It was obvious from the beginning; what she showed on the outside didn’t mesh well with her internal demons. She tried to appear sweet, and motherly and could even be fairly well-spoken; but her hardness had its way of shining through. She wore it like a badge that she wanted simultaneously to hide and shove hard in your face.

She was conflicted; had been for as long as she could remember. Never feeling capable of being who she should be, she became someone she hated. But now she embraced it, clung to it even, like a child holds onto her favorite blanket. It worked for her, most of the time, allowing her to keep at bay those who were capable of breaking through that nasty, hardened shell to touch the little girl heart she hid so well from the world. The same heart she couldn’t quite hide from herself; until she met Chase.

She didn’t really want to go to the bonfire that night, but she was dragged along by her sister. They were Jen’s friends and Bryn knew how it would go; Jen would be the center of attention and life of the party and Bryn would be left by herself, as usual. But she had nothing better to do and Jen was relentlessly begging. She pulled her hair into a loose ponytail, grabbed a hoodie off the floor and snatched the car keys from Jen’s hand. “I’m driving,” she said, knowing there’d be no argument.

She didn’t mind being at the party, once they got there. Jen’s friends were nice and they seemed genuinely happy that she was there. But after 20 minutes, Bryn grew tired of the conversation and wandered off to smoke a cigarette. It was a new habit for her, a self-declared right of passage that had come with getting her driver’s license that summer. She enjoyed it from the start, unlike most kids her age; didn’t even cough much when she learned to inhale.

She was nursing the burn on her hand when she noticed him approaching. He held out a beer and she shook her head, “No thanks.” With a knowing smile he replied, “It’s for your hand, silly.” He pulled her right hand into his and gently placed the cold can against it. “You know, I can show you how to flick a cigarette without burning yourself.” He had been watching her.

He was handsome and rugged, like Jax from Sons of Anarchy. His dirty blond hair was cut short at the sides, with a perfectly messy spike above blue eyes that seemed to know too much. He wore a diamond stud in his right ear, a smaller one on his chin, almost hidden in a short, thick stubble. Manly and boyish at once, mischievously smiling at her, tipping his head in an attempt to see her eyes. And when he did, he seemed to look right through to her soul; to her heart. Her little girl heart.

Eventually, he would give her the greatest gift of her life. And then he would nearly destroy them both.

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