The Last Second Chance
Eight years ago
Joey Greer let the night wind from the open car window whip over her bare arm. She was three days away from turning eighteen and five from graduation. The freedom looming on the horizon burned like embers inside her. Or maybe that smolder came from the driver whose hand rested possessively on her bare thigh just below her ragged cutoffs.
She shot a look at him in the dark. He looked like one of the gods in the Greek mythology section of her World Cultures book.
Jackson Pierce’s profile was just as fine as the rest of him. The perfect blade of a nose over lips that were either spread wide in a mischievous grin or attached to Joey’s mouth. His square jaw and high cheekbones gave him the same warrior-like look his older brothers shared. He was leaner than them, and his gray eyes had a hint of icy blue to them. But there was no mistaking him for anything but a Pierce.
Jax was six months older and miles more experienced than Joey. But it wasn’t his fault he hadn’t fallen for her in kindergarten as she had for him. He was making up for it now.
In the end, all it had taken was for Joey to accept Bannon Bullock’s invitation to Homecoming last year. One look at the basketball captain’s wandering hands on the dance floor, and Jax had finally laid claim. Joey’s virginity had lasted all of a week after that.
She loved him completely, simply, unconditionally, and she knew that, as surely as her heart beat, he felt the same about her.
She felt the purr of the engine ride up her spine as Jax accelerated toward her home to meet curfew. The ’68 Camaro had been Jax’s first love, until Joey.
Everything about him—about them—was fast, dangerous. She wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’m serious, Jojo. Think about it,” he said, his voice low and smooth. “Forget college. Let’s see what’s out there.”
Joey laughed as she always did when Jax pitched his see-the-world quest. “College is seeing what’s out there. I’ve got plans. You’ve got plans.”
Those plans included partial rides to Centenary where Joey couldn’t wait to try for a spot on the equestrian team. Jax was already guaranteed to start on the Cyclone’s lacrosse team.
He gripped her thigh tighter, and she felt the thrill she always did at his touch. “Come on. There’s got to be more to the world than Blue Moon and college.”
Joey rolled her eyes and calculated how far they were from home. Her curfew was non-negotiable, set in stone. Her father didn’t like Jax. Thought he was too smooth, too charming, too rebellious. Joey’s mother, on the other hand, adored him… and had insisted on scheduling a doctor’s appointment for birth control as soon as Joey told her they were dating.
“Okay, where would we go?” Joey said, spreading her fingers as if to caress the night air. His answer was always different. One night they’d build a cabin in the hills of Montana. Another and they’d backpack their way down to Florida where they’d set sail for the Caribbean.
“West,” Jax decided. “We’ll just drive west. Pick up odd jobs wherever we stop.”
“And then what?” Joey asked, hiding her smile. A chorus of frogs serenaded them as they sped past Diller’s pond.
Joey shot him an incredulous look. “You want to live in Los Angeles?” As far as she was concerned, L.A. was a horse-less wasteland of boob jobs and overpriced real estate.
“Why not, Jojo? I wanna be someone. I’m not going to be anyone but John Pierce’s son or Carter and Beckett’s brother here.”
Joey reached out and put her hand over his t-shirt. She could feel his heartbeat strong and steady under her palm. “Jax, you’re never just going to be a Pierce.”
“That’s all that’s here for me.” He said the words quietly, heavily.
Her mood shifted from quiet amusement to pissed off like the flip of a switch. She dug her nails into his chest. “That’s all that’s here for you? What the hell am I, jackass? Some high school distraction for you until you can start living your real life?”
Jax was used to her flares of temper and was practically immune to them by now. He squeezed her thigh hard enough to leave fingerprints until she quit stabbing him in the chest.
“Joey.” Her name on his lips had the effect it always did—goose bumps on her skin and a warm, melty feeling in her stomach… like drinking hot chocolate on a cold night.
She crossed her arms over her chest, trying to hold on to her mad.
“You’re everything to me. There’s no future without you.”
“You know I’m not going to throw away college and all my dreams to live out of a car with you and take showers in gas station restrooms, right?”
Eyes on the road, Jax grinned. “I know. And I’ll be right there with you.”
“I promise you.” He brought her hand to his mouth and kissed her knuckles. “But maybe we could take a road trip this summer? Just the two of us. No parents, no brothers, no school.”
Placated, Joey relaxed in her seat. Her horse fund could probably spare a few hundred dollars for a road trip with Jax. She’d be eighteen, an adult. She would find a way to smooth things over with her dad, who’d hate the idea. Anything would be worth spending her nights wrapped in Jax’s arms, waking up to that sexy-as-hell face.
“Let’s do it,” she said.
“Seriously?” He was back to her lighthearted Jax again.
“Yeah. Let’s figure it out. Maybe we could leave right after graduation.”
“I love you, Joey.” He laid a hand on his chest over his heart.
“I know.” She smirked at the dark outside her window, and he gripped her leg again.
A flash of brown on the side of the road caught her eye. It was moving fast, too fast for her to get Jax’s name out of her throat.
The headlights caught the glow of the deer’s eyes as it burst through the trees onto the road. Jax braked hard, cutting the wheel to the right. And for a split second, as the deer bounded safely across the road, Joey thought they were out of danger. But the gravel sent them fishtailing.
She had less than a second to feel the sick, icy fear in her gut as the colossal oak loomed before them. Jax’s name exploded from her in a scream of dread. His arm slammed against her chest pinning her to the seat just before the sickening crunch of metal and glass.
And then her world went dark.
* * *
Pain woke her. And with it dread.
“Jax?” In her head it was a scream, but somewhere between her head and her lips it came out as a strangled rasp.
“He’s not here, honey. Remember?” Her mother’s voice and the scent of her Vanilla Fields came to her, floating on the fog of fluorescent lights and grief.
She went under again trying to remember why Jax wasn’t with her.
* * *
Joey was discharged on her birthday with seventeen stitches running from wrist to elbow and fifty units of a stranger’s blood coursing through her veins. Her chest and stomach were a mottled purple from the seatbelt that had saved her life.
But there was no celebration.
Jackson Pierce was gone.
She’d heard her mother and Jax’s mom, Phoebe, talking in hushed whispers at the foot of the bed when they thought she was asleep.
He’d vanished from the farm in the middle of the night, leaving behind a note and most of his possessions.
He was heading west, the note said.
Joey’s father said in no uncertain terms that he preferred to think the boy who put his precious daughter in the hospital was dead.
So did Joey.