It had been a long, tiresome few months for Willow Cooper, a twenty-six-year-old guitarist and lead singer for The Wild Honeybees. Over the last few weeks alone, her two-person band had toured twelve cities in three states, and they still had another month to go before the tour wrapped up. Tonight’s performance was in her hometown of New Orleans at the Crescent City Blues & Barbecue Festival held in Lafayette Park. Connecting with the excited, interactive crowd invigorated her, and for a time, she forgot all about the sleep she’d been lacking. After her set concluded for the night, Willow invited a few family members and friends to join her for a celebratory drink at 3 O’clock Blues, her favorite local bar. She played catch up for a while and then decided to call it a night when her phone buzzed. She held it in front of her while reading a text message from Dean, her ex-boyfriend. Saw you at the festival tonight. You were amazing. If you have time, come over. Would love to see you before you go. I’ve missed you. Willow clicked the phone off and smiled. She hadn’t seen Dean in three months. The last time they were together, they’d argued about the same thing they always argued about—moving in together.
He wanted to move forward in the relationship. She wanted to wait. He was tired of waiting. So, when he gave her an ultimatum of moving in or breaking up, she walked out of his apartment and his life for what she feared was forever. Thinking back on the experience now, tears pooled in her eyes. She loved Dean. He was the reason she’d chosen not to date anyone since. But his ultimatum had stunned her, crushing the hopes she’d had for her own future. The way she saw it, if he loved her, he never would have forced her to choose in the first place. But now she’d had time to reflect, and she realized part of the blame for their fallout was hers.
She hadn’t handled it well. She could have stayed that night. She could have agreed to think about what he was asking and discuss it further the following day. Instead, she did what she always did when faced with an uncomfortable confrontation—she ran. Willow shoved the cell phone inside her purse, chugged a glass of water, and said her goodbyes to the group. Dean’s place was five blocks away, just far enough for her to gather her thoughts before she arrived. She rounded the corner onto Dumaine Street, pausing a moment when she passed the home that Tennessee Williams had lived in for a time before his death in 1983. She breathed in the fragrant night air and thought about the first thing she’d say to Dean. Two words came to mind: I’m sorry. She was sorry.
If she could have wound the clock back to the minute before she’d stormed out of his place, she was certain they’d still be together now. Maybe it wasn’t too late. A breeze kicked up and, with it, a flicker of what appeared to be someone lurking in the shadows nearby, waiting and watching. Willow craned her head, peering into the darkness. The shadow didn’t move. Stop being paranoid. It’s nothing. She continued on, glancing over her shoulder from time to time as she walked. The shadowy figure was enough to put her on edge, and now she swore she heard footsteps. She looked back, walked a little more, and looked back again.
No one was there. Two more blocks to go, and I’ll be at Dean’s place, and this nonsense will all be over. No matter what she did to quell her feelings of unrest, there was a nervous tension she couldn’t shake tonight. It rattled her enough that she reached inside her handbag and removed her keyring. She slid a key between two of her fingers so it jutted out like a knife, a protection tactic she’d seen once on a self-defense video online. It wasn’t everything, but it was something, and for now something eased her nervousness a little. She reached Dean’s block and saw him sitting beneath the light on his front porch, staring up the street, waiting. Heart pounding in her chest, the words she’d rehearsed before no longer seemed like enough. She didn’t just want to tell him how she felt—she wanted to show him. Dean saw her coming and stood, and Willow sprinted in his direction.
She spread her arms, planning to wrap him in an embrace, but stopped short when a woman stepped out of his house, bent down, and said something to Dean. The woman was unfamiliar, someone Willow had never seen before. Confused, Willow lowered her arms and greeted Dean with a stiff, awkward, “Hey.” “Hey!” he said. “I’m just … I can’t believe … you’re here! It’s great to see you. I’m glad you came.” Dean threw his arms around her and pulled her close. She gave him a few quick pats on the back and then stepped aside, her focus shifting to the mysterious woman. “Hi, I’m Willow,” she said. “And you are …?” “Blake.
” Tall. Long, blond hair. Lanky. Perfect skin. She looked like a Blake. “I’ve heard a lot about you,” Blake said. Willow held her tongue, stifling the words: Yeah? Well, I’ve never heard a thing about you. Dean seemed to sense Willow’s slight irritation and said, “Blake’s my … ahh, roommate. Well, just for a few more weeks. She’s moving to Texas next month.
” “What’s in Texas?” Willow asked. “Jaxon, my fiancé,” Blake said. “We’re getting married.” Willow breathed a sigh of relief. “Oh, cool. Congratulations.” Blake narrowed her eyes. “Hang on. Did you think that Dean and I … that we’re a couple?” “I … no,” Willow said. “Well, maybe.
I’m sorry. I wasn’t sure who you were.” Blake socked Dean in the shoulder and tossed her head back, laughing. “How funny. He’s like a brother to me. We’re just rooming together for a bit, okay? Nothing more.” Dean looked at Willow and said, “Do you want to come in?” She nodded. “I wish I could stay for a while, but I can’t. We’re headed out at six in the morning.” Once the words left her mouth, she wished she could have reeled them back in.
Tonight was about making amends, not about her and her band. “I understand,” he said. “I’ll take whatever time I can get.” Blake excused herself and disappeared down the hallway. Willow followed Dean into the living room, and they sat down. It felt strange being there again. In some ways, it was familiar. In others, three months apart felt like a year. The abstract painting she’d given him still hung on the wall but was now surrounded by a few new pieces of artwork he’d acquired since she left. “When did you decide to get a roommate?” Willow asked.
“About a month back. I got laid off at work and started bartending while I was looking for another job. I met Blake one night. We got to talking, and she said she needed a place to stay for a couple months, so I let her move in.” “She seems nice,” Willow said. “She is.” “I was surprised to get your text message tonight.” “I, ahh, worried you wouldn’t come.” Willow leaned back on the sofa and turned toward him. “Dean, I want you to know how sorry I am.
” “For what?” “I should have never walked out on you the way I did that night.” “Why did you then?” “At first, I was angry. When I stopped being angry, I became embarrassed about how I’d left things. The longer I waited to reach out, the harder it was to contact you. So, I kept putting it off. I was so down on myself about the way I behaved, I started to believe you deserved a lot better than me.” Dean reached out, taking Willow’s hand in his. “I shouldn’t have pushed you like I did. It wasn’t right. I knew you weren’t ready.
I was so focused on what I wanted, nothing else mattered.” “It’s in the past now. It’s fine.” “No, Willow. It isn’t.” “Maybe we both could have handled it better. But I’m here now. There’s no place I’d rather be.” “Are you … dating anyone?” She shook her head. “Are you?” “I met a woman about a month ago.
We went out a couple times. It had the potential of going somewhere, I guess, but there was something missing. After the second date, I didn’t ask her out again. What about you?” “I’ve talked to a few guys here and there on tour. It was just talk. Nothing happened. I found myself comparing them to you. It wasn’t fair to them, but I couldn’t help it. No matter how sweet they were, they weren’t you.” “Have you ever thought about trying again, giving us a second chance?” It was what she hoped he’d say tonight.
Her voice cracked as she looked at him and said, “Yes.” The front door blew open, and a man stepped inside. He was tall and brawny, dressed in jeans and a tattered T-shirt with a large skull on the front. A black bandana covered a majority of his face. Dean threw himself in front of Willow. “Get out of my house,” Dean said. “Now.” The man pointed a gun at Dean. Stunned, Willow stared at the gun, noticing it was equipped with a silencer. “Step away from her,” the man said.
“No,” Dean said. “I won’t.” A loud commotion boomed through the hallway. Blake came barreling into the living room wielding a large, cast-iron frying pan. She leapt toward the man, who stared at Blake like she’d startled him. He aimed the gun at her and squeezed the trigger. The frying pan soared through the air like a weighted Frisbee, and Blake collapsed to the ground. The man stared at Blake for a moment and then focused the gun back on Dean. “Move or you’re next.” Willow slipped out from behind Dean and crawled toward Blake.
Blood pooled from the back of Blake’s head, and she wasn’t breathing. Willow opened her mouth to scream, and the man said, “Don’t. Keep quiet.” He wrapped a hand around Willow’s arm, jerked her off the floor, and said, “Let’s go.” “What?” Willow asked. “Go where?” Dean lunged at the man and shouted, “You’re not going anywhere with her!” The man kicked Dean backward and fired off a couple of shots. One ripped through Dean’s thigh, and the other pierced his chest. Dean glanced at Willow and tried to say something, then dropped to the ground. Willow wrestled with the man, trying to break free from his grip, but it was no use—he was much too strong compared to her. “Now,” the man said, “let me tell you what’s going to happen.
We’re going to walk out the door, and you’re not going to make a sound. Got it?” Terrified and numb, Willow stared down at Dean and said nothing. The man grunted something under his breath and then bent down, checking Dean’s neck for a pulse. “Come with me now and don’t resist … and I’ll let him live,” he said. She opened her mouth and tried to respond. The words were there, but she couldn’t bring herself to say them. Tears streamed down her face as her eyes fixated on Dean, the love of her life. There was no choice to be made. After he was shot, she’d already made it. She would lay down her own life for even the slightest chance of sparing his