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Under the Banyan Tree
by Em J. Knowles

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Enemies to Lovers 
School teacher by day
Dog-mom by night

Always chooses the bad boy,
i.e. bad for her
Single dad and fisherman finding his way after an honorable discharge from the Army
Will he ever believe in love again?

Will Layla and Snow give up old ideas & old ways of loving
for one more chance at happiness?

Chapter One


YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL. You are smart. You are kind.” A calm woman’s voice echoes through my AirPods.

I shift in my seated position.

“Now breathe,” she says.

I inhale through my nose and blow the hot Florida air out like it’s my birthday.

“You are beautiful. You are smart. You are kind.”

I know my best friend Jasmine meant well when she passed along this meditation, but this woman’s so-called soothing voice might be too nasally for me. I squint one eye open. The predawn sky glows purple, and a smattering of stars still sparkle.

“You are beautiful—”

I pinch the voice off and open both eyes. The grass under my thighs is pointy and jabbing me in all the wrong places. Settling my mind this morning is not happening. I wonder if the donut shop is open this early. Don’t start your day with sugar, I tell myself. I sigh at the thought of my desire to eat every last donut in St. Pete. I won’t do it, but I want to.

To distract myself, I look across the water and search for rising dolphins. After dogs, they’re my second favorite living creature. It’s not uncommon to see the beauties around St. Pete especially just before dawn, but the bay is still dark, and the water is barely moving. From someplace close by, a dog franticly barks. In my experience when a dog barks like that, it means they or someone nearby is hurt.

“Where’s that dog?” I say to my toy poodle, Annie, as I rest my hand on her tiny back. Her ears perk up, and a quiet whimper escapes her mouth.

“It’s okay, girl.” Even though the sun hasn’t risen, the park is peppered with people. I scan the area and several joggers have dogs, but none of the pups seem in distress. I pull Annie onto my lap.

“That’s a good girl.” Annie wags her bottom then stretches into downward dog. The frantic pup continues to cry. I can’t tell if they’re stressed, hurt, or mad. Annie snaps her head toward the far end of the seawall and lets out a yip.

“I see it too,” I say.

About a hundred yards away under a streetlamp, stands a hulk of a man, the kind that grunts at Planet Fitness and sets off the Lunk Alarm. The frantic dog is leashed to his waist and is jumping all over his dad. The man is pushing him away. Since he’s standing on the seawall, I bet he has a fishing rod in his hand. He needs to put down that rod and tend to his dog, who’s now going berserk.

I search the park to see if anyone is going to help that poor dog, but no one is coming to its rescue. I strap Annie into her chest carrier and head towards them.

“Finn, stop,” the man yells as he pushes the dog back.

This gets my heart thumping. I despise people who are mean to animals. The man still has his rod in his hand. Why doesn’t he just put the rod down? Then I see it. There’s a pelican attached to his line. He caught a freaking bird. I tighten the straps on Annie’s carrier and run the rest of the way.

“What the hell are you doing?” I yell at the lunk.

With waves of blond hair falling in his face, his dark gray eyes dart in my direction then to the bird that dives down into the water, clearly still hooked.

“It’s not bad enough you need to hurt the fish, but now you have to hurt birds too?” My neck and face flame.

His eyes dart back to me, and his jaw is clenched, but he says nothing. His dog notices Annie and jumps up. He’s a beautiful yellow lab with a hint of old age around his eyes. Immediately, I picture my dad and Rainbow, his faithful fishing companion, out on the pier.

When I was a teenager, I lost interest in fishing and in getting up early on Saturday mornings, so Dad rescued Rainbow, and she’d wait by the door every Saturday morning at 5 a.m. Unlike me, she was excited to rise early. It wasn’t long after my dad died that Rainbow crossed the bridge too.

The pelican flaps its wings, and feathers fill the air.

I rub Finn’s ears, and he and Annie touch noses. “Help him,” I say.

“I’m trying.” The lunk’s voice is controlled. I can see he’s annoyed with me, but I don’t think he wants to make any more of a scene than he already has. A few joggers have stopped to watch. I’m not sure if they’re ready to tackle the lunk or jump in and save the bird. The man doesn’t even flinch when I reach for his belt and unhook Finn. I pull his dog away, and we retreat under the nearest tree.

The man gets down on the ground and grabs the line with his bare hands. Just then, the bird takes flight, and the man’s sunglasses fall from his head, down into the water. He swears but doesn’t let go of the line. Panicked, the bird flaps harder and yanks the line tight. The man pulls his hand back.

Immediately, blood runs down his fingers. Finn lunges towards his dad. The bird snaps the line and is free. As the pelican flies away, Finn barks, just once, a defeated kind of sound.

The man closes his eyes and sighs heavily, as if he’s a giant wave crashing against the seawall.

I walk over to him. “You’re hurt.”

“No shit.” For a second, his brow line whispers that he regrets speaking to me like that. But only for a second. “I bet you’re happy the bird won.” He shakes the blood off his hand and reels in the rest of the line then ties it off.

“No. Neither of you won.” I pull a Band-aid and a bottle of water from Annie’s carrier and hand them to him.

He ignores my offer then looks at Finn. He scootches down and rubs his head. “Sorry, Buddy. I didn’t want you to get hooked.”

As he stands up, I swear I can feel heat radiating from his body. Even though he’s wearing a long sleeve sun-shirt, I can see the outline of his muscles beneath. This guy is an ass, but I still find myself wanting to touch the silky fabric and trace the contours of his biceps and triceps, all his ‘ceps really. I shake my head and hand over the leash. “You really should be more careful.”

“Excuse me?” He sounds pissed.


“You should be more careful.” I stand a little taller. “You hurt that bird.” I step forward and put my hands on my hips. "It’s people like you who give fishing a bad rap.”


“And why is that? Because a fucking bird flew into my line while I was casting? Somehow, that’s my fault?”


“Yeah—it is.”


“How in the holy hell is the stupidity of a pelican my fault?”


I open my mouth to speak, but he cuts me off.


“No answer, figures. It’s people like you, who give women a bad rap.”


I scoff. “Of all the—” I stop before saying anymore.


“Go on.”


“No. You’re not worth it.”


He laughs then shakes his head. “This,” he gestures to the space between us, “isn’t worth it.” He picks up his gear and leaves me standing on the seawall. “Come on, Finn. Let’s go.”


As we watch them walk across the park, Annie whines like she’s saying goodbye to a dear friend.

I look down at the ground. Drops of his blood still glisten red. They remind me he was hurt. They remind me, I’m hurt. I sit down in the grass, and stare at the horizon.


I hear the annoying woman’s voice in my head, “You are beautiful. You are smart. You are kind.”


“Not today, lady.” I pet Annie and loosen her straps. “Come here, girl.” She climbs out of the carrier and curls up on my lap.


The sun pokes its head just above the horizon, and the sky fires up. The clouds absorb a deep red, the same red that runs through my heart. Annie sighs. I wish I could go back in time. Not to five minutes ago, but to a year or more. Instead of sitting here alone, I wish I was sitting next to my dad. I’d give anything to spend one last morning with him. I picture his weathered hands and face and the sound of his voice.


“Layla. Jitterbug. You’re better than this.” He’d rub my back and say the words again, “You’re better than this.”


I purse my lips and think, “Maybe I’m not, Dad. Maybe, I’m not good at all.” I want to curl into a tiny ball, so small that I disappear.

Lunk: a person, usually a man, who grunts loudly while lifting weights at the gym. At the end of his set, he usually drops the heavy weights on the floor to draw attention to himself and, more specifically, his physique.


End of Chapter One

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