty, but we can’t be together now. Maybe once we finish college, and all this is behind us, we’ll have a chance.”
“If you won’t believe in us now, then why would I hang on?” he asked, defeated. “Your family runs your life, and it’ll be one reason now and then another later. You’ll always believe in them more than us.”
A millennium seemed to pass before she found her voice, which sounded far away to her own ears. “Then, this is goodbye.”
She wouldn’t cry anymore. No tears. No feeling. She had to let him go, even though it felt like she was coming apart from the inside out. Even though she’d been Ty’s girl and he’d been her guy every day since they were fifteen.
She swung her feet to the floor and snatched up her T-shirt. His T-shirt. The one he’d given her. She put it on and pulled the soft cotton down to her thighs. She propped her elbows on her knees and stared at the wall.
Ty was in front of her in an instant. “Please don’t do this. We can stay together. We won’t tell your mom. We sneak here all the time. We’ll be careful. And once we’re at college, they won’t know what we’re doing.”
His large hands encompassed hers. Reese wasn’t one of those tiny, petite things like the other girls on the cheer squad who craned their necks up at him adoringly. She was only three inches shorter than his six feet. But her long, thin fingers still disappeared in his palms. She loved that. Ty always made her feel delicate, like she knew she wasn’t, and protected, like she longed to be.
“This can’t be the end of us,” he pleaded.
“I love you, Ty. I do.”
He pulled his hands away. “But?”
She almost told him about her mother’s threats, but couldn’t say the words out loud. In Reese’s head, her mother’s logic made sense. Out loud, it diminished the woman who’d always worked to give Reese every opportunity in life. It made her sound vindictive and petty, and she was only trying to insulate the family from the fallout of Hank Milani’s actions.
Embezzlement. Fraud. Falsifying financial statements. Secret bank accounts with his name on them. It was all documented.
That wasn’t complicated.
None of it involved Ty or Reese, but she had to end it.
“I can’t lie to my parents. They’d only find out anyway. Besides, I thought you said Milanis don’t lie.”
“I’d lie for you. I’d steal for you. I’d do anything for you.” Ty’s voice was a whispered roar.
Tears pooled in his eyes, and Reese felt like she was drowning in them, gasping. What could she say to make leaving better?
“I thought you’d do anything for me, too, but I guess you don’t love me like that.” A bitter tone she’d never heard before crept into his voice. “If you did, you wouldn’t be doing this to me. You’d fight for me and for us.”
Reese reached up and wrapped her hands around his head, sweeping away his tears with her thumbs. She leaned in and kissed him, soft, retreating kisses. One, two, three, four… She memorized each one, knowing they would be her last taste of him.
Reese was glad this would be the last time she was with Ty. It was all too hard, and her mom was right. There’s no way she could be with him—not after what his family had done to hers.