Prologue

Julia

Ugh!

If one more person comes up to me and pats me on the head or rubs my shoulders, I’ll scream.

Wasn’t it illegal to touch someone without permission?

Telling me you were sorry for my loss made me want to kick and then scream.

Sorry for your loss . . . of smell when I punched you in the nose.

How could they be sorry for my loss? They didn’t kill my father.

They didn’t let him get drunk. They didn’t make him get in that car and drive into White Rock Lake. It happened four days ago, and the news covered it nightly. Like they had clues to uncover as to why a prominent young Dallas lawyer lost his life in such a senseless accident.

Accident?

I rolled my eyes and ducked between more consoling and clueless grown-ups. I ran out back, snuck around to the side deck and sat with my legs dangling off.

On second thought, maybe it was their fault. They should have stopped him from drinking and driving.

Even I knew you weren’t supposed to do that, and I was only thirteen.

I tucked my hands under my legs and peered down over the deck. I closed my eyes and rocked back and forth. If anyone found me, they would think I was sobbing from my lost. They had no clue that I didn’t care my father was dead.

He was mean to my mom; he ignored me. He died, and to top it all off, his parents kicked us out of our house.

As my mother explained, it was a family house. It belonged to the family.

We are family.

He died, but he existed. His name didn’t disappear from my birth certificate. My grandma couldn’t even look at me.

Guilt hurts don’t it, Grandmother?

Ugh, who made their grandkids call them Grandmother?

“What are you grunting about, little girl?”

I gasped and sat up straight. A chill ran down my spine. The sound of Mr. Stewart’s voice did that to me.

“I’m sorry, Julia. I didn’t mean to scare you,” he said.

“You didn’t.” I caught a glimpse of his shoes. He wore brown loafers like the kind my grandpa on my mom’s side wore to church, but they were scuffed and worn in. Grandpa’s were always shiny and new. Mr. Stewart’s black slacks had a cuff in them.

I wanted to put my finger in it and pull.

“You mind if I join you?” he asked.

I peered up at him. The sun shined brightly behind him and casted his frame in golden light.

“Join me for what?” I asked.

My mother would be disappointed in me for being rude, but I didn’t care. If there was one day in the world I should be excused from acting like a proper young lady, the day you bury your father qualified.

Mr. Steward joined me anyway. His leg brushed up against mine.

The heat on my bare legs made my stomach flip.

Could he feel it too?

I’d never sat so close to a boy, never been kissed, never been touched in that way. I was only thirteen, but I knew with all my heart and all my soul that I was in love with Mr. Stewart. It was my little secret.

It wasn’t a stupid childhood crush either. I had to be in love with him because it was the exact opposite of how I felt for my father, and I hated him.

The opposite of hate was love.

He and my father were best friends and partners. My father was a few years older than Mr. Stewart was. They grew up here in Highland Park. When Mr. Stewart graduated from SMU Law School, he and my dad started their own firm.

“I’m really so—”

“Don’t say it,” I cut him off. “Please. Say anything else besides you’re sorry for my loss. And while you’re at it, don’t tell me my father loved me.”

“Your father did love—” Davis frowned.

“No, he didn’t,” I cut him off again. “He hated me. He never talked to me. He never spent time with me. I annoyed him.”

“Julia.”

The pain in his eyes hit me in the gut because my words hurt him. I didn’t want to hurt him, but I couldn’t help how I felt. Mom told me it was okay to feel sad, to feel the loss, but I didn’t. All I felt was loneliness and anger.

“Julia, look at me.” Mr. Stewart’s tone seeped into my chest. I held my heart for fear it would jump out of my body and get lost underneath the deck.

I turned back and looked at him. His piercing green eyes scolded me without saying another word. I wanted to look away, but I couldn’t. I didn’t want to make him any angrier. After a few minutes, his eyes captured a softness that made my heart melt.

Goose bumps popped out on my arms and legs. I moved my leg to reconnect to his warmth.

“I wasn’t going to say that,” he said.

“Oh.” I faced forward.

The fence stood two feet away from the end of the deck. If I stretched my feet out, I could almost reach it. I tried one foot and then the other.

“I was going to say I’m sorry that you’re moving to New Jersey. I’m going to miss you.” Mr. Stewart put his arm around my shoulder. His touch brought tears to my eyes. A feeling came over me I had never felt before, so I couldn’t identify it now.

I turned to face him.

“I don’t want to go,” I said and crumpled.

I reached out for Mr. Stewart, and he pulled me to him, cradling me his arms. His warmth turned to heat, coursing through my body. He ran his hand up and down my back and leaned in and pressed his lips to the side of my head.

I shivered and held him tighter.

“You’ll do great things in Jersey. I know it. It may suck right now, having to leave everything you know, but it’s the stuff that makes life more interesting.” He kissed me again.

His words brought comfort and confusion while the sadness and loss overwhelmed me. I sobbed into his chest. My tears stained his crisp white button-down shirt.

When my tears subsided, he held me tighter. I loved him most of all for that.

“You need anything at all, you can always call. I’ll be here for you no matter what. You understand?” Mr. Stewart squeezed me.

I didn’t respond.

“Julia.” He loosened his grip. “Answer me. You understand?”

“Yes, Sir,” I whispered into his chest and clung to him.

He stiffened but then pulled me closer and kissed the top of my head.

I wanted to stay in his arms forever. I was safe and warm, and the annoying rules that applied to grown-ups didn’t apply here. Here, in his arms, Mr. Stewart was my world. All I ever needed. He did what most grown-ups never did.

He made sense to me.

“I’m super proud of the young lady you have become. You’re not the only one in the world who have bad things happened to them. You’re a survivor, Julia. You’re fearless.” He turned my face up to his. “You’ve survived in the past, and you’ll survive now.”

I nodded because I believed him. I could deal with this and anything else that came my way because I was strong and fearless. Mr. Stewart said so.

I pulled away, but he cradled me back into his arm and held me tight. I sank deeper into his embrace. It felt like he needed me as much as I needed him. He held me because he had to, he wanted to. He wanted to give me something to carry to Jersey and maybe something to hold on to for himself, as well.

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