RISE | Advance Preview

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From multi-published novelist, Katherine L. Evans, comes a story about recognizing your worth and rising above your circumstances.

In this unforgettable, heartrending story, the impact of childhood abandonment is revealed in the life of a young woman who yearns for something both inexplicable and intangible.

Emma Abercrombie, an inexperienced reporter with lofty aspirations, grew up a bullied outcast in a small town in South Carolina, fled to California after high school, and once there, she believed the worst was behind her. But after two years in a dead-end job and one too many disappointments in her personal life, Emma becomes desperate and manic as she takes matters into her own hands and kicks her career into high-gear.

At the height of her success and despite concern from her loved ones, she accepts an assignment abroad covering the refugee crisis in Syria. In what was intended to be a mission to raise awareness and win hearts and minds, Emma and her team suddenly find themselves fellow victims of the danger and tragedy they were only supposed to be reporting. Emma is ultimately faced with the most basic of choices—whether to live, or whether to die; to lie down and accept her fate, or to stand up and rise.

Rise is the gripping tale of one woman’s journey to overcome a life that kicked her when she was down at every turn. It is a heartbreaking story of loss, a heartwarming portrait of unwavering friendship and unconditional love, and a compelling glimpse into the conditions of the current displacement crisis of the Syrian Civil War.

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Since this fictional story was inspired by so many tragic, non-fictional events, 100% of the author’s royalties will be split evenly between Mercy Corps and the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation.

About Mercy Corps:

Mercy Corps is meeting the urgent needs of nearly 4 million people both inside Syria and in neighboring countries. They distribute emergency food and supplies, increase access to clean water and sanitation, improve shelters, and create safe spaces and activities to help children heal from trauma. For more information, please visit their website.

About the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation:

Jim Foley was a conflict journalist who made headlines in 2014 when he was murdered in Syria after an extended period of internment. Since the uprising in Syria, 153 journalists have been killed there. The James W. Foley Legacy Foundation seeks to advocate for the release of American hostages kidnapped abroad by partnering with the USG and American media and by establishing a resource center for American hostage families, support press freedom and the rights of freelance journalists, and promote educational opportunities for disadvantaged youth. For more information, please visit their website.

Disclaimer: Neither Katherine L. Evans (hereafter referred to as “Author”) nor this fundraising effort are in any way affiliated with Mercy Corps or the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation (JWFLF). Author royalties from the sale of each copy and/or unit of RISE (hereafter referred to as “Book”) shall be paid to the Author according to each retailer’s standard payment procedure. Upon receipt, the Author will hold the funds until six months after the Book’s release date (November 4, 2016). At that point, the total amount of funds accrued from the sale of the Book will be divided in half and donations will be issued to both Mercy Corps and JWFLF, with each organization respectively receiving 50% of the total amount of royalties accrued. The aforementioned donation process will be repeated every subsequent six months for the retail life of the Book. The Author can only guarantee donations will be paid with royalties from copies/units of the Book purchased from first-party retailers.

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Available May 2017 in both eBook and paperback.

Pre-order your copy now at:

Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Kobo | iBooks

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Excerpt:

I wouldn’t have called it a depression. It was something else.

An observer of my life probably would’ve pinned that label on it, but it’s not entirely accurate. At the time—at what I would call the beginning—it looked nothing like depression.

I wasn’t sad. I didn’t feel empty or anxious. There was no fatigue or necessity to lie in bed for days on end. No loss of appetite, or any of the other classic symptoms.

At the time, it was just a sense something was off. Merely a little gnat in my ear. Something so commonplace you don’t pay much attention to it other than absently thinking, “This thing is so annoying,” and then you swat it away. Sometimes the gnat is persistent—and the gnat in my ear had been persisting for a while—and you have to break out the fly swatter.

And that’s what I would call the beginning: the day I broke out the fly swatter. The point in time at which everything began.

It was August 31, 2015.

Just shy of four years ago.

One thousand, four hundred, fifty-seven days from the time when I was just an average person, living their life, going to their job, until I finally ended up what and where I am today.

Four years during which the thing I wouldn’t have called a depression compelled me to do things that repeatedly broke me down, brought me to the brink of death, dropped me in the middle of the pit of hell, and left me there to rot.

And it all started one afternoon in a newsroom.

This is what you’ve been wasting your time doing?”

Vern pitched the stack of papers into the trash, causing me to curl my lips between my teeth. The barrier of my pinched-shut mouth prevented me from hollering back at my editor. Hollering was definitely not the appropriate response—but explaining the side project was.

“No, Vern. That was just-”

“I don’t care what it was! It wasn’t the copy for the daily brief or the vlog!”

His shouting sprinkled my face with droplets of stale-coffee-scented saliva. He paused his tirade long enough to suck in a breath, but not long enough for me to get a word in edgewise.

“Vern, I have-”

You are not a feature writer.” His face was now beet-red and a vein appeared to be on the cusp of bursting through his forehead. “You are just the ninety-second source of headlines intended to draw web traffic. When you’ve spent a decade at this paper, that’s when you can come to me with your hackneyed side projects. And I’ll probably reject them then, too.”

I didn’t bother clenching my jaw. He wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know.

He thrust his index finger into the air toward the office door. “You’d better email me the web copy and vlog file for the daily brief within the next thirty minutes or you can consider this your two weeks’ notice.”

I turned, left his office—as well as the piece I’d been perfecting for two weeks—and went back to my desk.

I sank into my chair and stared at my computer screen.

That was the moment I always look back on and consider the beginning. It was the moment—not all that dissimilar from the first of the twelve steps in addiction recovery—when you take stock of your situation and admit it to yourself.

My name is Emma Abercrombie, and I hate my job.

The gnat in my ear was my job and that’s why I didn’t realize something was actually wrong with me. But something was wrong. Even right then I knew something was wrong. Not wrong in a major sense, just… off. For as long as I could remember everything in my life was wrong, but right then it just seemed like the problem was my job.

I held a master’s degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley, so I should’ve been working as a real reporter for the Los Angeles Daily News. Not just as a low-level staffer recording videos of myself rattling off headlines and exhorting site visitors to click various links. Two years of doing this every single day of my working life had become the gnat that wouldn’t leave. Which was why I attempted to take a step up from my current position by putting together an amazing feature story of a local girl named Gemma Brooks who’d worked her way out of the LA projects and earned a spot in UCLA’s aerospace engineering program. A huge accomplishment and a story worthy of telling.

I’m sure if one of the feature writers had come up with it, Vern would have been jumping up and down, spraying them with his stale-coffee-scented saliva as he sang their praises.

But since it was me who presented it to him, Vern decided it was extracurricular fluff. A waste of my time, and by proxy, his time.

Something was wrong and it must’ve been my job.

I checked my reflection, positioned myself in front of my webcam, and put on a genuine smile. “Good afternoon, Los Angelinos. Emma Abercrombie here with what’s up in LA today.”

Seventeen minutes later, I sent the video file and web copy to Vern and I spent a few minutes perusing articles about the ongoing conflict in Syria and became even more annoyed by my crappy job because I should’ve been one of the reporters writing the real news. Not just tossing headlines into the vacuum of cyberspace for the purpose of generating web traffic. Or writing the human interest pieces. Or something. Something that involved legitimate reporting—and Vern made it clear he’d never give me such an opportunity while working for him.

Something was wrong and I was positive it was just my job.

So that was when I broke out the fly swatter.

I did an internet search for “Associated Press Reporting Jobs.” I didn’t find exactly what I was looking for, but I found something intriguing.

I came across an organization called Associated Reporting Incorporated. According to their website, ARI was founded by freelance journalists in 2001 with the goal of revolutionizing the way news is delivered. They had a network of hundreds of correspondents on every continent and their business model gave the traditional newswire a run for its money.

My eyes widened as I consumed the info on their About page. ARI looked like precisely the opportunity I needed: the freedom of a freelance reporter with the job security of a traditional staff writer.

So on a whim—and with more than a little wishful thinking—I filled out the application and attached my story about Gemma.

I remember pausing as I hovered the arrow over the Submit button. Something about it made my stomach twist into a knot. I didn’t understand why the idea of submitting my application made me so nervous. At the time, I figured the worst that would happen was I’d be rejected and I’d be no worse off.

In retrospect, it seems more like it was a sense of foreboding, as if I knew exactly what would ultimately happen to me as a result of clicking that button.

But at the time, I wouldn’t have called it that. Just like I wouldn’t have called the other thing a depression.

Click.

And I’d sealed my fate.

 

Until You | Advanced Preview

HRuntilyou

Shannon Callaghan wakes up to a world and a life she doesn’t recognize. In the midst of such circumstances, she’s relieved to find that she has a kind and devoted fiancé in handsome, yet mysterious, Jack MacCarrick.

As time passes, however, it becomes clear to Shannon that this is no ordinary engagement—and Jack is no ordinary man. A wedding is impending and she has to make a decision soon, but the life she appeared to be living with Jack is one that she isn’t sure she wants to continue.

Available April 18 at all major eBook retailers.

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Prologue

“Poor baby,” Shannon cooed with a small giggle after Jack rubbed his eyes and yawned for the umpteenth time that morning. It was barely six o’clock in the morning and they’d already been up for three hours. Well, Shannon had been up for three hours. Jack simply didn’t bother to sleep the night before, which was pretty standard for nights when he had to catch a red-eye the following morning. He usually just slept on the flight. But that wasn’t happening this particular morning because Shannon woke up all excited and wanted to chat him up about wedding plans, so he happily obliged. Tired as he was, he couldn’t help feeling excited too.

This wasn’t just an ordinary trip to Austin they were taking. This trip was chock full of important activities. The first being Jack meeting Shannon’s mother for the first time, so, naturally, his excitement was spliced with quite a bit of nerves. The second was to pack up Shannon’s apartment in preparation for her move to New York, so his excitement was also mixed with total, utter, blatant giddiness over the idea that after nine months of wanting her there, she’d finally be living with him. Finally, they’d be visiting a few potential wedding venues, the idea of which, truthfully, kind of made him feel extra tired. But she was excited enough about that for both of them, so he figured he’d survive.

Shannon gasped as she tilted a magazine toward his face, her ring reflecting the light from the small window and causing him temporary blindness.

“Look at this, baby! It’s on top of a hill and overlooking one of the lakes,” she gushed. “Wouldn’t it be amazing to have the ceremony at sunset?”

He smiled and nodded. “That would be beautiful.”

She peered at him. “Are you sure you want to do this in Austin? We could just as easily have it in New York. Or anywhere else.”

“I think Austin is a great location. It will be easier for your friends and family to get there. And I have no problem making all of my peeps cough up the airfare.”

She laughed. “You’re so considerate and inconsiderate all at the same time.”

He shrugged. “I’m just well-rounded that way.”

He gestured at the flight attendant. “Another coffee if you don’t mind.” He turned to Shannon. “Want a coffee, babe?”

She shook her head. “I’m okay. Maybe you should skip that so you can sleep in the car when we land.”

He smirked. “You’re not driving.”

She shot him a teasing look. “I am a good driver.”

“I didn’t say you weren’t. I’d rather drive because I never get to drive.”

She laughed. “You don’t never get to drive.

“Nope, I really don’t. You’ll see. Spend a year in New York and then you’ll see how much driving you do. You’ll be chomping at the bit to drive whenever you get the chance.”

“Ha, no. I like being chauffeured around.”

“It gets old.”

She laughed again and then paused silently as she gleamed at him for an extended moment.

He rubbed his chin. “What is it? I know I probably should’ve shaved before meeting your mom.”

She shook her head as she smiled. “Ma won’t care about your scruffy chin. I was just having a little moment.”

“What kind of moment?”

“I’m just…happy. You know? After all the crap last year.” She sighed as she leaned against his shoulder and nuzzled her head against his neck. “And I was constantly stressing over us.”

He draped his arm over her shoulders, pulling her close and kissing her head. “Really? What were you stressing about?”

“I just had serious doubts this would last until the moment you put this ring on my finger.”

He nodded. “I think I had moments like that too. Mostly because I was screwing everything up and couldn’t seem to stop.”

She squeezed his arm. “You did so well, Jack. I’m so proud of you.”

He smiled as he rested his chin on her head. “And we’ll never have to worry about us again.”

“Nope,” she agreed. “You’re pretty much stuck with me now. So just keep that in mind when we’re out looking at our fifth potential wedding venue. You signed up for this.”

He had to laugh. “I certainly did. And if visiting every wedding venue in and around Austin means I get to keep you forever, then I’ll happily do it.”

* * * *

The plane landed in Austin at nine o’clock on the dot and was greeted by a fierce, bitter cold, January rain storm. Jack and Shannon hurried through the airport to the baggage claim and then went to pick up the rental car.

“Whooo!” Jack hollered as he was pelted with frigid raindrops while holding the door for Shannon to slide in. “I think I’m totally alert now.”

She laughed as he hopped in the driver’s seat. “This should be nothing compared to the snow we left back in New York.”

“This is a totally different kind of cold than in New York,” he retorted, scrubbing his fingers through his damp hair. “This is wet cold. I feel like a stray cat.”

“That’s nothing,” she said. “Just wait ’til my hair dries. It’s going to be a wild, frizzy mess.”

“Mmmmm…” he growled, leaning over to kiss the side of her neck. “I love when your hair is a wild, frizzy mess.”

She laughed. “Only because it’s not on your head.”

“True. But I actually love it even more when I’m the reason it’s a wild, frizzy mess.”

She threw her head back and giggled wildly. “That’s the only time it’s acceptable for my hair to be that out of control.”

“Mmmm…” he growled again as he moved his lips to hers. The little make-out session only lasted a second or two before a loud honk from behind them jolted him back to reality.

“All right, all right,” he muttered. “Sorry, babe. We’ll just have to do this later.”

After pulling out of the airport and onto the highway, they were greeted by a mass of morning traffic, causing Shannon to let out a growl of her own.

“Ugh,” she groaned. “This sucks. I’m sorry, Jack. Traffic is always a nightmare here, and it’s worse when there’s even the smallest amount of precipitation.”

He waved a hand. “It’s all good. I told you I like driving.”

She shook her head, covered her mouth, and let out a massive yawn.

“Go ahead and take a nap, sweetheart,” he insisted. “I’ve got this.”

She lifted her eyebrows. “Are you sure? You’re not even tired? You haven’t slept since yesterday.”

“Nah…this is nothing. Besides, between the rain and the traffic there’s enough going on to keep me plenty awake.”

“Okay. Just remember, it’s highway 183 to 281, and when you see the Evant city limit sign, wake me up. It’s normally about two hours, but it might be longer with all of this.”

He nodded. “I got it.”

She smiled at him for a moment and then leaned over to kiss his cheek. “I’m really excited about all of this.”

He rubbed the top of her thigh. “Me too.”

She kissed him one more time and unbuckled her seat belt to lean over and squeeze his shoulders tightly. “Love you, love you, love you. More than I could ever tell you.”

He glanced at her face quickly and got a funny feeling that made him need to hug her as tight as he could. So he slipped his hand around her waist and pulled her closer to his side. She covered his neck with kisses, which caused him to grin.

“Shannon?”

“Yeah?”

“I love you more than I could ever tell you too.”

“I know, baby.”

He lifted her hand to kiss it as she sat back down in her seat, refastening her seat belt. “I hope you always know that.”

She smiled at him. “I couldn’t ever not know that, Jack.”

He drew in his breath deeply and sighed as he shrugged off the weird feeling as a symptom of being overdue for sleep. “I know.”

She nestled herself into the seat, leaned her head against the window, and fell asleep almost immediately.

As he navigated the stop-and-go traffic, he kept his eyes on the road with only the occasional glance at Shannon sleeping peacefully. After a while, he got the weird feeling again, and he couldn’t help reaching over to stroke her head, letting his fingers twist through the long spirals of her hair.

“I’ll love you forever, Shannon,” he said quietly, eyes still on the road. “I hope you’ll always know that.”

* * * *

Green hills sprawled in every direction, and the mist of fog settled on Jack’s face, leaving it cool and damp.

He sat cross-legged on a blanket across from her, the two of them occasionally sipping from a pint bottle of stout he’d swiped from Kerry’s refrigerator.

They sat in perfect, still, quiet for a very long time, until she giggled at him and spoke in her sweet, singsongy, Irish lilt.

Jaa-aack…

The mist seemed to make her face a bit hazy, so he couldn’t quite see her, but he could make out her smile, and he noticed her hair.

Hair that was gold, a lot like the sun. The sun, which seemed to be hidden that day. He only just noticed it was hidden because it seemed he was now lying on his back staring at the sky, out of breath.

His shirt was also now missing, which was confusing because he didn’t remember taking it off.

He glanced to his right to see her, and there was his shirt. It was draped over her; her bare shoulders exposed while she was curled against his side in the shape of a question mark. Her fingertips tip-toed their way down his arm until they arrived at his hand, and she interlaced their fingers together.

Jaa-aack… she lilted again.

He reached a hand across to run his fingers over her cheek.

I love you, Penny.

She placed her hands on his face.

Jaa-aack…are ye okay?

Yeah. Are you okay?

Suddenly, she grasped his shoulders and shook him violently.

Jaa-aack…wake up.

I am awake.

She shook him again.

Jaa-aack…wake up.

I am awake. I’m right here. What’s wrong?

Another violent shake.

I’m awake, he insisted. Why are you doing that?

Jaa-aack…wake up. Yer goin’ to get us killed.

Penny, don’t say things like that.

Jaa-aack…wake up. Please wake up.

She began shaking him relentlessly, harder than seemed possible for a slender sixteen-year-old girl. So hard that his head was smacking against the ground below. She continued to shake him until she tilted her head back and slammed her forehead into his.

He instantly saw stars. His head spun and his face felt warm and sticky.

The warm, sticky feeling seemed to slowly be replaced by cold wetness, and he thought it was the fog growing thick. Eventually, he realized the fog had transitioned into a stinging cold rain and the perfect, still, quietness gradually morphed into muffled commotion.

People were shouting orders and speaking briskly. There was the dull roar of diesel engines, the crackle of static over radios, and the deep hum of something he couldn’t identify, but that sounded pretty large.

At some point, he felt it was necessary to open his eyes because he was moving, but not on his own volition. Several people stood over him and seemed to lift him onto something. He attempted to scan his surroundings, but he’d been strapped into restraints that prevented him from moving easily.

From his raised vantage point, however, he could see quite a bit.

There was utter chaos in every direction.

Police cars, ambulances, a fire truck, some other type of large truck with a mangled front end, something that looked like it had been a car at some point. A dark red car. Very similar in color to the one he’d been driving mere moments ago.

“Shannon?”

Mere moments ago, she’d been sleeping peacefully in the passenger seat. Now he couldn’t see her, and as the chaos around him began to make more sense, Jack began to panic.

Shannon?

“Hey there, sir,” a younger man said, leaning over his face. “Can you tell me your name?”

“Jack,” he answered. “Where is Shannon?”

“Is Shannon the woman you were with?”

He nodded.

“She’s still in the car right now. They’re working on getting her out.”

Still in the twisted red steel formerly known as the car. A wave of nausea washed over him, so he closed his eyes.

“Is she dead?”

“No, she’s alive. But she’s still trapped in the car, so they’re working on getting her out,” the young man said. “We’re going to get you to the hospital, and she’ll be right behind you.”

“I need to see her.”

“She’ll be on her way right behind you—”

I need to see her!

“Hey, Jack,” the young man said in a voice that was infuriatingly calm, “I know you’re worried about her, but the best thing you can do for her right now is let these guys try to help her. And you need to let us take care of you. I’m sure she’s just as worried about you as you are about her, so let us help you both, okay?”

He swallowed hard. Crying wasn’t going to help anything either, so he decided to save that for later when it would really be necessary.

“Can you please…” he pleaded, “just have someone tell her I love her.”

The young man nodded. “I sure will.”

“Thank you.”

* * * *

The next few hours—or maybe it was days…Jack couldn’t tell—everything was a blur of X-rays, scans, exams, pokes, and prods. He was numb, dazed, and subdued on painkillers for broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder. He’d escaped the wreck relatively unscathed for what it was, and especially compared to what seemed to have happened to Shannon. He still didn’t know exactly what her condition was. Shannon was alive, that much he’d been able to ascertain through constant grilling of the medical team.

She’s alive.

She’s stable, but she’s unconscious.

She’s getting a CT scan.

It appears she suffered a traumatic brain injury.

She’s still out, but stable. We’re monitoring her.

You can see her as soon as we’re done.

Soon was nowhere near soon enough for Jack’s liking, and in the meantime, he was trapped in the hospital with nothing to do but hate himself for allowing this to happen a second time and stave off nausea at the endless series of what ifs.

What if he’d killed her?

What if she, in spite of her “stable” condition, still didn’t make it?

What if she woke up, but the traumatic brain injury inhibited her from living a normal life?

He’d decided it had only been a matter of hours after the wreck when he was informed by someone that Shannon had been transported to a trauma hospital in Austin, which caused him to raise no small amount of hell that he hadn’t been told sooner so that he could accompany her. But yelling at doctors and nurses wasn’t helping the situation, so he simply discharged himself and called a cab.

After he arrived at the other hospital, it was just more tedious waiting.

At some point in his waiting, his phone began to ring. To be expected, the first person who called was Alicia, whose concern took the form of her being utterly pissed off.

“What in the fucking hell happened, Jack?”

“Hi, Alicia,” he stated evenly while propped up against a wall in the hallway as he continued to wait for permission to see Shannon.

“What happened?”

He shook his head and lifted his gaze to the ceiling for a moment. “I fell asleep at the wheel and a huge farm truck T-boned the car.”

“And are you okay?”

“I’m fine. But Shannon’s—” He cut himself off before his emotions ran away with him. The pause was long enough for Alicia to jump to the worst-case scenario, and she gasped.

“Oh, God, Jack, is she dead?”

He swallowed. “No. But she’s in pretty bad shape.”

“How bad?”

He shook his head and rubbed his chin. “She hasn’t woken up yet.”

“So is it a coma or something?”

He shrugged. “They can’t really give me a straight answer right now. All they said is it’s a traumatic brain injury.”

Just saying the words made him nauseated.

“Holy shit.”

“Yeah.”

She paused for a long time, then cleared her throat and spoke in an uncharacteristically comforting tone. “I’m so sorry, Jack. I really am. I’m just so sorry.”

He nodded, unable to speak.

Alicia exhaled. “Okay, what do you need me to do? Do I need to come down there? Have you talked to Deb? Do you want me to call her?”

He sucked in his breath and blew it out in a sharp puff of air. “Would you mind? I just can’t…I mean, this is all…a lot. Just tell her I said that. She’ll understand. Let her know that I’m fine, and that I’ll call her soon. I just can’t right now.”

“I’ll tell her.”

“And cancel everything I have for the next…I don’t know. For the next six months, at least,” he went on. “If she pulls through, it sounds like there’s going to be a lot of hospitals and therapists and treatments. If she doesn’t…” He paused to shake his head again. “If she doesn’t, I’m just going to—”

“I’ve got your back. Don’t worry about anything,” Alicia interjected. “Hang in there, Jack. Shannon is young and healthy. She’ll get through this. You both will.”

He rubbed his eyes. “Thank you.”

“And call me if you need anything,” she added. “I won’t hesitate to jump on a plane at a moment’s notice if you need me to.”

As Alicia was speaking, he caught sight of a woman marching down the hall toward him, jaw set and eyes fixed intently on his face. Even though he’d never met her before, Jack knew her immediately. It was the hair. Fiery masses of curls, which she wore twisted into a fat knot on the top of her head. It was also her diminutive stature, fair skin, and piercing turquoise-green eyes, which, as she approached, appeared to be red and watery.

“Alicia, I need to go,” he hastily cut her off. “Thank you for your help. I’ll be in touch.”

He hung up and stuffed the phone into his back pocket and approached the woman, meeting her about halfway down the hall. They stopped in front of each other, and neither said anything just yet.

What was he supposed to say to this woman?

I’m so sorry I nearly killed your daughter. It seems to be a bad habit of mine.

Fortunately, he didn’t have to come up with anything because she spoke first.

“Jack,” she stated in a firm voice, an obvious attempt to maintain strength in the midst of something so unimaginable.

He cleared his throat and nodded. “Hello, Aine.”

“They’re tellin’ me she won’t wake up.”

He gave a small shake of his head. “Not yet.”

“And ’ave ye seen her?”

He shook his head again.

She gave a few assertive nods as she appeared to clench her jaw, her eyes scanning the hall and eventually landing on his.

“Are ye all right, lad?”

He pulled his lips in between his teeth as his eyebrows knitted, and then he lifted and dropped his shoulders, once again unable to speak.

She stared at his face with the firm, yet emotional, expression for only a second and then outstretched her palms and flipped her fingers toward herself.

“C’mere, Jack.”

With that, he allowed his face to fall forward onto her shoulder and he placed his hands on her back. The combination of his brittle state and the overwhelmingly maternal comfort caused him to momentarily lose control of his emotions. She patted the top of his head and rubbed her hand in circles over his back as she shushed him, swaying slightly and speaking quietly.

“I know what yer thinkin’ and ye need to stop. She has always been stronger than anything this world has thrown at her. This will be no different.

She gripped his shoulders, pushed him back, and forced him to look her in the eye as he noticed a single tear trickling down her cheek. “Whatever ’tis ye believe in, ye need to be a man of faith right now.”

He nodded and wiped his eyes. “Of course.”

Just then, Dr. Everette approached them wearing an expression that Jack couldn’t decipher.

“Mr. MacCarrick, do you have a moment?”

Jack nodded and gestured toward Aine. “This is Shannon’s mother, Aine Callaghan.”

Dr. Everette nodded, and Aine gave him a firm handshake.

Then his indecipherable expression grew somewhat pleasant. “Would you like to see her?”

“Yes,” Aine answered for both of them.

“Right this way.”

They followed him down the hall and he gestured into a room.

“I’ll give you some time with her, and then I’ll be back in a little while to speak to you,” Dr. Everette said.

He and Aine stepped inside, and as soon as Jack laid eyes on Shannon, he had to turn around. If he didn’t, he’d probably have passed out, or cried again, or possibly even vomited at the sight of what his own negligence had inflicted upon the most important person in the world to him. The person he loved more than his very own life.

In the two seconds he’d looked at her, he noticed half of her face was almost completely mangled. One of her beautiful eyes was a sickly purple-gray-green and swollen shut. A large bandage covered her entire cheekbone, but it was clear that it concealed similar distorted colors and severe swelling. The rest of her face was marred with cuts, scrapes, and minor bruising.

And her incredible, incredible hair…

It was partially shaved off on the right side of her head, above and next to her ear. Whatever injury that necessitated shearing her like she was nothing more than a sheep was also covered by a bandage.

Beyond all of that, she was still and silent, breathing through an oxygen tube that was threaded across her face, attached at her nose.

And it was all more than he could process, so he simply refused to look.

He faced the back wall for a while, hand over his mouth, eyes closed, head shaking slightly. As he stood attempting to gather himself, he heard Aine speaking quietly to Shannon in Irish Gaelic. Some part of his brain retained bits of the language that he’d picked up during the few years he’d spent in Ireland as a teenager, and as Aine spoke, the words translated in his mind.

Bí i do threis. Tá tú tréan, a iníon dom.”

Be strong. You are strong, my daughter.

Tá cíon agam ort, a pháiste mo chroí.”

I love you, my dear child.

He drew in a silent breath and rubbed his fingers across his forehead as Aine continued to speak to her daughter in a low, slow, melodic lilt. He decided it was better for him to keep his distance for a while. Not only because he wasn’t ready to take in the sight of her injuries and comatose state just yet, but also because he knew Aine needed this. Perhaps Shannon needed it too. Just to hear her mother’s voice. It gave him a microscopic amount of audacious hope that it could somehow make a difference.

“Jack,” Aine’s voice carried from across the room after what seemed like millennia. “Why don’t ye come sit with ’er? She needs to feel yer presence too.”

He inhaled once again and braced himself to face the damage he’d done. He slowly turned and crossed the room, pulling a chair to the opposite side of the bed from Aine, and sat down. He picked up one of Shannon’s hands, stroking the back of it with his fingertips.

“Hi, sweetheart,” he said quietly. He reached up to stroke the remaining hair on the shaved side of her head, twisting his fingers up in the long, red spirals. “You’re as beautiful as ever.”

He rubbed a thumb over the strand of hair in his hand, recalling one of their last conversations. “Your hair’s not even a wild, frizzy mess.” He chuckled lightly at the brief moment in the car that morning, which seemed to break the dam of his stifled emotions, and opted to lean forward and rest his head on the hand he was holding.

And for a long time, that’s all it was—Aine speaking softly in Gaelic, Jack stroking Shannon’s hand and hair, both of them taking intermittent moments to cry quietly.

Hours stretched into days, days stretched into weeks, and there was still no change.

Jack grew stir crazy, dividing his time between sitting at Shannon’s side and pacing the halls, jogging the stairs, and sometimes doing push-ups in the room at the foot of the bed. Aine, on the other hand, remained steady, sitting next to the bed, uttering silent prayers, only stepping away when Jack absolutely insisted that she take a break to go shower or nap at the nearby hotel room he’d rented. But for the vast majority of the time, she simply stayed, explaining this was just what a mother is supposed to do for her child. This is what would help.

And for approximately five weeks, her efforts seemed to be in vain, until one afternoon something happened that could only have been described as miraculous.

Jack was pacing the room at the foot of the bed when Aine called out to him.

“Jack,” she said. “She’s awake.”

He whipped around and saw, for the first time in weeks, the beautiful turquoise-green eyes that he’d missed so much. She seemed to be staring ahead, her eyes looking more glassy and vacant than he was used to, but they were open and they were hers and she seemed to be looking at him, so that was enough for right then.

He crossed the room in a stupor and stopped to stand next to the chair Aine was seated in. He didn’t try to speak, knowing he couldn’t, but also because Shannon’s sudden alert state seemed so fragile that he felt if he even breathed, she’d be sent back into her slumber.

“Shannon,” Aine said in the same low voice. “Can ye say hello to Jack?”

Instead of responding, Shannon simply flicked her gaze from her mother’s face to his, staring at him. So he stared back.

“Shannon,” Aine tried again. “Say hello to Jack. He’s very worried about ye.”

But she just continued to stare.

Aine stood up and tugged Jack over to sit in the chair.

“Talk to ’er,” she whispered.

Before speaking, he picked up her hand and rubbed his thumb over the back of it as he so often did. She always used to reciprocate the subtle gesture of affection by rubbing her thumb over the back of his hand, but she didn’t do that right then. Right then, she couldn’t even move, and his simple acknowledgment of that fact was enough to nearly knock him off the chair with grief and regret.

But this wasn’t the time for him to be weak. Part of what he’d signed up for when he’d asked her to spend her life with him was the promise to be strong when she couldn’t. So he swallowed the lump in his throat and smiled at her.

“Hello, Shannon,” he said quietly.

She still didn’t speak and simply continued to stare at him with a blank expression.

“I’m so glad you’re okay.” He’d said it in spite of the fact that she was clearly not okay. Whatever this traumatic brain injury was, he began to wonder if it had taken her ability to speak. It was apparent that she could hear just fine because she turned her eyes to whomever had spoken to her. And that was something.

Because, after all, she was alive.

This wasn’t a repeat of Penny. He hadn’t lost Shannon.

She was still there, awake again, somewhat responsive, and—according to the medical team—in stable condition.

As he continued to smile at her and rub his thumb over the back of her hand, that same audacious hope began to rise in his chest. Aine was right—Shannon was strong. Alicia was also right—she was young and healthy. She would get through this. Maybe she couldn’t speak to them right then, but something in him chose to believe that would pass. She’d continue to improve. He knew it.

After all, Aine knew Shannon better than anyone. The way only a mother can know her child. She’d said Shannon had always been stronger than everything this heinous world had ever thrown at her. And Shannon was stronger than this too.

Whatever ’tis ye believe in…

He rubbed his thumb across her hand again. He’d never believed in much of anything before, but he definitely believed in something now.

Her.

Them.

The life they’d promised each other, during which they’d walk through the pit of hell together if necessary. This was definitely the pit of hell, and just as they’d said on the day they made that promise, they would make it to the other side if they only walked together.

So Jack heeded the words of his future mother-in-law and chose to be a man of faith.

Faith in her, faith in them, faith that nothing would keep them from living the beautiful life he knew was in store for them.

He felt more than a bit overwhelmed by his love for her, to the point that he couldn’t help reaching for her face. But, to his dismay, Shannon immediately recoiled from his hand and then looked at him through a face of sheer terror.

And that was the moment he knew something was very wrong. Even more wrong than he’d previously thought.

It wasn’t the coma, or the fact that she wasn’t speaking. It was the look of fear that overtook her when he tried to touch her.

A realization hit him like a punch in the gut and sucked the breath out of his lungs.

Shannon didn’t know him anymore.

And she didn’t just not know him. She was afraid of him.

Chapter 1

Her first memory was a confusing one.

There was blinding white light.

There was frantic movement.

People in blue shirts looking at her, talking to her, talking about her, moving her, touching her.

She had an instinctual urge to leave, but found she couldn’t move. The feeling of being frozen in place scared her to the point that the chaos swirling around her hypnotized her back into a deep sleep.

Sometime later, there was a different type of sound. It was a familiar sound. A woman’s voice. She found it to be lovely and comforting, so she opened her eyes.

The first thing she saw was a man. A tall man with dark hair, who was walking back and forth across the room from her.

As the woman spoke, she turned her head to follow the sound of her voice.

The woman had a soft face and vibrant hair and eyes.

The woman continued to speak in the lovely, comforting tone for a while. She began to speak to the man, who walked over to stand next to the woman.

As he approached, she noticed his eyes. His eyes were similar in color to the shirts worn by the frantic people she’d seen earlier. They were beautiful eyes, so she continued to look at them until the woman spoke again, which caused her gaze to instinctively shift back to the woman’s face.

The woman said something while pointing to the man, so she flicked her gaze back to his eyes.

He sat down next to her and smiled as he held one of her hands.

“Hello, Shannon.”

Hello, Shannon, her mind seemed to echo his words.

She got an urge to say the words back, but there seemed to be a disconnect between her mind and her mouth.

“I’m so glad you’re okay.”

Okay? she wanted to say.

She didn’t feel okay. She felt everything but okay. She felt pain and worry. A vague sense of fear that she couldn’t seem to speak or move. Although, when the man reached a hand toward her face, it seemed she could move after all.

She recoiled and flinched, noticing her eyes squeezed shut involuntarily. Her heart rate accelerated and she curled her fingers into tight fists clutching the sheets at her sides. An instinctive notion inside of her sent out an alert that told her men—at least large, strong men like this one—were a threat.

Which was odd. He didn’t look the least bit threatening, and he seemed to be surprised by her reaction. He immediately turned to look back at the woman, who nodded and said something too quiet for her to hear, and then turned back around.

“Shannon,” he said again.

Shannon.

That was familiar too.

“Shannon, it’s Jack,” he went on, gesturing to himself and then to the woman. “This is your mom.”

She flicked her gaze to the woman’s face as her heart rate seemed to pick up again.

Shouldn’t she know her own mother?

She deduced that she should, but somehow she didn’t.

The rims of her eyes pricked and her breath hitched, which caused the man to reach for her face again.

A surge of fear pulsed through her veins and nerves, and it seemed to obliterate the barrier between her mind and her mouth, causing her to instantly cry out.

“Don’t!”

He froze, as a distinctly heartbroken look overtook him. Then he abruptly stood up and gestured for the woman to step away from her, and they spoke to each other in quiet voices.

The woman, who was her mother. This man, who was Jack.

She knew she should definitely know her mother, and it seemed she was supposed to know Jack too.

But she didn’t. She didn’t know either of them. She didn’t know much of anything, it seemed.

She squeezed her eyes shut and then opened them.

Blink.

Blink.

Blink.

There were no words to describe this type of disorientation.

The sense that something should be there, but you have no idea what it is or if you’d ever had it at all.

You’re in a place and you don’t know how you got there, and you’re not even totally sure what the place is.

And before you arrived at this place…there was nothing.

There was nothing.

And it was less like nonexistence, but more like…like a void.

Something should be there, but nothing was.

It was overwhelming. Suffocating. Like being a fish drowning in a sea of fresh air. Her heart felt like it would pound its way right out of her chest. Her throat constricted.

She eyeballed these two people in the room with her.

Her mother.

She understood the concept of a mother.

A mother who loves, who nurtures, who protects. A mother knows her child, and a child should know its mother. But she didn’t. That was not the way it should be. Something must have happened that caused it to change. It wasn’t that she knew of her mother and this woman just wasn’t her. It was that she had no knowledge of having a mother at all—although she assumed she did, and so she assumed this woman was her.

Jack.

Jack was a man.

An adult male. She guessed he was thirty-something, which was strange because if she could guess his age she must have some frame of reference for what a man of a certain age looks like. But she didn’t seem to have a frame of reference for anything.

Her thoughts spun as she attempted to dissect and unravel the disorientation. There was general knowledge of general concepts about the world, but no information about her own life, who she was, or who these people were—other than what the man had just told her.

The disorientation was so overpowering that she seemed to be reduced to a stupor of sorts and couldn’t manage to do much else besides continue to stare at these two people.

These two people. Her mother and Jack.

She felt the need to keep mentally repeating what she’d been told, just in case the disorientation had a tendency to randomly reset itself and steal more knowledge from her.

After a moment, her mother and Jack approached the bed again, and this time her mother sat down next to her.

“Shannon,” she said.

Shannon.

That word again.

“D’ye know who I am?”

She stared for a moment and then opened her mouth to speak. And somewhat surprisingly, she was able to. Sort of.

“Mom?” That’s what she’d been told, after all.

Her mother nodded. “Yes.”

She pointed to Jack.

“Who is that?”

“Jack?” That’s what he’d said, at least.

Her mother nodded again. “D’ye know who Jack is?”

She stared at her mother’s face and then glanced at Jack, who was watching her with a somber expression and one hand on his chin. His blue eyes were red and teary.

It was quite apparent she was supposed to know who he was, but that didn’t change the fact that she just…didn’t.

“No.”

Her mother glanced back at him and said something quietly, which caused him to nod and shove his hands into his pockets.

Her mother turned back to her.

“Shannon.”

Shannon.

She began to deduce that Shannon was her. She pondered that deduction for a moment or two, which caused another wave of fear and confusion to wash over her.

Why didn’t she already know that? Shouldn’t she know who she was?

“What’s the last thing ye remember?”

She opened her mouth in preparation to reply but hesitated as she wracked her disoriented brain for the answer to such a simple question.

After a moment, she could only come up with one response.

I was in a room with people wearing blue shirts.

She attempted to speak the information, but her mouth was infuriatingly uncooperative.

“Room,” was all she could get out.

“A room?”

She nodded.

“What kind of room?”

“Room,” she repeated, gesturing around her.

“This room?”

She huffed and shook her head.

“A room like this one?”

She nodded.

Her mother’s eyebrows lifted as her eyes began to well up. In spite of her emotional reaction, her mother smiled and nodded.

“That’s very good, Shannon.”

Her mother became quiet as she placed a hand on the bed, smoothing the sheet with her fingertips. Her gaze flicked from her mother to Jack and back again.

Ten million questions swirled around in her mind, and it was clear she had no ability to ask them. Frustration and fear gathered in her chest and she began to feel suffocated again. Tears stung her eyes and she brought her hands over her face, feeling startled at the fact that she had some kind of stitched wound on her cheek. She continued to graze her hands over her face, until they arrived at the sides of her head. One side was covered with a thick mass of hair, the other was essentially bald and there was another line of stitches.

So not only did she not know anything about who she was or how she ended up here, she was also severely injured.

She felt her eyes widen and her stomach plummet as her gaze darted to Jack.

Maybe that’s why her instincts told her he was a threat. She’d clearly been involved in a very serious altercation and as she stared at this very tall, obviously strong man, her gut told her he had to be the culprit.

She quickly looked back at her mother.

“Mom,” she managed to say again.

“What is it, child? Just try to speak slowly.”

Did he do this to me? she wanted to demand. But, of course, her mouth only seemed to be capable of spitting out single words.

She pointed an accusing finger at Jack.

“Hurt.”

Her mother shook her head in confusion.

“Hurt…” she prompted.

Hurt.

“Are ye hurtin’?”

No! Hurt!

The frustration between the two of them seemed to send her mother into a fragile state and she began to cry, which prompted Jack to cross the room and clutch her mother’s shoulders.

Her instincts began screaming at her that Jack was a danger to both of them, and the only thing she could do to protect them was shout.

“Don’t! Don’t!”

Jack immediately took on a startled expression and his mouth gaped, but he didn’t say anything yet. Her mother shook her head and spoke through her tears as she seemed to finally understand what she’d been trying to say.

“’Tis all right, Shannon. He’s not going to hurt me. He didn’t do this to ye.”

Jack dropped to kneel next to the bed and looked at her with a calm, yet blatantly sad expression.

“Shannon—”

She shoved an aggressive finger toward him. “Back!

He leaned back slightly and lifted his hands in a surrendering motion. “I’m not going to touch you. But I need you to listen to me.”

She panted as the panic caused every muscle in her body to tense, but said nothing as she glared at him with a fierce expression.

“It was a car accident,” he continued, speaking calmly and evenly.

She stared at him as she processed his words. “Car?”

He nodded. “We were on our way to your mom’s house and a truck hit us.”

He pointed to traces of healing cuts on his own face and turned his hands over to show her what appeared to be the remnants of scrapes and burns. “See? We got pretty banged up.”

Her eyes shifted.

He bit his lip and then lifted his shoulders as he went on. “I was driving and I fell asleep. So all of this is my fault. But…” He paused to shake his head and sigh. “But I didn’t mean for it to happen.”

She continued to stare at him. His eyes held a significant amount of pain and he wore an earnest expression.

Once again, he didn’t look like a threat, other than his large, muscular frame and towering stature, which told her he could probably hurt someone very easily if he wanted to. But the way he spoke was gentle and seemed honest, and she couldn’t help noticing the sound of his voice was almost as comforting as that of her own mother. Nevertheless, something in her continued to sound alarms that men like him were dangerous, and she couldn’t help wondering why, so she continued to press the issue with her limited communication abilities.

“Hurt?” she asked, pointing a finger at him and then at herself.

He pressed his lips together, closed his eyes, shook his head, and then looked at her. “Shannon…No. I have never hurt you. I’d never hurt you. I’d never hurt anyone.”

She drew in a deep breath as the tension in her body seemed to release, and then he stood up and stepped away from the bed.

She decided to believe him—at least until he gave her a reason not to.

At that moment, a man who was clearly a doctor entered the room, and she narrowed her eyes skeptically at him. But this man was much older, and he was a doctor, so she decided he was probably okay.

“Shannon,” the doctor greeted her pleasantly. “I see you’re awake. Welcome back.”

She stared at him, but said nothing.

He glanced at a chart and then at her mother and Jack. “Is she talking?”

Jack nodded. “She wasn’t at first. Now she seems to be able to, but it’s all just single words.”

She chewed a thumbnail as she watched Jack closely. He seemed to be sort of in charge of the situation, which made her wonder what his relationship to her was.

He was much younger than her mother, and he called himself by name instead of “Dad,” so she ruled out the possibility of him being her father. He also looked nothing like her mother. He had extremely dark brown, almost black hair and light blue eyes, compared to her mother’s vibrant red hair and emerald-like green eyes, so she figured he was probably not her brother.

That really only left two possibilities—Jack was either her boyfriend or her husband.

And given the fact that her instincts seemed to have a really bad feeling about him, her mind seemed to reel at exactly what type of life she had.

The doctor pulled a small flashlight out of his pocket and used it to shine in her eyes as he examined them.

“My name is Dr. Everette. Can I ask you some questions? You can just nod, but try to speak if you can.”

She nodded.

“What’s your name?”

“Shannon,” she stated hesitantly, going strictly on her assumptions after hearing her mother and Jack use the word repeatedly.

“Do you know your full name?”

Her eyes scanned the room until they landed on her mother, whose chin began to tremble again. She looked back at Dr. Everette.

“No,” she whispered.

He made a note on the chart.

“How old are you?”

She stared blankly at his face as the realization hit her that she probably wasn’t going to have an answer to any of his questions.

She shrugged.

Another note.

“Do you know what year it is?”

She exhaled in total frustration and shrugged again.

“Do you know where you live?”

“Manhattan,” she blurted without a moment’s hesitation and then furrowed her brow at her own response. She had no idea where it came from and had no idea if it was true or if her impeded brain had just randomly come up with it in a reflex of sorts.

Dr. Everette raised his eyebrows and turned to her mother and Jack, who both had a shocked expression on their faces.

Jack cleared his throat. “That’s uh…that’s where I live. We were in the process of moving her there. That’s a good sign, right?”

Dr. Everette nodded with approval. “I’d say so.”

She stared at Jack, who seemed to hold her gaze.

So the one and only bit of information her brain seemed to retain was where this man lived. Not her own mother, or even her own name, or anything else about herself—just where Jack lived. She wasn’t sure if she liked that or not.

And he said she was moving there. That meant she didn’t live with him yet. So he was probably not her husband. All of which meant she still had the opportunity to make a clean break from this guy if he tried anything.

“Can you tell me anything about Manhattan?” Dr. Everette asked.

She furrowed her brow as she thought. Manhattan was part of New York City. New York City was in New York State. New York State was part of the United States, which was part of the continent of North America, which sat on planet Earth.

So it seemed there was information in her head. Just no information about how she related to all of it.

She knew she wouldn’t be able to explain all of that, so she simply shook her head.

“Okay, that’s enough questions for now,” he said, setting the chart aside. He lifted the sheet and rubbed something across the bottom of her foot, causing her to jerk away.

“Don’t,” she protested.

He nodded. “Also a good sign.”

He eased into the chair next to the bed and looked at her with a kind expression.

“I imagine you’re probably feeling pretty scared and frustrated right now, aren’t you, Shannon?”

His empathy seemed to pierce her heart, and a lump rose in her throat. Her chin began to tremble as she nodded.

“Do you understand what’s happened to you?”

She shrugged and wobbled her hand back and forth in a sort of motion.

“You and your fiancé were involved in a very serious car accident,” he began, and Shannon flicked a glance at Jack.

Fiancé. Well, that answers that.

“A truck collided with the car on the side you were sitting on,” he went on, using his hands to depict the collision.

“Your head went through the side window, and it injured this part of your brain,” he explained, gently placing a fingertip on the wound on the side of her head. “That area of your brain houses your long-term memory, which is why you can’t remember anything right now. Does that make sense?”

She nodded and blinked, which sent a tear rolling down her cheek.

Dr. Everette patted her hand.

“Don’t despair,” he consoled her. “Like I said, it’s an injury, so there’s every reason to believe it will heal over time, and all of this will be a thing of the past one day.”

She exhaled a huge sigh of relief.

“Exactly,” he nodded, grinning at her, and then he pointed to her mother and Jack. “But remember, you have your mom and Jack. I’m sure you feel like you don’t know who in the world they are, but I’ve spent enough time with them over the past few weeks to know that they both love and care about you very much.”

Her chin trembled again as she glanced at them. Her mother wore an expression that she guessed mirrored her own. Jack looked as somber and heartbroken as he had the entire time. He seemed to hold her gaze, and she found herself wondering what was going through his mind. She wondered about him in general.

He seemed very kind and concerned. And his story about the car accident had checked out with the doctor. But what about this nagging feeling she had, not just about him, but about men in general? That had to be something. She figured time would tell if her instinct was right or wrong, but in the meantime she decided she’d try to have an open mind about him.

Especially since they were engaged. Clearly, if she agreed to marry him, he couldn’t be that bad. Right?

Dr. Everette turned to Jack and her mother. “She’ll need to see a specialist. There’s a neurology center in Dallas, so I’m going to refer you to them.”

Jack nodded. “Thank you.”

“When can we take ’er home?” her mother asked.

Dr. Everette chuckled. “Well, let’s see. Shannon? Are you ready to go home?”

She lifted her eyebrows incredulously and flipped her palms.

Home where? she wanted to ask.

He chuckled again. “She appears to be in pretty good shape for the shape she’s in, but I think we need to run a few more tests and have the occupational therapist come check her out. So I think we’ll keep her at least another day to keep an eye on her. And then I would plan to go to Dallas right away. The sooner she can begin working with a specialist, the better.”

Jack nodded again and shook Dr. Everette’s hand. “Thank you.”

Dr. Everette made his way out and her mother and Jack began speaking to each other in hushed tones, occasionally glancing at her. Her mother gestured assertively at him, while he shook his head and wore a doubtful expression. Her mother pushed a finger into his chest and raised her eyebrows while saying something that caused Jack to appear to relent, and he nodded.

She narrowed her eyes as she watched them, processing the information that her mother seemed to have the upper hand and was clearly not the least bit intimidated by him, in spite of his muscular build and the fact that he had at least a foot and a half of height on her. That had to count for something too. Right?

“Shannon,” her mother began after approaching the bed again. “I’m goin’ to make some calls. Jack is goin’ to stay with ye. Ye needn’t be afraid of him.”

She pulled her lips in between her teeth, hesitated, and then nodded.

Her mother patted her hand and kissed her forehead, and then stood up and gave Jack a small push toward the bed before stepping out of the room.

Once alone, she and Jack just stared at each other, him with his hands deep in his pockets, her chewing a thumbnail.

The situation felt stiflingly awkward. She didn’t necessarily feel afraid of him right then, just uncomfortable. And it was all made worse by the fact that she couldn’t even speak to him properly and potentially gather information about who he was and why she had such a bad feeling about him.

So, in an effort to simply be polite, she gestured at the chair. He waited a moment, still wearing that same sad expression, and finally sat down.

He leaned forward over his knees and rubbed his hands through his hair as he exhaled heavily, and then he sat up straight again.

“I can see that you’re afraid of me,” he began. “And that’s okay. I know all of this is scary and confusing for you. But I promise you that I never have and never would hurt you. You don’t have to trust me right now, but I hope that you can again someday.”

She peered at his face for a moment and then nodded.

“And even if you don’t,” he went on, rubbing his chin and resting it in his hand, “I’m still going to do everything in my power to help you get back to normal. I’ll find the best doctors and specialists available, even if it means flying us halfway around the world and back. You’re more important to me than anything, and I’ll never give up on you.”

He paused as he rubbed his hands together and stared at the floor.

“I love you, Shannon,” he said through a broken voice. “My worst fear was that you’d somehow not know that, and…and it seems that fear has sort of become reality.”

In spite of the fact that she still didn’t know or trust this man in the least, his words and obvious heartbroken state seemed to stab her in the chest. That, combined with the suffocating stress of the whole situation, caused her to instantly break down into tears. She leaned forward, covering her face, and cried quietly for a moment or two before she noticed out of the corner of her eye that he’d gingerly placed a hand on the bed next to her leg. Without even thinking, she placed her hand on top of his and squeezed it. He squeezed back as he continued to stare at the floor with his chin resting in his other palm.

After a moment, she wiped her face and looked at him again and he looked at her. She chose to smile, and he smiled back.

This felt okay. He seemed very kind and clearly cared for her a lot. After all, he’d said he loved her. And they were engaged. In her very basic and generalized knowledge of things, she understood being engaged meant, at some point, he had asked her to marry him and she had accepted. So surely, he was good. He had to be good. She couldn’t imagine agreeing to marry a man who wasn’t.

Still, she wished she could talk to him, but that obviously wasn’t going to happen. Instead, she tried to think of something else for them to do, and she scanned the room until her gaze landed on a large book on the table next to the bed. That was something. Maybe if he read to her, it would help her figure out the whole talking thing. So she pointed to it.

He glanced at it. “Do you want this?”

She pointed a finger at him and then back at the book.

“You want me to read it?”

She pointed at herself.

“Read it to you?”

She nodded.

He smiled and nodded back. “Sure.”

He leaned back in the chair and opened the book to a place that had been marked by the previous reader and then furrowed his brow. “Uhh…this is your mom’s Bible. Do you still want me to read it?”

She shrugged and nodded. It was just something for them to do, after all.

“Okay…” He cleared his throat and flipped one of the pages.

“O Lord, thou hast searched me, and known me. Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising, thou understandest my thought afar off. Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways…”

She watched him as he read, his voice deep and steady and strangely comforting.

“If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there. If I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me…”

She leaned backward and sank into the pillows, turning her head so that she could still see him, and she noticed the melodic sound of his voice seemed to be lulling her off to sleep. He paused to glance at her, so she reached a hand across the sheet, and he placed his hand over it as he continued.

“For thou hast possessed my reins. Thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well…”

She couldn’t hold her eyelids open any longer and let herself drift off while still holding his hand.

Chapter 2

Shannon…Erin…Callaghan.

“Very good,” AJ, the occupational therapist, praised her. “Now tell me your age.”

“Twenty…”

“Twenty…?” AJ prompted.

Shannon hesitated. “Five.”

AJ nodded. “Now altogether.”

“Twenty-five.”

“Awesome,” she replied. “What’s your birthday?”

“March,” Shannon blurted.

“March what?”

“Twenty.”

AJ squinted. “Close.”

“Twenty-seven.

“Good,” AJ said. “Say it together.”

“March twenty-seven.”

“And what year?”

“1990.”

AJ lifted her hand toward Shannon. “High five.”

Shannon laughed and they slapped their palms together. She liked AJ. AJ made her feel normal and not like she was a fragile, broken thing—which was how she constantly felt around Ma and Jack. But mostly Jack. Jack acted like she’d shatter into ten million pieces if he breathed on her wrong. It was annoying.

She was really trying to like him. Well, she did like him. He was always very nice, very gentle, soft-spoken, concerned about and considerate of her. But she was trying to like him the way she figured she probably should like a man whom she was supposed to marry. And it seemed like it should have been easy for her.

He was, after all, insanely attractive. Like, unrealistically, impossibly, almost absurdly attractive, with his strong, square jaw, chiseled features, icy blue eyes, dark hair, and persistent five o’clock shadow. He looked like he could’ve been a model or a movie star or something else that required a person to have perfect genes. He was so attractive she almost couldn’t look at him half the time.

Beyond that, over the course of the month or so since she’d woken up, she noticed he seemed like he was independently wealthy. He never worked, and yet he had the means to put the three of them up in luxury accommodations during their extended stay in Dallas. They had a private car and driver, and he seemed to be covering the cost of her therapy and the brain doctors—anytime a financial person approached them with a clipboard, Jack immediately filled out the papers and handed them back before she or her mother even had a chance to look at them. Not to mention, the ring on her hand seemed like it probably cost a small fortune with its massive center diamond and glittering band.

So, between him being nice, handsome, and rich, in Shannon’s semi-damaged brain, he was basically the perfect man, and she believed that’s all it should have taken for her to fall madly in love with him to the point that she was ready to waltz down the aisle.

But apparently, being in love with someone requires more than them being physically attractive and having a fat bank account and good manners.

She’d figured that being in love would have required her to know him. She still had no idea who he was, and really getting to know him seemed to be of much less importance than her therapy and treatment.

On top of all that, she couldn’t ignore the nagging feeling she had about him. She’d since decided it was not necessarily men in general who were a potential threat, just certain men. Men who were semi-close in age to her and men who were close in age to her mother. And not even all men who were part of that age range, just certain ones. She’d met her brother, Niall, who was about two years younger than Jack, and he didn’t make her feel worried or unsafe. She had yet to figure out the common factor that elicited such an uneasy feeling from her.

Fortunately, there seemed to be not an ounce of pressure on her to make any kind of decisions about marriage or living with him or continuing whatever life they had together before all of this. And that was a relief. It was hard enough to have zero knowledge of the entirety of your personal existence and also have to basically relearn how to speak.

At that moment, Jack and Ma entered the room, so Shannon stood from the chair and smoothed her head scarf, which Ma had given to her to cover the bald spot. Her head was still half shaved after a fruitless neurosurgery two weeks ago.

The surgeon had offered a lengthy explanation, none of which Shannon understood, other than the fact that there was really no fixing what was wrong with her brain. In addition to having her head cut open for apparently no good reason, the specialist she’d been seeing had begun to sound like a broken record. Not much he could do, no other options, nothing more to offer other than a list of names from which they could obtain second, third, fourth, and fifth opinions. So for the time being, Shannon just went to her therapy appointments, where she’d practice speaking and writing, and doing other activities to improve her fine motor skills.

Ma squeezed her shoulders and kissed the side of her face, and Shannon squeezed her back. She still didn’t have any memory of Ma, but she could see from her own reflection that she was clearly this woman’s daughter, and she couldn’t ignore the sense of calm and comfort she got from Ma’s presence.

Ma was the name that Shannon had been told she always used to refer to her mother. Ma was an Irish immigrant who had come to Texas before Niall was born. Which made sense, given the fiery red curls she, her brother, and Shannon herself had. So that was one more little piece of the puzzle to her elusive past.

Shannon nodded and smiled politely at Jack, and he smiled back, so she immediately turned her eyes to the floor. He was just way too attractive. It was baffling what he could have possibly seen in her to cause him to want to marry her. She always came back to the feeling she had about him. He’d given her literally no reason to think that he’d hurt or mistreat her, but she couldn’t help wondering if that was because she’d never been alone with him for any significant amount of time. Maybe he was only this nice and considerate because Ma was always around. Maybe he was with her because they had some kind of weird relationship where she was totally dependent on him and he lorded over her. Maybe they had some kind of emotionally manipulative arrangement.

But all of that was just a bunch of assumptions Shannon had come up with in her spare thinking time—which she happened to have a lot of. Just a bunch of time to think, while Jack and Ma made phone calls, did research, and had endless lengthy discussions about her. She usually hid in her room in their suite, where she either spent time reading book after book or practiced her balance and coordination. Sometimes she did little exercises too. Sit-ups and push-ups and lunges.

She spent a lot of time looking in the mirror in an attempt to familiarize herself with her appearance in hopes it would jog her memory. In her moments of staring at herself, she’d developed a habit of poking and pinching at her tummy, her bottom, and her thighs to see how they’d jiggle and squish between her fingertips. She didn’t consider herself fat by any means, just soft. And she’d decided it was from the time spent lying in a hospital bed, so she figured she could stand to strengthen her muscles a bit.

One afternoon in her boredom, she’d randomly decided to call the concierge to see if she could get a scale for her bathroom, and they’d pleasantly accommodated her. She was 114.7 pounds, so she set a goal to lose 4.7 pounds. Once again, for no other reason than it was something to do.

So, for the past month or so, this was Shannon’s life. Visits to the brain doctors and AJ, and staring at the mirror between exercises, all the while basically hating her existence and counting the seconds until she could get back to her real life.

Whatever her real life happened to be, that is. Surely, it was better than this. This had gotten very old very quickly, and none of it was making a lick of difference, and she just wanted to move on from it. But there was no moving on as long as Ma and Jack were in charge. They were convinced there was always something else that could be done to get the old Shannon back.

But the current Shannon knew there was nothing else, so she just had to go along with everything until they finally realized it too.

Jack was still smiling at her when she turned her eyes back up to his face.

“How’d it go today, Shannon?”

She nodded and focused intensely on putting words together. “It…went very…well.”

AJ patted her back. “She’s a pro.”

“Very good job, dear,” Ma said. “Ye ready to go back to the ’otel fer a little lunch?”

Shannon nodded and then waved at AJ. “Thanks.”

“See you next time.”

The three of them made their way through the building and down the elevator. Shannon kept her eyes trained on the floor to avoid seeing the stares. There were always stares. And people whispering. She tugged at the scarf to make it look less weird and silently wished for her hair to grow faster. She didn’t understand the staring. Plenty of other patients here seemed to be even balder than she was, and nobody seemed to stare at or whisper about them.

She, Ma, and Jack always left through the back doors, where the car was waiting by the dumpsters in the staff parking lot, which she didn’t really understand, but also didn’t question it. They always left from and arrived at the back of the hotel too.

After they arrived in the suite, Jack placed an order for their lunch. He’d learned by now what both Shannon and Ma would eat, so he didn’t ask anymore. Shannon sank down into one of the sofas and Ma began futzing with the scarf.

“D’ye want to take this off?”

Shannon’s gaze flicked to Jack’s face and then turned to the floor shyly.

“No, thank you,” she replied quietly.

Jack had seen her without it plenty of times, but that always made her uncomfortable. She couldn’t imagine herself being pretty enough for someone who looked like him even if she had a full head of hair, and she certainly didn’t think her half-bald state helped that situation.

Jack brought her and Ma glasses of water and then sat down in a chair across from them, leaning into the armrest with his chin resting in his hand while he looked at Shannon. She looked back, the two of them holding each other’s gaze, but not saying anything.

This was something they always seemed to do. The perpetual staring contest. If personal information and thoughts and intentions could be transmitted via just looking at someone, Shannon would have learned all she’d wanted to know about Jack by this point. But they couldn’t, so all she’d managed to accomplish was veritably memorizing every gray and green fleck hidden in the tiny seas of azure.

She’d also memorized the look he constantly wore during their staring contest. Tired, discreetly discouraged, but pleasant. He was always pleasant. Patient, soft-spoken, kind. She wondered if he was a ticking time bomb. That all of the obvious stress from this situation would eventually chisel away the gentle, long-suffering exterior and he’d snap, finally showing his true colors and proving to Shannon that her gut feeling about him was right.

Lunch arrived like clockwork, as it did every afternoon, and Shannon began the dissection of her sandwich. A while ago, she noticed, for some unexplainable reason, she felt uncomfortable eating around Ma and Jack, so she turned meals into a ritual of sorts to distract herself.

Take one half of the sandwich and set it aside. She never ate it. Splay the remaining bread; peel away the cheese and set it on top of the half she wouldn’t eat. Set the remaining components in a meticulous row—bread, turkey, tomato, lettuce, all in a line next to a tiny stainless steel ramekin of mustard. Then, eat the components in order as she worked her way backward from the ramekin to the bread, dipping each piece into the mustard and counting the bites.

She knew it was an odd way to consume her lunch, but she’d only started doing it as a way to give her brain a workout. The organizing of the food, the counting, and the intense focus on what she was doing made her feel like she was doing something beneficial to her injured brain.

The intense focus served a dual purpose. It not only exercised her brain, but it also distracted her from the annoying inevitable conversation between Ma and Jack about what to do next.

“The Mayo Clinic is ranked number one in the U.S.,” Jack went on as he flipped through a stack of papers.

“Where is that?” Ma asked.

“Hmm…looks like Minnesota.”

“’Twould get cold come winter.”

Jack chuckled. “We wouldn’t have to go outside.”

Ma chuckled back politely, and Shannon rolled her eyes and stood up from the couch, dumping her remaining food into the trash.

“Are ye not hungry, child?”

“No, Ma.”

“Ye didn’t eat much breakfast—”

“I’m fine, Ma,” Shannon managed to spit out in a deft assertion. She timidly eyeballed both of them; Ma was looking at her with a lifted brow and Jack was wearing a similar expression. She sharply turned away from them and refilled her water glass.

So Jack continued.

“There are a couple in New York, which may be an opportunity to take her back to Manhattan like Dr. Hester mentioned.”

“I think that is a good suggestion.”

“Or,” Jack went on, flipping more pages, “there’s a place in Switzerland. It’s more experimental, but it’s non-invasive.”

Shannon’s stomach did an infuriated twist. She downed a glass of water and then shook her head.

“They’ve only done a handful of trials, but the success rate is almost one hundred percent—”

With that, Shannon slammed the glass into the sink, sending shattered shards flying across the counter and causing Jack and Ma to leap from their chairs.

Shannon!” Ma scolded. “What in God’s name are ye doin’?”

“No, Ma,” she fired back. “What…in God’s name…are you doing?”

“What do ye mean?”

She pointed a furious finger at both of them. “You two…you two…you two…

She clutched the sides of her head and squeezed her eyes shut as she focused all of her energy on spitting out the words that she needed to say. Words she’d needed to say for a couple of weeks now.

“You two…are living…in the past. This…thisis never…going to get better!”

Jack lifted a hand in an attempt to calm her. “Shannon, I know you’re frustrated, but we can’t give up when there are still options—”

“There are…no options…Jack! You are a…fool living in a…fantasy world!”

He closed his mouth and dropped his hand.

Ma’s jaw fell open. “Shannon, ye can’t speak to him that way—”

“I can too…speak to him that way!” Shannon retorted and darted a furious glare at Jack’s face. “I’m his…fiancée…whatever the…hell that even…means.”

Ma pressed her lips together and Jack lifted his hand again.

“It’s okay,” he said. “I know this has been a lot to deal with, and we’ve had more than our share of disappointment, but I just want you to take some time to—”

“You both,” Shannon cut him off again, “want…a girl who…who…who doesn’t exist anymore!”

She ripped the scarf off her head and tossed it at Jack’s face. “This…is all…you have left. I’m sure…that’s…very disappointing…for you. But that’s just…the way…it is.”

“Shannon,” he started to say, but she cut him off a third time.

“Why don’t you…just…deal with it!”

And with that, she walked to her bedroom and slammed the door.

She paced the room furiously and, out of nowhere, dropped to the floor to do push-ups maniacally. She continued to thrust the floor away from her until she felt a weird urge to vomit. She decided it was a combination of stress and the push-ups jostling her minimal lunch around in her stomach, so she hopped off the floor, marched to the bathroom, and vomited until she was empty. Afterward, she felt strangely calm as she washed her face and rinsed out her mouth. Both the push-ups and the vomiting made her somewhat tired, so she flopped on the bed and curled up on her side with the intention of taking a nap.

Before she could fall asleep, however, there was a soft knock at the door.

What?” she said with a huff.

Jack stepped into the room, closed the door, placed the scarf on the nightstand, and sat down in a chair across from the bed. She found them locked into one of their intense staring contests for a moment.

She sat up, grabbed the scarf, and tied it around her head.

“Why…are you…doing this…to yourself…Jack?”

He leaned his elbow on the arm rest while he set his chin in his palm and continued to stare at her with a soft expression.

“I made a promise. So did you. It would go against everything I believe in to walk away from you right now.”

She sighed. “I think…you’re…crazy.”

He shook his head. “No. I just love you. And I want you to be happy.”

She abruptly perched on the edge of the bed, facing him. “Then stop.”

“Stop what?”

“Stop…all of this.”

“You mean your treatments.”

“Yes.”

He drew in his breath and released it slowly.

“You’re not…doing this…for me…anymore,” she added. “You want…what you…had. You’re not…going to get…it back.”

He rubbed his hands over his face and leaned back in the chair. “I just want you to be happy, Shannon.”

“Then let…me have…a life.

He hesitated a moment and then nodded. “Okay. I’ll talk to your mom.”

“Thank…you.”

They settled back into their familiar stare and sat in silence for a while.

“Is that what’s really bothering you?” he asked after a while. “Your mom and I are a little concerned.”

She scoffed. “Isn’t that…enough? We live in…a hotel and…we don’t do…anything but go to…doctors.”

“We’ve just been trying to help you, Shannon.”

She abruptly flipped over to face away from him. “Well, none of…it is working. Can we…just…go home already? Wherever…home…is?”

He placed a hand on her shoulder and she shrugged it off.

“I’ll go talk to your mom.”

And he left the room.

She breathed a sigh as she noticed the mere thought of doing something other than constantly going to doctor’s appointments made her feel better than she could remember feeling. Maybe she’d feel even better after she got out of this obnoxious, repetitive routine, and back to whatever it was she was doing before all of this. Or maybe she’d figure out something new to do altogether. She just needed something, and she hoped going home could be that for her.

The Arrangement | Advanced Preview

thearrangement

The Arrangement: Unbreakable Love Series Book 1 – 

Shannon Callaghan survived something unimaginable. Now she’s hell-bent on making up lost time and achieving success beyond her wildest dreams.

Jack MacCarrick is Hollywood’s most eligible and elusive bachelor. He has zero trouble getting any woman he wants—and after a chance encounter at a film festival in Austin, Texas, he wants Shannon.

He makes her an offer that no woman could refuse, but Jack and Shannon are about to realize that “no strings attached” may be an impossible proposition.

The Arrangement is the first of three installments in the Unbreakable Love Series and is set to release March 14, 2016 through Liquid Silver Books.

~

Chapter 1

Saturday, March 17

Shannon glanced at her phone for the hundredth time since she’d been standing in line. She’d now been here for two hours and thirty-eight minutes.

“Okay, ‘bout two minutes and you’re up, missy,” the event manager called out into the hallway.

She twisted the tip of one of her long, red ringlets as she rolled her eyes. She already couldn’t stand the fact that she had to be here at all, and she certainly didn’t appreciate being talked down to by the short guy with an obviously big ego who was in charge of this whole sideshow.

This was not what she had in mind when she’d pictured her time in college. The entire reason she’d chosen to study journalism was so she could get a degree that would open the door to a career as a writer or editor. Her hope had been that, in the meantime, she could use the required yearly internships at the major newspaper in Austin to do something serious and important, such as cover state and local politics, rub elbows with lawmakers in the state capitol, all the while writing some Watergate-esque exposé about whatever scandal she knew they had to be hiding.

She’d figured when she signed up for the spring internship during her junior year that she’d get the opportunity to cover something interesting. Maybe something like the current special legislative session that would decide what would be done with the education funding that had just been allocated to Texas by the federal government.

But alas. No.

No, because when March rolled around in Austin, the only thing that anyone cared about was the film and music festival.

So, much to her disappointment, Shannon had been assigned to the entertainment beat and had spent every evening of the past week interviewing musicians and movie stars, both obscure and well known. She found that these celebrity types were either down to earth and cool or totally, utterly full of themselves.

Shannon had spent a few years in Austin, so meeting celebrities wasn’t a new thing for her. Famous people seemed to be drawn to this unique city as much as anyone else, coming here for both business and pleasure, and Shannon had bumped into quite a few of them. Each time it happened, it was pretty cool because the celebrities she encountered had been the down-to-earth, cool types. But after a week of too many annoying celebrities, Shannon would be happy if she never encountered another one as long as she lived.

It was St. Patrick’s Day, and she was supposed to have the day off, but one of her fellow staffers had come down with some kind of virus, and Shannon, being such a low man on the totem pole, had to fill in. This, naturally, had put her in a foul mood. Her brother was visiting from out of town, and she was supposed to be meeting him to celebrate their Irish American heritage, but that would have to wait. Instead, at the behest of her supervisor, who acted as if he was doing her the biggest damn favor in the world, here she stood. Out in a mildew-scented hallway of the convention center for the sixth time that week, waiting to interview yet another big shot from Hollywood about his latest film.

Jack MacCarrick: movie hunk extraordinaire.

Yes, Shannon had seen some of his movies. Yes, he was tall, dark, and handsome. Yes, he had hypnotizing blue eyes and a strong, square jaw, and was the utter embodiment of a perfect male specimen. Yes, she’d overheard the other young interns leaving just now as they gushed about his innate charm and rippling arm muscles.

But he wasn’t exactly Laurence Olivier. He was just a big-budget film star with a nice face and a nice body.

And Shannon had to play the role of a celebrity gossip columnist.

She couldn’t help feeling like this whole situation was beneath her.

But then again, she was just a girl with aspirations who had started college a few years too late, and Jack MacCarrick was actually a somebody. Somebody significant and important enough that she’d been forced to wait in yet another line for hours to ask him ten questions.

This was called paying your dues, and Shannon was semi-content to play the game that would earn her that long-sought-after degree, and then she could be the serious writer or editor that she’d dreamed of being since childhood.

“C’mon in, missy.”

Shannon huffed discreetly and rolled her eyes once more as she flipped to her list of questions and stepped into the small room.

“Remember, no pictures or video, got it?” the short guy said, wagging a finger in her face.

She pursed her lips in annoyance and nodded flippantly, then turned around to sit in the director-style chair and reached across to shake Jack’s hand.

“Shannon Callaghan, Austin American Statesman.” She introduced herself confidently, as she was not-so-subtly hit over the head by how the silver screen did absolutely no justice to his striking good looks.

“Jack MacCarrick.” He flashed a grin at her, eyes hidden behind a pair of aviator sunglasses, as he shook her hand gently. “Pleasure to meet you, beautiful.”

She managed not to groan.

She should have seen that coming. In addition to his movies, Jack MacCarrick had a reputation with women that preceded him in a big way. And Shannon wasn’t about to tolerate being treated like just another one of his sluts.

She lifted her eyebrows incredulously and clenched her jaw. “My name is Shannon.

“I know. I heard you,” Jack replied, still grinning. “It’s a beautiful name.”

Shannon fluttered her eyelashes in total disgust and irritation as her jaw shifted slightly from side to side.

Douchebag.

She cleared her throat harshly and opened her mouth to ask her first question, only to be abruptly halted by him asking one first.

“You live in Austin?”

Her eyes shot up from the notebook, and she gave him an exasperated look. “Well, seeing as I’m interning at the local paper, I think one could deduce that I live here, yes.”

The grin that had been glued to his face the whole time was now peeking around one of his fingers as he leaned into his palm and tilted his head to one side.

“Interning, huh? So you’re still in college?”

Shannon briefly pressed a finger into her temple as she mentally talked herself down from biting his head off and forced a polite smile. “Yes. I’m still in college. I’m also the person who’s supposed to be asking the que—”

“So what are you studying?”

She flipped a palm toward the ceiling and let out a quiet huff. “Journalism. Which is why I’m here to ask you questions. Now, may I?”

Jack smiled and gestured in a go ahead motion. “By all means. Ask away, sweetheart.”

“My name is Shannon,” she growled through gritted teeth, then aggressively pointed a finger at him. “But you can call me Miss Callaghan.”

Miss Callaghan,” he repeated, still flashing that cocky grin at her in what Shannon perceived to be an utterly condescending manner. “So you’re not married. Are you single?”

Shannon’s jaw gaped open briefly as she glared at him. Then she snapped shut both her mouth and her notebook as she prepared herself to give him a serious tongue lashing before walking out on her own interview. “Who in the hell do you think you are?”

Jack smirked and lifted his shoulders in a small shrug. “I think I’m just a guy talking to a girl, hoping to get to know her better.”

Shannon lifted her eyes to the ceiling in utter disbelief before unabashedly glaring at him. “This is not a round of speed dating. It’s an interview,” she hissed then stood up and headed for the door. “Or at least it was. Thank you for your time, Mr. MacCarrick. I’ll see myself out.”

* * * *

Jack chuckled to himself as he jumped out of the chair and stepped over to the door with the intention of apologizing and asking Shannon to come back.

He instantly realized he’d been a bit too forward, even by his own standards. His inability to keep from flirting with the pretty girl had probably inadvertently ruined her work assignment, and that was definitely not his intention. He had just wanted to make her smile and giggle, as young women had a tendency to do when he’d grin at them and call them cute.

Women loved Jack. He had a rabid, worldwide fan base, and after ten years in the spotlight, he was used to girls and ladies turning into putty in his hands whenever he’d interact with them. He loved the attention. It was the perfect distraction from plenty of things about his life that he didn’t love and didn’t care to think about.

Given his busy lifestyle—and all the stuff he didn’t love and refused to think about—he didn’t really have the time or desire to accommodate an actual girlfriend, and that was perfectly acceptable to him. Jack had no trouble getting all the perks that came along with a relationship, without any of the commitment or emotional intimacy. And in spite of his behavior, he really didn’t consider himself a womanizer or even a sleazeball.

Jack might have made a name for himself as a film star, but he was famous because of his arrangements.

During his frequent stops in cities around the world, he’d usually pick up a lady he found to be intriguing or sexy, chat her up, and then level with her about his intentions. Then, if she was on board with it, over the course of the two or three days wherever he was, he’d wine her and dine her, seal the deal a few times, then bid her a fond farewell. No strings attached. Nobody gets hurt. He always had a great time; so did they.

And when the lovely Miss Callaghan was immediately and obviously disgusted with him, he was intrigued, to say the least.

He’d never seen anything like her. Wild red hair, flawless fair skin, bright green eyes that pierced him relentlessly as she became more and more pissed off while taking on a ferocious appearance that made her seem far more intimidating than her diminutive stature and slight frame suggested she actually was. She was like a fiery Irish warrior princess wielding an imaginary sword, and Jack immediately wanted to get slayed, as well as… well, something else that rhymed with slayed. So much that he couldn’t help shamelessly toying with her when he knew he should have been behaving himself.

But he’d apparently come on too strong, and he’d offended her. He wasn’t used to being rebuffed, and he definitely wasn’t used to upsetting people, which he had obviously done, so he felt the need to apologize.

Unfortunately, when Jack whipped the door open to go after her, instead of finding that mass of red curls, all he found was himself face to face with his best friend, stunt double and martial arts guru, Dylan Jacobs.

“Are you done yet, douchebag?” Dylan cackled as he flipped the sunglasses off Jack’s face. “It’s beer o’clock!”

Jack laughed to himself as he briefly skimmed his eyes over the length of the hallway. She was nowhere to be seen, and he felt just the tiniest twinge of guilt over his behavior, knowing he’d never get the chance to say he was sorry.

Oh well. Not your problem.

He let the pretty girl slip from his mind, never to return again, and slapped Dylan firmly on the back.

“Yep. All done,” Jack said, sliding the shades back over his eyes. “It’s definitely time for a drink.”

Chapter 2

“So I finished a lot earlier than expected,” Shannon said into her phone as she pushed out the doors of the convention center. “Where are y’all?”

“Already?” her brother Niall asked. “That was fast.”

“Well, he’s a douchebag,” Shannon sputtered. “He hit on me immediately, and I left.”

Niall laughed. “So, what, you didn’t want a date with your favorite movie star?”

“He is not my favorite movie star!” Shannon protested. “Especially not now. Where are you?”

“We’re at the pub,” Niall said then paused. “Uhh… just so you know, Shannon…”

Shannon rolled her eyes, already knowing what he was about to say. “Ugh. What?”

“Damien ended up coming after all. If you don’t feel like joining us, I totally understand.”

Shannon huffed.

Of course he came.

In her mind, she really had no business being mad. The entire situation was her fault.

You couldn’t expect to date your brother’s best friend and then think he’d just disappear forever after you broke up. Besides, Shannon had made sure Niall never knew the depths of exactly how badly Damien had hurt her. The only person who knew exactly what happened was her mother, and that wasn’t until after it had ended. All everyone else knew was that he had cheated on Shannon a few times over the course of their two-year relationship, and that caused them to break up.

Nobody else knew about the backhanded slaps, the rage-fueled kicks and punches, the belittling words and behavior intended to make her feel worthless and pathetic and like he was the only person who’d ever love her. Nobody else knew about the emotional manipulation and psychological pressure that resulted in him forcing himself on her sexually over and over and over again throughout their entire relationship.

There was an immeasurable amount of shame to have stayed in such a situation for such a length of time. Even Shannon in her abuse-warped mind knew that. So Shannon hadn’t told anyone, and nobody seemed to notice any of the physical signs of what was happening to her.

After all, it was hard for people to notice the subtle bruising of your face when you’re starving yourself into a living, breathing skeleton.

The self-starvation wasn’t a direct result of the abuse, but the abuse certainly didn’t help the situation. It took a year of therapy for her to figure out that her disordered relationship with food was a result of the first abusive man in her life—her own father. The man who was supposed to have loved and protected her, treated her—and her mother and brother—as punching bags. And, subsequently, he’d taught Shannon that such behavior was just what men do, which was why she didn’t immediately break up with Damien after the first time he slapped her eighteen-year-old face.

Her whole life had been a chaotic nightmare. She had been weak minded and weak bodied, and it had defined her for far longer than it should have.

But none of it mattered because it was a long time ago, and she didn’t want her life to revolve around such things anymore.

And when she occasionally found herself in these awkward scenarios with Damien, Shannon was polite and cordial. She refused to harp on what he’d done to her, and her making a big deal about having to be around him would only give weight to that long-gone situation. In her eyes, it was all insignificant because he was insignificant. At least to her.

Shannon sighed quietly. “Don’t be silly,” she said. “I’ll be there in fifteen.”

* * * *

The pub had sort of become Shannon’s home away from home for the past couple of years. It was a total hole-in-the-wall, old, dark, smelly. It could be loud sometimes, but somehow it made for a great atmosphere to study, write, read, and fantasize about all the amazing things Shannon knew she was going to accomplish in her life. Such as moving to New York to work as a serious editor or to just get a job where she could earn enough money to buy a house in the country, where she could keep her horse, Samson, and write novels for the rest of her life.

But all of that depended on her getting the degree that had been put off for far too long, so, for this period in her life, Shannon’s drive was focused with laser-like accuracy on finishing school. For now, she had to just settle on brief, intermittent daydreams at the pub.

After picking up a beer and kissing the cheek of Liam, the kindly old Irishman who ran the bar and treated her like the daughter fate had never given him, Shannon spotted Niall and his small group at the back of the bar, behind a couple of pool tables.

“Happy St. Paddy’s Day, brother,” Shannon said, giving Niall a quick hug. “How long are y’all in town for?”

“Just the weekend,” Niall replied as they took their seats. “Ma got us a huge discount on two-day passes to the festival.”

“Nice,” Shannon said. She waved to Niall’s friend, Tommy, then gave a cordial nod to Damien. Awkward doesn’t even begin to describe being stuck in social situations with your abusive ex. But Shannon loved her brother and knew this was just a package deal when it came to hanging out with him sometimes.

“So…” Tommy interjected mischievously. “I heard you had a pretty exciting interview this afternoon.”

Exciting is not the word I would use,” Shannon corrected. “Obnoxious seems to be more fitting. And I didn’t even get to interview him.”

“Really?” Tommy asked. “Why not?”

“Apparently,” Niall cut in, “he hit on her.” He paused to laugh. “And Shannon is so committed to her life as a nun that she got pissed off and walked out.”

“I am not a nun,” Shannon insisted. “I’m just not interested in guys right now. They’re just an annoying distraction. I have to focus on school.”

“C’mon, Shannon.” Tommy chuckled. “Jack MacCarrick could be the long-lost love of your life! He might have wanted to sweep you off your feet and put a big diamond on your finger.”

“Nope,” Damien butted in, not even hiding the snide tone in his voice. “People like that don’t go for people like Shannon. At least not in a serious way. She’ll probably be single for the rest of her life.”

Shannon pursed her lips and clenched her teeth, maintaining her commitment to take the higher ground. “And I would be fine with that,” she retorted, waving a hand casually and turning back to her brother. “Besides, I couldn’t care less about Jack MacCarrick. The only thing I’m worried about is the fact that I now have nothing for my assignment. My boss pulled serious strings to get one of those slots. I may lose my internship over this.”

Shannon let out a frustrated sigh.

“I’m so screwed,” she muttered under her breath, feeling a bit sick to her stomach all of a sudden. “I’m gonna go to the ladies room.”

“And I’m gonna get us some whiskey,” Niall declared, pushing back from the table. “You definitely need a real drink, sister.”

Shannon chuckled as she stood up. “I think you’re definitely right about that.”

* * * *

“Here we go,” Dylan said, pulling the pub door open. “I asked around. This place is pretty dark. Shouldn’t be a problem.”

The men made their way to the bar to order some drinks as Jack scanned the room and sniffed the air.

This place was the oldest, most rickety, most hole-in-the-wall bar he’d ever been in, and Jack found it to be oddly charming in a way. The old bartender’s Irish brogue and firm handshake reminded him of his long-deceased uncle.

Jack brought the whiskey to his lips and sighed wistfully, recalling one particularly heartbreaking summer during the time he’d spent in Ireland with his older sister as a teen. He stared absently at a framed map of County Limerick for a few moments when his little daydream was shaken from his head by the voice of an exuberant fan.

“Holy shit!” the guy squawked, pointing a finger at Jack’s face. “Jack MacCarrick!”

“Back off, bro. Let the man have his drink in peace,” Dylan grunted defensively, pushing Jack behind him.

Jack chuckled and waved his arm casually.

“It’s okay, Dylan,” he said, extending a hand to the guy. “Yep. That’s me. What’s your name, man?”

“Niall,” he replied, shaking Jack’s hand.

“Nice to meet y—”

“My sister interviewed you today,” Niall interjected urgently.

“Really?” Jack asked. “Who’s she with?”

“Her name’s Shannon, and she’s just an intern, but she said you—”

“Oh!” Jack exclaimed, genuinely surprised and quite pleased with the seemingly cosmic coincidence of the meeting. “Yeah, I remember her.”

Then he became just the slightest bit sheepish, recalling his behavior, and added, “I was kind of a dick to her… maybe you could pass along my apologies.”

“Well, she’s here,” Niall offered. “And she really needs that interview. I’ll buy y’all a round of top-shelf whiskey if you can give her a few minutes to ask you some stuff.”

Jack nodded enthusiastically. “Oh, yeah! Absolutely.”

Dylan cast a subtly mischievous smirk at his friend, obviously knowing what was actually going through Jack’s head, and turned to the bartender again.

“Let’s get a bottle of this,” he said, tapping two fingers on the glass and nudging at Jack to pull out his wallet.

Jack blindly tossed a credit card on the counter as he turned to follow Niall.

“Keep it open. We’ll be here awhile.”

* * * *

Shannon had rounded the corner to head back to the table when her brother gave her a totally amused look.

“Hey, Shannon!” Niall cackled. “I got a little surprise for you.”

Shannon let out a small laugh and made a face at her brother, then caught sight of that douchebag movie star and some shaggy-haired blond guy sitting at the table with the group as if they were all old friends.

She froze for the briefest of seconds, then let out a huff as she picked up a bag from the floor and turned sharply to her brother.

“Bye, Niall,” she grunted. “Call me tomorrow before you leave.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Jack jump out of his chair and dart around the table toward her.

“Don’t leave,” he said quickly, keeping his voice low and discreet as he put a hand on her shoulder and attempted to coax her away from the table. “Listen, I know I was—”

Shannon flipped his hand off of her and dropped her bag.

“Who in the hell do you think you are?” she demanded. “First of all, don’t you dare tell me what to do. Second, you’re a dick.”

Jack was way too close to her face, and she instinctively backed away from him, but he kept moving forward. So she kept moving backward until the both of them had moved around the corner and out of earshot of the bewildered and amused group.

But Shannon didn’t notice. She was on a roll.

“I was in there today to do my job, you self-absorbed piece of shit. And you sat there smugly hidden behind those stupid sunglasses,” she barked as she flipped them off his face. “And you talked down to me like I was some trollop that existed just for your own amusement. And I don’t know how in the hell you managed to find my brother, but let me tell you something, asshole. If you followed me here thinking I’m going to sleep with you or give you a blowjob or indulge in some other lasciviousness, you’re barking up the wrong tree. Are we clear?”

Shannon snapped her mouth shut and finally noticed that she was now sort of alone with him, which caused a startling amount of anxiety to rise in her chest. She also noticed his blue eyes were ablaze and his square jaw was set and he was looking utterly pissed off. She immediately recognized this to be a very dangerous situation, and tried to flee, but found her feet to be involuntarily glued to the floor by some invisible force.

Jack finally opened his mouth to speak, and the word came out in an icy breath. “Crystal.”

Their eyes were locked only briefly, and she’d finally managed to move her feet and started to walk away from him when he grabbed her wrist and pulled her back.

The anxiety hit a climax as Shannon was instantly catapulted into a state of quiet terror. She felt as if the situation was escalating into something ugly, like all the terrifying ones with Damien from years ago.

Shannon started to panic. Her heart hammered at the inside of her chest as her breath quickened. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw his hand raise up to the level of her face, and she squeezed her eyes shut and braced herself for the stinging impact of a palm to her cheek, a fist to her eye. She couldn’t believe this was happening. Again.

She held her breath. And then…

Nothing.

She opened one eye.

Jack had a look of utter disbelief on his face. He slowly moved his hand closer until he gently brushed her hair away from her face, then ran the back of his fingers gingerly down her arm until they met her hand.

He took her hands in his and looked down, rubbing her palms with his thumbs. He took a step toward closer, looked up, and their eyes met.

“Listen,” he began quietly. “Whatever you thought was about to happen just now is something I have never done, and would never do to anyone.”

Shannon blinked a few times and let out her breath. The rush of adrenaline started leaving her body, and she began to shiver or tremble. She couldn’t tell which. She felt wobbly, so she leaned against the wall behind her.

“I didn’t follow you here,” he continued. “But I did try to go after you earlier to apologize. I was disrespectful, and I made you uncomfortable, so I’m really sorry about that.”

Shannon knitted her eyebrows in the slightest bit of disbelief at how genuine Jack appeared to be about his apology. She briefly considered the possibility that he hadn’t meant any harm and he was just another jackass guy who acted without thinking when he opened his mouth again and confirmed that particular hypothesis.

“I can be a shameless flirt and a total jackass sometimes,” he admitted. “And when you stepped into the room, I was sort of blown away by how pretty you are, and I couldn’t help myself. It was the last thing I should have done right then, and I felt awful about ruining your assignment. So I’m just really sorry.”

Shannon was finally steady again and stood up straight, then nodded politely, as if to let him know it was okay. She also couldn’t help but notice the slight warm feeling of her cheeks at his use of the word “pretty” in regards to her.

“So if you’ll let me,” Jack continued, “I’d like to take the time to let you finish your interview.”

Shannon arched an eyebrow, surprisingly pleased with how the minor confrontation had ended. Maybe he wasn’t such a douchebag after all.

“I would appreciate that very much,” she finally said with her chin lifted somewhat defiantly.

“Excellent,” he said, squeezing her hands in a friendly manner, and then he paused as he noticed that she was trembling slightly and lowered his voice. “Are you okay? You’re shaking. I’m sorry if I scared you. I didn’t mean to—”

“It’s okay,” Shannon said quickly as she pulled her hands out of his. “You didn’t. That whole thing… that wasn’t you. That was other stuff. From a long time ago. It’s like a reflex. I get in that mode, and it just kind of takes over. Sort of like a nervous tick. I don’t think you’re the type that would hit a girl.” She paused to roll her eyes. “Those types don’t apologize,” she added in a huff.

Jack eyeballed her face in a funny manner, and Shannon could see the gears turning in his head. She knew he was about to ask her about it, so she quickly waved him back to the table.

“Let’s have a shot and a nice little talk.”

* * * *

A couple of hours had passed and Shannon had probably drunk a little too much. The earlier moment between her and Jack had been too revealing, too intimate, and too intense. Her nerves had been shot. Normally, when faced with such intense emotions, Shannon would just leave. But she needed the interview, and Jack had offered a genuine apology, so she had no other choice but to stay, and she’d eased her nerves in a most uncharacteristic fashion with what seemed like a bottomless glass of whiskey.

Niall, Tommy, and Dylan had ordered pub grub and were loudly snacking, laughing, and hollering as they thumped paper footballs made from napkins across the table. Damien was brooding, half talking to the other three, half shooting dirty looks at Jack and Shannon. He was getting slowly drunk, and his jealousy was starting to rear its ugly head. Since their breakup four years prior, he had yet to see Shannon even remotely involved with anyone, and he didn’t appear to care for it happening right in front of his face.

Shannon was hardly concerned with him, however. She was deeply engulfed in conversation with Jack a couple of tables over, out of earshot, asking him question after question. Far more questions than had been prepared in advance. She had more than enough information to write a stellar article about his new film and probably could have left if she wanted to, but she didn’t. The other interns had spoken of his charm, and Shannon was now just a bit under its spell. She was also noticing how much she liked the sound of his voice.

“Mac-Carrick,” Shannon slurred as she gave two tilts of her glass toward Jack’s face.

He chuckled. “That’s me.”

“And it’s not Mc. It’s M-A-C…C-A-R—”

Jack laughed out loud. “I know how to spell my own name.”

“That means,” she went on, pretty much ignoring him, “you are of Irish descent.”

He gave a nod. “I am indeed.”

She gaped in delight. “So am I.”

“That’s just the slightest bit obvious.” He paused to sip his drink. “Miss Shannon Callaghan, with hair of flames and eyes like the Emerald Isle.”

She snorted. “That was poetic.”

“Why, thank you.”

“And you are not at all a redhead,” she added. “You’re one of those black Irish.”

“Another astute observation.”

“Have you ever been to the old country?” she asked then tittered. “That’s what my ma calls it.” She continued to stifle laughter until she noticed an odd sort of sad look on his face, so she pressed her lips together to shut herself up. “What’s wrong?”

He hesitated a moment as the sad expression left his face, then jostled his head and took a sip. “I have. I lived there for a couple of years as a teenager. Have you ever been?”

“Nah. But Ma lived there almost her whole life. She emigrated right before Niall was born.”

“Ah,” he remarked. “So you’re a direct descendant. Where’s she from?”

Shannon lifted a shoulder in a dismissive shrug. “Somewhere in County Limerick.”

“No kidding!”

“Yup.”

“That’s where I stayed,” he mentioned. “My mother was from there too. She came over here when she was in her early twenties. So my sister and I stayed with her brother in a little town called Ballybricken after—”

He abruptly stopped, and his gaze shifted to the right.

She raised her eyebrows. “After what?”

He waved a hand. “Just after I turned sixteen.”

She opened her mouth to interrogate him further, only for him to speak first.

“You and I sure do have a lot in common.”

“Hmph,” she uttered. “I think our common heritage is where the similarities end.”

He simpered. “I think that similarity is enough.”

“Enough for what?”

“Enough for me to be totally enchanted by you. That along with your spitfire personality.”

She rolled her eyes as her cheeks flushed. “Pfft.”

He gave a tiny smile and a shrug as he refilled her glass.

She downed the shot, then tilted the glass toward him. “Just so you know, no matter how drunk you get me, I’m still not going to sleep with you.”

“Pretty sure you already made that clear, Miss Callaghan.”

“Well, your reputation necessitates that I continue to clarify,” she retorted, then paused before her unfiltered mouth spoke without permission. “Do you want to sleep with me?”

He chuckled. “Is that an invitation?”

“No,” she huffed. “I’m just… you know, wondering.”

He continued to chuckle but didn’t answer.

“I just mean that it’s not every day that a Hollywood hotshot hits on me and then gets me all liquored up.”

“If I was planning to sleep with you, I wouldn’t have gotten you all liquored up.”

“So why do you keep refilling my glass?”

He shrugged. “I want to keep talking to you. But I may or may not try to make out with you later.”

She glowered at him in spite of her stomach doing a flip. “Then I may or may not bite your lip.”

He grinned. “If that’s supposed to deter me, you may want to rethink your strategy.”

She laughed in spite of herself.

“So you’ve never been married,” she interjected, desperately needing to switch topics. “But do you have any kids?”

“No, but I have a nephew,” he replied. “My older sister’s son, Aiden. Sometimes I feel like he’s my own kid. She’s a single mom and travels a lot because she does work within the fashion industry, so they spend a lot of time with me back in New York.”

Shannon’s ears immediately perked up. “New York?”

“Yeah,” he said, then took a small sip of whiskey.

“Is that where you live?”

“Yeah,” he repeated.

Shannon gaped at him slightly in a bit of delight and a smattering of jealousy.

“You live in New York?” she asked a third time.

Jack chuckled. “Yes.”

“You don’t live in LA or something?”

“No.” He laughed. “I’ve always lived in New York other than the two years I spent in Ireland.”

Shannon was still gaping and let her chin rest on her palm as she gazed across the table at his eyes, which, in her now borderline intoxicated state, seemed to be holding her in a bit of a trance.

“I have always wanted to go to New York,” she said breathlessly.

Jack lifted one eyebrow and leaned into his elbows to get closer to Shannon’s face.

“You should come visit me there sometime,” he suggested casually while wearing a totally mischievous look on his face.

Shannon let out a laugh as she leaned backward into her chair. “Yeah, right.”

“I’m serious,” Jack insisted.

“Whatever,” she said, waving a hand flippantly. “Don’t you have a supermodel girlfriend with a tiny dog living with you or something?”

“Nope,” he said quickly. “I’ve never had a girlfriend.”

“Oh, right. Lest I forget that reputation of yours.” She snickered, and he gave her a good-natured laugh. “But you’ve never had a girlfriend? Like ever?”

“Nope.”

“Why not?”

Jack scoffed. “I have zero interest in girlfriends. I don’t do relationships.”

Shannon chuckled. “I know what you mean. Relationships are pretty much the worst concept ever invented.”

“So you are single,” Jack declared, pointing an accusing finger at her.

“And happily so.”

“And why is that?”

Shannon groaned and pressed her face into her palms. “Because all men are assholes.”

Jack became silent for a while. So long that Shannon peeked between her fingertips to look at his face. He looked only marginally insulted.

“I mean… in my own personal experience,” she muttered apologetically.

“So you had a bad relationship,” Jack deduced.

Shannon shook her head in disgust. “Like you wouldn’t believe.”

“So what happened?”

She huffed as she downed another shot and flipped her eyebrows in the direction of the other table. “He happened.”

“Damien or Tommy?”

“Damien,” Shannon grunted. “And he’s like the devil himself. I mean… at least he was to me.”

Jack narrowed his eyes. “Really?”

“Yup,” Shannon said in a low voice and then leaned across the small table to whisper in his ear. “And he’s responsible for why I thought you were gonna slap the shit out of me earlier.”

She lingered next to his face for a moment, watching him cast a disgusted look toward Damien. She then wondered exactly what came over her that caused her to say such a thing. Nobody else besides Ma knew, and it was beyond Shannon what had possessed her to offer such an admission to someone who was essentially a glorified stranger.

Too late now.

Shannon flopped backward into her chair and groaned as she rested her head back in her hands.

“Sorry. TMI.”

Jack ignored her half-hearted apology and shot a piercing blue stare at her after she’d looked back up at him. “He used to beat up on you?”

“Ahhhh… yup.”

Jack leaned in close and looked her square in the eye. “Then why the hell are you still friends with him?” He had lowered his voice, but it was full of intensity.

“Well… I’m not friends with him. They all live in Houston. He’s been Niall’s best friend since long before we dated. We all sort of grew up together. That’s how I know him.” She wagged her index finger at Jack. “And that’s why you don’t get involved with family friends. They have a curious tendency to stick around after the breakup.”

Jack huffed, shook his head in obvious disgust, and downed the rest of his drink. Shannon grimaced just slightly as she suddenly felt overwhelmed with guilt from unintentionally introducing him to the slightly less horrifying aspects of her past drama.

“Why would your brother stay friends with him after he did that to you?” Jack asked, apparently unable to wrap his brain around the whole thing.

“Niall doesn’t know. Nobody actually knows about any of that stuff except for my ma. I never wanted to make all of that shit public. I don’t think I even meant to tell you that just now. I’d rather leave the past in the past where it belongs. And he’s a perfectly normal person as long as you’ve never been involved with him in an intimate nature.” Shannon nodded toward Damien’s table. “See? You never would’ve had any idea he was like that if I hadn’t said something, would you?”

Jack shook his head again and started to light a cigarette.

“You can’t smoke in here,” Shannon informed him.

He threw his hands up in annoyance.

“Where can I then?” he demanded, the cigarette flipping between his lips. He was really exasperated, so Shannon seamlessly transitioned out of her indifference and stood up to run her fingers through his dark hair, then patted his cheek.

“Over here,” she said then called over to the other tables, “We’re going outside. Do y’all want us to bring back anything else?”

Nobody even acknowledged her, as they were still deeply enthralled by their paper football game. Jack stood up, and Shannon guided him toward the back patio with a hand on the small of his back.

Jack took hold of Shannon’s hand as he followed her through the dark, narrow hallway that led to the patio. Just before they reached the door, he quickly glanced around the small space, pulled her close to him, and backed her up against one of the walls.

He moved in close to her face, his parted lips hovering right above hers, as his fingers stroked at her hair. He let his thumbs glide down the sides of her face, below her chin, as he planted his lips on the spot just below her earlobe and slowly made his way down the side of her neck.

Shannon’s eyelashes fluttered as her breath came in quiet hitches and stunted gasps. She instantly felt as if her knees were about to give out, so she grasped at his elbows to steady herself. Nobody had touched her like this in a very long time.

Actually, nobody had touched her like this ever. Everything before had been rushed and scary and not the least bit sensual.

And while it was incredibly enticing and desirable, it was also so unfamiliar that it was simultaneously terrifying to Shannon, and she felt an instant need to stop what was happening.

Jack moved back to her face and ran a thumb over her bottom lip, looking deep into her eyes. He tilted her chin up toward his mouth, and just before he made contact, she sharply turned her face.

“Jack, I can’t.”

He ceased all of his movements, and she turned her face back to see him piercing her eyes with his.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

He stepped back forcefully, paused for a second, and then shoved through the exit, letting the door slam behind him. Shannon stood there motionless for a moment, suddenly completely sober, wondering what the hell just happened, then gathered herself and went outside after him.

After scanning the patio, she spotted him in a corner, leaning against a wall and smoking.

“I’m really sorry—”

He waved the cigarette as he cut her off. “Save it.”

“What’s your problem?” she asked, suddenly pissed off. “I told you I wasn’t going to—”

“Yeah, I know. I got that, loud and clear.” He flicked the cigarette down and ground it out with his heel.

“Why are you so mad?”

He laughed, almost mockingly, and started pacing around the patio. “Why am I so mad? Why…? Huh.”

“Will you just talk to me, please?” she pleaded with him, causing him to march over and get right up in her face.

“I don’t understand you,” Jack said in a voice thick with exasperation. “I have been nothing but nice to you since the second we met and—”

“No,” Shannon rebutted harshly. “You hit on me. While I was trying to do my job.”

“I complimented you,” he growled. “And then I apologized. And then I did what I needed to in order to make it right.”

Jack continued to stare at her harshly before letting out an agitated grunt and whipping his head away from her gaze.

“I know you think all men are assholes, but I’m not. I thought we had a nice little connection going, and when I attempted to feel that out just now, you were reduced to some kind of borderline catatonic state. For the second time tonight. So apparently you’re just terrified of me, and I have no idea why. Since the one horrible thing I did to you was call you beautiful and sweetheart.”

Shannon instantly felt a little bit guilty for the fact that she had been kind of rude to him all day long and tried to make amends by reaching for his face. He waved his arm in front of her hand, making it clear that a simple touch of his cheek wasn’t going to make up for the fact that she’d apparently hurt his feelings.

“And yet,” he went on, taking a few steps back away from her, “you willingly put yourself in a situation with some asshole who inflicted physical harm on you, and you think it’s just no big deal.”

He shoved his hands into his pockets and exhaled loudly. “All I wanted was to see if something was here. Between you and me. And for a second, I thought there was, and I thought maybe you felt it too. But I guess I was stupid to believe such a thing.” Jack turned sharply and started to exit the patio. “Good luck with your article, Shannon.”

As he started to disappear into the darkness, Shannon was gripped with an urgency that he couldn’t leave. She didn’t want him to, and she wasn’t sure what she could do to stop him, so she just shouted the first thing that came to mind.

“You’re clueless!”

He stopped and turned slowly, giving her a look like she’d sucker-punched him.

Shannon winced. Maybe not the best choice of words.

“I’m clueless,” he repeated, raising his eyebrows.

Actually, he was clueless. There was a reason she did the things that she did, and something in her was screaming at her that it was imperative that he know why, even if he still insisted upon leaving.

Yes!” she hissed after marching over to him and getting a little too close to his face. “You’re clueless.”

“Care to explain that to me?” he asked almost sarcastically. “Actually, don’t. I think I’d rather just get the hell out of here.”

He’d started to turn away again when she gripped his arm, causing him to shoot her a look of incredulousness and raised eyebrows. But to her relief, he didn’t pull away from her.

She let out a sigh and lifted her shoulders in a defeated shrug.

“I’m kind of fucked up,” Shannon began. “At least I was. And sometimes it just comes out. Like I said earlier, it’s not you, or anything you did. I’ve just avoided stuff like this for a very long time, and I wasn’t prepared for that just now. I don’t think you’re an asshole. It was very kind of you to apologize and let me do that interview. I know you didn’t have to do that, and it probably saved my internship. And honestly, I should’ve been more mature than to walk out in the first place.” She paused briefly to let out a self-deprecating laugh. “I’m the one who was supposed to be the professional in that situation. I should have been able to brush off a few harmlessly flirtatious words.”

As she was speaking, Jack’s expression grew less harsh as he appeared to soften toward her just a bit. But as he softened, she bristled, when the other thing he mentioned came to mind.

“And as for Damien,” she went on, shaking her head in disgust, “I ultimately put him in his place a long time ago, and I’ve just learned to tolerate being in his vicinity for the sake of Niall. And maybe I’m stupid for that, but I refuse to give Damien any more consideration than he deserves. And he deserves absolutely none as far as I’m concerned.”

Jack gave her an understanding nod but still remained silent, as if sensing she might need to spill her guts some more.

“So.” Shannon sighed again, then spoke gently, but firmly. “If you want to leave, I understand. But that’s on you. I realize I’m probably a lot more than you care to deal with, but this is just who I am, and I survived because of it.”

He nodded a second time, looking expectant, as if he was waiting for her to continue.

But that was all Shannon needed to say. It was probably far more than she should have said to someone she barely knew. And maybe it was all that damned alcohol, but she’d somehow managed to tell this relative stranger far more than she’d ever told almost anyone else in her life.

So yes. Yes, that was quite enough.

She shrugged. “That’s all.”

Jack nodded once more, and the corners of his mouth turned up slightly before returning to their previous, neutral position. He took her hand, which had been firmly gripped on his bicep throughout her entire spiel, and lifted it to his lips to kiss it gently, then let his thumb run back and forth across the back of it a few times.

“I’m glad you told me that,” he said. “I get it. It’s okay—”

He cut himself off, pausing contemplatively for a second.

“I mean it’s not okay… what happened to you, that is. I’m sorry I flew off the handle. I just… I guess…” he stammered and then let out a deep sigh. “I’m just glad you told me.”

Shannon smiled. “You already said that.”

“I know,” he said, chuckling at himself.

He looked at her for a moment and then pulled her close to him. She was apprehensive for a second, thinking he was going to try to kiss her again, but he didn’t. He simply placed his arms around her shoulders and held her flush against his chest.

Shannon hesitated and then nervously placed her arms around his waist. Her head was nestled beneath his jaw, her cheek pressed firmly into his chest.

The patio was silent, other than the distant static of cars driving by and jukebox music pouring out the open doors of the pub. She could hear his heart thumping out a steady, hypnotic rhythm.

This was a weird feeling. She felt… safe. Not like Jack was some kind of protective force against anything. Nobody could protect Shannon but Shannon. That had been long established.

It was more like she could trust him beyond just not physically hurting her. Like she could trust him enough to let down her guard a bit. He seemed more and more like he was a genuinely nice guy. A good person. Someone she could open up to. Possibly even more so than she already had.

They held each other for a long time, and then the stinging realization hit.

No. She couldn’t.

Because of New York.

The place Shannon had so often dreamed of going was Jack’s actual home. And that was where he’d be going the next day.

And she knew that, after tonight, she’d never see him again.

Stay With Me | Advanced Preview

 

Stay-With-Me5

Hopeless romantic Samantha is unlucky in love. After an instant connection with a sexy restaurant owner, however, she believes her luck is on the uptick.

Shameless sleaze Nick uses his high-end restaurant as an endless source of women. He never has any trouble sealing the deal—that is until he meets Samantha.

She requires a minimum of ten dates before she’ll jump into bed with him so he plays the part of the perfect boyfriend and suggests a romantic getaway as a means to get around it. What was supposed to be a fun, sexy weekend quickly transforms into eighteen harrowing hours when a catastrophic accident thrusts them into survival mode.

Nick is faced with his deepest fears and ultimately questions everything he’s ever believed about life and love. And once Nick’s true character is revealed, Samantha questions whether she should be with him at all.

Stay With Me is set to release in February 8, 2016 through Liquid Silver Books, and all major eBook retailers worldwide.

~

Chapter 1

Samantha

 

“Erica,” Ramone breathes into my ear as he presses his hips against my bottom, pinning me in place against the kitchen counter. My breath becomes instantly shallow at the feeling of his rigid manhood against me, with only minimal layers of clothing separating me from the forbidden object of my affection. He combs his fingertips through the tendrils of my long, golden hair, plants his lips against the nape of my neck, and I allow my head to fall backward to rest on the hulking muscle of his shoulder.

“Erica, I know you want me,” Ramone continues. “There is nothing wrong with your dishwasher. You’ve been calling me out here for weeks because you want me. Haven’t you?”

“Yes,” I manage to say. He moves his hands from my hair and slips them under the hem of my blouse, drawing them over my tummy in a sensual tease. His lips kiss their way down my neck, then pull away momentarily as he lifts the blouse over my head.

“You are a goddess,” he murmurs as he spins me around and then plunges his tongue deep into my mouth. With our lips entwined, I feel him tug away the straps of my bra and his palms finally descend over the puckering peaks of my

“Knock knock!”

Samantha dropped the book into her lap and kicked it out of sight under her desk before swigging a large gulp of scalding tea, which jolted her out of her fantasy. She spun her chair around to see Cammie, the perky temp receptionist, who waved a slip of paper at her.

“I’m heading out,” Cammie announced. “Mind signing my time card?”

“Of course.” Samantha gestured at the young woman to come into her office and scribbled her signature in two places, then handed the paper back. “See you Monday.”

Cammie waved as she flounced out of the office. “Have a great weekend!”

Samantha paused briefly as her gaze flicked side to side, reassuring her that the coast was clear and then reached down to retrieve the book.

 “Oh Ramone,” I gasp as he grazes his palms over the curve of

“Hey, Miss Holt,” AJ, the cute, young coffee supply guy, called as he approached the office door with a clipboard.

Samantha tossed the book behind her monitor.

“Hey there, AJ.” She flipped her hand in front of her face a couple of times to fan away the pinkening of her cheeks. “Were you able to get that French vanilla creamer?”

“You betcha.” He handed off the clipboard. “Got you two boxes. You should be good for the month.”

She grinned after scrawling a signature. Probably the hundredth signature of the day. “You’re the best. See you next time.”

AJ let himself out and Samantha sighed discreetly after he left.

Cute, cute.

Too bad he’s at least six years younger than her. Too bad he’s a vendor. AJ was a doll. And with his dark hair and deep olive skin, he could have perfectly played the part of Ramone to her Erica if it wasn’t wholly inappropriate. Being the HR manager, a person tends to preface every thought with, how appropriate is this?

AJ was definitely inappropriate.

She shook her head.

Never going to happen.

The two-year drought would continue. Probably indefinitely, as far as Samantha could see. It bothered her, but there wasn’t much she could do to remedy the situation. Besides, she had Ramone, the swoon-worthy Latin lover slash handyman.

She picked up the book a third time when her phone rang.

“Hey, Mom,” Samantha answered.

“How are you, honey?”

“Same old, same old. Did Jenna make it in town yet?”

“They got here about an hour ago. The kids are napping. She and Andrew are helping themselves to margaritas and the pool.”

Samantha laughed politely. “Sounds nice right about now. What time should I meet you guys?”

“Oh, I’d say around seven would be good. We’re going to Chapman’s. That fancy place overlooking the bridge on three-sixty. Do you know it?”

“I know where it is. I’ll see you then.”

“Okay, honey. Love you.”

“Love you too.”

Samantha hung up and checked the time. She had enough time to squeeze in a Pilates class and shower before dinner. Ramone would have to wait until later tonight.

She powered down her computer and filed away a few loose documents, shaking her head slightly at one of them.

Poor Cammie.

Anderson Brick Company was cutting the fat yet again and decided, against Samantha’s urgings, that the small sales branch and showroom didn’t need a receptionist after all. The inside reps apparently didn’t have enough on their plates already and would now be forced to field incoming calls from their desks in between servicing customers. But whatever. Not her business. It was only her business to handle the ugly process of letting the bubbly girl go gently. First thing on Monday’s to-do list was to write a sterling letter of recommendation for Cammie. Maybe take her to lunch, too.

This job sucked sometimes. It would probably suck less if Samantha could manage to avoid becoming emotionally invested in the employees, especially since the board wasn’t emotionally invested at all. At least not with anything beyond the bottom line.

After flipping off the lights and locking up, Samantha trudged across the parking lot and immediately broke into a sweat. Mid-August in Austin was a scorcher, as per usual. Rain was a pipe dream. This was now day seventy-one of triple-digit temperatures. Maybe she’d skip Pilates.

She let her car’s AC blast her face briefly as she remembered her dinner plans.

No, Pilates was a requirement today. She’d never been to Chapman’s, but she knew it had a reputation for decadent dishes and irresistible desserts. Samantha was a petite girl, but the only way to stay petite was to get her exercise in daily. Especially being three years away from the big 3-0. She’d be single forever if she accidentally let herself go. Although, after all of two relationships and one disastrous summer fling from a couple of years ago, Samantha was starting to wonder if she should let guys like Ramone be her lifelong lovers.

* * * *

After showering, blow-drying, curling, and makeup-ing, Samantha stood in her closet and scanned the clothes for something to wear. Her sister would probably insist on sitting outside at the restaurant. Something light and cool would probably be the best bet. She pulled a little red sundress off a hanger. Red was a good color on her. It made her mousy brown hair look more chestnut, and brought out the amber tones of her blah-blah brown eyes. She slipped on the dress and heard her phone vibrate from across the room.

Come to Mom and Dad’s first and have a cocktail, Jenna’s message read. We’ll carpool.

Cocktails. Of course.

Will do, she messaged back.

She slipped on a pair of wedge sandals, stuffed her phone and keys into a small clutch, and headed out the door, but not before casting a lingering glance at the steamy cover of the book waiting on her sofa.

“And I’ll see you later. Rrrrramone.”

 

Chapter 2

Nick

Hot. So hot. Stifling, suffocating heat that could only be cured by the warm breeze created by zipping through the shady trees of the greenbelt on a mountain bike.

Nick braced himself as he flew off a short cliff and landed deftly on the other side.

Small group ahead.

“On the left!”

The group glanced behind them and stepped to the right of the path.

“Thanks!”

Beepbeepbeep came the notification of a call interrupting his fast-paced electronic music.

“Answer,” he commanded the Bluetooth device. “Hello?”

“Hi, Nick. What are you doing?”

He whipped the bike around a tree. “Hey, Mom. Just biking.”

“Then I won’t keep you. Think about coming to dinner tonight.”

The bike careened across a shallow stream. “I’m on the schedule tonight.”

“Nick. You don’t need to wait tables in your own restaurant.”

“Someone needed the night off.”

“Don’t lie to your mother, Nicholas.”

“Mom—”

“Your father and I are not dense. You’re too old to behave this way. You should take one of those women on a real date and then bring her home to meet us.”

“Mom!” He squeezed the brakes and the bike skidded to a stop. “Can we not have this conversation right now? One of my guys caught some kind of virus. I have to work. I’ll come over tomorrow. “

“All right, dear. Be safe on the trail.”

“Will do. Love ya.”

“I love you, too.”

Nick growled to himself after pulling the ear buds out.

He was not too old. Thirty was when life began! Four years of college, two years of the MBA program, and five years of getting the restaurant established and successful. He’d put in more than a decade of tireless work and now it was time to coast. Cruise control. Why else would you work so hard for something if not to be able to enjoy yourself at some point? Life was good and easy and there was no way in hell he’d take on one more exhausting project, such as a serious relationship.

He knew his mother meant well. She wanted him to have the stability and partnership of a lifelong marriage like the one she and his father shared. And maybe he’d want that someday—or maybe not. But definitely not right now. Right now was all about him and what he wanted to do. And what he wanted was the challenge of crunching numbers, the creative control of conjuring up creative dishes that he couldn’t cook—that was the job of the chefs—implementing clever marketing schemes, and the thrill of the trails in his downtime.

All of that and the ladies.

Nick smirked to himself as he jumped back on the bike and pumped up a steep grade to exit the trail.

He wasn’t stupid or naive. He knew his habits were a bit sleazy. Hooking up with customers in his back office. But he was good at … well his job. And it seemed to result in stellar reviews for the restaurant so that made it a … pragmatic business approach. Pragmatic. Exactly.

As a result, he had a very comfortable life. What more could you ask for, especially in a dicey economic climate? Even though Austin seemed to be pretty immune to the financial woes the rest of the country was experiencing.

Regardless, he wished his parents would butt out of his personal business.

He wasn’t hurting anyone, and he was successful so why did it matter?

It didn’t. He was happy and that was the point.

* * * *

“Are you sure nobody’s going to come in here?” The blonde’s voice squeaked through hitched breaths as she clenched her thighs tighter around his hips.

“Yup,” Nick grunted as he gripped at the minimal flesh of her bony ass. Three deep thrusts and he was finished. Maybe she was too. He hadn’t noticed.

He set her down and assaulted her mouth with his one last time.

She tittered as he disposed of the rubber and adjusted everything.

“Now thats what I call dessert!” she exclaimed. “Nobody’s going to see me leave, right?”

“Right.”

After he was alone, Nick collapsed into the chair behind the desk to catch his breath before heading back out. He checked his watch. 7:00 p.m. Maybe he should take off the rest of the night. Now that he’d taken care of the most pressing item on his agenda. Although, since he was in his office anyway, he probably should take care of a few things before cutting himself for the night. Then maybe check to see if anyone interesting was seated in his section. Blondie had been all right. Not exactly his preferred type, but she was receptive and quite eager so why not?

Probably should look at his e-mail.

Hi Nick,

You can expect me Wednesday evening around 6:30. I prefer to have the meal selected for me so please put something together that you feel best represents the restaurant’s style of cuisine. Don’t be afraid to take a risk.

Regards,

Annabelle Driscoll

New York Times

He typed in a quick Internet image search to assess what he’d be dealing with and was pleasantly surprised. She was hot in a classy, no-nonsense, semi-stuck-up kind of way.

Nick lifted an eyebrow at her picture as he smirked. Then he shook his head as he closed the lid of his laptop.

No.

Annabelle was one of the most influential restaurant critics in the country. Probably not the best idea. The last thing he needed was for his little back office secret to get out.

He opened the laptop again and briefly skimmed over the menus for Restaurant Week, then pulled up the website for the Statesman and then the Chronicle, meticulously checking the pages to ensure the blurbs matched the info he’d sent over the week before.

Pecan crusted chicken with acai

“Aw, what the hell, man!” He groaned and then picked up the phone. It rang several times before reaching a voice-mail box.

“Misty, Nick Chapman. There’s an error in one of the blurbs. It says acai rice and it needs to be achiote. Achiote. That’s a-c-h-i- Never mind, I’ll shoot you an e-mail. Let me know you got it. Thanks.”

He huffed as he scrubbed his hands over his face and through his hair, then rested his chin in his palm as he stared at the screen.

Hmmm…

Acai rice. That sounded interesting. He made a note to himself to run it by Chase, the head chef.

He glanced at the time again. 7:05 p.m. Time to wash up and get back out on the floor.

* * * *

Nick glanced over the group at his table as he crossed the patio briskly.

Obviously married couple about his parents’ age; obviously married couple about his age; three young kids—groan; woman who appeared to be single and slightly younger than him.

He bit his bottom lip.

She was pretty, but she was obviously with her family so he immediately dropped the idea and put on his classy-friendly at your service smile.

“Good evening, folks,” Nick greeted the group. “Welcome to Chapman’s. My name is Nick and I’ll be taking care of you tonight. Did you have a chance to look over the drink menu?”

The older gentleman spoke first. “Maker’s on the rocks.”

“My favorite.”

Nick glanced at the man’s wife. “For you, ma’am?”

“I’ll have the pomegranate mimosa.”

“Excellent choice. It’s refreshing on a warm evening such as this.”

He turned to the younger married woman. “And for you, ma’am?”

“I’ll have a dirty martini,” she blurted out as she attempted to calm two of the kids, then shot him an exasperated smile. “Make it stiff.”

Nick chuckled politely. “Of course. For you, sir?”

“IPA,” the other man muttered from behind the menu.

Nick tipped his head toward the other young woman, mentally noting the lack of a ring on her left hand. “And you, miss?”

The young woman met his gaze and opened her mouth to answer, only to be cut off by the other woman.

“Do you have lemonade or something?”

“We do.”

“Can I get three of those in cups with lids?”

“Of course.”

“Thank you! Sorry, Samantha. Go ahead.”

Samantha.

“I’ll have a … um … I don’t know. Some kind of white wine,” she stammered as she skimmed the wine list, then looked back up at him through big brown eyes and long eyelashes. Her brows lifted as she appeared to get a good look at him, and he pretended to read her mind.

Yes, I am that hot, he thought. And so are you.

“Uh…” she stammered again as she quickly turned her gaze back to the list. “What’s a good white wine?”

“Sauvignon blanc is quite nice. Domaine Vacheron 2012 is one of my favorites,” he answered, managing to avoid a smirk.

“I’ll have that, thank you,” she sputtered and handed the list to him, flicking a glance at his face again and then sipping her water.

“You’ll enjoy it, I promise,” he assured her. “I’ll have these out for you right away.”

Nick stepped away from the table and eased up to the bar to put in the order. He leaned against it and looked back at the table to discover Samantha staring at him. He blatantly held her gaze for a moment and smiled before turning back to retrieve the tray of drinks.

The group was heavily engulfed in conversation when he returned so he silently placed the drinks on the table. When he set down the white wine, he darted a glance at Samantha’s face, who looked at him intensely with slightly narrowed eyes and an arched brow. He returned the gaze in a less discreet fashion than was probably appropriate and they sort of stared at each other for a moment.

“Thank you,” she said in a low voice.

“Enjoy.”

Damn. That was—by far—the most blatant eye-fuck he’d ever seen. Maybe he didn’t have to write off this opportunity completely.

The stare held for another second before he jolted himself back to reality and addressed the table.

“So, ladies and gentlemen, tonight’s special is Redfish with Maitake mushroom, Cipollini in Beurre Rouge—”

“I’ll have that,” Samantha piped up, still holding his gaze.

He offered a half smile. “Lovely choice. Sides include herb roasted zucchini, asparagus in lemon and brown butter, or spinach with hazelnut and Brazos Eden Brie.”

“Uh…” She paused to fan her face. “The zucchini.”

He gave a subtle lift of his eyebrow. “Beautiful.” He paused to check his peripheral vision then winked discreetly. Samantha handed the menu to him and he intentionally grazed his fingertips over hers. She sat back in her chair and appeared to gulp some wine.

“I’ll have the rib eye,” the older gentleman cut in, glancing at the menu. “Medium rare. I’ll have the asparagus.”

“Excellent,” Nick replied.

“I’d like the wedge salad with grilled chicken,” the man’s wife requested.

“Very nice.”

Just then, one of the kids shrieked, another one shouted, the third burst into tears, and a cup of lemonade was sent flying across the table, spilling next to Samantha.

“That’s enough,” the younger married man announced as he stood. “We’re going for a walk.” He turned to Nick apologetically as he ushered the kids away. “Sorry about that.”

Nick shook his head. “No worries. I’ll take care of it.”

The younger married woman interjected. “I’ll have the Gulf shrimp with the spinach thing. My husband wants a rib eye, too. Medium. Side salad. And three sides of the mac and cheese for the kids. Can you hold the bacon?”

“Of course.”

“Can you bring those out first? They’re getting restless from hunger.”

“Absolutely.”

“And another lemonade,” she added. “I’m so sorry. They don’t do well in restaurants.”

“No worries. It happens. I’ll run and grab a towel.”

After retrieving the towel, Nick wiped down the table and Samantha shifted slightly to give him more room as he kneeled down next to her. She leaned sideways to pick up a napkin that she’d placed over the spill, causing her face to linger mere inches from his.

“Sorry about this,” she apologized in a low voice, wearing the same heated expression from before.

“It’s okay,” he said, taking the napkin from her and brushing his hand over the back of hers.

“I think I’m a little wet,” she mentioned, causing his eyebrows to shoot upward.

Holy shit.

“From the spill,” she clarified with a smirk. “Where’s the restroom?”

He cleared his throat and pointed toward the inside of the restaurant as he stood. “Right that way. If you follow me, I’ll show you.”

“I’ll be right back,” she said to the group. “I need to clean off my shoe.”

Samantha followed him until he gestured down the hall that housed both the restrooms and his office, and she disappeared into one of the doors. Nick instantly decided this was an opportunity so he quickly dropped off the towels and put in the order, then made his way into the hall, pretending to make a phone call while he waited for her to emerge.

Chapter 3

Samantha

Oh. My. God.

Samantha stared into the mirror after cleaning the sticky mess off her foot and shoe. That waiter had totally been making eyes at her since he showed up. And he was quite a morsel. Tall and fit with great skin and a healthy tan. Gorgeous green eyes and light brown hair long enough that she could imagine herself running her fingernails through it and giving it a nice tug.

She should definitely come here for happy hour sometime. Maybe she should leave her phone number on a napkin. Maybe she should go ask the hostess if he was single.

She glared at her reflection.

“You are sex starved and crazy,” she said to herself. “Leave the poor guy alone.”

He probably wasn’t making eyes at her. He’s probably flirting for good tips. For good measure, she tousled her hair one more time and adjusted her bra in an attempt to make herself look at least half as hot as he was, then pulled the door open.

And there he was.

Right in the hall.

Giving her that same look.

She paused to throw an overtly flirtatious glance at him and intended to walk back to the table, only for him to touch her hand again.

She peeked over her shoulder and saw that the coast was clear. Then, throwing caution to the wind, she lifted her eyebrows and inched backward toward the ladies’ room door and gestured with her head inside. He hesitated and appeared to check the hall for bystanders, then motioned with his head toward a third door at the end of the hall and disappeared inside.

She followed him through the door, into some kind of office, and he spun the lock before taking both of her arms and pulling her close to him. He lifted her hands to place them on his shoulders and she took the opportunity to run her fingers through his hair.

“I’ve never done anything like this before,” she admitted.

He tilted his head to kiss a spot to the right of her lips and her tummy did a flip. “Neither have I.”

She managed to stifle a giggle at the fact that she’d read something identical to this in one of her smutty romance novels. The humor of the situation quickly melted away as she felt him clutch her waist and slowly push her backward against the wall.

Her HR manager bells began going off. All kinds of rules were definitely being broken right then, but something about the whole thing was a huge turn-on and she couldn’t help tugging his neck so their faces were close.

So inappropriate,” she uttered with a seductive smirk.

“Too inappropriate?” he asked, smirking back.

“No way.”

With that, his lips were on hers and, my word, he was even better at kissing than he looked like he would be. A shiver shot down her spine as he stroked her cheeks and the sides of her neck with his thumbs. He moved forward again, pressing himself against her, and she couldn’t tell if there was something in his pocket or if he was thoroughly enjoying this too.

The kissing grew more fervent and she realized it was definitely not something in his pocket, rather inside his well-fitting slacks, as he let his hands travel south again. They made their way to the hem of her dress and she instinctively lifted her knee to wrap around his hip while he slid his palm down the back of her thigh and his lips caressed her neck.

He slipped two fingers under her panties, giving her firm, but delicate strokes. Whether it was her alarms going off at how scandalous this was or the shock of being touched after so long, Samantha suddenly chickened out.

She jerked her leg down and pushed him back slightly.

“Too inappropriate!”

He immediately released her and stepped away as he took on a concerned appearance.

“Sorry. Are you all right?”

She caught her breath. “I’m fine. You know, that was … I mean, I don’t think I can have sex with you in your boss’s office.”

“Well, actually it’s—”

“I mean, not that I don’t want to,” she added quickly. “Because I do. Er … I mean, but not like this.” She paused to laugh. “I probably need to get back and so do you.”

He smiled at her and nodded. “Probably.”

She got a little lost as she stared at his lips and then abruptly shook her head to bring herself back.

“Here,” she offered as she pulled the pen from his pocket and pushed up one of his sleeves. She scrawled her name and phone number on the inside of his forearm and pulled the sleeve back down. “You can call me if you want. I’m Samantha.”

He dipped his chin politely. “Nick.”

“I know. You said that earlier.” She tapped the pen on his name tag before sliding it back in his pocket. “And it’s right there.”

He chuckled sheepishly. “Oh yeah. Right.”

“Anyway,” she went on as she clumsily bumped out of the room. “Thanks. Uh, I mean, you know … whatever.”

* * * *

Samantha avoided eye contact with Nick for the majority of the rest of the evening. Although when she glanced at him a couple of times, she noticed him giving her a bit of a knowing smile, which caused her to fan her face.

What the heck had she been thinking?

She was this close to having sex with a random waiter in the back of a restaurant.

Desperate. She was totally desperate.

And not to mention thoroughly amused by the whole thing. She couldn’t wait to gossip about it later with Jenna.

Eventually, Nick came by and began clearing the dessert dishes.

“How was everything?”

“Absolutely wonderful!” Mom exclaimed.

“Yes,” Dad agreed. “Definitely lived up to the expectations we had.”

“Excellent,” Nick said pleasantly. “Well, the owner would like you to know that your dinner is on him tonight, and he hopes that you’ll come back and join us again.”

“Why, how wonderful!” Mom exclaimed again. “That’s terribly kind.”

“Is he around?” Dad inquired. “I’d love to thank him personally.”

“He’s uh.” Nick paused to clear his throat. “He’s actually tied up in the back, but I’ll be sure to pass the message along.”

Samantha raised her eyebrows in concern, wondering if her little rendezvous with Nick had been seen by the owner and he was now in deep trouble.

“Well, at least let us leave you a little something for your service, Nick,” Dad went on, pulling out his wallet.”

“That’s not necessary,” Nick replied hastily. “I’ve been well taken care of tonight. And it was entirely my pleasure.”

He then turned to leave without saying anything else.

Now Samantha was positive something was up. He probably wasn’t allowed to accept a tip from a patron he’d canoodled with. She suddenly felt an urgent need to speak to the owner and clear up the situation. She’d been as much a guilty party as Nick had, and hoped to potentially save his job.

“I’ll meet you guys at the car,” Samantha called to her family. “I’m going to hit the restroom.”

She made her way to the hostess stand and waited for the young woman to get off the phone.

“Hi, ma’am, how can I help you?”

“I was wondering if I could speak to the owner or the manager, or whoever is in charge. Privately, if possible.”

The young woman took on a concerned appearance. “Of course. Is there a problem?”

“No, but I think there’s been a terrible misunderstanding with one of the waitstaff.”

“Certainly. Follow me, please.”

The hostess led Samantha down the hall and into the office where the canoodling had taken place earlier. Once alone, she dropped her face into one of her palms and groaned quietly at her indiscretion.

You ought to know better, you shameless hussy.

Just then, the door swung open and Nick waltzed in, and he immediately took on a surprised look.

“Uh, hi, Samantha,” he greeted her as he closed the door. “What can I do for you?”

She raised her eyebrows. “What are you doing here? I was trying to talk to your boss.”

He gave her a funny look. “I am my boss. Is everything okay? Are you upset? I mean, about earlier?”

I’m fine. I thought you got in trouble,” she replied. “What do you mean you’re your boss? Are you the manager or something?”

“Sort of. This is my place.”

“What is?”

“The restaurant.”

She stared at him blankly. “You own the restaurant?”

“Yeah.”

“You own the restaurant and you wait tables?”

“Sure do.”

“Why?”

He shrugged. “I had a guy call in sick. Also, I like to, I guess.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Oh. So you’re not in trouble about earlier?”

“Nope.”

“Then why did you comp our entire meal?”

He rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, I felt kind of weird. You know, making your family pay after I … well, you know.”

She grinned at him and crinkled her nose. “Really?”

“Really.”

“Well, that was nice of you.”

He smiled as she swayed slightly and eyeballed the closed door behind him.

“So,” she went on as she stepped closer to him. “Are you going to use my number or what?”

He stepped forward and closed the distance between them, then grasped her hips. “I am definitely going to use your number.”

She lifted up on her toes. “Are you going to kiss me good-night?”

He smirked and moved his hands to the sides of her face. “I am definitely going to kiss you good-night.”

* * * *

Samantha made her way out of the restaurant and into the backseat of the SUV and sat next to Jenna.

“What took you so long?” Jenna demanded.

“Long line for the ladies’ room.”

Samantha pulled out her phone and shot her a text.

I totally got that waiter’s number.

What! OMG. He was so cute, good job! LOL!

And I kissed him.

OMG! You hussy! LOL!

The two women exploded into a fit of school girlish giggles, which caused Andrew to wrench his neck around and give them a look.

“What’s so funny?”

They continued to chortle as they blurted out in unison, “Nothing!”

Long Gone Cat | Free Preview

LongGoneCat_smaller_for_website

Secrets, lies, devastating loss, and old wounds … insurmountable odds? Or, can love conquer all? Long Gone Cat is Katherine L. Evans’ new contemporary romance, a thrilling tale that will keep you on the edge of your seat and turning the pages as you discover what fate has in store for star-crossed lovers, Cat and Alec.

Find it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, Kobo, and everywhere eBooks are sold.

***

An Introduction

This is a love story.

 

This love story begins, as many do, with a girl and a boy.

Separated by distance and starkly different lives, there was no reason they should have ever met. But stories such as these have a tendency to unfold in a way the characters least expect. Fate has a curious desire to step in and orchestrate something larger, and it does so unbeknownst to the people whose lives are ultimately affected by it.

For this particular girl and boy, fate had something sinister in mind. Fate opted for a series of harrowing events to unite these two, only to rip them apart.

And while fate seemed to have a sick sense of humor, it also had its reasons.

Because by torturing this girl and this boy, fate ensured that nothing short of death would ever separate them again.

* * * *

Seattle

On April 30, 1986, a pretty little girl was born to Camilla and Antonio Bellafiore.

The arrangement between Camilla and Antonio was that she would name the girl children and he would name the boys. Their first child, a son, was born five years prior. Antonio named the boy Anthony, as an unabashed tribute to himself.

And when they learned the second baby was a girl, Camilla had already chosen the name.

Catarina.

It was the name of Camilla’s ailing mother. She knew Catarina the first would not live long enough to create any lasting memories with Catarina the second, so the tribute was a way to connect the two souls which would soon be separated by life and death.

Catarina was born with a mass of black hair and the bluest eyes her parents had ever seen. Anthony was also born with blue eyes and his had slowly changed to a dark brown hue by his first birthday, so they figured hers would change as well. Nobody in their entire family had eyes that color.

That afternoon in April was an uncharacteristically sunny day. The weather was surprisingly warm, so Antonio pulled open the curtains of the hospital room and cracked the window.

He lifted Anthony onto his lap and they both sat on the foot of the bed with Camilla, as she cradled baby Catarina—or “Cat”, Anthony’s immediate nickname for his sister—and sang softly.

“Happy birthday to you…”

* * * *

Brooklyn

Six years prior, on a freezing day in early December, Miriam Branneth cradled her newborn baby boy as she wept silently.

The nurses had assured her it was just hormones, but Miriam knew better.

If only it was something that simple and temporary.

Miriam had followed a guy from Chicago to Brooklyn on a whim. He was kind of a bully, but he was unbelievably charming and she had fallen head over heels in love. Unfortunately, however, fifteen months and a broken condom later, Miriam was on her own.

But Miriam was also strong, and Miriam knew she could get through this, too.

She would allow herself this one day to feel the full weight of her sadness over the situation, and then she would handle things. She had to.

Because of him.

Alec.

She named him after her favorite professor. An elderly man who was a gentleman in every sense of the word, and who reminded Miriam of the grandfather she only met once. A man who had tired, yet striking blue eyes hidden below a pair of bushy white brows.

When they plopped the squirming baby boy onto her chest, he looked up at her through a pair of similar blue eyes and Miriam decided it was a fitting name. Who else would she name him after anyway? The boy’s father was long gone and didn’t care about either of them.

Her former professor seemed to be the type of man she hoped her son would grow up to be, one who was nothing like the man who knocked her up and left, and the name would serve as a reminder to herself to raise him that way.

Eventually, her weeping subsided and she curled up on her side to watch him as he slept.

“I guess it’s just you and me now, Alec,” she whispered. “We’re going to be okay. We’ll have to be.”

1991

 Seattle

Cat had pretty much come out of the womb singing.

Her mother was a natural singer as well, so Cat came by it honestly.

The first five years of her life were spent with Cat and Camilla making up songs, as Camilla cooked and Cat watched while simultaneously choreographing a dance number to go along with their new songs. Anthony lingered around as well, not to sing, but to sneak whatever bit of food he could grab while his mother’s back was turned.

When Antonio arrived home in the evenings, he always poked his head into the kitchen to find lots of singing, laughing, and snacking going on. He would then wag a reprimanding finger and teasingly scold the group that the snacking and carrying on indoors would just make them all fat.

Camilla would flip a flirtatious wrist at her husband and scold him for saying such things, before shoving him into a chair to watch his little girl’s latest song and dance number.

But Antonio was right, at least as far as Cat was concerned.

By the time kindergarten rolled around, she was pleasantly plump and quite adorable, according to her parents at least.

Cat was very excited to start school. Her entire life, the only friends she had were her mother and older brother, so she was looking forward to finding girls her own age to play with. She knew everyone in her class would be thoroughly impressed by her amazing singing and dancing abilities, so she spent several days preparing a little number to show her new friends when she got the chance.

Much to her confusion, when Cat turned to smile at the three little blonde girls at her table, they gave her a look like she had two heads.

“Why is your hair so black?” one little girl sneered.

“She must be a witch!” another little girl exclaimed.

Cat’s little mouth fell open at their spiteful words.

“I am not!” she insisted.

“Your hair is ugly,” the first little girl declared.

“No it’s not!” Cat cried. “My mama says I’m beautiful.”

“Well, she’s wrong,” the third little girl finally piped up. “You can’t be beautiful if you’re fat. And you are fat.”

Cat defiantly stuck her tongue out at the mean girls. She didn’t want to be their friend anyway.

Eventually, the teacher called everyone over to sit in a circle to introduce themselves. The class was instructed to say their name, age, and something special about them. Cat decided this was a perfect opportunity to make friends with other little girls by impressing them with her singing.

When the introductions made their way to Cat, she stood up and smoothed her skirt.

“My name is Cat,” she began. “I’m five years old, and I’m a singer.

She was just about to open her mouth to belt out something spectacular, when she heard blonde girl number one snicker.

“Fat Cat.”

Cat’s cheeks flamed.

“Would you like to sing something?” her teacher asked in a sweet voice.

Cat smiled politely and sat back down as she swallowed heavily to diffuse her tears before they had a chance to escape her eyes.

“No.”

Definitely not.

Not now, not ever.

* * * *

Brooklyn

Alec was only eleven when his mind made itself up.

His mother, Miriam, was a teacher. In an effort to make ends meet, she waited tables in the late afternoons and evenings, so Alec had to join a neighborhood after-school program. A few of his friends attended it with him, so he didn’t mind. There wasn’t really much else to do anyway.

Like any good mother, Miriam wanted her son to grow up to be kind and polite, but she also wanted him to be well-rounded. So in addition to loading his young arms up with books to read on the weekends, she found an after-school program that would provide him the opportunity to do interesting things.

So Alec went to museums, where he learned about both modern art and art history, as well as natural sciences and space. He went to the New York Philharmonic for special viewings of rehearsals, and usually took advantage of the darkness and soothing music to nap.

One particular afternoon, his group went to the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre to watch a dress rehearsal, and Alec was instantly hooked.

He couldn’t quite put his finger on what exactly was so intriguing about a stage production. Perhaps, it was the way the voices carried effortlessly through the massive theatre, or how something as simple as a gesture combined with an inflection could either leave the small audience in stitches or on the verge of tears.

Whatever it was, Alec wanted to do it too.

So when he finally saw his mother that evening, he spilled his guts. Sort of.

“So, Ma,” he began cautiously, as he poked at his dinner with a fork. “We went to see a play today—“

“Don’t play with your food,” Miriam interjected.

He set his fork down and folded his hands in his lap. “Sorry, Ma.”

Miriam took a sip of water and then gestured for him to continue.

“What was the play?” she asked.

“It was about the Depression,” Alec explained. “And this guy who has a bad relationship with his dad. I can’t remember the name.”

“It sounds depressing,” she said as she smiled at him.

“Well it was,” he confirmed. “But the whole thing was so cool. We could hear these guys from all the way in the back of this huge room and they weren’t even shouting or using microphones.”

“Probably the acoustics of the theater,” Miriam offered.

“Yeah. Yeah, that’s what the guide said,” Alec replied. “Anyway, the guide also said they’ve got this summer program where kids can try out acting. Like, do improv and write short plays and they do a big production toward the end.”

Miriam lifted an eyebrow at her son. “You want to get involved in acting?”

Alec’s blue eyes darted slightly from side to side as he tapped his teeth together for a moment. He shrugged.

“Maybe,” he finally said.

Miriam peered at him for several moments, but said nothing. He took a sip of water and stared at his plate. Maybe this wasn’t the best suggestion.

But Alec had a bit of a one-track mind. When he decided he wanted something, he usually wasn’t deterred very easily.

He looked back up and offered his mother a beguiling half-smile.

“They spend a whole month on Shakespeare,” he offered, knowing his mother would approve of that.

Miriam chewed silently as she stared at him through her own blue eyes. She appeared to be mulling over the idea, so he continued to stare back intently.

After what felt like an eternity, she wiped her mouth demurely with her napkin and folded it next to her plate.

“We’ll see,” she finally said. “It’ll depend on the cost and—“

Thank you!” he shouted as he flew from his seat and threw his arms around her neck.

Miriam couldn’t help laughing as she hugged him back, and then motioned for him to sit back down.

“I didn’t say yes, I said maybe,” she clarified. “Also, if this is something you really want to do, I want you to read that book of plays. The Greek ones. And if I can scrape together the money for you to go to this thing, I want you to pay extra attention to the section on Shakespeare. Every hobby you have needs to contribute to your education in some way. College may be seven years away, but you need to prepare as much as you can.”

“I bet if I got really good, I could get a theater scholarship,” he suggested.

“That’s possible, but it’s still pretty farfetched,” Miriam replied. “Your focus needs to be on your grades, and the Shakespeare aspect will help you when you get to your high school English classes.”

“I know, I know,” he concurred, as he smiled absently to himself. He verbally agreed with his mother, but in his mind, he knew better.

There would be no college. There would also be no concern for grades once high school ended.

Because Alec decided right then and there, he was going to be the next great theater star.

1999

Seattle

Cat hated school.

She hated it. Because everyone seemed to either hate her or ignore her completely.

There were a few nice kids who were polite to her, and ones whom she sat with at lunch sometimes, but she didn’t really have any friends.

At thirteen, she was still kind of the fat kid, an already awkward girl made even more awkward by puberty.

Her black hair was long and stringy, and puberty seemed to give it an endless supply of oil. She’d wash it every morning, only to have it become disgusting again by noon. So, naturally, the pretty girls accused her of never showering.

Cat also never got the hang of dressing like one of those pretty girls. She usually just wore clothes conducive to the hikes she went on with Anthony as soon as they got home from school.

Some people just aren’t very good at fitting in, and Cat was one of those people.

But Cat was okay.

She had her brother and she had her mother and even her father, to an extent, and she knew she just had to stick it out for another five years.

In the meantime, however, she just became the little brother Anthony had always wanted, and she was perfectly fine with that. All of the nasty kids at school were a temporary annoyance in her life and her brother would be there forever. And her brother adored her, so his opinion superseded every stinging one that came from the seven hours spent at the junior high school every day.

“So how’d your science presentation go?” Anthony asked one afternoon as they made their way back from the hiking trail.

Cat huffed quietly.

“What happened? Did you forget your note cards again?” He gave her a playful shove.

“No,” she grunted. “I did everything I was supposed to, but nobody listened to anything I said. And of course Jackie and her clones were making faces and comments I couldn’t hear the whole time.”

“How do you know they were making comments about you?”

Cat rolled her eyes. “Because that’s what they do. What they’ve always done.”

Anthony shrugged. “Well, Jackie’s stupid. Just ignore her.”

“I try to, but—”

“Stop saying but,” he cut her off. “People who make other people’s life hell for no reason have something wrong with them.”

“I don’t know, Anthony,” Cat wavered. “Doesn’t seem like anything’s wrong with people like her. She’s beautiful, and skinny, and has tons of friends. I’m the one who’s a total reject, and fat, and ugly–”

“Will you knock it off with that crap already?” he barked as he thumped the side of her arm. “You’re not fat and you’re not ugly, Cat. You’re beautiful. You’re just in a phase where everything is awkward. Everyone goes through that, and it’ll pass.”

Cat smiled to herself.

That’s why you’re my favorite.

But she still wanted to be bratty about it.

“You have to say stuff like that because I’m your baby sister,” she retorted, thumping him back.

He shrugged. “I guess. It doesn’t make it any less true though.”

Cat became silent as they continued to trudge down a hill.

“When I was your age,” Anthony started to say, when Cat cut him off with her laughing.

When I was your age!” she mimicked. “You mean five years ago.”

“Well, yeah,” he said. “I was your age five years ago. That’s kind of how it works when you’re five years older than a person.”

Cat continued to laugh.

“Can I finish please?” he demanded.

She stifled her laughter and waved at him to go on.

“What I was going to say is, I went through the same phase. Remember?” he offered. “And look at me now. I’m a stud.”

She snickered wildly and flipped his hat off. “You’re full of yourself.”

“It’s called confidence,” he clarified as he leaned down to retrieve the hat. “And you should get some.”

Cat scoffed. “I’d rather just get skinny.”

Anthony huffed. “It’s just baby fat. It’ll go away on its own. So quit harping on it.”

Cat let out a long, exasperated sigh as she became fed up with the topic of herself, and opted to shift everything over to him.

“So do you think dad’s going to be pissed that you’re not going to that school?”

Anthony shrugged. “I don’t really care. It’s my life and I’d rather just chill for a year or two while I figure out what I want to do.”

She nodded in agreement as he went on.

“Whose dumb idea was it to force eighteen year olds to make a single decision about what they want to do with their whole lives, before they’ve even had a chance to live at all?”

Cat shrugged. He was right. It didn’t make any sense. And she was sure as hell not looking forward to dealing with it either.

“We should both just figure out jobs that’ll let us hike all the time,” she suggested.

Anthony cackled. “Like park rangers or something, right?”

“Hey,” she said, lifting her palms slightly. “Sounds good to me.”

She was being totally serious.

Cat would have been a park ranger, or a tour guide, or even some kind of primitive nomad if it meant she could spend the rest of her life wandering aimlessly with her brother.

She knew their father would be pretty pissed when he found out Anthony was putting off college, but Cat was thrilled. That way he wouldn’t leave. He’d be there forever, or at least long enough for her to escape the nightmare of her daily life.

* * * *

Brooklyn

Eight years after Alec had attended his first acting workshop, he was still hooked and more convinced than ever that he was destined for a life of greatness on the stage and screen.

Much to Miriam’s chagrin, however, it had become obvious over the years that college was no longer even a consideration for him. As he approached graduation, she made a few last ditch efforts to put the idea in his head, but he made it clear the whole thing was a fruitless fight. In Alec’s mind, college wouldn’t do anything for him that he’d already done for himself.

Alec was already a star in his own little world, and he was chomping at the bit to extend his stardom to the world beyond the walls of his high school.

As he grew up, he morphed from a lanky kid who sometimes tripped over his own oversized feet, to a handsome, suave, charismatic young man who earned adoring gazes from every girl as he swaggered down the hall. He was tall, but not too tall; fit, but not too bulky; charming, but not in a disingenuous way.

He was heavily involved in the school’s theater group. He starred in every play and production, and he was informed by his teachers and classmates that they would all be able to say they knew him when.

As much as he enjoyed being the center of the universe in high school, Alec needed to get out of there. He needed to start acting in real plays out in the real world so he could start earning a real paycheck.

Because there was only one thing Alec loved more than acting at this point, and Alec was ready to marry her.

Her name was Cynthia and Alec had started dating her during their freshman year.

Cynthia was not a fan of theater and was one of the few people who was not impressed by Alec’s talent in the least, so naturally, he considered her unique.

Cynthia was also beautiful; almost as tall as he was, graceful and thin, with blonde hair and eyes the color of mocha. She was also smart and had every aspect of her life planned out. Alec was most certainly part of those plans because she loved him, too, but she had even less patience for his lofty ambitions than Miriam. She also made it clear she was hell bent on convincing him to pursue a more stable career.

But Alec didn’t pay any mind to that.

Cynthia loved him, and he loved her, and love is all you need.

Besides, Cynthia just didn’t realize Alec was going to be the next great star of the stage and screen. And when it finally happened, he’d be able to lovingly tease her and say, “I told you so.”

Unfortunately, however, one year after graduation, Alec began to realize the world of professional acting was far more difficult than he’d anticipated.

The New York theater circuit didn’t care that he was handsome and talented. Everyone in that industry was handsome and talented, and they were all vying for the same jobs.

And Alec had yet to get a single role. Desperate for cash, he’d reluctantly accepted a few modeling gigs, the nature of which were so scandalous that he never told his girlfriend or his mother about them. He figured getting photographed would open the door for acting jobs, but nothing ever panned out.

It was discouraging to say the least, and it didn’t help that his girlfriend was not the least bit supportive of his continued pursuit of his childhood aspiration. She’d constantly insist that he could still go to college, graduate, and get a real job. Yes, he was talented, she’d tell him, but he was also very smart and he should put that to good use. Especially if he still wanted to have a future with her.

Alec could tell that Cynthia was losing her already limited patience, but he figured it wasn’t a permanent problem. He just needed another year or so. Then he’d have paid his dues enough to finally have a legitimate career that could contribute to their life.

But he never got the chance.

Because one week before his twentieth birthday, Cynthia sat him down and dropped a bomb on him.

The conversation lasted all of fifteen minutes and by the end of it, Alec sat stunned, brokenhearted, and definitively single.

And that was the last time he ever heard from Cynthia.

He was completely despondent for an entire week, but then his despondency morphed into indignation.

Cynthia never believed in him, so why should he even care?

She’d see that she was wrong, and she’d see it all over the newspapers, and television, and movie screens.

Because now that he didn’t have some girl distracting him, he’d have nothing holding him back.

It was a stinging blow to be dumped in such a manner, but it was good motivation.

Nothing would get in the way of his path to stardom a second time, because he would never let himself get distracted by a girl ever again.

2004

 Seattle

Sometime between her sophomore and junior year, Cat realized Anthony had been right.

The baby fat and awkwardness of her pubescent state melted away, and Cat had become quite pretty.

It was a classic ugly duckling scenario and when she set foot inside her high school at seventeen years old, nobody could deny that she was now a swan.

Although, she’d been largely invisible prior to that, so most people didn’t remember her and just thought she was a new student.

But Cat remembered. She remembered everything.

And when the girls who’d been snotty to her since childhood offered her a seat at their lunch table, Cat smugly flipped her eyelashes and went to eat in the courtyard where she always had before.

The people who’d always been nice to her were still nice to her, so she mingled about with them in her brief moments of spare time during school hours, but once the bell rang, it was back home and back on the trails with her brother.

Boys also started to take an interest in her, which Cat found amusing and Anthony found annoying. He’d never had to worry about guys going after his little sister, so he naturally assumed they were all sleazeballs with only one thing on their minds.

Cat was asked out on quite a few dates, but the prerequisite was that the boys sit and speak to both Anthony and Antonio at length before she was allowed to go anywhere with them. They were required to return not one minute later than nine p.m. and the plans also required approval from Cat’s overprotective father and brother.

Since Cat’s only prior interaction with boys had been sitting next to them in class and her relationship with her brother, she had no idea how to respond to the behavior of the boys who took her out.

Sometimes, they’d reach over to hold her hand and she couldn’t help feeling incredibly weird.

Other times, they’d be gutsy enough to try to kiss her, which was more than a bit startling and caused her to whip her head around and giggle wildly. If they tried again, she’d shove them playfully and tell them to knock it off.

Cat figured if she was ever supposed to get married and have babies one day, she’d have to get over her awkwardness about the whole thing. She just didn’t really like any of these boys, at least not like that, and would have much preferred for them to stop being so weird and just act normal with her.

Nevertheless, it was all hysterical and she relished quite a bit in the sudden surge of attention she’d started getting.

But halfway through her junior year, the hilarity ceased and the dates came to an abrupt end.

Because Cat and Anthony suddenly had two parents who were gravely ill.

She vaguely remembered the conversation during which she sat across from her parents while her brother sat next to her. Apparently, they’d been sick for a while, but hope and optimism compelled Camilla and Antonio to shield their children from everything that was happening.

Cat understood the diagnoses.

Breast cancer.

Pancreatic cancer.

They mentioned a stage, but it slipped from her young brain as soon as it slipped from her mother’s quivering lips. Cat didn’t know what it meant; she just knew it was bad.

She remembered the look on everyone’s faces.

Her mother’s tear stained cheeks.

Her father’s unflinching appearance.

Her brother’s brown eyes, red-rimmed, and mouth set in a firm, flat line. Cat knew he was trying to be brave; trying to man up in the face of a situation he knew would result in him being the new head of their family. But it was obvious he was just a sad, scared little boy, hiding in a twenty-two year old’s body.

Cat knew because she was just as sad and scared.

Their parents were using words of finality, so apparently, there were a lot of things that needed to be done. Cat didn’t know what those things were, but Anthony seemed to, so she just let him handle everything.

There was a long series of hospitals and special doctors. There were procedures and treatments. And her parents now looked far older than they actually were.

They were sick, but they’d started acting even sicker.

They became thin.

Her mother’s hair, which had always been thick and long just like Cat’s, became thin as well.

Cat was now eighteen and a high school graduate. Anthony was twenty-three and had thankfully made the right choice about delaying college. Because it was becoming quite clear that their little family was about to become much more little, and he needed to be there for it instead of making arbitrary preparations for the future.

What was the future anyway?

Who wanted a future without the loving arms of their mother or the firm, yet comforting voice of their father?

But Mama made them both promise her that they’d be strong. Stick together like they always had. They would get through this because they had each other.

And they’d always have each other.

The weather turned cold and the sickness turned for the even worse.

And then, it happened.

It was November.

Dad went early in the morning, just before sunrise, and Cat held Mama’s hand while Anthony gently relayed the news.

And Mama’s heart broke.

And it became immediately apparent that she was ready to go too.

Cat had never seen anything like the love her parents had for each other, and she knew on that day it must have been something far more extraordinary than she ever realized.

Because when one half of her mother’s heart was gone, it seemed that the remaining half just up and quit.

Twelve hours later.

And Cat and Anthony were orphans.

* * * *

Brooklyn

Five years later, Alec’s big break had yet to happen. It was discouraging to say the least, but he was still as set on making his dream come true as ever.

It took another four months after his catastrophic breakup for him to land his first paying gig. Just a small play that ran for about two weeks, but he got a paycheck for the first time and now he could officially call himself a “professional actor”. Sort of.

The little role ended up being a bit of a foot in the door because people were able to see his talent and work ethic, and that seemed to carry some weight for other casting directors.

So he got a few more small roles, and he saved his money, and after another year, he’d saved up enough to finally move into his own place.

Alec wasn’t sure how long the income would continue, so his mother assured him it would be okay to swallow his pride and move back home if he needed to. After all, she was paying rent for an apartment she wasn’t inhabiting anyway.

Miriam had since retired from teaching and in the thoroughly gut-wrenching aftermath of nine-eleven, she signed up as a volunteer for the Red Cross to do anything and everything she could to help. After about nine months or so of serving her fellow New Yorkers, she was given an invitation to travel to Africa with a relief organization, where she would assist in orphanages.

So Miriam’s empty apartment was a backup plan, but it was one Alec refused to resort to.

Because he was going to make this work. He had to. His pride and dreams depended on it.

Roles trickled in slowly, and he barely made ends meet. He never told his mother, but he’d opted to just go without electricity for a while. Electricity seemed less than important.

A month before his twenty-fourth birthday, however, things got pretty desperate, and Alec was more than a bit overwhelmed. At a loss with what to do at that moment, he meandered into a nearby bar to take advantage of twenty-five cent beer night as a means to temporarily take his mind off his situation and growling stomach.

Seventy-five cents later, he stared into his pint glass, gripped with no small amount of anxiety, and felt a distantly familiar smack on the back of his head.

“Whaddup, ya fuckin’ douchebag? Long time no see.”

It was Richie.

The lovable jackass Alec had grown up with and one of the few people he regarded as a semi-close friend.

Richie was three years older than Alec and enlisted in the Marine Corps right out of high school. He’d been discharged three years prior to nine-eleven and, due to a troubling bout with PTSD, he hadn’t been called back. Alec wasn’t sure exactly what happened to Richie, but he’d heard through the neighborhood grapevine it was pretty bad. He also heard Richie eventually sorted things out, but Alec still felt the need to offer something for his friend’s difficult experience and opted to use his own meager pocket change to foot the beer bill that particular night for the both of them.

“How ya been, man?” Alec squeezed Richie’s shoulder and pushed him onto a neighboring stool.

“Ah, fine,” Richie grunted as he sat down. “Same old shit. Just showing some kid how to manage Pop’s store.”

“How’s that workin’ out for ya?”

“Eh… he’s doing alright.” Richie paused to chuckle and take a gulp from his glass. “Some people just need a little extra ass kicking to get them in gear. He’ll be running the place just fine soon.”

Alec nodded as polished off the last of his drink and motioned to the bartender for another round.

“Speaking of ass-kickings,” Richie went on. “What happened with Cynthia?”

Alec rolled his eyes and huffed, causing Richie to smack him on the back.

“I’m sorry, brother,” he said. “I know that had to suck.”

Alec thumped a wadded up napkin across the bar and huffed again.

“I don’t give a shit,” he sputtered. “She was the most unsupportive person I’ve ever met. All of that was just one big distraction. I’m better off now. I’m sure she is too.”

Richie laughed to himself. “I guess she never warmed up to the whole acting thing, huh?”

“Nope.”

“That’s okay, brother,” Richie said. “I’m sure you’ll find another gal soon.”

“I don’t want another gal,” Alec retorted. “Women are just a needy distraction. I’ve got better things to do.”

Richie cackled. “Yeah right. We’ll see about that.”

“I’m serious,” Alec insisted. “I don’t care if I die single, so long as I get my career off the ground. That’s what matters.”

“So how’s that going for ya?”

Alec exhaled a frustrated sigh, but didn’t answer.

“That bad, huh?”

“I just need a little more time,” Alec explained. “It’s going to happen, I just… I gotta keep at it.”

“So what kinda strategy are you workin’ with?” Richie inquired.

Alec shrugged. “I’m just going to every audition I hear about.”

“That ain’t no strategy, brother,” Richie said, wagging a finger in his friend’s face.

Alec chuckled. “So what, did the Marines teach you about the NYC theater circuit, too?”

“No,” Richie grunted indignantly. “But I know strategy. And strategy works in every area of life.”

Alec eyeballed Richie for a moment. He had a pretty good point. Alec hadn’t really given much thought to a plan other than going to auditions and hopefully nailing them. Richie most certainly didn’t know anything about theater, but he’d managed to turn his father’s business around and that wasn’t exactly something they taught in the military either. So maybe Richie could offer some insight into a better course of action in Alec’s career.

“So,” Alec ventured. “If you were me, what would you do?”

“Well,” Richie began, pausing to clear his throat and swallow some beer. “I’d look at my background and find out where I had the most experience, then I’d focus on trying to get that kinda work.”

“Okay…” Alec prompted.

“So,” Richie continued. “Out of all the plays you’ve ever done, what’s the most common type you’ve been in?”

Alec tapped his teeth together as he thought.

“I did a lot of Shakespeare in school,” he finally offered.

“So don’t people still put on ol’ Billy’s plays anymore?”

“Yeah. Sometimes.”

“So go for those.”

Alec laughed. “That’s kinda easier said than done.”

“Yeah, but what else are ya gonna do? It sounds like it’s already hit or miss right now, so you might as well try hitting something that’s going to create some semblance of a brand.”

Alec raised his eyebrows. “A brand?”

“Yeah, a brand,” Richie repeated. “It’s like a reputation that you build a business or career around. Your brand could be the hot young guy from Brooklyn who’s a fuckin’ master at Shakespeare.”

Richie paused to cackle again and popped the back of Alec’s head.

“In fact, I think that’s exactly what you should do,” Richie declared. “I’m a goddamn genius and I’m gonna help you out, brother.”

Alec narrowed his eyes skeptically. “Are you now?”

“Yep.”

Alec turned his head to stare at their reflection in the mirror behind the liquor shelves.

It couldn’t possibly be worse than it already is.

He pursed his lips together, and then nodded slowly.

He turned back to Richie and clinked their glasses together.

“Alright, Richie,” Alec stated. “You’re the boss.”

2006

 Seattle

 

Everything that ever mattered was gone.

 

So Cat was gone, too.

 

* * * *

 Brooklyn

Alec was late. Again.

It wasn’t entirely his fault. For the past year and half, Richie had been doing a great job at keeping Alec’s career going, but he had an irritating tendency to inform Alec of auditions on the same day they were held.

But Alec tried not to complain. Richie was managing things far better than Alec himself had managed them for the five or six years he’d been trying to make it in the industry.

Or was it seven years?

How long it had been didn’t really matter now. Because now things were steady. Not steady enough for Alec to be happy with his career, but steady enough that he’d managed to turn his lights on and eat on a regular basis. And that was something. But he needed more.

Alec played up the “hot young guy from Brooklyn who’s a master at Shakespeare” brand for the most part, but in his desperation, he also accepted whatever Richie could find him. He wasn’t really happy about that either, but Richie constantly reminded him that he had to pay his dues.

Dues, dues, dues…

Just pay your dues, and it’ll happen.

So Alec paid his dues and kept his fingers crossed.

On this particular afternoon in late April, Alec was sprinting to an audition while on the phone with Richie, who’d stumbled upon a second audition for the following morning.

Richie was rattling off addresses and times and instructions quicker than Alec could follow. In his desperation to not be late and to remember the location of both auditions, Alec became a bit blind to his surroundings and didn’t notice a giant crack in the sidewalk until it was almost too late.

He managed to take a flying leap over it just in time and darted a glance over his shoulder to assess the obstacle.

Holy shit, that coulda broken my—

SMACK

Alec’s chest was suddenly flush against a stack of boxes and his hands instinctively flew downward to grab them before they hit the ground.

He lifted his eyes to peek over the box and apologize, only to become more than a bit transfixed by an ebony-haired girl on the other side of them.

Hel-loo…

Maybe not every girl was just a distraction.

Although, he immediately realized he was, in fact, quite distracted right then.

He was also in far too much of a rush to stop and chat up the pretty girl, seeing as he was cutting it pretty close to getting shut out of the audition. But he had nearly knocked her on her ass, so he figured the least he could do was take two extra minutes to apologize and offer to carry the boxes inside.

So he raised his chin and smiled at her.

He had no way of knowing it at the time, but the smile he offered was the first of a million to come.

But there was something else he had no way of knowing.

The accidental collision on the sidewalk with a blue-eyed, black-haired girl would ultimately lead to Alec Branneth’s complete undoing.

Chapter 1

“I can’t believe you’re leaving, you jerk,” Cat sputtered as she huffed and continued to sort through her parents’ clothes.

Her brother’s shoulders sank as he let his head fall below them. “I know you’re having a hard time. I am too. I just need a few hours, and I’ll be back. Cut me some slack, Cat. This is the only way I know how to deal. Surely you get that.”

Cat rolled her eyes. “Whatever, Anthony.”

She picked up a crimson garment and pressed it to her face. A full year had passed, and her mother’s scent still lingered on the fabric. Her brother crossed their parents’ long-vacated bedroom and gave her shoulders a squeeze.

“It’ll get easier,” he offered.

“I know.” Cat blinked back her tears and punched him playfully in an effort to diffuse her emotions. Even in front of her own brother, she hated letting her deeply rooted pain show itself. She had promised her mother she’d be brave and strong, no matter what, and in Cat’s mind, that meant not letting the crippling sadness that permeated her entire being get the best of her.

Anthony chuckled as he dodged her wimpy swats.

“Now, give me your keys.”

She grunted as she flipped the keychain at his chest. “When are you going to get your own car, loser?”

“Why would I get one when I can just use yours?” His cackling drifted down the hallway toward the front door.

“Anthony!” she called.

“What?”

She sighed. “Just be careful on the trails. I heard the mountain got snow last night, and I can’t handle you dying on the same day Mom and Dad did.”

“You’re so morbid, baby sister.”

The door clicked shut as he let himself out.

“Well, after all this, can you blame me?”

* * * *

Bang-bang-bang-bang!

Cat was shaken out of her dream and jumped off the couch, wondering why Anthony didn’t just unlock the door and let himself in.

“If you lost my keys again, you’re dead, big brother,” she called through the door as she flung it open.

She found herself face to face with a somber-looking police officer, who clutched his hat at his waist.

“Catarina Bellafiore?” he asked, butchering the Italian of her name.

She hesitated in the midst of steadily growing trepidation. “Yes?”

“Are you the owner of a green nineteen ninety-eight Honda Civic, license plate 721-GHZ?”

“Y-yes?”

“I’m afraid I have some bad news.”

* * * *

Cat leaned into the back of the moving truck and gripped the sides of a box, struggling to slide it toward her sweaty chest. Her tank top clung damply to her skin. Late April in New York was surprisingly warm, but she didn’t mind. The sunshine and clear skies were a nice change from gray, dreary Seattle where she’d left the pieces of her shattered life.

She grabbed a smaller box, balanced it on top of the heavier one, and hoisted both out of the truck as she stepped backward onto the curb. The weight of the two boxes combined pushed the limits of Cat’s strength, and a frustrated lump started to rise in her throat as she silently cursed her stronger big brother for being dead, instead of there to help her move.

Cat started to turn around when she slammed into something hard. The impact caused the larger box to slip from her hands, but it stopped in mid-air just before hitting the sidewalk. Four distinctly masculine fingers appeared from out of nowhere, wrapped around the bottom corner of the box.

Cat peered up to find a pair of blue eyes peeking over the top of the brown cardboard at her. She had seen that shade of cornflower blue a million times before. Every time she saw her own reflection, to be specific.

The stranger held a phone to his ear with his shoulder and lifted his chin above the box to flash a grin reminiscent of a toothpaste advertisement. He opened his mouth to speak, but no sound accompanied the word.

Sorry.

Cat shook her head a little. “My fault.”

She started to lift the box away from him, but it wouldn’t give. She glanced back at him quizzically. He flipped his dark eyebrows in the direction of the apartment building and offered another silent phrase.

Which unit?

Cat was hesitant to tell the man where she would be living, but he seemed to be in a hurry. He effortlessly held the heavy box, so she figured it wouldn’t hurt anything and was silently grateful for the help.

She pulled the door open and waved him in. As the two made their way up the rickety staircase, she couldn’t avoid overhearing his phone call.

“I don’t know, Richie. It sounds like a horribly tacky interpretation,” the man grumbled. “Billy Shakespeare is gonna be rolling in his grave.”

His voice paused for a moment as he listened to the response.

“I guess that’s true,” he replied listlessly.

Cat swung open the door to her unit and stepped aside as the man set the box down and stood upright, allowing her a full view of him for the first time.

The stranger appeared to be in his mid-twenties, with dark hair and perfect skin. He towered a few inches above Cat’s head, with broad shoulders and biceps that slightly stretched the sleeves of his white T-shirt. He had a strikingly handsome, all-American-guy look to him.

He was probably the most attractive man Cat had ever seen in real life and seemed as if he could’ve been a model. She found herself to be somewhat hard-pressed not to stare.

Apparently, he was too, and they stood motionless for a while with blue eyes locked on blue eyes.

Say something, you dolt! Cat’s inner monologue screeched at her.

After what felt like a couple of very awkward seconds, she finally managed to throw together a few words.

“Um… thank you.”

He gave her a friendly smile and a polite nod. He lingered for a second longer as if he thought about speaking to her, and then made a face at whatever had been said by the person on the other end of the phone. Whatever he’d heard seemed to be of some kind of importance, so he offered a small wave, and then disappeared down the hall.

Cat found herself in a subtle trance as she watched him leave.

WowI guess the weather isn’t the only pretty thing in New York.

Chapter 2

On a blustery night in May, Alec trudged his way down a packed street as he silently brooded over the travesty of a play he’d just appeared in for the past three weeks. He trailed a few feet behind his friend, Richie, a Marine Corps vet who’d somehow turned into Alec’s talent agent over the course of the years since Richie’s discharge. The two men ducked into a noisy bar, the go-to neighborhood watering hole. It bustled with drunken activity, as was typical for a Friday night.

“Grab a table, Al,” Richie shouted behind him. “I’ll buy you a celebratory drink.”

Alec dropped himself into a chair and leaned into his elbows as his sleeves became instantly soaked with beer left by the table’s former occupants. He stood back up and passed Richie to grab some napkins from the bar. After searching for a moment, he hollered over the crowd at the ebony-haired bartender.

“Miss? Do you have any napkins?”

What?

Alec raised his voice. “Do you have any napkins?”

“Speak up!”

“Napkins!”

She continued to sling drinks to the mass of people waving cash at her.

Napa?” she shouted, becoming exasperated. “There’s a wine list by the register!”

Equally exasperated, he briefly turned his eyes toward the ceiling and gave up.

“Where’d you go?” Richie inquired, pushing a beer across the table into Alec’s hand. “Need a shot, too?”

Alec snorted.

“You’d think.” He laughed. “Anything to wipe that play from my memory. If only I could wipe it from my resume.”

“Come on,” Richie wheezed. “It wasn’t that bad. At least you had steady work for a whole month. You realize how many struggling actors would kill to be able to say that?”

Alec huffed in irritation as he gulped some of his beer.

“Beggars can’t be choosers.” Richie wagged a condescending finger in Alec’s face.

“Obviously not,” Alec grunted.

Richie threw his hands into the air. “Ya gotta’ pay your dues, my friend! Nobody bursts onto the scene out of nowhere.”

“You’re preachin’ to the choir.”

“So, stop bitching about it.”

Alec let out a deep sigh as his eyes drifted back to the commotion at the bar. The girl behind it frantically filled orders and grabbed money, pausing every so often to catch her breath and push a stray hair behind her ear. There was something vaguely familiar about those shiny black locks.

“She’s cute, huh?” Richie mentioned, as if reading Alec’s mind.

Cute was one way of putting it. Another way would be something like—the prettiest girl he’d ever seen.

Alec casually turned back to his friend. “I feel like I’ve seen her somewhere before.”

“Ten thousand Italian broads in this city, brother,” Richie quipped. “I’m sure you’ve seen her everywhere.”

“So, what’s next on my to-do list?” Alec asked as he the striking girl slipped from his mind.

“Don’t kill me.”

“Christ, what have you signed me up for now?” Alec dropped his face into his hand, already knowing he wasn’t going to like his next gig.

“A series of commercials—Crazy Louie’s Discount Electronics.”

Alec groaned and pressed his palm harder into his forehead.

“Dues, Al! You’ve got to—”

“Pay my dues, I know, I know.” Alec swallowed the rest of his beer. Richie guffawed as he gave his friend a firm pat on the back and stood up from the table to fetch the second round.

* * * *

Hours passed, and the activity in the watering hole had slowed to a crawl. Richie had left the table some time ago to chat up a woman next to the jukebox, but Alec hadn’t noticed. He was preoccupied by his own ponderings about his fledgling career, and he flicked haphazard glances at the bar, still wondering where he’d seen that girl before.

She restocked bottles of liquor and hoisted a box onto the counter when it dawned on him, and he couldn’t believe his good luck.

Having nothing better to do with himself, and refusing to let the opportunity to talk to her slip through his fingers a second time, he sidled up to the bar and sat down on a stool.

“Another round?” She flipped a square napkin in front of him with one hand while wiping down the bar with the other.

“Sure.” He smiled at her, but she was too busy to notice.

“What was it?”

“Two fingers of scotch, neat.”

She spun around to grab a bottle and poured the liquor into a small glass.

“I’m Alec.” Him still smiling at her; her still not noticing.

“Hi, Alec,” she replied, not missing a beat and not looking at him, as she continued to busy herself with her work.

“I carried a box for you.”

She finally glanced sideways at him and raised an eyebrow. “That’s one I haven’t heard.”

“About a month ago,” he explained. “I was on the phone, and you were moving into an apartment.”

This time when he smiled, she did notice.

Her jaw fell open as she stared at him for a few seconds.

“No kidding!” She laughed, tossing the rag into a sink. “That was you!”

Her gaping mouth morphed into a wide smile.

“Wow, New York is smaller than I thought. Thank you for that. I was having a shitty day.”

“Well, it was my pleasure.” Alec offered a chivalrous nod as he sipped from the glass.

She grinned. “I’m Cat.”

“Meow,” Alec teased, giving her a flirtatious half smile.

Cat rolled her eyes and shoved a hand toward him.

Catarina Bellafiore,” she stated with perfect Italian pronunciation, rolling her R’s and flipping her L’s.

“That’s a mouthful,” he teased again, shaking her hand.

She chuckled. “Well, my family was Italian, so…”

Was?” Alec repeated, furrowing his brow with concern.

Cat sighed and shrugged. “Shit happens.”

“I’m so sorry.” It was the only consolation he could think to offer to a mere acquaintance.

She shrugged again and gave him a quick smile before turning to a TV attached to the wall.

“Are you from New York?” Cat asked casually.

“I sure am.”

“What do you think about the Rangers?”

“Oh, man,” Alec groaned. “I may need another scotch.”

“It was pretty bad, huh?” she empathized.

“Heartbreak. Total. Heartbreak.”

“I feel you, man.”

“Yeah. So, you like hockey?” Alec inquired, instantly becoming more interested in her than he already was.

“Oh yeah, I love it.”

“Really? But you’re a girl.”

“Wow!” Cat scoffed. “Captain Obvious, in the flesh.”

“Sorry.” Alec became sheepish. “I’ve just never met a girl who was into hockey.”

“Well, I had a big brother who was in total denial that I was a girl, so I had no choice but to become a complete tomboy.”

Had. Was. That’s a lot of past tense for just a few short sentences,” Alec prompted, hoping she would open up a bit.

“Just more shit,” Cat muttered, going back to wiping down the bar.

She had become visibly uncomfortable. He decided to back off a bit and change the subject. But to what?

“You know, you live like three blocks from me,” Alec offered, saying the first thing that popped into his head. He grimaced slightly, wondering if he had just come off as a drunken creep. Much to his relief, she appeared to be quite pleased with the information.

“Really?” Cat chirped. “So, we’re pretty much neighbors then.”

“Pretty much.”

“Well, shoot.” She grinned. “We should hang out. I don’t know anyone here yet.”

Alec nodded approvingly. “Now you know me.”

“Now I know you,” Cat repeated, nodding slightly as well.

After a moment, he noticed they were silent. Their eyes were locked in a gaze reminiscent of the one that had transfixed him in her empty apartment weeks prior. Alec knew staring at her was probably less than suave. However, he was the slightest bit buzzed, and she was quite pretty, so he went ahead and let himself stare. His gaze held hers for a while, when Richie’s voice rang out from across the room, shaking him back to reality.

“Al! Ready to go?”

“I guess that’s my cue.” Alec offered his hand one more time. “Nice to officially meet you, neighbor.”

Cat smiled. “Likewise. I guess I’ll see you around.”

“Yep.”

Alec left some cash on the bar and turned to leave, grinning to himself as he headed for the door. He had been on a hiatus from girlfriends for a while, but as he walked away, he couldn’t help thinking it might be time to give it a shot again. A pretty girl who liked hockey and lived nearby seemed like a good place to start. He left the bar fully expecting to see Cat again, and he silently hoped their third encounter would be a charm.

Chapter 3

Cat was at a loss with what to do with herself in New York. In her first couple of weeks, she took the initiative to be an unabashed tourist in the city that was her new home and visited every major landmark that she could think of. She was quite dismayed to find out such sightseeing was not very fun when you had no brother, parents, or even any friends to share it with.

Here she was, in a city of more than eight million people, and she’d never felt more alone in her life.

It made her look forward to going to work, where she could be busy for hours, causing the time to fly by. But on her days off, she became bored. Boredom always led to sadness, sadness inclined her to sing, and singing took her back to a painful place she was not ready to face just yet.

The loneliness was way worse. It was almost suffocating, the idea—no—the reality of having absolutely nobody left in the entire world.

Uncharacteristic of Italian families, Cat’s parents had both been only children; as a result there were no loud, boisterous aunts and uncles, no hordes of cousins running around screaming and laughing at family gatherings. There were no family gatherings, period. Her grandparents had all passed long before Cat could even remember, so up until about a year and a half prior, it was just Dad, Mama, Anthony, and Cat.

Then there were the lost battles with pancreatic and breast cancer, and in a twelve-hour stretch of time, Anthony and Cat had become orphans at the ages of twenty-three and eighteen, respectively.

It was a harrowing blow; not something two people who were essentially still kids should have to deal with. Not something anyone should have to deal with, but Cat promised herself they would get through it. They would be okay, because they still had each other.

Twelve months later, however, one small patch of black ice on a winding mountain road had taken away the only person Cat had left in the world.

How does one even begin to move forward in the face of something like that? Cat had no idea, and she spent weeks in her cold, dark, empty house, doing nothing but soaking in the numbness that enveloped her. Maybe it wasn’t weeks. Maybe it was months. Cat had stopped counting. Her life had become an unrecognizable haze of groggy mornings, silent afternoons that felt endless, and creepy nights in a creaky old house that dragged on until three a.m., four a.m., sometimes five, when she would eventually cry herself to sleep.

However long it lasted, she drifted through time until one morning she was staring into a cup of coffee and New York City popped into her mind out of nowhere.

New York seemed like the farthest and most interesting place she could get to, so she decided to be spontaneous for the first time in her life, and she left Seattle and the only home she’d ever known.

Cat figured as soon as she arrived in the city, everything would become instantly so exciting she’d be able to forget all about her soul-crushing losses and start a new life where nothing devastating would happen to her again. Much to her dismay, when she stepped out of the moving truck in Brooklyn, nothing happened. She was still sad and lonely; only now she was sad and lonely in an unfamiliar place.

She was running out of ideas. And while she’d never have the gumption or stupidity to actually take her own life—wherever her family was, she knew they’d be pissed if she took that route—she was starting to think accidentally getting struck by a speeding taxi might not be such a bad thing.

However, on this particular day off, she was in the mood to try to feel better. On a whim, she decided to get out of her apartment and into the sun. The sun always cheered her up. She hopped out of her building and began wandering aimlessly through the city.

Cat passed by a newsstand and noticed a local paper. In the hopes that it might offer some insight into what people did around here, she picked it up and started thumbing through it.

“Two-fifty,” barked a gruff voice.

Cat turned sharply, fumbling in her pocket to pay the man.

Sheesh.

New Yorkers seemed a bit rough around the edges. None of them talked to you unless it was to tell you to get out of the way or something else equally harsh. In fact, the only nice New Yorker she had encountered thus far was the handsome guy who had her eyes and carried the box into her apartment.

Alec, Cat thought, smiling softly at the memory of him sitting across the bar from her a few weeks ago. She hadn’t expected to see him again, although it would have been nice. She was still getting used to having nobody to talk to, and the brief conversation she’d shared with the friendly guy was one of the few she’d had since arriving in the city. Alec mentioned he lived near her. Every time Cat left her apartment, she silently hoped to bump into him, since she was desperate for pleasant interaction with somebody.

She sat down on a nearby bench and blindly flipped the paper open to its center, as she skimmed over a few play reviews. She gasped when she saw a familiar face smiling at her through a black and white photo on the page.

He’s an actor, she mused. Fitting. He was very attractive and charming. She was sure that correlated to a fantastic stage presence. She perused the article and his bio, absently smiling to herself, not noticing she spoke out loud when she read his full name.

“Alec Branneth.”

“Catarina Bellafiore.”

Cat’s head shot up at the familiar voice’s mention of her name.

As if the universe had granted her unspoken pleas, there he was, smiling at her in real life.

“Hey, neighbor!” She chortled, grinning back and masking the fact that she’d never been happier to see anyone in her entire life. She shook the paper at him. “I happened to stumble across a review of your play.”

Alec blushed and rolled his eyes as he sat down next to her. “Yeah, that play was awful.”

“The writer seems to agree. But he said you were great. That’s something, right?”

“It’s something,” he sighed.

“You didn’t mention you were an actor.” Cat pointed an almost accusing finger at him.

“Well, we only spoke for about two minutes,” Alec reminded her. “It didn’t seem worth mentioning. Especially since I’ve yet to act in anything worth mentioning.”

“The paper thought it was worth mentioning,” Cat offered.

“I guess,” he shrugged, leaning his elbow on the back of the bench and resting his cheek on his hand.

“Wow, you’re completely underwhelmed by yourself.” Cat giggled. “What’s your deal? It sounds like an exciting job to have.”

“It could be an exciting job to have, if I ever got to do anything besides crappy local plays and embarrassing low-budget commercials,” he explained.

“Yeah, but everyone has to start somewhere, right? How long have you been acting?”

“About five or six years. I skipped out on college hoping to break into the biz and make it big, but that has yet to happen.” Alec made dramatic gestures with his hands as he spoke and flipped his eyebrows in humorous facial expressions that plastered a smile on Cat’s face. It was really nice to talk to him, and she found herself feeling much better than she did when she woke up that morning. In fact, she felt a lot better than she had in a few weeks.

“Could be worse. You could be a bartender.” Cat smirked. “At least in your field there’s an opportunity for it to go somewhere. All I’ll ever get to do is assist with people’s legal addictive habits.”

“So you’re not in college or something?” he ventured curiously.

Cat crinkled her nose and sniffed at the idea.

“Why not? I mean, I guess I’m not really one to talk since I didn’t go either.”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. I just don’t see the point. I don’t have a future, so funneling a bunch of money and time into something like that seems stupid.”

“You don’t have a future?” He lifted his eyebrows incredulously. “That’s a pretty presumptuous thing to say about yourself.”

Cat flipped her palms upward and shrugged again. “Well, it’s the truth.”

A funny expression crossed his face, and then his gaze drifted briefly behind her head. She figured he was about to tell her he had to get going, and she couldn’t help feeling a bit disappointed. Much to her delight, however, she realized her assumption was wrong, when he turned those beautiful eyes back to her face and smiled.

“You wanna go grab a coffee, Cat?”

* * * *

Hot coffee on a warm afternoon was an admittedly ludicrous idea, but it was the only excuse Alec could come up with that would give him an opportunity to talk to Cat for longer than five minutes.

He sat across from her in a corner café while chatting amicably about whatever came to mind, and he couldn’t help noticing Cat was a natural beauty. The table was next to a window and the sunlight pouring in caused her black hair to give off a hint of rich brunette undertones. He also noticed her eyes were as blue as his, which was a rare trait he found terribly intriguing.

In his insistence upon being the gentleman his mother had raised him to be, he tried not to pay attention to her figure, but being the red-blooded heterosexual male he was, it was a difficult thing not to at least notice. Cat was diminutive and slender, but had dangerous curves in all the right places. Not that he was paying attention to that. Really. He had definitely not accidentally caught a glimpse of her perky behind and shapely legs when he’d followed her up the apartment steps the day he’d carried the box for her. No, he was absolutely not thinking about anything but casual conversation with his new acquaintance. At least, he was trying.

“Have you always lived in Brooklyn?” Cat asked, as she brought the cup to her lips.

“Yep.” Alec absently folded an empty sugar packet into a tiny, triangular paper football, and then started thumping it back and forth between his hands.

“This must’ve been an awesome place to grow up,” Cat replied, catching the small triangle just before it flew into her lap. She poised it under her left index finger and flipped it back across the table at him. “I’ve always loved the idea of city life, but I have to admit it’s been a totally different experience than I had envisioned.”

“So you’re not from around here,” Alec declared, as if it was some kind of grand discovery. “I had a feeling. How long have you been here?”

He flipped the football back at her.

“Since the day I bumped into you with that stack of boxes,” Cat replied, stifling laughter.

She tilted the football backward and thumped at a slightly upward angle, sending it flying over his head and out of reach.

“Touchdown.” She giggled.

“Nice one,” he smiled. Damn. She sure was cute. “So where are you from?”

“Seattle. The suburbs of it, anyway.”

“Wow,” he said, somewhat impressed by her answer. “You’re a long way from home.”

“New York is my home now,” she corrected in a simple tone.

“How’d you end up here?”

Cat let out a deep sigh. “It’s a long, sad story. I don’t think you want to hear it.”

“Or maybe you don’t want to tell it,” Alec challenged, squinting his eyes playfully.

The pleasant look on her face immediately melted into a distinctly dejected one, and Alec immediately felt a bit remorseful for being too pushy.

“It’s okay,” he began. “You don’t have to ta—”

“My brother was killed in a car accident six months ago,” she blurted out. “It was on the one-year anniversary of the death of our parents, and I had to get as far away from everything as possible. I had always wanted to live in New York, and got a bunch of money from each of their deaths, so I just picked up and moved here.”

Cat took another sip of coffee, and Alec sat there staring at her, totally at a loss for how to respond to something so tragic.

“And that’s what I meant by having no future. I’m only twenty years old, but I have no family, no friends, no plans of any kind, and nobody left in my life to care about what I do or don’t do. So, I’m just going to do whatever the hell I feel like. And as of right now, what I feel like is exactly nothing at all.”

She snapped her mouth shut and gazed at him in a way that made him feel as if he needed to say something comforting.

“Wow, Cat. I’m so sorry. I uh… I don’t know what to say that would even approach being helpful. I’m ju—”

“You don’t have to say anything,” she cut him off. “You let me win at paper football.”

Alec chuckled. “That wasn’t really intentional. You beat me fair and square.”

“What I mean is,” Cat went on, “the only thing I need right now is a friend. And even though this is only the third time I’ve ever seen you, you’ve been the closest thing to a friend that I’ve had in a very long time. So, that’s… everything.”

Alec wasn’t sure how appropriate it would be for him to touch her in any way, but the sad-looking girl sitting across from him seemed to be in desperate need of a hug. He decided it was worth a shot to potentially offer some semblance of comfort. He reached across the table and placed his hand on top of hers. He was pleased to find that, not only did she not recoil at his touch, but she lifted her thumb to rest atop his.

After such an admission from her, Alec immediately and effortlessly let go of his previous intentions to pursue Cat romantically, at least not right now. Nothing about her words or behavior indicated she was interested in such a thing. If he was honest with himself, he’d admit he was grossly underprepared to accommodate a girlfriend at this stage in his life. Especially one dealing with such heavy and recent grief. He decided it would probably be better for the both of them to just be friends for now.

An inkling of something tugged in the back of his mind, and he couldn’t fully let go of the idea. Never say never, as they say. Maybe, after they knew each other for a while. Maybe, when her wounds had healed up. Maybe, when his life and career were a little more stable. Maybe, maybe, maybe. But for right now, the only absolute was being the friend she needed.

“Well, Cat.” He smiled. “We are definitely friends. That’s one thing I’m very capable of being.”

Chapter 4

“What am I doing here?

I’m in this world, I’m all alone

Thought I’d find myself, in this new place

Now the purpose is unclear.

What am I do—”

Knock. Knock. Knock. Knock.

The banging on her front door startled Cat, causing her fingers to fumble and strike a cacophony of awkward notes on her keyboard. She was initially annoyed to have a rare moment of brave musical creativity interrupted, but then she remembered the visitor was her one and only friend.

She turned the lock and flung the door wide.

“Hey, Alec!” Cat gave his forearm a friendly squeeze as he strode inside.

“Whad’dup Cat? Sorry I took so long. Richie insisted that I swing by and pick up a script.”

“Oh boy! New play? Is it any good? Can I read it?”

Alec tossed the rolled-up stack of paper into her hands and flopped down on the sofa. “I haven’t read it yet. Richie says it’s brilliant, but he has horrible taste, so I’m sure it sucks. But, by all means, take a peek.”

Cat began thumbing through the pages as she sat down next to him, curling her legs underneath her. Alec glanced around the apartment curiously.

“Why’d you turn off the music?”

“Hm?” Having immediately become deeply engulfed in the script, Cat didn’t look up and barely noticed his question.

“I heard some music right before I knocked.”

“You did?”

“Yeah.”

She finally tore her eyes away from the script and came back to reality. “Oh. Oh, I was just messing around with my keyboard,” she replied dismissively and buried her face back in the stack of paper to hide the flushing of her cheeks.

“You’re a singer? Did you write that song?”

“No,” she blurted. “No, I’m not a singer.”

“Yes, you are. I heard you.”

She lifted the script higher in front of her face. “No, you didn’t.”

Alec chuckled at her blatant denial and used two fingers to push the papers down. “Cat. Yes I did. Don’t be embarrassed. It was beautiful. It went, ‘what am I doing he—’”

Mortified, Cat smacked him twice on the shoulder with the script as she shouted, “Oh my God! Shut up!”

Alec continued to chuckle as he blocked her strikes. “Ow! Stop it.”

“That didn’t hurt. You big baby.” She shoved him playfully and stepped off the couch and into the kitchen. “Want a soda?”

“Sure. Why didn’t you tell me you sing?”

She clenched her teeth, silently cursing herself for not having kept her bedroom door shut. Why did the external walls of her apartment have to be paper freaking thin? She ducked into her refrigerator and pretended not to hear his question.

“Hmmm, all I have is diet. That okay?”

“It’s fine. Why didn’t you tell me you sing?”

“I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. That sounds like a great play.” She pulled out the two cans and closed the door with her foot, thinking if she didn’t answer him, he’d stop pressing.

He didn’t.

“Stop ignoring my question.”

“Maybe you should take a hint.” She was blunt as she scowled at him for the first time since he’d brought up the touchy subject.

“And what would you be hinting at?” Alec grinned mischeviously. He could be shamefully charming sometimes, but not charming enough Cat would be swayed to clue him in on this one.

She sauntered back over to him and lowered herself to his eye level, eyebrows raised with a serious expression, mere inches separating their faces. “That I don’t want to talk about it,” she whispered as she pressed the cold soda can against his face.

“Okay,” he whispered back. “I’m sorry.”

She snapped away from his face. “It’s all good. Check out the premise really quick. I think you’re going to love this one.”

“If you say so.” Alec flipped to the first page.

Cat popped her can open and sipped while he read. She lowered herself to the opposite side of the sofa and pushed her bare feet against his legs as he absently placed a hand on her ankle.

“Wow,” he finally said.

“I know, right? It’s awesome.”

The harrowing tale of a man’s descent into Alzheimer’s Disease, as told through flashbacks to his life as a young man which starkly contrasts with his current depreciating state of mind,” Alec read aloud.

“So you would get to play an old guy and a young guy. And you’ll get to go through a full spectrum of emotions; like humor, and anger, and denial, and frustration, and love.” Cat threw her hands up in excitement. “This is going to be your breakout role!”

Alec chuckled at her enthusiasm and gave her ankle a squeeze. “Well, I don’t know about that. But it will be leaps and bounds above anything I’ve gotten to do yet. That’s if I actually get the part. I would venture to guess that a lot of people are clamoring to get this role.”

Cat scoffed and put on a hoity toity inflection. “Alec Edward Branneth. You need to have far more faith in your abilities as an actor. You’re brilliant, and people are going to see that.”

“How do you know all that?” He laughed. “You’ve never even seen me work.”

“Because I choose to believe in you.”

“Why?”

Cat rolled her eyes and kicked him gently. “Because you’re my friend, silly.”

They gazed at each other thoughtfully and settled into a heavy, yet comfortable silence, which was shattered after a few moments by his phone ringing. It rang about four times before Cat flipped a hand in the air expectantly.

“Aren’t you going to get that?”

“Oh. Yeah.” He pulled the phone out of his pocket and placed it up to his ear. “Hey, Ma. How’s it going?”

He has a mom. How nice, Cat thought. She smiled as her heart pinched slightly, recalling her own late mother. It was a funny feeling to be jealous of someone just because they still had parents.

“That’s exciting. How do they seem? Well, kids can be that way, I guess. I’m good. Not much, just hanging with a friend. Yes, Cat.”

Alec pulled the phone away from his mouth. “Ma says hi.”

Cat waved.

“She says hi back. Jeez, Ma, no,” he groaned. “Because! We’re just fr— Yes, she’s very pretty. Christ’s fuckin’ sake, Ma, stop it. You’re making this weird. Sorry… hail-Mary-full-of-grace,” Alec mumbled as he crossed himself, causing Cat to giggle at the sound of his mother scolding him.

“Anyway, I just got a new script. I think it’s gonna be a good one. Thanks, Ma. Love you, too. Be safe.”

“So, what was that all about?” Cat asked after he’d hung up.

Alec huffed. “Sorry. My mother, the matchmaker.”

“Ha ha, no. The part about the kids.”

“Well, she’s just desperate for grandkids, so she keeps trying to—”

“No, Alec, she mentioned kids over the phone.” Cat laughed.

“Oh!” he exclaimed, shaking his head a little. “Oh, that.”

“Dude, where is your brain?” She giggled at how random and far away his train of thought had a tendency to be.

“I don’t even know sometimes. Anyway. She’s a retired teacher, so she travels around with various relief groups to third world countries and teaches English to little kids.”

“Wow. That’s amazing!” Cat exclaimed.

“Yeah, she’s pretty awesome.”

“Does your dad go with her?”

“No,” Alec stated flatly as he bristled, and his blue eyes glazed over slightly.

Cat crinkled her eyebrows in confusion. “No? Are you going to expound on that, or is this your topic that we don’t bring up?”

He grunted and patted her ankle again. “No, it’s fine. He’s been out of the picture since before I was born. He was a worthless asshole and abandoned my mom when she told him she was pregnant with me. Said he never wanted kids and didn’t care that he was leaving the both of us to an unknown fate.”

Cat’s eyes grew wide. “Wow. I’m so sorry to hear that.”

“Well, it’s his loss,” Alec spit out, becoming uncharacteristically indignant. “He didn’t deserve my mom anyway. She’s an infinitely better person than him. I may be a nobody, but the little that I have managed to amount to, he doesn’t deserve that either.”

“Oh, Alec,” Cat crooned as she lifted up to her knees and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. “Don’t say things like that. You’re not a nobody. You’re amazing, too, and you’re right. A person like that doesn’t deserve either of you.”

Alec sighed as he leaned his head sideways a little to rest his cheek on her forehead and placed a hand on her arm.

“Thanks, Cat. That’s a sweet thing to say.”

“Just being honest.”

A forced grin tugged at his mouth and quickly disappeared. “You’re a good friend.”

He turned to her and their eyes locked together. He appeared blatantly discouraged for the first time in the few weeks she’d known him. He never explicitly mentioned anything, but Cat knew he struggled. His industry was mercilessly difficult, and it was obvious to her how self-conscious he was about being five or six years into his career and having relatively little to show for it. Everything seemed to remind him, in his mind, he was failing at life. Including, apparently, the mention of his absent father.

But Cat could plainly see Alec was special, and she knew his hard work would not go unrewarded. It would only be a matter of time, and until then she was happy to be a source of encouragement for him. Especially since his mere presence in her life had become the encouragement she needed in the midst of her own devastating circumstances.

“I’m an honest friend,” she insisted. “I know you’re frustrated with how your career is going, but it will get better. Maybe it won’t be this play or the next one, but sooner or later, you’re going to get your big break.”

Alec lifted his gaze to the ceiling and shook his head slightly. “How do you know that?”

Cat released his shoulders abruptly as she let out an amused huff, and then lifted her palms upward in a shrug. “I told you. I believe in you. And you should believe in you too.”

* * * *

Long Gone Cat is now available at all major eBook retailers including Liquid Silver Books and Amazon.

Want music to read by? Check out the Long Gone Cat Spotify playlist. Music that inspired the book by Katherine L. Evans.