Jaxon’s face is buried in his hands, but I can see his chest heaving up and down and hear his strangled breaths. He’s hurting. Now’s not the time, but I want to tell him that he shouldn’t feel like he’s to blame. None of this was either of their faults.

The loud crashes of the waves fill the painful silence and attempt to distract from their silent cries. Audrey’s hands dig into my shirt, pulling my chest further into her face, and I can’t seem to get her close enough. I just want to wrap her up and carry her away. I don’t want to hear anything else. I know there’s more for her to tell, but I don’t think I can physically handle hearing any more of her painful past.

“Please tell me he’s in jail, Audrey,” Jaxon finally breaks the silence, his voice gravelly.

He doesn’t lift his head. Instead, he turns to face us while still laying his head on the top of his knees. I haven’t seen my brother cry since my dad passed away and the image is gut-wrenching.

Audrey lifts her head from my shoulder, and I quickly wipe away the moisture in my eyes with the sleeve of my t-shirt. She sits back in her previous spot, but I can’t remove my arm from around her. Thankfully, she doesn’t shove me off. I gently squeeze her arm so she knows I’m here for her. Maybe its four years too late, but I’m here now.

“I was eighteen so they couldn’t charge him with statutory rape, and no one believed my word against his. He was a teacher with a doctorate in physics, while I was the daughter of an alcoholic and a drug abuser. It all kind of...got pushed under the rug.”

Jaxon shakes his head back and forth and repeats himself, each word spoken slowly and with conviction. “Please tell me he’s in jail.”

“You should have told me, Audrey. I would have killed him. I’ll still kill him,” Jax says. Can’t fault him there. I’m already trying to plan the perfect murder myself, something prolonged and painful.

“Jax…” she says and begins to shake her head back and forth. “There was so much I didn’t tell you. I guess I figured that since you didn’t seem to notice or care about all of the bruises I had, you might not be concerned about what had happened to me.” When Jax looks at her in confusion, she continues, “From the day I met you, I had bruises on me at any given time. I understand now that I shouldn’t have held that against you. You were young and going through so much already with your dad passing away. So I just didn’t say anything to you. I couldn’t stomach the idea of you not believing me, and I knew that if that were the case, your family wouldn’t believe me either.” She quickly eyes me and I drop my head in remorse.

A long, silent pause crawls by as Jaxon and I sit in deep thought. I can feel that we’re both thinking the same thing right now. Would we have believed her? If we really think back to our eighteen year-old selves, would we have trusted her word? It hurts to admit it, but I don’t think we would have.

“I believe you now, Audrey,” Jaxon whispers.

“Thank you,” she replies with sadness still in her voice.

“I’m so sorry,” he continues, sitting up straighter and clutching at his shirt. “I don’t know how to say it any better than that. But from the deepest part of me, please know how sorry I am.”

She nods her head slowly and says, “Thank you. The only reason I’m even telling you now is because I like Emerson. I like her a lot. I’ve never had a friend like her before, and I hope to stay friends with her. I hope that won’t be weird for you.” The way she says that makes me smirk on the inside. She isn’t giving him the option to stop her friendship and I love that about her.

Jax gives a small grin and says, “Yeah, she’s something else.”

Quickly, Audrey gathers herself and stands up in front of us, then readjusts her clothes and brushes off the sand. Both of us just gaze up at her, confused. “I think I’m gonna go find Lane and head out now.”

“Wait,” Jaxon says in a panic, “what happened after we broke up? What happened with the… pregnancy? Where did you go, and what did you mean about the bruises? Where did they come from?”

She shakes her head back and forth rapidly. “No, I can’t do that right now. I think I’ve told you enough for tonight.” Without another word, she hurries away. I still need to talk to Jaxon, but every inch of me is aching to follow her up the hill and hold her in my arms.

“I guess now is not the time to talk to you about my important news?” I ask.

“I don’t know if I can take in anything else right now, man,” he whispers, looking toward the ocean. “Do you know anything?”

“I don’t know much, but she did tell me that her dad had something to do with the bruises.”

He lies back in the sand with a huff. “I’m scum. I can’t believe I let all of that get by me. What if something like that happened to Emerson?”

“Knock it off,” I say quickly, before he goes on a rampage. “You aren’t that guy anymore. You know every inch of Em, and you wouldn’t let that happen.”

“Do you think she knows Audrey’s whole story now too?”

I give him an incredulous look. “Of course she knows. Em could get the leader of Al-Qaeda to give her all of his secrets and any future plans he may have on a silver platter.”

“God, I wonder what she thinks of me.”

“She still thinks the world of you,” Em interrupts, sitting on his lap. “She thinks you were young and an idiot, but that doesn’t change who you are now.” I’m glad Em interrupted when she did, because otherwise I would have told him how I feel. How can he be so concerned with what Em thinks when it’s Audrey who went through a world of hurt? I realize that where Audrey is, that’s exactly where I should be right now. Not here trying to console my brother. I stand up, kiss Em on the top of the head, and leave them to talk.

When I reach the party, I quickly spot Lane’s tall frame in the middle of the crowd. He has a blonde and a redhead on either side of him, both vying for his attention. When he catches me looking over at him, he nods his head in my direction and begins looking around for Audrey, no doubt.

“I’ll find her,” I say, answering his silent question. “She couldn’t have gotten far.”

“She told us… about the teacher…” I grind out.

“What the fuck? Why?” he shouts and frantically searches through the crowd for her.

“Chill out, I’ll find her and take her home.” He calms down at my words and nods his head. “I’m gonna kill that teacher the second I get back to Texas though.”

“Don’t worry about it. I met up with the guy on our trip out there last winter,” he says cryptically. At the shock on my face, he continues. “Audrey doesn’t know. And don’t worry, I didn’t actually kill him. I just delivered a very strong message,” he states, with an almost unnatural ease and a shrug of his shoulders.

I reach out my fist and he bumps it in return. “I might need more info on him later. For now, I’m gonna go find her.”

As I begin to walk away, Lane calls out, “Hey, one last thing. I might need to head out of town for about a week soon…”

“I’ve got Audrey covered now. She doesn’t need her overbearing, protective big brother,” I say in my retreat.

With a laugh, he shouts, “Let’s not get carried away now.”

I don’t have to scan the beach to know that Audrey has bailed. If she’s not near Lane, then she’s gone. Since I know her better than she thinks I do, and based on the fact that she’s already slipped away from me once before, I’m betting that she’s trying to walk home now.

I hop in the Camaro and gun it out of the parking lot. My best bet is to take the route toward her place. Not even two minutes away from the sand and surf, I see a dark silhouette walking down the sidewalk, passing all of the parked cars on the darkened street. I pull the car in behind another and jump out to catch up to her.

When I reach her retreating backside, I wrap my arms around her from behind and tuck my chin into her shoulder. She doesn’t flinch or push me away, so we continue walking quietly forward while I’m wrapped around her body. Slowly, I turn in and kiss the side of her neck. Her breath shudders harshly from all the crying she’s undoubtedly been doing, as well as her attempt to hike the five miles home.

As we continue walking forward with me attached to her backside, I ask, “Can I take you somewhere?”

“I’m lousy company right now, Jace,” she whispers.

“There isn’t anything lousy about you, babe.” I reluctantly let go of her body, walk around to the front of her, and with my back facing her, I crouch down. When she gives me a puzzled look, I laugh and say, “Hop on. It’s called a piggy back ride.”

Quickly she jumps up, wrapping her legs around my waist and her arms around my neck. “I know what a piggy back ride is.” Then, she nuzzles her face into the side of my neck and rests there. The combination of her cherry-vanilla chapstick and the salty-sand fragrance is surprisingly arousing coming off of her. But I can’t think about her tempting body right now, especially not with the sudden entry of breath she takes from crying so hard.

I carry her to the car and open the door to sit her inside. After getting her situated, I swiftly hop into my seat and pull the Camaro away from the sidewalk. Audrey doesn’t ask where we’re going; instead, she lies down in the seat with her head on my leg. Her eyes drift close and the shuddering breaths that were ripping through her chest begin to subside. With my left hand on the steering wheel, I use my right to run my fingers through her soft hair.

This quiet moment is what I’ve always wanted with someone. Audrey can make me happy without saying a word or even without a touch. Just seeing her relaxed and sleeping next to me is a calming comfort after all of the horrible things I’ve just heard. I don’t know how she’s overcome the many obstacles she’s faced. How can one person be put through as much as she has and still manage to wake up each morning, let alone smile and make others happy? Slowly, the weight of what has happened to her rests heavily on me, and I’m blown away by her durability and perseverance.

Thirty minutes later, we arrive at our destination. The loud rumble of the engine that lulled her to sleep shuts off and she begins to stir. Silently, I soak in this opportunity to freely watch her wake up. Her eyelashes flutter and the back of her hand moves across her forehead into a stretch.

I check my watch and say, “I hate to move you, but we don’t have much time.”

She pushes herself up and finally asks, “Where are we going?”

We hike along the gravel path and continue through the trees and bushes. She doesn’t complain about bugs, the itchy leaves striking our legs, or even that we can’t see more than two feet in front of us. I try to shine the light from my cell phone near her feet so she doesn’t trip, but she just holds onto my bicep and trudges blindly forward. She allows me to guide her, placing all of her trust in my unworthy hands. We finally push through the last bit of trees that open up into a clearing, and I pull her up the hill in front of us.

“Wow, it’s beautiful out here,” she says, looking straight up at the starlit sky as I tug her along.

“It’s my escape from the city without having to go too far,” I divulge.

“Yeah, and we only have ten more minutes until the 11:44 line runs through here,” I reply.

“I still don’t understand,” she says, but there’s a slight smile in her voice.

“Patience.” I turn and kiss her on the forehead as we reach the top of the gravel hill that holds the steel tracks. I pull a penny out of my pocket, hold it up so she can see the copper-colored coin as it gleams in the light of the moon, and then place it on the center of a steel track. When I look back up at her, she still appears as if she’s waiting for me to do something more. We leave the penny behind and head back down the hill.

Last month, I found this place and have slowly learned the train schedule. It’s nice to get away from the lights and smog of LA. Trees surround us and the stars dance above our heads. The only sounds you’ll hear out here are the crickets and the occasional train that blows all the trees in its course.

Once we’re far enough that I know it’s safe, I sit down in the dirt and face the tracks. She slowly lowers herself down between my legs and leans her back against my chest.

“Have you ever done this before?” I ask.

“Sat in the dirt at almost midnight? I’m sure at some point I’ve done it,” she says. Her laugh is intoxicating and I hope I can always find ways to create that sound in her.

“No, not sit in the dirt, smart-ass,” I say, laughing along with her. “Put a penny on a train track.”

“No, I’m actually kind of worried you’re about to de-rail a train,” she nervously replies.

“That almost never happens,” I say impudently. Her mouth drops open and she turns her face to look up at me. I throw my head back and laugh at her shocked expression. “Don’t worry, babe. I’ve been doing this since I was little.”

A cold wind whips past us and her long, brown hair lashes over my shoulder and then back in her face. Gently, I gather it all into my hand and twist the length around, before tucking it in between our bodies. I then wrap my arms around her from behind and squeeze her into me as close as I can get her.