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She had been his sole obsession. He would have done anything to have her, and he did. She had been a light in his darkness. She had made him want to be more, better, different. Nothing mattered but her.

Until she betrayed him, and in a moment of revenge, he slept with her stepsister. That drunken mistake cost him his soul.

Oakley Watson had learned at a young age to protect her heart, not to trust anyone with it. But when Wilder Jones walked into her life, she didn’t just give it to him; she left it at his feet. Their forever ended the day he told her that he’d gotten her stepsister pregnant.

Love greater than anything she’d ever imagined had burned so brightly she’d been blinded. That was nine years ago, and it was all in the past. The only thing left of the fire that had once been were the ashes left behind.


Abbi Glines

Expected Release Date: 26 December 2023

Book Series: 

A steamy new second chance, forced proximity Southern Mafia romance, set in Abbi Glines’ addictive Smoke series, comes out next week, and I have the prologue and the whole first chapter for you to give you a little sneak peek. If you’ve been following the series so far, this is Wilder’s book, but it also introduces us to a whole new batch of sexy southern Georgia mafia men to fall in love with in 2024.

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My granny said this was the first of many heartbreaks that life would deal me. It was best for me to face it young, toughen up, and learn to love the moment because tomorrow could always bring a pain we aren’t expecting. That was quite possibly the saddest thing I’d ever heard. But as I stood there, in the back of the church, I knew there was a truth to it. Besides, you don’t live seventy-six years and not know what you’re talking about. Granny had to be wise. I just wished she was as senile as my stepmother claimed. Then at least, there might be hope for my future just yet.

The guests had started to arrive, and I was expected to have a bright smile, happy for my step-sister, Sylvia but I knew I couldn’t manage that right now. I also wasn’t sure I could stomach watching her get ready to walk down the aisle. My dad gave her away when it should be me he was giving away. Sylvia had her own dad. It wasn’t my fault she chose to ignore him. It felt as if she was taking everything from me. But then, hadn’t that always been what she had wanted to do? She wanted my life, and it seemed she was getting her wish. Taking it all.

Trying my best to flatten the layers of chiffon that the skirt of the most hideous bridesmaid dress there ever was, in order not to brush past people and draw attention to myself, I hurried to the back door of my grandad’s church. Okay, fine, technically, it was the Lord’s house, but my granddad had built it with his own hands and preached here for over fifty years. I felt as if he had a claim on it. I’m sure the Lord would agree.

Pressing my hand on the smooth aged wood, I pushed hard and bolted from the building that would soon witness my worst nightmare. The cool early spring breeze hit me, and I inhaled, wishing it didn’t burn my chest to take a deep breath. How was I going to make it through the ceremony? If it hurt this bad right now, without even seeing… him.

I pressed a hand to my chest and winced. God, how was I going to survive it? Wrapping my hands around my waist, I bent over and fought back the tears. I thought I had cried enough over the past two months. Since the moment they’d announced their engagement.

“Oakley,” the familiar deep voice startled me. He wasn’t supposed to be out here.

Tightening my hold on my stomach, I straightened and turned to see the only man I had ever truly loved standing beside the oak tree that shaded the memorial gardens behind the church. I’d never seen him in a tux, and oh god, he was beautiful. Why? What had I done to deserve this?

I stared at him. Those brown eyes seemed to read into my soul. Before him, I had been happy. Enjoying my life, my first real boyfriend, and being a normal teenager, then I’d met him, and… he had made me love him. He had become the center of my world. He had been everything… and in less than an hour, he would be my brother-in-law.

“Why are you doing this?” I cried, unable to pretend this wasn’t destroying me. How had it all changed in such a short amount of time? When I had gone off to college Wilder had been proud of me. He had texted me daily checking on me. We’d talked on the phone at least once a week. He had promised to wait for me. He loved me. Lies. All lies!

His jaw clenched as he jerked his gaze from mine. “Go inside, Oakley,” with a hard edge to his voice. One he had never spoken to me with. That only added to the agony this was causing me. That he and my stepsister were inflicting on me.

“You said you loved me,” I spat out. Anger tangling with the anguish inside my chest. I hadn’t made him explain. I hadn’t asked questions. The betrayal had been so fierce and overwhelming that I had ignored him. Sylvia was a little harder to ignore. She had never allowed anyone to overlook her. If Sylvia wasn’t the center of attention she did whatever must be done to change that. Granny said it was because she was jealous of me. But right now, I would do anything to trade places with her.

Once, I had hoped Sylvia and I would be as close as real sisters. Losing my mother to uterine cancer when I was six years old had been hard, and in the years following, it had felt as if I had lost my dad too. He’d withdraw from life, drank too much, forgot things like picking me up from school and my birthday. Then he had met Cleo, my stepmother. She’d had a daughter a couple of years older than me. He had slowly become my dad again. Smiling, laughing, being there for the everyday life. I had believed that we would become a real family. To think I once believed there was a chance at that. Those days were gone now. Never to return.

“Go inside, Oakley,” he repeated. He refused to even give me a reason. An explanation. Even an apology ignited the burn building in me. The need to scream and cry. To demand to know why. Was I that easy to toss aside? To forget?

My hands dropped to my side and fisted as I glared at him. No. He was getting what he wanted, and so was Sylvia. They were getting their happily ever after. While they stepped over my broken pieces without a thought. He was going to say something. Give me a reason. I deserved that much.

When I began stalking toward him, his eyes swung back to me, and his brows drew together in a scowl. I didn’t care! He could be pissed. I was far beyond that emotion.

Stopping a few feet from him, I tilted my head back and glared up at him. His angular face, wide mouth, thick lashes, and those deep chocolate eyes that appeared black at times but as if there were golden highlights trying to break free when he was happy. It all made my heart race and my knees weak. I hated that. I wished I could rip him from my heart and my head, forget how I felt for him. Go back and stay with Wells, his cousin. Why had I thought Wilder was better? Wells had been good to me. He had told me he loved me. He wouldn’t have done this to me.

“Not until you tell me why! Give me a reason, Wilder! I deserve to understand how it happened. How,” I swallowed hard and refused to break down. Not in front of him. “How you stopped loving me so easily and fell in love with her.”

He winced and closed his eyes briefly before leveling me with them. “I can’t do this with you. Not and get through this fucking day.”

I shoved him in the chest, surprising myself. He didn’t budge, but the veins on his neck stood out. He was clenching his teeth. Needing to push him more. Make him feel a little of the fury inside me, I took both hands and shoved him again. Still, he stood there doing nothing. Why wasn’t it making me feel any better? Why didn’t anything give me relief?

“PLEASE!” I shouted as my eyes stung. “Just tell me how! Or when… When did you stop loving me?” those words sliced through my soul. I had thought the day he told me he loved me that it would always be the happiest day of my life. Thinking of it now was pure torture.

I balled my hands into fists and began pounding his chest. He should know how this feels! This complete wreckage he’d made of my heart. It wasn’t fair. If he was going to love her, why… why ever let me think I had a chance? That one day, he would be mine.

A sob tore through me just as his hands covered mine forcefully. I tried to jerk free of his hold. I didn’t want him to touch me. Not like this. Not when the last time he had touched me it had been perfect.

“Sylvia is pregnant.” Those three words spoken from his mouth in a hoarse whisper caused whatever fight I had in me to evaporate. I blinked at the tears that broke free and ran down my cheeks, my eyes locked on his chest, unable to meet his gaze. Her mom didn’t know. She couldn’t. Not with all the praising she had been doing over Sylvia. How pure and good girls got the reward. There was no way my dad knew. No one knew. They had to be keeping it a secret until after the wedding. My perfect step-sister, who helped her mom in the church, sang in the choir, and volunteered at the food bank, had not only taken the man I loved from me but she had sex before marriage. It felt as if he had taken my throat in both his large palms and was squeezing it so hard that I couldn’t inhale.

“Yours?” I choked out, unable to believe that my Wilder had done this. Every time I think it can’t be any worse, fate seemed to show me that it indeed could.

“Yes,” his reply was so quiet that I almost didn’t hear him.

I pulled my hands free of his and stepped back, finally lifting my eyes to meet his. There were no other words I could say. Nothing else that could be done. The reality was that Wilder had wanted her in a way he hadn’t wanted me. I had thrown myself at him that night before I left for college, and all he’d wanted to do was hold me.

A life with Wilder had been all that I had hoped and dreamed of, but facing the truth that he hadn’t wanted it, too, destroyed me. The girl that had been was gone. I would never be the same.

Chapter One

Nine Years Later


Through the doorway, I could see my daughter packing the last of her things in a cardboard box. It was physically killing me not to go in there and help her. But she’d asked if she could do it herself. Alone.

My plan had been to stay a week here, give her time after her mother’s funeral to mourn, adjust, hell, I don’t know. What was an eight-year-old little girl supposed to do after she saw her mother’s casket lowered into the ground? I was so fucking lost in what it was she needed and what I should be doing.

My daughter wasn’t a normal eight-year-old. She had seen too much over the past five years. I hadn’t seen the signs, and by the time I caught on to what was happening in this house, the damage had been done. Too much darkness, and I blamed myself. I should have known. Sarah was with me every other weekend, two months every summer, and most holidays. But when she had been at my place, she’d been happy. Or I had been too fucking blind to see the darkness she hid in her eyes.

Rubbing my hand over my chest didn’t ease the pain or regret. All I could do was make damn sure her life was picture fucking perfect from now on. No more leaving her with someone else. I wanted her with me. If she was with me, I could keep her safe.

Turning, I headed back down the stairs. There had been little I wanted from this house. I had lived here the first two years of Sarah’s life with Sylvia, her mother. Our marriage had never been good. The only happiness that happened here was after Sarah was born.

As my foot hit the bottom step, I glanced over at the hunter-green recliner, faded and worn sitting in the corner of the living room. I remember the first night Sarah came home. Sylvia had refused to nurse, and I’d offered to get up and do the nighttime feedings. Holding that tiny little baby in my arms, I had stared at her in awe.

It had been a surreal moment. Seeing that face peering up at me, knowing that only eight months ago, I had thought that she was destroying my life. I hadn’t wanted anything to do with Sylvia’s pregnancy. I’d stayed gone as much as possible. Worked hours that I hadn’t needed to. Anything to pretend that I wasn’t about to be a father. Then when the day had come and Sarah was placed in my arms, she had become my reason for living. All my joy revolved around her.

The slamming of the screen door jolted me out of my thoughts, and I headed to the kitchen to see who had come into the house. I expected to see Sylvia’s mother before we left. I’d called and spoken to her stepfather about Sarah’s desire to leave today. He had been more understanding than his wife was going to be. Preparing to deal with my ex-mother-in-law, I braced myself for her forthcoming lecture on why Sarah was better off staying with her.  That would be a cold day in hell. My daughter was living with me.

When my body had barely made it through the doorway, my eyes locked on a pair that till this fucking day, still haunted me. Granted, they no longer sparkled with excitement at the sight of me. It was more of a detached expression, and I hated that it even bothered me.

“Wilder,” Oakley said before walking over to the refrigerator and opening it.

I tried like hell not to look at her ass, but damn, it was hard. Oakley had been breathtakingly beautiful at sixteen when I shouldn’t have been looking at her. At eighteen, when she was still too entirely young for me, she’d owned me. She could walk into a room and become the center of attention without saying a word. The way she could smile and make a man believe he’d fallen in love instantly was a weapon I’d known she had used more than once over the years. There was a time when I would have died just to hold her and have her look at me again as if I was the only man she wanted. God, I had lived for that look. To see that smile.

She wasn’t a kid anymore. She was a twenty-seven-year-old woman and a complete stunner. The kind that turned heads and made men stumble when they caught a glimpse of her, the unreal kind of beauty that was unfair to the female population. She was also Sarah’s only aunt and, unfortunately for me, one of Sarah’s favorite people.

Oakley despised me, and she made no attempt to hide the fact. Except around Sarah. My daughter was the only mutual ground between us. Otherwise, she acted as if I were invisible, and I did the same. The best I could, at least. Ignoring Oakley Leola Watson was just about fucking impossible for any straight man.

“I was expecting Cleo,” I said when she turned around with a can of soda in her hand.

She smirked, but there was no amusement in her eyes. “That’s why I’m here,” she said, then popped the can open. “I figured you’d need my help.”

My eyebrows shot up in surprise. It had been so long since Oakley had spoken to me. Much less wanted to help me.

A bark at the screen door interrupted what I was going to say. Oakley walked over to open it and let Belladonna, Sarah’s reddish-brown Labradoodle, into the house. I had assumed that we’d be forced to leave Belladonna behind. Sylvia had refused to keep her, so Cleo had taken her when she was a puppy for Sarah. I didn’t expect Cleo to allow me to take Belladonna.

The dog had looked like a stuffed teddy bear the one and only time I’d seen it. Sarah had run out to the truck to show me her new puppy when I had come to pick her up. That was two years ago. Belladonna was huge now. I only recognized her from pictures that Sarah had texted me of her.

“Sarah hadn’t mentioned the dog,” I said, trying to decide if this was a good thing. Letting her tell the dog bye might be more painful for her. “It may do more harm than good having it here when we leave.”

Belladonna walked inside, her eyes locked on me as she fell into step at Oakley’s side.

“It’s a she, not an it. Do you have a thing against dogs?” she asked me with an annoyed gleam in her eyes.

“No. I’m worried about Sarah’s emotions,” I replied through my clenched teeth. I hated that Oakley always assumed the worst about me.

“Belladonna belongs to Sarah. I brought her, assuming you’d want to take her with you. Sarah could use the comfort.”

“Not something I expected,” I said slowly, trying to decide if she had an angle here I was missing. Her dislike for me wasn’t one-sided. It was mutual. She’d made damn sure any feelings I had for her were slaughtered years ago.  When I had divorced Sylvia, Oakley had been one of the reasons I hadn’t been granted 50/50 custody. Her testimony in court had swayed the judge’s ruling. I was positive about it. Had I been able to have Sarah fifty percent of the time, then I would have seen what Sylvia was putting her through. That Sylvia was spiraling. And where the fuck had Oakley been when her stepsister wasn’t fit to raise my child?

She took a long drink and then locked those baby blue eyes on me. “Why?”

Suddenly having someone here to unleash my anger on I glared at her. “Oh, I don’t know, Oakley. Maybe the fact you made sure Sarah only saw me every other fucking weekend and didn’t seem to think I needed to know that Sylvia was in a bad mental place. One that was creating an unsafe home for my daughter,” I snapped. She didn’t need more of an explanation than that. She knew what the fuck she’d done. How she had failed Sarah. “You now helping me move Sarah to live with me seems odd considering.”

Oakley took another drink from her can, never taking her eyes off me. Her eyes lit up with her own pent-up fury. I could see it there shining as she held my glare. A low growl came from Belladonna. Oakley reached down and ran her hand over the dog’s back whispering something that made the dog ease.

“Make no mistake. This is about Sarah. You’re her father. She wants to live with you, and that’s where she belongs. As for the past, it’s done. I can’t go back and change it.”

It was done. That was her excuse. It was the past, and her actions harmed my daughter. Maybe not physically but emotionally. If she thought her coming here to help with Cleo and bringing Belladonna was enough to fix it, she was wrong. So, fucking wrong.

“Where is Sarah?” Oakley asked, looking past me.

I wanted to tell her to leave. We didn’t need her. Sarah had me, and she didn’t need anyone else. Especially someone from this family. But I knew sending her away would hurt Sarah. I had to find a way to balance Sarah’s love for Oakley and my hate for her. How the hell I was supposed to do that I didn’t know. It had been years since I’d had to speak to Oakley. Now, I was Sarah’s only parent that would change.

“In her room packing,” I replied grudgingly.

“What are you going to do with this place?” she asked me then as if she had a right to know.

I had no answer for her, but even if I did, why should I tell her? It wasn’t her business. I had never signed the house over to Sylvia’s name because I hadn’t trusted her. I wanted Oakley to have a home, a house, a yard, a fucking dog. Even if she couldn’t have two parents under one roof, I wanted to give her everything else I could. I paid all their bills, including the mortgage.

“I don’t know. I guess I’ll sell it. My life isn’t here. I can’t move back here. But,” I replied, wishing those damn eyes of hers didn’t make me talk. Say shit I didn’t have to.

Oakley placed the can down on the bar and stared out the window over the kitchen sink. “Not real sure her memories of this house, at least in the last few years are some she wants to remember,” Oakley said solemnly. Then she turned to meet my gaze. “Sell it. Move her to Florida, and give her a fresh start. Help erase all… all the bad.”

The bad that I should have been told about. The bad that she wouldn’t have lived through if she had been with me. My hands fisted at my sides.

Belladonna let out another low growl.

“It’s best you stop with the pent-up anger at me. If you want Belladonna to like you, that is.” Oakley said.

I wasn’t going to be threatened by a dog that looked like an overgrown stuffed bear. Ignoring her warning, I scowled. “I didn’t know it had gotten bad. That Sylvia had stopped taking her meds. Sarah never told me anything. I can’t,” I paused and hissed at the ache in my chest. “I failed her.” I wanted to shout that she had failed her too. But I didn’t. For Sarah’s sake.

For a brief moment, just a tiny fraction, there was a flicker of something other than indifference. As if she might care deep down or simply remember when she had. I missed the girl I had destroyed. She still haunted my dreams. The first time I saw her, the first time she turned those blue eyes on me and smiled. I wasn’t sure I’d ever truly be able to let her go. At least not in my memories. The woman she had become, her actions, that person I would never love. I would tolerate it for my daughter.

“We did everything they could to get Sylvia help. She chose not to take her medication. She chose not to go to the therapist. This was her choice. This wasn’t your fault. You didn’t know. We didn’t tell you. Cleo was afraid you’d take Sarah from Sylvia if you knew. If you want to blame someone, blame us. You deserved to know. It was me who failed Sarah. I was the one who should have told you. Instead, I came to get Sarah and keep her with me, or I stayed here. But I couldn’t always be there for her. I have a job, and it interfered some. She… she should have been with you. I’m the one who has to live with that. Me. Not you.”

I stood there staring at the girl who had been my sole obsession years ago. I’d have done anything to have her, and I did. She had been a light in my darkness. She’d given me fucking joy. Made me want to be a better man. Watching the anguish on her face while she blamed herself for all that Sarah had lived through took some of that hatred in my chest from me. It was hard to listen to her blame herself even if I had been. The man I was before Sylvia, the guy who had fallen in love with Oakley at first sight, wanted to go pull her into my arms and assure her that this shit was on me. Sarah was my daughter. I knew Sylvia battled with bipolar disorder, but I had believed that she was taking her medication and seeing her therapist. She told me she was when I asked, and I had believed her. Oakley did know, and she was right. She was to blame. Sarah suffered, and she could have stopped it. If she’d done something, then Sylvia may not have taken her own life. If she had told me, I could have come back and forced Sylvia to get help. But she had done none of those things, and my daughter’s mother was dead.

Copyright © 2023 by Abbi Glines.

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