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August—The Farewell Bonfire
Cole watched the flames flutter in the pyre as they danced along to the music, surrounded by friends and classmates he’d graduated with almost three months ago. At least twenty trucks, cars, and SUVs were parked in a wide circle around the fire, creating a ring of tailgates and car hoods for available seating. Some, like Cole, sat in folding lawn chairs while nursing a Solo cup. Music blasted from the speakers hooked up to Roy Finnick’s Jeep, and a dozen or so girls danced together by the fire. He could hear cheers from a nearby game of beer pong being played on one of the truck beds.
The field was about five acres in size, surrounded by trees on three sides—which was perfect since, technically, they were all trespassing. They’d been meeting up regularly in this very field since their freshman year, lighting a fire and having a few beers, courtesy of whoever had convinced their older siblings to buy for them that week.
Fortunately for everyone involved, they’d never once gotten caught in the four years since the tradition started. The field was hidden away among hundreds of acres owned by Harrold Carithers. Old Man Carithers was a cranky bastard, and everyone in town—especially Cole, who’d worked for the man for the last three years—knew better than to get on his bad side. So no one ever suspected that a bunch of kids would be partying in a random field mere miles from his farm.
This was the last bonfire of the season, the big send-off before half of them headed out to start college classes or careers in new cities and states. It was supposed to be a celebration, only Cole wasn’t in much of a party mood tonight.
He drained the last of his beer. Maybe he’d duck out early and call it a night.
“It’s not fair.” Cole turned his head slightly at the feminine voice coming from behind him somewhere. “After tomorrow, you’re going to be off living the dream life at school in Texas, and I’m going to be stuck here without my best friend and without any sort of college-life experience.”
His heart beat as fast as a heavy metal drum solo. He’d known Carly Malcolm’s voice since elementary school, and if Carly was here, that meant she was, too.
“At least you’re not getting married and shoving out babies right after school like half the girls in this town do,” Logan responded.
“Not for lack of trying.”
Cole refused to look over his shoulder in case he got caught eavesdropping.
The voices grew louder behind him. “My point is that you’re going to OFTC, and that’s a lot better than what you could be doing.”
“It’s called Oconee Fall Line Technical College for a reason. As in, it technically doesn’t really count. It just means that I couldn’t get into a four-year school like you.”
“You didn’t get into a four-year school because you didn’t apply to any. And you didn’t apply to any because you’ve known you wanted to be a hairstylist since you were seven, and those fancy four-year schools can’t give you the degree you need.”
Carly was quiet a moment. “I guess. God, I’m sorry. I’m over here being all Debbie Downer, and we’re supposed to be celebrating you leaving for school tomorrow. You’ve got to be thrilled.”
“Yeah, so excited.” Logan’s voice dropped on the last word, a tell he’d picked up over the years that meant she was lying.
“I’m really going to miss you,” Carly said.
“I know. I’ll miss you, too. And I promise I’ll fly home every holiday and break.”
“You bet your ass you will.” Carly sniffed and let out a small laugh. “Okay, that’s enough of that. Now, let’s get this party started.”
Two figures moved out of the corner of his eye. His gaze followed them as Carly Malcolm and Logan Kase sat on one of the empty tailgates across the circle.
Carly pulled out a mirror, checking her makeup and fixing her long, blond curls. She offered the mirror to Logan, who just shook her head.
The corner of Cole’s mouth hitched. He’d learned a long time ago that Lo wasn’t like most girls. Where they were concerned with their makeup or clothes, she was more worried about showing him up with whatever bet or prank they’d gotten caught up in. Like when she put something on his church pew that left a dark brown smear across the butt of his pants. Or in seventh grade when he bet her she couldn’t catch one of Mr. Hudson’s small pigs. She’d been covered head to toe in mud, yet she was beaming when she took that twenty from him.
She’d always stood out against the others. Even now, just sitting on a tailgate in boots, jean shorts, and a loose Lynyrd Skynyrd tank top, he struggled to tear his eyes away. The warm glow on her tan skin cast by the light of the blazing fire. The way she tucked her chin-length, dark hair behind her ear as her mouth moved to the lyrics of “Tennessee Whiskey.” How she bit her lip when Carly whispered something in her ear.
She sat up straight as Darren Whitehead approached them, offering each a red cup. She grinned and tipped the cup back for a healthy sip. She and Darren exchanged a few words before his full attention turned to Carly.
Good for him. It was no secret that Darren had a crush on Carly. He was tall, fit, and, in Cole’s objective opinion, one of the better-looking guys in their class, even with the bright orange hair and face full of freckles. And he was a genuinely good person. Ironically, with all those good looks also came a serious lack of confidence. And Carly usually went for the ones with game.
Cole’s attention shifted back to Logan. She sat watching the movement of bright flames between them. Despite the fire, her eyes were dark and focused on something far away as she scowled.
What he wouldn’t give to know what she was thinking.
“Hey, stranger.” Sarah Newnan fell into Cole’s lap, yanking him out of his daze. She swayed, and he put a hand around her waist to steady her. “I haven’t seen you around much.”
“Been busy.” Between working for Old Man Carithers and training at the fire station, he’d barely had a minute of free time this summer. “You havin’ a good time?”
“It’d be better if you’d come dance with me.” She pointed over her shoulder to the group of girls grinding their hips against each other, their heads and arms swinging all over the place. It would be hot if they weren’t all completely wasted.
“I don’t think I’m drunk enough for that.”
She leaned closer, ran her fingers through his hair, and licked her lips. “I heard you and Cowboy started renting a house together,” she purred in a low, sultry voice. “Why don’t we go there right now?”
He shook his head. “Maybe some other time,” he said.
He looked across the fire and found a pair of blue eyes shooting daggers at him. Whatever thoughts occupied Logan earlier were gone. She turned away and downed the last of her cup.
Sarah grabbed Cole’s jaw in her hand and pulled his face toward hers. Her bottom lip stuck out in a pout. “You’re no fun, Cole Tucker.” She planted a quick kiss on his lips before ambling away.
Cole rubbed the rough shadow on his jaw. When he glanced up again, Lo was gone. He stood and navigated around the circle until he spotted the short-haired brunette over by Levi Rossetti’s truck.
Standing in the bed of the truck was Cole’s best friend, Cowboy, in jeans and a red and black Willow Creek High football T-shirt. He wore his favorite black UGA baseball cap over his blond, shaggy hair. He gestured at Logan with the keg tap in his hand.
“Can I interest you in a celebratory drink?” Cole heard him ask her over the music and the roar of the beer-pong spectators.
“Depends. What are we celebrating?”
Cowboy grinned. “Aside from everyone heading off to the real world this week and me and Cole getting our own place? There’s the fact that my boy is almost done with his training. A couple more weeks and he’s gonna be a working firefighter.”
Logan crossed her arms in front of her. “In that case, I think I’ll pass.”
“Ah, come on. Have a heart. The guy’s been wanting this since he was a kid. And now he’ll be out there every day, risking his life. He could die heroically in the line of duty.”
“Yeah,” Cole said, coming up behind her. “I could die, and then you’d have to deal with the unsettling realization that you’ll never see my handsome face again.”
She spun around. “Never see you again?” she mused. “I guess I can celebrate that at least.”
“Harsh. But I like where this is going.” Cowboy leaned down and took Logan’s cup, filling it up and giving it back before he grabbed his own. He raised it high in the air and shouted, “To Cole!”
There was a joyful echo all around as red cups found people’s lips. Logan sipped, her attention shifting to the game of beer-pong in the bed of the next truck over. She snickered when Katie Samuels tossed the ball and missed the cup by a foot.
“You think you can do better?”
She turned back to Cole, pointing at Katie. “Than that? Easily. I bet I could even take you.”
“Is that a challenge, Logan Kase? You lookin’ for a wager?”
She shrugged, eyeing the game. “Why not? Ain’t gonna hurt me none.”
A fire ignited in Cole’s chest, burning away any remnants of his sour mood. “Good thing I love a challenge.” He downed the contents of his cup and tossed it to Cowboy, who hadn’t been paying attention. “Start filling ’em up, buddy. And we’re going to need you to officiate.”
He grinned at Logan. This night was finally looking up. “Lo here just challenged me to the next game of beer-pong. Can’t blame her for wanting one last bit of fun before she goes off to Austin tomorrow.”
Cowboy sighed. “What are the terms this time?”
Cole let his eyes trail down over her. “I’m sure we can come up with something.”
End of Excerpt