TRUST ME, TRUST ME NOT (Gavert City #3 – Lacey & Hunter)
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Lacey may have escaped a cult with the aid of firefighter Hunter, but moving on is another story. As they’re drawn back together on their college campus, will Hunter be able to help Lacey recover — and find the courage to act on their unspoken feelings?
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Twenty-year-old Lacey Simon jumped from a building on fire to escape the cult her stepdad was leading, so college should be oh so easy. Except Lacey can’t seem to move on. Not only does she receive threatening letters, she’s also failing her classes. Fun times. Only Hunter, the firefighter who saved her from the fire and who’s been there for her ever since, reminds her that her stepdad no longer dictates her future. He tutors her in English, and he makes her laugh, blush and help her be more daring. But why does it feel like he’s only doing this to redeem himself from mistakes of his past?
Twenty-one-year-old Hunter Harrington used to think he was invincible until a frat party turned tragic and he discovered a dead body in the pool. Ever since that day, he’s been doing his best to keep his grades up and help others. Yep, he even joined the volunteer firefighters’ college program. When he’s accused of plagiarism, he’s forced to spend more time with Lacey. Not that he minds. He’d love to get even closer. But he has secrets of his own that could destroy their relationship before it even starts. And can he really keep her safe?
Can they trust themselves and each other enough to no longer be afraid to love and…to stay alive?
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CHAPTER 1 – LACEY
One month earlier…
The daisies on my mother’s tomb remind me of happier times.
Before she got lost in a man’s dangerous promises.
Before she stood by, nearly smiling when he insulted me, kicked me, and broke several of my ribs.
Before she left me, my brother, little sister, and so many others to die in a burning house.
Most of us survived, but three couldn’t escape the flames.
My fingers touch the fresh flowers and those happy memories rush back to me, slamming back uninvited into my mind.
When I was eight, my mother took me on my first and only fishing trip. Darkness surrounded our mobile home as she sat beside me and shook my shoulder to wake me up. The moon was hidden by clouds. She hadn’t met Abram yet. Abram and his web of lies hidden behind a charming face and guarantees of a better future. Abram turned out to be a cult leader for a group that called themselves The Circle and a murderer who crushed my hopes and dreams, giving darkness a whole new meaning.
“It’s going to be the perfect fishing day.” Her voice was a bit high-pitched and her eyes couldn’t seem to focus, but I remember smiling because I had been waiting for that day. She promised me we’d go fishing. I still believed in her promises.
She laughed loudly and without restraint. My heart clenched. She usually laughed that way only when she was drunk. But her breath smelled of toothpaste, not of alcohol, so I slowly relaxed my shoulders. Her long brown hair was greasy like mine, and our clothes never quite fit. But I didn’t care. We were going fishing.
My little brother stirred in the bunk bed above mine and asked if he could come with us, but she told him it was a mother-daughter day. I promised I’d tell him everything. He shrugged like he wasn’t hurt but I knew better. Part of me wanted him to come with us, because Mom’s new husband ignored him, but the bigger part of me wanted that mother-daughter day more. It was so rare to spend time, just the two of us.
I bit into the waffle she handed me and winced at the half-frozen taste. But I didn’t complain.
“We’re going to have so much fun, I promise baby girl.” The words sprinted out of her mouth faster than the one time we had to run out of a restaurant because she didn’t have any money.
I nodded. And a sliver of hope stirred in my chest. I still hoped back then. Still believed in her. When we got to the lake an hour later, the morning sun was shining through the clouds. She parked and checked the trunk, and checked it again and again. Then she turned to me with her signature scowl, the one that meant trouble. “Where did you put the fishing gear?” I had no clue what she was talking about but she kept on gesturing to me, her voice rising. “I asked you to put it in the car. This morning.”
“Ma, you didn’t,” I whispered, more to myself than to her.
She clenched her fists and took a deep breath, grabbed my hand, and we marched toward the lake. Her scowl turned into a frown and I breathed easier.
“Can we still catch a fish?” I had learned not to ask too many questions but I really wanted to know.
She mumbled and then plopped herself on the ground. “We’ll go fishing another day…today I’m going to show you something else my mother taught me.” She tugged me next to her. Her hands shook but she gathered the daisies I hadn’t noticed until now, and she showed me how to attach them together to make a crown.
And when I put the crown I made on her head, her lips quivered. “You’re my baby girl and I love you. I promise this time around it’s all going to be different.”
I touch the white petals one by one.
I haven’t brought flowers to her since I left the hospital, and I doubt my brother’s the one who did it. Maybe it was my little sister with her foster family.
A crumpled paper sticks onto the flowers, attached with a string. Probably Lila writing I love you to our mother. She draws for her and leaves notes in a little box. Part of her grieving process. I’m still trying to figure out what mine is. The pain of losing her still randomly grabs me, tightening its fist of guilt and memories around my throat. She wasn’t a good mother. But I want to believe she tried to save us. I want to believe that’s why she died.
I open it. You’re the one who killed her.
I hold my breath and my gaze darts behind my shoulder, then to the other side. But there’s no one nearby. My hand shakes and the paper whirls in the air before landing by my feet. I grab it quickly before it flies away and shove it into my back jeans pocket. No one else needs to see it.
I’ve only been wearing jeans again for the past few months but the still strange sensation of the denim against my skin isn’t the reason it crawls. Former cult members have broken her tombstone before. Others have come to venerate her. To some, she’s a cold-blooded killer in the same vein as Abram. To others, she’s a misunderstood martyr, who sacrificed herself to save Abram.
Never mind that I’m sure he’s the one who shot her.
And in my heart and in my mind, he shot her because she had realized what was happening. She had snapped out of her Abram-induced daze and she tried to save us.
I’ll never know.
Abram is in jail and he hasn’t admitted to murdering her.
I crouched down so that I’m eye-level with her tombstone, the one Luke chose while I was at the hospital. “Mama,” I start, unsure on what to say. To me, she’s still my mother. Despite everything. She’s still the one who taught me how to ride a bike and almost took me fishing one day.
Despite the cemetery being almost empty so early in the morning, I still lower my voice to almost a whisper. “I’m moving onto campus tomorrow, Ma. I got in. I’m going to be a teacher like I said I would.”
What I don’t tell her is how I’m not sure I’m ever going to be able to let go of the past. I don’t tell her that I’m so scared about having another dream crushed. I want to be as hopeful as I was when I woke up for that fishing trip, but the years spent on the compound keep me up at night.
And when I manage to fall asleep, my nightmares often seem too real.
The shots. The fire. The cries for help.
The sound of my own scream as I jumped out of the burning house.
I’m twenty and should be excited to live on campus, start fresh, and go after my goals after working so hard on my GED and taking those summer community college classes. And even though my time in the spotlight gave me more anxiety than anything else, it did get me a scholarship.
And Hunter will be on campus. Hunter who visited me at the hospital every single day. Hunter who saved me from that burning house. Hunter who sometimes helps to keep the nightmares away.
The wind picks up slightly. And my skin prickles. I slowly turn around. There’s a man who wasn’t there earlier leaning against a tree. He seems tall but he’s pretty far away and I can’t even see his hair color because he’s wearing a cap. My heart pounds and I stand up, checking my bag, but my phone isn’t there. I left it in the car. Of course. Both my uncle and brother would be telling me again that I need to take it with me. That it’s the purpose of having a cell phone. Adrenaline rushes through my body and I’m ready to sprint in the opposite direction.
Maybe it’s Charlotte’s dad. But I have a restraining order against him.
I squint. He appears to be watching me, but then he turns around and kneels by a grave, pulling weeds.
My heart still beats way too fast, but it’s no longer thumping. I shake my head. Am I ever not going to freak out every time I catch a glimpse of someone I don’t know?
“You’re going to be a wonderful teacher.” My mom’s voice resonates in my mind. She told me that before Abram, when I used to pretend the glasses we had were students, after she sold the two dolls I had and my stuffed animals—even Thunder, my favorite one. “You’re going to teach them the world.” I glance at her grave one more time, forcing myself to not stare at the man.
I want to believe she’d be happy for me. I need to believe I can do this.
The sky turns gray and I pick up the pace. Once at the parking lot, I spot my car and breathe easier. I slide in. My phone is on the console where I had left it. A Welcome to Campus, Bison package peeks out from my computer bag. I pluck it out and stare at it. My lips stretch into a tentative smile.
I’m going to prove my stepdad wrong.
I’m going to fix it.
I’m going to move on.
CHAPTER 2 – LACEY
“Miss Simon? Miss Simon?”
I open my eyes and groan. And it’s not one of those cute tiny groans no one hears except maybe the person next to you. Nope, it’s a loud one. My face feels like a heatwave has taken residence in my cheeks. I just groaned loudly in front of at least eighty other students in my Introduction to Child Psychology class. I may have snored too. Maybe they didn’t hear me.
But the shushed laughter in the row behind me probably means they did.
And I force myself not to slump in my seat.
They can’t see my chest clenching and the thoughts swirling in my mind. If I manage to square my shoulders and not look down, I can still pretend I’m not failing at this entire college thing.
When I first stepped on campus, I thought everything was going to work out. No more nightmares. No more doubts. I was going to make friends. I was going to get As and be on the Dean’s List. I was going to run into Hunter and I’d ask him out and everything would be perfect.
After all, I did manage my community college classes. Granted I did take half of them online and the classes were much smaller, and I hadn’t yet uncovered all those forums about cults, but still…
I was going to prove my stepdad wrong. He told me over and over that it was safer for me on the compound with them, that I shouldn’t chase my dreams outside of our group because I’d never succeed.
He also told me I’d never fit in.
“Miss Simon. We’re on page five.” My professor, Mr. Brashed, crosses his arms on his chest in that universal you’re in trouble move and I jolt back up.
I thought if I sat in the front of the room I wouldn’t fall asleep again, but clearly I was wrong. Maybe it’s the smell of the whiteboard cleaner or the buzzing sound of the projector or the fact the AC must not be working well, because it feels too warm in this lecture hall. Whatever it is, I can’t keep my eyes open.
“Do you care to answer the question?” he asks. And while he doesn’t sound smug, he does sound a bit upset. I’m tempted to tell him that he knows full well I was sleeping; hence, no, I do not really care to answer the question. But I’m already in enough trouble. Shit. Shit. Shit. I almost scream the word. That attitude and cursing would have earned me a week of cleaning the latrines on the compound. I squint, but there’s nothing written on the white board.
“I’m not sure,” I reply and even my voice sounds sleepy. This isn’t good. It’s already the third time I fell asleep in his class. He shakes his head and steps away from me. The girl sitting next to me scribbles on her notebook and slides it between us. “Piaget—Primarily internal.”
I remember reading the material last night, before spending hours in the I survived a cult forum, reading others’ experiences, obsessing over the fact that members are re-building my stepdad’s bone-chilling dream with him continuing to influence them from jail, but mostly searching for any information possible on my friend Noah. Searching for any information while being terrified about actually finding anything. It’s a thin line, this burning desire to know where he is and this unsettling need to focus on everything but him.
When he got kicked out of the compound, I knew deep in my heart that it was my fault. Abram said he wouldn’t survive out in the real world without his protection, but he had to be wrong.
“Miss Simon?” Mr. Brashed asks again, and the girl next to me gives me a slight nudge.
“Thank you,” I whisper, but Mr. Brashed is back in front of us. His gaze zeroes in on the notebook. My coffee is now cold but I gulp what’s left of it.
He raises an eyebrow. “Thank you Miss Garcia.” He slides the notebook back to her, frowning so hard his eyebrows almost touch. “Indeed, for Piaget the development is primarily internal.” He continues the lecture and moves on to a different slide, talking for a few more minutes about the different theories before dismissing the class.
I gather my papers quickly, but not quickly enough. “Miss Simon, wait a second.”
I stop in my tracks. The room empties while he slowly gives instructions to a grad student, who was in class with us today, on how to prepare for the next lecture. Maybe I should be paying more attention so I can finally get ahead or actually catch up but all I can hear is the clock ticking. I can’t be late to my next class. After what seems like forever but is really only three minutes, he turns back to me. “I’m not sure what’s going on, but my class isn’t an extension of your dorm.” He taps the table next to him three times. “You’re here to learn.”
“I’m sorry.” I look up and while his voice is strict, he narrows his eyes, like he’s trying to figure out how to best approach me. I’ve heard that students like him even though his grading is tough, because he’s usually fair. I’m crossing my fingers they’re right.
“If you need help, you know we have people on campus who can help you. You can talk to your advisor, your RA, the Counseling Center.” He opens his mouth as if to add something but I cut him off.
“Yes, thank you.” I swing my oversized bag on my shoulder. “I won’t let it happen again.”
“Good, good.” He tilts his head to the side and I can tell he doesn’t believe me. I’m not sure I believe me either. But I don’t have time to dwell on that. I only have a few minutes to make it to English.
I’ve been on campus for less than a month and I’m already failing.
Maybe my stepfather was right. I don’t fit in.
I jog up the stairs of the lecture hall, make my way through the sea of students gathering and chatting and laughing in the hallway, and storm out of the Psych building toward the English building. I pause, catching my breath. I turn to the path I usually take. It’s much longer. It can take me up to ten minutes to walk from one building to another, but it’s by one of the libraries and a coffee cart. And there are always people standing around or catching up or going to study. I turn the other way. The narrow alleyway. A shortcut. Almost always empty. Like today. There’s only a few students around. My muscles tense. If I don’t take the shortcut, I’ll be late. Again. I ignore the creepy feeling tingling down my spine. I can do this. I’m twenty-years-old. I’m not afraid. The bogeyman may have been real but he’s in jail.
I count to three in my head and dash, ignoring the shadows reflecting on the walls, ignoring the stares of the two students who step out of my way, ignoring the thumping of my heart.
No one is following me.
It takes me less than five minutes to get to the open space. I put my hands on my knees and exhale before straightening back up with a smile on my face. I almost do a happy dance. It feels like a small victory. And I’ll take all the victories I can. And I might still make it on time to my Intro to Shakespeare class if I sprint. I swerve right and slam into a tree.
“Woah!” The tree has a voice. A voice I’d recognize anywhere. A voice that stars in my dreams and saves me in my nightmares.
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