About the Author

K.A. Tucker

K.A. Tucker published her first book at the age of six with the help of her elementary school librarian and a box of crayons. Today, she is the author of the Ten Tiny Breaths and the Burying Water series. She currently resides outside of Toronto with her husband, two beautiful girls, and an exhausting brood of four-legged creatures.

Books by this Author
Becoming Rain

Becoming Rain

A Novel
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback Audiobook
More Info
Burying Water
Five Ways to Fall
Excerpt

Five Ways to Fall

Chapter 1

¦ ¦ ¦

REESE

I’ve never seen that look on Daddy’s face before.

He’s had it since he walked back from the pay phone. “Go on, now,” he urges, his gruff voice cracking. “Go on inside.”

“But . . . why?” I whine, casting wary eyes at the truck-stop diner, empty but for a man with a Santa beard.

Daddy rests his hand on the steering wheel and turns his body to face me. “Reesie, baby.” I don’t like his tone. It’s that serious one that makes my bottom lip wobble. “I need you to go back inside, sit down in our booth, and ask that nice waitress for another piece of that pecan pie you like so much,” he says slowly, evenly.

I swallow back my tears. “Alone?”

His face tightens, like he’s mad. “Only for a little bit.”

“And then you’ll come in?”

He squeezes his eyes shut and I’m afraid I just made him really angry, but . . . I’ve never gone anywhere alone. I’m only five. “Remember that Daddy loves you, baby girl. Now go on.”

Stifling back a sob, I slide along the old bench seat and push the heavy old Ford truck door open.

“Reesie,” Daddy calls out as my red shoes hit the sidewalk.

Turning, I see his hand wiping at something on his cheek before he gives me a wink and a smile. The truck door makes a loud bang as I swing it tight. Holding my breath, I climb the steps and push as hard as I can against the diner door, the jangle of the bell ringing in my ears. I dart across the black-and-white checkered floor and climb into our booth—the one we were sitting in before Daddy called Mommy; it still has our dishes on the table—just in time to see the taillights of Daddy’s truck disappear.

When the nice waitress with the big hair comes by, I tell her my daddy will be here soon and I order that piece of chocolate pecan pie with a please and thank you. I sit in that booth and gobble it up, thinking how lucky I am to get two pieces in one night.

And I wait.

With my chin resting on my palm, tucked into the corner of the booth, I stare out that window, watching for the familiar blue truck to reappear, checking the door every time that bell jangles. When the kind policeman sits down across from me and asks me where my daddy is, I tell him he’ll be here soon.

¦ ¦ ¦

There’s no kind policeman to comfort me now. No nice lady bringing me a piece of chocolate pecan pie to combat the sourness in my mouth. But at least this time I wasn’t abandoned.

I’m reminded of that the second I see my stepfather’s face through the small glass window in the door.

His salt-and-pepper hair is more salt than pepper and he’s gained at least ten pounds around his waist since I last saw him—nine years ago—but there’s no mistaking Jack Warner. I don’t think he recognizes me, though. The way his steely blue eyes wander over my violet hair . . . my piercings . . . the giant “Jared” tattoo that coils around my right shoulder, I think he’s wondering if the police officer led him into the wrong room.

I’m lucky that I’m even in a room this time. Normally they throw you into a holding cell or make you sit in an uncomfortable chair next to a drunk named Seth who stinks of malt scotch and body odor. I’m pretty sure the female arresting officer felt sorry for me. By the lethal glare she threw at Jared and Caroline as I was escorted out of Lina’s apartment, past their apartment door, on my way to the cruiser, the officer wasn’t impressed with what she’d heard of the situation.

She didn’t hear it from me, of course. Growing up around lawyers, I’ve learned not to say a word to the police without one present. It was my best friend and next-door neighbor, Lina, who declared that the apartment I trashed earlier today is still technically mine—even if my name isn’t on the lease—and that they should be arresting the thieving, heartless bitch who stole my husband.

Unfortunately, I’m the only one sitting here now.

I hold my breath as I watch Jack take a seat, adjusting his slightly rumpled suit jacket on his large frame as he tries to get comfortable in the hard plastic chair. It’s ironic—in this moment, it feels like he’s both an integral part of my childhood and a complete stranger.

I can’t believe I called him.

I can’t believe he actually came.

With a heavy sigh, he finally murmurs, “Reese’s Pieces.” He’s looking down at me the same way he did when I got caught rearranging the letters of a Baptist church sign to read something no nine-year-old girl—or twenty-year-old, for that matter—should have in her vocabulary. Despite the severe strain in our once close relationship, warmth immediately spreads through my chest. I haven’t heard that nickname in years. “So . . . destruction of private property?”

I guess the cops filled him in. “I prefer to call it artistic expression.” The canvas included Caroline’s prissy clothes, her pretentious throw cushions, and that damn pornographic picture of them hanging over our bed. “Besides,” I raise my hands, stained in crimson, and offer in a deadpan tone, “they can’t prove it was me.” When Lina found me sitting quietly in the dim kitchen light of her apartment, where I’ve been staying for the past two weeks, she let out a single yelp before realizing that I hadn’t turned into a homicidal maniac and was in fact covered in red paint. I probably should have made the cops’ job harder and showered before they arrived.

A tiny sad smile creeps over his face. I wonder if my attempt at humor adequately hides the crushing heartbreak and rejection that I’m drowning in after finding out my husband was having an affair with his high school sweetheart.

“I phoned Barry on my way here. Sounds like you’ve kept him busy these past few years.” By his clenching jaw, I see that wasn’t an easy call for Jack to make, even nine years later. Not surprising. Friends since they could barely walk, Jack and Barry were once equity partners together in his law firm. Until Barry had an affair with Jack’s wife.

My mother.

All relationships instantly dissolved in a bath of bitterness that obviously hasn’t fully drained yet. Glancing at his hand, I can’t help but notice the absence of a wedding ring. I guess he hasn’t remarried. After what my mother put him through, I don’t blame him.

“And I understand why you called me now. You didn’t have a choice, did you?”

“Not really,” I admit, focusing on the stars and circles I’m finger-drawing over the table’s cold metal surface. Barry is a high-priced, successful criminal lawyer who has gotten his unruly stepdaughter out of more than one debacle. The last incident was on my eighteenth birthday when I decided it would be funny to go retro and moon cars.

One of those cars was a police cruiser.

The cop was an uptight prick.

And I was drunk.

After helping me avoid indecent exposure and underage public drunkenness charges, Barry announced that my juvenile record was sealed, I was now an adult, and he was officially washing his hands of me. Three months later, when my mother left him for husband number four, it really became official.

“I’m surprised Annabelle’s new husband didn’t want this swept under the rug quickly.”

“I didn’t phone Annabelle. I don’t want her to know about this.” I stopped calling her “Mom” when I was eight. We both agreed it wasn’t fitting for a woman whose true passions lay in exclusive club status and dirty martinis.

My doodling finger freezes suddenly. “You didn’t phone her, did you?” That would be like handing her torpedoes for an effective insult air strike. She had called it after all. She’d said I didn’t have what it took to keep my “blue-collar pretty-boy” husband happy for long.

Jack chuckles softly, though there’s no mirth in it. “No, I definitely did not phone her. What would I tell her, anyway? You weren’t exactly informative on the phone. Sounds like you’re in some hot water, though.”

My sigh of relief slides out and I’m back to doodling. “That’s what they tell me.” When the cops started throwing around words like “larceny” and “threats of bodily harm”—things that sounded excessive and unfitting, but permanently damaging to my fresh and clean adult record should they stick—I knew I wasn’t going to talk my way out of this one. It didn’t help that I used the picture of Caroline for target practice during my rampage, leaving a pair of scissors strategically placed through her eyes. “It’s a good thing you still have that same law firm. You were easy to find.”

Jack folds his arms over his chest and regards me with an unreadable face. A tiny part of me—the angry little girl lost somewhere inside—is ready to burst, to demand, “How could you have left me? I know why you left my mom, but how could you have shoved me out of your life so easily, too? I didn’t cheat on you!” But I bite my bottom lip. Pissing off the one person who can help me right now wouldn’t be smart. And I need to be smart.

Finally Jack leans back in his chair and says, “Okay, Reese. Start from the beginning and let’s see how we can solve this.”

I press my lips together to keep from smiling. Not because this is amusing. It’s just that we’ve been here before. This really is starting to feel like days long since lost, when we’d meet up in the kitchen around midnight—after Annabelle had gone to sleep, when Jack was finally home from work—to contemplate my latest mischief over bowls of ice cream. He’s even adopted the same hypnotic tone that always got me talking when my teachers, my guidance counselor, or anyone else really, couldn’t. I’m pretty sure he uses it on all of his clients.

Twenty minutes later, after I’ve given him a rundown of my situation, I hear his disappointed sigh. “Working in a pet shop, Reese?”

“Not anymore.” After leaving work early with the flu and coming home to the big discovery of Jared and her in the shower—oddly enough, the more it replays in my mind, the more it begins to resemble the shower scene from Scarface—I spent a week in Lina’s bed, heavily sedated with Jim Beam and Nyquil. My boss fired me over the phone.

I don’t care.

“And eloping in Vegas with a guy? At nineteen years old? After knowing him for six weeks?” I know that the chuckle that fills the room now isn’t directed at me, even before his words confirm it; Jack’s laughing at the irony of it all. “And you were always so adamant that you’d never get married.”

I have no answer to that, except a quiet “I loved him,” as the painful knot forms in my throat, as I fight the sob from tearing out of me. I did. I think I still do, despite how much Jared has hurt me. Since that day eight months ago when I stepped out of my best friend Lina’s apartment and quite literally ran into her neighbor, a reincarnation of a mint-eyed Greek demigod, I knew that I had met my soul mate. Fireworks exploded, lightning struck, electricity coursed. All that love-at-first-sight bullshit that I didn’t believe in—I instantly became a poster child for it. Common sense flew out the window with a cement block tied to its ankle.

Jared said he felt it, too.

And now, after six months of marital bliss, without a single warning sign, he’s back with her.

That rotten illness festering inside me enflames with the thought, the humiliating reality a burn that doesn’t want to subside.

“Look, Reese. I know you’ve always had a wild streak in you, even as a little girl. These choices you’ve made since I saw you last, though,” his head is shaking, “possession of marijuana . . . trespassing . . . underage drinking . . . a fistfight?”

“It’s not really that big a deal. A lot of people drink and smoke pot in high school,” I argue, adding, “I’m just the one who kept getting caught.”

“Drag racing?” He stares at me questioningly.

“Those were derby cars and that was totally blown out of proportion,” I clarify.

Jack slides his glasses off and gives his face a rough rub, looking exhausted. It’s a four-hour drive from Miami to Jacksonville and he arrived here five hours after I called, meaning he pretty much dropped everything to come. I can’t help but wonder why he’d do that.

“At least I didn’t get knocked up,” I joke.

By the look of exasperation he shoots me, he doesn’t find that remotely funny. “I had hoped you were too smart to get into this kind of trouble.”

“I guess even smart girls can make a clusterfuck of their lives, can’t they?” I mutter, though his words sting.

Because they’re true.

There’s a long pause, where Jack’s mouth twists in thought as he regards me. “What are you going to do with yourself now, Reese? How are you going to make up for this?” When I was little, Jack always asked me for suggestions as to how I should be punished for my various childish misdemeanors. I think it was his way of getting me to agree on the outcome without looking like the harsh stepfather. I was pretty good at coming up with suitable penances and it was definitely preferable to sitting in a chair while my mother shrieked about what an embarrassment I was to her, the gin sloshing out of her martini glass with her mad hand gesticulations.

But I’m not a little kid anymore and Jack’s not asking me to come up with a suitable punishment. He’s asking me how I’m going to fix my life.

All I have for him is a defeated shrug.

Because that’s how I feel right now. Defeated. “I don’t know. Get another job, I guess.”

“What about college?”

The eye roll happens before I can stop myself. Jack always hated my eye rolls. “My transcripts aren’t exactly going to woo the administrative offices.” Neither will the private school expulsion, earned when I broke into a teacher’s office and stole a midterm exam.

“Because you couldn’t do the work?” My arched brow answers him. “Because you didn’t do the work,” he answers for himself, shaking his head, his face a mask of extreme disappointment. “Is this how you want to live your life? In and out of police cars? Working minimum-wage jobs? In unstable relationships?”

“Does anybody ever really want that?”

Jack’s right. I was smart. Some may say I’m still smart. But I’ve made so many wrong turns along the way, I don’t know how many right ones it will take to course-correct.

I don’t know if that’s even possible.

I sit in silence, listening to the monotonous tick-tick-tick of the second hand on the wall clock above, watching Jack as he spends an exorbitant amount of time playing with the gold Rolex on his wrist, his breaths deep and ragged. I don’t know that I can count on him. I mean, he forgot about me once. Looking at the twenty-year-old version of who he once knew, he’s probably ready to stamp “lost cause” across my forehead.

And then he settles those kind gray eyes on me. “I honestly didn’t know what to expect when I arrived, but I had a long car ride up to think about it.” Folding his hands together on the table in front of him, a stern expression settles over his face. “I have a proposition. It comes with conditions, though.”

A small exhale escapes me as I chew the inside of my mouth, relief and wariness dancing together. “Okay. I guess?”

“No more, Reese. Not even the harmless stuff.”

“This is my first time here in years, Jack.” Ironically, I convinced myself that meeting Jared was a turning point in my life, leaving me the sated and smiling wife who was happy hanging out at home and keeping out of trouble.

“Yes . . .” His eyes graze the walls of the police station room. “And yet here you are again.”

He doesn’t get it. He must not have heard me. “This was different, Jack! She moved in! I haven’t even moved out yet! All my stuff is still in that apartment!”

He raises his hand to silence me. “You should have turned around and walked out. That would have been the mature, responsible thing to do. Instead, you let your emotions get the better of you.”

I smirk as another wave of familiarity washes over me. “You always said I was too emotional for my own good.”

“I did say that,” he acknowledges with a sad smile. “And I’m still right. No more, Reese.”

Picking at a loose thread on my sleeve as if the topic isn’t cutting into my heart, I offer casually, “Well, I can definitely promise that I won’t be getting married again. Ever.”

That earns a soft chuckle. “You and me both, kiddo.” A pause. “You remember Mason, don’t you?”

My geeky stepbrother who used to spend half his time scowling at me and the other half staring as if my head were about to revolve on my shoulders. I recall that the day we moved out, he watched with a bitter smile, condemning me to follow in my mother’s footsteps.

He despised my mother from the very first day that he met her.

My pursed lips at the mention of that name has Jack smiling. “Oh, yes. How could I forget? Your nemesis. Well, he’s finishing law school this spring.” Jack takes a deep breath and then holds it, as if he’s hesitating. “Why don’t you come and live with us until you get back on your feet.”

What?

Jack continues, not addressing the bewilderment that must be plastered over my face. “I can get you into the paralegal program at Miami U. If you finish that, you can work for me. It doesn’t have to be forever, but at least you’ll have something solid to put on a résumé. It’s a fresh start.”

“I . . . uh . . . ” Did I just hear all that correctly?

His eyes drift over my hair again. “You should think about a more natural color for an office environment and . . .” His focus settles down to the tiny diamond-encrusted septum ring in my nose and he cringes. “Maybe a few less piercings.”

But . . . My tongue has somehow coiled itself into a useless ball inside my mouth as my mind grapples with this offer. It’s far from what I had expected. “Why are you doing this, Jack? I mean, it’s great and all, but why?” He really doesn’t owe me anything. It’s enough that he came all the way out here to bail me out.

“Because I shouldn’t have turned my back on you, Reese. I let—” A flash of pain betrays his otherwise calm demeanor. “Let’s just say I’m making amends.” He pauses. “What do you say? I need to get out of this town. I can feel Annabelle’s shadow looming.” He shivers for effect, making me snort.

“Well . . .” My fingers rap across the table as I give my current situation—that of a police station room—another once-over. I have no job, no home, a shattered heart, and a pending criminal record. I should probably make the first smart choice I’ve made in a long time. But . . . “Not sure the cops will let that happen, Jack.”

“You leave that with me.”

Another pause. “I’m riding my bike down.”

His mouth twists with displeasure. “I assume you’re not referring to one with pedals.”

“No pedals,” I confirm with a small smile. I got my motorcycle license when I turned eighteen and bought a bike a few months later. Another element of my “badass” self that Jared loves.

Loved.

Jack heaves a sigh. “That shouldn’t surprise me. You always did threaten your mother with getting one. Anything else I should know?”

“I’m a slob,” I warn him. “And a certifiable bitch in the morning.”

“Well, I guess some things just don’t change, after all.” Reaching up to give his neck a slow scratch, he mumbles, “Mason will be thrilled.”

¦ ¦ ¦

Six months later

“Could we have picked somewhere more commercial?” I ask dryly, draining my fourth margarita in record time as my gaze drifts over the beachside bar, complete with canopies, twinkling Christmas lights—in July—and too many happy, laughing people. Even with the sun setting and the light ocean breeze passing through, a light sheen of sweat coats the back of my neck. It’s a typical summer night in Cancún, Mexico—hell-hot.

“Commercial is safe,” Lina answers in her distinctive flat tone. She always sounds bored to tears.

I roll my eyes. “You’re safer in this country than you are in our own nation’s capital—you do realize that, right? That’s all just media hype.”

“Tell that to the American couple who just had their heads lopped off a month ago.”

“If I were going to tell them anything, it would be to not run drugs for the cartel,” I retort.

She acknowledges that with a lazy shrug as she sips on some frothy calorie-laden pink thing with an umbrella sticking out of it.

“Why don’t we put on a pile of diamonds, jump into a random cab, and get the guy to drive us through the quiet, dark back streets of Mexico City?”

Lina’s thin lips purse together tightly as she regards me. “It’s never fun to discover your best friend has a death wish.”

With a snort, I wave the server down for another drink. “But it would be fun to watch someone try to take Nicki down.”

As if hearing her name from across the lounge, Nicki—who I met when I answered a “roommate wanted” ad in the newspaper—and the third member of our little “Reese is turning twenty-one and is still bitter as hell so let’s go to Cancún” entourage, turns her head to catch our gaze from her seat on a swing by the bar. She winks as she downs another shot of tequila.

“How does she make that work so well?” Lina mutters with a hint of envy. I know exactly what she means. All around us are flirty girls in pastel barely-there dresses and sun-kissed skin. Not Nicki, though. She sits by that bar like a femme fatale in a skin-tight leopard print dress and four-inch black heels, her platinum-blond hair coiffed like Gwen Stefani’s, her red lips glaring against her pale skin, and sparkly chandelier earrings dangling from her ears. All that femininity oozing from her is counterbalanced by a full sleeve of ink and the muscular physique she’s honed through her latest passion: dead-weight lifting. The tall guy talking her ear off right now? She could bench-press his two-hundred-odd pounds without breaking a sweat. That, coupled with her three-year stint cage-fighting before she switched hobbies, makes her one badass twenty-five-year-old woman.

“It works so well because she’s beautiful and mysterious and she’s not stupid enough to run off and marry some guy she met in a hallway who’s still in love with his ex,” I mutter around my straw, catching the wince flash across Lina’s face. It’s the first time I’ve made any open reference to Jared since leaving for Miami, perfecting the art of denial while I impatiently waited for my heart to freeze.

Our waiter places a fresh margarita on the table next to me with a wink. I force a smile and I’m sure it’s altogether hostile by the way he hightails it back to the bar. I can’t help it. He has dark, shaggy hair and olive skin. Just like Jared.

“You have to let it go, Reese. It’s been six months. You—” My flat glare makes her voice falter, her words a dishonor to the very real, very raw pain I still feel. Especially today, on what would have been our one-year wedding anniversary.

And is instead Jared and Caroline’s wedding day.

Because karma hasn’t been cruel enough.

She quickly changes tactics. “You’ve started a whole new life. New city, new home. Soon, a new look . . .” Her free hand reaches up to flip strands of my hair, reminding me that the purple will be gone the day that I return. “You’ve got that great new job.”

I roll my eyes.

“It’s not cleaning up puppy shit and getting bitten by snakes.” She taps the puncture marks on the meaty part of my thumb. A physical reminder of the day I made the idiotic mistake of sticking my mouse-scented hand into a cage to freshen the aspen chips and ended up with a two-foot-long ball python’s fangs embedded in my flesh.

That happened the exact same day my sky fell. A very fitting scar.

“Not literally. But I’ll be working in a law firm, Lina. Plenty of snakes.”

After we made our agreement, Jack quickly went about throwing all kinds of legal jargon at the cops. In the end, it was unnecessary. Given the epically huge lack of judgment that Jared used sending me into that apartment unprepared to collect my things, he convinced Caroline not to press charges. So I walked out the police doors without any record of my moment of crazy.

Jack let me wallow in his spacious Miami house for one week, wearing my pajamas and gorging myself on Ben & Jerry’s Butter Pecan ice cream out of the tub for twenty-one consecutive meals, before he tossed a bunch of application papers my way. He said, “It takes four to six months for most students to get through, depending on how hard you work. You can do it all online if you want and I have a paralegal spot waiting for you when you’re done. Decent pay, good people. It’s just a start, Reese.”

I’ve never had any interest in working at a law firm—especially the one tainted by my mother—but I had made a deal with Jack and I am smart enough to see a good opportunity. So I immersed myself in the program, using it as a distraction. Once I got into it, I actually didn’t mind the course work. It took me five months to complete and I ended up finishing with a near-perfect score.

I start my new job the Monday after I get back from Cancún.

“Oh, no. You’re having doubts. You’re going to bail on Jack. If you do, you’re dead to me,” Lina says.

“Oh, ye of little faith.” Surprisingly, as unreliable as I can be at times, the thought of bailing on Jack has never crossed my mind.

“Fine. Let’s talk about happier things. How’s Annabelle?”

“Okay, see this?” I gesture to my face, which has contorted into a mixed pucker of disgust and loathing. “Sour face. Do not speak of she who must not be named.”

“Do you want me to break into her place while she sleeps and turn her fans on? Guaranteed death, according to my people.” Lina was adopted by a lovely Korean couple as a baby and raised to fully embrace their culture, including all of their death-by-fan superstitions. The fact that she’s a five-foot-eleven-inch willowy blond who towers over both her parents means nothing in the Chung household. Her name is actually Li-Na, but she Americanized it in high school to make life easier. She speaks Korean fluently—throwing more than a few people off—and can shovel food into her mouth with chopsticks like the best of them.

We’ve been best friends since sophomore year, when I discovered Lina crying in a bathroom stall after Raine Higgins and her posse of bored and bitchy juniors had been bullying her. I did what any naturally spiteful high school kid who hates bullies would do. I spray-painted Raine’s car with Korean expletives that I found on the internet. That, along with a picture of her giving her boyfriend a blow job in a parking lot that I covertly took—after stalking her at a party—and glued to the inside of the windshield of her locked car with Krazy Glue, was enough to keep Lina from ever being bothered by her again.

The tightness in my chest suddenly lifts with Lina’s attempts to sway my mood. “Are you sure you and Nicki don’t want a third roommate?” Lina and Nicki moved down to Miami about a month ago, into a condo that Lina’s parents bought for her as a college graduation present.

“Absolutely sure,” she confirms without missing a beat, her focus intent on the little pink umbrella twirling between her thumb and index finger. Lina’s living habits are about as opposite to mine as the Arctic Circle is to the Sahara Desert. Everything in her apartment—from her linen closet to her pasta jars—is tidy and labeled accordingly. Those two weeks that I sought refuge in her apartment after breaking up with Jared nearly destroyed her.

“Okay, enough about bad stuff. Didn’t we talk about finding you a fling?”

I groan as I survey the crowd. “I remember you talking about it and me ignoring you. I’ve tried. Three strikes is enough for me.”

“You have not tried, Reese. Admit it.”

Either there’s an influx of douchebags or Lina’s right and I’m subconsciously sabotaging myself. First there was Slick Steve, a senior at Miami U who showed up to our date with perfectly coiffed hair and an outfit right off the set of Grease the musical. Then there was Metrosexual Mark, a blind date from Nicki’s work who picked his teeth with his fork and had a weird habit of adding “if it were me” to 90 percent of the sentences that came out of his mouth.

The final straw, though?

Emilio. Good ol’ Spanish I-look-enough-like-your-ex-husband-that-if-you-dim-the-lights-this-might-actually-work Emilio. I might have been willing to see where it went had he not opened his wallet and laid it out on the table to proudly display his collection of extra-large Trojans, and then propositioned me in Spanish.

I shudder with the memory. “I’m starting my harem of cats.”

“You hate cats.”

“True. But I also hate limes, and look at me now!” I hold up my glass. “Besides, I’ve already found my Cancún fling. Lina, meet Mr. Cuervo. Mr. Cuervo . . . my best friend, Lina.” Leaning in, I waggle my brow and whisper, “If you’re nice, he’ll let you call him Jose. I plan on spending the next six nights with this naughty little Mexican.” I wave a hand at the server as he whizzes by, letting him know that I need another drink by pointing to my nearly empty glass, as I add, “He can be a bit of a whiny bitch in the morning but he makes up for it by dark.”

“Great. Because you’re not emotional enough when you’re sober,” she mutters, adding with a sigh, “Well, an incessantly drunk Reese should make for an interesting trip, at least. Just try not to get arrested. I hear the cells here aren’t as nice as the ones you’re used to back home.”

Nicki must have been monitoring my drink levels from her perch by the bar because she saunters over with a fresh margarita in hand, either oblivious or ignoring the attention she naturally garners. “Here you go, señorita,” she offers in a deceptively soft voice as she flicks her tongue piercing. I automatically roll my tongue, sensing the absence of mine. Jack hasn’t outright demanded that I remove my piercings but I knew, by the way he kept cringing, that the barbell through my tongue was truly freaking him out. I removed that one out of respect, but I’m holding out on the others until the last possible moment.

“Jose isn’t complaining about my level of intoxication,” I respond to Lina, giving the rim of my glass a slow, sultry lick. I have a high tolerance for alcohol, borne from years of underage partying. It would seem, though, that lame, tourist-trap Cancún serves strong margaritas and the warm and fuzzies are really kicking in.

“Who the fuck is Jose?” Nicki asks, her pretty face scrunching up.

“It’s Mr. Cuervo to you.”

She finally clues in and that musical laugh of hers rolls out. “Oh . . . oh, buddy! No! That’s so sad. We need to fix that.” Her curious eyes scan the lounge. “You promised me you’d exorcise Jared from your vagina if you met a hot guy . . . There. The one in front. Perfect.” She raises her inked arm, signaling someone as if she knows him.

Oh, God. I suck back a large gulp. “Seriously, Nicki. After the tooth picker you set me up with, I think I’m done. And exorcisms take at least two days to prepare for. Can’t I just drown myself in frozen green goodness for tonight? I’m not even dressed for it.” I’d thrown on a pair of shorts and an old faded rock concert tank. I don’t even have makeup on.

“What do you wanna be this time? Architect from L.A.?” she asks, ignoring my opposition completely. Her eyes twinkle as they flash to me. “Stripper from Pasadena?”

I nod with appreciation. “That was a good one.” Before Jared, the three of us used to head out to the bars on the weekends—Lina and I with fake ID. We’d make up identities: jobs, cities, sometimes names, and see how long we could keep it going while guys bought us drinks. Once, I had a guy completely sold on me being a goat herder from Iowa. He was as dumb as a bag of bricks.

The shuffle of approaching feet stirs an anxious flutter in my stomach. I really don’t want to carry on a conversation tonight, fake or otherwise. “Helloooo boys,” Nicki purrs playfully. I feel the eyes of women around us as they sit up to take notice, their rays of envy scorching my skin. I decide I can’t play disinterested just yet. I need to know what type of fiend Nicki has targeted. As casually as five margaritas will allow, I turn and . . . slide right off my chair, my shorts providing my ass with little protection against the hard tile floor.

“I have shamed Mr. Cuervo,” I mutter, ducking my head, the night air carrying mocking giggles my way as I accept that it’s only eight o’clock and I’m way more drunk than I realized.

A large hand appears in front of me, palm up. “Well, I’m impressed.” I hear the smile behind the masculine voice and I can’t decide if I like that or not. Accepting the help—because the sooner I’m off the floor, the better—I’m pulled to my feet and into the broad chest of a blond with a big, obnoxious grin.

Wearing a fucking red shirt.

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He Will Be My Ruin
Excerpt

He Will Be My Ruin CHAPTER 1
Maggie

November 30, 2015

The afternoon sun beams through the narrow window, casting a warm glow over Celine’s floral comforter.

It would be inviting, only her body was found in this very bed just thirteen days ago.

“Maggie?”

“Yeah,” I respond without actually turning around, my gaze taking in the cramped bedroom before me. I’ve never been a fan of New York City and all its overpriced boroughs. Too big, too busy, too pretentious. Take this Lower East Side apartment, for example, on the third floor of a drafty building built in the 1800s, with a ladder of shaky fire escapes facing the side alley and a kitschy gelato café downstairs. It costs more per month than the average American hands the bank in mortgage payments.

And Celine adored it.

“I’m in 410 if you just . . . want to come and find me.”

I finally turn and acknowledge the building super—a chestnut-haired English guy around thirty by my guess, with a layer of scruff over his jawline and faded blue jeans—edging toward the door. Given the apartment is 475 square feet, it doesn’t take him long to reach it.

I think he gave me his name but I wasn’t listening. I’ve barely said two words since I met him in front of Celine’s apartment, armed with a stack of cardboard flats and trash bags. An orchestra of clocks that softly tick away claim that that was nearly half an hour ago. I’ve simply stood here since then, feeling the brick-exposed walls—lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and filled with the impressive collection of treasures that Celine had amassed over her twenty-eight years—closing in on me.

But now I feel the need to speak. “You were the one who let the police in?” Celine never missed work, never arrived late. That’s why, after not showing up for two days and not answering her phone or her door, her coworker finally called the cops.

The super nods.

“You saw her?”

His eyes flicker to the thin wall that divides the bedroom from the rest of the apartment—its only purpose is to allow the building’s owner to charge rent for a “one-bedroom” instead of a studio. There’s not even enough room for a door. Yes, he saw her body. “She seemed really nice,” he offers, his throat turning scratchy, shifting on his feet. He’d rather be unplugging a shit-filled toilet than be here right now. I don’t blame him. “Uh . . . So you can just slide the key through the mail slot in my door when you’re finished, if you want? I’ll be home later tonight to grab it.”

Under different circumstances, I’d find his accent charming. “I’ll be staying here for a while.”

He frowns. “You can’t—”

“Yeah, I can,” I snap, cutting his objection off. “We’re on the hook with the lease until the end of January, right? So don’t even think of telling me that I can’t.” I’m in no rush to empty this place out so some jackass landlord can rent it next month and pocket my money. Plus . . . My gaze drifts over the living room again. I just need to be in Celine’s presence for a while, even if she’s not here anymore.

“Of course. I’m just . . .” He bites his bottom lip as if to stall a snippy response. When he speaks again, his tone is back to soft. “The mattress, the bedding, it’ll all need to be replaced. I would have already pitched it for you, but I figured that it wasn’t my call to make. I pulled the blanket up to cover the mess and tried to air the place out, but . . .”

I sigh shakily, the tension making my body as taut as a wire. I’m the only jackass around here. “Right. I’m sorry.” I inhale deeply. The linen air freshener can’t completely mask the smell. Her body lay in that bed for two days.

Dead.

Decomposing.

“I’ll be fine with the couch until I can get a new mattress delivered.” It’ll be more than fine, seeing as I’ve been sleeping on a thin bedroll on a dirt floor in Ethiopia for the past three months. At least there’s running water here, and I’m not sharing the room with two other people. Or rats, hopefully.

“I can probably get a bloke in here to help me carry it out if you want,” he offers, sliding hands into his pockets as he slowly shifts backward.

“Thank you.” I couple my contrite voice with a smile and watch the young super exit, pulling the door shut behind him.

My gaze drifts back to the countless shelves. I haven’t been to visit Celine in New York in over two years; we always met in California, the state where we grew up. “My, you’ve been busy,” I whisper. Celine always did have a love for the old and discarded, and she had a real eye for it. She’d probably seen every last episode of Antiques Roadshow three times over. She was supposed to start school this past September to get her MA in art business, with plans to become an appraiser. She delayed enrollment, for some reason.

But she never told me that. I found out through her mother just last week.

Her apartment looks more like a bursting vintage shop than a place someone would live. It’s well organized at least—all her trinkets grouped effectively. Entire shelves are dedicated to elaborate teacups, others to silver tea sets, genuine hand-cut crystal glassware, ornate clocks and watches, hand-painted tiles, and so on. Little side tables hold stained-glass lamps and more clocks and her seemingly endless collection of art history books. On the few walls not lined with shelves, an eclectic mix of artwork fills the space.

Very few things in here aren’t antique or vintage. The bottles of Ketel One, Maker’s Mark, and Jägermeister lined up on a polished brass bar cart. Her computer and a stack of hardcover books, sitting on a worn wooden desk that I’d expect to find in an old elementary schoolhouse. Even the two-foot-tall artificial Christmas tree has well-aged ornaments dangling from its branches.

I wander aimlessly, my hands beginning to touch and test. A slight pull of the desk drawer finds it locked, with no key anywhere, from what I can see. I run a finger along the spine of a leather-bound edition of The Taming of the Shrew on a shelf. Not a speck of dust. Celine couldn’t stand disorder. Every single nutcracker faces out, equidistant from the next, shortest in front, tallest in back, as if she measured them with a ruler and placed them just so.

Being enclosed in this organized chaos makes me antsy. Or maybe that’s my own ultra-minimalist preferences coming out.

I sigh and drop my purse onto the couch. My phone goes next, but not before I send a text to my personal assistant, Taryn, to ask that she arrange for a firm double mattress to be delivered to Celine’s address. Then I power the phone off before she can respond with unnecessary questions. I’ve had it on silent since my plane landed in San Diego five days ago for the funeral. Even with two proficient assistants handling my organization’s affairs while I’m dealing with my best friend’s death, the stupid thing hasn’t stopped vibrating.

They can all wait for me, while I figure out where to begin here.

I know I have a lot of paperwork to get to the lawyer. All estate proceeds will eventually go to Celine’s mother, Rosa, but she doesn’t want a dime. She’s already demanded that I sell off anything I don’t want to keep for myself and use the money for one of my humanitarian efforts in her daughter’s name.

I could tell Rosa was still in shock, because she has always been a collector by nature—that’s where Celine got it from—and it surprised me that she wouldn’t want to keep at least some of her daughter’s treasures for herself. But she was adamant and I was not going to argue. I’ll just quietly pack a few things that I think would mean a lot to her and have them shipped to San Diego.

Seeing Celine’s apartment now, though, I realize that selling is going to take forever. I’m half-tempted to dump everything into boxes for charity, guesstimate the value, and write a check. But that would belittle all the evenings and weekends that Celine devoted to hunting antique shops, garage sales, and ignorant sellers for her next perfect treasure.

My attention lands on the raw wood plank shelf that floats over a mauve suede couch, banked by silky curtains and covered with an eclectic mix of gilded frames filled with pictures from Celine’s childhood. Most of them are of her and her mom. Some are of just her. Four include me.

I smile as I ease one down, of Celine and me at the San Diego Zoo. I was twelve, she was eleven. Even then she was striking, her olive skin tanned from a summer by the pool. Next to her, my pale Welsh skin always looked sickly.

I first met Celine when I was five. My mom had hired her mother, Rosa Gonzalez, as a housekeeper and nanny, offering room and board for both her and her four-year-old daughter. We had had a string of nannies come and go, my mother never satisfied with their work ethic. But Rosa came highly recommended. It’s so hard to find good help, I remember overhearing my mother say to her friends once. They applauded her generosity with Rosa, that she was not only taking in a recent immigrant from Mexico, but her child as well.

The day Celine stepped into my parents’ palatial house in La Jolla, she did so with wide brown eyes, her long hair the color of cola in braided pigtails and adorned in giant blue bows, her frilly blue-and-white dress and matching socks like something out of The Wizard of Oz. Celine would divulge to me later on that it was the only dress she owned, purchased from a thrift shop, just for this special occasion.

Rosa and Celine lived with us for ten years, and my daily routines quickly became Celine’s daily routines. The chauffeur would drop Celine off at the curb in front of the local public school on our way to my private school campus. Though her school was far above average as public schools go, I begged and pleaded for my parents to pay for Celine to attend with me. I didn’t quite understand the concept of money back then, but I knew we had a lot, and we could more than afford it.

They told me that’s just not how the world works. Besides, as much as Rosa wanted the best for her child, she was too proud to ever accept that kind of generosity. Even giving Celine my hand-me-down clothes was a constant battle.

No matter where we spent the day, though, from the time we came home to the time we fell asleep, Celine and I were inseparable. I would return from piano lessons and teach Celine how to read music notes. She’d use the other side of my art easel to paint pictures with me of the ocean view from my bedroom window. She’d rate my dives and time my laps around our pool, and I’d do the same for her. We’d lounge beneath the palm trees on hot summer days, dreaming up plans for our future. In my eyes, it was a given that Celine would always be part of my life.

We were an odd match. From our looks to our social status to our polar-opposite personalities, we couldn’t have been more different. I was captain of the debate squad and Celine played the romantic female lead in her school plays. I spearheaded a holiday charity campaign at the age of thirteen, while Celine sang in choirs for the local senior citizens. I read the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times religiously, while Celine would fall asleep with a Jane Austen novel resting across her chest.

And then one Saturday morning in July when I was fifteen, my parents announced that they had filed for divorce. I still remember the day well. They walked side-by-side toward where I lounged beside the pool, my dad dressed for a round of golf, my mom carrying a plate of Rosa’s breakfast enchiladas. They’d technically separated months earlier, and I had no idea because seeing them together had always been rare to begin with.

The house in La Jolla was going up for sale. Dad was buying a condo close to the airport, to make traveling for work easier, while Mom would be moving to Chicago, where our family’s company, Sparkes Energy, had their corporate headquarters. I’d stay wherever I wanted, when I wasn’t at the prestigious boarding school in Massachusetts that they decided I should attend for my last three years of high school.

The worst of it was that Rosa and Celine would be going their own way.

Rosa, who was more a parent to me than either of my real parents had ever been.

Celine . . . my best friend, my sister.

Both of them, gone from my daily life with two weeks’ notice.

They’re just a phone call away, my mom reasoned. That’s all I had, and so I took advantage. For years, I would call Celine and Rosa daily. I had a long-distance plan, but had I not, I still would have happily driven up my mom’s phone bill, bitter with her for abandoning me for the company. I spent Christmases and Thanksgivings with Rosa and Celine instead of choosing to spend them with Melody or William Sparkes.

To be honest, it never was much of a choice.

Through boyfriends, college, jobs, and fronting a successful nonprofit organization that has had me living all over Africa and Asia for the last six years, Celine and Rosa have remained permanent fixtures in my life.

Until thirteen days ago, when Rosa’s sobs filled my ear in a village near Nekemte, Ethiopia, where I’ve been leading a water well project and building homes. After a long, arduous day in the hot sun, my hands covered with cuts from corrugated iron and my muscles sore from carrying burned bricks, it was jarring to hear Rosa’s voice. California felt worlds away. At first I thought that I hadn’t kept myself hydrated enough and I was hallucinating. But by the third time I heard her say, “Celine killed herself,” it finally registered. It just didn’t make sense.

It still doesn’t.

Hollowness kept me company all the way back—first on buses, then a chartered flight, followed by several commercial airline connections—and into Rosa’s modest home in the suburbs of San Diego. The hollowness held me together through the emotional visitation and funeral, Rosa’s tightly knit Mexican community rocked by the news. It numbed me enough to face Rosa’s eyes, bloodshot and rimmed with dark circles, as she insisted that I come to New York to handle the material remains of her only child.

The case is all but officially closed. The police are simply waiting for the final autopsy report to confirm that a lethal dose of Xanax—the pill bottle sitting open on her nightstand was from a prescription she filled only two days prior—combined with an unhealthy amount of vodka was what killed her. They see it as a quick open-and-shut suicide case, aided by a note in her handwriting that read I’m sorry for everything, found lying next to her.

The picture frame cracks within my tightening grasp as tears burn my cheeks, and I have the overwhelming urge to smash the entire shelf of happy memories.

This just doesn’t seem possible. How could she do this to her mother? I shift my focus to the picture of Rosa—a petite brunette with a fierce heart, who gives hugs to strangers who look like they’re having a bad day and spouts a string of passionate Spanish when anyone tries to leave the dinner table before every last bite is finished.

Before this past week, I hadn’t seen Rosa since last Christmas. She still looks frail eleven months after the doctors told her that the double mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation had worked and she was considered in remission. It’ll be a year in January since the day Celine phoned me to give me the good news: that Rosa had fought breast cancer hard. And had won.

So why the hell would Celine make her suffer so horribly now?

I roam aimlessly through the rest of the apartment, in a state of extreme exhaustion after days of travel and jet lag and tears, taking in everything that remains of my childhood friend.

But there are things here that surprise me, too—a closet full of designer-label dresses that Celine couldn’t possibly have afforded on an administrative assistant’s salary, a bathroom counter overflowing with bold red lipsticks and daringly dark eye shadows that I never saw touch her naturally beautiful face, not even in recent photos.

Knowing Celine, she bought those dresses at secondhand stores. And the makeup, well . . . She would have looked beautiful with red lipstick.

I smile, sweeping the bronzer brush across my palm to leave a dusting of sparkle against my skin. I’m supposed to be this girl—the one with the extravagant clothes and makeup, who puts time and stock into looks and money. As the fourth generation of one of the biggest energy companies in the world, I will one day inherit 51 percent of the corporation’s shares. Though my parents don’t need to work, they each run a division—my industrialist father managing the ugly face of coal burning while my mother distracts the world with a pretty mask of wind and solar energy farms, hiding the fact that we’re slowly helping to destroy the world.

I grew up aware of the protests. I’ve read enough articles about the greed and the harm to the planet that comes with this industry. By the time I turned twenty-one, still young and idealistic and embroiled by the latest disgrace involving our company and an oil tanker spill off the coast of China, I wanted nothing to do with the enormous trust fund that my grandmother left me. In fact, I was one signature away from handing it all over to a charity foundation. My biggest mistake—and saving grace—was that I tried to do it through my lawyer, a loyal Sparkes Energy legal consultant. He, of course, informed my parents, who fought me on it. I wouldn’t listen to them.

But I did listen to Celine. She was the one who persuaded me not to do it in the end, sending me link after link of scandal after scandal involving charity organizations. How so little of the money ever actually reaches those in need, how so much of the money lines the pockets of individuals. She used the worst-case scenarios to steer me away from my plan because she knew it would work. Then she suggested that I use the trust fund to lead my own humanitarian ventures. I could do bigger, better things if I controlled it.

That’s when I began Villages United.

And Celine was right.

VU may only be six years old, but it has already become an internationally recognized nonprofit, focused on high-impact lending projects throughout the world geared toward building self-sustainable villages. We teach children to read and give them roofs to sleep under and clean water to drink and clothes to wear and books to read. Between my own money and the money that VU has raised, we have now left a lasting mark on thirty-six communities in countries around the world.

And I’m not just writing checks from my house in California. I’m right there in the trenches, witnessing the changes firsthand. Something my parents simply don’t understand, though they’ve tried turning it into a Sparkes Energy PR venture on more than one occasion.

I’ve refused every single time.

Because, for the first time in a long time, I’m truly proud to be Maggie Sparkes.

I haven’t even warned them about my newest endeavor—providing significant financial backing to companies that are developing viable and economical green energy solutions. VU was preparing to announce it to the media in the coming weeks. As much as I can’t think about any of that right now, I’ll have to soon. Too many people rely on me.

But for now . . . all I can focus on is Celine.

I wander into her bedroom, my back to another wall of collectibles as I stand at the foot of the ornate wrought-iron bed, the delicate bedding stretched out neatly, as if Celine made it this morning. As if she’ll be back later to share a glass of wine and a laugh.

I yank the duvet back, just long enough to see the ugly proof beneath.

To remind me that that’s never going to happen.

Edging along the side of her bed—I actually have to turn and shimmy to fit—I move toward a stack of vintage wooden food crates that serve as a nightstand. A wave of nostalgia washes over me as my finger traces the heavy latches and handmade, chunky gunmetal-gray body of the antique box sitting next to the lamp. The day that I spied it in an antique store while shopping for Celine’s sixteenth birthday, it made me think of a medieval castle. The old man who sold it to me said it was actually an eighteenth-century lockbox.

Whatever it was, I knew Celine would love it.

I carry it over to the living room, where I can sit and open it up. Inside are sentimental scraps of Celine’s life. Concert stubs and random papers, a dried rose, her grandmother’s rosary that Rosa gave to her. Rosa is supremely religious, and Celine, the ever-devoted daughter, kept up appearances for her mother, though she admitted to me that she didn’t find value in it.

I pull each item out, laying them on the trunk coffee table until I’m left with nothing but the smooth velvet floor of the box. I fumble with a small detail on the outside that acts as a lever—remembering my surprise when the man revealed the box’s secret—until a click sounds, allowing me to pry open the false bottom.

Celine’s shy, secretive eyes lit up when I first showed her the sizeable compartment. It was perfect for hiding treasures, like notes from boys, and the silver bracelet that her senior-year boyfriend bought her for Valentine’s Day and she was afraid to wear in front of Rosa. While I love Rosa dearly, she could be suffocating sometimes.

My fingers wrap around the wad of money filling the small space as a deep frown creases my forehead. Mostly hundreds but plenty of fifties, too. I quickly count it. There’s almost ten thousand dollars here.

Why wouldn’t Celine deposit this into her bank account?

I pick up the ornate bronze key and a creased sheet of paper that also sits within. I’m guessing the key is for the desk. I’ll test that out in a minute. I gingerly unfold the paper that’s obviously been handled many times, judging by the crinkles in it.

My eyes widen.

A naked man fills one side. He’s entrancingly handsome, with long lashes and golden-blond tousled hair and a shadow of peach scruff covering his hard jawline. He’s lying on his back, one muscular arm disappearing into the pillow beneath his head, a white sheet tangled around his legs, not quite covering the goods, which from what I can see, are fairly impressive. I can’t tell what color his eyes are because he’s fast asleep.

“Well then . . .” I frown, taken aback.

I’m not surprised that Celine could attract the attention of a guy like this. She was a gorgeous young woman—her Mexican roots earning her lush locks, full lips, and voluptuous curves tied to the kind of tiny waist that all men seem to admire.

Nor am I surprised that he’s blond. It has always been a running joke between us, her penchant for blonds. She’s never dated anything but.

But I am surprised that she’d have the nerve to take—and print out to keep by her bed—a scandalous picture like this in the first place.

I wonder if she ever mentioned him to me. She always told me about her dates, utter failures or otherwise. Though it’s been years since she was seeing anyone seriously, and she was definitely seeing this guy seriously if she was sleeping with him. Celine usually waited months before she gave that up to a guy. She didn’t even lose her virginity until she was twenty-two, to a guy she had been dating for six months and hoped that she would one day marry. Who broke up with her shortly afterward.

So who the hell is this guy and why didn’t I ever hear about him? And where is he now? When were they together last?

Does he know that she’s dead?

Worrying my bottom lip between my teeth—it’s a bad habit of mine—I slowly fold the paper back up. Celine’s cursive scrawl decorates the back side in purple ink. Words I hadn’t noticed before.

Words that make my heart stop now.

This man was once my salvation. Now he will be my ruin.

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In Her Wake

In Her Wake

A Ten Tiny Breaths Novella
edition:Paperback
also available: Audiobook eBook
More Info
Excerpt

In Her Wake

Chapter 1

April 26, 2008

“Last one and then we’re heading out.”

“You’re kidding me, right?” Derek’s deep voice carries over the steady thrum of house music. He hands off an empty beer bottle to a passing buddy in exchange for two full ones, tossing one to me. “It’s what,” he glances at his watch, “only twelve. And we drove an hour to get here!”

Twisting the cap off, I suck back a big gulp, the fresh, cold liquid like icy relief on a scorching day. Even though it’s April in Michigan and barely tipping the freezing mark outside, it’s sweltering hot in here. “I warned you that I wanted an early night. I’m hitting the books first thing tomorrow morning or I’m screwed.” Four finals in three days. I’m screwed either way. That’s probably why the Millers are going down so damn fast tonight. I’m definitely more relaxed than I was when we first arrived.

“You’ll be home by tomorrow morning. Until then . . .” He gives his cousin’s living room—jam-packed with a blend of college kids and locals—a once-over, stalling on two blonds who look like they could still be in high school.

“If we don’t head out soon, I’ll be a write-off and you know it.” It’s no surprise that Derek’s busting my balls to stay. He’s never been one to miss a party. Normally we have to pry him off the keg. But I only agreed to watching the hockey game—the Red Wings are in the play-offs, after all—and somehow it turned into this. If it weren’t my last Friday night in Michigan, I would have said no in the first place. “Don’t you have finals to worry about, too?”

Derek shrugs, taking another long drag of his beer and then settling his eyes on the brunette tucked into the tight space beside me on the couch. Michelle, I think she said her name was. She’s pretty and sweet, and she’s casually nudged her thigh against mine enough times for me to know she’s into me. But, even though it’s been six weeks since Madison came to visit me and I’m dying to get laid, I’m not about to cheat on my girlfriend. Especially not for a one-nighter.

I ignore Derek’s dumb smirk. “Where’s Sasha?”

He dips his head to the left. I follow his lead to where our friend stands toe-to-toe with a brawny guy wearing a blue Wolverines T-shirt, their lips moving fast and tight. If I had to guess, their little “chat” has something to do with our bowl game against the other Michigan college football team three months ago—which we won—and things are about to heat up. It doesn’t help that Sasha wore his “Spartans rule, Wolverines drool” shirt tonight, knowing we were heading into U of M territory.

“Great,” I mutter, dragging my six-foot-three-inch frame off the couch. The room sways and I stumble slightly, my foot bumping the tidy line of empties on the floor.

I’ve had way more than I planned on having in the last four hours.

Shit.

I’m the DD tonight.

I guess that means we’re stuck here for a while. And I’ve probably just fucked myself over for finals.

Wandering over to Sasha, I drop my hand on his shoulder, getting a good grip in case I have to pull him back. Sasha’s no runt, only an inch short of matching my height and, thanks to an intense off-season practice schedule, just as built. He can handle his own. I should know; we’ve been roughhousing together since we were in diapers.

“We all good here?” I eye the guy in front of him, an olive-­skinned Latino with a unibrow and an intimidating scowl. I don’t recognize his face from the field. Then again, we all wear helmets and I don’t waste my time on anything but which number I need to take out.

Sasha thrusts a hand through his shaggy brown hair—almost identical to mine in color—but doesn’t answer me, eyes locked on the other guy. I’ve seen him like this before. It almost always ends up in a fight.

“Sash? Finals start next week,” I remind him. They’ll be hard enough without swollen eyes and split lips. Plus, I can’t be getting into a fight with my healing shoulder.

“Yeah.” The word drags on Sasha’s tongue and then he smirks. “We’re good. Just sharing some helpful tips. You know, the basics. Like how to throw a fucking ball to your receiver.”

I step in between them to serve as a barrier just as the other guy leans in.

Thankfully, Derek’s cousin, Rich—a big guy himself—strolls out from the kitchen then. “Take it outside. I don’t want my place trashed.”

Sasha’s hands lift, palms out, in an act of surrender. “Nothing to take outside. We’re good.” Slapping Rich’s hand in a friendly way, he leads me away. But not before tossing a wink over his shoulder at Unibrow.

I shake my head but I’m chuckling. “You’re a dick. You know that?” When you’ve lived next to a guy for eighteen years, shared hockey pucks and bloody noses and secrets about rounding bases with girls in school, you can say that without repercussions.

Sasha’s the brother I never had.

His smug smile hasn’t faded. “I know. And we probably need to get the fuck out of here now because I just gave that asshole the gears. He’s gonna pummel me soon, no doubt. I’d hit me if I were him.”

“Sorry, man. We’re stuck here for a bit. I lost track of the beers.” This sucks. I really just want to get home. Maybe Rich knows of a sober girl here that Sash can hit up. Maybe—

“I’ll drive,” Sasha offers.

“Seriously? You good?” That would make things easier.

“Yeah. I’ve been chugging water for the past hour. I’ve got finals to worry about, too.”

My body sags with relief.

“Come on.” He jerks his head toward the door and holds his hand out. “Let’s go.”

“All right.” I slide the keys of my Suburban out of my jeans pocket. It’s actually my dad’s SUV. We swapped cars over spring break so I can haul back the essentials when I head home for the summer.

I toss them to Sasha.

He has to dive to catch them, taking a few quick steps to regain his balance as he stands upright. “Forgotten how to throw already?” he mutters with a grin.

¦ ¦ ¦

“Stay for summer classes!” Sasha drops the SUV into fourth gear as the quiet, dark road opens up into a long stretch toward Lansing and our apartment near the Michigan State campus. He’s still pissed that I’m going back to Rochester until July. When I told him, he didn’t talk to me for two days.

We’ve never had a choice but to stay in Lansing, what with the football summer training schedule. But then I tore my rotator cuff in the last bowl game and had to have surgery to repair it over spring break, so I’m out for the time being. Maybe for good.

Secretly, I’m happy to be going home for a while. I’m even happier that I won’t be pushing sleds uphill and running hundred-­yard sprints every day at six a.m. As good as I am at the game—and I’m good, otherwise I would never have made a team like the Spartans in the first place—I never held any ambitions to go beyond college ball.

Still, Sasha and I have never been apart for more than a week.

“Nah . . . Madison would kill me if I changed my mind now.” I let my spinning head fall back against my headrest and close my eyes. I could pass out right here. Maybe I’ll get a half-decent night’s sleep tonight after all.

“She can come visit,” Sasha grumbles.

Derek’s loud bark of laughter erupts from the backseat. “You actually wanna listen to Cole givin’ it to your little sister in the room next to you?”

“Shut the fuck up, Maynard.” I crack an eye to see Sasha’s knuckles white against the steering wheel. It took Sasha the better part of a year to come to terms with me dating Madison. Four years later, he still gets uptight with any conversation that even hints at his sister getting laid.

“It’s just for a few months, bro. I’ll be back at the apartment before you know it,” I say, trying to ease Sasha’s ire.

“Well, I for one am happier than a pig in shit that you’ll be gone,” Derek announces. When I let the guys know, Derek immediately jumped on the chance to take my room. He lives with his parents in a small house just outside Lansing and, though his folks are nice, I don’t blame him for wanting some space.

I’ve known Derek for almost as long as I’ve known Sasha. Derek’s family lived with his grandparents three doors down from my parents for a few years while Derek’s dad struggled to keep a job in the failing IT industry. Apparently my mom went to welcome them—an apple pie in hand and me clinging to her leg—and Derek greeted us in a pink polka-dot dress. By choice. I don’t remember it, but Sasha and I sure as hell have teased him enough about it over the years. I’m kind of surprised he kept in touch with us after they moved to Lansing.

I chuckle. “Have at ’er. Just leave it clean.”

“Are you sure you want to agree to that, Cole?” Sasha chuckles. “You’ve seen what he picks up.”

“Hey now . . .” Derek’s warning tone only spurns Sasha on.

“What was the last one’s name? Tia? Ria?”

“Sia.”

“Sia,” Sasha echoes. “That chick was—”

¦ ¦ ¦

Hi, my name is Tara. I’m a paramedic. Can you hear me? You were in an accident. We’re going to help you.

Hi, my name is Tara. I’m a paramedic. Can you hear me? You were in an accident. We’re going to help you.

“Hi, my name is Tara. I’m a—”

“What?” The single word scratches my throat. I open my eyes to the dark sky hanging over me, flashes of red and blue light pulsing rhythmically within my peripherals. Wailing sirens assault my ears, both distant and approaching.

So many sirens.

A woman leans over me. She locks eyes with me and speaks in a calm voice. “Hi, I’m Tara. I’m a paramedic. You were in an accident. Everything is going to be okay. Can you tell me your name?”

I pause, struggling to process her words. “Cole.” It hurts to swallow.

Someone else is crouched beside me. I try to turn my head to see who it is, to figure out what’s going on.

But I can’t turn my head.

“Just hold still, Cole,” Tara says as something tightens across my chin. It’s then that I notice the stiff brace wrapped around my neck.

“What happened?”

“You were in a car accident, but don’t worry. We’re going to get you to a hospital real soon.” An ambulance’s ear-piercing wail abruptly cuts off behind me as brakes squeak.

“How bad is it?” Besides the pain in my neck, I can’t feel much of anything else.

“We just need to finish securing your neck as a precaution,” she explains, not answering my question, as the other person tightens a strap over my forehead.

Car.

I was in the car.

Who was I in the . . .

Sasha.

Derek.

“Where are they?” My eyes strain, first to the left and then to the right, but I can’t see anything. “Where are my friends?”

“Everyone is being taken care of, Cole. Do you know what month it is?”

I have finals next week. Yes. I need to get back for finals. “April.”

“Good. Who is the president of our country, Cole?”

“Bush.”

“And how old are you, Cole?”

She keeps using my name. Why does she keep doing that? “Twenty. Twenty-one in December.”

The other paramedic finishes working on the straps. Hands that I didn’t realize were holding my head in place disappear as Tara offers me a sad smile. “Do you remember where you were tonight?”

“A party. At Rich’s house.” I pause. “Where’s Derek? Sasha?”

“There are several paramedics on-site. Everyone is being taken care of.” She calls out to someone unseen, “Can we get him out of here?”

A gruff “yes” answers and suddenly I’m moving. Low voices and competing emergency lights surround me from all angles. I search with my eyes—the only part of my head that I can move besides my mouth—to catch a glimpse of something. Anything. But the straps pin me down tight.

“They’ll bring my friends to the same hospital, right?”

“They’ll get the best care possible,” Tara says, climbing into the back. Again, not really answering my question.

Just as the ambulance doors are closing, a voice crackles over a police radio nearby.

All I catch is “D.O.A.” before the locks click shut.

close this panel
Ten Tiny Breaths
Excerpt

Five Ways to Fall

Chapter 1

¦ ¦ ¦

REESE

I’ve never seen that look on Daddy’s face before.

He’s had it since he walked back from the pay phone. “Go on, now,” he urges, his gruff voice cracking. “Go on inside.”

“But . . . why?” I whine, casting wary eyes at the truck-stop diner, empty but for a man with a Santa beard.

Daddy rests his hand on the steering wheel and turns his body to face me. “Reesie, baby.” I don’t like his tone. It’s that serious one that makes my bottom lip wobble. “I need you to go back inside, sit down in our booth, and ask that nice waitress for another piece of that pecan pie you like so much,” he says slowly, evenly.

I swallow back my tears. “Alone?”

His face tightens, like he’s mad. “Only for a little bit.”

“And then you’ll come in?”

He squeezes his eyes shut and I’m afraid I just made him really angry, but . . . I’ve never gone anywhere alone. I’m only five. “Remember that Daddy loves you, baby girl. Now go on.”

Stifling back a sob, I slide along the old bench seat and push the heavy old Ford truck door open.

“Reesie,” Daddy calls out as my red shoes hit the sidewalk.

Turning, I see his hand wiping at something on his cheek before he gives me a wink and a smile. The truck door makes a loud bang as I swing it tight. Holding my breath, I climb the steps and push as hard as I can against the diner door, the jangle of the bell ringing in my ears. I dart across the black-and-white checkered floor and climb into our booth—the one we were sitting in before Daddy called Mommy; it still has our dishes on the table—just in time to see the taillights of Daddy’s truck disappear.

When the nice waitress with the big hair comes by, I tell her my daddy will be here soon and I order that piece of chocolate pecan pie with a please and thank you. I sit in that booth and gobble it up, thinking how lucky I am to get two pieces in one night.

And I wait.

With my chin resting on my palm, tucked into the corner of the booth, I stare out that window, watching for the familiar blue truck to reappear, checking the door every time that bell jangles. When the kind policeman sits down across from me and asks me where my daddy is, I tell him he’ll be here soon.

¦ ¦ ¦

There’s no kind policeman to comfort me now. No nice lady bringing me a piece of chocolate pecan pie to combat the sourness in my mouth. But at least this time I wasn’t abandoned.

I’m reminded of that the second I see my stepfather’s face through the small glass window in the door.

His salt-and-pepper hair is more salt than pepper and he’s gained at least ten pounds around his waist since I last saw him—nine years ago—but there’s no mistaking Jack Warner. I don’t think he recognizes me, though. The way his steely blue eyes wander over my violet hair . . . my piercings . . . the giant “Jared” tattoo that coils around my right shoulder, I think he’s wondering if the police officer led him into the wrong room.

I’m lucky that I’m even in a room this time. Normally they throw you into a holding cell or make you sit in an uncomfortable chair next to a drunk named Seth who stinks of malt scotch and body odor. I’m pretty sure the female arresting officer felt sorry for me. By the lethal glare she threw at Jared and Caroline as I was escorted out of Lina’s apartment, past their apartment door, on my way to the cruiser, the officer wasn’t impressed with what she’d heard of the situation.

She didn’t hear it from me, of course. Growing up around lawyers, I’ve learned not to say a word to the police without one present. It was my best friend and next-door neighbor, Lina, who declared that the apartment I trashed earlier today is still technically mine—even if my name isn’t on the lease—and that they should be arresting the thieving, heartless bitch who stole my husband.

Unfortunately, I’m the only one sitting here now.

I hold my breath as I watch Jack take a seat, adjusting his slightly rumpled suit jacket on his large frame as he tries to get comfortable in the hard plastic chair. It’s ironic—in this moment, it feels like he’s both an integral part of my childhood and a complete stranger.

I can’t believe I called him.

I can’t believe he actually came.

With a heavy sigh, he finally murmurs, “Reese’s Pieces.” He’s looking down at me the same way he did when I got caught rearranging the letters of a Baptist church sign to read something no nine-year-old girl—or twenty-year-old, for that matter—should have in her vocabulary. Despite the severe strain in our once close relationship, warmth immediately spreads through my chest. I haven’t heard that nickname in years. “So . . . destruction of private property?”

I guess the cops filled him in. “I prefer to call it artistic expression.” The canvas included Caroline’s prissy clothes, her pretentious throw cushions, and that damn pornographic picture of them hanging over our bed. “Besides,” I raise my hands, stained in crimson, and offer in a deadpan tone, “they can’t prove it was me.” When Lina found me sitting quietly in the dim kitchen light of her apartment, where I’ve been staying for the past two weeks, she let out a single yelp before realizing that I hadn’t turned into a homicidal maniac and was in fact covered in red paint. I probably should have made the cops’ job harder and showered before they arrived.

A tiny sad smile creeps over his face. I wonder if my attempt at humor adequately hides the crushing heartbreak and rejection that I’m drowning in after finding out my husband was having an affair with his high school sweetheart.

“I phoned Barry on my way here. Sounds like you’ve kept him busy these past few years.” By his clenching jaw, I see that wasn’t an easy call for Jack to make, even nine years later. Not surprising. Friends since they could barely walk, Jack and Barry were once equity partners together in his law firm. Until Barry had an affair with Jack’s wife.

My mother.

All relationships instantly dissolved in a bath of bitterness that obviously hasn’t fully drained yet. Glancing at his hand, I can’t help but notice the absence of a wedding ring. I guess he hasn’t remarried. After what my mother put him through, I don’t blame him.

“And I understand why you called me now. You didn’t have a choice, did you?”

“Not really,” I admit, focusing on the stars and circles I’m finger-drawing over the table’s cold metal surface. Barry is a high-priced, successful criminal lawyer who has gotten his unruly stepdaughter out of more than one debacle. The last incident was on my eighteenth birthday when I decided it would be funny to go retro and moon cars.

One of those cars was a police cruiser.

The cop was an uptight prick.

And I was drunk.

After helping me avoid indecent exposure and underage public drunkenness charges, Barry announced that my juvenile record was sealed, I was now an adult, and he was officially washing his hands of me. Three months later, when my mother left him for husband number four, it really became official.

“I’m surprised Annabelle’s new husband didn’t want this swept under the rug quickly.”

“I didn’t phone Annabelle. I don’t want her to know about this.” I stopped calling her “Mom” when I was eight. We both agreed it wasn’t fitting for a woman whose true passions lay in exclusive club status and dirty martinis.

My doodling finger freezes suddenly. “You didn’t phone her, did you?” That would be like handing her torpedoes for an effective insult air strike. She had called it after all. She’d said I didn’t have what it took to keep my “blue-collar pretty-boy” husband happy for long.

Jack chuckles softly, though there’s no mirth in it. “No, I definitely did not phone her. What would I tell her, anyway? You weren’t exactly informative on the phone. Sounds like you’re in some hot water, though.”

My sigh of relief slides out and I’m back to doodling. “That’s what they tell me.” When the cops started throwing around words like “larceny” and “threats of bodily harm”—things that sounded excessive and unfitting, but permanently damaging to my fresh and clean adult record should they stick—I knew I wasn’t going to talk my way out of this one. It didn’t help that I used the picture of Caroline for target practice during my rampage, leaving a pair of scissors strategically placed through her eyes. “It’s a good thing you still have that same law firm. You were easy to find.”

Jack folds his arms over his chest and regards me with an unreadable face. A tiny part of me—the angry little girl lost somewhere inside—is ready to burst, to demand, “How could you have left me? I know why you left my mom, but how could you have shoved me out of your life so easily, too? I didn’t cheat on you!” But I bite my bottom lip. Pissing off the one person who can help me right now wouldn’t be smart. And I need to be smart.

Finally Jack leans back in his chair and says, “Okay, Reese. Start from the beginning and let’s see how we can solve this.”

I press my lips together to keep from smiling. Not because this is amusing. It’s just that we’ve been here before. This really is starting to feel like days long since lost, when we’d meet up in the kitchen around midnight—after Annabelle had gone to sleep, when Jack was finally home from work—to contemplate my latest mischief over bowls of ice cream. He’s even adopted the same hypnotic tone that always got me talking when my teachers, my guidance counselor, or anyone else really, couldn’t. I’m pretty sure he uses it on all of his clients.

Twenty minutes later, after I’ve given him a rundown of my situation, I hear his disappointed sigh. “Working in a pet shop, Reese?”

“Not anymore.” After leaving work early with the flu and coming home to the big discovery of Jared and her in the shower—oddly enough, the more it replays in my mind, the more it begins to resemble the shower scene from Scarface—I spent a week in Lina’s bed, heavily sedated with Jim Beam and Nyquil. My boss fired me over the phone.

I don’t care.

“And eloping in Vegas with a guy? At nineteen years old? After knowing him for six weeks?” I know that the chuckle that fills the room now isn’t directed at me, even before his words confirm it; Jack’s laughing at the irony of it all. “And you were always so adamant that you’d never get married.”

I have no answer to that, except a quiet “I loved him,” as the painful knot forms in my throat, as I fight the sob from tearing out of me. I did. I think I still do, despite how much Jared has hurt me. Since that day eight months ago when I stepped out of my best friend Lina’s apartment and quite literally ran into her neighbor, a reincarnation of a mint-eyed Greek demigod, I knew that I had met my soul mate. Fireworks exploded, lightning struck, electricity coursed. All that love-at-first-sight bullshit that I didn’t believe in—I instantly became a poster child for it. Common sense flew out the window with a cement block tied to its ankle.

Jared said he felt it, too.

And now, after six months of marital bliss, without a single warning sign, he’s back with her.

That rotten illness festering inside me enflames with the thought, the humiliating reality a burn that doesn’t want to subside.

“Look, Reese. I know you’ve always had a wild streak in you, even as a little girl. These choices you’ve made since I saw you last, though,” his head is shaking, “possession of marijuana . . . trespassing . . . underage drinking . . . a fistfight?”

“It’s not really that big a deal. A lot of people drink and smoke pot in high school,” I argue, adding, “I’m just the one who kept getting caught.”

“Drag racing?” He stares at me questioningly.

“Those were derby cars and that was totally blown out of proportion,” I clarify.

Jack slides his glasses off and gives his face a rough rub, looking exhausted. It’s a four-hour drive from Miami to Jacksonville and he arrived here five hours after I called, meaning he pretty much dropped everything to come. I can’t help but wonder why he’d do that.

“At least I didn’t get knocked up,” I joke.

By the look of exasperation he shoots me, he doesn’t find that remotely funny. “I had hoped you were too smart to get into this kind of trouble.”

“I guess even smart girls can make a clusterfuck of their lives, can’t they?” I mutter, though his words sting.

Because they’re true.

There’s a long pause, where Jack’s mouth twists in thought as he regards me. “What are you going to do with yourself now, Reese? How are you going to make up for this?” When I was little, Jack always asked me for suggestions as to how I should be punished for my various childish misdemeanors. I think it was his way of getting me to agree on the outcome without looking like the harsh stepfather. I was pretty good at coming up with suitable penances and it was definitely preferable to sitting in a chair while my mother shrieked about what an embarrassment I was to her, the gin sloshing out of her martini glass with her mad hand gesticulations.

But I’m not a little kid anymore and Jack’s not asking me to come up with a suitable punishment. He’s asking me how I’m going to fix my life.

All I have for him is a defeated shrug.

Because that’s how I feel right now. Defeated. “I don’t know. Get another job, I guess.”

“What about college?”

The eye roll happens before I can stop myself. Jack always hated my eye rolls. “My transcripts aren’t exactly going to woo the administrative offices.” Neither will the private school expulsion, earned when I broke into a teacher’s office and stole a midterm exam.

“Because you couldn’t do the work?” My arched brow answers him. “Because you didn’t do the work,” he answers for himself, shaking his head, his face a mask of extreme disappointment. “Is this how you want to live your life? In and out of police cars? Working minimum-wage jobs? In unstable relationships?”

“Does anybody ever really want that?”

Jack’s right. I was smart. Some may say I’m still smart. But I’ve made so many wrong turns along the way, I don’t know how many right ones it will take to course-correct.

I don’t know if that’s even possible.

I sit in silence, listening to the monotonous tick-tick-tick of the second hand on the wall clock above, watching Jack as he spends an exorbitant amount of time playing with the gold Rolex on his wrist, his breaths deep and ragged. I don’t know that I can count on him. I mean, he forgot about me once. Looking at the twenty-year-old version of who he once knew, he’s probably ready to stamp “lost cause” across my forehead.

And then he settles those kind gray eyes on me. “I honestly didn’t know what to expect when I arrived, but I had a long car ride up to think about it.” Folding his hands together on the table in front of him, a stern expression settles over his face. “I have a proposition. It comes with conditions, though.”

A small exhale escapes me as I chew the inside of my mouth, relief and wariness dancing together. “Okay. I guess?”

“No more, Reese. Not even the harmless stuff.”

“This is my first time here in years, Jack.” Ironically, I convinced myself that meeting Jared was a turning point in my life, leaving me the sated and smiling wife who was happy hanging out at home and keeping out of trouble.

“Yes . . .” His eyes graze the walls of the police station room. “And yet here you are again.”

He doesn’t get it. He must not have heard me. “This was different, Jack! She moved in! I haven’t even moved out yet! All my stuff is still in that apartment!”

He raises his hand to silence me. “You should have turned around and walked out. That would have been the mature, responsible thing to do. Instead, you let your emotions get the better of you.”

I smirk as another wave of familiarity washes over me. “You always said I was too emotional for my own good.”

“I did say that,” he acknowledges with a sad smile. “And I’m still right. No more, Reese.”

Picking at a loose thread on my sleeve as if the topic isn’t cutting into my heart, I offer casually, “Well, I can definitely promise that I won’t be getting married again. Ever.”

That earns a soft chuckle. “You and me both, kiddo.” A pause. “You remember Mason, don’t you?”

My geeky stepbrother who used to spend half his time scowling at me and the other half staring as if my head were about to revolve on my shoulders. I recall that the day we moved out, he watched with a bitter smile, condemning me to follow in my mother’s footsteps.

He despised my mother from the very first day that he met her.

My pursed lips at the mention of that name has Jack smiling. “Oh, yes. How could I forget? Your nemesis. Well, he’s finishing law school this spring.” Jack takes a deep breath and then holds it, as if he’s hesitating. “Why don’t you come and live with us until you get back on your feet.”

What?

Jack continues, not addressing the bewilderment that must be plastered over my face. “I can get you into the paralegal program at Miami U. If you finish that, you can work for me. It doesn’t have to be forever, but at least you’ll have something solid to put on a résumé. It’s a fresh start.”

“I . . . uh . . . ” Did I just hear all that correctly?

His eyes drift over my hair again. “You should think about a more natural color for an office environment and . . .” His focus settles down to the tiny diamond-encrusted septum ring in my nose and he cringes. “Maybe a few less piercings.”

But . . . My tongue has somehow coiled itself into a useless ball inside my mouth as my mind grapples with this offer. It’s far from what I had expected. “Why are you doing this, Jack? I mean, it’s great and all, but why?” He really doesn’t owe me anything. It’s enough that he came all the way out here to bail me out.

“Because I shouldn’t have turned my back on you, Reese. I let—” A flash of pain betrays his otherwise calm demeanor. “Let’s just say I’m making amends.” He pauses. “What do you say? I need to get out of this town. I can feel Annabelle’s shadow looming.” He shivers for effect, making me snort.

“Well . . .” My fingers rap across the table as I give my current situation—that of a police station room—another once-over. I have no job, no home, a shattered heart, and a pending criminal record. I should probably make the first smart choice I’ve made in a long time. But . . . “Not sure the cops will let that happen, Jack.”

“You leave that with me.”

Another pause. “I’m riding my bike down.”

His mouth twists with displeasure. “I assume you’re not referring to one with pedals.”

“No pedals,” I confirm with a small smile. I got my motorcycle license when I turned eighteen and bought a bike a few months later. Another element of my “badass” self that Jared loves.

Loved.

Jack heaves a sigh. “That shouldn’t surprise me. You always did threaten your mother with getting one. Anything else I should know?”

“I’m a slob,” I warn him. “And a certifiable bitch in the morning.”

“Well, I guess some things just don’t change, after all.” Reaching up to give his neck a slow scratch, he mumbles, “Mason will be thrilled.”

¦ ¦ ¦

Six months later

“Could we have picked somewhere more commercial?” I ask dryly, draining my fourth margarita in record time as my gaze drifts over the beachside bar, complete with canopies, twinkling Christmas lights—in July—and too many happy, laughing people. Even with the sun setting and the light ocean breeze passing through, a light sheen of sweat coats the back of my neck. It’s a typical summer night in Cancún, Mexico—hell-hot.

“Commercial is safe,” Lina answers in her distinctive flat tone. She always sounds bored to tears.

I roll my eyes. “You’re safer in this country than you are in our own nation’s capital—you do realize that, right? That’s all just media hype.”

“Tell that to the American couple who just had their heads lopped off a month ago.”

“If I were going to tell them anything, it would be to not run drugs for the cartel,” I retort.

She acknowledges that with a lazy shrug as she sips on some frothy calorie-laden pink thing with an umbrella sticking out of it.

“Why don’t we put on a pile of diamonds, jump into a random cab, and get the guy to drive us through the quiet, dark back streets of Mexico City?”

Lina’s thin lips purse together tightly as she regards me. “It’s never fun to discover your best friend has a death wish.”

With a snort, I wave the server down for another drink. “But it would be fun to watch someone try to take Nicki down.”

As if hearing her name from across the lounge, Nicki—who I met when I answered a “roommate wanted” ad in the newspaper—and the third member of our little “Reese is turning twenty-one and is still bitter as hell so let’s go to Cancún” entourage, turns her head to catch our gaze from her seat on a swing by the bar. She winks as she downs another shot of tequila.

“How does she make that work so well?” Lina mutters with a hint of envy. I know exactly what she means. All around us are flirty girls in pastel barely-there dresses and sun-kissed skin. Not Nicki, though. She sits by that bar like a femme fatale in a skin-tight leopard print dress and four-inch black heels, her platinum-blond hair coiffed like Gwen Stefani’s, her red lips glaring against her pale skin, and sparkly chandelier earrings dangling from her ears. All that femininity oozing from her is counterbalanced by a full sleeve of ink and the muscular physique she’s honed through her latest passion: dead-weight lifting. The tall guy talking her ear off right now? She could bench-press his two-hundred-odd pounds without breaking a sweat. That, coupled with her three-year stint cage-fighting before she switched hobbies, makes her one badass twenty-five-year-old woman.

“It works so well because she’s beautiful and mysterious and she’s not stupid enough to run off and marry some guy she met in a hallway who’s still in love with his ex,” I mutter around my straw, catching the wince flash across Lina’s face. It’s the first time I’ve made any open reference to Jared since leaving for Miami, perfecting the art of denial while I impatiently waited for my heart to freeze.

Our waiter places a fresh margarita on the table next to me with a wink. I force a smile and I’m sure it’s altogether hostile by the way he hightails it back to the bar. I can’t help it. He has dark, shaggy hair and olive skin. Just like Jared.

“You have to let it go, Reese. It’s been six months. You—” My flat glare makes her voice falter, her words a dishonor to the very real, very raw pain I still feel. Especially today, on what would have been our one-year wedding anniversary.

And is instead Jared and Caroline’s wedding day.

Because karma hasn’t been cruel enough.

She quickly changes tactics. “You’ve started a whole new life. New city, new home. Soon, a new look . . .” Her free hand reaches up to flip strands of my hair, reminding me that the purple will be gone the day that I return. “You’ve got that great new job.”

I roll my eyes.

“It’s not cleaning up puppy shit and getting bitten by snakes.” She taps the puncture marks on the meaty part of my thumb. A physical reminder of the day I made the idiotic mistake of sticking my mouse-scented hand into a cage to freshen the aspen chips and ended up with a two-foot-long ball python’s fangs embedded in my flesh.

That happened the exact same day my sky fell. A very fitting scar.

“Not literally. But I’ll be working in a law firm, Lina. Plenty of snakes.”

After we made our agreement, Jack quickly went about throwing all kinds of legal jargon at the cops. In the end, it was unnecessary. Given the epically huge lack of judgment that Jared used sending me into that apartment unprepared to collect my things, he convinced Caroline not to press charges. So I walked out the police doors without any record of my moment of crazy.

Jack let me wallow in his spacious Miami house for one week, wearing my pajamas and gorging myself on Ben & Jerry’s Butter Pecan ice cream out of the tub for twenty-one consecutive meals, before he tossed a bunch of application papers my way. He said, “It takes four to six months for most students to get through, depending on how hard you work. You can do it all online if you want and I have a paralegal spot waiting for you when you’re done. Decent pay, good people. It’s just a start, Reese.”

I’ve never had any interest in working at a law firm—especially the one tainted by my mother—but I had made a deal with Jack and I am smart enough to see a good opportunity. So I immersed myself in the program, using it as a distraction. Once I got into it, I actually didn’t mind the course work. It took me five months to complete and I ended up finishing with a near-perfect score.

I start my new job the Monday after I get back from Cancún.

“Oh, no. You’re having doubts. You’re going to bail on Jack. If you do, you’re dead to me,” Lina says.

“Oh, ye of little faith.” Surprisingly, as unreliable as I can be at times, the thought of bailing on Jack has never crossed my mind.

“Fine. Let’s talk about happier things. How’s Annabelle?”

“Okay, see this?” I gesture to my face, which has contorted into a mixed pucker of disgust and loathing. “Sour face. Do not speak of she who must not be named.”

“Do you want me to break into her place while she sleeps and turn her fans on? Guaranteed death, according to my people.” Lina was adopted by a lovely Korean couple as a baby and raised to fully embrace their culture, including all of their death-by-fan superstitions. The fact that she’s a five-foot-eleven-inch willowy blond who towers over both her parents means nothing in the Chung household. Her name is actually Li-Na, but she Americanized it in high school to make life easier. She speaks Korean fluently—throwing more than a few people off—and can shovel food into her mouth with chopsticks like the best of them.

We’ve been best friends since sophomore year, when I discovered Lina crying in a bathroom stall after Raine Higgins and her posse of bored and bitchy juniors had been bullying her. I did what any naturally spiteful high school kid who hates bullies would do. I spray-painted Raine’s car with Korean expletives that I found on the internet. That, along with a picture of her giving her boyfriend a blow job in a parking lot that I covertly took—after stalking her at a party—and glued to the inside of the windshield of her locked car with Krazy Glue, was enough to keep Lina from ever being bothered by her again.

The tightness in my chest suddenly lifts with Lina’s attempts to sway my mood. “Are you sure you and Nicki don’t want a third roommate?” Lina and Nicki moved down to Miami about a month ago, into a condo that Lina’s parents bought for her as a college graduation present.

“Absolutely sure,” she confirms without missing a beat, her focus intent on the little pink umbrella twirling between her thumb and index finger. Lina’s living habits are about as opposite to mine as the Arctic Circle is to the Sahara Desert. Everything in her apartment—from her linen closet to her pasta jars—is tidy and labeled accordingly. Those two weeks that I sought refuge in her apartment after breaking up with Jared nearly destroyed her.

“Okay, enough about bad stuff. Didn’t we talk about finding you a fling?”

I groan as I survey the crowd. “I remember you talking about it and me ignoring you. I’ve tried. Three strikes is enough for me.”

“You have not tried, Reese. Admit it.”

Either there’s an influx of douchebags or Lina’s right and I’m subconsciously sabotaging myself. First there was Slick Steve, a senior at Miami U who showed up to our date with perfectly coiffed hair and an outfit right off the set of Grease the musical. Then there was Metrosexual Mark, a blind date from Nicki’s work who picked his teeth with his fork and had a weird habit of adding “if it were me” to 90 percent of the sentences that came out of his mouth.

The final straw, though?

Emilio. Good ol’ Spanish I-look-enough-like-your-ex-husband-that-if-you-dim-the-lights-this-might-actually-work Emilio. I might have been willing to see where it went had he not opened his wallet and laid it out on the table to proudly display his collection of extra-large Trojans, and then propositioned me in Spanish.

I shudder with the memory. “I’m starting my harem of cats.”

“You hate cats.”

“True. But I also hate limes, and look at me now!” I hold up my glass. “Besides, I’ve already found my Cancún fling. Lina, meet Mr. Cuervo. Mr. Cuervo . . . my best friend, Lina.” Leaning in, I waggle my brow and whisper, “If you’re nice, he’ll let you call him Jose. I plan on spending the next six nights with this naughty little Mexican.” I wave a hand at the server as he whizzes by, letting him know that I need another drink by pointing to my nearly empty glass, as I add, “He can be a bit of a whiny bitch in the morning but he makes up for it by dark.”

“Great. Because you’re not emotional enough when you’re sober,” she mutters, adding with a sigh, “Well, an incessantly drunk Reese should make for an interesting trip, at least. Just try not to get arrested. I hear the cells here aren’t as nice as the ones you’re used to back home.”

Nicki must have been monitoring my drink levels from her perch by the bar because she saunters over with a fresh margarita in hand, either oblivious or ignoring the attention she naturally garners. “Here you go, señorita,” she offers in a deceptively soft voice as she flicks her tongue piercing. I automatically roll my tongue, sensing the absence of mine. Jack hasn’t outright demanded that I remove my piercings but I knew, by the way he kept cringing, that the barbell through my tongue was truly freaking him out. I removed that one out of respect, but I’m holding out on the others until the last possible moment.

“Jose isn’t complaining about my level of intoxication,” I respond to Lina, giving the rim of my glass a slow, sultry lick. I have a high tolerance for alcohol, borne from years of underage partying. It would seem, though, that lame, tourist-trap Cancún serves strong margaritas and the warm and fuzzies are really kicking in.

“Who the fuck is Jose?” Nicki asks, her pretty face scrunching up.

“It’s Mr. Cuervo to you.”

She finally clues in and that musical laugh of hers rolls out. “Oh . . . oh, buddy! No! That’s so sad. We need to fix that.” Her curious eyes scan the lounge. “You promised me you’d exorcise Jared from your vagina if you met a hot guy . . . There. The one in front. Perfect.” She raises her inked arm, signaling someone as if she knows him.

Oh, God. I suck back a large gulp. “Seriously, Nicki. After the tooth picker you set me up with, I think I’m done. And exorcisms take at least two days to prepare for. Can’t I just drown myself in frozen green goodness for tonight? I’m not even dressed for it.” I’d thrown on a pair of shorts and an old faded rock concert tank. I don’t even have makeup on.

“What do you wanna be this time? Architect from L.A.?” she asks, ignoring my opposition completely. Her eyes twinkle as they flash to me. “Stripper from Pasadena?”

I nod with appreciation. “That was a good one.” Before Jared, the three of us used to head out to the bars on the weekends—Lina and I with fake ID. We’d make up identities: jobs, cities, sometimes names, and see how long we could keep it going while guys bought us drinks. Once, I had a guy completely sold on me being a goat herder from Iowa. He was as dumb as a bag of bricks.

The shuffle of approaching feet stirs an anxious flutter in my stomach. I really don’t want to carry on a conversation tonight, fake or otherwise. “Helloooo boys,” Nicki purrs playfully. I feel the eyes of women around us as they sit up to take notice, their rays of envy scorching my skin. I decide I can’t play disinterested just yet. I need to know what type of fiend Nicki has targeted. As casually as five margaritas will allow, I turn and . . . slide right off my chair, my shorts providing my ass with little protection against the hard tile floor.

“I have shamed Mr. Cuervo,” I mutter, ducking my head, the night air carrying mocking giggles my way as I accept that it’s only eight o’clock and I’m way more drunk than I realized.

A large hand appears in front of me, palm up. “Well, I’m impressed.” I hear the smile behind the masculine voice and I can’t decide if I like that or not. Accepting the help—because the sooner I’m off the floor, the better—I’m pulled to my feet and into the broad chest of a blond with a big, obnoxious grin.

Wearing a fucking red shirt.

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