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A Missing Heart

By´╝ÜShari J. Ryan

PROLOGUE

Thirteen Years AGO


 “IT’S JUST DOWN this road,” I tell Cammy, bracing my hands tightly on the steering wheel to maneuver around the many bumps and rocks this road has accumulated over the years.

She scoots in closer across the flat bench of my pick-up truck and rests her head on my shoulder. “We probably shouldn’t be driving down here. I think this is a private road, isn’t it?” she asks.

“Yeah, but I don’t think anyone lives down here,” I reply.

Through the corner of my eye, I see her staring at the side of my face with her perfect smile. “You’re always looking for trouble, AJ,” she says with a laugh, sounding unsettled.

“Only when I’m with you,” I tease, peeking over at her briefly.

We pull up to a large country house, old and run-down, buttery yellow with a faded white wraparound porch. “You brought me to a house?” Cammy asks with confusion.

“It’s not the house that’s important, it’s what’s behind the house,” I tell her. “I’ve been down here before.” Hunter and I used to ride bikes down here when we were younger, and for as long as I can remember, I’ve never seen anyone go in or out of this house. If someone does live here, they never cared much about me sneaking into their backyard.

“This is making me kind of nervous,” Cammy says, clenching her hand tightly around mine.

“Trust me, okay?” I say to calm her while squeezing her small, soft hand in return.

“Famous last words, AJ Cole.” We walk around the house and into the backyard. “Wow, this place is enormous. It’s big enough for a farm. I didn’t realize we had land this big in our little town.” Cammy circles around, taking in the majesty of it all—the cottony blue sky against the wide landscape of wild, mismatched greens peppered with small colorful flowers encases a canvas of perfection. I may not know the true definition of beauty yet, but I can’t get enough of this place, so it must be something special. “It’s so peaceful and pretty.”

“I know, right? I like the meadow grass, and these oaks have to be hundreds of years old. They’ve probably seen more history than we could ever imagine. Actually, I think the house was built in 1840. Isn’t that crazy?”

“Wow,” she says, amazed, clearly feeling the way I do every time I come back here. “I wonder how many families lived here?”

“I don’t know, but I want to be one of them,” I say, pulling her faster toward the old climbing tree, the one with a wooden swing hanging from its largest branch. “Ever seen one of these?”

“In the movies,” she giggles.

“Everyone has those fancy pre-fab swing sets these days. You never really see one of the old wooden ones, and it’s way more fun than a kid’s swing,” I tell her.

Cammy looks toward the house, likely noticing the boarded up windows and the overgrown ivy cascading off of the decaying roof. Yet, she still appears nervous. “It’s beautiful back here.”

“Hop on,” I tell her, lifting her up and placing her on the long wooden plank. I walk up behind her and push her gently, watching as she closes her eyes and tips her head back. The wind breezes through her sun-kissed hair and I may only be sixteen and stupid, but there’s not much that would convince me I’m not in love with her.

“Do you think we’ll make it through the rest of high school and then college? I mean, together,” she asks.

I don’t need to think through this answer. I know it. I’m sure of it. “I do. I don’t see what could get in the way of us being together.” I grab the ropes from the swing, stopping and twisting her around mid-air so I can kiss her. “I’ve never felt like this about anyone. I’m pretty sure I love you, Cammy.”

Her eyes open and the sun beams right through the caramel color of her eyes, making them appear yellow. “I’m pretty sure I love you too, AJ.”

I release the swing, watching her bask in the sun, floating along with the wind. After a minute, she drags her feet on the ground and stops the swing. “And I really love it here.”

“I’m telling you, I’m going to live here someday,” I say. “I’ve wanted to live here ever since I first saw it.”

“It must be pretty expensive, so you better do well in college and get a good job to afford this place.” It’s just a dream. I’ll probably never be able to live in a place this nice, but that won’t stop me from coming back here to pretend I do.

“So if we stay together, that means I can live here with you too,” she says, smiling warmly.

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