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Release date: May 17th, 2016
Stay tuned at the end of this novelette for the
Worth the Wait, Contemporary Romance
Chapter 1 preview
None of this was supposed to happen.
Jack Harper walked into Amy’s life the night Joey Mangano defeated the champ with a knockout in the second round of the world championship.
No one saw it coming.
The bar exploded in equal jeers and hoots as the Champ hit the floor. His defeated image multiplied across sixteen flat screens around the bar.
A good boxing match brought patrons to the bar until the fighters were left staggering around the ring with their eyes swollen shut and their faces unrecognizable.
Usually, the tips would be plentiful, but knockouts in the second round left room for doubt. It was only eleven o’clock and practically a wasted night. Couldn’t the Champ have last six rounds? Weren’t these things rigged anyway? Would the customers be generous with their tips or not?
Amy circled around to check her tables, her vaseline smile rivaling that of a beauty queen. Her long ponytail tap-danced across her shoulders as she transported itty-bitty, chicken carcasses and beer from table to kitchen repeatedly.
Can I get you another pitcher? We have a knockout special on thirty wings tonight. Sweet of you to propose marriage, but if you saw me in frumpy sweatpants instead of these biker shorts, you’d think twice.
The tips were good, and the patrons in an early drunken state, high on experiencing a Great American sports upset on live television.
Forget the smell of stale beer and fried food in the air. Forget the leering, and yes, the occasional ass smack.
Amy needed the tips.
Seven days left until payday, and she’d been evicted from her apartment hours earlier.
She counted her meager savings repeatedly in her head, thinking she would magically come up with a different number. She was still short to put down on a new place, but she could at least get a room at a cheap motel. A couple of nights and she’d figure things out.
Figure things out, like life—and organic chemistry.
Kelly, a girl from Ohio, gave Amy an extra table. She wouldn’t complain about it tonight. She crossed the pub before stopping dead in her tracks fifty feet away from Kelly’s table.
It may have been fifty feet. Amy wasn’t exactly skilled in spatial estimates but suffice to say it was far enough and close enough that she saw Jack Harper before he saw her.
Jack Harper, with the same good looks she remembered.
Jack Harper, top of his class in high school.
Jack Harper, the star quarterback.
Jack Harper, who accidentally hit Amy’s sister Emily, with his car, four years earlier—killing her on impact.
Yeah, that Jack Harper.
Amy began to turn around, seconds away from returning the table back to Kelly. But Jack Harper’s friend signaled with his hand in the air. “Are you our server?”
Jack Harper’s green eyes locked with Amy’s as she propelled herself forward without thinking. “Yes,” she said. “I’m your server.” The pad and pen slipped through her fingers, forcing her to bend down to pick them up off the floor.
She saw shoes.
She saw Jack Harper’s shoes.
Could she stay there, crouched down on the floor? What would her co-workers say if she crab-walked it back to the kitchen and hid out for the rest of the night?
Straightening, she brushed the hair out of her face. The pen’s tip remained poised on the sheet of paper. Her heart thudded in her chest and she worried she’d have a panic attack right there in the middle of the bar. As if a tiny angel appeared on her shoulder and whispered in her ear, she told herself, as hard as this moment is for you, it’s ten times worse for Jack.
“Amy,” Jack said.
She’d changed a lot in the past four years. Aging from fifteen to nineteen will do that to a person, but he’d recognized her all the same. He knew Amy’s name, he knew her age, and he knew that when she cried, she covered her face with her hands.
He’d seen it before.
He’d been the cause.
Her hair was longer than he remembered and she’d grown a couple of inches taller. She was pretty too.
He’d never noticed before.
“Jack,” she said, and then smiled. “What can I get for you?”
Amy took their uncomplicated order of a pitcher and wings, and all the while Jack stared at her. He didn’t speak, or chime in when prompted. He stared at her and let his friends do the ordering. This was bad because his friends would order the really, hot wings, and he hated the really hot wings.
He thought about Emily and her family every day of his life, but to actually see Emily’s sister in front of him was a whole other experience.
He hated the effect he seemed to have on her. She couldn’t wait to get away from the table. Her eyes darted in every direction, but he kept his eyes on her. She took a steadying breath before allowing herself to focus on him. They regarded each other for a few beats before she high-tailed it toward the kitchen.
“I’m embarrassed for you,” Marc said.
Jack never told his friends about Emily. He didn’t like the disgust or the sympathy that might result in him divulging such secrets. For some reason, there was always sympathy. Or maybe pity? It was hard to tell the difference. Most people couldn’t know what it felt like to be him. No one knows what it feels like to be anybody.
“Jack, a little longer and she was going to file a restraining order,” Jerry added.
“Ex-girlfriend?” Marc guessed.
“No,” Jack said, shaking his head, both in response and to shake Amy from his mind. “We’re from the same town.”
“Good; I can ask her out then?” Marc asked, straightening his posture.
“No. You can’t ask her out. She’s off limits.”
“You have to call it like everyone else, Jack,” Marc said.
“It’s not like that.” He shifted his gaze to the flat screen as if to end the topic of conversation. “She’s off limits,” he said again, driving it home in their heads. His friends did not press the issue, even after Amy returned to deliver their first pitcher of beer.
Jack’s curiosity flared as a single thought rose above the noise of the pub. What was Amy Knight doing working at a sports bar anyway? If he knew anything about Phil and Dianne Knight, and he knew enough, they would never allow their daughter to work at a place like this. So, what was Amy doing there?
After delivering the pitcher, Amy pushed Jack to the back of her mind, because that’s the healthiest way to deal with feelings and emotions, right? Instead, she went through the motions of taking orders and fulfilling orders in a never-ending cycle. She suspected she would not get a good tip from Jack Harper’s table. She’d been less than attentive and only circling back around when necessary.
Like for the check.
She hated herself each time she returned to Jack’s table. She could have given the ticket back to Kelly, but Amy chose to serve the beer and wings herself. She wasn’t upset at seeing Jack. He didn’t cause a rush of emotions to surface. A rush of emotions would imply she wasn’t already thinking of Emily.
Emily was always there in the mindful part of Amy’s brain—no—it was the void that was always there.
With her shift over, she headed for the parking lot. It was a slow, reluctant trek and she managed a smile to see her car in the parking lot.
Pleased it wasn’t stolen, she closed the door behind her and sat in the car, studying the back seat. It bulged with all her worldly possessions and she worried someone would break in through a window.
The center console of a car not only does a fantastic job of being a center console; it can also double as a table. To count money for instance.
She still didn’t have enough for a new place, which was okay. A lot could change in the blink of an eye, in the passing of an hour, in the rotation of a day. Amy would survive. And she would not call her parents.
Everything is temporary—except for the permanent things, of course.
She stowed the money away in her wallet and back in her black, leather purse. She slipped the key into the ignition to start the car, except the car wouldn’t start.
Of course, it wouldn’t start.
People are dying in Africa.
One in seven adults goes to sleep hungry in the United States.
Kids with cancer.
She told herself these things like a demented mantra as other pitiful thoughts popped into her head.
Why me? What did I do to deserve this? Why does my life so fucking suck at this moment?
Abused animals. More cancer. War.
Okay? See? Things aren’t so bad. Other people have it much, much worse. Try leaving your home when your country is demolished in a civil war. Hurricane Katrina for crying out loud!
She tried the ignition again, but the only sound she heard was the knock on the driver’s side window.
“Jesus Christ!” Her leg jerked up and pain flashed through her hamstring.
“Are you okay?” Jack Harper asked, opening the driver door.
“No, I’m not okay. Who sneaks up on people in a dark, parking lot?”
She rubbed her leg. If she were a piece of art, the title would read, Portrait of the Glare.
“I’m sorry,” he said, shifting his weight from one leg to the other. “You looked like you were having car trouble.”
“You were watching me?” She asked because that’s not weird at all.
He nodded. “I make a habit of watching women and sneaking up on them in dark, parking lots.”
“No,” Amy said, resting her head on the steering wheel. “Don’t be funny and charming. I can’t even begin to deal with funny and charming right now.”
“I’m trying to make this less awkward.”
“Jack, we both know there is nothing either of us can do to make this less awkward. Except to walk away.”
This was the first conversation Jack Harper and Amy Knight had ever had.
His brow furrowed in dismay. “Can I see if I can figure out what’s wrong?”
“With the car,” he said.
This is the point where Amy should have been able to say something like, no, I’ll call my boyfriend, or my friend, or someone, anyone, but she was unskilled at making college friends, and could multiply that exponentially on the boyfriend front. So, yeah, Amy had no one to call to help. What is it they say? Only you can help yourself?
She unfastened the seat belt buckle and slid out of her already loved (used) Honda Accord. Jack remained in the cone shape created by the open car door, forcing her to squeeze by him. She stretched her leg and tested the muscle. It didn’t hurt anymore. Call the amputation off, doctor.
“Maybe it needs a jump?” she said.
“Possibly.” Jack listened to the car as he turned the ignition. It wasn’t even doing the whoooo whooo. Nope, dead air.
He found the lever to pop the hood with ease and circled around the front of the car to investigate. Not to be outdone and vehemently against being cast as the damsel in distress, Amy located the flashlight function on her phone and stood next to him as she illuminated the car’s organs.
She pretended to study the car while stealing glances at him through her peripheral vision. Hmmm… Yes, I see how that black thing attaches to that other black thing.
The body of an athlete. Muscles that shifted under a crisp, cotton shirt. Tanned skin that glowed in the yellow parking lot lights.
“I think you’re right,” he said, breaking her focus.
He stared at her then—really looked at her for the first time and she hated the butterflies she felt in her stomach more than anything she’d ever hated. But it was quite impossible to be unaffected by Jack Harper’s good looks.
“Let’s jump the battery and see if that works,” he said.
Amy nodded and retrieved jumper cables from the trunk. Jack took them from her hands, and his fingers brushed against hers. She felt tingles spread from her hand through her body.
Oh, no, no, no. That did not just happen. She was not moved by a simple touch from Jack Harper of all people.
She waited by her front bumper while he jogged to a blue, Ford pickup a few rows down.
It only occurred to her she could have asked someone from the pub to help her with the battery. But the only thing worse than someone she kind of knew seeing her at her lowest point, was someone she actually knew seeing her life in the back seat of her car.
The pickup rounded the corner and slid into the spot next to hers. He prepared his car and began connecting the battery cables. He gave her the thumbs up and his truck roared to life.
She was thankful he stayed in his truck during this process. When he thought it had run long enough, he sat in Amy’s car and lo and behold, it started. She could have done that part, but he’d beat her to it before she realized it was time to try the ignition.
Her face widened into a smile, a real genuine smile, making her face muscles hurt. “Thank you,” she said, over the sound of the car.
He smiled back at her.
She and Jack Harper were smiling at each other for seconds.
She undid the cabling and returned them to the trunk for another unknown date when her car would surely crap-out on her again. He, however, remained seated in the driver’s seat of her car.
“It’s late. How far is your drive? You should try to drive it for thirty minutes if you want it to keep the charge.”
“Okay. I’ll drive around until I stop somewhere,” said Amy, realizing too late she should have said the word home and not somewhere.
His eyes quickly surveyed the back seat.
A small bookshelf.
Clothes that didn’t make it in the suitcase.
“What’s this?” He held the notice Amy stupidly left on the passenger seat. His eyebrows shot up to the top of his head. “Evicted?”
She shrugged. “That’s what the paper says.”
His lips pursed in annoyance as he rubbed his face with his hand before circling around to grip the back of his neck. “Are you going to stay with a friend?”
“That’s none of your business.”
“Where are you headed, Amy?”
“A motel. I’ll figure things out tomorrow. Thank you for your help, but you can go now. You’ve performed your not-so-random act of kindness for today.”
He leaned his head forward and rubbed at his neck some more before stopping. One… Two… Three… His eyes snapped up to hers. “Follow me to my apartment.”
“No.” She had to get out of there. She shouldn’t even consider going with him, but she was.
“It’s two blocks away.”
She shook her head. “No.”
“You can stay there tonight and figure things out tomorrow. It’s late. You can’t go to a motel.” He was frustrated with her now and his upper body was tense with it.
“Jack, you’re getting out of my car right now.”
“Amy, please. For the love of God, let me do this. Let me help you.” His eyes were pleading. They said even more than the sharp sound of his voice.
Caught at the moment when Jack needed to save her so he could feel better, and Amy needing a bailout, she conceded with a quick nod of her chin.
“I don’t trust you, or this car.” He handed her the keys to his own vehicle. “Follow me in my truck.”
“Fine.” She attributed her acquiescence to stress and fatigue.
Amy scrambled up into the cab of Jack’s truck. The controls seemed too far out of her reach. The gear stick felt like the wheel of fortune.
The leather interior was both tan and worn like a baseball glove. Nothing was out of place; nothing hung from the rearview mirror. A wooden case of tomatoes sat on the passenger floor.
The weight of the truck carried her forward as she followed her own car to an apartment complex a few streets down.
Jack signaled for her to park in a spot she assumed was assigned to him. She turned the key toward her and the metal beast quieted beneath her. Jack parked her car in a visitor’s spot close by and jogged back over to meet her.
She should have left.
“I’m not returning your keys until morning,” he said.
She smiled. “Am I that easy to read?”
“You’ve got a certain flighty look at the moment, yeah.”
“Weird.” He nodded and retrieved the tomatoes from the truck.
“Well, unlock my car door for me, key master. I need my bag.”
She could have put up a fight. She could have caused a scene. But the fight was gone from every cell in her body. They retrieved the bag and ascended two flights of stairs to an apartment.
Amy spent the better part of four years thinking about Jack Harper. Thinking about Emily.
Years passed since the newspapers stopped the human-interest stories on the eighteen-year-old overachiever that lost her life on the back roads of Hailey County. The once lush bouquets of flowers that marked the crash site were nothing but weeds.
And there was Amy, in Jack Harper’s home.
The two-bedroom, two baths layout was standard for every other apartment complex in town. The place was neat with little decoration and furnished with comfortable furniture.
“You can stay in that room.” He pointed across the living room with a flick of his chin as he busied himself in the kitchen. “My roommate is gone for the semester. You’re more than welcome to shower. Clean towels are in the cabinet.”
A shower sounded incredible. Anything to get away from Jack Harper. She didn’t like one bit that he was so handsome, or that he’d been her knight in shining armor or the way a simple look or a brief touch made her breath catch.
Amy was already messed up. She didn’t need Jack Harper to make things any worse. But a shower, she would accept.
She supposed showering in a stranger’s shower was no different than showering in a hotel so she would try not to dwell on her current situation. The bathroom was clean; she could be thankful for that. There was no conditioner; she could almost live with that. She could also live with the men’s body wash leaving her smelling like a tree-shaped, car air freshener.
God, she wanted to leave. But she couldn’t sneak out in the middle of the night even if she did have her keys. But what did she owe this man?
Her gratitude for his kindness.
Even if it came from misplaced guilt, and there was no doubt in her mind it did, it couldn’t be easy for him to be around her.
Amy would think he were older than twenty-three if she didn’t know any better. But, she did know better. Jack’s features had been hardened by something over these few years. Sun-kissed, golden skin and strong, calloused hands told her he spent a lot of time outside. Doing what?
He waited for her with his forearms resting on the kitchen bar. There were two cups in front of him. As she neared the bar, he pushed one of the cups toward her.
It was two a.m.
There was cinnamon sprinkled on the top of a frothy cappuccino.
“Thank you for asking me to stay here tonight. It’s better than a motel.” She placed her palms on either side of the cup and met his gaze.
“You’re welcome.” He nodded his head and drank from his cup first.
Amy’s insides buzzed and warmed as the earthy coffee, brown sugar, and milk soothed her weary brain.
“You don’t owe me anything, Jack.” As good of an icebreaker as she was going to find. It was either that or a long series of questions about coffee.
“Let’s not talk about that right now. Let’s talk about you,” he insisted.
“I don’t want to talk about me.” Coffee beans. Roasting. Caffeine content. She could keep this up all night.
“My first question, is why you haven’t spoken to your parents?”
“Maybe I have.”
He eyed her skeptically. They both knew Phil and Dianne Knight would never allow their daughter to waitress in a sports bar, much less live out of her car.
“Did you make this yourself?” The coffee was better than anything she’d ever purchased at a coffee shop.
He placed his palms flat on the counter. The muscles and tendons in his arms twitched as he watched her down about a third of the cappuccino in one gulp.
“Your parents?” He pressed.
She could ask him for her keys and leave. But this was so much better than a crappy motel. She was surprised it was this easy to be around him.
Okay, it wasn’t easy, more like not horribly awful. If she were the type of person to say things were surreal, she would say it was surreal to be with Jack Harper, having gourmet coffee at two in the morning. She closed her eyes briefly. He was a good man from a good family. Her sister’s death did not change those facts.
She stared back at him with her mouth in a tight line.
“I have a good machine,” he said.
“A good machine for what?”
“For making coffee.”
She took another sip and closed her eyes again in delight. “What’s with the tomatoes? Who carries a case of tomatoes around with them?”
“I grew them.”
“Oh,” she said. “Did you know my parents before the accident?” She hoped this question would make him uncomfortable. Maybe even stop his probing questions.
“No, but I knew of them. They were active in the school and did a lot for the community.”
That’s what most people would say about her parents and it was true. They were very involved in the community, or, at least, they used to be before the accident.
“I lost my scholarship last semester. I couldn’t keep the grades up.”
He nodded. “And you haven’t told them.”
She shrugged. “They’re different, since…”
“Since the accident,” he said.
“She was perfect,” Amy said, allowing the unsaid words to hang in the air between them. Like a negative to her positive, Emily was perfect and Amy was not. She’d never had to be. Not when Emily was so darn good at it.
“I’m supposed to honor her memory and follow her path. Except I’m failing the classes you need to get into pre-med., I’m doing a rotten job of this school thing. But I can’t tell them because my mom would lose it and you know what’s worse than all of that? Their disappointment. There is nothing worse than your parents’ disappointment.”
Jack winced at her words.
“Shit, Jack. I’m sorry.” She took a quick breath and did a few quick shakes of her head. “It wasn’t your fault. None of this is your fault. I’m not your fault. Life is a pain in varying degrees for everyone. We got one of the short sticks.”
That was the most Amy had ever spoken to someone about her parents since… well, probably since Emily.
Jack rinsed their cups in the sink before leaving them in the dishwasher.
“I am sorry,” Amy continued. “I didn’t mean to dump all that on you.”
He waved his hand dismissively. “My roommate will be gone for another four months. You can stay here for free until you get things together.”
“Jack, I can’t do that for so many reasons. The most universally normal reason being that I can’t impose on someone.” There was no need to mention the elephant in the room.
“I know you think I’m trying to make up for what happened to your sister…”
“You are trying to make up for what happened to my sister. Let’s not pretend.”
And there was the elephant.
“But I would help anyone I knew if I saw them in need.”
“I shouldn’t even be here now,” she said.
“Stay one day, two days, one month, two months, whatever you need.”
“I’m guessing I look pretty flighty right about now?”
“Best case scenario?” he said, rolling a plump, red tomato in his hands. “You go to the university’s housing department and have them put you on a list. Then you can post flyers up around campus. Tomorrow is Sunday, so it’s a lost day. Maybe it takes a week to find roommates to live with? Why are you going to stay at a motel, wasting your money, when you could stay here?”
Amy would have liked to believe she could produce compelling arguments to rebut his logic.
She could not.
“You can’t possibly want me here.” It was her last attempt to stop it from happening.
“Sure I do.”
“It’ll be a week.”
“No skin off my back.”
“Jack… Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. We’ll need to jump your car again in the morning.”
Someone once told me it was my responsibility to live for the both of us, which is an awful thing to say.
I try, though.
It was seven in the morning and Amy sat in Jack’s truck on their way out of town. She couldn’t quite feel the brisk, January morning in the warm cab of the truck. It wasn’t so much the cold, as the humidity and it would be hot in a few hours.
Cool, Florida mornings did not have a reputation for remaining cool. Rural Florida passed on Amy’s right, obscured by a film of dew across the window.
She pulled at her pant leg. “I shouldn’t have worn these long socks. I’ll be sweating by eleven.”
“Long socks are good. You’ll get eaten up by ants if you don’t cover up properly,” Jack said.
“How long have you been working on this farm?”
He paused for a moment with one hand on the steering wheel.
Amy had a flash from childhood—a memory. Emily and Amy were kids, chanting, “Two hands! Two hands!” to their father, like know-it-all little brats.
“It’s been about two years,” he said.
“How did you even get into farming?” She wanted to know everything.
Jack slid his hand down the steering wheel. “I stopped by one day to do an interview for a school project and I never wanted to leave.”
“So you’re a farmer now?”
“I help out on the Jensen’s family farm. But yes, one day, I’d like to have my own farm.”
Never in a million years would Amy have pictured Jack Harper as a farmer. Most people would have envisioned him sitting atop a seat in Congress, and not sitting atop a tractor.
“My parents think I’m delusional,” Jack continued.
He glanced at Amy. “Remember my girlfriend in high school?”
“Cassie Andrews.” Amy was embarrassed she knew his high school sweetheart’s name faster than she could solve thirty-four plus twenty-two.
He nodded. “She broke up with me the day I graduated from college. I told her I’d changed my mind about law school. I wanted to go to graduate school to study agriculture instead.”
“That’s pretty rotten. Of her. Not you.”
“I guess.” He was thoughtful then for a moment. “Although, there’s something to be said about knowing what you want out of life. I’ll give her that much.”
Jack had yet to mention it’d been over a week since the day she followed him home from the pub. Since then, her car had officially died, and she’d learned a couple of things.
One: it’s difficult to find affordable housing a few weeks into the semester. And two: repairing a car is expensive.
Jack offered to bring her to the farm to earn a little extra cash toward fixing her car while still giving her time to study; unlike waitressing.
She could get to school and work by walking from his apartment, but she didn’t know where she’d end up living. She certainly couldn’t stay with Jack Harper anymore. She was living a double life, and had yet to tell her parents.
They turned into a driveway, past the sign, WELCOME TO JENSEN FARM, and continued down a long, dirt road. Rows and rows of trees flanked the truck.
“So what kind of a farm is this?” Would there be horses? Cows? She only knew they had tomatoes. The most delicious tomatoes. Jack brought these orange tomatoes to the apartment and she watched as he bit right into it like an apple. She did the same and tomato juice was dripping down her forearm. The fleshy, piquant tomato overtook her taste buds and she’d never be able to eat a store bought tomato ever again.
And here she was at the gates of decadent tomatoes and who knew what else?
Jack maneuvered the truck easily across the uneven path as he spoke. “It’s delivery day. We deliver orders to local shops and people. We need help with the paperwork.”
“I can do that.”
“I know you can. That’s why I asked Terri to give you the job.”
“Thank you… again.”
Jack smiled. “Don’t thank me until the day is over. It’s going to be a long morning.”
As they parked at the main house, Jack explained they were right on time, which meant they were late. Everyone arrived early on pickup day.
The farm didn’t smell bad as she assumed it would. It smelled of freshly turned soil with a hint of pungency carried in the breeze.
The house was two-story and painted a pale gray, with white trimming. If Amy were ever to build a home of her own, she imagined she’d want it to look like this.
There was a swing hanging from a tree branch and a pink tricycle left on the front porch. They entered through a side door and stepped into an expansive dining room. The table could seat twelve, yet it currently held fourteen. The table itself was made of unfinished wood—the color of pine.
“Good morning, Jack. And you must be Amy,” a woman said. “My name is Terri Jensen.” She set a tray of scrambled eggs in the center of the table.
She had long, white hair with silver flecks throughout. Her skin was tan and the corners of her green eyes crinkled when she set her eyes on Amy.
“Everyone,” Terri said. “This is Amy, she’s going to be helping us with pickups today.”
Amy smiled and the staff nodded politely while keeping their breakfast in their mouths. She recognized Jerry and Marc, Jack’s friends from the pub.
Jack took her hand. The butterflies she felt must have been the nerves. He led her to the table and they sat. She wasn’t timid as she reached over the table for biscuits, scrambled eggs, and crispy bacon.
“Terri,” Amy said, once she’d cleared her mouth of biscuit. “ I hope I can be of help today.”
It wasn’t Terri that responded.
“That’s the first thing you’ll learn about being on a farm.” The voice was deep gravel and the man blew into the house like a force of nature. “There’s always work to be done on a farm.”
“You must be Tom Jensen,” Amy said, extending her hand.
His warm hand dwarfed hers.
“Did you eat enough?”
“Yes, sir. I did.”
“Alright then, let’s get going.” And he was already out the door.
She scrambled after him, throwing one last look at Jack before stepping out onto the farm. He smiled and nodded in encouragement.
She had to jog to keep up with Tom. In the fifty yards (she thought it was fifty yards) it took to reach the office, he’d checked on sprinklers, picked up a barrel of hay, and fixed the closure on a gate. She was exhausted watching him.
Amy was introduced to Louise, the woman she’d be helping in the office and was given a quick tutorial. There were rows of wooden and steel tables on either side of the small, open warehouse. Produce boxes were set up like an assembly line and there was a large chalkboard nailed to the far wall with a list of the portions of the day’s orders. The list included: tomatoes, eggplant, fennel bulb, various herbs, and a lettuce blend. Cheese and eggs were available for sale separately.
The first half of the day passed quickly and without incident. The team at the farm was like a well-oiled machine. Boxes were filled not only for pickup at the farm but also for pickups at other locations around town. The farm’s cheeses were popular and sent over to local stores for sale. Amy snuck small, cherry tomatoes throughout the morning and popped them into her mouth when she thought no one was looking.
Around eleven, Tom walked into the room, bubbling with electric energy. He pointed at Amy across a table. “You can cook, right?”
“Yes,” she nodded. Actually no, but Tom instilled a need to be confident in everything.
“We’re going to eat in about thirty minutes. Can you take care of lunch today?”
“For everyone?” She asked.
“Not unless you want a room full of angry people.”
She ran to the kitchen and fell in the grass. She actually fell in the grass. No one was around to see it, so she picked herself up quickly and kept running with the sense of anxiety she’d only felt as a child running across wooden floors with the imaginary boogeyman close behind her.
In the kitchen, she found an array of different foods to choose from. She needed to come up with something quick and hearty. If they were at least as hungry as she felt, lunch would have to be filling.
She began with butter and a large butcher knife.
She sliced onion into large chunks and sautéed it in an obscene amount of butter and garlic. Once the onion was translucent, she added chunks of eggplant, and then finally tomato—heirloom tomatoes of all colors.
She guessed on the herbs. The butter and garlic would mask any errors in her culinary judgment.
She sliced large, French baguettes in half, added more butter and garlic, and toasted it in the oven. By the time the crew sat down at the dining room table, she had large pieces of bread set up, smothered in the eggplant, tomato, and onion concoction. Alongside it, sausages, piping hot, and spicy kale chips.
Jack sat down next to her. He was altogether sweaty, gorgeous, and vibrant. He smelled like outside—a mixture of salt and dirt.
“Here, take a bite to make sure it’s edible before everyone else tries it.” Amy practically stuffed a piece of bread in his mouth.
“And what are you going to do if I tell you it’s terrible? Take it away?” He laughed.
“Hurry! Eat it!” She was prepared to yank the tablecloth, sending everything to the floor, if necessary.
He took a huge bite. The crew dug in as well and soon the dining room was filled with the sound of chewing. And more chewing.
Jack’s mouth was still full and she looked at him expectantly. He gave her a wink and she knew it must be okay. The silence around the table confirmed this.
Sitting back in the chair, she took a bite of the lunch she’d made and a mingling of flavors painted her taste buds.
It was delicious.
Some things are easier to move past than others. This will not be one of the easy ones.
After the fourth time Jack Harper ate dinner at the pub, she was on to him. The chicken wings were good, but they weren’t that good and she was getting annoyed with Jack Harper thinking he could save her. She didn’t need saving. She didn’t think he needed saving either, but if anyone needed saving, it certainly wasn’t her.
As if she were his responsibility.
She watched him sitting alone at a high-top while she married the half-empty bottles of ketchup—a shift duty affording her uninterrupted thinking time. She stopped Kelly before she delivered beer to his table. “Table six?” Amy asked, motioning to Jack’s table.
“Sure is,” Kelly said wiggling her eyebrows up and down.
Every waitress had developed a crush on Jack ever since he started coming to the pub all the time. It didn’t bother Amy; at least, she told herself it didn’t bother her. But she’d be lying if she said there wasn’t a small part of her that felt possessive over him. There wasn’t any basis for those feelings. Sometimes you just feel the way you feel.
Amy took the beer to Jack instead. The frosty beer mug clanked against the wooden table. Amy was not trying to be pleasant. She especially hated it when Jack left her a tip. “Jack, what are you doing here?”
“You’re not my waitress.” Jack took in her high ponytail, biker shorts, and jersey top.
While she smelled strongly of beer and chicken wings, Jack smelled of vanilla and spice. He’d spent the day at the farm, but he obviously went home to shower first. He was wearing a crisp white T-shirt and khaki shorts. His hair was combed neatly.
“Don’t you have friends to hang out with?” Unlike her, Jack did have friends and they were spectacular.
He grinned. “Do you want me to have them meet me here? Then we can all escort you back to the apartment when your shift is over.”
“You know,” she said, her eyes narrowing. “I could ask the cook to start spitting in your food.”
“Now, why would you do a mean thing like that?”
“So you stop coming here when I’m working. You don’t have to drive me home from work,” she said, cringing she’d used the word, ‘home’. She had to constantly remind herself this situation was temporary.
“Maybe I like the food.” He shrugged and took a sip of his beer.
“It’s like ten blocks away, Jack. Really, it’s not a big deal. I can walk.”
Jack rubbed his hands across his face.
“I’m not being difficult,” she said.
“I didn’t say you were difficult.”
“You were thinking it.”
“A man’s thoughts are no one’s but his own.”
And boy did she want to know everything he was thinking.
All the time.
He lifted his beer in the air and caught Kelly’s attention as he tapped the side of his glass with his finger. “I’m going to need another one, please.”
“Now what are you doing?” she asked.
“Having too many beers. You’re doing me a favor. I suddenly find myself in need of a designated driver.”
“Now who’s being difficult?”
“I never said you were difficult.”
“You were thinking it.”
“Amy?” He asked.
He covered her hand with his, and her heart rate sped up. “What time are we leaving?”
She sighed, and picked up the empty plate on his table. “In an hour.”
Jack nodded, obviously satisfied with his win, and turned his attention to one of the many flat screen televisions broadcasting a basketball game.
It was six weeks since she started living with Jack Harper. He was not at the apartment much during the day. This semester, his master’s program was comprised of independent study, so he only met with a professor on campus once a week.
The rest of his time he spent at the farm helping Terri and Tom—soaking up generations of knowledge he’d never learn in a book.
Though entirely focused on schoolwork, Amy had been back to the farm a handful of times. It may not have been love at first sight for her, but the farm and Amy were certainly in the midst of courtship. Her arms and legs were stronger and leaner than ever, and she didn’t necessarily feel like she was going to keel over after an hour of work anymore.
Living with Jack was easy.
It was both painful and fun to imagine in an alternate universe, they may have been wonderful… roommates.
The bigger surprise was that keeping her living arrangements from her parents was easier than she would have imagined. She fed them a story about sharing an apartment with a girlfriend. It’s not like they were ever going to visit her anyway. Too many memories. This is where Emily would have gone to school, her mother would say. Amy hadn’t even wanted to go away to college, preferring to stay with her parents. That protest had obviously gone nowhere.
When Amy’s shift was over, she met Jack at the front door and he handed her the keys to his truck. As they pulled out of the parking lot, she caught a glimpse of him in the dim parking lot lights. He was the most handsome man she’d ever seen in real life.
When she was in middle school, they knew of Jack Harper, the junior. The girls used to joke he was too good-looking to even speak to. Looking directly in his eyes was a great feat. Amy realized now they weren’t far off from those assumptions they’d had in middle school.
“We’re out of OJ,” he said, as she turned onto the main road.
“We can stop at Wal-Mart if you want to go now.”
Although Jack promoted locally grown food, he was a victim to convenience now and again. Considering they practically lived solely on food from the farm, a container of OJ or a box of granola bars seemed excusable.
She continued down the main Parkway, looking for the beacon of light that was the twenty-four hour Wal-Mart. It was surprising how many cars were in the parking lot at midnight, and she parked the truck in the back of the parking lot.
“We could have walked from the apartment,” he said, meeting her in front of the truck.
“I can barely drive this thing on the road, much less park it amongst other cars and human beings. You want me as far away from objects as possible.”
He grabbed a shopping cart as they entered the store.
“Do we need a cart for orange juice?” she asked.
“It’s Wal-Mart, we’ll need a shopping cart.”
They stood in front of the orange juice section knowing they were going to get the same orange juice they always got, however contemplating the options all the same. “Do you think I’ll be a real adult the day I choose orange juice with pulp?” Amy asked.
Jack shook his head in disgust. “Pulp is asking too much of me so early in the morning. If I wanted to eat my juice, I’d have an orange.”
“Look at this,” Amy muttered, “Extra pulp.”
“That’s just pretentious.”
She put the usual, pulp-free orange juice in the cart and headed for the checkout lines.
“Wait, I want to see one thing,” Jack said, making a sharp turn for another aisle.
“And we’ve lost another soul to the magnetic pull of Wal-Mart.” She followed Jack but stopped when she saw the toy section and a display of hula-hoops. “A hula hoop!” she exclaimed, admiring the rainbow of hula-hoops on display. “I used to love the hula hoop. I was superb at it. Do you want to see?”
“Yes,” he said, without hesitation, and leaned against the cart, waiting for her to begin.
She pulled the lime-green hula over her head and held the plastic ring around her hips. “Prepare to be amazed,” she said, meeting his eyes.
“You’re stalling.” His eyes narrowed in skepticism, but he simpered ever so slightly as her hips began rotations.
By her count, she’d successfully hula hooped for nineteen seconds. Not too shabby if you asked her.
“You do not disappoint,” he conceded. Amy blushed.
They continued shopping and Jack led her to the furniture section and after walking down three aisles of boxes and more boxes and couches and mirrors and kitchen tables, he seemed to find what he was looking for.
He picked up a box for a build-it-yourself- three-drawer dresser. It was simple and easy to build. He checked the back of the box to make sure it came with everything one would need to build the dresser. Jack purchased his dresser and she insisted on paying for the orange juice. She offered to help him carry the box up the stairs to the apartment, but he managed on his own.
After a quick shower to wash the stench of the pub off her, she went to the kitchen under the pretense of wanting something to drink. Truthfully, she wanted to be with Jack. Not disappointed, he was in the living room opening the box to the furniture he’d purchased. “Are you putting your dresser together now?”
“Do you ever sleep?”
He shrugged. “Not well.”
“It seems like you always go to sleep after me and yet you’re up before me every morning.”
She sat down beside him on the living room floor. “Can I help you build it?”
She peered into the box. “I actually like building things. Oh, look, Aliens is on TV.”
She put the movie on the television in the living room and pushed the ottoman over to one side so they would have space to work. Jack removed the pieces from the box and spread them out on the floor. Together, they sorted the pieces into groups and then Amy held the instructions up as they counted each piece to make sure they were not missing anything.
She read the instructions and told him which pieces needed to go together. They took their time but did good work. “Emily and I used to like building things,” Amy said, meeting his eyes and silently asking if it was okay to talk about her sister with him.
“What did you two used to build?” He asked, without missing a beat.
“We thought we could build birdhouses and sell them to people.”
“I didn’t peg you for an entrepreneur.”
“We need the other bracket,” Amy said. “The smaller one.”
He nodded and joined the correct pieces.
“We started with one birdhouse, of course. And it was crooked and I worried we’d used too much glue and the birds would die from glue exposure and we saw a few birds the first afternoon. But the second day, we went to refill the bird seed and there was a huge palmetto bug in it and I screamed when I saw it and it flew at us and we cried and never built another bird house.”
Jack laughed. “The business was over that fast?”
She nodded. “Did you know Emily?”
He only hesitated for a moment before answering. “We went to a small enough school that I knew her. But I didn’t know her.”
“She wasn’t very social.”
“No, she wasn’t. Not that I can remember,” he said. “Can you hold this piece in place with the glue while I hammer in the nails?”
She nodded, and her body vibrated with each contact. “She was a little shy,” Amy said. “Some people couldn’t believe we were sisters. Because I talk too much.”
“You talk just enough.”
“Thanks,” she said.
“I think we’re done,” he said.
With the dresser or with talk of Emily? Amy wondered.
“You’ll have to tell me where you want it in your room.”
Amy smiled. “I was hoping it was for me,” she said. The roommate, his name was Dave, might have been living abroad for the semester. But his closet and dresser were filled to capacity, forcing Amy to live out of her suitcase.
She stared at the dresser for too long. “I’m still actively looking for another place to live.”
“I know. Until then… the dresser.”
“You’re a good person, Jack.”
He nodded once and stood, revealing a lone, metal hinge that had somehow been left out.
“Well shit,” he said. “There’s a hinge missing.”
Yes, Amy thought. There certainly was a hinge missing.
I’m so happy sometimes I forget things were ever any different.
The next day, Amy didn’t go to work and studied instead.
Studying became easier ever since living with Jack. With her brain more focused on school and not so much focused on keeping a roof over her head, she found she wasn’t half bad in the school business.
She couldn’t be sure if it was only the security of a home, or if Jack’s friendship may also have played a part in her phoenix-like rise from the ashes. That, she decided, was something she didn’t want to consider now. Her head hurt when she thought about it too much.
It was irrelevant.
She woke up at eight, only to find Jack was already awake. Of course, he was already awake. How could someone look so well rested when they didn’t sleep?
Amy had even gone so far as to research the effects of lack of sleep. What she found was an extensive list of very important fancy pants people that survived on an average of four hours a night. Several US Presidents made the list. It was no surprise to Amy that Jack too, appeared to excel with so little sleep.
She dressed and took a quiet enjoyment in selecting clothes from the dresser. The piece of furniture signified so much, and yet again, it was a topic she did not wish to contemplate further. She was only mildly concerned about what the dresser meant, but then decided it didn’t need to say anything.
It was a functional piece of furniture. Wood panels glued and screwed together for containing clothes. It was nothing else and certainly was not anything special.
She spread her books and papers out on the dining room table, every inch of wood blanketed in paper and every electronic device she owned. If only she could lie on top of the table and learn by osmosis. That would be so much easier.
Emily was smart and got good grades, but it hadn’t been easy for her. Amy watched her sister devote her life to academics in a way Amy could never understand. Now, Amy reviewed and recited as satisfaction seeped into her very being. She was going to do well on the next exam. Nothing could stop her from moving forward—not when she’d finally gotten the hang of things.
Jack would be returning from his run soon. Running was a passion Amy shared; however, Jack never invited her to join him, and she never asked if she could go with him.
The amount of time they spent together was disconcerting enough. They didn’t need to add exercising to the mix. Something told Amy; Jack was the type that enjoyed exercising alone. It was a sort of quiet meditation. She assumed he felt this way because it was how she felt.
Little by little, she’d been compiling a list of their similarities. It’s not that she meant to string the ideas together; it happened. Her brain happened in a way where she thought about Jack… a lot.
Her phone rang, breaking her out of a daydream wherein Jack doesn’t wear a shirt while he runs. She checked the caller ID. It was her mother.
“Hi, Mom.” Amy stood and paced the length of the apartment before stopping in the kitchen. She played with the magnets on the refrigerator while mentally preparing herself for their weekly call.
She’d been rehearsing.
“Hey baby girl, how’s the studying today?”
“It’s great, Mom. I think my brain grew two sizes this morning. I’m like the Grinch.”
“Like the what?” her mother asked, sounding distracted.
“You know, the Grinch? His heart grows two sizes, except it’s my brain.”
“Oh, I think you should be focusing more on school than television shows.”
“Right,” Amy said, rolling her eyes. “What I mean to say is things are going well with school.”
“Of course, they are. I wouldn’t expect anything less from you.”
Amy took a deep breath, still fiddling with the corner of a pizza delivery magnet. “But I still think it’d be best if I moved back home. Eventually, I’ll have to go away to medical school. I think now, it would be best for me to be home with you and Dad. And go to school there.”
“Sweetheart, don’t you think that’s a little selfish?”
“See, Mom, I don’t follow that logic.”
Amy’s head snapped up to the sound of the front door lock click open as the deadbolt shifted. Jack walked in—sweaty.
“Your father had to pull a lot of strings to get you into the school, Amy.”
Amy started for her room, but Jack arched his eyebrows, blocking the exit to the kitchen. He could probably see her distress plainly written on her face. She smiled weakly.
“Amy?” her mother said.
“Right, and maybe that was a mistake? As in, maybe I shouldn’t be here in the first place.” Amy turned away from Jack and continued the conversation while staring at the wall. “I have a lot of… anxiety because I don’t always feel like I have a good handle…” she took a deep breath. “On all of my classes.”
“Is that all? It’s a matter of getting some medication to deal with the anxiety.”
“But what if I want to go home? What if I don’t want to take any medication? Maybe I wouldn’t have this anxiety in the first place if I were there.”
“Amy, it’s not up for discussion,” her mother said, ending the subject with a finality that made Amy’s feel like her heart was twisting.
Amy paused and took a shaky breath. She wasn’t sure why she thought this talk would work in the first place. It never did. “You’re right, Mom. Give Dad a kiss for me. I need to get back to studying,” Amy said. Her voice was void of emotion.
“It’s all about having the right attitude, baby girl.”
“Yes, I need to have a good attitude. Thanks, Mom.” Amy ended the call and stared down at the phone because it was better than looking up at Jack Harper.
He’d stepped away from the threshold, and she walked past him, across the apartment, and into the room. She closed the door behind her.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, she let herself acknowledge the words swirling in her mind for months. The words in their singular form moved to construct the sentence.
They don’t want me there.
Her phone chimed with a text from her mother with a list of four psychiatrists in the area. “Why don’t you get it!” she yelled at her phone.
She stood, and the impulse began somewhere in her legs, bubbled in her abdomen, reached her hands, and it was explosive. She hurled the phone at the wall with a crack and shatter. That felt so good that she picked up the little, wooden chair and threw it too. Next, a plastic cup, and the alarm clock was torn from the wall socket.
Anything she could get her hands on.
She sobbed, and ripped the comforter off the bed, and then the pillows, and the sheets. Anything to feel her muscles stretch, to feel her fists clench.
And then Jack’s arms were around her, but she fought his embrace. She hadn’t heard him come into the room. She hadn’t heard him shout her name.
“Amy!” He said, pleading with her. Any more of this and she was going to break something other than the objects she’d hurled around the room.
The broken room, he could deal with. A broken Amy, he wasn’t so sure.
“I want to hit something,” she sobbed. The rage was physical and reverberated off her body.
“Then hit me,” Jack offered.
“No!” she cried, unable to calm down.
He pulled her tighter to his chest, but still she resisted. She stomped her feet and her fists clenched and unclenched. He picked her up, with difficulty, and took her to the bathroom. She sobbed uncontrollably. The sounds coming out of her were more animal-like than human.
“What… the hell… are… you doing?” she screamed in between sobs.
He pulled her down to the floor of the bathtub with him and held her to his chest, making sure the shower’s spray landed on her face as he smoothed her hair back.
“I got you,” he urged her, bringing her as close to his body as he could.
Slowly, her shudders became muted and far between. But she still cried.
“You’re sneakers,” she said after a while. “They’re getting wet. They are wet.”
“What if they get moldy?” she sobbed again.
“I don’t think that’s how it works,” he assured her.
She started to shiver from her cold, wet clothes.
They were too big for the tub. Well, he was too big for the tub. She sat between his thighs and his chin rested on the top of her head. His arms lay across her chest, and her hands held his forearms. She’d shifted her face into his chest, so the water wasn’t hitting her as much.
He never wanted to leave the bathtub, which is why he knew they had to leave the bathtub. He pulled her away from his body. “Let’s get out before you get sick.”
She nodded and stood, a final shudder rippling through her body. He drew a towel around her shoulders and took one for himself as well. She stole sidelong glances of him and squeezed the water out of her hair. He, on the other hand, stared right at her. He thought she’d calmed down, but it was hard to say.
He stood as he removed his sneakers. “I’m going to leave these here to dry. Okay?”
“You’re not going to throw them around or anything, right?”
She laughed first, but then tears were streaming down her face again.
“Too soon? Come on, don’t cry. I was kidding.”
“I know,” she said, exiting the bathroom.
“Why don’t you lie down for a little?” he suggested, emerging from the bathroom behind her.
To be honest, he thought he needed to lie down for a little too. They surveyed the damage in the room together. The phone and the alarm clock were the only things broken. He’d buy his roommate a new alarm clock.
“Don’t say it,” he warned.
“Jack, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize; rest.”
She nodded, and he left her room to give her privacy.
The door closed with an audible thud behind him. He hadn’t wanted to leave her alone, but it was the right thing to do. He wouldn’t rest, but would instead sit in the living room and think.
He fought the urge to blame himself. He wasn’t one hundred percent sure he had a handle on the context of the phone call, but one thing was clear: her family was not well. He’d gone through enough therapy to know and accept not everything was his fault.
He resorted back to breathing exercises and repeated to himself; not everything is your fault. Everything can’t be your fault.
But what he was feeling for Amy? Separate from everything else, what he was starting to feel for her as a person, as a singular person, completely unattached to circumstance? Yes, entirely his fault.
And sooner or later, whether they liked it or not, they were going to have to face reality.
They had the best intentions.
Amy’s replacement phone was due to arrive in the next day, thanks to a sizeable dent in her checking account. “That’s life,” she told herself. She didn’t think about the mountain of debt she was accumulating with tuition expenses or the lost scholarship. She chose not to accept that failing a few classes wasn’t going to get her into pre-med anytime soon.
After all, it was her fault. She’d been the one unable to adjust. She’d been the one to miss her classes and sleep the days away.
Her school difficulties were easy to forget. It was a skill she worked at and honed. She put those worries in a neat, little box in the back of her mind. What mattered was she was there and she was making it happen no matter what. The school had graciously given her a second chance and she was not going to fail this time around.
Other, more vicious thoughts weighed on her, instead.
But she wouldn’t mope around the apartment. Oh no, she may have wanted to. How nice would it be to stay in her pajamas all day and eat ice cream straight out of the carton?
Instead, she did her hair, put on makeup, painted her nails, and did a fair amount of school reading for the next week.
The knock on the door at five o’clock was a welcome diversion from a long day of studying. A long day spent pushing unpleasant thoughts to the back of her mind. She peeled herself off the couch, straightened her clothes, and smoothed her hair down until she felt presentable enough to open the door to unexpected visitors.
Professor John Abbott was a tall man of well over six feet. He was lean and wore thick, horn-rimmed glasses. His wife, Sarah Abbott, was a slim woman of average height. She wore a long, flowing skirt in a kaleidoscope of earth tones and a billowy cream blouse hanging off her shoulders.
Amy had met the Abbots on the farm. They were good friends of the Jensens, and Professor Abbott was Jack’s Individual Study supervisor.
Sarah Abbott was a beautiful woman, a writer, and an adjunct professor at the college. She didn’t wear the usual rock of an engagement ring paired with a feminine wedding band. Oh, no, Sarah Abbot wore only a thick, gold wedding band rivaling the size of John Abbott’s band. Whenever Amy married, she’d want a ring just like that.
“John, Sarah, come in,” Amy said, ushering them into the apartment.
“We’re not staying,” said John.
Puzzled, Amy let the door swing wide open. “Jack isn’t here. I’m happy to see you, though.”
“Terri said we should stop by to pick you up on the way to the farm,” John offered.
“On the way to the farm for what?” asked Amy.
“They’re throwing Jack a surprise birthday dinner. They didn’t want you to be left out so here we are to get you,” said Sarah. “I guess Terri knew your phone wasn’t working and she didn’t know any, other way to reach you other than to send your own private chauffeurs.” She said this while snapping to attention like a dutiful soldier completing a mission.
“Oh, you’re fine how you are,” continued Sarah, misreading Amy’s unease. “You don’t need to change or anything.”
Amy was sure she nodded and had hopefully said something polite. In a light daze, she retrieved her purse and the key to the apartment. She took one last look at the doormat, knowing this was a terrible idea. She locked up and followed the couple down the stairs and to their waiting sedan.
John held the door open for his wife and Amy. From the backseat of the car, she struggled to keep up with the pleasant conversation when the same thought kept echoing in her mind.
How did I not know it was Jack’s birthday?
Even more troubling, how had Amy never known Jack had killed Emily on his birthday?
Jack hadn’t enjoyed his birthday in exactly four years. His family understood this and thankfully, never pestered him to change the way he felt about this particular anniversary. His parents and sister called to say happy birthday, but they tried to keep the celebration to a minimum. He was thankful for their consideration and restraint.
After all, he still had to remind himself, from time to time, there was no way he could have swerved out of the way to avoid hitting Emily. It was a numbers game and the physics of it still haunted him. So how could he be expected to celebrate the very anniversary of her death?
He’d tried to focus on the good thoughts when it came to Amy. The end of the semester loomed ahead of them, and he’d lose her. He didn’t know how much of her he’d lose. But Jack was sure she’d move out.
So he fixed his mind on what he knew for sure: He liked having her around. He liked the way she drank his coffee as if he’d produced gold from the espresso machine. He liked the messy way she spread her papers all over the living room and dining room to study. He liked how she insisted on watching scary movies even though it meant she’d sleep with the light on for days after.
He liked the way she smelled—vanilla and honey.
What he didn’t like was the fear he felt. He was going to lose her entirely.
The sun was setting when he and Tom returned to the farm. It took an hour to unload the equipment and set it up in the barn.
Jack became suspicious when he saw both Chris and Tyler were still on site. He checked his watch. It was rare for them to stay at the farm so late in the day.
“Come up to the house,” Tyler insisted.
Jack rubbed the back of his neck. “No, I think I’m ready to head back to town. It was a long day on the road.”
“Come on,” Chris said, laughing.
Jack was backing up toward his truck when Terri, having heard them outside, opened the sliding screen door to the house and hollered. “Jack, would you come inside already?
Everyone is waiting!”
He would have run out on Tyler and Chris on some lame excuse, but he couldn’t disappoint Terri. His two friends gave him meaningful looks as they walked back up to the house.
As he entered the dining room, he mustered up a smile. Terri had apparently gone to some trouble to put together a dinner party for his birthday. The table overflowed with cheese, meats, and beer. Tom was busy in the kitchen, but he shouted with the rest of them.
Jack was amazed at how Tom seemed to have a never-ending supply of energy reserved. Jack could barely keep steady on his feet. He was tired from the day. But here was Tom, shaving meat onto large platters.
Chris and Tyler were slapping Jack’s back and wishing him a happy birthday. The Abbots were there too.
Someone had brought Amy to celebrate on the anniversary of her sister’s death. Jack pinned her with his gaze, and he hoped his look conveyed all apologies. She was smiling and clapping with the others, but he could see what she was hiding. Her face probably mirrored his own.
When the company had settled into natural conversation, Jack noticed Amy had left the table for the bathroom. He went to look for her, feeling it was necessary to speak to her private.
He caught her in the hallway as she was exiting the bathroom. She jumped, startled and he stretched his arm out to grip her slight shoulder. “Sorry,” he said, taking her upper arm with his free hand and guiding her to stand with her back against the wall in the narrow hallway, out of sight from the others.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yes, you startled me.”
He shook his head. “No, I mean… I’m sorry about all of this.”
She fixed him with her gaze. “I’m only sorry I didn’t know it was your birthday you, big dummy. You saw me this morning, and you didn’t say anything. You didn’t say anything at all.”
He dropped his hands. “And what exactly was I supposed to say? ‘Good morning, Amy. I’m sorry I killed your sister four years ago. Time heals all things! Oh, and by the way, it’s my birthday.’ Is that it?”
“Well, yes,” Amy said, in a menacing whisper. “It’s better than the alternative, which is exactly what happened if you haven’t noticed.”
Jack let his head fall back, slowly shaking it from left to right. “I don’t know how you remain so cool. How can you even stand the sight of me, Amy? I don’t get it at all.”
“Don’t start with that garbage.” Deep lines had formed between her brows. She eyes filled for a moment like she might cry. Instead, she clamped her mouth shut and turned to leave.
“No you don’t,” he said, gripping her by the shoulders again to spin her around to face him. “Forget I said that. Can you forget I said that?”
He was not a little frantic for her to concede. He wasn’t sure what he wanted from her or if he even wanted anything at all. But he did know he didn’t want her turning away from him.
“It’s impossible to forget something once someone’s said something,” she said, not at all helpful.
“Try,” he said, dryly.
She waited for a beat. “Alright, it’s forgotten. Now let’s go out there and try to look happy? You have friends that did something for you.”
“They’re your friends too, you know?”
Amy nodded, accepting this fact. “I guess I have that to thank you for as well. Along with everything else.”
“You owe me for that,” he said, smiling for the first time. “You have no idea the bribes I have to give out for them to be nice to you.”
“That’s not true!” she said, swatting playfully at his arm.
“No, it’s not true. They like you without my help.”
“Happy birthday, Jack.”
“Thank you, Amy. I’m glad to spend it with my friends.”
As the night progressed and the cheese began to sweat, it was clear that Chris and Tyler were sore at him for being dull. Apparently, he wasn’t grateful enough to their liking. A lot of trouble they went through and Jack could barely crack a smile. By the end of the night, he was a little drunk. The conversation and food had been filling, but now they wanted games.
Jack didn’t feel like playing games.
“Alright, alright,” Chris said, talking louder than everyone else. “A drinking game.”
“Oh, I think I’m a little old for drinking games,” Terri said, mildly.
“You’re never too old for drinking games,” said Chris. “You don’t even have to take a shot, really. You say something you’ve done and if anyone else has done the same thing, they have to drink. If no one else has done it, then you have to drink. It should be something obscure, get it? That’s what makes it fun.”
Amy watched Jack as he leaned back in his chair. If she weren’t at the party, he’d be having a better time. But she was there and it was painful for him.
Of that, she was sure.
“I don’t think I want to play this game,” Jack said, rubbing at the back of his neck.
“Sure you do,” Chris insisted. “I’ll start.”
Chris was slurring his words. If Jack was a little drunk, Chris was a lot drunk.
“Let’s see,” began Chris. “One time I jumped off a restricted bridge.” He threw back another shot, even though those were not the rules of the game, and slammed the glass on the table.
Several others around the table took a drink as well, including Jack. Amy was surprised to see Professor Abbot take a drink. Sarah looked at him in mock astonishment.
“Alright,” continued Chris. “Now it’s the birthday boy’s turn. Let’s hear it, Jack.”
“I don’t want to play, Chris. Someone else can have a turn. I’ll just drink, alright?”
Chris wouldn’t stop. “Don’t be sore, Jack! It’s your turn. Now, go ahead.”
“Alright, Chris. I think that’s enough,” Tom finally said, sensing Jack’s discomfort.
“No, I think he should have a good time instead of sitting there like his dog just got run over by a car.”
Jack’s head tilted to one side before he reached out and took a shot of whiskey from the center of the table. He tossed it back and set the glass back down. He pinched the edge of the glass between his finger and thumb as he spoke.
His eyes remained fixed on the glass. “Four years ago today,” Jack began.
“Jack,” whispered Amy.
His head inclined again, tipping forward for a moment before he continued. “I was back home for my birthday and I heard that my girlfriend was throwing me a surprise party. I didn’t want to be early to her house because I didn’t want to spoil the surprise. You see?” he said with a crooked smile.
“So I took a long way around. This road ran parallel to a popular trail. You know, bikers, runners, and birdwatchers, that sort of thing.
“Anyway, I was driving,” he paused to sigh. “And I didn’t see…” he hesitated, “I didn’t have time to swerve out of the way. She came out of nowhere. And I hit her with my car. I didn’t hit another car. I hit a person with my car.”
He looked up then and his eyes searched the table. Amy kept her eyes fixed on the bottle of whiskey. Jack pushed back in his seat and stood. He took one more shot of whiskey and walked out of the house.
“Four years ago today,” Amy said, instantly wishing she’d stay quiet instead, but knowing she should just tell them. “My sister died. She veered from a walking trail and a car hit her. Jack’s car.”
Amy paused, swallowing the lump in her throat. “You didn’t know. That wasn’t fair of him to tell you like that. It’s nice that you put this birthday dinner together for him. I know he’ll feel terrible tomorrow. I think I’m going to drive him home, though.”
“Amy,” said Tom, reaching out to touch her forearm.
“We’re fine. It’s just still a rotten day, you know?”
Tom nodded. But she didn’t know if Jack was okay or not. “Thank you for dinner,” she said to Terri before leaving the house.
She surveyed the area outside the door to the house, wondering how far Jack had walked. He could have left to walk the perimeter of the farm to get his head straight for all she knew, but she found him in the truck.
She climbed up into the cab and the heavy, metal door closed behind her with a clank. “Well, I for one had a good time. It was much better than moping around the house all night.”
Jack’s head was resting back against the bench seat. He laughed, a pitiful sound and slowly turned his head to the left until he was staring straight at her. They stayed like that for what seemed like a long time.
“I should apologize,” Jack said.
Amy shrugged “Maybe a small apology.”
“I should do that now,” he said.
Amy nodded. “Then again, it would probably be fine if you call them tomorrow.”
“No, I should go talk to them now while they’re all together.”
“I told them about Emily.”
He nodded once and opened his door. Each of his movements took longer than usual. Pause. Open the door. Pause again. Step out of the truck with half of his body. Step out of the truck with the other half of the body. This was going to take forever.
“I’m going to wait for you outside if that’s okay?”
He nodded again and, with some effort, closed the door behind him. He had a certain slow gait that she’d never seen before. Then again, she’d never seen him drink so much before.
Amy tired of waiting after a few minutes. Jack hadn’t left the keys and she had no way of knowing for sure how long the talk was going to take. He didn’t have to answer any of their questions. Though they might have some.
She walked away from the house and up to a large, ficus tree. Other than the massive tree, it was the only clearing at this side of the farm.
And with good reason. You didn’t want a ficus anywhere near a house. The roots of the ficus had a way of tearing under a home’s foundation, twisting their way, wreaking havoc to the pipes. In the daytime, however, the ficus provided considerable shade.
Did it say a lot for her own state of mind that she could, in fact, stand to be around Jack? At fault or not, which it was not his fault, did it say something about her as a person? Was she supposed to shun him? To hate him?
She couldn’t do that.
Jack Harper was the best thing to happen to her. He was the reason. Only him. It had nothing to do and was completely removed from his involvement four years earlier.
Amy heard a crunch of broken twigs underfoot. She fixed her gaze on the moon, needing a moment before facing Jack. She felt a little sad as thoughts of her sister crept to the forefront of her mind, making their appearance at the end of a trying day.
She missed Emily.
As different as they had been, and as unimportant as Amy had sometimes felt to her sister, she still missed her. The thing about growing up with a sibling is the shared experience. Who else would understand the life you’d known better than the one person that went through the same shit day in and day out? That’s not to say that there weren’t good times. There were many, wonderful times, just like any other family.
She turned to face Jack and as if he were expecting it, he gathered her up in his arms in a well-timed embrace. It was just what she needed. She pressed her cheek to his chest and his arms wrapped around her reassuringly. She noted that this was not their first embrace.
They stood like that under the ficus for a long time. Just when she thought it was time to pull away from his body, he surprised her by running his rough fingers through her hair.
This wasn’t a good idea, but it felt comforting so she chose not to protest. His deft fingers smoothed her hair down, again and again, until her face was square in front of him and he was looking down at her with those deep-set eyes.
“You won’t always like me so much,” she said.
“That sounds like a promise.” He sounded much more clearheaded than she’d expected from him.
“It is,” she said nodding gently.
He held her gaze a moment longer before releasing her. His hands slid down her arms and he produced the keys to the truck, seemingly out of nowhere, and held them against the palm of her hand.
They walked back to the truck and Amy cursed the difficulty it caused her to get into the mammoth of a vehicle. She squinted in the darkness as they drove toward the city, thinking it was about time she got her eyes checked.
She didn’t just think about the health of her eyes. She thought about upcoming exams, the professor that was always late to class, the seemingly low supply of chocolate in the apartment, current events, the coming spring, and so on.
Amy thought about any random topic that she could produce, to avoid the one thought that threatened to overtake all brain function.
She was falling in love with Jack Harper.
I haven’t missed the irony.
A week later, Amy left her Chemistry class and found Jack waiting for her. “This is a surprise.” Then she noticed the look on his face. He rolled his shoulder and took a deep breath.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Tom was in an accident,” he said.
Amy gasped, and her hand flew to Jack’s arm. “Is he okay?”
“He’s pretty banged up, and unconscious. Someone ran a red light and t-boned Tom’s car.”
“We have to go to the hospital,” Amy said, already heading toward the parking garage.
Jack fell into step next to her. “That’s why I came to get you.”
They made it to the hospital and sat in the visitor’s area. Amy scrubbed her face with her hand and paced back and forth while Jack went to find Terri for an update on Tom’s condition.
Amy watched him where he stood at the end of the hall. His back was to her as he spoke to Terri in hushed tones. She felt the urge to go to him, and almost did, but then her phone vibrated in her pocket. She read the screen and didn’t recognize the number. She answered the call in case it was someone from the farm looking for an update as well.
“Amy Knight? This is Patricia calling from the student housing office.”
Amy sat back down, resting her elbows on her knees and feeling like she’d received a call from the great beyond.
“I wanted to inform you that we’ve found a match just blocks from campus. The rent is in your price range, and the two women are looking for a roommate as soon as possible. You could move in as early as this week.”
“Really?” was all Amy could manage to say.
“You’re still looking for permanent housing, right?”
Amy looked back down the hall at Jack. She hesitated for only a moment, before returning her attention to the call.
“I’m sorry I didn’t notify your office sooner, but you can go ahead and remove me from the list.”
“Alright, Ms. Knight. I am glad to hear you’ve secured permanent housing. Please respond to a survey that will arrive at your student e-mail.”
Patricia continued with a list of disclaimers until Amy thanked her again for her time, and then ended the call. She leaned on her forearms, and ran her fingers through her hair, wondering what in the world she’d just done.
They returned to the apartment complex, and Amy felt the tension coming off Jack in waves. They walked into the apartment and Jack went straight for the sink. He grabbed a glass from the drying rack and filled the cup halfway with water from the tap. He leaned back against the counter and drank the water in two large gulps.
Amy stood at the mouth of the kitchen with her arms at her sides. Tom was still unconscious and Jack was worried about his mentor. She wished she knew what to do to make things better for him. She took a deep breath, stretching her lungs, but not enough, so she did it again, this time feeling the hitch in her chest.
“Jack,” she said because she didn’t know what else to say.
He pushed off the counter, with a grace only known to certain men, and crossed the small distance of the kitchen. His hands slid up her shoulders and cupped the back of her neck and her head. His fingers slid into her hair. He looked into her eyes for the briefest moment before pressing his lips against hers, and she melted against him, held onto him, unable to get as close as she needed to be.
The feel of his lips against hers was incredible, but she didn’t even need it. She just needed to be close, to finally be close to him; to finally press her cheek against his chest and breathe in his scent without restraint. That would have been enough for her, but Jack’s kiss offered so much more.
Their bodies pressed tighter. Her mouth opened in content and she felt his tongue against hers. She wanted to think. Her instinct demanded an analysis of the situation, but she knew that she loved him at that moment and forgot to think about anything except the way it felt to be with him and to give herself over to him.
His arms were wrapped around her body as he led her backward toward his bedroom. They made love while whispering sweet, loving words to each other. Amy knew that they never had a chance of stopping this from the beginning because neither of them ever really wanted to stop it from happening.
They’d never had a choice.
The earth moved.
Amy slept better than she had in years. Her body fit perfectly against Jack’s as they slept, wrapped up in each other, under the covers. The phone rang and Amy hesitated before answering. Did she want to answer a phone call from her mother while she was in Jack’s bed?
Reluctantly, she pushed up from the mattress. Jack squeezed her arm but didn’t try to stop her. “Seems important,” he said. Considering it was her mother’s third try in a row, he was right.
She pulled on the first article of clothing she found, one of Chase’s t-shirts that hung to her mid-thighs and left the room.
“Surprise!” Her mother said from the other side of the phone. “We’re here.”
Amy broke out in sweat, and it felt as if her stomach had dropped. “Here where?” Chase exited the bedroom, wearing basketball shorts and a t-shirt.
“At your apartment, we came to visit you. Open the door.”
Then they heard the knock on the door. “You’re outside the door?” Amy asked.
“That’s what a surprise is, right?” Her mother said. “Amy?”
“I’ll be right there,” she said. She ended the phone call and stared at Jack with wide eyes. “You have to hide.”
Jack stood taller, with a look for fierce determination in his eyes. “No, I’m not hiding, and you’re not lying anymore,” he whispered.
“Are you crazy?” she asked.
He kissed her hard and fast. “Go get dressed. Everything is going to be okay.”
“You don’t know that,” she said, shaking her head. But he was already heading to the front door.
Rather than having her parents see her in Jack’s T-shirt, and nothing else, she dove for the bedroom door and closed it behind her just in time before Jack Harper opened the front door to her parents.
Safe in her bedroom, Amy dressed in a flurry of movement. She threw on jeans and a tank top as she heard Jack say, “Mr. and Mrs. Knight.”
“I don’t understand,” her mother said.
Amy entered the living room, as Jack was asking them to sit down.
“No, I think I’ll stand,” her father said.
“Amy, what’s going on here?” her mother asked.
Amy sputtered nonsensically.
“Mrs. Knight, I’d like to speak with you and your husband, please.” Jack said.
Amy felt her chest go tight. She had to have known this would happen and she’d tried to prevent it. She should have known there was no stopping this. She should have known the truth would come out eventually.
Secrets bring a cost.
Amy’s worlds were colliding and there was nothing she could do about it.
“What are you doing here? In Amy’s apartment?” Her father went to his wife to place his hands on her shoulders, shielding her as if she were weak.
“Sir, this is my apartment. Amy and I have been living together for a few months now and she hasn’t told you because she was worried about what you would say. But I want you to know that I care about her a lot and I’d like to be a part of her life.”
Amy had to remind herself to breathe as she divided a look between her parents and Jack Harper.
“I don’t understand.” Carol said to Amy.
“Mr. Knight,” Jack said. “I’m in love with your daughter.” He looked at Amy when he said this and she felt sick and lightheaded because she felt the same way too.
“What do you mean?” her mother said, her voice high and bordering on hysterical.
Her father stepped forward and for a moment Amy worried this was going to turn physical.
“She’s nineteen and she’s supposed to be focusing on school. How could you take advantage of her like this? Not to mention how inappropriate this is. Her sister is dead. What sort of man are you?”
Jack’s hands were in fists at his side. “I’m the kind of man that took your daughter in when she was at her lowest. I’m the kind of man that helped her get back on her feet. You made your daughter believe that she couldn’t turn to her parents for help. Making her live up to your ridiculous expectations. She was about to live out of her car and you had no idea.”
Diane’s eyes were wide, and she stared at Amy in disbelief. “Amy, is this true?”
“I’m in love with your daughter, Mrs. Knight,” Jack repeated.
“And what do you want from us?” Diane asked, her focus on Jack. “Our blessing? How can you expect us to welcome you? I can barely stand the sight of you.”
“We still don’t know why Emily was out on that road. We don’t even know what happened that night. For all we know you were out there with her,” her father said through his teeth.
“Dad, that’s enough!” Amy said, finally finding her voice.
“Don’t raise your voice to me. You’ve completely lost your mind,” Phil said. “You’re supposed to be studying and you’re having an affair with this man. I don’t know what’s gotten into you.”
“You wouldn’t know, would you?” Amy said. “You have no idea what I’ve been going through for the past four years. Because you never asked me.”
“Stop being so dramatic,” her mother said.
Jack stepped forward. “Mrs. Knight, I didn’t know Emily, but you can’t keep comparing Amy to her. You have to let Amy be her own person. Can’t you see what you’re doing to her?”
“Amy, get your things. We’re leaving,” her mother said.
“Sir,” Jack said, trying again.
Amy turned and ran to her borrowed room. She grabbed the worn envelope that was always tucked in her jewelry box. The voices were loud in the living room but she couldn’t focus on them. Each step that brought her closer to her parents and to Jack brought her closer to cracking.
Her father yelled, moving forward as if he was going to strike Jack.
“Listen to me!” Amy said.
Her mother wrung her hands together. “Emily would have—”
“She killed herself, alright? If she was so perfect…” Amy said, her voice breaking on a sob. “If she was so perfect, then why the hell did she kill herself?”
Her mother slapped her hard enough that Amy almost fell over. She felt the heat before the sting of the pain.
“How dare you say a thing like that?” her mother said, barely a whisper.
“It’s true, Mom. I found this note a few months after she died.” She held the note out to her mother. “She left it for me in my favorite book on my bookshelf.” Amy swallowed the lump in her throat and pushed forward. Needing to purge the horrible truth that she’d been holding in for so long. “She jumped in front of Jack’s car that night. It could have been anyone driving down that road. Jack just happened to be the one when she decided to walk out into the street.”
Amy handed the envelope over to her mother, who stumbled to the couch with her husband’s arms wrapped around her. They sat and opened the purple envelope. The paper, that Amy had unfolded and folded dozens of times, threatened to tear under the intense pressure of Dianne’s grip.
Amy knew they’ve read the note in its entirety when they collapsed in each other’s arms. Terrifying sobs reverberated between them, echoing what Amy had known for some time.
But nothing compared to the awful tear in her chest when she turned around to face Jack.
His face was contorted in pain.
He grabbed his keys off the counter and left the apartment, the door swinging open in his wake. Amy followed him down the stairs and to the parking lot.
“Jack, please. Just listen to me. I didn’t find the note until after you’d been cleared of any negligence. Please, would you just talk to me?”
He whirled around and the look of disgust on his face hurt worse than her mother’s slap. “Just talk to me,” Amy said.
“Talk to you? I can’t even look at you.” He took a deep breath to control himself. “I can understand why you didn’t tell me when you didn’t know me. But how… How could you not tell me these past few months? How could you not be decent enough to fucking tell me?”
“Because it was a secret! Okay? It was a secret.” Amy’s voice was hoarse. “It was the last secret that my sister left for me and the note asked me not to tell. It begged me not to tell.”
Her legs gave out from under her and she crouched down on the pavement with her head in her hands.
“It was a secret,” she, said, between sobs and the sound of footsteps across gravel. The opening of the truck door. The start of an engine, and the sound of the truck backing out of the parking spot.
Jack Harper was gone.
Amy walked back up to Jack’s apartment. When she stepped into the apartment and found her parents in the living room, they were standing together in a tight embrace. Their heads jerked toward the sound of her closing the apartment door and they opened their arms, welcoming her in.
Her father’s scent was foreign, and yet comforting. How long had it been since he’d held her like this?
She expected her father to say, you should have told us. But instead, he said, “I wish we would have made you feel like you could tell us.”
Amy held on tighter, and cried harder, ruining her father’s shirt. Their mother finally pulled back and suggested they go back to the hotel. Amy wanted to wait for Jack to return, but there was so much to tell her parents, now that it felt like they were listening, and it didn’t seem right to stay any longer in Jack’s apartment like this.
She took several changes of clothing, her purse, backpack, and left with her parents to their hotel where she hoped they could start to be okay again. No more secrets.
I forgive you.
Amy spent the next three nights at the hotel with no word from Jack. She called Terri the next morning to check on Tom. He was recuperating and would be going home. They were having a welcome home party, and Amy asked if she could bring her parents along.
The drive out to the farm was filled with non-stop talking between her and her parents. It was like the floodgates had opened for their relationship.
“Sweetheart, if you want to come home, you can. Of course, you can.”
Amy frowned. “That’s the thing. I want to stay now.”
Her mother’s eyes cut to her father for a brief moment. “Because of Jack?”
“I don’t think Jack’s going to want anything to do with me anymore,” Amy said. “I want to finish my degree. The school has a veterinary program. I want to be a large animal Doctor so I can work with horses and cows.”
Soon the farm, which had shaped so much of her life, loomed ahead of them. Everyone was there. When Terry said party, she meant Party. The entire first floor of the house had the doors and windows open. Tom was in one corner in a wheelchair looking much better than he had at the hospital.
Amy introduced her parents around, her eyes darting around in search of Jack. She had just approached Tom when Jack appeared from outside. He zeroed in on Amy and her parents and walked toward them.
Amy didn’t realize that you could actually feel your heart skip a beat, but she did. She found that she couldn’t breathe, and her mouth went dry. “Jack,” she said.
Jack looked at her father. “Sir.”
“What’s on your mind son?”
Jack looked at Amy again. His entire body was tense, and his eyes tight and focused. Amy became aware that everyone was looking at them. Everyone was waiting to see what would happen next, but none more than Amy.
“I meant what I said. I’m in love with your daughter, and if it’s okay with her, I don’t ever want to leave her side.” Jack took a deep breath and sighed. “But it’s important to her that she have a good relationship with both of you,” he said, looking at Amy’s mother. “I need to know that we can make this work.”
Her father looked at Jack pointedly and then placed his hand on Jack’s shoulder, before pulling him toward his body, enveloping him in an embrace. Amy’s eyes filled with tears, as she watched her father hold Jack, before releasing him.
“Son, everything will be okay,” he said nodding.
Jack turned to Amy then, and she could hardly see through her tears. “I’m so sorry,” Amy said. “I’m so sorry I kept the truth from you.”
Jack nodded, but his lips were set in a tight line. He was still hurting. “I forgive you.”
“But how? How can you forgive me?”
He shrugged. “I love you, Amy.”
“Oh God, Jack. I love you too.”
Jack slid his arms around Amy’s body, and she felt triumphant warmth spread all through her. He crushed his mouth to hers in a breathtaking kiss, to the sound of applause from their friends and family that surrounded them.
Later that night, after the party, and after Amy’s parents had left town, she and Jack lay in his bed, wrapped up in each other’s arms. He didn’t think he’d ever get over the joy of having Amy next to him.
“I have something I want to give you,” he said. He reached over and opened his nightstand, to retrieve a small book.
“What’s that?” she asked, taking the book that he offered.
“It’s a journal that I write in when I remember. After the accident, it was supposed to be something therapeutic. It sort of stuck, though I should probably write in it more often.” He shrugged. “Go to the day that’s marked.”
Amy did so, turning to a dog-eared page in the book. “What date is this?”
His kissed her temple and then settled in next to her so they could both read the page. “It’s the day I met you at the pub.”
Amy turned away and focused on the journal entry. She read aloud:
None of this was supposed to happen.
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Worth the Wait, Contemporary Romance
Chapter 1 preview
Natalie Rey didn’t know the first thing about wielding the wrench in her hand, but not knowing things had never stopped her before. Like hell would a leaky faucet get in the way of securing a tenant. And all interested parties had expected their showers to be in working order.
Silly people, with their basic needs…like indoor plumbing.
No worries, Natalie was perfectly capable of watching videos of people who did know things. The woman in the video made it look so easy. But of course, it was easy for her. She built her house by herself and probably forged the very steel that framed the house.
Natalie repeated the instructions aloud. “Just replace the stem, tighten things back up, and no more leak.”
She did these things, intent on using the most precise movements. Except when she tightened the faucet, water shot out in a jet stream, hitting her right in the face. She screamed, more like gargled, and placed her hands in front of her body in a weak attempt to stop the water with her hands.
What made her think she could do this without the use of a real plumber? She turned the knob, only to have it come off in her hand. “Easy, my ass,” she said through her teeth.
“Nat? What are you doing?”
Natalie turned, and her posture stiffened at the sight of Chase Hammond filling the doorway like he was holding the house up with his big, strong body.
Not now. Even as water sprayed wildly around her, she looked up at the ceiling, asking God why. Why would you bring Chase Hammond to my door at this moment?
Or ever for that matter.
“Obviously…” She cleared her throat. “I don’t know what I’m doing. What are you doing? Here? In my bathroom?”
“Where’s the valve to shut off the water?” Chase asked, focused and on track, responding to the situation as if she were in way over her head.
For the record, she was.
Looking even better than she remembered, he was glorious in his relaxed jeans and threadbare T-shirt, tight across his chest and loose around his flat stomach.
“The what?” Natalie asked, still standing in the spray, pretending like she wasn’t just ogling him.
“Outside, Nat.” He offered her a bemused smile, giving Natalie the impression that he knew exactly what she was doing. “There should be a valve to shut off all the water to the house.”
“Should I have turned that off before working on the faucet?”
He rewarded her with a broad grin, and Natalie’s brain went fuzzy, all neurons getting lost in a wave of static. She’d seen pictures of him, but she forgot how mind crippling his smile could be in real time.
“Nat, the valve?”
Natalie pushed her shoulders back and lifted her chin. “Under the bushes. On the… west side of the house.”
He grimaced. “Of course it’s under the bushes. Get out of the tub. You’re soaked.”
Natalie’s eyes widened, and she shook her head at the spot where Chase once stood. He sounded so bossy that she almost stayed put just to spite him. Instead, she climbed out of the tub and chastised herself for not turning the valve off in the first place.
The water slowed and then stopped running altogether. She breathed a shaky sigh of relief. This didn’t fix the faucet, but at least the meter wasn’t running up at breakneck speed anymore. Besides, she had other things to worry about. Natalie hadn’t seen Chase Hammond in eight years. Not that she was counting.
Chase returned to the bathroom and stared at her bedraggled state. She warmed as his eyes swept up and down her body.
She touched her palms to her cheeks. Yep, she was blushing. Just like when they were younger.
He leaned on the doorjamb with one hand at his waist. “The valve’s on the east side of the house in case you were wondering.”
Natalie’s head jerked in his direction. “Like I’m supposed to remember directional indicators at the drop of a hat? There was water spraying at my face.”
She looked down, having forgotten what she was wearing: Yoga pants, and a white shirt that clung to her body. Feeling nothing but ready for a wet T-shirt contest, she raised her chin and crossed her arms over her chest.
Again, the corners of Chase’s mouth tipped up. She dropped her arms to her sides in response. “Would you please hand me the towel?”
He did, without urgency if she had any opinion on the matter, and she wrapped it around her shoulders.
“The faucet?” he asked.
She held her hand out. “It’s right here and not at all attached to the wall where it belongs.”
He made a valiant effort to suppress his laughter and failed spectacularly.
“Please stop laughing.” Although she was forcing back her own laughter. His laugh was contagious that way. It was a full-body laugh, the way he threw his head back. Hers wasn’t so good. It was the kind of laugh that could turn into sobbing if she wasn’t careful.
“Were you always this serious?” He took a step toward her and pulled the towel tighter around her shoulders. “Come on, you think it’s a little funny.”
He was so close, and Natalie worked at remaining unaffected. But he smelled like he was genetically designed to excite her hormones. If only she could press her face against his neck and get a sampling of the goods.
“Do I look like I’m laughing, Chase? The video made it look so fricking easy.”
“It always seems easier in the video.”
She snorted. “Right, like you need to watch videos to fix things.”
“You’d be surprised,” he said.
She sighed and ran a hand over her wet ponytail. “I wanted to get these repairs done before my shift at the hospital.”
“I’m sure you were about to finish, and I interrupted you.”
She narrowed her eyes. “I do stuff like this all the time, and sixty percent of the time it works out.”
He said nothing and continued stroking her upper arms.
“Stop that.” She was wet and loving the heat that was coming off his body, or maybe that was just her reaction to him. “I can do this on my own, you know?”
“I know you can,” he said. His eyes were so kind that she felt her heart squeeze. “How about I take a look and see if I can finish what you started?”
Natalie warred with her inherent stubbornness. “Don’t you have somewhere to be?”
“It’s just a faucet, Nat.”
“Yes…just a faucet that I couldn’t fix.”
“That’s not what I meant.” He relaxed his posture. “I’ve done this before.”
Natalie nodded and took a step back from him. “Why are you here again? Ellie isn’t here. You know she’s out of the country, right?” She removed a leaf from his hair, something he must have picked up while looking for the valve.
Chase stopped to look at her. “Yes, I know where my sister is, thank you very much.”
He moved around in the small bathroom. “Where’s the box the faucet came in?”
Distracted, Natalie stared at his strong muscles shifting beneath his thin shirt. “It’s behind the door. Wait! Don’t close the—”
He did just that.
“Door,” Natalie said, pressing the heels of her hands to her eyes. This was not happening. She was not stuck in a bathroom with Chase Hammond. Her shift at the hospital started in, oh, two hours. Everything remained broken. She was soaking wet, and did she mention stuck in a bathroom with Chase Hammond?
She peeked from behind her hands. “Yeah, Chase?”
He slid his hands into his pockets and rocked back on his heels. “Why shouldn’t I have closed the door?”
“Fixing the door lock,” Natalie said, placing her hands on her hips, “was next on my list of things to do.”
Chase clicked his tongue. “Right after fixing the leaky faucet?”
Natalie nodded. “Right after fixing the leaky faucet.”
Chase tried the door handle. It didn’t open. He closed his eyes, exhaled, and jiggled the knob, a little harder, but still, nothing.
“Hey, watch it. You’re going to break it.”
He gave her a long look.
“Even more. You’re going to break it even more.”
He turned around in a circle. “What is it with you and handles?”
“If you’re looking for tools, they’re on the other side of the door. All I have here is this wrench.”
He took the wrench from her, but set it down on the shelf. “A wrench isn’t going to do much good.”
“I’ll call someone,” Natalie said. She picked her phone up off the shelf just as the phone vibrated, signaling a text message. “Oh, wait, it’s your brother.”
“Dylan,” Natalie said.
Chase’s shoulders relaxed. Dylan would get them out.
“What?” Chase asked after she’d texted.
“Nothing,” Natalie said, looking down at her phone. “I hear you need a place to stay.”
“What’s the verdict? Make it worth your while.” Dear God, was he flirting with her?
At that, Natalie’s eyes swept up and down Chase’s body before locking in on his gaze. She looked away, blushing. “Well,” she said. “I haven’t seen you in ten years. I’m a little in shock; embarrassed to begin with. Give me a second to assimilate.”
He winced. “It’s been eight years, and I’ve looked into every other option.”
“I didn’t say no.”
She didn’t say, “yes” either. “Listen, I’ll stay with my parents.”
She wrinkled her nose. “That’s not even a cottage for two, Chase. It’s a blessing your mom isn’t over five feet tall and doesn’t take up much room. It’s like goldfish in there.”
“If you keep them in a small bowl, they stay small. You put them in a big bowl; they get big.” She went back to the text messages.
“Why are you embarrassed?” he asked.
“Because, you know.” She shrugged. “I broke everything,” she said, sweeping her arm across the bathroom.
“You’re embarrassed because you’re not good at plumbing.” He moved to stand behind her and read over her shoulder as his brother pleaded Chase’s case.
Natalie: First sign of a tenant, he leaves. Now I have a favor.
Dylan: Name it.
Natalie: We’re locked in the bathroom.
Dylan: You and Chase?
Natalie: It’s not what you think. He was helping me with a leaky faucet.
Dylan: Right… A leaky faucet. Be there in 5.
Natalie returned her attention to her new tenant. “Dylan is on his way. You can stay here in the rental. Don’t worry about rent.”
His eyes narrowed. “We’ll talk about rent later. Dad is recuperating, this will be a week max, and then it’s back to Japan.”
Chase slid down the wall and sat on the tiled floor. Natalie mirrored him. He caught sight of her toenails, painted a cheery, pale pink. “Cute,” he said.
She smiled and searched his face. “You look tired.”
He paused before settling back against the wall. “Gee, thanks.”
“Sorry, I just meant—”
He patted the air between them. “I know what you meant.” He must look bad. He didn’t know if it was the long travel, or if worry over his father was making him look so ragged. A seventeen-hour flight from Japan to Florida, followed by a three-hour drive to his hometown of Divine Island would do it, alright.
“He’s better than you’d guess,” she said. “It makes your mom happy when I visit to check his vitals.”
Chase’s face softened.
“It’s no big deal,” Natalie said, appearing uncomfortable with the look he gave her. “I’m not an RN, yet. All I do is check his blood pressure.” She shrugged. “Your mom could do that.”
Chase shook his head. “It’s a big deal, Nat.” According to his mom and siblings, Natalie was a big deal. “I’m pretty sure they’re one blood pressure monitor away from naming a wing of the inn after you.”
“The inn doesn’t have ‘wings,’” she said.
“For you, Nat, they’d build them.”
Natalie took in a big, shaky breath and failed at looking relaxed. Well, sweetheart, he was feeling it too. Turned out eight years and a few thousand miles of distance didn’t solve a damn thing.
“You know…,” he said, cupping the back of his neck. “I didn’t come right away because of work.”
Natalie shook her head in quick back-and-forth movements. “I don’t know why you’re telling me this.”
“Dylan had everything under control, so I hopped on a plane the minute I could get away.”
Natalie frowned. “Nobody is wondering about that. Japan is far away, and your dad was out of the hospital faster than anyone could have predicted.”
Chase nodded. It was typical of her to accept his excuse without question when it had been fear that held him back.
“Tell me about these jobs you’re working on,” she said.
“Change of subject?” he asked.
She shrugged. “Don’t say I never threw you a bone.”
He coughed. “My team bid on a project to design a skyscraper in Tokyo. We’ll win the bid, and then it’s back to Japan for a year.” He leaned his head back until it rested on the wall. “Dad’s health could change my plans, though.”
“He’s great, Chase.”
He ran his hands through his hair, mussing it up.
She forced a shaky laugh. “God, I feel like such an idiot. You flew around the world to see your father, and I locked you in a bathroom.”
“I’m the one that shut the door, right?”
“Right.” She snapped her finger and pointed at him. “This is all your fault.”
Chase said, “Don’t you have a management company to do the repairs?”
“You’re handling the property all on your own?”
She shrugged. “I applied to get it on the city’s historic registry. It’s way more work than I anticipated.”
“Alex is a fucking asshole,” he said, which summed up his complete estimation of the man. How Chase had called Alex his best friend was incomprehensible.
Natalie tried at an indifferent smile. “I married him. So, what does that say about me? How do you know what happened with Alex?”
There was no room for it in the bathroom, but Chase stretched his legs out and folded his hands on his stomach. She watched his every movement, so he watched her every movement, liking the way she made wild curls in her hair with her fingers. She always had great hair. It was a mess half the time, but still, great fucking hair.
“I haven’t been on the island, but I still talk to everyone. They’re all obsessed with video conferencing, and they’ve come to visit me on jobs.”
“And the best your siblings can come up with is gossip revolving around my failed marriage?”
His head tilted to one side. “It’s not gossip. And besides, it’s either that or I have to hear about Ellie’s boyfriends. I ask about you; they tell me what’s going on. How Alex talked you into buying this property and then left you in a shitstorm.”
“It’s not all that dramatic,” Natalie said.
He would bet money it was.
“I’ll be fine once I finish school and get a steady tenant.” She leaned her head against the wall and raised her voice. “If I can ever get a steady tenant.”
Chase rocked his head back and forth. “You’re doing it wrong. You have to stand up with your arms in the air when you make a plea to the rental gods.”
She gave him a rueful smile. “I would try anything.”
God, he felt good—happy to be locked in a bathroom with Natalie, when he should be with his father.
“I thought you were already a nurse,” Chase said.
“I am, but I want to be a Registered Nurse. That way I can supervise and have more responsibility.” Natalie’s eyes were downcast as she absently picked at the dried paint on the tiled floor. “Also, it will make my parents happy. It’s not as good as being a Doctor like my sister-in-law, but my mother probably won’t frown at me so much anymore.”
“Frown at you?” Chase asked.
“You know, the whole, we sacrificed everything for you speech.” She took a deep breath and sighed. “My turn for a subject change. So, you ask about me?”
He cocked his head to one side. “Don’t you ask about me?”
“Why, did Ellie tell you I asked about you?”
He grinned, and Natalie pursed her lips—the story of their lives.
“Ellie talks too much,” Natalie said.
“She’s your friend,” Chase said.
“Best friend.” And Natalie was going to thank Ellie and her big mouth the next chance she got.
He winked and reached out, placing his hand on her calf and squeezing. Natalie froze and nibbled on her bottom lip. Chase’s eyes zeroed in on her mouth—full, perfect lips.
“I’m walking into the bedroom,” Dylan said from beyond the locked door. “Don’t be doing anything naughty.”
As if they had been doing something naughty, Natalie shot up from the floor. She slipped on water and grabbed the towel rack to keep herself upright. The metal bar came clear off the wall in her hand, and she fell flat on her back.
“I was just kidding, but I can come back if you guys need another minute.”
“She slipped and fell, you idiot,” Chase said. He leaned over her and helped her sit up. “Are you okay?”
“Let me guess. You were going to fix the towel rack today too?”
“No.” She swatted at his hands that were touching her head, and then her arms and her back as he checked for injury. “I fixed the towel rack last week, and would you please stop that?”
He grinned. “You’re adorable,” he said, and then helped her up to a standing position.
The door handle jiggled, and Chase heard the drill through the door. “Today, Dylan.”
“You want to get out of there yourself, asshole?”
Chase returned his attention to Natalie. “You’re sure you’re not hurt?”
“Nothing was broken,” she said. “Only my pride of course.”
Dylan opened the door and said, “The prodigal son returns.” He hugged Chase, and they slapped each other on the back. Chase wondered if Dylan was trying to dislodge a few organs while he was at it. Chase was tall, but Dylan had him by two inches, and when he slapped, it hurt.
“It’s good to see you,” Chase said.
“Good to see you too. We’d see a lot more of each other if you came around more often. Oh, I don’t know, more than every three years.”
“I’m here now, aren’t I?”
“Yeah, it just took Dad having a heart attack, over a week ago, for you to come.”
“Why don’t you tell me what’s really on your mind?”
Natalie held her hands up between them and then appeared to remember she’d dropped the towel when she fell. She crossed her arms in front of her chest over her see-through shirt.
“Alright, I need to finish fixing the faucet, and get ready for work,”
“I said I was going to fix it, and I’m going to fix it,” Chase said. “I’ll see Dad, and then come right back.”
“You don’t have to fix it,” she said. “Look, I’ll call the plumber.” She paled. “Did I just say those words in that order?”
Chased picked through her toolbox. “It’ll be working before you get home.”
“Nat,” Dylan said. “Let the man fix the faucet. It will give him an excuse to get away from Mom obsessing over her neglectful son.”
“I’m not neglectful,” Chase said. “She just likes me more than you. That’s why she obsesses.”
“You’re both kidding yourselves,” Natalie said, backing away through the master bedroom. “We all know Levi is her favorite, but if you ever tell Ellie, I said that I’ll kill you both.”
Great, he was now knee-deep in plans to repair her bathroom. And he’d touched her, a lot. He could tell with his two eyeballs that she wasn’t injured, but still… He’d touched her and all those glorious curves. There were reasons he’d avoided Divine, and one of those reasons just became crystal clear.
After everything that had just happened, Natalie still had to go to work. “I’m leaving,” she said, talking to herself. She kissed Dylan on the cheek and squeezed his arm. “Later. Thanks for the rescue.”
“Where’s my kiss?” Chase asked.
“Maybe if you’d seen her this century, you’d get a kiss,” Dylan said.
Calm as you please on the outside, but shaking on the inside, she closed the gap between her and Chase. She went up on her tip-toes. “It’s good to see you, Chase.”
His head turned slightly, and she ended up kissing him on his jaw, which felt more intimate somehow.
The sandpaper kiss was heaven. She stepped back, managing to maintain eye contact. “Dylan has a set of spare keys he can give you to this house.”
Unable to stomach all the Hammond testosterone in one place, Natalie left her rental. She crossed the gravel walkway over to her house that sat on the same property. Her body was humming from a Chase over-dose. Warning: Standing nearby may cause shortness of breath and intoxication.
Maybe one of the doctors would be so kind as to give her a lobotomy at the hospital tonight. Or they could induce selective amnesia. Because Natalie could not deal with still being attracted to Chase Hammond.
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Release date: May 17th, 2016
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Copyright 2016 by KINGBIRD PRESS LLC
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