Forgive Me


By Eliza Freed

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“The thing he loves most in the world will kill him. It’s only a matter of time . . . ”

College student Charlotte O’Brien is lost and she can’t find her way home. Devastated by her parents’ tragic deaths, she aches for any kind of connection . . . and finds it in a man who is all wrong for her. Jason Leer is a rough-hewn steer wrestler from Oklahoma-and the hottest thing Charlotte has ever laid eyes on. Yet he has his own dark secrets . . .

Burying herself in Jason, Charlotte soon discovers that life doesn’t have to be so painful. When they’re together their passion eclipses everything-and Charlotte can finally begin to see a way out of the darkness of her past. Fighting for a future with Jason won’t be easy, but for the first time since her parents’ deaths, this lost soul might have finally found a place that feels like home.



I’ll be thanking people for the rest of my life in regard to this story, but these few are at the top of my list:

With all my heart, thank you to John, Vivian, and Charlie. You’ve excused me from my daily roles and let me fly far, far away.

To my parents who’ve taught me they will always love me, no matter what. (Putting it to the test here a bit.)

To Robin Smith, whose professional editing was the equivalent of a masters-level course in writing and publishing.

To the early readers from far and wide. You cannot comprehend how terrifying it is to hand someone the first book you’ve written. Your kind words and thoughtful questions carried me over the doubts, the frustrations, and the lonely days. I hope someday to return the favor.

To Nicole Warner and M.A.D. for helping me fill my own “Crazy Ass Shit about Rodeo” folder.

To Rutgers University for opening my eyes.

To Salem County and the fine state of New Jersey. Let’s just keep this between us, okay?

To Lauren Plude, and the rest of the insanely talented people at Grand Central, thank you for hearing Charlotte’s voice every step of the way.

And finally, to Tricia Steiner who literally willed these books into the universe. For a woman who has never coveted the title cheerleader, you are one of the finest I’ve ever known – and I know a lot of cheerleaders.

~ 1 ~

“My soul is forgotten, veiled by a boring complication”

My foot will bleed soon. Judging by the familiar curve in the road, I’m still at least two miles from home. Of course I end up walking home the night I’m wearing great shoes. The pain shoots through my heel as the clouds flash with lightning in the dark sky.

Maybe I’m bleeding already. I mentally review the last few hours. Anything to distract me from the agony of each step. The texts, the endless stream of drunken texts, run through my mind.

We’re soul mates. I roll my eyes. Brian deserves a nicer girlfriend; someone sweet like him. Someone who doesn’t roll their eyes at this statement.

We belong together. Bleh.

What does it say about my relationship when the only thing I ever tell people about my boyfriend is, “He’s a really nice guy”? And how, after two years of being apart, did I ever take him back? The last three weeks have felt like years, years I was asleep.

We’re perfect together. My mother thought we were perfect. Hell, this whole town thought it.

No one is ever going to know you the way I do. He was watching me as I read this one and I had to work hard to keep a straight face. At the time I wasn’t sure why, but here on this deserted road, in the middle of a thunderstorm Brian would never walk through, I know it’s because he never knew me at all. Or my soul. It’s not his fault. I’d nearly forgotten it myself.

I stop to adjust the strap on my sandals and two sets of eyes peer out from the ditch next to the road. They’re low to the ground, watching me. I’ve always hated nocturnal animals.

“Anyone else come out to play in the storm?” I say to the other hidden night life. I move to the edge of the shoulder, facing the nonexistent traffic, and give my new friends some room. I wince as I step forward, and watch as a set of headlights shines on the road in front of me and the scene around me turns mystical. The steam rises off the pavement at least five feet high before disappearing into the blue tinted night. The rain only lasted twenty spectacular minutes, not long enough to cool the scorched earth.

I’m lost in it as the truck pulls up beside me, now driving on the wrong side of the road, and Jason Leer rolls down his window. I glance at him and turn to stare straight ahead, trying not to let the excruciating torture of each step show on my face.

“Hi, Annie,” he says, and immediately pisses me off. I might look sweet in my new rose-colored shorts romper, but these wedges have me ready to commit murder.

“My name is Charlotte,” I say without looking at him, and keep walking. The strap is an ax cutting my heel from my foot. Why won’t he call me Charlotte? Of course the cowboy would show up. What this night needs is a steer wrestler to confound me further. The same two desires he always evokes in me surface now. Wanting to punch him, and wanting to climb on top of him.

“What the hell are you doing out here? Alone—” A guttural moan of thunder interrupts him, and I tilt my head to determine the origin, but it surrounds us. The clouds circle, blanketing us with darkness, but when the moon is visible it’s bright enough to see in this blue-gray night. We’re in the eye of the storm and there will never be a night like this again. God I love a storm. The crackling of the truck’s tires on the road reminds me of my cohort.

“I’m not alone. You’re here, irritating me as usual.” I will not look at him. I can feel his smartass grin without even seeing him, the same way I can feel a chill slip across my skin. It’s hot as hell out and Jason Leer is giving me the chills.

Lightning strikes, reaching the ground in the field just to our left, and I stop walking to watch it. Every minute of today brought me here. The mind-numbing dinner date with Brian Matlin, the conversation on the way to Michelle’s party about how we should see other people, the repeated and annoying texts declaring his love, and the eleven beers and four shots I watched Brian pour down his throat, all brought me here.

“If you’re trying to kill yourself by being struck by lightning, I could just hit you with my truck. It’ll be faster,” he says, stealing my eyes from the field. His arm rests out his truck window and it’s enormous. He tilts his body toward the door and the width of his chest holds my gaze for a moment too long.


I shake my head, freeing myself from him. “What? What do you want? I’m not afraid of a storm.” I am, however, exhausted by this conversation.

I finally allow myself to look him in the eyes. They are dark tonight, like the slick, steamy road before me, and I shouldn’t have looked.

“I want you.” His voice is tranquil, as if he’s talking the suicide jumper off the bridge. “I want you to get in the truck and I’ll drive you home.” Thunder growls in the distance and the lightning strikes to the left and right of the road at the same time. The storm surrounds us, but the rain was gone too soon. Leaving us with the suffocating heat that set the road on fire.

I close my eyes as my sandal cuts deeper into my foot, and Jason finally pulls away. My grandmother always said the heat brings out the crazy in people. It was ninety-seven degrees at 7 p.m. The humidity was unbearable. Too hot to eat. Too hot to laugh. The only thing you could do was talk about how miserably hot it was outside. By the time Brian and I arrived, most of the party had already been in the lake at some point. Even that didn’t look refreshing. The sky unleashed, and Michelle kicked everyone out rather than let them destroy her house.

I stop walking, and shift my foot in the shoe. The strap is now sticking; I’ve probably already shed blood. Jason drives onto the right side of the road and stops the truck on the tiny shoulder. He turns on his hazard lights and gets out of the truck. He’s a hazard. I plaster a smile on my face and begin walking again. As soon as he leaves I’m taking off these shoes and throwing them in the pepper field next to me.

Before I endure two steps, he’s in front of me. He’s as fast as I remember. Like lightning: always picked first for kickball in elementary school. His hair is the same thick, jet black as back then, too. The moonlight shines off it and I wonder where his cowboy hat is. He’s too beautiful to piss me off as much as he does. He blocks my path, a concrete wall, and I stop just inches from him.

“I’m going to ask you one more time to get in the truck.” A lightning strike hits the road near his truck and without flinching he looks back at me, waiting for my answer.

“Or what?” I challenge him with my words and my “I dare you” look on my face. He hoists me over his shoulder and walks back to the truck as if I’m a sweatshirt he grabbed as an afterthought before walking out the door.

“Put me down! I’m not some steer you can toss around,” I yell, as I fist my hands and pound on his back. He’s laughing and pissing me off even more. I pull his shirt up and start to reach for his underwear and Jason runs the last few steps to the truck.

“Do you ever behave?” he asks, and swings the truck door open. He drops me on the seat and leans in the truck between my legs. I push my hair out of my face, my chest still heaving with anger. “Why the hell are you walking alone on a country road, in a goddamned storm, this late at night?”

My stomach knots at his closeness and this angers me, too. Why can’t Jason Leer bore me the way Brian Matlin does? Jason raises his eyebrows and tilts his head at the perfect angle to send a chill down my spine.

“Brian and I broke up tonight.”

“And he made you walk home?” Shock is written all over his face. Brian would never make me walk home. He is the nicest of guys. Not great at holding his liquor, but nice.

“No.” I roll my eyes, calling him an idiot, and he somehow leans in closer, making my stomach flip. “He proceeded to get drunk at Michelle Farrell’s party and I drove him home so he didn’t die.” I think back to all the parties of the last six years, since Jason and I entered high school. Besides graduation, we were rarely in the same place. I’ve barely hung out with Jason Leer since eighth grade. At the start of high school everyone broke into groups, and this cowboy wasn’t in mine.

“Why didn’t you call someone for a ride?” He breaks my revelry.

“Because apparently when Brian gets drunk he texts a lot. My battery died after the fiftieth message professing his love for me.”

“Poor guy.”

“Poor guy? What about me? I’m the one who had to delete them, and drive him home. I thought he’d never pass out.” I’m still mourning the time I lost with Brian’s drunken mess.

“Why didn’t you just take his car?”

“Because I left him passed out in it in his parents’ driveway. I got him home safe, but I’m not going to carry him to bed.”

At this Jason lowers his head and laughs. My irritation with him twists into annoyance at myself for telling him anything. For telling him everything. I want to punch him in his laughing mouth. His lips are perfect, though.

“It’s not easy to love you, Annie.”

“Yeah, well I’ve got fifty texts that claim otherwise. Judging from the fact you can’t even get my name right, everything’s probably hard for you.” Jason leans on the dash and his jeans scrape against my maimed foot, causing my face to twist in pain. Before I can regain my composure, his eyes are on me. He moves back and holds my foot up near his face. He slips the strap off my heel and runs his thumb across the now broken and purple blister. I close my eyes, the sight of the wound amplifying the pain.

“My God, you are stubborn,” he says, his eyes still on my foot. Thunder groans behind us and he straightens my leg, examining it in the glimmer of moonlight. I’m not angry anymore. One urge has silenced another, and awakened me in the process. He pulls my foot to him and kisses the inside of my ankle, and a chill runs from my leg to both breasts and settles in the back of my throat, stealing my breath.

I swallow hard. “Are all your first kisses on the inside of the ankle?” I ask. His hands grip my ankle harshly, but he’s careful with my heel.

His eyes find mine as he drags his lips up my calf and kisses the inside of my knee. I shut up and shudder from a chill. There are no words. Only the beginning of a thought. What if, arises in my mind against the sound of the clicking of the hazard lights.

The lightning strikes again and unveils the darkness in his eyes. He lowers my leg and backs up, but I’m not ready to let him go. I grab his belt buckle and pull him toward me. Jason doesn’t budge. He is an ox. His eyes bore into me and for a moment I think he hates me. He’s holding a raging river behind a dam, and I’m recklessly breeching it.

With a hand gripping each shoulder he forces me back to the seat and hovers over me. Even in the darkness I can see the emptiness in his eyes and I can’t leave it alone. He kisses me. He kisses me as if he’s done it a hundred times before, and when his lips touch mine some animalistic need growls inside of me. He’s like nothing I’ve ever known, and my body craves a hundred things all at once, every one of them him. With his tongue in my mouth, I tighten my arms around his thick neck and pull him closer, wanting to climb inside of him.

Jason pulls away, devastating me, until I realize there are flashing lights behind us. His eyes fixed on mine, he takes my hands from behind his head and pulls me upright before the state trooper steps out of his car and walks to our side of the truck.

*  *  *

“Charlotte, honey, are you going to get up? I heard you come in late last night.”

I roll over and put my head under the pillow. I don’t want to get up. I don’t want to tell my mom that I broke up with Brian…again.

“Is everything okay?” She’s worried. I take a deep breath and sit up in bed. The sheet rubs against my heel and the pain reminds me of Jason Leer.

“I broke up with Brian last night.”

“Oh no. I have to see his mother at Book Club on Wednesday.”

“I can’t marry him because you can’t face his mother at Book Club.”

“I’m not suggesting you marry him, just that you stop dating him if you’re going to keep breaking his heart.” My mom leaves my room. Her face is plagued with frustration mixed with disappointment. I climb out of bed and lumber to the bathroom. My green eyes sparkle in the mirror, hinting at our indelicate secret from last night. I wink at myself as if something exciting is about to happen. My long blond hair barely looks slept on. I think breaking up with Brian was good for me.

*  *  *

“Jack, she broke up with Brian again.” I catch, as I enter the kitchen.

“Through with him, huh?” My father never seems to have an opinion on who I date as long as they treat me well. Brian certainly did that.

“Dad, he just didn’t do it for me.” Jason’s eyes pierce my thoughts again, haunting me. The trooper sent us home and I left him in his truck without a word. There wasn’t one to say.

“Do what? What did you expect him to do for you?” my mother spouts. She’s not taking the news well.

“When he looks at me a certain way, I want to get chills,” I start, surprised by how easily my needs are verbalized. “When he leans into me, I want my stomach to flip, and when he walks away I want to care if he comes back.” My parents both watch me silently as if I’m reciting a poem at the second-grade music program. They are pondering me.

“What? Don’t your stomachs flip when you’re together? Ever?”

“Does your stomach flip when you look at me, Jack?” she asks.

“Only if I eat chili the same day,” my dad says, and they both start laughing.

“Charlotte, I remember what it was like to be young. And your father did make my stomach flip, but I think you’re too hard on Brian. He’s a nice boy.”

“Yeah yeah. He’s nice.” I butter my toast and move to sit next to my father at the table. He is nice. For some reason Brian’s kindness frustrates me. He’s a boring complication. “I ran into Jason Leer last night.” And he kissed the inside of my leg. I smile ruefully.

My mother’s eyebrows raise and I fear I’ve divulged too much. My father never looks up from the newspaper.

“Butch and Joanie’s son?”

“That’s the one.” I try to sound nonchalant as a tiny chill runs down my neck.

“I haven’t seen him since Joanie’s funeral. Poor boy. She was lovely. Do you remember her?”

I nod my head and take a bite of the toast. “From Sunday school.”

“Jack, do you remember Joanie Leer? Died of cancer about a year ago.”

“I remember,” my dad says, and appears to be ignoring us, but I know he’s not. He always hears everything.

“If you don’t want to be with Brian, that’s fine, but please not a rodeo cowboy,” my mother pleads, not missing a thing.

“I only said I saw him. What’s wrong with a rodeo cowboy?”

“Nothing. For someone else’s daughter. I really want you to marry someone with a job. Someone that can take care of you.”

“Can’t a cowboy do that?” From what I’ve seen, he can take very good care of me.

“Charlotte, please tell me you’re not serious. They’re always on the road. Their income’s not steady. It’s a very difficult life.” My mother’s stern warning is delivered while she fills the dishwasher, as if we’re discussing a fairy tale, a situation so absurd it barely warrants a discussion. She’s still beautiful, even when she’s lecturing me. “I know safe choices aren’t attractive to the young, but believe me you do not belong in that world and he’d wither up and die in yours. Do not underestimate the power of safety in this crazy life.”

“How do you know so much about rodeo cowboys?” I ask.

“Yeah, how do you know so much?” My dad asks. He stares at her over the newspaper.

“Is your stomach flipping?” She asks, and gives him her beautiful smile she’s flashed to quell him my entire life.

“Yes,” he says, and winks at her.

~ 2 ~

“I run out of the water, swallowed by complete devastation”

Noble?” I stare out the window as we pass field after field and lose my attention to the crops. I follow them to the horizon, the only boundary between the earth and the sky. The perfect blue meets the green fields as if it’s watching over them. This is Noble’s world.

God’s country.

“Yes?” He brings me back to his truck. I turn to him, and watch him drive with the ease that’s always a part of him.

“Would you say I’m your best friend? That we’re best friends?” Noble takes his eyes off the road to meet mine. I’ve seen this look before. He’s not sure whether to laugh.

“Are you going to give me half a BFF necklace, or something?” He asks as if I am the most ridiculous person he’s ever known.

“I was just thinking about how things change.”

“Charlotte, what’s going on?” He’s listening closely now. We pass the cornfields, almost knee-height. How many corn crops have I passed in my lifetime?

I shake my head. “I was just thinking.”

“About what?” About what?

“You are one of my closest friends. You, Margo, Jenn, and Sam. And at Rutgers I can’t survive without Julia, Violet, and Sydney.”

“Where are you going with this?” Now he’s worried. Noble turns left and a new set of fields draws my attention.

“What happened to the others? Jason, and Ollie, and Possum? Where are Heather Miller and Dana Davino? Why aren’t we friends with them anymore? I went to Jason Leer’s birthday party every year of my life until we hit high school, and then I never hung out with him.”

“Charlotte, things change—the passage of time, circumstances—but people don’t. We’re still friends, just old friends. Jason was into the rodeo, and we weren’t. We just went in different directions.”

Noble turns onto the farm lane leading to his house and crosses the railroad tracks that sever it. An acre and a half back, we pass Jason Leer’s house on the left. His truck is parked near the barn separating his and Noble’s yards. I swallow hard at the thought of my ankle in Jason’s hand.

“Wait here,” Noble says, and pulls up near the side door of the farmhouse.

“Why?” I ask, knowing my cheeks are probably flushed. Noble notices and seems confused for the second time today. I’m not making any sense.

“Because my mother will interrogate you about my love life at Rutgers and we’ll never make it to Jenn’s.” Noble’s easy smile lights up his face. He is my best friend. “Just wait here, okay?”

Noble leaves me, and I can’t take my eyes off Jason’s truck. I wonder what he’s doing today, what Jenn and Margo will say if I invite him to the lake house with us. The door to Jason’s house swings open and hits the side of the house. Anyone else exiting a house that way would indicate anger, but Jason smiles as he strides over to his truck. I watch in delight. Everything is so powerful about him, and I can’t take my eyes off him. A chill runs down the back of my neck and I tilt my head to thwart it.

Jason reaches for his truck door and glances back. At the sight of me, he stops. The smile drains from his face. It’s replaced with something else. Something coercive. I should lean down in the truck. Crouch down and escape his gaze, but that would be cowardly and something about Jason Leer brings out the best and worst in me, neither of which is anywhere near fear.

He takes one step toward me as Noble practically skips out of his house. He breezes to the truck and climbs in carrying cucumbers, without even noticing Jason. As he pulls away he waves at Jason, and I sit in awe of him. We drive a few miles, me trying to understand what Jason does to me, and Noble singing along to music without a care in the world. He lowers the volume and examines me.

“Charlotte, what?”

I release myself from all things Jason Leer.

“What if the person you’re supposed to be with you’ve known your whole life? What if they’re an old friend?” Noble’s gaze is serious, and that’s terrifying.

“An old friend or a best friend?”

“Old, either, does it matter?” This line of questioning is not relaxing him.

“Is this about Brian? Are you second-guessing breaking up with him?”

“No. This is absolutely not about Brian.” Noble studies me.

“What you’re talking about will change everything. I’m not saying it never happens, just that if it ends, it never ends well.”

“Have you ever been with someone you know in your heart is the exact right person for you? That everything swirling around you just moves you closer to that person?” Noble takes his eyes off the road and looks at me as if I have a unicorn horn growing out of the center of my head.

“Did you get high before I picked you up?”

“No,” I say, and lower my head. I’m not making any sense today. None of this makes sense.

“You’re scaring me a little.”

“I know,” I say, and drop the subject. It’s a stupid one.

*  *  *

The drive to Jenn’s lake house is about a half hour. Noble and I spend it with the windows down and the music playing. We pull down the long gravel-cut lane winding through the woods and park behind Jenn’s and Margo’s cars.

A day on the lake is the perfect end to June, I think as I jump out of the truck and grab my bag. The cloudless sky agrees with me. This will be the last summer we’re all home together. It seems everyone branches out after their junior year. Jenn has already said she’ll be on a beach somewhere full-time and Margo wants to stay at school and take summer classes. I’m not sure what I’ll do, but it’s not going to be in Salem County if these girls don’t come home.

I hand the bag of cucumbers to Jenn and she starts washing them. “Compliments of Noble Sinclair.” I give credit where credit is due.

“Oh, Mr. Sinclair? You don’t say? I love that you still call him Noble after all these years. Can’t just commit to Nick like the rest of us,” Jenn says.

“She’s stubborn,” Noble concludes.

“It’s nice to know a farmer. I’m going to make you cucumber salad as thanks,” she says.

“I was going to bring some tomatoes too, but they’re about a week out.”

“Let’s meet back here in a week. I’ll make a tomato salad then,” she adds and begins cutting the cucumbers.

“Sam should be here any minute,” Margo says, and grabs a cucumber. “Why don’t you guys take out the canoe? It’s covered in spiders. I couldn’t get within three feet of it.” I look out the window at the lake. It’s completely still, no signs of life.

*  *  *


On Sale
Nov 4, 2014
Page Count
368 pages
Forever Yours

Eliza Freed

About the Author

Eliza Freed graduated from Rutgers University and returned to her hometown in rural South Jersey. Her mother encouraged her to take some time and find herself. After three months of searching, she began to bounce checks and her neighbors began to talk; her mother told her to find a job.

She settled into Corporate America, learning systems and practices and the bureaucracy that slows them. Eliza quickly discovered her creativity and gift for story telling as a corporate trainer and spent years perfecting her presentation skills and studying diversity. It’s during this time she became an avid observer of the characters we meet and the heartaches we endure. Her years of study have taught her laughter is the key to survival, even when it’s completely inappropriate.

She currently lives in New Jersey with her family and a misbehaving beagle named Odin. An avid swimmer, if Eliza is not with her family and friends, she’d rather be underwater. While she enjoys many genres, she has always been a sucker for a love story . . . the more screwed up the better.

Learn more about this author