Boys south of the mason.., p.1
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       Boys South of the Mason Dixon, p.1

          
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  To my dad, his brothers, and Mama Potts.

  This was inspired by all of you.

  Mama Potts you would have loved this one.

  I OFTEN WONDERED if it was a common thing for a girl to fall in love at thirteen. And if it was, does that love last? Or is it just a crush? Can you even truly love that young? These thoughts kept me up at night. Why did I stay up thinking about love? Because Asher Sutton had given me a ride home and, in that moment, stolen my heart for good.

  “Dixie Monroe, what are you doing walking out here by yourself? Ain’t safe for a girl. You know better!” That thick, deep voice was Asher Sutton’s. I’d know it anywhere. My cheeks heated and I felt silly. I didn’t want to admit I had missed the bus because Emily James hid my clothes while I was changing after P.E. and I’d been left in the locker room naked. Until Coach Jones came in and found me. She had given me an extra P.E. uniform to wear home. It was too big and smelled funny, but it was something to wear, at least. I didn’t want Asher to see me or smell me like this.

  “I, uh, just wanted to walk,” I stammered, hoping he wouldn’t realize I was barefoot. There had been no extra shoes for me to wear. Walking in the grass felt fine on my feet. Luckily, it wasn’t cold or wet outside, or I would’ve been in a fix.

  “Well, that was a bad idea. Your daddy would have a fit and will if he catches wind you walked home. It’s too damn long a walk. Get in this truck.”

  Asher Sutton’s truck. It was famous. Well, at least the stories about that truck were. All girls in town wanted to experience Asher’s truck. He was known as the best kisser in town and he was by far the most handsome boy I’d ever seen. I knew he’d had sex in that truck with a college girl just last week. And Asher was only sixteen.

  I looked down at my shirt that was at least three sizes too big and the shorts that hung past my knees. I had wrapped the drawstring around me then tied it to keep the shorts from falling off. My bare feet were dirty and the pretty pink nail polish on my toes was now chipped. It no longer reminded me of cotton candy.

  “It’s okay. He won’t mind. He knows I like to walk for exercise,” I lied. It was the first thing I could think of. Because Asher was right. My daddy was not going to be happy about any of this. Not about the clothes, shoes, or my walking home. I was already preparing myself for him to go up to the school tomorrow and pitch a fit over this. But seeing as I had lost my shoes and clothes, I didn’t see how I was going to hide this from him.

  Unfortunately, Asher wasn’t buying this story at all. “Not moving from here until you get in this truck, Dixie. Can’t leave you out here to walk,” he paused and I glanced up at him. His gaze had dropped to my feet. “Shit, girl, are you barefoot?”

  I sighed. This had been humiliating to begin with. Now it was becoming a nightmare. Wasn’t the first time Emily James had gone out of her way to make my life hell. I never could figure out why she hated me so much. I was a nice person. I tried really hard to get people to like me. But nothing I did or said could make Emily like me. Instead, she found ways to embarrass and humiliate me. Regularly. At least once a week. Never had it been this bad before. Because never had Asher Sutton witnessed it.

  I knew he wasn’t going to leave me out here now. Might as well get this over with. “Yeah, I, uh, lost those,” I sounded like an idiot.

  Asher frowned. He didn’t seem amused. “Come on, Dix, get in the truck.”

  I did as I was told this time. It was another three miles to my house and my daddy was going to start worrying about me soon enough. I would never forgive Emily for this one though. I was done trying to be nice to her. She had taken it too far. I was in Asher Sutton’s truck looking like an idiot and smelling worse.

  “Thank you,” I said not looking his way again once I was inside.

  “Buckle up,” he said, “then explain to me why you’re wearing gym clothes that could fit me, don’t have shoes on your feet and are walking home like that.”

  Lying was less embarrassing. But I was a terrible liar. Daddy said I stammered and turned red the moment I even tried to fib a little.

  “Someone stole my clothes while I was changing after P.E. class.” Just saying it made me sound like a loser. I had always been the little girl next door that Asher Sutton liked to tease. I wanted to look grown up and have boobs like Emily or my best friend Scarlet. Something to make me look older than thirteen.

  “What the hell?” His tone was incredulous. As if he couldn’t fathom that. I bet he couldn’t. I doubt anyone had ever done anything like that to him. “How’d they take your clothes?”

  This was just getting worse. I wished he’d drive faster. Admitting I didn’t change in front of the other girls because my body wasn’t developing like theirs yet was too much. But he wasn’t going to stop asking unless I told him. “I change in one of the bathroom stalls. I had my clothes hanging over the door so they wouldn’t touch the floor. When I took off my gym clothes, I hung them over the door and then—” I stopped. Telling Asher I had then taken that moment to use the toilet stuck in my throat. “I . . .” What did I say here?

  “You had to pee?” he offered and I felt my face become an inferno.

  I simply nodded.

  “Then someone grabbed all your clothes and shoes?”

  I nodded again.

  “Fuck, wish I knew who did it.”

  I knew but I didn’t say. Emily had slept with several of Asher’s friends. She was tall and curvy and the older guys loved her. My house was finally in view and I wanted to leap out of the moving truck and start getting homeschooled tomorrow. Never leave my house again. Never have to look at Asher again.

  “Your daddy is heading out to his truck with a concerned scowl on his face. Reckon he’s coming to find you. Knew he’d be worried.”

  He had probably already talked to Coach Jones. He wasn’t happy with the harassment I’d been dealing with this year. It had escalated. Today was the worst yet though.

  “I need to stop him,” I said, hoping Asher would speed up.

  He honked his horn and Daddy stopped and looked our way. The relief on his face when he saw me made me feel bad. He had been worried. I should have called him from the school instead of trying to hide this. I just hated upsetting him.

  “He ain’t gonna be happy about this,” Asher said.

  “No, he ain’t. Thanks for the ride,” I told him and reached for the door.

  “Dixie,” he said my name gently.

  “Yeah,” I answered without looking at him again.

  “Girls are mean as hell. But only because they’re jealous. Whoever took your clothes didn’t know you’d look just as pretty in a damn potato sack. Don’t let them get to you. Don’t let them change who you are.”

  Those words weren’t the first Asher Sutton ever said directly to me in my life. But they were the most important for two reasons. I remembered them every single time Emily James did something cruel to me during that very long year. And they made me fall in love with Asher Sutton. Not because he was popular, beautiful, or the football captain. I fell in love at thirteen because a boy was kind to me.

  Dixie Monroe

  THE PAPER BAG was being crushed in my hand. The death grip I had on it from the moment I noticed that old blue Ford truck, slowly pulling through the caution light, was causing my hand to go numb. I wasn’t ready to see that truck. Not yet. Steel hadn’t warned me. Not about this he hadn’t.

  But then again . . . Steel may not know yet. I glanced over my shoulder to see if the truck was going to drive by, so I could breathe again. My heartbeat quickened as the truck pulled into a parking spot right outside Harrod’s Pharmacy. He was getting out. It was him.

  I knew I needed to look away. I didn’t want him to catch me staring. Really, it was pathetic. Completely ridiculous and sad. Asher Sutton had destroyed me. I shouldn’t react to him anymore, and I most definitely shouldn’t care anymore that his face was still chiseled perfection and his body that of every woman’s dreams.

  Before I could gather my bearings, control my reaction to him, self-preservation kicked in, and I instinctively took a step out of his line of sight. His truck door swung open, long jean-clad legs stepping onto the pavement. The dark hair I used to run my fingers through was cut short, highlighting his stone cut face, the stubble covering his jaw making him appear like a dangerous angel. The flannel shirt he was wearing was faded and tightly joined across his chest. A chest I knew all too well was smooth and paneled with muscle.

  “Don’t go there, Dixie.” Scarlet North, my best friend since middle school, whispered in my ear. Her hand clamped around my arm and she tugged me hard, enough to snap me out of my foolish stupor.

  “Evil. Remember that, Dixie. That man is evil. He’s more beautiful than any one male has a right to be on the planet. But he’s the devil. You know that. Besides, don’t forget about Steel. You’re now dating Asher’s little brother.” Her last six words were a murmur. Only I could hear what she said.

  Gossip in a small town was bad. In Malroy, Alabama, it was worse than bad. The place was a mecca of gossip. Everybody knew everything and everybody was in everyone’s business. There was a very good chance, right there on Main Street, that people were peeking from their windows to see if I would look Asher’s way. There had been enough talk about us in Malroy to last a lifetime and two years of Asher being away at college didn’t change a thing.

  “I didn’t know he was coming home,” I said, simply trying to slow down my heart rate from seeing Asher for the very first time in years. He didn’t come home last summer. He stayed in Gainesville, Florida taking summer classes and seemed to have forgotten about Malroy.

  “He’s probably just here to see his momma. He’ll leave soon enough, you’ll see. Steel would’ve told you if Asher was coming home for the summer,” Scarlet assured me.

  I managed to nod while gripping my scrunched up paper bag in front of me like a shield. Asher was back and I didn’t know how to react. What was I supposed to expect? Would he keep pretending like I didn’t exist? Could he even do that now that I was with his brother? Would Steel tell him? Would Asher care?

  No, he wouldn’t. I knew that all too well. Asher wouldn’t care at all. He had made it very clear to the entire town that he didn’t want me anymore. He didn’t care who had me now. He was done with me. I went from being one half of the “golden couple” to the discarded girl who surely must’ve done something horrible for Asher to throw her away and never look back. It happened so quickly, it still made no sense to me.

  He had been my safe harbor. I was secure in his love. I gave my innocence to Asher believing in my heart he would be my forever, my one and only. But he blindsided me by leaving me without any explanation whatsoever.

  The people I thought were my friends believed it had been my fault, something unforgivable that I did, and quickly turned their backs on me. They all worshiped the football star that had singlehandedly put our town on the map, the boy who led our team to a State Championship two years in a row. He could do no wrong in their eyes. They had wasted no time taking his side. Everyone except Scarlet. She was my only true friend.

  “He’s a giant asshole. Full of himself. The great and mighty Sutton,” she snarled his way.

  I rolled my eyes and turned to look at her. “Don’t act like being a Sutton boy is a bad thing. You’re so in love with Brent Sutton you can’t see straight,” I pointed out.

  She grinned, then shrugged and giggled. “Yeah, well, all Sutton boys ain’t bad. Just that particular one there.”

  I agreed with her. The Sutton boys were a part of my life. They always had been and always would be. Our farms sat beside one another and our families remained intertwined.

  The tiny diamond on my left hand sparkled in the bright sunlight as I lifted it. “No, they aren’t all bad,” I said. “One or two are decent enough.”

  Scarlet released a sigh and shook her head. “Why are you wearing that? I thought you were still thinking about it?”

  I glanced back at Asher’s blue truck, unable to pretend like it wasn’t there. My heart twisted painfully in my chest. He still had a crazy hold over me, and no amount of pep talk could do anything about it. “I wanted to see how it felt,” I admitted shyly, before glancing back down at the ring Steel had given me two weeks back. It hadn’t been a traditional proposal. Our relationship was complicated. And that blue truck reminded me why I hadn’t been able to say “yes” to Steel.

  “Stop looking,” Scarlet growled in frustration.

  “Do you think he’ll care . . . about the ring?” I only let Scarlet see how incredibly vulnerable Asher still made me feel.

  “Oh, Dixie,” she sighed and pulled me into a hug. “You know he won’t. It’s been three years. You’ve got to let Asher go for good.”

  I closed my eyes and let her hold me, because in that moment, I knew was right. She was always right. “How do I forget him, Scarlet?” The lilt in my voice made Scarlet squeeze a little tighter.

  “Let yourself love Steel. He loves you. Be the girl he deserves,” she replied. Scarlet then pulled back to look at me. Both her hands rested on my shoulders. “Asher Sutton broke you. He deserves for you to forget him. Steel Sutton, on the other hand, adores you. And he’s nothing like his big brother. He gave you a ring, sweetie. It’s time your heart let go of the wrong Sutton boy and fell in love with the one that deserves it.”

  I knew she was right. I just wasn’t sure where to start. Not when everything still reminded me of the one who didn’t love me back.

  I patiently sat in daddy’s truck while he filled the diesel tank with fuel. Jack’s parking lot had begun to fill up. Jack’s was a pool hall, that was also a bar, or maybe it was the other way around. A bar that was also a pool hall. I wasn’t sure because I’d never been in there. If my daddy ever heard I was in there—and he would’ve found out quickly because Jack would’ve called him himself—he’d have thrown a fit.

  The only reason I would want to go to Jack’s anyway was because of the faded blue pickup truck that was currently parked outside the place. I’d seen three of the five Sutton boys climb from it and enter the establishment. The only one that mattered to me, however, had been the driver. Asher had sauntered inside like he owned the place. All smiles and too sexy for words in the jeans he’d been wearing.

  He had those jeans on today at school. I had noticed them as well as the Malroy Bears Football tee-shirt he’d worn. Every day since the first day of school, Asher made sure to walk with me to at least a few of my classes. I knew he only did it to protect me and it worked. Emily James hadn’t harassed me again, and because of that alone, high school was proving to be a lot easier than middle school had been for me.

  The day I’d climbed into his truck in someone else’s stinky, oversized gym clothes had changed me forever. I’d become more confident when dealing with Emily’s cruel pranks and at some point, they simply stopped. The last day of middle school she had tripped me. I was walking down the hallway for the very last time with my arms full of my locker contents. When I fell, notebooks, pencils, and even a few tampons went flying into the air, landing all around me. But that had been it and, seemingly, her final act of cruelty toward me. Now it was October and, in a week, I’d be turning fifteen. Emily had never looked my way again since I’d began high school two months before.

  Scarlet had texted me that she was going to Jack’s tonight. She wanted me to go with her, lie to my parents, which was common for Scarlet, but not for me. She knew before she even asked I wouldn’t do it. But she asked me anyway like she always did. Now, sitting here and having watched Asher walk inside, made me wish I was braver, wilder, and didn’t care so much about letting daddy down.

  She’d tell me all about it tomorrow anyway. The girl Asher took to his truck. Who the twins Brent and Bray Sutton ended their heated night with. Who she, Scarlet, made out with in the dark. Or in front of everyone. To her, it didn’t matter. Even though she had her eye on Steel Sutton these days. He was our age, and he was the Sutton boy to pursue for girls in our grade.

  “You good with fried chicken? Jack’s cooking up fried chicken. You can run in the back and get a bucket. Get some of them fries of his, too. We’re fending for ourselves tonight.”

  Momma went to church on Wednesday nights. Her ladies’ group bagged groceries and delivered them to the needy every week. Truth was she would have made us dinner if daddy had allowed her. But he insisted we would eat out so she wouldn’t need to cook every night, and so we did. Every Wednesday night, just the two of us, and usually it was fried.

  “That’s fine with me,” I replied, a small thrill from possibly catching a glimpse of Asher again made my heart race. I didn’t want to act overly excited about chicken from a bar, or Daddy would have gotten suspicious.

  “Let me use your phone,” he said, extending his hand to me.

  I didn’t have anything to hide from him, so I gave him my phone without any hesitation.

  Daddy took my phone and called Jack, telling him what we wanted. “While your momma is gone, we might as well live it up. Reckon you can whip us up some sweet tea?”

  Lately, momma was on a health kick. It wouldn’t last long because they never did, but she wanted daddy to consume less sugar and grease, which were the very things he enjoyed the most. She said he’d live longer that way. But he just ended up eating it whenever she wasn’t around. Like tonight, for example.

  “Yeah, I can.” I might as well. If I said no, he’d just go get a beer from the case he hid inside the barn. The real kind, not the light version which momma bought for him.

  Although the chance was slight I’d see Asher from the back where I’d enter and Jack would send a server, I still couldn’t stop myself from getting giddy at the possibility. I had seen him today at school, and even though he’d talked to me and walked with me to three of my classes, always interested in what I was learning, my grades, and my new friends, I already couldn’t wait to see him again. Because even when everyone around us was calling out his name, trying to get his attention, Asher only paid attention to me.

  “Ask Jack to give us extra of that special sauce he makes,” daddy added as I leapt from the truck. He must have been ravenous for extra sodium and a hearty dose of cholesterol.

  “Okay,” I replied, thinking to myself about all the mayonnaise and fat in that special sauce and how unhappy Momma would be about that. But I would do whatever he asked and make him happy. Besides, it would give me more time to stand there while the server ran to get the sauce, which gave me a better chance at catching a glimpse of Asher.

  The large, heavy wooden door that had been painted red years before I was born was a familiar sight to me. I’d only entered Jack’s through that back door. And only when daddy brought me here. I’d get the food, then pay and leave. I never got to go inside through the front entrance because Daddy didn’t want me in a bar. High school students weren’t served alcohol, but they were allowed inside. Everyone but me because Jack would rat me out.

 
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