First of Many - Ashley Suzanne(ang.) - PDF Free Download (2024)

The First of Many A Novel by Ashley Suzanne © 2017, Ashley Suzanne Books

Dedication and Note from the Author For the last two years, I’ve sat on this story. Day after day, the plot and characters weighed on my heart, begging for release. However, when the story is so personal, so close to your actual life, the words sometimes fail. At least, that’s what happened to me. Every time I sat down to write this beautiful love story, I couldn’t find the verbiage to tell the story playing before my eyes. Frustration set in … self-doubt … anger … sadness … and finally, when I thought this story would only ever live in the depths of my imagination, a spark of inspiration hit and Charlie and Rowan’s tale of love, loss, desperation and happiness had a tone.

For this inspiration that came out of left field, I have so many people to dedicate this story to. Without each and every one of them giving me what I needed precisely when I needed it, The First of Many would only be a working title with halfway written chapters and an ending to make you believe in unconditional love again. When you read this epic love story, I hope you’ll remember the good in the world, block out the bad and be grateful for the little things in life. Money, success and fame don’t make the world go ‘round; it’s the people inside your bubble who make life worth living. Without further ado, my gratitude in form of a dedication … this one’s for you guys. If you weren’t a part of my life, hadn’t offered support

and guidance, or held me when I stumbled and pulled me back up when I fell, I couldn’t have gotten through this. You’re all in my soul, and that’s where the most magical words come from … this is for you. Teresa “TT” Matthews-Clark. Danny “Danny Boy” Tomes. Doug “D-Fresh” Harper. Becky Gawura. Nanabug.

Mamaw

(both

of

ya!).

Grandpa.

Grandma. Jacob Cooper. “Lil” Amanda Smith. Mr. Cummings. Aunt Ruthann. Uncle Rick. Coach Daniels. Jerry Ball. Ed and Jan Manderson.

BLURB The thing about love stories is no two are the same. Some live happily ever after, others end before they really begin, and then there’s Rowan and Charlotte, who fall somewhere in the middle. How can you prepare for something you don’t see coming? What happens when your worst case scenario becomes your saving grace? You fall back on your person. Rely on their strength to get you through when nothing else seems to make sense. You tell yourself when one door closes, another opens. You remember all of your firsts that have led you to this exact point in your life. And you dive in head first.

Table of Contents Chapter 1 – The First Meeting Chapter 2 - The First Date Chapter 3 - The First Kiss Chapter 4 - The First Near Miss Chapter 5 - The First Day Chapter 6 – The First Dance Chapter 7 – The First Fight Chapter 8 - The First Doctor Chapter 9 - The First Vacation Chapter 10 - The First Acceptance Chapter 11 - The First Request Chapter 12 - The First Goodbye Epilogue - The First Anniversary Acknowledgements – The Last Word About the Author Other Works by Ashley Suzanne Sneak Peek of Embody by S.E. Hall

Chapter 1 The First Meeting Past “Only three more days until our first meet, ladies. You ready?” Coach Sanderson tries pumping us up as the entire team arrives on the track for some conditioning. “Yes, sir!” we respond in unison, our voices still cheery since we haven’t gotten into the full swing of the season yet. We’re more than ready … at least we think we are. Even though we don’t technically start until the second week of school, we’ve been showing up and getting prepared since the end of July to ensure

we get to States this year. I’ve been on this team since I was a freshman, absolutely earned the captain spot. For the last three years, we’ve come close yet no cigar. This season’s going to be different. I’m more determined than ever to leave my mark on this school and the record board that hangs over the pool and taunts me—my personal best is only three-tenths of a second off the school record. I’m gonna break it, or I’ll die trying. “There’s no doubt you guys are fast in the water, but we always seem to come up short in distance. We’re trying something a little different this year. Every afternoon, before you hit the pool, we’ll meet out here and warm up on the track. Build up your endurance. By the time the invitational comes around, you’ll be the team to beat.”

“How long do you want us out here?” I ask, my face most likely showing how disgusted I am having to run when it’s at least a million degrees outside. I’ve been a swimmer since the first time my mom put me in the bathtub by myself. Swimming’s my passion. However, I don’t have much love for the other sports. Sure, I like to watch them, but there’s a reason I don’t run track, and it’s mostly because I’m not a fan of being sweaty. “Thanks for the positive question, Charlie,” he chastises, then addresses everyone else. “We’ll start with a half mile and increase from there.” I’m not surprised when a chorus of groans fill the air. “We wanna win, right?” The girls nod. I answer, “Yes,” but my head shakes the opposite direction, contradicting my

words. “Then stop acting like a bunch of babies and get to running. The sooner you’re done, the sooner you’re in the water. Now, go!” he screams, and as if he’s the gunshot to start a race, we all take off down the track, desperately trying to get this over with and hit the pool. I start off with a sprint, which probably isn’t the greatest idea in hindsight, and before I finish half a lap, my run slows to a jog, then finally a brisk walk. Looking ahead, most of the other girls are in the same position. Or better yet, what’s the opposite of “great minds think alike”? That! “Hey,” a male voice bellows a few feet back. I’m not sure he’s talking to me until his pace slows and we’re jogging side by side.

“Hi,” I respond, expecting to see someone I know, except this tall, handsome boy’s a stranger. “Am I in your way? I can switch to a different lane.” Noticing he’s wearing a mesh football practice jersey, I suddenly feel all kinds of embarrassed. Of course coach would put us out here with the most eligible bachelors at Truman High School. The exact bachelors who don’t look at a swimmer the same way they look at a cheerleader. Oh, but we ogle them just the same as every other girl in the school. “No, you’re fine. What’s your name?” he asks, and my jaw goes slack until I remember how to form words. “Charlotte. Why?” Is he the new kid getting hazed?

“I just wanted to know,” he casually responds with a wink and starts to jog quickly ahead of me. Wait? What? “Hold on. What’s your name?” I try to catch him, but his large frame equals long legs— legs much longer than mine—and he’s about to lap me when I need to slow for a break … again. Truman isn’t large by any means, but we also aren’t a blip on a larger-scale map. For the most part, we’ve all known each other since grade school. Our parents grew up here, their parents, too. Cambridge isn’t exactly a small town, but you certainly get the feel of it when you live here. Everyone knows everyone, my business is their business and vice versa. The divorce rate is low,

education is excellent, and almost every student in the school is a member of some kind of sport or club. Then, you also get the progressive side—same sex couples are just couples, ink is life, piercings are a must, what’s rap, and pot’s an herb. Basically, you get the best of both worlds and there isn’t much to complain about. So not recognizing the guy who just asked my name is a little different for me. Mostly everyone knows who I am, or at least thinks they do. As I’m getting ready to beg coach for a water break, the boy comes up behind me again. Don’t ask me how I know it’s him, but I do. I’ve heard people say they can feel the presence of a person before they make themselves known, and I’ve always thought it was baloney, until right now. I can feel him. I know what his feet sound like as

they pound against the ground, how long between each stride, and even the way he breathes. This is all so weird to me; I’ve never paid much attention to guys. Sure, some are attractive and others are smart, but nobody has ever really made me want to do more than look. Like, sure, the football players—they’re cute—but I’m not sitting home on a Friday night hoping Danny asks me to the big dance next weekend. This guy is different. I want to talk to him. Know about him. Talk about starting senior year off with the strangest of emotions running through my body. Who am I? And where’s Charlie? “Hey,” he says again as he starts to pass. I’m ready for him this time. I’ve been power walking for the last half lap and I’m pretty sure if I

try, I can sprint to keep up with him. Not for long, but just enough to figure out who the hell he is. “You never told me your name,” I repeat, casually striding up next to him. As he looks down at me, I realize how sloppy I must look. I can feel my hair matted down with sweat around the sides of my face and the back of my neck. If first impressions mean anything to him, I really hope he digs girls who have zero stamina, repeat questions like a parrot, and probably smell. “Rowan Thorne,” he offers, and shoots me a grin that shows off the most gorgeous set of perfectly straight, white teeth I’ve ever seen. I swear, the guy should be doing commercials for toothpaste they’re so perfect. Better idea … who the hell notices teeth? Couldn’t it have been his

eyes—a light-brown at first glance until the sun catches them just right and the deep-blue ring around the iris is noticeable? The perfectly sculpted chin that screams all testosterone? Nope. Teeth. “Nice to meet you, Rowan Thorne.” With that statement, I use every ounce of energy my exhausted body has left to sprint the rest of my lap, finishing before the rest of my team and effectively leaving Rowan in my dust. Coach Sanderson waives me off, letting me know I’m excused and can start my indoor, non-sunshining or running workout. I decide to not wait and allow Rowan see me gulping air like a fish out of water and bolt straight for the locker room. Point Charlie. Thankfully, I have my suit on under my shorts and tank top—I can’t imagine the battle I’d

be facing if I didn’t think ahead. Quickly shredding my clothes, I dive in the water, the coolness meeting my overheated skin in a welcomed embrace. I’m winded and more tired than I’ve been in a long time, so I start a slow pace, using the silence of the pool to think about what the hell’s going on. Am I really into a guy I only spoke to for a few moments? What is it about him that makes me feel all kinds of girly? Why do I want him to follow me around and ask me more questions? Do I have food in my teeth? You know … the important things. I bet it’s hormones and the TMI knowledge Sheena—my best friend—shared with me a few weeks ago about regarding her virginity and the lack of existence of said “V” card. Since then, that’s all she’s talked about; therefore, it’s all I can

think about. Yeah, that’s gotta be it. Shortly after I finish a warmup, the rest of the girls join me. Coach runs a few drills with us, and I have no doubt in my mind we’ll kill it at the meet in a few days. Being a creature of habit, I’m the first in the shower and out of the locker room when practice ends. I have to push myself harder than the other girls; putting my grades and my sport before boyfriends and makeup. Not only am I shooting for a scholarship for my athletic abilities, I’m well on my way to an academic one, too. My parents never ask me for much, except to try my hardest, and I take that advice to heart. Not to mention, an athletic scholarship is hard as hell to come by, especially if you’re a girl, so why not back that up

with a 4.0 GPA? What school wouldn’t want me? I walk through the parking lot and am almost to my car when I feel his presence again. I know he’s close. When I reach my car, I finally see him standing next to it. I silently freak out, wondering how the hell he knows what I drive, then I realize it isn’t my car he’s waiting at but his as he opens the driver’s side door. “You again,” he teases, tossing his bag in the backseat and leaning against the frame of his oversized truck to match his oversized body. Holy mother of God, that truck makes him look even hotter. How is that even possible? Words, Charlie. Speak. Don’t be weird. “I could say the same thing,” I return with a joke of my own. Not nearly as funny as I’d like, but

at least it makes sense and I don’t look like a fish with my mouth hanging open and no words being spoken. Taking the win where I can. “Isn’t this the part where you should say ‘Funny meeting you here’ or something equally as lame?” “I don’t think it’s funny. Maybe fate, but nothing laughable, that’s for sure.” Well, sh*t. Maybe if the other boys I’ve encountered in my limited seventeen years had half the charm as Rowan, I’d have experience with dating. Is it possible to fall in love this quickly? Very rarely can anyone match my wit, let alone not be offended by my dry sense of humor. He seems to not only get me but speak the same language without an interpreter. And the most important part? He gives it back just as well. He’s a keeper.

“You’re a rare breed, Rowan Thorne.” “Rare enough that you’d let me take you out Friday night?” Once again, I lose the ability to form words. This isn’t the first time I’ve been asked on a date, but it is the only time I’ve wanted to accept. My only concern is coming off too desperate. He’s new here, and if I jump at his offer, he might assume I’m the same as all the other girls, instead of the smart, athletic,

worthy-of-conversation-that-doesn’t-

involve-sex kind of girl. “Maybe,” I answer coyly. “I have a meet, and I’m sure you have a game. Another time?” Hopefully, he can’t see through my indifferent exterior to the acrobat version of myself doing backflips on the inside, praying he suggests another

night for us to go out. “Saturday?” Yessssss! “You sure are persistent. If I say yes, what do you have in mind?” “Dinner? Movie? Whatever you want to do, I guess. I’d just like to get to know you, Charlotte …” His words stop and he looks to me to finish. Taking a second to understand the problem, I prove my smarts and answer his unasked but evident question. “Thompson.” “Thank you. I’d just like to get to know you Charlotte Thompson. So … Saturday? A date? Your choice of activities?”

“Saturday sounds good.” Attempting my best casual demeanor as I stroll over to where he’s standing, I pull a pen from my purse and write my phone number on the top of his hand. “Call me and we’ll figure out details.”

Chapter 2 The First Date As if my week couldn’t get any better, our meet ends with a win. Any other day, I’d have to go with my chlorine-soaked hair, but luckily, today, I actually have time to bathe. Sheena and the anchor of our four-by-four relay, acts as my fashion fairy godmother; my hair’s impeccably styled, my makeup sexier than I’ve ever worn it before. It’s not every day I give her free rein to play dress-up, so needless to say, she’s rather excited. Me? Not so much. Before I give myself a once-over in the mirror, I quickly change from my track pants and swimsuit into a pair of faded jeans with strategic rips across the thighs. I match them with a fitted black and blue Cougar tank to show off my school

spirit … and the little bit of cleavage I actually have. Well, hold the entire hell up, this doesn’t work for me. “Sheena? Is there a reason I look like I fell into a stockpile of Sephora and came out looking like I wanted to be all the Kardashians at the same time?” “Oh, you look fine. Come on,” she reassures me, but I’m not buying it. Bypassing her and her co*cked hip, I head straight into the bathroom. I grab the special towel my mom hangs for company and scrub the caked-on makeup from my face. “One more chance, chick. Subtle is what I’m going for, not lady of the night, mmkay?” I raise

my brows while I wait. We don’t have all day, sugar. “Never taking any chances, always doing the same thing,” she finally mumbles as if she has any semblance of an inside voice and comes at me with the same pallet of eyeshadow. I grimace and she huffs. Eventually, she returns with some neutral colors. “Excellent choice,” I tease, taking a seat on the closed toilet so I’m at a better height and angle. As it should have been the first time, but I let my judgment get away from me. She’s finishing in less than five minutes and we’re heading out the door. Of course, we arrive late—halfway through the first quarter—and there isn’t a single open spot in the bleachers. Like every other high school

across the country, the football program supplies the rest of the athletic teams with funding, so it isn’t surprising the stands are packed on both sides of the field. Football makes the world go ‘round, in case you didn’t know. And varsity players … they’re gods. “Better keep your eyes on newbie running back Rowan Thorne, Fighting Cougars. Number twenty-two just ran for a whopping forty yards before he was tackled on the Tiger’s fifteen,” the announcer in the box cheers, and my eyes automatically divert to the field. Number twenty-two. Rowan Thorne. Him. The quarterback, Jansen Avery, captures the attention of his team in the middle of a huddle, probably calling a play. After they all clap their

hands and move into position to finish the drive, a very stunning number-twenty-two#22 scans the crowd, almost as if he can feel my presence—at least that’s what I’m hoping is the case. Then again, I’ve had far too much good luck lately for that to be the case; new boy—new hot boy—with hundreds of red-blooded girls the choices are unlimited … Yeah, he’s looking for someone, most likely not me. His face mask makes it difficult to read his true expression, but with the slight crinkles at the corner of his eyes has me willing to bet there’s a smile under there. Taking a chance that maybe it is me, I return a grin of my own and mouth “Go, fight, win.” Nodding, he quickly runs behind the quarterback as the ball’s hiked, then he takes off like a bat outta hell, running faster than I’ve ever

seen someone run. Very impressive, Mr. Thorne. Jansen dodges what would’ve been a sack and searches downfield for Rowan, spotting him just before the five-yard line. He pulls back and sends the ball sailing through the air. Rowan catches it without difficulty, cradles it between his arms, and swiftly jogs into the end zone before the members of the opposing team can figure out what the hell’s going on. The entire Cougar crowd’s on their feet, stomping the metal bleachers, cheering for the hot new kid. Horns sound as the school song starts playing, courtesy of the marching band. “Onward, onward, go you Cougars, fight for victory,” I start singing along with the rest of the attendees on the home side as the players on

the field group around Rowan, patting him on the back. We’ve never been a bad team, but we’ve certainly never been this amazing. “Touchdown, Cougars!” the announcer yells as the “fight, fight, fight” part of the song strikes, and I can’t suppress the smile on my face. Sheena, lost in the excitement, begins jumping around like the cheerleaders lined up on the track. Polar opposites, we are, but it’s hard to not love her. Even when she goes out of her way to look like a lunatic. It’s hard to not join in when she makes it look so fun. “Did you see that? Oh my gosh, that was amazing,” she screams, dragging me to a few seats recently vacated near the front of the bleachers. They’ll be pissed when they get back, but it’s their

own fault. Everyone knows to stay put until halftime, then, and only then, go grab a hotdog or pop. Rookies. “It was pretty awesome,” I respond, my miserable attempt at playing it cool and concealing how amazing it really was not getting past Sheena. I try to not be salty about it, but I’m a great swimmer and I’ll never get this. We don’t get to hear the yells from the crowd; our validation comes from winning the heat and getting our water-filled ears to pop after a long race. Oh, and the whole school never shows up to watch us—hell, I wouldn’t, either, the pool is humid and hot as hell. Not that I need the attention, but as excited as I am about Rowan’s touchdown, I’d like a little something when I stomp the girls from Salem by more than three seconds.

Looking back to the field, I zero in on Rowan still celebrating with his team. He’s taken off his helmet, and even from this distance, his glee is evident. I chuckle to myself as a few of the guys slap Rowan on the ass. Didn’t think it was a real thing, or at least for high school boys. Wouldn’t have pegged them to be comfortable enough with their sexuality to put their hands on another man’s butt. When the kicker takes his spot for the field goal, Rowan looks around—first to my previous location then down more until our eyes lock. This time, there’s no doubt he’s smiling at me. The stadium lights click on, creating a magical feeling. The universe is on my side and everything’s coming up Charlie. I’ve always liked flying under the radar, lurking in the social shadows, but not anymore. Stepping into the light feels great.

“So is that him?” Sheena asks, nudging my hip with hers. I glance over in time to witness her waggling eyebrows. With this girl, if it’s not one boy, it’s another. And God help me if I let my guard slip and she finds out I might have a thing for Rowan. I’ll never hear the end of it. “Is that who?” I feign innocence with a slight attitude—maybe indifference—to throw her off my scent. “The reason you tried on like three pairs of jeans and a half-dozen tops before settling on this.” She tosses back her head, giggles, and claps her hands together as if she’s found Carmen San Diego, and that bitch has been right under our noses the whole time. Damn her intuition. Nine times out of ten, I love not having to spell everything out for her

because she just gets it. But then there’s that one time she’s too close for comfort, reading signals I’m desperately trying to hide. “Did you want me to wear my swimsuit? You did my hair and makeup … least I could do was put on something decent. And him? If by him, you mean the dude who just scored, yeah, that’s the new kid. I met him on the track a couple days ago and he’s taking me out tomorrow night, I think. Well, he said he wanted to do something this weekend. I gave him my number, but I’m not holding my breath. Seriously, it’s not a big deal.” I brush off my insecurities and pretend like I couldn’t possibly care less if he calls or not. Truth be told? I really hope he calls. I’m actually looking forward to trying out this dating thing. It’s not every day you actually want to be asked out by a nice guy instead

of feeling accosted any time a boy your age comes near you. Players and man-whor*s be damned. Your services are no longer needed now that Rowan Thorne moved to town. “By the look in his eyes, baby cakes, I don’t think you’re getting tomorrow night. He’s staring at you like he wants you right now.” I risk a glance to the sideline only to find Jansen and Rowan looking at us, smiling and holding a conversation of their own. “Geez, Sheena, calm down. He only smiled. He didn’t declare his undying love or anything.” Then again, Sheena’s been in love. Ten times. Since third period. She’s the one who falls hard and fast. Again, polar opposites. “Yeah, well, he’s only smiling at you.

Look.” She gestures toward the bench, and before I even turn my head, I know his stare’s locked on me. Gosh, shoulda acted like I didn’t know him. “That boy has it bad for you.” “He does not,” I dismiss, diverting my attention from Rowan. “I want nachos. Coming?” I don’t wait for her to respond before I start making my way down the steps. Yeah, yeah, I know we’ll probably lose our seats, but she’s too observant. I haven’t even figured out if I like the guy and Sheena’s picking out china patterns and wedding colors. Sheena follows me, gabbing my ear off the entire way about how much she thinks Rowan digs me. She’s sure of it, even though she’s never said two words to him. To be honest, I kind of am, too.

If not, why bother looking and smiling and making me feel all important in a sea of eligible bachelorettes? Unless he knows I haven’t dated, therefore haven’t had sex. Is my virginity enticing? And there we go … my 4.0 in overanalyzing everything that could possibly happen is fully intact. I’m not sheltered by any means, yet I haven’t had much interest in the opposite sex … until now. I’ve tried going on dates a few times with a couple different guys, mostly over the summer, but none of them held my attention long enough to get a second date. As odd as it is, the way Rowan makes me feel—even if we’ve only had two interactions—is different. I just need to be sure it’s real and not just me seeing things that don’t exist so

I’m not a third wheel anymore. As nice as it would be to have a guy of my own, I don’t want to settle for something not real. “Nachos and a water, please,” I order when we reach the front of the line. I pull out a ten-dollar bill, ready to pay, when Sheena squeezes in beside to me, undoubtedly adding on to my purchase. “And a package of Airheads. Oh, and another water.” Sheena smiles sweetly at me; her way of asking me to pay for her goodies. “What she said,” I groan, forking over the cash. The booster hands me back my change and our stuff just in time for the mascot—a six-foot-tall cougar decked out in blue and white—to tap me on the shoulder, damn near causing me to drop everything. Rule number one: if girls are alone at

night, don’t sneak up on them. Our daddies taught us how to fight. “You’re Charlotte Thompson, right?” he asks with a muffled voice underneath the mask. He couldn’t just take it off? “Yeah?” I answer skeptically. “Is that why you creeped up on me? To confirm my name?” Nothing good can come from a wild animal asking questions. “You almost got hit with my superb ninja skills, dude.” “Yeah, and my fist,” Sheena throws in for good measure. “Rowan wanted me to tell you to meet him at the diner across the street after the game,” he addresses me and ignores my co-signer. “Excuse me?” I reply, shocked, and

Sheena’s still pissed about being ignored. “Diner. Across the street. After the game. Be there. I gotta go now, they need me. Bye.” Like a furry fury, he runs onto the field in time to do a cartwheel as Rowan scores yet another touchdown. Either this other team sucks really bad or he’s just that good. Not even the obvious ass whoopin’ they’re taking is making this any less fun. Watching Rowan play is my new favorite thing. “Well, I’ll be damned,” Sheena laughs as she picks at my tray of nachos. I’m not sure why she didn’t get her own. “Oh shush.” I slap her hand away. “Now they can just be my nachos, sassy pants. They all go there after game night, and judging by the scoreboard, the Tigers aren’t catching up any time

soon, so a celebration’s in order.” “I guess your little stud muffin couldn’t wait until tomorrow night to take you out. Who would have thought?” She giggles again. I can’t lie; inside, I’m giggling, too. When she’s right, she’s right. “Or maybe he just wants to hang out. Chill with people he knows? You ever think of that? He is new here and can’t possibly know many people.” Is this a girl thing? Finding every excuse to think the boy doesn’t like you when he really does? If so, we’re all stupid. “Nope.” Sheena winks as she pops a piece of candy in her mouth. “He wants the goods and he wants ‘em bad. And P.S., Charlie, football players in every school in the history of ever know everyone. It’s written in the rules.”

Again, when she’s right, she’s right. Who thought it was a good idea to let me teenage girl for the first time ever? We walk back to the bleachers side by side, me refusing to entertain her wild ideas about Rowan’s recent request because, duh, dumb girls. Instead, I overanalyze each word spoken by the man-cat, wondering if he got something lost in translation somewhere. I mean, it can’t be easy to hear inside that costume, especially a man who was speaking through a helmet. And his talking was awfully muffled. Maybe I’m the one who heard wrong. On the off chance we are invited to dinner, Rowan’s probably being nice after seeing Sheena and me in the stands and didn’t want us to feel left out of the unofficial victory party. Yeah, that’s it. He’s just being a gentleman. And I kind of like it.

I’m gonna start blaming my new attitude on hormones, heat, and chlorine poisoning. ***** I try, and I mean really try, to go straight home after the game. Sheena, my driver for the evening, wasn’t having any of my introvert tendencies, literally forcing me to leave her car behind in the school parking lot and hoof it across the street to the diner. The noise inside’s deafening. The small building has to be pushing max capacity. Damn near everyone came to congratulate the boys. Hell, even parents are at the counter putting money down on the players’ tab. “Doesn’t look like there’re any tables, dude. We should head home, it’s getting kind of late.” I try again to reason with Sheena and get out

of here, but still, no such luck. Looks like the universe finally got its sh*t together. All’s right in the world. “Nobody has a table, Charlie. It’s a free for all. Hang out, meet new people, have a little fun.” The jukebox plays a Top 40 hit, barely audible, unless you’re Sheena, who starts wiggling around while searching for her other friends. And her latest love interest—Jansen Avery. “I know all these people. So do you. We’ve known them since we were five. They’re not new to us.” Am I supposed to get chummy with the staff? Coaches? My phone? “Oh, okay. Try this one on then. Pick out five people, other than me, who you know but haven’t talked to in a while. And by a while, I

mean more than asked for a pencil during class or did a skit with in fourth grade. Like, someone you haven’t hung out with since freshman year. Just loosen up, Charlie. And go …” She hardly finishes her sentence before she’s off chatting with a group of kids across the room. Glancing around the small, crowded area, I can’t pick out anyone I really, truly know. Sure, I’ve got their names down pat, but that’s about it. If I didn’t think Sheena would interrogate me later— since she knows everything about everyone—I’d just make up a conversation. I can’t handle the Rowan thing, the Sheena catching me in a lie thing, and the all-knowing Oz calling me out for having a Rowan thing to begin with all in one night. “Can I get a pop, please?” I ask the middle-

aged woman behind the counter. “Sure. A buck fifty,” she responds while adding ice and cola to the glass. Handing her the change in my pocket from the concession stand, I exchange it for my drink. Obviously, this isn’t as easy as Sheena’d like to believe.

I look more foolish than cool,

standing here, waiting for something exciting to happen. Instead, I start eavesdropping into other’s conversations while Sheena flits around the room like the social butterfly she is. It’s easier for some of us, what can I say? My bedroom and a book, or maybe some summer assignments, sound more fun than this. The older I get, the more internal I become. Usually, I don’t mind, but tonight, I wish I had the confidence of Sheena instead of my social

awkwardness. A few guys to my right are talking about the great plays during the game, fully animated with high-fives and chest bumps. The girls next to them are discussing how cute they are—probably their boyfriends—and the woman behind the counter continues to take orders. When Jansen walks through the front door, Sheena wastes no time cozying up to his side like they’ve been dating for years, when in all actuality, they only started “talking”. I’m not sure if Jansen’s ever had a girlfriend. I bet if you ask the girls they’ll say they dated him, but Jansen has a totally different end game, as noted by the endless trail of broken hearts. I hate that term, by the way. Talking. You’re either just hanging out as friends or you’re dating.

To me, talking means something more along the lines of “we can sleep together every once in a while, but I don’t really want to have a serious relationship,” and it makes me angry for Sheena, but she’s not stupid by any means. She knows what she’s getting into. With long, gorgeous blonde hair and bright-blue eyes, she’s the object of many suiters’ affections, but she never pays any one person more time than the other. She claims to be a free spirit, and because she’s my best friend since forever, I know that means she’s a little on the slu*tty side, but whatever makes her happy, right? Provided she’s careful, which by all accounts and the gory-detailed stories, she is. So maybe, even though she falls for boys like I brush my teeth, she falls out just as fast, and Jansen may have just met his match. Sheena has a trail of brokenhearted

suitors just as long. “Hey.” Rowan sneaks up next to me and whispers in my ear while I’m lost trying to find the deeper meaning to Sheena’s relationship status. What’s with everyone trying to give me a heart attack tonight? Can’t a girl get a warning? “Hey.” Turning, I smile up at Rowan, truly taking in his features. Dark hair with eyes to match, a large frame, but not too large, and the most genuine smile I’ve ever seen. “Great game tonight.” I don’t bother bitching about the scare since, well, I’m enjoying looking at him.

“Thanks. Wasn’t

expecting to see you until tomorrow. Welcome surprise.” Before he can get a word in edge wise, I continue with my babbling.

“Not that I mind,” I add, doing my best to recover and not sound disappointed with the change of plans. I’d do a lot better if I stopped talking altogether, I bet. “What was with sending the carrier pigeon … errrr … cougar?” “I guess when you see a pretty girl watching you play, and you don’t want to wait until the next night to spend time with her, you send in the mascot. What other purpose could he serve?” It’s scary how easy it is with Rowan. One second I’m a ball of nerves, then he hits me with a little humor and I relax. “You’re adorable, you know that?” I suddenly want to pull my shirt over my head and disappear. Adorable? What is he? Five? Alright, maybe if he does all the talking it’ll be easy. I’ll just

nod every once in a while. Toss in a laugh here and there, too. Reminder to self: apologize to Sheena for making fun of the way she interacts with boys. She’s right … again. “Ahhhh, so you do think I’m attractive. I was wondering.” He chuckles, grabs onto my hand, and begins weaving us through the crowded diner. So awkward works for him? Put that on the “Pro” list. Near the back, by the restrooms, a four-top table with only two seats occupied by Jansen and Sheena is where we end up. How he was able to know exactly where our friends were without ever taking his eyes off me, I’ll never know. “Jansen has a table after every game. He knew I’d invited you to come, and since you’re his

girl’s best friend, we get a table. Hell, from what I can tell about this town, if you wear a jersey and play ball, you get preferential treatment.” He’s not wrong about that. And awesome mind-reading trick. “She’s not his girl,” I retort defensively, remembering his statement about Sheena. “Then what is she?” Rowan points at the pair, who are locked at the lips, and I have zero interest in finding out where their hands are since they’re hidden beneath the table top. “Sure looks like his girl to me.” “They’re just talking.” Resisting the urge to tell him his quarterback and captain is a whor* of epic proportions, I shake my head, disgusted that I used the exact phrase I complained about only

moments before. “Which one’s the slu*tty one?” he casually asks in a hushed tone, obviously feeling the same way about the “talking” verbiage as I do. “I got my money on Jansen.” “Right, but also wrong. If I had to guess who wanted this arrangement more, therefore the slu*ttier one, I’d say Sheena, but if you tell her I said that, I’ll kill you,” I warn, gaining me a sinfully handsome, perfectly straight and white-toothed grin. Rowan pulls out a chair—chivalry isn’t dead folks, other men take notes—and takes the one next to me. He opens the menu and shuts it just as fast. “I don’t know why I bother looking, I always get the same thing.”

The woman who took my order earlier strides up to the table and each of them orders a burger and fries, an obvious fan favorite. And on the house. “Not very adventurous?” I joke, taking a nervous sip of my drink. “When you find something you like …” He shrugs and fumbles with one of the straws the woman tossed on the table. “So are you talking to anyone?” “Me? Yeah, that’s a no. One, I’m not much of a talker and two, I’ve got a lot going on. Between school and practice, I don’t have much spare time.” “I’m not much of a talker, either. I’m more of a relationship kind of guy,” he shyly interjects.

Okay, give me a single reason to walk away, Rowan. Nobody can be this perfect. Where are the bodies hidden? Secret children? Sixth toe? Something? “Why do you say it like that? Like you’re embarrassed?” I ask, regretting it the moment the words slip from my lips. Filter, Charlie. Filter. “I’m not embarrassed at all. However, I don’t think my personal business needs to become public, you know? If I’m dating a girl, that’s between us, not half the student body.” “You’re a rare breed, Rowan Thorne.” I’m kind of shocked how much he intrigues me during only a few short conversations. These are definitely feelings I haven’t felt before. It’s strange, yet welcoming. I like it. And I think more than maybe

like him … I really do. “Not the first time I heard that one, Thompson,” he teases, and I remember what I said to him the day after practice when we were standing at our cars. Tucking a stray hair behind my ear, I shrug. “I call ‘em how I see ‘em. What can I say?” “You look very pretty tonight, Charlotte,” he offers, changing the subject, much to my pleasure—I’m finding it more and more difficult to stay calm and collected. While the ease is still present, I keep waiting for him to ask a simple question like what’s my favorite band and I answer string cheese. The struggle is real. “Charlie,”

I

correct,

blushing at

his

compliment. “Charlotte’s fine, but my dad really

wanted a boy and when I turned up all girl, he gave me a boy nickname. Plus, I’m not really a Charlotte. Not refined enough. Charlie fits me better.” Geeze, ramble much? “Sorry. You look very pretty tonight, Charlie.” “Thank you.” Lowering my head to allow my hair to fall in front of my face to hide my rosy cheeks, his hand gently touches my chin, forcing our stares to connect, and the other pushes the locks behind my ear. “Now who seems embarrassed?” he jokes trying to ease my anxiety, and it’s making me more anxious but in a good way. A kiss-me-now-this-isthe-perfect-moment way. “I’m not. I just don’t get compliments very

often.” “You should. Every day.” “Rare breed,” I repeat. “Who drove tonight? You or your friend?” “Sheena.” “Do you think it would be okay if we got out of here? I’d like to drive you home.” “I’d like that,” I whisper, enamored by his abnormal charm for a high school football player. He truly is the exception to the rule. “Hey, Sheena.” I tap her on the shoulder, needing her attention so she doesn’t think she lost me when she comes up for air. She and Jansen glare up at me with annoyance. “I’m gonna take off. You okay here?”

“Sure am, baby cakes. Call me in the morning?” “Yep. Text me when you get home so I know you made it.” “I might. I might not,” she adds with a wink and dives back into Jansen, her full attention stolen by the quarterback. Rowan stands first, reaching his hand out for mine, and together, with our fingers intertwined, we walk out of the diner to his car parked right up front. Again with the chivalry, he opens the door, shutting it only after I’m tucked safely inside. I give him the simple directions to my house which is only a few minutes from the school. “Oh, you didn’t get your food,” I mention as we pull out. If we turn around, he’ll still be able

to eat. “I’m fine.” “Are you sure? You’ve gotta be starved. I know after a meet, I can put away a whole cow if I could get my hands on one.” Foot in mouth, yet again. I’m really slaying this charm and class nonsense. “Seriously. I’ll grab something at home. Right now, I just wanna hang out with you. Is that okay?” “Yeah,” I whisper. “That’s more than okay.” When we pull up to my house, I expect him to just let me out at the curb, yet he stuns me when he gets out of the car, walks around the front, and opens my door. Extending his hand, I take it, allowing him to help me out of the car. All hands

should know how it feels to be wrapped up in Rowan Thorne’s. There’s just something about the way he holds them—like he’s never going to let go. “I liked spending time with you tonight, Charlie.” “It was a good time. I guess I’ll see you on Monday.” We reach the front door and I fish my keys out of my bag, prepared to call it a night. “We have a date tomorrow, or am I mistaken?” “I didn’t know if you’d want to hang out again, since you invited me to the diner. I just … I don’t know what I thought, but … I’m not making any sense, am I?” I laugh nervously—shocked stupid. “You’re adorable,” he says, using my words

against me. “I invited you tonight because I didn’t want to wait until tomorrow. Now that I’m dropping you at the door, I want to see you again. A real date this time, not just the diner with friends.” “I’d like that.” I blush and try to duck, and again he catches me. “Sorry,” I whisper. “Don’t be sorry. Just be ready by seven tomorrow.” “Alright.” “Sleep tight, Charlie,” he says, letting go of my hand and making his way down the sidewalk to his car, my fingers tingling and missing his touch already. When he reaches the driver’s side door, he flashes me one of those signature grins, hops inside, and drives away, all while I stand on the front porch, keys in hand, smiling like a fool.

And I like it. Chapter 3 The First Kiss I was looking forward to sleeping in, but that might give you the impression I actually fell asleep … which I didn’t. Not for a lack of trying, though. I couldn’t get Rowan out of my head and my mind wouldn’t stop churning long enough to pass out. Something about him has me reeling. So many unfamiliar emotions … I’m heading for a tailspin if I don’t get it together. Rowan Thorne: the enigma. He’s a catch by any girl’s standards, and he wants me. Me! Not to mention the hope he gives me without trying. Dating might be in the cards for me yet. Boyfriends have always seemed like a nice idea in theory, but

they wind up sucking all your time, turn you into a bumbling idiot when you look at them, and eventually, you’ll have sex with them, which is going to put you at risk for herpes or a baby, neither of which fit into my five-year plan. Or they’ll just flat-out break your heart. Just ask Sheena, though, she does her fair share of breaking. Fine, ask any other girl. Boys are nothing but trouble. But he’s so damn handsome. I should be calling him hot or sexy, but Rowan is seriously handsome in way that only exists in movies. His smile’s endearing and genuine. His eyes are mysterious and you can drown in their darkblue depths. Throw in the fact he’s significantly taller than me … I can’t even. Do you know how hard it is being five foot nine and a girl and athletic? All the girls are so much shorter than me,

the boys are working on growing but it’s a slow process, and let’s not forget my muscles are bigger than most of these guys’ … I’m a freak. Then there’s Rowan—a perfect everything that only compliments all the things that drive me crazy about myself. If I had to guess, I’d peg him around six five and if he got bored later, he could probably bench me if I asked. He’s my perfect. Sluggishly, and a bit slap happy from lack of sleep, I climb out of bed and head downstairs to brew a pot of coffee. If I didn’t know my body so well, I’d keep trying, but I’m also the weirdo who can’t nap. Pitch black or I’m wide awake, no in between. Even as a baby—no day resting. I’m sure I drove my parents crazy. Sheena, the little sh*t she is, can catch some Zs whenever and wherever. The jealousy runs deep. Maybe when I get older, but for

now, today, I’m going to overdose on caffeine and just be happy there’s no Saturday practice. “You were out late? And up so early?” my dad asks through a yawn as I drag myself into the kitchen. “Couldn’t sleep.” I contagiously yawn as well. I can barely contain my excitement when I see the coffee already prepared. I pour myself a cup—much larger than a girl my age should drink —add far more cream and sugar than needed, and slide onto the stool at the breakfast bar. “Wait, why are you up this early? Didn’t you and Mom go out last night?” “Haven’t slept yet,” he responds with a wink. “Dad. Gross. Too early.” I take off my

teenager hat and offer a little lecture of my own. “It makes breakfast super awkward when parents make sex innuendos. Like, kids across the world might stop talking to you guys altogether, and that’s just unsafe, Daddy.

Maybe we could write a

manual for parents everywhere. Call it ‘How to Not Make Your Children Avoid You’. We’d make bank.” “Speaking of gross.” He turns toward me, ignoring my clever idea, and I don’t know what to expect, but by the stern look on his face, he means business. I’ve only seen this look once before when I skipped sixth period and in turn failed a test. I’ve been great lately and have certainly done nothing to warrant “the look.” Unless … a college rejection letter came from Columbia or Oregon State. If that’s it, I’ll go give myself “the look” in the mirror.

The unwavering expression doesn’t so much as shift as he starts talking. “Imagine my surprise when I watch you leave the house with Sheena and Tom calls me around twelve to tell me some boy, driving a pickup truck, is dropping my only beautiful, perfect, never-sly baby girl off at the door, no Sheena anywhere to be found. Care to explain?” Damn Tom and the rest of those nosy neighbors. Remember when I said we lived in a not-so-small, small town? There’s no better example than this. Tom Davison, our across-thestreet neighbor, has lived on this block for as long as I can remember. He and my dad went to elementary, middle, and high school together. After they graduated, the two were able to remove their attachment at the ass long enough for my dad to go

to Oregon State and Tom to go to UCLA. Tom came back to take over his father’s accounting firm right around the time my parents got married and was my dad’s best man. Even if I wanted to get away with something, I couldn’t. Unless Damn Tom wants to mind his business so I don’t have to talk boys with my dad, that is. That’d be super. “Long story? Or short?” Yep, I’m gonna make him work for it. Only another few months until he can’t grill me anymore. It’s gotta be worth it. “Full story, Charlotte,” he demands, using a name he says so infrequently, I forgot he knew it. “Well, Sheena’s into the quarterback, Jansen, and he was at the diner. They weren’t coming up for air and I was bored and wanted to

come home. Instead of breaking up their makeout session, a friend drove me home.” So ha-ha to Damn Tom, thinking he caught me trying to be a sneak. “A friend? Who’s a boy? That I’ve never met? And he walked you to the door? Baby girl, don’t try to give me a wooden nickel.” Jesus, Damn Tom, did you write down the plate number and a description, too? Maybe how many steps it took me to get from the truck to the front door? “What does that even mean?” “Stop changing the subject. Fill me in before your mom gets up. I’m only hitting you up for the important stuff. She’s got a whole notebook full. Tell me what I need to know and I’ll let you

run off and pretend to sleep or whatever. Your call.” “Daddy,” I sigh, suddenly exhausted. “Rowan Thorne drove me home. He was a gentleman and made sure I got inside okay. Nothing more, nothing less.” “Thorne? Doesn’t sound familiar.” Protective to the ends of the Earth, I can already see his internet browser history filled with Rowan’s information … complete with an ancestry profile to find out who he really is. Why Dad’s a mortgage broker and not a detective, I’ll never know. “He’s new, plays football, and seems like a nice enough guy.” “They’re all nice enough until they’re not,

Charlotte. Remember that.” “Seriously, Dad? And what’s with the Charlotte?” “It’s your name, and I mean business.” “Okay. Fine. Got it. I understand what you’re saying, I’m not dumb.” “I never said you were. Put yourself in my shoes for a second, and then you can go back to your angsty, teenage life where all I want to do is make you miserable, alright?” I try not to roll my eyes, but it’s as if they have a mind of their own. “Roll ‘em again and see what happens.” Well,

this

is

all

very

new

and

uncomfortable. Charlottes. Boys. Threats. Talks. Geez. And still, I want to roll them just to see what’ll happen, but I think he’s short-circuiting and

it’s making me nervous. It’s Damn Tom’s fault, opening his fat, nosy mouth. I’m gonna walk across his perfectly manicured lawn later. Take that. “Sorry,” I mumble like I did when I was little and didn’t want to apologize. How does one act in this situation when they’ve never really been in trouble? What’s the protocol? “Okay. I’m in your shoes. What should I be doing in these shoes that are way too big for me?” “First, you should remember who you’re talking to and watch your tone. You might be seventeen, but that’s still plenty young for me to take you over my knee like you were a toddler.” Smooth, Charlie. Way to deescalate the issue. “Second, think about this … your daughter, who up until last night hadn’t taken much interest in the

opposite sex, goes out with a girlfriend, only to be dropped off by a boy nobody knows and he plays football. Your only little angel, who’s the sweetest and most giving person you know, is alone in a truck with that same boy and not a soul knows what was happening. You could have gotten yourself into a situation your mother and I couldn’t fix, honey.” I’m wearing cleats when I walk across Damn Tom’s lawn later. “What kind of situation, Dad? The kind where I might like a boy and he likes me back? Alert the presses, there could be unsupervised handholding in my near future.” My mouth’s still running a mile a minute, and judging by the tick in my father’s jaw, I’m pushing his buttons. Probably

not the wisest of decisions. Even more strange than his change in demeanor is my attitude. I’m the princess. I never stop out of line, let alone talk to him—or anyone—this way. It’s gotta be the chlorine poisoning. “You ever hear of date rape, Charlotte?!” he questions with a harsh and loud tone, obviously having had enough of my smartass mouth. “Dad,” I soften my voice, “Rowan’s a good guy. He wouldn’t hurt me,” I defend Rowan, refusing to entertain any notion he’s not an honestto-God good guy with only the best of intentions in mind. In this day and age, that’s hard to find, but I might have done just that. “They’re always nice guys until they aren’t,” he says with a shrug like it’s the most

common thing ever. “I’m gonna step out of your shoes so you can jump into mine for second, alright?” “Let’s do it. That’s the best way to parent— being open-minded enough to look at all angles. There won’t ever be a day, I hope, we can’t talk openly.” He gives me a pointed stare. “Provided you keep that mouth in check.” “Fair enough.” I nod in agreement. “Picture this.” I wave my hand in front of our faces as if I’m painting a literal portrait. “Your sweet little angel, as you say, is pretty tough. She’s not a fragile little thing like the other girls. She knows how to shoot a gun, immobilize a predator in a few moves, and faithfully carries a can of mace in her purse. Pardon my language, but she’s pretty badass. And she’s so

badass because she has a daddy who taught her how to protect herself if she’s ever uncomfortable.” I take a step back, drop my hands to my hips, and give him a look that says, “Bam.” “Touché,” he laughs. “That was pretty good, kid.” “I promise you, Dad, I would never put myself into a dangerous situation. No, I haven’t known Rowan long, but I did make sure Sheena knew I was leaving and who I was leaving with. If nothing else, remember I was raised by you. I’ll give you plenty to worry about between now and me being an old woman, but I don’t think Rowan’s one of them. And if he does become an issue, you’ll be the first to know. I can’t exactly bury a body by myself, now, can I?”

My dad walks around the counter, pulls me into a tight embrace, and kisses the top of my head. “Smart-mouthed, funny as hell, and all I got. Just the way I wanted it. It’s your old man’s job to worry, but thanks for reminding me you have some sense. I don’t know how the Zieglers do it, Sheena’d give me a heart attack.” “Sheena is a lot,” I laugh. “And I’ll never get sick of you looking out for me. Don’t scare this one off, though, I kinda like him, and he might be around for a bit.” “We’ll see,” he scoffs. “It’s gonna be alright, Daddy. Yours will always be my favorite hand to hold,” I tease, squeezing his middle tightly. Maybe it’s less me and more him that’s causing this new kind of “talk”

we’re having—him not wanting to let go and for me to stay little forever. “Oh, shut the hell up and drink your coffee before I wake your mother. And can’t you wait until you’re thirty to like boys and date them?” he asks, confirming my thoughts … I’m growing up and he’s not a fan. “I tried that, Daddy,” I giggle. “This one kind of snuck up on me.” “Those are the best kind, you know. The ones you don’t see coming are usually the ones you’ll remember long enough to tell one heck of a love story about.” He looks around me toward the stairs, no doubt thinking of how lucky he got with my mom. Such a romantic, my daddy. “Don’t go getting ahead of yourself, old

man. I just met him.” “Mark my words, baby girl. He’s gonna end up being something really special. I’d bet on it.” Okay, maybe I’ll keep the cleats at home when I walk across Damn Tom’s lawn. ***** Unsure of what time Rowan’ll be picking me up, I start getting ready around five. Sheena, the dating queen, always seems to leave around seven. It’s a good a guess as any, I suppose. Then, at quarter after five, I wonder what the hell I was thinking getting dressed so soon. Being a simple girl with a simple wardrobe, thirty minutes is my absolute max, and that was for Homecoming. Picking up my phone, I text Sheena since I just realized I haven’t talked to her all day. And let

me tell you … hindsight, it’s annoying. No sooner than I tell her I’m dressed and waiting on Rowan, she’s running across the three yards between our houses, flying into my room, and bouncing on my bed, demanding to do the hair and makeup thing again. “Thanks for the offer, Ulta Makeover Department, but I’m gonna stick with what I’ve got going on.” Sheena scrunches up her nose, shakes her head, and goes to her purse. “Here, try this.” From her Poppins Bag, she pulls out a black dress. All of the nos. If the dress fits in a purse, it’s too skimpy for me. “Cool your jets, I look good.” I glance down at my black capri leggings and fitted gray tee with a

dip in the front to show off the cleavage generously provided by the pushup bra I stole from Sheena weeks ago. No regrets. I look like me. “Jansen did tell me Rowan’s kind of weird. Not like the other douchey assholes. He’s down to earth and simple, I guess.” “Looks like my outfit choice was spot on, then, huh?” Maybe I’m not so bad at dating after all. “Honestly? These pants make your bubble butt look amazing. Like, I can’t stop staring at it, and I really like dudes. Like, I just want to smack your ass or something. And the shirt, it’s carefree but still sexy. You gonna wear sandals or Chucks?” “We’re gonna have a talk about your obsession with my butt later,” I joke. “And on the

not-so-pervy note … Chucks. The purple ones.” Sheena tosses them to me from their resting spot under my desk. When I pull the ensemble together, she offers a nod of approval. I should also note, and give her props, for not mentioning my makeup since she first walked in—we’re talking a world record, friends. At six thirty, the doorbell rings and panic sets in; there’s no turning back now. Sheena leans out my window to scope out Rowan, then runs back to my closet. “We were wrong. Abort. Abort. He’s wearing a button-up and sexy jeans. You can’t wear this. You gotta change.” “Are you kidding me, Sheena? All signs pointed to comfy-chic. Do I even have time to change?” I frantically start ripping the clothes from

my body, and when I’m done, I’m standing in the middle of my bedroom wearing nothing but a stolen bra—something she notices immediately—and underwear. Moments later, my dad calls up the stairs letting me know I have company. In those few stressful minutes, I can attest you can sweat from anywhere, even places that don’t seem normal. “Come on, dude. Find something.” Sheena holds up the purse dress, and I all but flip the hell out. “With all the love in my heart, best friend, get f*cked. That’s not anywhere near something I’d put on my body. I’m four inches taller than you … my vagin* would be the main attraction. And just … no. My Britney is not on tour and will not be taking the stage tonight.” Through uncontrollable bouts of laughter,

Sheena heads into the closet, scanning items hanger by hanger. Finally, when I’m ready to explode, Sheena tosses me an above-the-knee summer dress with a halter top which I quickly yank over my head. Of course, my butt causes the back to ride up higher than I’m comfortable with, and my longerthan-life legs don’t help the situation. “I can’t. My ass’s exposed and one false move … Hola, Britney!” She rummages through my drawers and retrieves a pair of yoga shorts. “Put these on. Like cheer spanx. Dress comes up, you see shorts. Perfect fix.” I follow her directions, out of time as my dad yells for me again. Smoothing down the fabric, I do a few half turns to be sure I can’t actually see the shorts, and Sheena looks over at me and smiles. “You look amazing. Next time, I’ll

do your makeup.” “A) No. and B) next time you stay home and I do this on my own.” If there’s a next time, that is. “But you love me. Now, go before your dad gets to rambling and scares him off.” Forgetting I wanted to wear Chucks, I slip into a plain pair of black flip flops and make my way down the stairs and into the living room. My dad and Rowan are sitting on the couch watching the ending minutes of the Ducks game, neither one of them noticing my presence. The Ducks intercept the ball and run it back for a touchdown. After they score the extra point, Rowan looks in my direction to say something to my dad and finally sees me. “Hey, Charlie. You shoulda said something.

Didn’t know you were ready.” Said something? I was raised in a football house, I know what a game on TV means … shhhhh, and don’t block the view. “No worries. Dad’s a huge Ducks fan. I know better than to talk when they’re just about done,” I tease, taking Rowan’s outstretched hand to stand. “I’m ready if you are.” “Let’s hit it,” he responds, then turns to my dad. “It was great to meet you, Mr. Thompson. Thanks for letting me squeeze in on the game. I had it on in the truck and don’t know if I could have survived missing the last three minutes. But didn’t wanna be late picking up Charlie. Not every day a pretty girl agrees to go out with you. And her dad’s a Ducks fan? I hit the jackpot.” “Ducks fan? No, son, I was a Duck. Class of

eighty-one,” my dad proudly states, pointing to the football and bowl ring on the mantle. Yes. The glory days. Prayers go to every god known to man we don’t have to sit through a story about that one time he caught the winning pass. “I’ll have to pick your brain sometime, if that’s okay with you, sir. It’s my top school, and I’d be lucky to play ball while getting an amazing education.” “I checked up on you, son. Your stats are phenomenal for a high school football player, and your grades are something I’m sure your folks are real proud of, too. Oregon State would be lucky to have you. I have a few friends down there … an admission counselor and an offensive coordinator. I’ll gladly make a call if you’d like.” I don’t know

who’s digging Rowan more … me or his new best friend—my dad. “That would be great, thanks so much.” “I can stay home if y’all wanna finish this over dinner?” I laugh. “If the man’s gonna help me get my number-one school, least I can do is buy him a meal,” Rowan tosses back. Before I can say anything in response, he positions his mouth at the shell of my ear, whispering for only me to hear, “But I’d rather spend time getting to know you.” Swoon! “You kids get out of here. If I know my daughter, she’s getting a little antsy and thinking about bolting right back up those stairs. Have a good time—not too good a time—and have her

home by midnight.” “Yes, sir.” And with that last statement, Rowan ushers me out the door. After Rowan opens the car door and I climb inside the cab, I inadvertently look up to see Sheena sitting on the window sill and smiling like a fool. Chances are, she’ll be just where I left her when I return and maybe, even for once, I’ll be able to give her some juicy details. ***** My dating experience up until now has been recounts of Sheena’s many men—lakes and picnics and sunsets were never a part of those stories. Of all the things I could think of that Rowan would plan, this wasn’t remotely expected. Then again, I don’t know why I think Rowan would do anything

like a normal teenage boy; he doesn’t follow a rule book, he makes his own. “You look beautiful tonight.” Blushing at the compliment, I carefully take a seat on the blanket he’s laid out, feeling lucky I put on those shorts. I think the wind caught the hem of my dress, but even if Rowan noticed what I had going on underneath, he was gentleman enough to not mention it, and for that I’m thankful. “Thank you,” I respond, unsure of what happens next. “So what’s on the menu, Chef Thorne?” Yeah, that seems like a super smooth transition, and it’s not at all obvious I’m uncomfortable with people complimenting me. “You know, I debated on what to pack. Then I remembered, at the game, you ordered

nachos. I didn’t want to risk getting something you wouldn’t like, so I went with what I knew you did.” At this point, I wouldn’t care if I was one of many … the way he can make me feel so special and important with such ease … I’ll take it. “Well, you happen to be in luck. Nachos are my most favorite thing ever.” “You ever watched the sun set on the water?” “Can’t say I have.” “You might wanna wait, then, to tell me about your favorite things. This is gonna take the cake.” I don’t respond, then again, I don’t have to. There’s no point in arguing with him. That list is

constantly changing, and the common theme between all the great things? Rowan. It all revolves around him. Safe to say, I can finally say I know what falling feels like. And I like it. As the sun starts to dip beneath the horizon, lighting up the sky with the most gorgeous hues of oranges and reds, I pop chip after chip in my mouth, soaking up the sight before me. “This is really nice, Rowan. Thank you.” I can’t look at him just yet. Everything’s so perfect. He’s either going to kiss me and make it better. Or he won’t and it’ll run the entire night. That’s just how right this moment truly is. “No thanks necessary. I’m just happy you agreed to go out with the new kid. You must have guys lined up to take you out. I’m surprised you

gave me a shot. Actually, hold that thought.” He jogs back to the truck, puts away the picnic basket and trash, and flips on the headlights and the radio. “What were we talking about?” he asks upon his return. “All my suitors,” I sarcastically giggle. “I’m not as high demand as you’d like to believe. Don’t get me wrong, I get asked out every once in a while, but I’m really focused on school and swim.” Before we go any further, he needs to understand how dedicated I am to my athletics and academics. Better than waiting a month and him getting butthurt about it. “Gotta love a girl with goals.” One in million, folks. “Yeah, it’s great until you realize you’re not

going to get all my attention.” Sure, Charlie, just put your foot in your mouth again. It’s attractive as hell. “Seriously, Charlie, goals and dreams are important. I have mine, too, and I’m going to achieve them.” “You might be the only one to think that. Nobody wants to date a girl who can’t give her boyfriend all her time. So many girls at our school seem to drop everything at the thought of a boyfriend. I’m just not like that. I need to pay for college. My parents would go into debt to put me through school, and I refuse to accept that. Not when I have the opportunity to earn my way with grades and swim. I won’t selfishly take their life savings.”

“I’ve never met anyone like you before, Charlotte Thompson. And you say I’m the rare breed.” He chuckles softly, but the sound vibrates all the way to my belly. “You’re like the needle in the haystack.” “Or the neurotic swimmer with her nose constantly in a book.” Do I have some work to do, or what? Boys—handsome boys—saying nice things to you and about you isn’t ever a bad thing, and I still want to turn it into a comedy show to disguise my nervousness. “No,” he returns, leaning into me. “You’re the intelligent, beautiful woman who wants to make her parents proud and won’t sacrifice her dreams for anything. You’re the needle.” “Rare breed, Rowan Throne. Much more

mature than any boys at school,” I whisper, wishing I’d kept the last part to myself. I want him to kiss me so badly. I shouldn’t have turned to face him. Shouldn’t have locked onto those deep-blue eyes. And hell, I sure as hell shouldn’t have licked my lips while gazing at his. He—this insanely amazing man, the new kid with tons of followers and admirers—leans closer, places his hand on the side of my face, and caresses my cheek. I move into his touch, seeking so much more. The heat from his palm is spreading throughout my body. If he doesn’t kiss me, I’m going to explode. “You’re breathtaking.” He’s so close I can feel his breath on my lips, and I lick my own in anticipation. “Charlie?”

“Hmmm,” I hum. “Would you be upset if I wanted to kiss you?” “No,” I sigh. Kiss me now. “Good. ‘Cause, Charlie, I need to kiss you.” “Please.” The second I breathe the word, our mouths gently connect, and in one sweet motion, his lips capture mine and I’m lost. Rowan’s hand moves from my face to rests on the back of my head, having never lost contact, holding me in place. My fingers find purchase in his short, dark hair, and I silently hand over control of the kiss, allowing him to claim me with one earth-shattering, mind-blowing kiss. Before I know it, he’s pulling away, our lips only having been together mere seconds. Maybe

longer, I have no concept of time or reality at this point. This kiss … it’s changed me to my core. I’ll never be the girl I was before this boy put his lips on mine. “Wow,” I whisper, my eyes still closed, unwilling to snap back to now when then was so unbelievably perfect. “Oh yeah, you’re the needle, alright,” he slyly remarks as we lie down on the blanket, our backs to the ground, eyes to the sky watching the stars. There’s no need to tell him I haven’t opened my lids yet—the stars swirling here are probably better than anything out there. I’m pretty sure he already knows what an amazing kisser he is and how much I want to do it again. This is my new favorite thing.

Eventually, I do open my eyes and am a little embarrassed to find Rowan watching me. Instead of making a big deal about it, regardless of how strangely comforting yet kind of creepy it is, I grab onto his hand and interlock our fingers. I turn away from him and glance up at the night sky. It’s the clearest I can ever remember seeing it—the background a black so black it’s nearly blue, spotted sporadically with tiny flecks of light. While I stare off into infinity, Rowan caresses my knuckles with the pad of this thumb, and in that very moment, I know I could very easily be one of those girls who throws everything away for a boy. Rowan loves me having my own aspirations, he’d never let me turn into one of them. That thought allows comfort to enter where anxiety and fear have hidden for so long. Rowan would make sure I

follow my heart and it’d be safe to let him in. My dad was right. I’d have a great story to tell one day about the boy I met my senior year of high school, who treated me to the most wonderful date and looked at me like I looked at the stars— with appreciation of their beauty, wonder, and happiness. He was going to be someone very important to me.

Chapter 4 The First Near Miss With only two more meets to qualify for States, this might be my most important race I’ll ever swim. Based on the official rules of the invitational, it isn’t the school with the most wins that make it into the finals, instead the best swimmers. In terms of ranking, I’m only a tenth of a second ahead of the last available slot going into this final heat, and it just happens to be her—and her team—in the lane next to us for the four-byfour relay. Not to mention, this is the first time Rowan will watch me in my element. While I’m still in the locker room jogging in place to keep my muscles warm, my phone dings with a text from Rowan.

ROWAN: W/Jansen in the stands. Front and center. ME: Great spot to be! ROWAN: You know what’d be great? Kissing you again ME: Kissing’s for winners ROWAN: Give ‘em hell & I’ll meet you at the finish line ME: Kisses promised for a W? She’s gonna be eatin’ my waves With a sh*t-eating grin plastered on my lips, I throw in my earbuds and cue up the Rent soundtrack. Don’t ask why, but for some reason, “Seasons of Love” gets me pumped. Maybe it’s all the talk of numbers keeping me aware of time, or

because it’s my favorite musical and dammit, the soundtrack’s amazing. Glancing around the locker room, the other girls are doing their usual pre-meet rituals. Gabby’s doing some weird yoga poses, making me and the rest of the team wonder why she didn’t try out for gymnastics. Sheena’s stretching and counting … in French. Carly—the should-be circus worker—is walking across the bench like it’s a tightrope. Then there’s me, belting out “Seasons of Love” like nobody’s watching—or listening—and all’s right in the world. Oh, and the memory of Rowan’s lips on mine. A shiver runs through my body, adding a little wiggle to my jog. Sanderson’s fist pounds on the door as his voice bellows through the tiled room. “Sixty seconds, ladies, let’s get out there and do our jobs.”

As usual, we all convene in the shower stalls to say a small prayer to the Swim God to be fish in the water with great entries, fast feet, and quick turns. “Lady Cougars,” we start chanting slowly and softly until it becomes a deafening roar the crowd outside can undoubtedly hear and responds to respectfully. Before we make our way through the couple turns into the pool area, each of us pulls on our

caps

aptly

decorated

with

a

cougar,

straightening our mesh shorts that cover our onepiece, unflattering suits and march out with pride and determination—me leading the pack. I’m just starting to feel the normal nerves I feel before getting in the water when I make the mistake of looking in the stands and notice Rowan standing on his feet, cheering us on as the team gets to our

assigned lanes. A surge of panic hits, and I’m worried I won’t be able to do my best because I’ll be more focused on showing off than doing what I train to do. Rowan seems to sense my anxiety. “Go. Fight. Win,” he yells, and I smile in return. “I’m not even watching.” I nod, and Sheena bumps my hip while she winks at Jansen. “Going to get nachos!” His final statement is all I need. I’m good to go. As the first few races start and end, those nerves ebb away, until it’s our turn. The four-byfour is where Sheena and I set the bar high. I start the race with the backstroke and Sheena anchors with freestyle—I set ‘em up and she knocks ‘em down. Jumping into the water and letting my body

sink beneath the surface, I slowly kick my way to the edge, where I grip the side and pull my legs to my chest, prepared to fire off when the horn sounds. With a wink from Sheena, I smile and nod. I refuse to let the girl from Salemget in my head. Not with her smug, knowing grin. This one’s mine, chick. “Swimmers, take your mark.” I pull up tight, almost able to kiss my knees. “Ready.” I stick my tongue out at Sheena. “Set.” “See ya on the other side.” Fitting it’s Rowan’s voice is the last I hear as the horn blares, the crowd erupts, and with all my strength, I push off the wall, dive backward, and start the first leg of the race. I come above the water and my arms rapidly stroke, evenly and fluid. In my head, I

count each stride methodically, knowing exactly how many I need until I’ll reach the opposite end of the pool. As I pass the marker above the pool, my count’s dead on, and I smile to myself as I continue. Just as I’m heading into my turn, I lose track of where I am, my vision clouds, and my head smashes into the wall … And that’s when it all goes black. ***** “Charlie?” Sheena says. What the hell? I’m dry. Where’s my suit? Where’s the humidity? “Huh,” I groan, my head aching, and the memory of what happened in the water hits me like a ton of bricks. “Oh God, we lost, didn’t we?” I’ve never missed a turn. Not even in a junior or city

league. I was built for the water, so says my dad. “Not important right now, dude. You gave us all a good scare,” she responds. My vision’s still fuzzy, along with the events leading us to this point. Where the hell’s my damn suit? “Are we in the hospital?” Looking around as my sight clears, I notice all the machines, sterile walls, and the stench of industrial antibacterial cleaner. Oh, and the hospital gown. “Where’s my suit?” I finally ask aloud. Those suckers aren’t cheap, and if they cut if off to put this itchy, uncomfortable gown on me, I’m gonna be pissed. “Well, after Sanderson fished your ass out of the water, the paramedics brought you here in an ambulance, genius. It’s been a rough few hours.

And don’t worry your pretty little head, all your stuff’s in my duffle, safe and sound.” I exhale, thankful for the small things, then realize what she said. “Hours? It feels like it’s only been a minute or two.” “No, baby cakes. You’ve been out for like six hours. They did some tests, and I even peeked up your gown.” She winks, points to her butt, then gives me a waggle of her brows. “You’re a dick.” I laugh. “You and my ass … can’t you find something else to obsess over?” “Speaking of dicks, did you know you don’t have one? I confirmed it. And here I was, this whole time, thinking you had balls of steel or something. I was wronger than sh*t,” Sheena adds, doing a damn good job of lightening the mood.

My mom picks that moment to come into the room, and the look on her face tells a story that can’t possibly have a happy ending … something a whole lot worse than me blacking out in the pool and getting a bump on the head. “Charlie, baby, I’m so happy you’re awake,” she cries, running to my bedside and yanking me into a too-tight hug. I mean, the woman all but hurls herself onto my bed and into my arms. I don’t have the heart to tell her my entire body aches in places they’ve never ached and I need her to do less of the touching and more of the leaving me alone. At least until she spills the beans. Having never been a good liar, she’s not improved since my sixteenth birthday and someone couldn’t keep her

trap shut about the car I was getting. “Hey, Ma,” I say, my voice muffled by her weight. “Yeah, angel? What do you need? Some water?” She moves off me and I gulp for air. Looking her in the eyes, the truth’s written in big, bold, sparkly letters, only it’s written in a language I don’t understand and the translator can’t get here quick enough. “Love you with my whole heart, but you’re lying. Badly,” I state matter of factly. “Happy people don’t look like the cat pissed in their Prada bag. What gives?” She looks to Sheena and I notice a similar fishy expression. Sheena tries to escape and oh hell no. We’re all in on this, we all deal with it.

“No. Sheena, sit. What do y’all know that I don’t?” “Baby girl, I think this is something you and I should discuss and you can fill Sheena in later.” No, ma’am, that’s not how this works. She knows better. Forget the fact my dad’s not here for whatever reason, I need my person. Mom’s face isn’t changing. If anything, it’s getting more suspicious. So unless something’s changed in our family dynamic and I wasn’t given notice, Sheena’s not going anywhere. “Sorry, Ma, Sheena stays. She may as well be my sister, and if you’re going to give me some real unpleasant news—as I suspect—I’m going to need her. She. Stays.” I leave no room for argument. Final answer.

“Fine,” my mom sighs and takes my hand in hers. “When they brought you in, nobody knew why you’d just passed out. The doctors started with blood tests and then a CT scan.” She pauses and wipes a tear away with her free hand. OMG, just get out with it already! If I thought Rowan made me nervous, I’ve never experienced nerves at all. I grab Sheena’s hand with my empty one, squeezing it tightly, and I’m even more concerned when I notice her hand’s clammy—more than my own. Sheena never worries. I cast her a knowing look to which she doesn’t respond. Whereas my mother’s a terrible liar, Sheena’s much better … except for when it comes to me. The girl cannot lie to me.

“The scans they did … they’re not sure … looks like a … mass.” Mom’s voice trembles and shakes, trying not to crack. “Mass? Like a tumor? Isn’t that what they said about Gram? A mass?” Shooting questions off a mile a minute, I try desperately to wrap my head around the situation. Finally doing so—or at least I think I do—I ask, “Cancer? Is it cancer?” Sheena’s grip tightens to the point of pain, and I kind of like it. The pain’s keeping me grounded. The pain’s a reminder that no matter what this mass is or what it means—though masses are rarely a good thing—right now, I’m here. Alive. “We just don’t know, Charlie,” Mom responds honestly. “They’ve called the oncologist and all I know is he’s reviewing the scans and tests.

Your dad’s parked outside his office waiting for his opinion.” Ugh, I knew there was a reason my dad wasn’t here when I woke up … though I hoped he was in a meeting … stuck in traffic … pinching a nurse’s ass—not waiting for cancer news … for me. “Sorry for the language, Mrs. T, but this is a f*cking joke, right? She passed out, that’s it. Maybe she forgot to eat and her blood sugar dropped? That’s a thing. It happens. All the time.” Sheena moves her line of sight from Mom to me. “Right? You didn’t eat lunch? This’s crazy, right?” Unable to form a coherent sentence, I remain silent, my eyes blinking way too fast to be considered any sort of normal.

“The hell, Charlie? Tell her you forgot to eat so we can leave. f*ck, say anything, dammit.” “Sheena, sweetie, I know you’re worried, we all are, but let’s calm down a little. Let Charlie breathe a little. She just had a bomb dropped on her, we all did.” “No, there’s no calming down. Charlie’s healthy and smart and seven-damn-teen. We don’t get cancer. It’s wrong. The doctors here are dumb. Bet they got their degrees online. And Charlie’s not sick. Look at her. Other than that bump on her head, she’s perfect.” “I gotta side with Sheena on this one, Ma. There has to be a mistake,” I agree in solidarity. “Seventeen-year-old swimmers don’t get tumors. They probably got me mixed up with some seventy-

year-old woman. It happens all the time. Pretty sure it happened on Grey’s Anatomy just last week.” Feeling sure of my assessment, I nod rapidly and smile. “Just a mistake and we’re all sitting here freaking out over nothing,” I whisper. “Baby,” Mom’s voice is somber and absolute. “It’s not a mistake. The doctors should be back in a little bit to tell us what we’re looking at. We just can’t get ahead of ourselves. Hope for the best and prepare for the worst, right?” The f*ck? I don’t know about everyone else in attendance, but I’m not preparing for cancer. Not today. “Hell no!” I yell. “The best is me preparing to go on a date Saturday night. I’m going to Homecoming. I’m going a lot of places and going to

do a lot of things. Preparing for cancer isn’t one of those things.” Preach, girl. “It’s not up to us, angel. Let’s just wait for your dad and the doctor to come back.” I cross my arms over my chest like a child having a tantrum and refuse to make eye contact with anyone—staring straight ahead at the wall in front of me. “Can you guys go somewhere, please? I wanna be alone for a minute.” “That’s a big, fat hell no,” Sheena scoffs. “I’m not leaving this damn room. You’re insane. Proof that your bump’s just a bump.” “I don’t think you should be alone right now, angel,” my mom sides with Sheena, only making me angrier.

“Seriously, guys. I need to think and I can’t think with your sad faces looking all gloomy over there. Ten minutes, then you can come back.” “No,” Sheena answers firmly, but my mother surprises me. “Come on, Sheena. Let’s go get something to eat and come back. We’ll grab Charlie some cheesecake.” “I’m not leaving her, Mrs. T.” “Yes, you are, or I’m calling your mother. Do I need to call your mother, Sheena Gene?” “Ten minutes,” I plead. “Fine,” Sheena huffs, and at the same time as my mother, rises from her seat, grabs her purse, and walks out the door, no doubt unhappy with the

general consensus. When I’m left alone with only my thoughts, I lay my head back on the pillow and stare at the ceiling wondering how any of this is even possible. I’m an athlete in perfect health. I eat my vegetables and brush my teeth after every meal. I don’t smoke, don’t do drugs, never even thought about taking a puff off a cigarette. I have good grades and finally found a boy I really like, and I’m pretty sure he likes me just as much. And even still, of all the sicknesses known to man, cancer’s on the table? Seems like a raw deal. Every year, right on schedule, since the day I was born, I’ve been to the doctors, received my vaccinations, been evaluated … if cancer were an area

of concern, shouldn’t

it

have

shown

somewhere? Blood work? How does something like this come out of the blue—BAM—and try to ruin your life? “Knock knock,” Rowan whispers as he softly raps his knuckles against the door and peeks inside. “Can I come in?” Oh, thank God. A distraction. Then my cheeks heat—he was there. The first time he got to see me in my element, not only did I bomb but I damn near died. “Yeah,” I murmur, mortified. The last time I saw his face, he was cheering for me and now here he is, in the hospital. When he could be anywhere else, he chose to come see me. What kind of person has the best and worst luck at the same time? “I bet you’re bummed, but if it makes you

feel any better, you were on your way to kicking that girl’s ass. There was no catching up for her.” I laugh. “Actually, that does make me a little happy.” I’m sure she won by default, since the whole crashing-into-the-wall thing, but had that scene never happened, that smug look would’ve been wiped clean off her face. “So what’d the doc say?” he asks, and I don’t know what to say. I remain silent and he inquires further. “I heard Sheena bitching about low blood sugar? Is that it? Or are there no answers yet?” We’ve only been dating for a few weeks, and tumors aren’t exactly a “let’s take our relationship

to

the

next

level”

topic

of

conversation, so I lie … a little. Before I open my

mouth, I flashback to the lake and our first kiss, so at least my smile will be honest. “They’re not sure yet. I’m thinking Sheena could be right—the blood sugar deal. I know better than to race without enough protein and sugars in my body,” I reply casually as if my entire world’s not falling apart, using Sheena’s excuse, even though in the pit of my stomach I know it’s wrong. I had a salad for lunch and a protein bar before warmups. My blood sugar was just fine. “I bet you need a little rest now. That bump on your head’s pretty rough looking. I’ll swing by later tonight after I get my mom what she needs from the store. I don’t see anything on your fancy board that says anything about what you can and can’t eat. Want me to grab you something while

I’m there? Maybe some Skittles?” People who say teenagers don’t know what love really feels like have obviously never had someone offer to buy Skittles and show up when their presence isn’t required. They’ve never felt so cared for … not like I have. I feel badly for those people. They missed out—big time. Then again, if the news is as bad as my gut screams, I have conflicting emotions. I’d want him here to lean on, but I don’t want to fall apart in front of him. This is all so new, and there aren’t many boys who would want to date the cancer girl. Maybe just a tiny fib will do. “Skittles sound great. I’ll text you when I wake up, rest sounds nice.” I probably won’t call. This isn’t his cross to bear. I have Sheena, I’ll be

okay. I’ll be the selfless one and give him an out if it comes to that. That text will be sent depending on how this meeting with the doctor goes. Rowan kisses my forehead and leaves the room the same time the doctors are walking in, my parents and Sheena following close behind. Apparently, my door’s ever-revolving and giving me a little time to pretend I’m fine and enjoying the company of my boyfriend’s too much to ask. He glances back at me, silently asking me if I want him to say. I pass off a fake smile, telling him I’m okay and he should go about his plans. He winks and continues out the door and down the hall. A sigh of relief leaves my lips as Sheena sits in the chair to my right and my parents flank either side of the bed at the foot while the doctor’s dead

in front of me, a grim look on his face. He really should work on his bedside manner and trying to hide his emotions. It can’t be easy to give bad news, but at this point I don’t need his words to know this isn’t going to be anywhere near good. We could be talking worst-case scenario. Out of habit, I grab onto Sheena’s hand, preparing for the sad-looking man to open his longtoo-silent mouth. “Charlotte, I’m Dr. Lewis, the Chief of Pediatric Oncology.” “Nice to meet you. Please call me Charlie. I’m only Charlotte when my mom’s mad I didn’t take out the trash.” “Will do, Charlie,” he corrects, a small upward curve of his lips appearing. “The test

results, while very telling and alarming, aren’t conclusive. To put it simply, we have a lot of information to go off of but not nearly enough to give any definitive answers.” “Where do we go from here, then? More tests? You got a game plan?” my dad asks, or rather demands him to answer the way he wants. “Well, Mr. Thompson, I do. I want to take a biopsy of the tissue to see if the mass is just a benign tumor or if it’s something more serious. We’ll take some further scans, more in depth, to get a surgical plan to remove the tumor regardless. If it’s affecting Charlie’s coordination, it will have to be removed.” I don’t know if I’m more irritated that he’s making surgical plans or because he’s so calm while

relaying the information. “You’re cutting into Charlie’s brain?!” Sheena yells. “Long story short? Yes. Dr. Abramski, the Chief of Neurology, will be by my side the entire time and performing the bulk of the tissue sample removal as well as the reception if we can get clear margins.” “When?” I mutter, almost too silently for anyone to hear. “When are you wanting to do this?” “Soon,” he answers flatly. “Many brain cancers—not that you have any of them—can be rather aggressive. If the mass isn’t benign and is cancerous, we need to act just as aggressively to fight it. You’re young, your body’s resilient. At this

time, there’s no need to be worried. Not until we have more answers, and we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.” “Sorry, doc, but you wanting to cut into my brain is something to worry about. I’ve watched enough medical dramas to know just about anything can go wrong and I can end up a vegetable with one slip of the hand. Worrying is what we should be doing,” my mother speaks up after clearing the lump from her throat. “Mom, please stop. If he says to stay calm, we stay calm. I’m the one with the brain they’ll be playing with and I’m not a mess. Please don’t, okay?” “Charlotte, take this serious. There’s a tumor … inside your head.”

“Mother,” I groan. “I don’t want to ask you to leave, but if you don’t stop, I’m going to have to make you. I need you. Please don’t make me make you leave. Please.” For a few moments, she just stares at me like I have two heads, then nods and wipes tears from her cheeks. I think she understands what I need, so I turn to Sheena. “Sheena? Can you grab my phone and text Rowan? I didn’t give him all the information and I don’t want this to be something he thinks I deliberately withheld from him. I’d like to see him before surgery.” A little white lie only a few moments ago seems a lot bigger now. I can’t have my brain sliced into without telling him. Even more so … not

telling him how I feel. “Absolutely. I’ll be back in a second, there’s next to no reception in this place.” With a quick hug and kiss to my cheek, Sheena takes my phone into the hallway to honor my request. I glance to my dad, his eyes glossed over with unshed tears. Mustering up courage, he offers me a few words of encouragement—exactly what I wanted from my mom, but in the depths of my heart knew she couldn’t give me. Thank God I have my daddy here. “You got this, baby girl. Be brave.” “Always. Have you met my father? Weakness isn’t in our genes. We’re born and bred chock-full of bravery and bravado,” I firmly state, his simple statement giving me the fight and determination I’m going to need to not freak out.

“I need to schedule the O.R. Does anyone have any questions before I leave? I want everyone to have everything they need since I won’t see you again until after the procedure.” The doc’s eyes move to me first, and when I don’t say anything, his gaze moves to my parents. Dad shakes his head. Mom, however … is a plethora of inquisition. “How long does the surgery take? What’s the recovery time? You said another doctor would be the one getting the biopsy. How many times has he done this procedure? What are the chances this is cancer? If it is cancer, what do we do next? Is she going to be in a lot of pain afterward? When can we take her home?” She fires them off, one after the next, in one single breath, not giving the man a chance to answer any.

“That’s a lot of questions, Mrs. Thompson, and I’m not able to answer the majority of them. I can say, however, Charlie will be in the O.R. for roughly an hour or so. Dr. Abramski is very good at what he does and has been doing it longer than Charlie’s been alive. If my own child were in Charlie’s shoes, he’d be the one I’d want to operate. Her pain might be intense for a little while, but we’ll make sure she’s comfortable—or at least as comfortable as we can get her.” My mom nods along as he continues to try to comfort her unease. “As far as the tumor, no two masses are the same. There’s no way to tell if it’s cancerous or not until we’ve had a chance to get the pathology report back. We will rush it and will have answers

quickly, and the second we do, you’ll be the second to know. For now, though, let’s breathe a little and get Charlie through this. We can’t get ahead of ourselves. That isn’t healthy for any of you.” “It’s gonna be okay, sweetie.” My dad wraps his arm around my mom’s shoulders and pulls her into his side—a gesture I’ve seen before and is a clear representation of what love looks like outside the heart. “Let the doctor do his job.” She sags into him. Thank God. If he hadn’t stepped in, she wouldn’t have stopped for hours. “If I’ve done my best at addressing your concerns, I’m going to go get ready and page Dr. Abramski. The surgical team will be up soon to get Charlie prepped as well. The moment I have Charlie in recovery, myself or one of my residents

will be out to give you an update.” Again, he moves his line of sight to me. “How are you feeling, Charlie? Do you have any questions?” I think for a second, and when I have something, I respond, “Not really a question, Dr. Lewis, more of a request.” I turn my head as the door opens and in walks Sheena. Tightening my lips, I turn back toward the doctor. “Make sure I’m good, alright? Got a best friend who might marry a jerk if I’m not there to save her. And I’ve fallen in love with the most perfect boy ever, and he doesn’t know it yet. So I need to be okay or he’ll never know. No making me a vegetable, okay?” Dr. Lewis offers a genuine smile, his face becoming more soft and relaxed, almost human. He should have led with this expression … it’s far

more comforting. “I’ll do my very best work. I haven’t known you long, but by the looks of it, you wear your heart on your sleeve. If you’re in love, I bet he already knows.” “You couldn’t be more right, doc, he knows she loves him,” Rowan pipes up, having snuck in behind Sheena and my concerns on the doctor, I didn’t even notice him slink inside. Not the way I wanted to tell him, but it should appear that not everything’s going according to plan anyway, so the hell with it. “That’s just how good I am,” he chuckles. “I’ll see you in a little while, Charlie. Mr. and Mrs. Thompson. Boy who she loves. Best friend. I’ll update you the moment I can.” He continues to laugh and leaves the room before my mom can get

started on round two of asking unanswerable questions. Patting the blanket next to me, Rowan doesn’t feel my legs, so he sits and makes himself comfortable. All of a sudden, the room feels way too crowded. I should have never let Rowan leave to begin with—I needed him and didn’t realize it until now. Sheena—without me having to say a word —reads my expression and is on top of it. “Hey, Mr. and Mrs. T, can you guys come with me to the lobby and fill me in on what I missed? That doctor seemed to have a lot to say, and since selfish Charlie wanted me to do her a solid, I’m in the dark.” I offer her a grateful wink and a swift jerk

of my head letting her know she made the exact call I wanted her to make. “There wasn’t much to miss, Sheena … surgery within in the next few hours …” my mom starts, but Dad stops her mid-sentence. “Honey, I think she’s trying to give us a hint that Charlie and Rowan want to be alone for a little while.” “Sheena? Is that true?” she asks in disbelief. “Sorry, Mrs. T, he’s absolutely right. Didn’t wanna be rude and tell you to leave, but since social cues aren’t your forte right now, I guess I gotta get straight to the point. Can you leave, out of the room, with me … so Charlie and Rowan can talk, maybe even kiss a little bit, without your eyes on them making them feel all dirty.”

“Do you have to be so damn crass, Sheena? I know your mother, you weren’t raised by wolves. Rude wolves …” she grumbles and wipes away a tear. Gathering her purse and keys, she hooks onto my dad’s arm and heads for the door. “I assume it’ll be a few hours before they take you back. Dad and I will run home and get a change of clothes and something else for you since I don’t think you want to leave in a swimsuit. Anything specific?” “Thanks, Mom,” I genuinely offer, “and something comfortable. Maybe some sweats and a tee shirt? I think my sandals are in my bag. That’ll be good. I love you.” “I love you, too, sweetie. We’ll be back. Don’t let them take you before I get back. God knows you barely listen to a word I say, surely you

can handle being a little feisty with some nurses?” “I got you, Mom. I’m not moving an inch without a hug. Promise.” “Okay. I’ll see you in a few.” Then she turns to Sheena with a scowl. “Next time, young lady, don’t beat around the bush. Just nicely ask me to leave.” “I’m sorry, Mrs. T. I didn’t wanna put Charlie’s business out there and make her uncomfortable. It’s a best friend thing,” Sheena responds honestly. “She wouldn’t ask you to leave, but I knew she wanted some alone time with lover boy over here. I didn’t mean to be rude. It’s just … stressful, I guess.” “Already forgot about it, Sheena. You want to ride with us?” Dad offers.

“If that’s okay. Mrs. T?” “Of course, Sheena. You’re family. A sister, right?” Mom looks to me and I nod with a smile, resting my head on Rowan’s shoulder. “Yeah, Mom, she’s my sister.” After everyone leaves, Rowan and I the only two in the room, he doesn’t wait. Turning my head toward him by a slight tug on my chin, our eyes connect. “I love you,” he whispers against my lips. “I love you, too. And I lied.” I attempt to lower my head to hide my shame, but he uses that chin trick again to keep our gazes locked. “Baby,” he laughs, “I already knew. I saw Sheena before I came in the first time. By the way,

she’s the last person you should ever rob a bank with; the girl can’t keep her mouth shut … ever. You weren’t ready to tell me and that was okay. I knew when you were, you’d tell me.” “Really?” Who is this guy? With every word he says, I fall more and more in love with this amazing boy. I made a great choice waiting for this one to come into my life. My first love is the best first love anyone’s ever had. I’m one lucky girl. “You don’t have to ever lie to me. You don’t ever have to have a conversation you’re not ready to have. You do always have to remember … when you are ready, my arms will always be open.” “God, I love you. You’re perfect, Rowan.” “You’re the perfect one, baby. I’m the one in love.”

He softly brushes his lips against my mouth, and it’s my turn to not waste any time. Threading my fingers through his hair, I reach the back of his head, tighten my grip, and pull him the few inches to me. Being in this situation, where all my control’s lost and left in the hands of strangers, I waste no time swiping my tongue against his. And at that moment, I know I don’t want the power here, and I don’t have to tell Rowan—he takes the lead. He pushes me back on the bed and maneuvers himself to hover over me, every inch of our bodies pressed tightly together. His hands wander and peruse my body. Having never felt this kind of fire inside me, I groan, and he kisses me harder and faster. Why, oh why, do we have to be in a hospital … with me in an ugly, frumpy gown … when all I want is to be in

a bed, with Rowan, naked … “Charlie, wait,” Rowan pants breathlessly, his eyes—the sapphire passion aflame within their depths—contradicting his words. He doesn’t want to wait, and neither do I. “Why?” I try to pull his lips back to mine, but he’s far too strong for me to do so. And his resolve’s better than mine, too. “Not like this. Not before you go into surgery. Not when anyone could walk in. When, and if, we go to that next level, it’ll be because you want me as badly as I want you.” “I do. I really do.” “Baby, you’re scared. Worried. And when we do this, I don’t want any kind of negative thoughts in your head. I want just you and me, all

our attention on one another. I want perfection with you, and Charlie, I won’t settle for anything less and I won’t let you settle, either. Our first time will be special and certainly not in a damn hospital.” Tears pool in the corners of my eyes, and as hard as I wish them to disappear, they roll down my face, hot and heavy. Weeks—that’s how long we’ve been together. In that short amount of time, he can read me the same way Sheena can, and Sheena and I have been attached at the hip as long as we’ve known each other. “I’m so damn scared.” “No need for that, huh?” He wipes my cheeks with the pads of his thumbs. “Said some prayers myself today. And now that you’ve finally

admitted to loving me, I’m not done. I need a lot more time to prove I’m not only worthy of you but that I love you most.” “Well sh*t.” The tears fall faster. “I f*cking love you. And I’m not done, either. You’re a rare breed, Rowan Thorne.” “There we go.” His perfect teeth on display when he grins. “We’re gonna spend a long time loving each other, aren’t we?” “I’d bet my life on it.” Coincidently, I would, too. And I like it.

Chapter 5 The First Day Against all odds, I’m still alive and kicking. The cancer didn’t end up killing me, though Freshman year was a close call. But alas, here I am, wearing a sundress underneath my cap and gown, waiting in the student holding area flanked by Rowan on my left and Sheena on my right. My tribe. “You ready for this, sugar?” Sheena asks, taking my clammy hand in hers and squeezing reassuringly. “This is the easy part, right? We’ve done the exams, grades are in and can’t be changed, no more book vouchers, registration, study groups, and

boring-ass labs. All we gotta do is walk across that stage and we’re done.” “Then why are you shaking?” Rowan chuckles, inching closer to me, placing his palm on the small of my back and rubbing soft, soothing circles. Better question is, why am I the only one feeling any kind of nerves? How the hell are these two the voices of reason and calm? “Because,” I sigh, “I let Sheena dress me and chances are, I’m gonna faceplant. Who wears heels to graduation?” “Oh my God, Charlie!” Sheena yells, and dozens of familiar faces turn in our direction, their eyes on the spectacle she’s making. “What?” I whisper, desperate for her to

take the cue to shut the entire hell up so the other graduates stop staring at us, or before they kick us out of line for being a bunch of assholes who ruin sacred traditions. “The shoes were a suggestion, dude. High school graduation, do you remember? All you did the whole time was complain you had to wear flats since you weren’t steady on your feet yet. I was trying to help ya.” Yeah, she’s right. I was just finishing chemo and was way too weak to wear anything other than ballet slippers to get my diploma. I barely walked to begin with, so I get her point, but hot damn, this is a mess right now. “You did good, babe. I’m just nervous, that’s all. These peek-toe pumps are perfect and

match my dress,” I offer, trying to assure her she didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t have to put them on—I made the choice myself. “Perfect until you eat pavement,” she scoffs. “You got anything else in the car? I’ll run out there for you real quick?” “Nope. Rowan cleaned out both our cars so we wouldn’t have to get a moving truck tomorrow. It’s bare-bones in there.” I don’t mention before his kind gesture, I had three pairs of Chucks in there for situations such as this … And yep, after almost five years together, we finally signed a lease on an apartment the second Rowan was released from the athletic dorms last week. We get out keys in the morning! I just hope he agreed to move in with me instead of

moving back home for us and not because my soulmate and best friend’s leaving for New York next week. When Sheena declared journalism as her major, I thought she was insane and would end up working at some podunk paper close to home. But no, not my over-exaggerating Sheena. The girl, fresh out of college, landed herself a job at the New York Times writing book reviews. The big time! My heart soars knowing one day soon, there’s going to be an article in the most prestigious paper in the country with Sheena’s name in the byline. I couldn’t be more proud. “Well, what are you gonna do then? I’m freaking out over here, dude.” Poor Sheena. Before the cancer, she was

full of bad ideas, poor intentions, and inappropriate actions. Now, I’m a china dish and she’s the bull, constantly thinking if she moves wrong, she’ll break me. “First, we’re getting in line. We’re up and need to take our seats in the auditorium.” Reluctantly, she leads the way to the man handing out the alphabetically-ordered name cards, putting a few people between our tight-knit group. “Then, we’re goin’ out there so everyone can celebrate our day. I’m not sure what you’re planning on doing, but I’m gonna live up the last few minutes before the real world smacks us in the face.” The people between Sheena and me nod along, agreeing with my amazing pep talk. Behind me, Rowan calls out, “You tell her, baby. It’s our

day. Four grueling years and no more number-two pencils and scantron test sheets? We f*ckin’ won!” I laugh, Sheena cackles, a few “Woo pig sooies” come from the peanut gallery around the cramped room, and then we’re ushered to the auditorium. I’m still in the tunnel when the hoots and hollers start—right along with my perma-smile. Nothing’s ever felt so empowering, all these people screaming for us—for me. We’re the damn future. This. Is. It. Woo. Pig. Sooie. After taking our seats, it feels like hours go by—each speaker saying the same exact thing using different words. And finally, one by one, we’re called to the stage to shake forty-some-odd

hands and receive a portfolio not encasing our actual degrees—pomp and circ*mstance. My row rises and moves toward the stairs and my stomach flips. A few more minutes and I’m a real adult. Who thought that was a good idea? I couldn’t even keep my goldfish, Erica, alive … now I’m completely responsible for myself? With bills and grocery shopping? Oh Lord, help us now. “Sheena Gene Ziegler,” the Dean calls, and she swiftly and gracefully manages the daunting set of stairs to the stage, where she exudes femininity and class. Asshole. A half-dozen more people repeat her actions and then I hear it … “Charlotte Antoinette Thompson.” “Breathe, baby, you got this. I’m right

behind you. One foot in front of the other,” Rowan reassures me a few graduates back. I take his advice and begin inching forward. At the base of the first step, I make eye contact with the usher extending his hand to give me some assistance and shake my head. “Nope. Not happening. Not today, Satan.” “Charlie, you gotta go up there, baby. You have to move. You’re holding up the line.” “Shhhh,” I harshly shush my handsome yet pushy boyfriend. “Do not rush me, Rowan. I need a second.” He steps out of line and stands next to me. “Listen to me. You beat cancer. You didn’t gain the Freshman Fifteen. You have an honors chord around your neck. Get. Up. Those. Stairs. And get

that damn degree you busted your ass for, Charlotte.” Okay, he’s asking for it … “Listen, bossy, I’m doing exactly that. Give me a f*cking second.” The Dean calls my name again and I shoot him a glare, not so nicely telling him I’ll be there when I f*cking get there. Then, without a change in expression, I turn back to Rowan. Like any true boss bitch, I kick off the heels and smile at the shocked and stunned usher. “It’s my damn day. I’m doing it my way.” Before I move another inch, my eyes meet Rowan’s one last time before I’m a full-fledged grownup. “And honey, I did gain those dreaded fifteen pounds … went straight to my tit* and ass.

You’re f*cking welcome.” Taking the usher’s hand, I ascend to the stage, my bare feet slapping against the wooden planks. Shaking all the board members’, faculty, and finally the Dean’s hand— giving a few obligatory hugs in the process—I take my “degree” and thrust it to the sky as soon as Rowan’s name is called. “Rowan Xavier Thorne.” And there ya have it, folks; the trio’s accomplished their goals—all ready to embark on this world full of hope, pride, and excitement. Watch out, here we come! Sheena’s headed for The Big Apple. Rowan got a job at Truman since the head coach retired and since Rowan did lead the team to the State

Championships, he was first on their list of candidates. Then there’s me … doing exactly what I always wanted: Assistant Director of Morning Light Hospice Center. I shouldn’t say always, more like when my life seemed like the end was closer than not. So many families are in need of that type of service, and there aren’t nearly enough people with compassion and patience to help the patients and their loved ones with that decision. Sure, I could’ve gone for my master’s and became a psychologist, or even used my bachelor’s to council … but I wanted this specific job. And now, it’s time for us to start the next chapter—forever! *****

“I really need the last of those boxes unpacked if we’re gonna have room for any of Sheena’s stuff,” Rowan calls from the bedroom while I make a few meals to prep us for the week. I can’t imagine either of us be in the mood to cook after our first full week of adulting. And I’m trying to finish quickly. Sheena should be here soon—her final stop before she catches her flight to her new life. My heart’s heavy but also full of joy. Basically, I’m a sh*t show of emotion. I don’t have any memories without Sheena, and tomorrow, the next part of my life starts … without her. And hers without me. Senior year, we barely saw each other with our hectic schedules, but now, with this extreme

change, there

won’t even be

the

opportunity to see each other or find fake reasons to stay in and rewatch Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix. This is the end of our run. “I know, babe. I’ll be there in a few. I’m hoping she decides to take it with her or toss it in the dumpster,” I laugh. No way in hell she’s discarding anything she’s leaving here. The vast majority if her things are staying her parents’ house, but these few boxes … they’re all filled with stuff from high school she doesn’t want them knowing about. Like the letters she kept from Jansen—the disgustingly disturbing letters. She won’t admit it, but I know the girl better than she knows herself. She’s holding out hope he’ll stop f*cking her friends, realize he loves her, and she’ll have these

memories from when they started dating to talk about when they’re old and gray. Fat f*cking chance. “Sooner rather than later, please, Charlie.” “Yeah,” I drawl, “I’ll be in there in five. Keep your pants on, pushy. Or take a shower and calm

down.

You’re

awfully

excited

about

unpacking.” No sooner than I finish the last dish, toss it in the fridge, and start walking to the bedroom to handle the boxes causing the crisis at hand, Sheena walks through the front door. “Knock much?” I say with a smile, which she returns. The sadness in her eyes evident, and if I were looking in a mirror, I’m positive mine would be similar. How do you say goodbye to someone

you’ve had your whole life? “Oh my God, my parents are insane. Begged me a million times to stay. Literally begged me, Charlie. What’s that about? They’ve known for weeks I was leaving today. Why wait until I’m out the door to start the guilt trip?” she complains, but I know deep down she’s happy they love her enough to ask her to stay. And I also know that had they pushed a little harder, or if her mom had cried a little more, she would have given up her dream and never left … she’s that good of a person. “So what you’re saying is I should just be quiet then? ‘Cause I had a similar plan.” I didn’t. I couldn’t do that to her. Because, again, she would have stayed. “Do. Not. Start. With. Me.”

“Fine,” I sigh. “I won’t. But you gotta come help me unpack these boxes before Rowan blows a gasket.” “Rowan? Angry? Four days of co-habitation and the honeymoon period’s already over? You’re not setting a good example for your terminally single best friend, Charlotte Thompson. Maybe I should stay. Work at The Gazette,” she teases, and I shake my head. “Don’t you dare,” I laugh. “Just help me. I’m sure he’s just nervous. Coaching his old team’s a big deal. They’re putting a lot of pressure on him to pull off what he did senior year.” “Alright, let’s do it. Exactly what I was hoping would happen when I came over. Nothing like getting sweaty with my girl before I board my

plane.” We walk back to the bedroom, giggling about her comment, and when I open the door, Rowan scurries off the bed and onto the floor … on one knee. “Holy f*ck,” Sheena whispers in shock. “Maybe I’ll just wait in the living room. Or outside. Or anywhere except here.” She starts to back out of the doorway when Rowan stops her. “No, please stay. Just move over a little. I’d like to see my girl if ya don’t mind.” “Uhhhh, if you’re sure?” “Absolutely sure. No more talking, ‘kay?” “Rowan, babe, what’s going on?” As I look around the room, I notice he’s taken every picture

we have together out of the frames or albums and scattered them around—all over the bed, dresser, floor, window sill … literally everywhere. “Charlotte Antoinette Thompson, I love you more than words and they say a picture’s worth a thousand of them, and I need all the help I can get to show you exactly how much I love you.” “Holy sh*t, Charlie,” Sheena mutters again and nudges my arm, a giant grin plastered on her lips. “Ya gotta be quiet, Sheena,” Rowan demands, his eyes never leaving mine. “My bad. Keep going. But holy f*cking sh*t.” “Sheena,” I snap, “shut it. Now. Please.”

She makes a zipping-of-the-lips motion and scoots back to the wall, watching in awe right alongside me. This is a real holy sh*t moment if I’ve ever experienced one. She had that right. “Anyway,” Rowan continues, quickly sideeyeing Sheena before returning his gaze to me, “we’ve been through so much, Charlie. Some parts beautiful, others not so much, and a few just downright ugly. But with you it was always just right … perfect. We’ve … you’ve … experienced the worst, been to hell and back, and baby, I wanna give you the best. And with tens of thousands of words in this room, reminding you of how exceptional we are together, I want to ask you a very important question and I’m gonna need an answer quick … or I might explode.”

I nod, unable to speak. There’s no possible way he’s going to ask me anything other than the obvious. As badly as I want to leap in his arms and accept, I have to let him finish … on the off chance he asks if I made spaghetti and then I look like a complete fool. There’s always another shoe. “Charlie.” He pulls a box—a small, black, velvet box—from the pocket of his jeans and cracks the lid, exposing a gorgeous, diamond solitaire ring. “Will you do me the extreme honor of allowing me to be your husband?” “Yes!” I scream, closing the gap between us in less than two seconds only to stop in front of my kneeling fiancé, my hand outstretched, waiting for him to put the ring on my finger … my very special, naked finger.

“I swear on everything, Charlie, I’ll live every day of my life to make you happy and give you your heart’s desires. If you want it, I’ll make it happen. If I can’t, I’ll find someone who can. My life belongs to you.” He slips the band on my hand and I briefly forget Sheena’s here … until the blubbering mess starts blowing her nose on some tissue she found God knows where. “I’m so happy for you guys,” she cries. “I knew it from the second you met you’d last forever.” She wipes away the tears on her cheeks. “But Rowan, you could have asked me to leave. This is y’all’s moment. I feel like I intruded on something so special I had no business being a part of.”

Rowan puts his arm around my shoulders and draws us closer together. “You and my fiancée have been inseparable since the day I met Charlie. The closest best friends the world’s ever seen. I did this on purpose, planned it accordingly. I knew you were coming over and wanted you to be in this room. With you leaving, Charlie’s not happy, and this is news you shouldn’t tell your person over the phone or video call—it’s something you should see in person. You’re a huge part of our lives, and we would want you to be a part of this memory since you’re in every other one.” Looking around at the pictures, I examine them further, and sure as hell, Sheena’s in more than three quarters of them.

I look up at my fiancé with tears and a grin of my own. “You’re a rare breed, future husband. You’re my perfect.”

Chapter 6 The First Dance “You sure I don’t look like a peach in this dress?” Sheena whines, checking herself from all angles, back and front, in the floor-to-ceiling mirror. “No, Sheena, you look beautiful,” I sigh, repeating it for the millionth time, “but if you could take two seconds to remember this is, in fact, my day. Mine. I’m the bride. Let’s focus on me looking like a f*cking snow storm. Less about you, more about me.” “Geez, Charlie, just punch me in the tit or something.” She runs over to my side, fluffing out the train and making sure the corset back is as tight

as it should be—basically enough to make it appear I have more than a handful. “I’m being a sh*t maid of honor, aren’t I? I’m so sorry, babe. I’ll do better. Promise.” “sh*t? No, not even a little. You got me in this dress, didn’t you?” I laugh. “But self-absorbed? Yeah, honey, you are, but I’d expect nothing less.” That last one earns me a playful slap to my ass, which is hiding under fifty pounds of lace, silk, and Bridezilla. “Do you need any water? Another swipe of mascara? Tequila? Getaway driver?” Oh, now she wants to do her job, I think to myself, jokingly of course. There isn’t a single person alive I’d want to stand with me on this day. We’ve had a deal since we were ten years old and

planning our futures. She’d get me down the aisle, and I’d keep her inside her marriage, not running around outside of it. Seems pretty fair to me. “Water would be amazing. The tequila from last night’s screwing with my mouth. It’s so damn dry, I could drink a gallon and not have enough. What’s my damn problem?” Regardless of my protests, I didn’t want a bachelorette party the night before my wedding, but between Sheena’s work schedule and how fast the wedding came together, she could only fly in for this weekend. I can tell you one thing; as happy as I’ll be when I’m finally Rowan’s wife, it’s also the same day I have to say goodbye to my best friend until the next time we can squeeze in a visit. Bittersweet, to say the least.

“We can start with the obvious … you’re getting married. Seems like a valid reason to be nervous and, oh yeah, the fact you have Cuervo coming out of your pores … that’s probably a thing, too.” I would have bet money working in the professional industry like a real grownup would have tempered Sheena’s feisty, but I was wrong— so very wrong. She pulled out her A game for today. “I smell? Like booze? Oh my God, Sheena. I can’t get married smelling like a distillery!” I’m not nervous, that’s insane. Not even in the realm of possibility. I’ve been waiting for this day since the day I met Rowan. Within the hour, I’m walking down the aisle, promising the only man

I’ve ever loved to keep doing that for the rest of my life forever. There’s no doubt—no second-guessing —in my heart. This is exactly what I want. What I do not want, however, is to have Rowan’s memories of this day tainted because his bride reeks like a bar. “You don’t stink, dude. I’m just messing with you, trying to get your head out of the crazy. Work?” “No!” I yell, probably louder than I should have. “You do not tell the bride she basically bathed in tequila before she’s about to make the biggest promise she’s ever going to make. Christ, Sheena.” “See? Nerves. I was right. You don’t snap at me like that. Not in the billion years we’ve been

friends.” Miss Know-It-All could possibly have a point. “Okay, maybe,” I sigh. I can’t discount her opinion since I don’t have one to replace it with, but still, it’s a rough pill to swallow, letting her think she might, possibly, kinda, in a way, be right. “Just breathe. It won’t be too much longer and you’ll be Mrs. Rowan Thorne. And the nerves, sugar … I didn’t mean about the getting married, I meant the wait to get there. Since when aren’t we on the same page?” “Or,” I drawl, “will he be Mr. Charlotte Thompson?” I joke, trying to ease the tension. She’s right. Since graduation, we’ve been off—not the same old Chareena we’ve been for decades.

“Both sound amazing, but I kinda dig the traditional route,” she laughs, and I flip around to stare at her. “Since when?” “Since now, I guess.” She shrugs, and I can’t handle this debate right now, so she wins … again. “Alright. Plain and traditional we are,” I agree. “Who is it?” Sheena asks as a knock on the door sounds, pulling our attention. Rowan better not be trying to get a sneak peek. “Me.” Rowan! “Nope. Go away. Bad luck. Don’t make me

call security,” Sheena spouts off, nearly blowing a gasket. But hey, kudos to me … I knew it was him without having actual proof. Just another reason he’s the one for me—I know where he is even when he’s sneaking. “We have security?” I ask on a whisper. “No, but it sounded legit, right?” “I can’t with you. Move out of the way so I can touch my man.” I try to move past her and am body-blocked by the girl in the peachy dress. I may be in this gown, but I might throw down. Twentyfour hours since I’ve laid eyes on Rowan—yeah, I’m a fiend and need a fix. “Absolutely not!” she yells, spreading her arms wide to keep me from getting to the door.

“Not all of us get a fairy-tale, dream-come-true wedding, Charlotte. And while I don’t believe in luck per se, on the off chance it’s real, you’re not f*cking it up. So back that ass up or I’ll hurt you. Physically. Maybe.” “If you’d shut your trap for a minute, you’d realize I just want to touch my girl, not see her.” You tell her, baby. “And I promised my mom I’d never hit a girl, but I will kick this damn door open if you threaten my bride one more time, best friend or not. Move it, Sheena. Now.” Sheena complies, stepping to the side, hands in the air. The door cracks open a few inches, and as I give Sheena a snide look, I mentally count the hours until we can leave the reception and I can screw the hell out of my authoritative husband,

because f*ck me, that was hot as hell. “Don’t look at her, Thorne. I’d hate to ruin my girl’s wedding day.” And there we go, Sheena staking her claim. I laugh at both of them and put my back against the wooden door. “Deal,” he chuckles, the mood lightened. “Charlie, baby? You there, or did ya run for the hills?” “No, honey, I’m right here. I miss you. It’s been a while since I haven’t seen you this long,” I whine, resting my head back and closing my eyes. “Twenty-four-f*cking-hours,”

Sheena

grumbles under her breath, catching a sideways glance from me. “Take my hand.” He reaches around toward me, hand outstretched, seeking mine. Quickly,

before Sheena interjects again, I entwine our fingers, my body already ablaze from the simplest, most innocent touch. “Do you have any reservations?” “Not a single one. You? I’m a lot to handle, so if you think you can find a girl with less baggage, and a best friend who’s not so damn violent, I’ll understand.” No, I will not. But that’s what you say, right? Even when it’s a blatant lie? “Baby,” he laughs, “told you a long time ago you were it for me. I don’t make a habit of going around telling super-hot chicks things I don’t mean.” “Are you nervous?” I ask softly, not sure if I want the truth. “Maybe a little, but not enough to cast any

doubt. And mostly because I’m worried I won’t be the best husband. You have a crazy best friend and I threatened to hurt her. I think we’re in a tie for Lunatic of the Year. You?” “Same. I’m scared I’ll say something dumb, or stutter, or fall.” Okay, Sheena had the emotion right. “You’ll be perfect. Our kind of perfect. You only have to say ‘I do’ clearly and kick off those damn shoes. It’s you I want, Charlie, not all the frills. You’re what matters.” “God, I love

you,”

I happily sigh,

completely and honestly comforted and so in love. “Never as much as I love you.” “You two make me sick to my stomach. Can you save it for the vows and sh*t? If I puke and

f*ck up my lipstick …” Sheena growls, and I roll my eyes. “Self-absorbed, that one,” Rowan whispers, and I grin. I don’t think two people could ever complement each other the way Rowan and I do. “Only a lot a bit. Now go, I gotta finish getting ready. I’ll meet you out there.” “Sounds good. I’ll be the guy next to the minister watching his wildest dreams come true. That is, if your dad doesn’t have me offed before you get out there.” I sigh again, enamored by his romanticism, and Sheena gags. All’s right in the world. After Rowan leaves, my dad walks through the door without knocking, and “The Wedding March” begins to play.

“Here goes nothing,” I whisper to nobody in particular, but both Sheena and my dad nod. “Wow,” my dad says in a hushed tone, tears on the brim of his lids ready to spill over at any moment. “Never in all my life have I seen a more beautiful bride. I thought I’d never see anything more perfect than the night the doctor put you in my arms, bundled up in a little pink blanket. You smelled like heaven, I remember that part. Now, look at you. A woman.” “Daddy, stop it. Sheena will kill you if you mess up my makeup.” “Nope, cry on, sugar. Sheena was smart and used the waterproof stuff. Plus, it’s not every day a girl’s daddy walks her down the aisle.” “And hands her over to another man, no

matter how good a man he is,” Dad adds through gritted teeth. “Okay, stop. We gotta go. They’re waiting on us.” Sheena moves around my father and me to lead the way out of the dressing room and impatiently waits, complete with hip holding and toe tapping. “Oh shush, they can’t start without me. They’ll wait, now, won’t they?” “Come on, sweet girl. It’s your day. Let’s get you married. Saw Rowan a bit ago and he’s chomping at the bit. If you don’t get your ass movin’ he might come drag you up there himself.” Sheena scurries out of the room, the procession officially underway, leaving me no other choice but to follow. And after waiting a few

breaths, Dad and I are right behind her. We opted for no extra fluff—no flower girl, no ring bearer—just Rowan and me. And of course our close friends and family, too. The pace down the aisle—slow and steady —gives me a chance to see everyone. I nod and smile in appreciation for them taking time out of their lives to celebrate this day with Rowan and me. I’ve never been one to enjoy the center of attention, but it’s nice to see them all on their feet and eyes on me. I told myself last night I wouldn’t look at Rowan until I got there, but curiosity gets the best of me. Is he smiling at everyone else, or is he looking at me? And when I risk a glance, his eyes are glued to me and I pause, so taken aback with

his beauty and the sheen glazing over his deep-blue eyes. This is the most beautiful sight in the world. “Baby girl, we gotta keep moving,” Dad whispers in my ear. “I know. Just need a second,” I respond. This is one of those moments they write romance books about. The very second the heroine knows, completely

understands

everything—even

the

terrible and ugly—has led her to this exact point; it’s all absolutely perfect and there really was a reason for everything. One foot in front of the other, I make my way closer to my forever. Rowan comes down the three steps leading to the altar, he and my father exchange a handshake and a pointed stare from my father.

When all’s said and done, I take Rowan’s hand and we take our positions in front of the minister. Sheena smooths out my train before taking my bouquet. I can’t tell you a single word the minister says; I’m too busy seeing the love I feel for Rowan reflecting back at me. “Charlie?” Rowan quietly prompts. “It’s your turn.” “For what?” I snap back to reality. “Vows, baby,” he softly chuckles. “Oh,” I giggle, embarrassed. “Got it.” I turn to the minister. “I’m good to go?” “Yes, please,” he answers with a smile. “Alright.” I take a deep breath as Rowan

squeezes my hands in a reassuring manner. “Rowan Xavier Thorne, there will never be enough words to describe how much I love you, but I’m gonna give it a shot. “I was a child when I fell in love with you. A young woman when I knew you were all I ever wanted. And now, here, I’m an adult who is so very honored and elated to be standing in this very position, ready to become your wife. I’m staring my future in the eyes and it’s the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen. “I’m forever grateful God put you in my path … gave you to me. We’ve seen it all in the last few years. We’ve witnessed more in this short period than most will ever see in their lifetime. Yet, every time I see you, I’m seeing that seventeen-

year-old boy who all but forced me into a date. I worried then you didn’t really like me, but now, I know my doubts were silly. And today, I’m proud to become your partner and give myself to you for the rest of my life.” “Well, that’s a tough act to follow.” Rowan squeezes me again, and I smile, swallowing the nerves I fought to keep at bay to get all that out. It wasn’t everything; I messed up a few things I memorized, but I think he gets the point. He’s the only thing that matters. “Better get started, Rowan. It’s on you now. Do you have any promises or something you’d like to say to your bride?” I absolutely love that the minister is a family friend and knows both of us. Our ceremony should

be personal, and Minister Randall is as personal as it gets. “Actually,

I

do.

Charlotte

Antoinette

Thompson, the girl who demanded I call her Charlie, regardless that Charlotte is who you are through and through. Everything we’ve been through … you’ve been through … you’ve handled it with a grace, a class, a courage that only a Charlotte could. “I was going crazy this morning, waiting to see you, so Google and I became best friends and I did a little research. Charlottes are creative and expressive. They’re writers and want beauty surrounding them. They’re feminine. They’re elegant. But here and now, in front of family, friends, and God, I will promise to always call you

Charlie because I’ll constantly and consistently be the man to give you everything I can. “There are a lot of things I can control, and those I will do without question, and those I can’t, I’ll do my absolute best to make you happy. “Being your husband will be the greatest responsibility I’ll ever have and my most favorite job. Nothing will ever come before you, Charlie. You’re the center of my universe, and every day I wake up next to you will be the best day of my life.” “God, I love you,” I whisper through my unstoppable tears. And don’t let Sheena’s rough exterior fool you; I hear her sniffling back there, too. “Never as much as I love you,” he

responds, the same as he always does, and sometimes, he may be right, but I doubt it. “Charlotte. Rowan. I’ve watched you two grow for years and am honored to have been asked to officiate this ceremony, joining two young people in love in matrimony. Charlie, do you take Rowan …” “Oh, I do,” I rush out, not letting him finish his statement. It’s not needed. “Okay then,” he laughs. “Rowan, do you …” “You already know I do. Can I kiss her now?” “Well, one more thing. Is there anyone who objects to this union?” he asks, and I scan the crowd. If one person even looks like they want to

stand, I’m going to let Sheena tackle them. A few seconds pass and nobody moves. “Just kiss her already,” Jansen cheers from behind Rowan. “Agreed,” Sheena offers. “I’m positive you two will climb and move every mountain you face, and you’ll be the lucky ones who make it. Please, because everyone’s staring daggers at me … Rowan, please kiss your bride.” As quickly as Rowan moves toward me, I leap into his arms, our lips seeking one another, and as classy as I wanted this moment to be, our passion takes over. And after our inappropriate kiss in the house of God, in front of everyone we love, we join our hands, fingers laced, and head back

down the aisle husband and wife. No matter how many times I scribbled it in a notebook, dreamed about it, Charlotte Thorne is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. Picture after picture, I’m ready to hit the reception hall. Not only do I want to see everyone, I’m starved to death. Like, if I don’t get my hands on something to eat, I might have to take a bite out of Jansen’s arm. I’m proud of Sheena, who’s taking every single picture in stride, even pretending to still like Jansen so my wedding pictures are perfect. Once the car drops us at the hall, we have to wait out in the hall for the DJ to get everyone situated to announce us as we make our way inside. Since Prom wasn’t the greatest experience for me —being the cancer girl and not being able to do

much—Rowan wanted to give me the night I never truly had. We didn’t just choose colors, we chose a theme. Happily Ever Afters. With everyone getting restless inside, I know it’s about time. Before reaching the inside of the hall, there’s a set of double doors leading to a small vestibule, which only adds to the amazing effects Rowan’s pulled out, even calling the girl who planned and decorated our Prom. If he isn’t the most perfect husband ever … We walk through an arch of vines, flowers, and fairies only to reach the end where a table’s set up for guests to get their table assignments, and for us, the wedding party, an array of props to decorate ourselves with before we join our loved ones. The photographer’s in the room with us and

starts taking a few candid shots. Rowan, of course, wants more. He pulls me in front of him—typical prom pose—and catches the photog’s attention. “Smile, angel. I want to remember how beautiful you look tonight.” “You got it.” My lips curl as high as they can. I’m sure every tooth in my mouth is on full display as I gleefully fulfill his request. Sheena stands next to him, snapping her own image on her phone. “This is absolutely adorable,” she gushes, showing me her phone. I nearly combust—so full of love—when I see the image, and what he was obviously happy about; my wide smile and Rowan never takes his eyes off me. “You were supposed to smile,” I tease,

gently jabbing him in the stomach. “I was. Just not at the camera man, only at you.” “You’re so damn romantic. What am I gonna do with you?” “Love me?” “Rare breed, Rowan Thorne.” Sheena and Jansen walk through the doors first, dancing their way to a Bruno Mars song, and I can’t wait to see the videos … it has to be amazing! And here we go … “For the first time ever, I’m proud to introduce to you Mr. and Mrs. Rowan Thorne,” the DJ announces as Rowan and I come through the double doors being held open by the ushers. Rowan

wanted—no, demanded—for us to be welcomed by our friends and family to something sweet and romantic, but I had other ideas. And well, the man’s a sucker for giving into every wild dream I’ve ever had, so why stop now? Once the word “death” is said to you by a doctor, in relation to your own lifespan, you look at the world with a different set of eyes. We’re only going to get this day once, and I don’t want to watch the video in a decade and wish we did something less boring. Which is why, well, we’re kicking it up a notch—or twelve. Sheena and Jansen wait patiently for us as we stand at the entrance, our hands locked together and raised above our heads. The crowd of attendees is already yelling, whistling and hooting for our arrival. I nod at the DJ and “Moves Like Jagger” by Maroon 5 begins streaming out of every

speaker in the crowded hall. Casually, we all toss on some aviator sunglasses and Sheena and Jansen start swaying side to side, kicking their feet. Rowan and I casually walk through our friends and family until the lyrics start. Now, it’s our turn to let loose. “You ready, mama?” Sheena asks, and I nod only once. With my bouquet in the air, I glide around the dance floor with my maid of honor. When the chorus hits, Sheena and I bounce around, whistling along with the track. All in all, it’s absolutely perfect and way better than the YouTube video I saw a few weeks ago. We waive our arms, inviting everyone onto the dance floor in the most untraditional scene since we haven’t had our first dance as a married

couple, but we’re as untraditional as you can get. This day’s more than just Rowan and me finally putting our love on paper and signing a contract. This is a party for everyone who prayed, wished, and hoped I’d get to experience this day. This was for everyone who cried thinking it would never happen. We wanted to celebrate with every person here. It’s not a large reception by any means, but we’re surrounded by people we’ve loved all of our adult lives. If I had to pick only one word to describe this exact moment and all the angst it took getting here, I’d have to say perfect. Absolutely perfect. The song comes to a close and the DJ’s voice echoes through the speakers. “Thank you to everyone who participated in the celebration of Rowan and Charlotte’s love. I’d like to invite

everyone to take their seats and direct their attention to the happy couple, who’d like to share their first official dance as husband and wife with all of you. In a special request by Rowan to his bride, here you go.” “What did you do?” I ask, shocked. We’d run down the playlist no less than a dozen times, even picked “our” song. Never once did Rowan tell me he was doing anything different. “Baby, did you really think you’d get a whole day without a single surprise?” “Well, since everything’s planned down to the minute, I kinda figured surprises weren’t a good thing, more of a hiccup. “How to Save a Life” was supposed to be it, for obvious reasons, but I guess … I don’t know. What did you pick?”

“Oh, calm it down, Charlie. I get to do one thing for my bride on her day. Deal with it, it’s happening.” I swallow and swoon. Rowan’s never been big on telling me … anything, really. He’s more of go-with-the-flow kind of guy, but this domineering side, I like it. A lot. “Okay,” I breathlessly mutter and stand patiently with him on the dance floor, never taking my eyes off his. Paramore’s “Still Into You” begins playing and I laugh. The lyrics to this song describe exactly how we feel about each other. I glanced to my mother just before Rowan extends his hand for me to take. She shakes her head and lets out a giggle. I go to Rowan, expecting

to bounce around with the unusual pop tunes by one of my favorite bands, but instead he pulls me close and begins to sway. “Hey, Charlie?” he asks. “Yes, baby.” “Are you mad?” “Not even a little. It’s absolutely perfect and us to a T.” “Yeah, I thought so. I stole the CD Sheena made for you and this song was burned on there a few times. I figured you liked it.” “I love it, and babe?” I respond, pulling away from his warmth to look him in the eyes. “Hmmm?” “After all this time, I’m still into you, too.”

“You better be,” he teases. Rowan is the best part of humanity, and I’m more blessed than I can express to know him, let alone be married to him. I place my lips on his freshly shaven cheek and just let them rest there for a moment—not truly a kiss, but not not a kiss, either—then go back to enjoying the most perfect dance a girl could dream of. Between listening to the song and the beat of his heart, we glide peacefully together, and the rest of our guests slowly join us. Our theme—the one he was adamant on making happen—is more than perfect. My parents, his parents, grandparents, new couples, old couples, hell, even Sheena and Jansen—happily ever afters everywhere we look, living and breathing, waiting to be snatched up and claimed.

Chapter 7 The First Fight Glaring—and I mean the most awful glare known to man—at the small, white stick on the counter, another round of depression and extreme disappointment washes over me. There’s no damn reason this f*cker shouldn’t have turned pink. For the last thirty days, we’ve been doing everything we could find online, in magazines, and even tossed in a few old wives’ tales and religious theories for good measure, and still … blue. My new least-favorite color in the entire history of pigment. Rowan hasn’t given himself a hand in the last month, and my legs should be permanently glued to the wall as many times as I stick them up

there to keep the stuff inside. Hell, I have a f*cking fertility goddess statue in my backyard. We’ve. Tried. Everything. Yet, here I am sitting on a closed toilet, staring at a pinkless stick while my amazing husband paces on the other side of the door, his sock-covered feet wearing a clear path in the carpeting. Oh, and with each shuffle, my resolve cracks a little bit more. Just like every time we’ve rinsed and repeated this process, I’m going to get to step out of the bathroom only to watch his hope and dream of having a son to toss a football with, or daughter to adore, fly straight out the window. I’m not just letting myself down, I’m destroying my husband one negative pregnancy test at a time. And that’s the part that hurts most—not

giving him a child—even more than my own desires to be a mother. “Charlie,” he whispers, rapping on the barrier between us. “The timer went off, baby,” he reminds me, as if my eyes haven’t been glued to the little window, praying for the second line—the pink one—to appear. Like I wouldn’t have burst out the door and jumped into his arms the moment I realized we were going to be parents. “I know,” I respond with some semblance of chipper left in my voice. I’m not wanting to lead him on. Instead, I’d rather give him another minute of possibility before I break the news … again. “No matter what, it’ll be okay. We’ll be okay, Charlie. Do you hear me?” Every time he says the same thing, and I

think he really means it. Only problem with his logic—he’ll mean it until he finally has enough and comes to the conclusion his desire to be a father outweighs his overwhelming need to be cautious of my feelings. Once he’s done protecting me, then what? I’ll be left childless and husbandless. “It’s negative.” My heart falls when the words leave my mouth. “We’ll keep trying. That’s the fun part, right?” I can hear the sadness behind the playful tone he’s attempting to portray. I can’t keep doing this to him. Me. “Rowan,” I sigh, unable to do this right now. I need a little while—enough to get myself together. “I mean it, Charlie. I know it’s not what we

hoped for, but it’ll happen at the right time. Come out here, please.” “Please, just don’t, Rowan. Please,” I beg. “Sorry, babe. We’re alive, married, and living life, doing exactly what we wanted to do. A baby is an added bonus. We’re good, and one day, we’ll have that baby and it’ll be perfect. And until then, we’ll live this perfect. Me and you.” Annoyed, frustrated, and allowing the anger to get the best of me, I stand up from the toilet, turn the handle, and rip open the door to meet the face behind the words meant to comfort, yet they do anything but. “I asked, Rowan, not once but twice, and you just keep pushing. Sometimes people need a damn minute to let it all sink in before the pep talk

starts!” I yell, unable to channel my emotions in a way that’s not destructive. I know I’m not helping, but there’s nothing else I can do. As terrible as it sounds, it’s making me feel better to let out some of the hurt. “Charlie, I’m trying to tell you everything’s okay. We’re fine.” “Fine?!” I scream. “Are you kidding me? Ain’t nobody around here f*cking fine. We’re a goddamn mess!” He opens his mouth to rebut, and I place my finger over his lips, effectively shushing him. “No, it’s my turn to talk.” He nods, so I lower my arm, disgusted that I put my hands on my husband for the first time ever. I just didn’t know how else to shut him up, and I

need him to understand. I’m not pregnant and a f*cking asshole. Obviously, I’m winning today. “Seven times, Rowan. Seven times I’ve peed on that stick, and seven damn times I’ve had to tell you we’re not pregnant. We’re not having a baby. We’re not going to be parents. Seven times I’ve broken your heart. I’m far from fine, and if you’d stop lying to both of us, you’d see you’re not fine … or anything close to it, either.” My shoulders sag in relief, finally getting my true, bottled-up feelings out in the open, and I lower my head to hide the tears I can’t hide any longer. Rowan tries to hug me, but I shove him aside. There are far too many emotions running amuck; touching isn’t a thing right now. “No amount of hugs will fix me or my

broken body.” I want to believe it’s a timing issue, not an infertility issue, but having gone through so many extensive cancer treatments in my youth, it’s hard to think of anything else. “Charlie.” “This isn’t what you signed up for. If you wanna leave, file for divorce, I’ll understand and won’t fight you. Let me give you this one thing.” “Charlie.” “You want a family and I’m not going to be able to give that to you. You deserve the world— the entire world—and all your heart’s desires. Take the out, Rowan. I don’t know if I can offer something like this ever again. “Charlie!” he yells, and my head snaps up, my eyes meeting his in shock. In a decade,

Rowan’s never yelled. Hell, he’s never even aimed a raised voice at me. “It appears I have your attention now.” I nod, blink, and wipe away the tears on my cheeks. I don’t know what else to do. This is uncharted territory, and I’m worried I f*cked up pretty good this time—taken a great man for granted and he’s really going to take me up on that offer. “There’s no way in hell we’re getting divorced,” he returns, the disdain obvious. “No way in hell we won’t be together forever,” Rowan affirms, telling me how the rest of our lives are going to be played. “We made vows, Charlie. Remember? Better or worse? Well, baby, this is the worse, which means it can only get better. Dammit,

if we’re stuck doing this worse together, I want the f*cking better. I want all the better.” He stops for a breath, and I’m lost for words. How’s he able—even in the most dire of situations—to calm me down enough to kind of pull off controlled and collected. God, this man’s my perfect. “I don’t want a divorce,” I honestly state. “Good, ‘cause it wasn’t an option. Not even in the realm of possibility. We’re in this together. Always together.” “We’re not pregnant.” “And that’s okay. Not the most ideal—I won’t lie to you—but not a deal breaker by any means.”

“What if we never have a baby? Like, what if I can’t …?” I stop, unable to finish the question. “Then we live our lives, happy and healthy. We roll with the punches. We’ll never have to search for a sitter to eat a decent meal, drink as often as possible, and travel the damn world. We do whatever we want. Together.” “You won’t be disappointed … in me?” I’m not sure if I’m confident enough to deal with his honest answer and an honest answer is what he’s going to give me. Rowan and I don’t lie to each other. It’s the most important aspect of our relationship and our foundation—something he wouldn’t ruin to spare my emotions. I’d rather be hurt by the truth than killed by a lie.

That was a wise piece of advice we received from the marriage counselor we met with before the wedding. It sets the tone for … us. It’s what we can fall back on during trying times such as this. “I’ll be a little sad, but I’m not willing to give up on us for something I’ve never had, babe. I might not even like being a dad,” he laughs, lightening the mood. “But I do promise you this … If I get lonely or upset, we’ll talk about options. If this is even a real problem to stress over, we’ll cross that bridge when we have to, and tonight’s not that time. Tonight, we love each other a little more and help heal the wound.” “I love you. You always have all the answers.” I finally lean into him, allowing Rowan to

wrap his arms around my body, the hug more than welcomed this time … and I melt in his embrace, feeling a safety I’ve never known before. “I don’t have them all,” he teases, “but I’ll do my best whenever there are questions.” “I love you.” After placing a quick kiss to the shadow of facial hair on his jaw, I angle my head up, catching his gaze. “You down for trying?” “You sure?” he asks, intently staring at me as if gauging for an issue that doesn’t exist. Stepping backward, I unbutton the top of my dress, pull my arms out of the sleeves, and let the soft, cotton fabric fall down my body, leaving me only in a strapless bra and matching panties. I had a plan before the test thing went to sh*t. I just knew this was going to be it, so I

prepared. Earlier today, Sheena and I went to a salon in town where I got manicured, waxed, and primped. I picked out a sexy, lacy, white lingerie set, going for the image of purity and simple to celebrate our big news. Since that’s not happening tonight, or any night soon, I don’t plan on letting all this better go to waste—it cost more than we can afford and he’s going to get his fill. “Well, well, well, it looks like my wife’s hotter than all the other wives,” Rowan hoarsely whispers, his glare ablaze with lust and want. His eyes follow me as I walk to the bedroom, my heels clicking against the hardwood floors as my feet leave the rug. Without turning my entire body, I crane my face toward Rowan. “You coming?” I ask, sultry and sexy.

“I will be in a minute if you don’t get in that bed and stop taunting me. A man can only take so much, baby, and watching you calling for me, wearing that getup, your ass begging for me to grab it while burying myself so deep inside you … I’m inching over that threshold.” “I guess you should stop staring and get to walking. I’d hate to have to start without you … but I will.” Before I know it, Rowan clears the room in three, maybe four, long strides until he reaches me. He doesn’t push me into the room but instead picks me up, throws me over his shoulder, and tosses me in the center of the bed. “What exactly do you mean by start without me?”

“Well, first, I’d slip my hand inside my panties, kind of like this.” I slowly glide my palm over my stomach, under the hem of my underwear, and move a little lower until I have two fingers gently pressed against my cl*t. “Then, I’d start really slow … let it build.” My digits deliberately rub. I pull my legs up and apart, enhancing his view. “And when it starts to feel like I’m going to come …” I pant. Quiet whimpers leave my lips, and with the vision of him watching me give myself pleasure, I close my eyes, allowing that image to fuel my fire. “I’ll move a little faster.” My hips work in time with my fingers, urging my body to the finish line. “A little harder,” I cry as the first wave starts to crest. Before I can get any further, the bed dips with Rowan’s weight, his breath hot on my thighs

as he creeps up the bed, undoubtedly trying to be stealth-like but failing miserably. Not wanting to burst his bubble, I play along. “It’s like I can feel you between my legs. Oh God, Rowan,” I mewl, my movements becoming uncontrollable. Then, I can feel him—well, his teeth anyway—nibbling through the fabric, catching my fingers between them. “Move,” he demands, but I don’t. He’s going to have to fight me for it. I know my husband; I only have a small window to play with here, so I have to make it quick. Going lower, I slip one finger—followed by another—inside my puss*, methodically moving them in and out, grinding the base of my hand against my cl*t. If I play my cards right, I can get

off before he kicks me out. “Now,” Rowan growls, and bites a knuckle. “Move your damn hand out of the way, Charlie. If you’re gonna come, it’ll be on my dick or in my mouth.” “Give me a second,” I beg. “I’m so close.” Like a well-oiled machine, my fingers, hips, hand, and spank bank, all work together to push me to the edge. I’m about to fall when my panties are ripped from my body and Rowan yanks me down the bed a little, all my movements ceasing. “Hey,” I whine, need and want overtaking me. “I don’t know why you don’t listen, Charlotte. Now, I gotta prove a point, don’t I?” Rowan palms his co*ck, stroking it to erect

perfection, and I clench every muscle in my stomach in anticipation. God, he’s sexy. Rowan’s always been the sweetest man I’ve ever known—perfect—but like this, all controlled, demanding, and alpha, you’d never believe he’s as wonderful as he is. I’m not sure how it happened or why, but I got the best of both worlds—the genuine good guy and the man who’ll f*ck me so hard I don’t remember my name. “Flip over, Charlie.” “Come here, baby.” Rowan crosses his arms at the elbow in front of him, grabs onto each of my ankles, and in one swift movement, turns me over. I’ve seen it in movies, but having your man do it in real life …

even hotter. So much f*cking hotter. “If I gotta put up with all that sass, you’re gonna give me that ass, too.” Rowan takes my hips in his strong grip, raises them, and pulls me back toward him. “It’s all yours, baby,” I moan as he runs the tip of his dick through my wetness. I should do this sh*t more often; I’ve never been so turned on in my life. “Good to know.” Quickly and without pause, he enters my body, not giving me the usual few seconds I need to accommodate for his size. Much like the biting, the pain of stretching drives me crazy. “Grab the sheets, baby. It’s gonna be a hard, fast ride. Someone decided it was a good idea to

tease me to the point I almost came in my pants like a teenager.” I clench the sheets in my hand like directed, make sure my knees are firmly planted on the outsides of his hips, and brace myself. Tonight, there’s no pretense. We’re not f*cking for any purpose other than getting off. I won’t be putting my feet on the wall to keep the stuff inside. I won’t be counting the minutes until it’s prime time. It’s just us coming together in the most glorious way—the way it should be. And for this exact moment, everything is right in the world and we want for nothing other than each other. Slowly, Rowan drags his co*ck against the walls of my puss* as he backs out of me, only to quickly slam into me again. It takes a few more

before I’m coming apart beneath him, my knees buckling from the sheer power of my org*sm. While I’m flat on the bed, my ass no longer raised at the perfect angle, Rowan flips me over again, slowly and carefully this time. My thighs cradle his large frame as he enters me slowly, making love to me and healing all our sadness from earlier. With each thrust he reminds me why our love can survive everything and he’ll always give me exactly what I need. “I love you, Charlie,” he whispers in my ear as his body stiffens. “Not as much as I love you,” I respond, my body producing another org*sm—the first one hot and frantic, this one deliberate and full of happiness.

We only lie together for a few moments before Rowan gets up to get a towel to clean us both. When he’s back in bed, holding me in his arms, I have to ask myself … why don’t we fight more often? Sex is pretty damn good when there’s some yelling and anger involved. The world was right … make-up sex is the best kind. It’s perfect. ***** The very next week, I got an urgent call from Rowan to come home on my lunch break; he had forgotten his gym shoes in the backseat of my car and needed them to go work out. Unsuspecting, I got in my car and did what any good wife would do—headed to the house so my man could get his

fitness on. “Rowan!” I call, entering the front door. The text I sent on the way asking him to meet me out front so I could make it back before my break was over went unanswered. I assumed he was in the shower or something, but it doesn’t relieve any of my irritation. Since my company’s been absorbed by another, our lunches have gone from an hour to thirty minutes and an additional two fifteen-minute breaks throughout the day. It doesn’t usually matter to me, except for when I leave … like today. “Rowan!” I yell again and start walking through the house. Not in the living room. Kitchen. Dining Room. “Babe?” I softly ask, worry starting to settle deep in my stomach. This isn’t like him.

When I get to the bedroom, the door’s closed. Again, something out of character for Rowan, especially in the middle of the day. He started working from home and he’s typically in the living room, and if he does go into the bedroom, the door’s never shut. Hell, I didn’t even know if it worked—that’s how seldom it’s not open. Turning the handle, I slowly crack it, peeking inside, my view getting better with each inch. “Rowan?” I ask again, praying he’ll answer me and I’m not going to finish opening this door to find him dead or kidnapped. “Get in here,” he mutters and something— or someone—lets out a small yelp. “What’s going on?” There he is. Not dead, not kidnapped, but lying back on the bed over the

blankets. “Are you taking naps now?” I laugh and walk through the threshold and nearly jump out of my skin when something wet and cold touches my bare calf. “Rowan?” Looking down, there he or she is, all perfect and cuddly. “Is there a puppy in our bedroom?” I go to meet his eyes only to find another dog in bed. The more I survey the room, the more dogs I see. I rub my eyes, wondering if this is some sort of dream, even going as far as pinching myself. “There’re dogs in here!” I cry, realizing there is no imagining going on here … my husband’s filled the room with puppies. “Since you’re so hung up on this baby thing, and there’s not much I can do to help you, figured I’d do what I could.” Rowan climbs off the bed

only for me to take his place and nuzzle up with the adorable boxer puppy. “You should do this all the time. I just wanna love on them all. How long are they here? I’ll have to call Marcy and let her know I won’t be back this afternoon.” “All of them aren’t here for very long, but they need to come and pick up the ones you don’t want to keep.” “Keep? I get to have one?” Oh. My. Gosh. Becky. Best day ever!! “Yes, ma’am,” he drawls like any true southern gentleman. “I wasn’t sure which would be your favorite, so I had her bring over a boxer, a lab, a pom and some kind of weird mix I can’t remember. Go ahead and get a feel for them and let

me know which one you want.” “I can’t pick just one,” I whine. Rowan picks up the stragglers off the floor, plopping them on the bed next to me. Lying flat on my back, I let all four of the fur babies roam and explore, trying to figure out how I’m going to choose. They’re all so perfect. Then my choice is made for me the second the fawn boxer wobbles up the bed on her little Bambi legs, puts her nose against mine, and snorts … yep, snorts … like a pig. “This one. This is my puppy.” Pulling her in my arms, I cradle her like a baby and scratch her belly. “Miss Piggy is my baby. Can I really keep her?” “Yes, baby, she’s yours if you want her.”

Rowan joins me on the bed, running his fingers through the dog’s short coat. “What are we gonna call her?” “Pig,” I state matter-of-factly. “Her name is Pig.” “Charlie, sweetheart, of all the names in the entire world, you want to name a dog—a beautiful, pure-bred boxer puppy—Pig?” “Yep. And thank you. This is the best baby ever.” ***** About an hour later, the lady who brought over all the pets returns and takes back the three I didn’t choose, though I wanted to keep them all. I called Marcy and told her I wasn’t feeling well. She seemed irritated, but meh, what’s she gonna do?

Fire me? I doubt it; nobody can write about anal leakage and the other nasty side effects of medication like I can, and she’d lose too many contracts. The rest of the afternoon, I laid in bed with Pig and Rowan, thinking about how absolutely perfect my life was. Even in the worst of times, the ugly parts, Rowan found a way to make it beautiful. He’s my favorite thing about the world and reminds me constantly to have faith in the human race because every once in a while, someone sneaks into your life, gives you a baby when your body protests and fills you with so much joy, you’d rather quit your job than leave the bubble where nothing’s ever wrong, and if it tries to go sour, he’ll fix it every single time.

Because he’s my perfect.

Chapter 8 The First Visit “If you’re not feeling better by tonight, I’m taking you to the E.R. Got it?” Rowan, always the worrier, demands, refusing to take no for an answer. Through the nausea, I nod my head. I probably wouldn’t have said no anyway; the way I’m feeling—have been feeling—is off the charts. I need to get better and it needs to happen soon. Sheena’s coming in this weekend and it’s been months since I’ve laid eyes on her. We have plans, dammit. Plans that don’t include me being curled up in a ball, refusing to leave the bed in fear of barfing all over the place or getting another

massive migraine. “Okay, that’s fine. How long do you think you’ll be?” I ask, almost wondering if I should go now—that’s just how terrible this is. “I can postpone the meeting, Charlie. Will you let me take you sooner rather than later?” “Aren’t you supposed to be at some fancy meeting with your boss?” “It can wait. We just need to go over the last quarter report, but it’s not imperative it happens today. Nothing’s gonna change between now and then … except maybe your health.” “Okay, then yeah, please, let’s go.” Rowan breathes a sigh of relief and moves to the dresser to find me some clean clothes.

I sit up, the room immediately spinning. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this lousy, and I can’t help but think the worst case possible, but I keep those fears hidden beneath a façade of the flu. No reason worrying until we have a reason to worry, right? Slipping into a pair of comfortable sweat pants and one of Rowan’s baggy tee shirts, I’m ready to get this show on the road. But I don’t think I can make the walk to the car by myself. It’s not just the stomach pains, it’s the dizziness … the massive headaches … the overwhelming feeling of dread. “Come here,” Rowan whispers, putting one arm around my back and the other underneath my legs, and hoists me up into a cradle. He carries me

outside and carefully deposits me in the passenger seat, clipping my seatbelt into place before entering on his side. “Charlie, what’s going on?” “I don’t know,” I mutter, tears running down my cheeks. “Something’s wrong.” “But what?” he pleads, and I’m not even sure it’s me he’s asking, or himself, or anyone in particular … I pull down the visor and flip up the flap to expose the mirror, praying my eyes don’t tell the story my gut’s giving me. If what I think’s happening inside my body, I’m not sure I’ll be able to handle it, that I know for sure. Oh, and there’s no possible way for me to conceal my emotions from Rowan, no matter how hard I try. Instead of manufacturing a lie to cover myself, I look at him

and can almost hear his heartrate pick up when he reads me like nobody else has ever been able to. “Don’t think like that, baby.” “I can’t help it. All of the amazing things that happen to us on a daily basis … we’re due for some bad news. Nobody gets everything they want without losing something in the process.” “We’re not losing anything. Do you hear me? Nothing.” “I hope you’re right,” I mumble, turning away and staring out the window as we make our way out of the neighborhood. Everything about the subdivision looks exactly the same as it did a few days ago but completely different at the same time. When we pull into the Emergency Room parking lot, Rowan goes straight to the valet area.

He must be as concerned as me since the man won’t let anyone park his car for him and pay for it. He walks inside to grab a wheelchair after tossing the keys to the attendant standing at the podium. Rowan helps me stand and turn to sit so he can push me through the automatic doors. The triage nurse—or as I like to call her, the teenager with too much personality—takes my vitals, noting my higher-than-usual blood pressure, and notates my symptoms. Luckily, the waiting room isn’t packed with patients, so we shouldn’t be here too long before someone comes for us. “Charlotte Thorne,” a more aptly aged nurse calls from the doors leading to the exam rooms right on cue. “Hey,” I say, putting on a smile while

Rowan pushes me toward her. “Not feeling too hot today, Mrs. Thorne?” she asks. “She’s been sick for a few days, and she’s even worse today,” Rowan answers for me. If the fluorescent lights overhead weren’t playing some rude tricks on my throbbing brain, I’d turn around and give him a signature glare. “Alright, Charlotte, what’s hurting?” the nurse redirects, urging me into the conversation. “Everything. Literally, everything hurts. From my head to my toes. I’ve never felt this sh*tty before.” “Alright, let’s see if we can’t figure this out and get you feeling better. While we wait on the doctor, we should go over some stuff. What’s

causing the most pain?” “Her headaches. Every day, she’s been getting them so bad, I have to pull the blinds and get her a cold compress, not to mention all the aspirin she’s taking.” Rowan speaks for me again, and this time I’m happy. He nailed it. “On a scale of one-to-ten, how bad are we talking?” “Twenty-five,” I quip. “Those started three or four days ago. Before that I was just sick to my stomach, thought it might have been a bug or something. Then, today, my back and legs hurt so much my husband had to carry me out of the house.” “I’ll be right back,” Rowan whispers in my ear when his phone starts ringing. He shows me the

screen—his boss. I nod. I don’t want him to leave, but after canceling the meeting he had scheduled, he can’t very well ignore the man who signs his paychecks. I’ve missed work all week, we’re going to struggle a bit; a whole lot more if Rowan loses his job all because I’m sick. “Okay, Charlotte. Is there any chance you’re pregnant?” the nurse prods even further when Rowan’s out of the room, his voice having disappeared down the hallway. “What?” “Is there any possibility you’re pregnant? We’ll need to do a quick urine test, but we can at least get the preliminary information to the doctor so he’ll know what tests to order.” “No, ma’am. I’ve taken a pregnancy test a

week for the last few months. We’ve been trying with no luck. Pretty sure I can’t have babies.” “Oh, honey, don’t think like that. Lots of couples try really hard, and the second they stop all the trying, they end up pregnant. Stress plays a lot of tricks on the body.” “No, seriously. When I was seventeen, I went through a few rounds of chemo and radiation. I haven’t been to a fertility doctor, but I’d bet a small fortune all those life-saving measures, for which I’m extremely grateful, killed any chance I had of carrying babies. You can run the test if you want, but I think of all the things that could be causing all this pain, pregnancy is the last item on that list.” With a sad expression written all over her

face, she notes something—probably my history of cancer—in the chart. “I hope you understand I still have to run the test, but I won’t make you walk to the bathroom and try to hold a specimen cup with as much pain as you’re in. The doctor’s going to order blood work anyway, we’ll do the pregnancy screening then.” “Pregnancy screening? Are you pregnant?” Rowan asks excitedly, coming out of nowhere. “That would explain the upset stomach.” “Babe, no. I’m not.” Fan-f*cking-tastic. Once again, this time not on purpose, I have the distinct pleasure of shooting his dreams right out of the sky. I know she’s just doing her job, but God bless America, can’t there be a single day Rowan’s not brokenhearted over

the child he won’t be able to have? At least with me as that child’s mother. “Oh. Alright. Is it just procedure? To run those tests?” he questions the nurse, and she nods sympathetically. I’m unsure if she feels more pity for me and my inability to conceive or Rowan for being stuck with me. “You guys sit tight. I’ll get the doctor in here soon and I’ll see about getting you something for the pain.” She walks out of the exam room, pulling the curtain closed behind her. “Can you put the back down flat?” I ask, the sitting up straight not working for me. He expertly maneuvers the bed to a more suitable position. I scoot over and he sits on the edge, letting me use his leg as a pillow while he gently strokes

my hair. A few moments later, a different nurse— maybe a phlebotomist—comes in and draws five hundred tubes of blood and leaves just as quickly as she came. Next, a doctor—probably an intern— with cold hands, a million repetitive questions I’ve answered a dozen times already, no bedside manner, and absolutely no idea what he’s doing. The nurse I like flits through as well, hooking me up to an I.V. and giving me something for the pain. After the baby doc most likely reports back to the grownup doctor, the head honcho sweeps open the curtain and finally puts his eyes on me. “Hi there, Charlotte. I’m Dr. Fleming. Are you doing any better?” he asks, face grim and oh so telling. Whatever news he has … it’s far from good.

“Honestly, doc, I’d very much prefer you get to the pink elephant in the room instead of dancing around it with meaningless, pointless questions. If I were feeling better, I wouldn’t be here.” “I’m sorry, Dr. Fleming, my wife’s been through some pretty rough stuff and her mind’s racing with a million unasked questions. She’s not rude, she’s scared.” “Rowan,” I sigh, “please don’t make excuses for me. I’m angry and mad and scared and a lot of other things. But I don’t need my husband coming to apologize for my piss-poor attitude and lack of kindness. The man has bad news, so how about we let him tell us what’s going on?” “Your wife’s not wrong, Mr. Thorne.” He

looks at Roman sympathetically and his eyes shift to me, his jaw stoic. “Charlotte, the blood results weren’t conclusive. We need to run more tests, but every marker is pointing toward a recurrence of your cancer. Again, this isn’t a final answer, just an educated opinion after looking at everything we have to look at.” “Seriously? This spiel … again? In a decade, you haven’t found a better way to f*ck someone over?” “Charlie,” Rowan soothes, trying to run a hand through my matted-down-with-sweat-hair until I swat him away. “No!” I firmly state. “No. Hell no. f*ck all of this. f*ck you.” I point at the doctor. “f*ck you.” I glare at the nurse who drew my blood when

she peeks in around the curtain. I push past all of them, march into the hallway, and immediately have to run into the bathroom. I may be causing a scene, but I will not vomit all over myself. With one hand, I pull back my hair while the other grips the back of the toilet, and I hurl the contents of my stomach into the bowl. Of course, because I haven’t eaten a full mean, or anything close to it, in days, I’m left dry-heaving, only peasized droplets of bile excreting from my belly. I crouch down to a squatting position, resting my elbows on my knees, and let out a cry. “No, no, no,” I moan, cursing my body. “This is not how your story ends, dammit.” “Charlie. Baby. Let me in,” Rowan softly says through a slight rap on the door.

“I’ll be out in a minute.” It takes me a moment to respond, needing to gather myself first. We’ve been down this road. I’ve been the cancer girl. Not once. Twice. We are not going for third time’s a charm here folks. All of the no. Standing, I make my way to the sink to wash my hands and rinse my mouth. That’s when I catch my reflection in the mirror. Staring myself in the eyes, I stiffen my back, raise straight, and hold my head high. “And f*ck you, too. You do not get to win.” Opening the door, Rowan’s leaning against the opposite wall, arms crossed over his chest, unshed tears in his eyes. “You about done?” “Yep. Ready?” “Born ready. What’s the plan, Charlie?

Where do we go from here?” “We f*cking fight. That’s the plan. The only plan.” ***** And fight I f*cking did. I found the best damn oncologist the state had, scheduled an appointment, and met with the man who would be responsible for saving my life. Scan after scan, wait after wait, bad news after bad news. Goddamn my f*cking body. f*ck my body for not giving me the signs, the signals it’s supposed to give me so I know something’s wrong. f*ck me for not listening if something was a

sign and I brushed it off as stress … or frustration … or just pure ignorance. f*ck cancer for thinking I’m the one to screw with. That it’s okay to track me down the minute I find happiness and try to steal it away. And most of all … f*ck everything. I was fighting a losing battle. You do not win stage four. I tried—more

chemo,

more

radiation,

more

experimental treatment. I gave it all I had. I saw more doctors than I’ve ever seen in my life. I was poked and prodded like a damn lab rat. Each time a test result came back, the news was worse than the last time. What was I supposed to do? How was I supposed to react? Thinking back, I repeated the question Rowan asked me in the emergency room

time and time again. Where do we go from here? I didn’t have the answers. Rowan didn’t have them. The doctors weren’t giving me anything new. Months. My life was boiled down to months. Could I even do all I ever wanted to do in months? Was it two months? Five? Ten? Not a single doctor could give me that very serious answer. Instead of fighting it … I decided it was time to live. And f*cking live I did.

Chapter 9 The First Vacation “Are you serious? Charlie, think about what you’re asking here.” Well, it’s happened. Rowan found the bank statements I’d been desperately trying to hide from him. Not out of fear he’d be upset that I spent our savings but how I spent it. “Think? I’m done thinking. I want less of that and more of doing. Dammit, Rowan, let’s just … be.” I promise, while it was selfish, it’s needed, more than I can even express. The last few months have been nothing but doctors’ offices, needles and scans, and trying to figure out what the hell’s going

on and where to go from here. We just need a few days—just us—to not. We’ve done our due diligence. We’ve seen everyone we can see, and then some more on top of that. We can see five more if he wants, but it’s not going to change a f*cking thing. Except what we can change, that is. It’s time to put some pep in our step and live life … while we can. “I’ll do whatever you want, and you know that. Never been a question. I just want you to really understand.” “Babe.

I’m

saying

two

weeks.

Caribbean. Your wife in a bikini. Sex. Lots of sex. Sexy sex. I understand, I really do. But the question is, do you?”

“Alright. Caribbean it is.” “Wahoo!” I holler, jumping up and down in place for a few beats. It shouldn’t be this hard to convince your husband to take a vacation with you, but his head’s on straight now. At least, he’s thinking with the right head. Thank the Lord. Now, the hard part. The part I’ve been dreading, and I can already see the questions burning in his eyes. “I’m glad you said that.” I walk into the bedroom to pull my suitcase out of the closet. “Since I already bought the tickets, as you know. We gotta pack,” I mumble under my breath. “You think you’re so smart, huh?” Rowan comes up behind me, wraps his arms around my middle, and kisses the top of my head. “We share

the same bank accounts … with the same app on our phones. I knew the moment you placed the ticket order. Who do you think they called to verify the purchase? You can’t start unloading our life savings and expect me not to notice.” “Oh,” I sigh. Maybe they told him everything? “I guess there’s that.” I didn’t account for him being three steps ahead, but now that he is, we can get some real planning. Though, he should have told me he knew. I didn’t like lying to him for almost a week. Made me feel terrible. Is he testing me now? “So … Caribbean? Anywhere specific?” Okay, the deets are safe. Unless this is another test? “Honestly, babe, I’m not sure if it’s the

Caribbean … I just want to see St. Thomas.” “Sounds good. When do we leave? Next week?” he asks, pulling out his own luggage, thinking he’s getting a jumpstart … but obviously, I’m gonna have to let the cat out of the bag. “Tomorrow?” “Haha, very funny.” Little does he know I’m dead serious. “For real. Flight takes off at ten A.M. tomorrow. My mom’s taking care of Pig. All we gotta do is show up and board.” “Charlie! We have jobs. How do we leave and expect to come back home and still have those jobs?” Rowan’s upset. I figured some frustration at my lack of letting him truly plan, but anger? Raised

voices? This isn’t my husband. This wasn’t part of the plan. I was hoping he’d be so consumed with us, alone, sex and beach … but he’s not. He’s worried about real life sh*t—exactly what I’m dreaming of escaping. “Baby,” I sigh, walk over to where he’s sitting on the edge of the bed with his head buried in his hands, and kneel down, urging him to look at me. “If what the doctors say is true, there won’t be a whole lot of time for things like this. Trust me, I know how hard we’ve worked to live on a budget to save money and have a nest-egg, but baby, that’s not very practical now. I just want to have the time of my life and have it quickly. I wanna do this—a real honeymoon—one we couldn’t afford before

while I’m still healthy enough to enjoy it. At work, play the cancer wife card … or let me call and talk to your boss … or just find a new damn job when we get home. But I want this. Need this.” “And what about your job?” I stifle a laugh … he’s not getting it. “What are they gonna do, Rowan? Fire me? I’ll give them my job if they can find someone who can make prescription warning labels sound as enticing as I can. Or even better, forget that I gotta hire and train someone before ...” A bachelor’s in English … and I write about anal leakage. Not the next great American love story or novel of the century my novice, youngadult brain dreamed about, but I get paid to write … so there’s that.

“I made you a promise, didn’t I?” he asks, his eyes softening and melting my heart. “You sure did, Mr. Thorne,” I say through a smile. Rowan’s a creature of habit, always sticking true to his word, especially the words we spoke to each other on our wedding day. Since the moment he’s said them, there hasn’t been a single time he’s let me down. And with this—the cancer—he can’t control anything other than my happiness. If I didn’t have my arms wrapped tightly around his middle, ear pressed against his chest, his heartbeat

playing our

song,

and his scent

surrounding me, I’d swear he was fictional because men like this only exist in those romance novels I desperately wanted to write.

When I was little, I prayed for a man like this—much like my own father—who would put the needs of his family above his own, but I’d never let him sacrifice his own dreams. Kinda like that movie Practical Magic, I dreamed up my own perfect man … and he’s all mine, ladies, eat your hearts out. ***** “How amazing his this?” I ask, completely in awe as we stand together on the balcony watching the waves slowly crash on the beach and the sun starting to creep beneath the horizon. There has never been anything more beautiful than this sight, I’d bet all my money on it. Then again … I have no money. Blew it all on this vacation!

“Gotta admit, babe. You were right. Even pictures and movies don’t do the Virgin Islands justice. How is the water so blue and even though it’s hot as hell out here, the breeze makes it bearable? I’d probably move here.” Turning to Rowan, he looks at me, our eyes locked. I slowly slip the thin straps of my sundress down my shoulders, one after the other, until I’m able to let the soft cotton fall and pool at my feet, leaving me only in my bra and underwear. “Wanna make these islands less virgin?” I cheekily joke. “Super cheesy. Super sexy. Hell. f*cking. Yes. Get that ass up here.” Rowan opens his arms, and I leap into them and wrap my legs around his middle.

“Whatcha gonna do with me now?” I tease, grinding myself on his growing, impressive erection. “Thinkin’ if I’m gonna f*ck you right here for everyone to see or if I’m taking you to bed and making love to my wife.” “Seems kinda obvious, handsome.” I pull myself up high enough to whisper in his ear, “Both.” “God, you’re perfect.” Rowan swiftly unbuttons his shorts, pulls his dick free, and shoves my panties to the side. In one animalistic thrust, he slams into me with brutal force. Thank God the man has my legs because that one action would have put me on my knees. “f*ck,” I hiss through gritted teeth. Releasing Rowan’s shoulders, I yank my bra out of

the way and give him full access to my body. “Made just for me,” he groans, thrust by thrust, claiming me right here on the balcony. At any time, someone could look up to the fourth floor and get a full show, and that’s the last thing I care about. “Harder,” I beg, doing everything I can to bounce myself on his co*ck. And like any true gentleman, my wish is his command. He backs me up to the wall for leverage— the rough surface grating my back, the pain mixing with the pleasure giving me a euphoric release. Everything other than this feeling’s irrelevant. I’ll deal with the scratches and bruises. Right now, I’m staying lost in the moment with my perfect husband.

“You feel so f*cking good, Charlie. Your puss* can’t get enough. So damn wet.” Of course, his mouth only makes me more wet. Such a conservative, gentle man everywhere except when he’s inside me, then only the Rowan I see comes through. And I think I like this one so much more. With Rowan’s palms gripping my legs, fingers digging into my flesh, he carries me into the suite, his hips never ceasing movement, and only do when he drops me on the bed, flips me over and pulls my ass to his crotch only to slam into me with the same intensity as before. I raise up, arching my back, my body hungrily accepting each delicious inch. “Keep going, baby,” I cry out as the familiar feeling of another org*sm starts to build.

“Didn’t plan on stopping. Now, raise that ass a little more.” Rowan’s deep, sultry timbre and filthy mouth only push me closer. I do exactly as he asks, my knees aching, but I fight through the discomfort and increase the arch in my back. I wish someone could take a picture because I know my body’s tilted and bent at impossible angles, but nothing’s ever felt better. Rowan waits until my thrashing from org*sm number three subsides before flipping me yet again. This time, instead of the brutal, forceful f*cking, when he crawls between my thighs, his movements are slow and methodical; there’s only one thing on his mind—making love to his wife. And painstakingly slow, he does. Our bodies

tightly pressed together, Rowan’s eyes lock onto mine as he gently strokes my hair, placing soft kisses on my forehead, and at the same time, stroking my spot. A whole other brand of org*sm is increasing intensity at a gradual pace, and I know this’ll be the one to rock me to my core. “Got one more for me?” Rowan asks, never moving faster or looking away. “Yeah,” I breathe before I lose the capability. This one’s gonna be a Category 10 org*sm … I just know it. “Good.” Rowan’s mouth comes down over my lips, swallowing the moan of the powerful pleasure happening inside my body—nothing like I’ve ever experienced. The feeling explodes everywhere, each nerve ending alive and getting

their chance to play in the game. My toes curl to the point of cramps, my legs shake with the intensity of an earthquake, and my ability to breathe is gone. All I can do is ride the waves, and if this is the way I go out, it’s the best way possible. ***** Lying in bed with the open patio doors letting not only the moonlight spill through but the wind and the sweet, salty scent of the sea. I tried to shower a little earlier, but since my last org*sm used every single muscle in my body, standing wasn’t an option. Rowan drew me a bath to soothe my overused self. And then he joined me. Needless to say, there wasn’t a whole lot of relaxing done then, either. But now, here, in this oversized bed,

wrapped tightly in the arms of the most perfect man in the world, I’m relaxed. Happy. I can’t imagine anything ever feeling so right. “I’m glad you strong-armed me into this vacation,” Rowan laughs. “Figured if my days are numbered, I’m gonna spend them as happy as I can,” I respond, and Rowan pulls away from me. “What?” “No,” he firmly and absolutely states. “No to what? Me being happy?” “No. You wanted a perfect honeymoon. Just us and sexy sex. Not dead-soon-wife talk. That’s not allowed here.” “Rowan, seriously, we have to talk about it sometime. Really talk. And not the kind where you

try to WebMD the doctors out of what every scan and test result says. We have to make a plan.” “Right, Charlie. Sometime. And that’s not tonight. Or anytime we’re here. I’m giving you everything you want, and not talking about that until we’re home is all I want. So can we just enjoy?” “Okay. No more,” I promise and outstretch my arms, urging him to come to me. “I swear it, Charlie. I need this vacation and these memories as much as you do.” “Scout’s Honor. Now, get back over here and show your wife how much you love her.” “There we go. But roll on your side, my arms are killing me,” he chuckles, drawn back to the here and now. This man’s my perfect.

“Thank God,” I sigh. “If I tried to hold my legs up, even for a second, I bet they’d pop out of socket.” So we laid my back to his front and made slow, just-as-passionate love. Then fell asleep without cleaning up—fully enjoying our sex-coma.

Chapter 10 The First Acceptance

Finally back from our getaway, I needed to find some inner peace, figure out up from down. With sun-kissed skin and memories to hopefully last a lifetime, I set out on my own for the afternoon, with much apprehension from Rowan. For a while, I just drove aimlessly through the streets until I found myself downtown. I parked, got out, and started milling through the different shops I’d seen all my life and never once walked inside. St. Michael’s came into view, and I don’t know why, but I was pulled in the direction of the biggest church Cambridge had. Stepping through the large, heavy doors of

the church, even though packed with parishioners, nobody turns to gawk at the newcomer. I’m more than grateful, as I’m not even quite sure what I’m doing here just yet. It’s been quite a while since I’ve walked into St. Michael’s, and even longer since my last confession. Mentally, I thumb through the filing cabinet that is my brain, trying to remember how this is supposed to go. What’s the protocol? Am I even going to confess anything? Or do I just need to seek guidance and have an extra set of hands digging in the trenches, praying for a miracle on my behalf? God, I’m a mess. Instead of winging it, I sit in a back pew, away from the crowd, and watch. A crying woman stands near the altar, a lit match in her hand, putting

the flame to a small votive in a glass holder. I can’t hear what she’s saying, but I can see her mouth moving. I should do that, too, while I’m here—it can’t hurt. Then, a man stands from his seat, raises his

bowed

head,

and

moves

toward

the

reconciliation room. Pray. “Got it,” I whisper to myself, the memories of my childhood coming back. Back before I met Rowan, my parents and I attended mass regularly, and on more than a few occasions, either my mother or father would be in need of confession; therefore, I’d be here, waiting in the pews. I remember them praying before they headed inside to confess their sins to the priest. “God,” I mumble quietly, then all thoughts

flee my head. Just a second ago, they were on the tip of my tongue, now … completely vanished. I don’t remember what prayer to say—if there even is one—or how to address God. Maybe I am going to fly by the seat of my pants. I suppose when going to God in a time of desperate need, the only kind of prayer to say should be a personal one, not something recited from memory. If I were God, the raw, honest ones would be the first ones answered. I clear my throat and try to not think too much; my heart needs to offer this plea. “God,” I state more firmly, yet still quiet to not bother the others. “I need a miracle. Fast. I need You.” Even though the words are between me and my maker, saying them aloud brings a slew of

emotions I haven’t yet felt. I know that sounds crazy—I’ve been diagnosed not once, but twice, been given the grim outlook of my condition, and been told the only thing that would save me would be that miracle. But voicing it—not in the company of my family or Rowan, but the man who already knew why I was walking through those doors, who already has my life, or lack thereof, planned out, and had it planned out before I was even born—it’s sobering. My clasped hands turn cold and clammy, and I feel a strong pull to go to my knees, finally understanding the phrase “bring me to my knees.” “I’m going to die. I’m not ready. I have so much more to do, to give, to love. I can’t bear the thought of not having Rowan, or him not having

me.” I don’t bother trying to stop the stream of tears landing heavy on my thighs. “I want more time. Please give me … us … more time,” I beg, my voice becoming strained as I try to talk over the lump in my throat. The desperation’s clear, so I pray harder. “Keep me strong for Rowan, God. Don’t let him see me weak. I can’t change Your plans, but I can plead for the strength and guidance to keep my family strong and knowledgeable. I have to be there for them, God.” The man walking out of the confessional catches my attention when he pauses at my aisle. I look up, taking in his tattered work boots, paintcovered jeans, and dingy tee shirt—he’s obviously coming or going to work. He’s a beautiful man—

stunning green eyes, features that scream “man”, with a matching build and more facial hair than I’d prefer on my own husband, but oddly enough, I can’t imagine this man looking attractive without it —almost like it’s a part of him and his persona. “God bless you,” he offers with a sympathetic gleam in his eyes. “Your husband’s a very lucky man.” “What?” I ask, confused. I don’t know him and he doesn’t know me, yet here he is telling me how lucky Rowan is? “I didn’t mean to listen in on your prayer, but you sounded so sad—a sadness only people like us know about. What are your chances of survival?” It’s then I notice the slight tinge of

bleakness lurking in his green depths. He’s missing a part of his soul, and for a minute, Rowan’s aqua replaces the emerald and I’m staring into my husband’s eyes—our future—lying beyond the vivid beauty of his irises. “It’s not good. Actually, it’s terrible. The worst,” I answer honestly. “And here you are, praying for strength to keep your husband strong … he’s a blessed man.” “Who did you lose?” “My fiancée, Teresa. Six months ago. I won’t lie to you, ma’am, your husband’s going to be facing a pain so deep, but with your prayers, hopefully, that pain subsides to remember your life together. That’s what gets me through.” My throat tightens and I swallow hard. I

promised in my hand-written vows to never hurt Rowan, and soon, I’ll be causing him the worst kind of hurt and there’s not a damn thing I can do to stop it. “I’m so sorry for your loss.” God, that’s a stupid-ass thing to say. I really hope nobody says that to Rowan. “I appreciate it,” he responds, seemingly honest, though I still want to kick myself. “It will get easier as the days pass. Teresa had a bone marrow transplant. She was supposed to get better and she did … until she didn’t. Thank the Lord, she went peacefully in her sleep, but because it was so fast, she couldn’t have prayed for my peace and strength, and I really think it would’ve helped.” “Sir, I didn’t know your fiancée, but being a

woman in love, I think I can speak for her in this very emotional, raw moment.” I rise to my feet and take the handsome stranger’s hand between mine. I have no idea what I’m doing or why I’m doing it, but the need to help him heal is so strong, I couldn’t stop myself if I tried. He obviously stopped because

he

needed some

kind of

reassurance, and I need all the good vibes I can bring in right now. “When women are so deeply in love, the first prayer we say is always for the men we adore. She may have never told you she prayed for strength for either of you, but I can assure you it happened.” “There’s no way you can know that for sure.” The man wipes away a few tears with his

free hand while gripping tighter onto mine with the other. “But I can.” I smile sweetly, hoping he’s going to understand what I’m going to say to him. “Call it women’s intuition, call it what you want, but here’s the biggest thing you should remember. When I leave here today, I’m going to go home and crawl into my husband’s lap and pray to not fall apart in his arms. I will not, however, be telling him about my trip to church. It’ll be just another Thursday night in our house, and I’ll be strong so he stays strong because us women … we’re pros at walking by faith.” His tears fall faster and I pull him into a hug, doing everything I can in my power to ease his hurt.

“You’re an angel,” he chokes out between hiccups. “Not even close,” I chuckle. “Just a woman in love needing all the willpower to stand firm for her man.” “God bless you,” he repeats and backs away. The bleakness—at least some of it— evaporates. He wipes his face and nods. “He’s a lucky man.” “Wrong again. I’m a lucky woman.” I don’t think to catch his name before he vanishes out the door, and I think it’s okay. I only hope he got what he came for. I finish my own prayer, thanking God for putting this stranger in my path. Bottom line, I’m going to die, but I’m doing to do it with faith, courage, and strength. And

Rowan’s going to know—at all costs—how loved he truly is. I make my way to the confession booth and pause outside the door. I glance over my shoulder and see another woman, different from the one lighting candles, sitting in her seat, guilt and a need for penance written all over her face. When her eyes meet mine, she sheepishly smiles, and I nod. Whatever the reason, she needs this booth and the resolve more than I do. Maybe today’s just my day of good deeds. Church has a way of doing that to a person, and I’m ashamed I waited until I was in a time of need to walk through the doors—I should have been here all along. I step back and move to exit the church. The confessional and I no longer have unfinished

business. God and I had our little chat. I do, however, stop in my tracks and spin around to go to the altar. I light a candle before I leave—for Teresa. The stranger was young and I’d bet his fiancée was around the same age. Close to my age. Mine and Rowan’s age. If God’s taking me before I’m ready, I’m already on borrowed time. And if I’m going, it’ll be with a bang—me leaving my mark on this world in the most impactful way possible with the little time I have left. “God,” I whisper as I put the long match, already aflame, at the wick of the votive. “Hold Teresa and send her fiancé strength and eventual peace. They both deserve it.”

I blow out the match and leave the church with renewed purpose. A woman on a mission, if you will. I might not be able to fight the cancer, but I’m in control of not letting it beat me in the process. I walk down the street toward where I had to park, nearly a block away. I pass by a convenience store, and for whatever reason— probably a sign if I were a sign-believing gal—I notice the headline printed on the newspaper. “Youngest Patient in Oregon History Passed Yesterday at Age 40 Exercising the Death with Dignity Act.” This is it. This is my future. I could regain some control the cancer stole from me and refuses

to give back. I’m going to get a lot worse as this disease eats away at my body. What better way to save my husband from the horror of my final weeks? If I could lay in my bed with my husband and pass peacefully into the night, in his arms, why wouldn’t I choose that? Why would I choose hospitals and tubes and machines when I could have comfort and happiness and memories? I’ll have to talk to Rowan, and he won’t be happy at first, but he’ll get it. He’s a smart man. He’ll know this is as much for him as it is me. I don’t want him to be my caretaker or nurse— because God knows he wouldn’t let a stranger care for me, he’d be determined to do it himself. I don’t want the fun, happy, and sexy memories I have to

be replaced with pain and strife. This is my sign. I am a sign gal today. This is how I’ll leave my mark on this world. This is how I’ll go out on my own terms. And I don’t believe God would be disappointed. I’m going to die anyway, and this isn’t a selfish suicide—this is a means to an end that’s inevitable. This is selfless. This is saving everyone from the pain of watching me suffer. This is our future. Rowan’s the best kind of husband a girl could have. Even if he doesn’t agree, he knows how dire our situation is and knows I wouldn’t consider this unless it were necessary. He’ll hold my hand and stick by my side. He’s my perfect.

Chapter 11 The First Request Present Unlike other hospital offices, Dr. Braum’s office isn’t cold or uninviting. It’s the exact opposite. Pictures of his large, beautiful family surround the small area—a space with just enough room for a large oak desk, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves

loaded

with

medical

text

and

certificates of achievement, and even a sitting area near the windows. Probably would look larger with smaller scale furniture, but it’s the perfect combination of overdone and just right. It feels … safe. Before finally finding Dr. Braum, we’d searched high and low looking for the person who could help us with our needs. It took a while—

seven specialists to be exact—and it took another three months to get an appointment, but we’re here. He’ll be able to help. Amidst dozens of other physicians, Dr. Braum is our only shot. Doesn’t hurt that in his reviews he’s listed as Dr. Bruce J. Braum, MP (Miracle Performer). As I sit nervously, my knee bouncing— probably out of socket—in the oversized plush chair, I have to redirect my attention outside, using the people milling about the courtyard to keep me from having a breakdown. It’s not enough looking at the images of his wife and children, but seeing every single picture of smiling faces—spitting images of the man before me—makes me realize there are multiple generations of Braums. It’s a happiness I’ll never achieve. Back when we got married—started a life—it’s no secret why we

can’t conceive. It’s been one of the toughest obstacles I’ve ever faced. It’s my only regret, staring down the barrel of nearly thirty-five that I’ll never be a mother, not that it was of my own doing, or Rowan’s for that matter. It still stings. Every time I watch a mother pick up her child to kiss a boo-boo, or see a father tossing a ball in the front yard with his son, I long desperately for that type of love. A love that can stand the test of time. An unconditional, unadulterated kind of love that only a child—your child—can provide. A legacy. Before long, Dr. Braum—the short, stout man

with

an

impeccable

reputation—comes

through the door and looks back and forth between Rowan and me before taking a seat behind his desk. My stomach aches with anxiety, waiting to hear our fate. “I can” or “I can’t” determine how the rest of

my life will play out. Two words seal the deal. “How are you today, Charlotte?” he asks in a timbre so soothing it can ease even the most frazzled of nerves. “Not too bad, Dr. B. Just hoping you’ve got some good news for us,” I respond, then grab onto Rowan’s hand under the edge of the desk away from the doc’s eyesight, silently praying he’s the answer to my prayers. There aren’t words to describe how crushing it’ll be if the result isn’t in our favor. “You know there are other options, right?” he offers, and my heart plummets. The truth is, there aren’t other options. We’ve exhausted them all. He knows that. This is our only shot—my only shot at peace.

“Dr. Braum, you know that’s not correct,” Rowan chimes in, squeezing my hand back, without words telling me he’ll take it from here. Forever my protector and mouthpiece when I can’t put one foot in front of the other… or keep said foot out of my mouth—he’s there. “This is what we want. What we need. We’ve researched you, done our due diligence. We know if there’s anyone to help, it’s you. All we need is a yes from you,” Rowan pleads, and I smile over at the man I fell in love with when I was just a child. I’d gladly challenge anyone who thinks teenagers don’t know this kind of love. Because I have the market cornered. Over the years, not much has changed. Other than physical appearances, he’s still the same person to his very core. The man who’ll give me the world if he can. Even when he can’t offer me

the one thing I want more than anything else, he stands at my side and does what he can to guard my heart from any unnecessary heartbreak. Since the day we met, Rowan has been everything I needed him to be at the exact moment I needed it, even when I didn’t know what it was I needed. He’s my rock, my support system, my biggest fan. Rowan’s my everything. Even through his fear of the unknown, he puts on a brave face, never stopping the fight for ... me. And even here, in this doctor’s office, he’s my voice. “What I mean is, this isn’t the only option. I can show you other ways …” Rowan cuts off the doctor with a quipped, “For us, it is the only way.” “Alright then,” Dr. Braum says, hiding a

smile behind his hand, obviously impressed with my husband’s insistence. “You know the risks. You know everything.” Dr. Braum looks over at me with sympathetic eyes, searching my soul for the answers he had to know before he agreed to take on such a momentous case. It isn’t going to be easy, but in the end, it’ll be worth it. “Yes, sir. The only thing we still don’t know is when we can get started. We’re ready,” I confirm, my voice coming out stronger than I imagined it would. Probably Rowan again, lending me his strength. “We’ll start by running some tests and getting a full workup. I’ll send you down to the nurse and see you two back here in a few weeks. I’d like to give you a final answer now, but until I

get a complete look at the picture with my own eyes, I’m not comfortable. But I will say, if everything that comes back reflects what your GYN sent over, I don’t see a problem getting right to work.” Nodding his head, he exits the office just as quickly as he entered, leaving only Rowan and me sitting in our seats. “It’s really going to happen,” I say softly. “No more waiting.” I can’t help the smile my lips curl into. I know it’s not set in stone, but I know no miracle’s taken place inside my body. I’m going to get my peace. “I love you,” Rowan whispers, squeezing onto my hand still firmly in his grasp one more time. I can feel his nerves through the façade he’s

failing to execute. But there’s no reason for that— we’re going to be fine. Turning my head toward him, I lean over and place a gentle kiss on his cheek. “You’ll never love me more than I love you.” With a wicked grin, he extends a helping hand and escorts me out of the office. Walking back out to the lobby, Rowan and I take our seats and patiently—or maybe not so patiently—wait for a nurse to call me back to begin the blood work. It’s all fairly routine; I’ve been poked and prodded for as long as I can remember, and this time is no different. While we’re here, another couple is ushered back to the doctor’s office, and I wonder to myself if they’re here for the same reason as us. It’s a fairly true assumption

if you’re here to see Dr. Braum, you’ve reached the end of the line and he’s the only person who can do anything other than a generic “I’m sorry”. What’s her diagnosis? Are they here because of her or her husband? Do they love each other the way Rowan and I love each other? All of these questions race through my brain at warp speed, and they might have continued longer if the petite, blonde nurse didn’t summon for me from the opened door. “Charlotte Thorne,” she announces in a sweet voice. “Right here,” I respond. Once inside the cramped room with barely enough for Rowan to squeeze in behind us, she directs me to a chair that much resembles one from

my school aged days—the kind with the small desk attached to the metal-framed chair—only the top is much smaller and has a thin cushion. Resting my arm atop, she quickly gets to work putting the tourniquet just above my elbow and searching for a vein she can access. I chuckle to myself and Rowan catches on. Good luck with that, ma’am … if you can find one, use it, because you’re not gonna find another. I’ve always had an aversion to needles, so out of instinct, I look away as she pulls out the thin butterfly-style needle, stopping my laughter. I instantly catch Rowan’s kind, empathetic smile. He sees my anxiety clear as day. With one hand, he takes mine and rubs small strokes over my

knuckles. He places the other over my shaking leg, giving it a light squeeze. Through all this, his eyes hold mine, and I calm almost instantly. “It’ll be fine,” he reassures me, and I nod my head and squint my eyes as the needle makes contact. Suddenly feeling hot and flushed, I grip onto him tighter. In a sweet maneuver, he crouches down to my level and brushes the stray hairs away from my face. “What was your first happy memory?” he asks, attempting to distract me so I don’t pass out. “My first happy memory in general, or my first one with you?” “Always with the questions,” he chuckles. “Both.” “I was five, I think. My mom had taken me

to visit my aunt and she had horses. A few of them. I remember thinking they were magical, like unicorns. My uncle took me for a ride.” My gaze drifts off into space, as if I’m seeing the memory come to life. “It was the greatest experience. It was like my uncle and the horse were in sync and could read each other’s mind. Since that day, I’ve always been fascinated by them.” “I remember,” he whispers. “All those horse posters all over your walls. Why’d you never take riding lessons? I bet you would have been amazing.” “Probably,” I answer not-so-modestly. “But after they passed away, it seemed like my love for riding, not the love for the animal, had died with them. It was our special thing. I only wanted that

with them. Does that make sense?” “Perfect sense.” Rowan smiles. “Now how about your first happy memory with me. When was that?” “It was the moment I fell in love with you. I knew you were it for me.” “You couldn’t have possibly known that back then, Charlie. There’s no way.” “Pinky promise. I was seventeen and my world started and stopped with you, Rowan Thorne. You were every wish I made on every star, and every dream I’d ever dreamt. You were it.” “We’re all done here,” the nurse interrupts, placing a cotton ball in the crease of my elbow. “If you’ll have a seat in the waiting room, the doctor needs to speak with you again before you leave.”

“Okay, thank you.” I hold my arm close to my chest and again smile at the woman. Or maybe girl. She can’t be more than twenty-one, twentytwo tops. Oh, to be that young ... Then again, when I was her age, I was married to the man I love and there wasn’t anything that could have made me happier. My life to this point has been nothing short of spectacular. I’ve had extreme highs and the lows to match. I’ve experienced extraordinary amounts love. I found my soulmate before I even really knew what one was. I have everything any woman could ever dream of, and after my next appointment, I just know I’ll have the answers to the only thing standing in my way of a perfect life. Control.

But … how the hell did we get to this point? “Mrs. Thorne,” the receptionist calls, and Rowan and I follow her back to Dr. Braum’s office again. When we enter, his face is no longer welcoming, yet stern and professional. “Have a seat, Mr. and Mrs. Thorne,” he says, and we both comply. “I thought it was going to take longer to get your records, but the second your physician heard your name, he emailed the chart right over. I’ve looked at your scans and have determined you’re certainly a candidate, so we can start the process now, if you’d like.” Rowan grabs my hand and squeezes tightly. Dr. Braum must have been able to read my face because I haven’t said a single word, yet he pulls

out an old-fashioned tape recorder. Pressing the buttons on the side, he places it on his desk. “Please state your name,” he commands, still stern and professional; however, I still feel the warmth I had earlier. “Charlotte Thorne.” “Can you please state your diagnosis and prognosis?” “I’m stage four—the biggest of the bads— and have been given up to fourteen months, but I’m not the best-case scenario.” “Have you tried every viable option to treat the cancer?” “Based on the four doctors we’ve spoken to, there is no treatment plan that will increase her

lifespan. This is our last option,” Rowan says, speaking on my behalf. “While we do value your input, Mr. Thorne, I need to hear this from Charlotte.” “I’m sorry about that, Dr. Braum. My husband and I have considered every option available for my aggressive diagnosis, and the truth is, nothing is going to let me live. I’m not a candidate for surgery because of how advanced the cancer is, and chemo won’t do anything but make me sick and give me another month or two, if I’m lucky.” “Thank you, Charlotte. Are you showing symptoms?” “Some, yes. I have short-term memory loss and am in pain constantly. I’d very much like to

live the last little bit I have not being someone I don’t recognize. I’m a vivacious woman, Dr. Braum, and I would like to be remembered that way.” “You’ve done the leg work, Charlie. You’ve dotted the I’s and crossed the T’s. Nothing here says I shouldn’t say yes, but …” “No buts, Dr. Braum. You’ve been seeing me for weeks now. You got all the reports from every other doctor I’ve seen. Every blood draw, every scan. Everything. I don’t need your buts, I need your yes. Can you give that to me? To us?” Rowan turns away, my hand still in his, but looks out the window nonetheless. I’m sure, like me, when he planned on picking out our headstones and talking about wills and final arrangements, it

was going to be far into the future, not in our thirties. I don’t blame him; instead, I give him a subtle squeeze, telling him I have this. He’s going to need his strength for after. I’ll take this one since I won’t be able to soothe him when I’m gone. “You’re only thirty-two, Charlie.” “Yes, Dr. Braum, I am in my early thirties. I’m also dying. Quickly. And if everyone in this room’s aware I will not live to see thirty-three, why is my age even a question? If my scans were of a sixty-year-old patient, would you have the same reservations?” “I can’t say that I would,” he answers, obviously taken aback by my line of questioning. What can I say? My husband taught me at a very young age, when you want something, you go get it.

He wanted me and he got me. I wanted a child, he made it happen, albeit with a fur baby. Now, today, sitting here, knowing my body’s ravaging itself and there isn’t a medication in this world that can save my life, I will fight for this. If given the opportunity, I’d choose to live, hands down. I’d go through all the hell they could throw at me if it meant, in the end, I’d have my husband and my family and our life. But that’s not an option on the table. I have the choice between Death with Dignity and just death. I’m choosing my terms. “Then, Dr. Braum, can we stop the secondguessing and the questions? My time is very limited and you’re a busy man. You’re the one man who can give this to me and you’re who I’m asking, no

demanding, to help. You told me I should make arrangements. Prepare myself and my loved ones. You promised you could keep me comfortable. This, Dr. Braum, is my comfort. Knowing my family and friends won’t watch me die miserable, unhappy, and in pain.” “You’re very persuasive, Charlie. I gotta hand it to you, I was prepared to fight you on this, do everything I could to make you see that Death with Dignity isn’t the only way, but you’ve made a very compelling argument.” “It’s not an argument, it’s the truth. It’s not pretty, but it’s real.” “Is this really what you want, Charlie? You don’t want to try another round of chemo? Radiation? Drugs? It won’t save you, but it can

possibly buy you some more time.” “How much more time?” “Honestly, I’m not sure. After all the rounds we’ve already done, your repeat scans don’t show much difference. Maybe, if we’re lucky, another month or so.” “And that month … would I be stuck in a hospital? Unable to be myself? Probably, most likely, unconscious and fading a little more every day until I die in the night, inside the sterile walls of the hospital? Not surrounded by my loved ones because, you know, they have lives to live, too?” “Yes,” he answers and nods his head, sympathy and understanding in his eyes. “That is what we’d be looking at.” “No, thank you. I would very much like to

exercise my legal rights under the state statute and die with dignity.” “Okay. You win, Charlie.” Dr. Braum opens a folder on his desk, pulls out a piece of paper that resembles a legal document, and adds his signature to the bottom. When he hands it over to me, there’s an arrow sticker pointing to another line. My signature. Without hesitation, I take the pen from his waiting hand and add my John Hanco*ck where it’s required. Leaning back in the chair, I let out a breath of satisfaction. All these months, all this wandering and wondering, and I have my answers. My borrowed time will end on my terms and nobody else’s. “Thank you,” I offer.

“I’m just sorry I couldn’t do more.” “Dr. Braum, you’re a good man and a great doctor. You gave me a fighting chance. And with this paper, you’re giving me a way to continue being myself through the biggest upset the world’s ever seen. I’m not nearly ready to go, but I couldn’t, wouldn’t, bare watching everyone I love fall apart. You might not have been able to save this one life, but you’re saving a dozen others.” “Rowan, you’ll need to witness this form, please.” Rowan turns in his chair and catches my eyes. “Are you sure, Charlie? This isn’t about us, it’s about you. Please, don’t do this for me.” “Baby,” I run a hand over his cheek, throwing every ounce of love I have into our

locked gazes, “this is for me, too. Everything is out of my control. When I go, I don’t want to be in a hospital with strangers. I want to be with you, in our home, in our bed, with our family waiting nearby. I want that peace as I go. That’s all I want.” “But I can’t live without you.” He breaks down, tears falling rapidly, so quick I can’t wipe them away fast enough, let alone attend to my own. “You can. And you will,” I whisper, taking both of his hands in mine. Squeezing them tightly, I stare at him. “You have a gift, baby. You get to keep living. You get to make a difference. You get to go on. I want that so badly, and I can’t have it. You. Can. And you’re going to do something great, I just know it. I love you more than I love anything else in this entire world. In your position, I’d

probably say the exact same thing. One way or another, I’m going to die. Either I win, or the cancer does. Let me win, baby. Let me win.” “This is so f*cked.” Rowan pulls his hands away from mine to wipe his face. “A man shouldn’t have to sign a form so his wife can die. I was supposed to go first, Charlie. Dammit.” He takes the pen and on all the boxes, he places his initials. Before he signs at the bottom, he looks to me again and I nod and smile. “Thank you,” I whisper sweetly. He promised me on the day we married, he’d give me anything my heart desired. He’d never tell me no. And when push came to shove, and he could’ve been selfish, he chose me. He’s beyond f*cking perfect. And he’s all

mine.

Chapter 12 The First Goodbye Words can’t express the bittersweet joy I felt when the doctor handed over the prescription for the medications I would need to ingest. A huge part of me was hoping I’d wake up and all of this would be some horrible dream, but with each step Rowan and I took out of the doctor’s office, the more reality set in. This was it. After all my asking and begging, I was finally being given the chance to die with dignity. “Do you want to go grab lunch?” Rowan asks, probably, much like me, unsure of what we’re supposed to do now. “That sounds good,” I answer and smile

sweetly. He’s the one thing I don’t want to leave behind. If there were any chance my cancer-riddled body would recover, I’d fight it tooth and nail, but there comes a time we have to face the facts— every second that ticks by, I’m closer to death. More than me wanting to die with some dignity, I want to be remembered for who I am versus who I’d become. I can’t fathom being anyone’s burden while my body slips away from me. It’s not fair to me or Rowan. Throughout lunch, we ate quietly, neither one of us spoke, unsure of what to even say. I mean, what can you say? What’s the topic of conversation? What day do you want to die? What room? What do you wanna wear? On the car ride home, I figured it was a good time to open the lines of communication and discuss the specifics with

Rowan. “I’d like to wait until our family can come to town before I do it. What do you think?” “I think they’d like that a lot. Give them a chance to say goodbye,” Rowan responds with a slight crack in his voice. I reach across the console and grab his hand. “It’s going to be okay, I promise,” I reassure him, even though I’m not sure my words are true. Sure, it’ll be fine for me, I won’t be here, but for him, what was life going to be like for the one person in the world I loved more than anything else? “I just want you to be happy. Whatever that means, I’ll make it happen. You’re my world, Charlie. There’s no fixing it like before. This is

what’s best for you.” “Have I told you how much I love you?” “You have, but if you could keep telling me, I’d appreciate it.” A pang of guilt hits me hard in the gut. He’s savoring each time I profess my love for him because a time will come when he won’t hear it anymore and he’s been burning each time to memory to dig out in a time he’ll need it most. ***** A week later, my mom, dad, Sheena, and Rowan’s parents and brother all land in Portland and make their way to our house. While Rowan is picking them up, I drive to the pharmacy to pick up the lethal prescription I’ve waited to fill, just in case by some grand design a miracle happened,

which obviously it didn’t or I wouldn’t be here. The pharmacist looks at me with sad, sympathetic eyes as he hands over the white paper bag filled with the medication that will end my life. As I sign my name to the electronic pad at the register, I look up at him and smile. “Thank you.” “You’re very brave,” he says in a telling tone. “There was a time when this wasn’t a possibility.” “I’m a blessed woman. I’ve lived a great life, with a great love. Unfortunately, my body didn’t want to cooperate. But what’s done is done. Thank you for your kind words, sir.” “You’ll be in my prayers.” “And you in mine. Thanks again.”

I stifle a sniffle as my eyes start to water, make my way out of the store, and drive back to the house just in time to be greeted by the loving arms of my favorite people in the world. “Oh, my sweet girl,” my mom wails as I step out of the car. She nearly knocks me clean off my feet when she flies into my arms. “None of that, Momma. This is a happy day,” I respond as I hug her tightly. “It’s a happy day.” “Get off of her, honey, the girl can’t breathe,” my dad gripes as he steals me away from the grips of his wife to hug me even tighter. “Daddy, you’re gonna break me,” I laugh while he twirls me around the same way he did when I was a little girl.

“You’ve lost some weight, Charlie,” he chastises, and I didn’t feel it was right to tell him that’s kind of what cancer does to you. When everything hurts, it’s hard to eat anything. “I picked out this pretty little number I’d like to wear at my funeral and I bought it a size too small. Can’t be popping out of the seams,” I morbidly joke, hoping he’ll find it funny, and when he chuckles a laugh that’s all dad and male bravado front, it makes me feel like a weight has been lifted off my chest. This is what I need, what I crave—to be remembered for my awkward sense of humor in inappropriate situations. That’s what makes me, me. Throughout the rest of the day, our families spend time telling their favorite stories, even a few

of Rowan when he was a pesky teenager. I may have fallen in love with him before I even knew what love truly was, but some of these tales I’ve never heard, and it feels great to smile and take those memories with me where I’m going. The doctor had warned that I should take the medication on an empty stomach, so while everyone enjoyed a meal I prepared just for them, I sat back and watched in awe at my amazing family. Each one of them eating, laughing, talking animatedly … it was like any other day, which was exactly what I wanted my last memory of them to be like. They were doing an excellent job at not making a big deal of what was going to happen. “Rowan, baby, could you grab me the nausea meds, please?” I ask as Rowan gets off the

couch to put his plate in the sink. He doesn’t answer verbally, but his solemn nod tells me what he wants to say. He’s going to do it because there’ll never been a time where he doesn’t get me what I need, but he realizes our time is almost up. The nausea meds are the first to go down, and everything else will follow. He knows I’m starting the process while everyone’s milling about the living room and making small talk, unaware of what I’m doing. He knows this is the beginning of the end. The first step. After he deposits the small pill in my hand, I chug it back with a swallow of water and excuse myself to the bathroom for a quick shower. As I stand under the spray, I hear the door close just as quickly as it had opened.

“Hello?” I call out to see who’s in the bathroom with me. “It’s just me,” Sheena answers. “Are you showering so you smell heavenly when you go to Heaven?” Jokes. Inappropriate jokes. Perfect f*cking timing, best friend. This is exactly what I need today. Thank God for friends like Sheena. “You’re an asshole,” I laugh, and rinse the soap from my hair. “I’m not sold on what the afterlife is, but I don’t want to go there with greasy hair.” “You’re so vain. I knew there was a reason you were my best friend.” “But that doesn’t answer why you’re in here with me.”

“Can’t a bitch just wanna hang out with her bestest for a few more minutes without being bothered by everyone else? Damn,” she groans, and I smile. Sheena was with me before Rowan, when I hated my parents as a teenager, when I got cancer the first time, when I got married, when I couldn’t have babies. She may have moved across the country, but Sheena has been my constant in a very inconsistent world. She’s my person. “I love you,” I whisper as the tears start to fall. Before I know what’s happening, Sheena climbs into the shower with me, fully clothed, and grabs onto my frail body and just holds me in her arms, not willing to let go. Which is fine by me, as I wrap my arms around her. I’m not ready, either. I

don’t think anyone’s ever ready for this. Who wants to leave the greatest people in the world? Certainly not me. “I’m going to miss you so f*cking much. f*ck cancer, dude.” “I know,” I mutter, pulling back slightly and wiping the wet hair that had fallen across her tearstricken face. “I’m always here, though. You know that, right?” I pat her chest and let my hand rest there for a moment. “Seriously, Charlie? I’m in here being all sad my best friend’s gonna be dead soon and you wanna feel me up in the shower?” Our laughter echoes off the tiles. Apparently, we’re loud enough that Rowan enters the bathroom a few moments later.

“Should I be upset that I have two girls in my shower and one’s fully clothed?” he jokes, and Sheena and I can’t stop ourselves from laughing so insanely hard. Then we start crying again, but not sad tears, the happy kind. The kind where your stomach hurts and you can’t catch your breath because the moment is exactly perfect. “Can you take this peeping Tom out of here?” I teasingly ask Rowan and then kiss Sheena on the cheek. “I’m going to watch out for you, dude. I’ll make sure you’re screwing all the right guys.” “You better, ‘cause if I run across one more dud, I’m gonna have to switch to the ladies.” Rowan escorts a drenched Sheena out of the bathroom and allows me to have my last guilty

pleasure a few minutes longer. The water starts to run cold and my knees are trembling so badly, I know I won’t be able to make it out of the tub alone. I start to call for Rowan, but he’s already standing there waiting with an open robe. “It’s like you can read my mind.” I smile genuinely up at him as he holds my hand and helps me out of the shower. Carefully, he wraps me in the terrycloth and walks me to the bed, where I sit next to the pajamas I picked out a week ago. Nothing says going out in a blaze of glory like wearing a piece of sexy lingerie. “Do you mind sending Sheena back in here?” “You sure? I can help with whatever you need, babe.”

“Yeah, I have one last surprise for you. Go grab the hooker.” With a crooked grin, Rowan slips out of the bedroom and Sheena peeks her head inside the door a few moments later. “You’re dressed this time, right? Not trying to have your husband up my ass because I’m with is naked wife.” “No, I’m not dressed, that’s what you’re here for, so get in here already.” “Oh, we’re to that part,” she mutters with a sad tone. “You remember what I want?” “Yes, ma’am.” Without another word, Sheena gets along with my last request from her. Slowly, almost methodically, she pulls my makeup bag out of the nightstand drawer and goes to work

covering the dark circles under my eyes and adding a little definition to my sunken cheeks. There was a time not too long ago where she would fight to do my makeup—slu*t me up a bit, as she would say— but this time is clearly different. As she touches the brush to the pallet of eyeshadow, I notice she chooses the neutral tones I would have put on myself, the same as when she picks the shade of lipstick. A tear slips from my eye as I realize she isn’t making me look like her as she usually would have done, but she’s enhancing the features Rowan loves the most. After my makeup’s intact, she carefully runs a brush through my frail hair, drying it on low heat. She remembers we can’t run a flat iron or curling iron through my locks, so she uses the rounded brush to add some natural waves. The last

thing to do before she’ll rejoin the family is to help me into my floor-length nightgown with a slit to the thigh and lace around the bust. Once dressed, I scoot up the bed and try a few poses, inciting a few catcalls from Sheena before I’m ready for Rowan again. “I’m always here,” I whisper as Sheena tucks a lock of hair behind my ear. “You better be, dude. Thick and thin to the bitter end, mama. It’s you and me.” “You and me.” Sheena wraps me in her arms, allowing a few tears from both of our eyes, we quickly straighten out, and with a kiss on the cheek, she’s out the door and I hear Rowan walking down the hall.

My family—they’ll understand. I’ve been saying my goodbyes for a week now. I don’t want a room full of people, but I do want them nearby. Not just for my comfort but for Rowan … after. My mom knows when I kissed her cheek earlier, that was my last goodbye. My dad, when I let him twirl me around the living room—for the third time— and I placed my lips on his cheek, I let them sit a little longer than normal … that was my last goodbye

for

him.

Rowan’s

parents,

they

understand, too. All I want now is my man. Our final moments together. I grab the remote to the stereo and cue up the song that reminds me of him more than any other song ever written. As the words of “When I’m with You” by Sheriff pour softly out of the speakers, Rowan enters the room, and his smile is

all I need in this exact moment. “You look more beautiful than the day I met you,” he mutters, climbing into bed next to me. “And you’re more handsome. I couldn’t picture loving anything more than I love you, Rowan. You’ve made my life so perfect. You’ve made me so perfect.” “I’m gonna miss you so much, Charlie. God, I’m going to miss you.” His head drops to my shoulder, and I feel him smelling my hair as his tears stream down my chest. “Don’t, babe. Please don’t. I need this. You need this. One more happy day. One more first,” I cry, wanting him to stop and not wanting him to stop. Never wanting this to end. “But this is the last first. There won’t be

any more.” “Baby, you’re going to have so many firsts, you don’t even know it yet. You’re going to have everything you’ve ever wanted and live an amazing life. A man is nothing without a woman to love him, and baby, I love you enough for this lifetime and my next. There’s never going to be a second where I’m not in your heart. Please believe me.” “I don’t want you to go, Char. I want to be selfish and beg you to stay.” “And I could. I could stop this right now, not take the pills, but one way or another, I’m going. I’m so blessed to have the choice of going before I become a burden, before I’m too sick to walk on my own, before I can’t tell you how much I love you. I’m choosing to give us both the

freedom of that, Rowan. I’m doing this for both of us. I want you to remember me like this. Happy, awkward, and so in love with you I can barely breathe. I want you to remember my voice. I want you to remember how it feels to hold me before I wither away to nothing and without machines breathing for me. I want you to remember me.” “I know you’re right. I know you’re going to go. I just wish it wasn’t you. I want longer. I want a full life with you, babe. I want our life, not something I have to rebuild once you’re gone.” “Are you going to be okay? Because I won’t do it, Rowan. I won’t, I swear. I’m ready, but if you’re not, we can wait.” Rowan hesitates for a second before reaching to his side of the bed and grabbing the

bottles of medication and a glass of water. “I promised you there’d be nothing I wouldn’t do to make you happy. I swore in front of God, our family, and friends that I’d be here to give you your heart’s desires. I will fulfil my promises.” Placing the capsules in my hand, he follows the doctor’s directions and allows me to take them by myself, without any assistance from him, and I do. One by one, I swallow the pills until none are left. At that point, we look into each other’s eyes and know soon, my heart will stop beating, my lungs will stop breathing, and I’ll no longer be in pain. Within an hour, I’ll no longer be here on this earth and I’ll be leaving him alone. That’s when I hear the animated voices coming from the living room and know, deep in my

heart, he’ll never be truly alone. He’ll have comfort from everyone who loves him as much as they love me. He won’t go through this by himself. He may want to, but he’ll never have to. He’ll have people to hold him and help him move on. He’ll have our people. Rowan takes the glass and sets it on the table beside me and pulls me to his chest. “The first day I met you, I knew you’d be my wife.” “The first day I met you, I was so scared. You were exactly what I wanted even when I didn’t know I wanted it.” “You’re my perfect, Charlotte.” “You should thank Sheena for that one. Had it not been for her persistence, I would have never met you at that diner. I would have sat at home and

wondered what would have happened. Actually, most of my life, she was the one pushing me outside my comfort zone. Remember that when she does dumb sh*t and makes you want to punch her … that’s what I do, anyway.” It only takes fifteen minutes before my eyes start getting heavy. I try to hold them open, but with each passing moment, they weigh too much and all I can do is close them. “Do you feel that?” I ask Rowan while he strokes my hair. “What, babe?” “Unconditional love. I can feel it. Inside these four walls, there’s so much unconditional love, it’s inspiring. I know there’s more for me, Rowan. I’ve been loved by so many people, I know

I’m not done yet. Maybe done on Earth, but I have more to do out there.” “I do feel it. And you’re right. You’re destined for great things, and in my soul, I know you’ve got so much more to accomplish. Watch out for me while you’re up there.” “Make me a promise,” I whisper, hearing my own voice come out slurred and slow. “Always.” “Don’t be alone. Find someone to love you the way I do.” “That’s gonna be hard, babe, but I’ll do my best,” he lies, and I know I’ve already made the right choice. My last request, my last thing to do on this planet. It’s not happened yet, but it will, and my heart soars with elated emotions. He won’t

want to try, but he will … because he’ll give me my heart’s desires. He’s my perfect. “I’m sleepy.” “Go on and rest, babe. I’ll see you soon enough. We’ll be together again. I promise.” As he finishes his declaration, I feel his lips on my forehead and I think I smile. This is it. I’m too tired. Too weary. This is the best ending in the history of endings. In the end, I hope he knows how truly and honestly loved he is. I pray there’s more after this and that his very last promise to me will come true because as I drift further and further away, I see a lifetime waiting for us in Heaven, where we’ll have babies and a home and all the things my sickness stole from me.

Everything gets darker and darker around me until I’m surrounded by black, and before I can start to get scared, a dim light starts to get brighter. It’s true. There is a Heaven. I’m being pulled to the gates and I know this life is over, only for me to begin again someplace where cancer isn’t a thing, and neither is heartbreak. A place where I can watch my Rowan find a woman, fall in love, and live the life he never got with me because of the cancer. It flashes … his life, not mine … he’s going to be just fine. And he’ll find a woman who will love him the way I did. Widower or not, he’s going to be happy. In turn, it makes me so unbelievably happy, I run toward that light and embrace all the glory waiting for me on the other side.

Epilogue Rowan The First Anniversary My Charlie died a year ago. It wasn’t a date you marked on the calendar, you just remembered the day your life seemed worthless and pointless. I’ve tried to fulfill the promises I made to her, but with each one accomplished, it felt like I was moving on without her and that made the next one even harder. You’re not supposed to lose your wife before you’d had a chance to love her for a lifetime. We should have had decades together. It was a hard concept to swallow, and even still, I found myself cursing everything around me for stealing her away from me too soon.

An opportunity came up at work for an outof-state promotion, and since everything here reminded me of the short amount of time I had Charlotte, it seemed like a sign or something. I threw my name in the hat, but with the guys who had much more seniority requesting the change, too, I didn’t think I had a shot in the dark. Nonetheless, I did. Within a few weeks, my bags were packed, flight was booked, and the company found me a small apartment in Manhattan. Sheena was the only person I knew in the City, so I texted her when I landed and hoped she could help me navigate a little until I got my bearings. Since Charlie died, we kept in touch, but it always felt forced, like we were doing it for Charlie and not for ourselves. However, the second I saw her again after a year, it seemed right for

some reason. It wasn’t any secret that Sheena was a huge factor in Charlie’s and my relationship. Hell, if it weren’t for Sheena, I wouldn’t have stood a chance, as my dear wife so eloquently put it before she passed. I’d always be grateful she had such a great friend, and the way things were looking, she’d be a great friend to me. “Well, look at you all dapper and whatnot. When did you decide to trade the beard for this nonsense?” Sheena joked as I stepped out of the cab at my new apartment. I’d given her the address, and she promised—and delivered—to help me get settled. “Since New York City doesn’t hold the same values as Portland.” “Well, you’re looking good, Thorne. Let’s

get you settled. It’s not Oregon, but I think you’ll love it.” I grabbed both of my suitcases and Sheena took hold of my carry-on. Together, we walked the two flights of stairs to my third-floor apartment. When I unlocked the door with the code the office gave to me, I was more than shocked when I walked in. You hear New York City and you either think slum or extravagant, but this was the perfect mix of everything I’d ever want. “Wow,” I muttered, setting my bags down in the furnished living room. “You’re welcome,” Sheena whispered. “What the hell do you mean?” “It doesn’t hurt having an inside man, Thorne. Who do you think handles the corporate

relocation for your company?” “Damn, I knew you were in real estate, but I didn’t think you were doing it big time.” “Have I ever done anything halfway?” she laughed, and I joined her. “You’re too much. I suppose you’re the one who picked the furnishings, too? It feels too much like home, without being home, for some stranger to pick out all this stuff.” She winked and I knew she had a large part in helping me with this transition, and I couldn’t be more thankful. Sheena walked into the kitchen and returned a few seconds later with two bottles of my favorite beer. Handing me one, she kicked off her heels and sat on the couch where I joined her. “So how are you doing? Like, really

doing?” she asked. “I miss her,” I sighed. “But I made her promises I haven’t really been living up to, so here I am, I guess.” “I miss her, too. We had a pretty spectacular person, didn’t we?” “We sure as hell did. She’d probably be pissed we were sitting around whining about how much we miss her and not doing something fun. So what are we gonna do? You have to know of something around this podunk town,” I teased, and her face tensed. “What? What’d I say?” “We can go do something after you read this.” Sheena reached into her purse and pulled out an envelope. Before she even put it in my hands, I recognized the handwriting on the outside as

Charlie’s. “Where’d you get this?” I asked, confused as to why Sheena had anything from Charlotte for me. “She gave it to me that day. I was under strict instructions to wait until you came here. I think she was thinking you’d come to visit me, not actually move here.” “You could have told me you had it. I would have been here months ago.” With my blood boiling, I snatched the letter from Sheena’s hand and carefully tore it open, relishing every second knowing that my wife had touched this very letter. It was written in her handwriting. It was her on a sheet of paper, and I knew I should be thankful to Sheena, but I couldn’t get past the idea of her

holding something so precious without telling me. “I’m gonna go freshen up and leave you alone for a minute.” Sheena excused herself to the bathroom, and I just stared at the folded sheet of paper until I heard the door close behind her. Taking a deep breath, I opened the note and tears formed in my eyes as I started reading. My dearest Rowan, I’m so sorry. I didn’t want to leave you and I hope you know that. The fact of the matter is, there would have been no way for me to end my life on my terms without your unwavering support. I needed you to hold the memories of us while I was still so full of life and not me withering away, endless hospital visits, and waking up every morning wondering if I was dead next to you. My

decision was just as much for me as it was for you. It was for us. Now that I know you’re actually leaving the house, and probably showered, I’m so happy you’re with Sheena. She’s a tough nut to crack and won’t tell you, but she’s not doing so hot. I’m no fortune teller or anything, but I’ve know the girl since I was a kid … she’s on the edge of breaking. And if I know you like I think I do, it’s been quite some time since you’ve even seen Sheena. Tsk tsk tsk. You two need each other. I need you to have each other. You having Sheena, and Sheena having you, is the only way I’m able to make this choice. It’s the only way I know you’re both going to be okay. So please, make that happen. Have each

other. Now that I’m done with the nagging wife part, I’m going to be the giving wife. The one who’s making things happen from Heaven (if it’s true that it exists, which I’m pretty sure it does since I was blessed with the greatest husband of all time). Sheena had a letter of her own that she was instructed to open when you finally got your ass to New York. She’s making reservations for you two and your meal, including dessert so you don’t try to skip out on the extra fun stuff, is already paid for … you’re welcome. The only rule for this dinner, other than you being required to show up, is you have to talk. Have a real conversation … with Sheena. You’re going to listen to her complain about her crazy co-

workers, you’ll talk about how your family’s doing. Under no circ*mstances are you to talk about me, unless you’re toasting me for an amazing night out. I know you didn’t want it, baby, but you get a second chance at life. I would do anything to have one, so please don’t take this blessing for granted. Live for you, not for my illness. You deserve love, and while there will never be a second that I don’t love you with all of my being, I want you to have a tangible love. I want you to roll over one morning and hold a woman you’ve allowed into your heart. But that woman has to know a part of that heart will always remain mine, and she’s out there. She might even be under your nose …

I love you more than words will ever convey. You’re my perfect. Forever, always, and beyond, Charlie I reread the letter a few times and each time I heard her voice saying the words. It was magical. It was exactly what I needed. I didn’t want to admit it, but I was starting to forget the way she’d explain things, how she’d pause and wait for gratification, and how much she truly loved me. Time wasn’t on anyone’s side, and Charlie was absolutely right. I was being selfish with the time I’d been given on Earth while hers was cut so short. I owed it to her to not hold back and give it my all. “Sheena, you can come out now.” Slowly, the bathroom door popped open and she cautiously

walked into the living room. “You

okay?”

she

asked,

genuinely

concerned. “I am. Thank you for this, and I’m sorry for upsetting you.” “You’re good, Thorne. Don’t turn into a sissy on me,” she teased, just like Charlie would have. “Reservation’s in an hour. You’ve got about ten minutes to shower if we’re going to make it. Charlotte gave me explicit instructions on what you should wear and it’s hanging in the closet. I’m going to use the guest room to change, if that’s cool.” “This is her night, go right ahead.” I showered quickly, and since my recent haircut, I didn’t have much else to do in terms of

getting ready. I stepped out of the master bathroom and stood at the closet staring at the suit Charlie picked out. Simple yet elegant, just like her. I smiled as I dressed. Leave it to Charlie to have plans for all of us while she’s kicking back, relaxing in the afterlife. That woman and her plans. I walked into the living room in time to see Sheena slipping into a different pair of shoes than she kicked off earlier. Actually, she was wearing something completely different. “Charlie dress you, too?” I laughed. “Would I wear something this conservative? At least she got good shoes for me.” “How long have you known about this?” I asked, wondering how long this plan had been set in place. I know Sheena had our letters since the

day Charlotte died, but all of this … it seems pretty extravagant for a last-minute death bed plan. “When I flew home after the funeral, there was this huge box being held by my doorman. So big he had to carry it upstairs. Inside was this little number, shoes, and a few other things I’m not allowed to tell you about.” “Not allowed?” “Nope, and I’m not breaking the rules, dude. She could be up there ready to strike me with lightning or something.” Sheena checked the time, rushed me out the door, and hailed a cab like a pro. We got to the restaurant, and just like Charlie’s letter had said, we were given the royal treatment: private table, four-course dinner, and of the most decadent dessert I’ve ever eaten, but she

would have loved it. As demanded, Sheena and I talked about everything under the sun except Charlie, even though she was in the back of my mind and I’m sure in Sheena’s, too. On the cab ride back to my apartment, Sheena fished two more letters out of her purse with the words “After Dinner” written on the front, one addressed to me and the other to Sheena. “Should we open at the same time?” she asked and I nodded. Simultaneously, we opened the envelopes and unfolded the letter. Baby, Now you’ve had a real date with a real woman where you didn’t talk about your dead wife. Enjoy your life, Rowan. I’ve done my part. It’s on you now.

Love you too much, Charlie “Oh my gosh.” I laughed so hard my stomach started to hurt. That spitfire set me up. sh*t, she set both of us up. She knew exactly what she was doing, probably because she knew I wouldn’t do it on my own. I’ve never loved her more. “I don’t know what mine means,” Sheena said, passing me her letter. Sheena, No more duds. You’ve got a good one … Right under your nose … No more bad weather for you, sister. Tell that storm to go f*ck itself; it's time for some

sunshine. Till the end, Charlie The cab pulled up to my doorstep, and I held my hand out to Sheena for her to take. “Come up. I know exactly what she means. You’ll get it, don’t worry.”

The End.

The Last Word - Acknowledgements: First, my muse—Teresa Mathews-Clark. Though it’s been years, it feels like days. I can still see your smile, smell your perfume, taste your guacamole, hear your laugh. Our pictures pop into my memories, and as badly as it hurts knowing I can’t pick up the phone and bitch about absolutely nothing, knowing you’re safe, no longer in pain, and watching over me, helping guide me down the right path … it’s enough—barely—to keep me pushing forward. You knew my dream, saw my potential, and every word I type is because you gave me a confidence I never knew I was lacking. I have absolutely no doubt you’re cleaning your heavenly kitchen in heels so your butt stays perky, watching the girls grow into such beautiful, strong

young ladies, whispering in my ear to let it go and look for the good, and riding bitch with Big Poppa, ensuring he doesn’t do anything stupid. You’re my guardian angel. I feel your presence. And one day, we’ll hold hands, skip around those pearly gates, and remember all the amazing times we shared. There won’t ever be a day I don’t miss you, but thank you … soooo very much … for shoving some amazing women in my life. They can’t ever replace you, but they bring me a similar type of joy—and frustration—and because of the push and pull, I know it’s you keeping me with our kind of people. P.S. I always looked better in your glasses than you did. I love you with every breath, and there just aren’t enough words to describe how much I want to see you. Rest easy, TT … our day’s coming. Have my heels ready, my butt isn’t what it used to

be. The love of my life … not a single thing could be done without you. I’m not sure if you see it, but you’re the driving force to the madness that exists inside my head. I learned long ago that in order to keep my insanity in check, I needed an outlet, and for four years, you’ve pushed me to my limits and demanded me to go one step further. I’ll never forget the day you pitched me this idea and you brought something out in me I didn’t know existed. I always knew, especially after Danny’s book, that I needed something for Teresa. You tossed this in my lap and I ran with it. Beyond a shadow of doubt, I’m absolutely certain I couldn’t be half the woman I am today without an equal partner who understands I have a driving urge to be right all the time, even when I’m wrong, and as

crazy as it seems, you give that to me without argument. Sixteen years, babe. SIXTEEN! We’ve weathered storms that could crumble villages, yet we show up to fight even when the odds are stacked so high against us, giving up would be so much easier. My favorite thing about you … your tenacity. Mediocre isn’t in your vocabulary, and if it’s not my absolute best, you demand and pull it out of me. I’m the mother, wife, writer, business owner, Realtor, and human because for the last sixteen years you’ve stood for nothing less than for me to follow my goals, and with pure happiness and excitement, you’ve followed me on that ride. It’s been wicked, and there isn’t a single second of our entire relationship I’d take back. The good, the ugly, the heartbreaking, the betrayal, the breaking of promises, the impromptu vacations, the desire to

be more than what we are and strive only for greatness. Your outlook on life has seeped into me. Being content isn’t nearly enough, and you’ve proven to me day in and out, I deserve more—we deserve more—the kids deserve more. I’m only one woman, but if more’s what you want, more’s what I’ll give you … Every damn time! Until the last wheel falls off, and even then, we’ll cruise past the haters, middle fingers raised, making sure the world knows it can kiss our ass … ‘cause we got this. Always have, always will, forever and ever, amen. The idea of growing gray and old and saggy and less beautiful with you is on my bucket list. And you’re the only old man I ever want to make out with like a teenager. Starbucks bottles, road trips, coffee stops, Tim Hortons, shooting in the woods, happiness … all of that you give me, and as hard as

I tried, I didn’t choose you. My heart did. And does every second of every day. Thick or thin, happy or sad, good times or bad, sickness or health … you’re mine. And Ray … I’m irrevocably yours … without apology or regret. I’ll never be able to find enough words to show you how this second leg of my life was changed by your love and loyalty … but I’m gonna spend the next fifty years showing you how much you’re needed. You’re it for me, Big Poppa. My best friend—Stephanie Elaine—you’re my favorite person to people with. Not just in our professional lives but personal as well. Ups and downs, twists and turns, in between and around the corner, you’ve been there for me without question and without fail since I started this journey. For my whole life, I thought you were only allowed one best friend—one person—but like so many things,

you’ve defied the rules and laws of life, proving me wrong … yet again. I can’t shoot as well as you. I can’t write as beautifully as you. I can’t even begin to step on your level, but every single damn day, you push me a little closer. In my heart, I know damn well that TT sent you to me. I’m not sure I could ever be half the writer and professional in this industry as I am without you there demanding my absolute best and calling me on my bullsh*t at every bend in the road. When I lost TT, I never thought I’d be able to have anyone else nearly as amazing as her to step in my corner and give me what she did for as long as I had her. Again, you defied those laws and rules, and without ever having met Teresa, you’re her twin. Metaphorically, that is. Only a little different, in the best possible way. You’ve completed a part of my soul I didn’t

know I was missing until our first conversation when you more than demanded I do better, be better, write better. My career launched because you wanted to feel. And babe, I feel for you. Not always the good things, but it reminds me of something I read before … sisters fight hard and love harder, and you, my southern babe, are my sister in every sense of the word ... without that whole blood thing. And no, we’re not doing a blood oath … that’s how you get the Hep. More than words, Stephanie Elaine … more than f*ckin’ words. Ohana. Code Blue in Barcelona. Maddie. There’ve been times in the last four years that I’ve wondered where we truly stand … then one phone call puts it back in perspective. Friends fight. They disagree. They fall away. But the good ones—the ones who are meant to be in

your life—they never go away, and thank you for never going away. I’m not always the easiest person to deal with, especially when you have two strong women set in their ways and mindset arguing their point because, well, since we’re both crazy intelligent, we’re each always right. But I will say this … if I had to pick one person to fight with all the time, I’d pick you hand over fist. I miss the time when we’re not talking, but I know one day, in the middle of the night, there’s gonna be a three-hour conversation that puts everything back into focus. We’re not perfect (okay, I am … you, on the other hand …) but we mesh perfectly together. I’m beyond lucky to be surrounded by such strong, talented women. I sometimes feel inferior, but I can say this … being around you, talking to you, reading your words, following your world, seeing

things from all points of view … it’s what makes it impossible to be mad at you for more than five minutes. The best friendships are those that endure even when the house wants you to fold. Just know, with us, I’m always taking a hit, regardless of what the dealer thinks because every once in a while, twenty-one comes up … and that’s the sweet spot … just like us. To my family … thank you for still understanding, four years later, that I possess multiple personalities and when it’s writing time, it’s writing time. My favorite football player, JT, thank you for learning how to cook generic meals so you can feed your baby brother when mom’s pushing herself past her breaking point and never making fun of me for crying while I write. My runt, Brady, who, even though you want—okay, demand

—every ounce of my attention, somewhere deep inside, you know I’m creating something I truly believe in and can’t be able to be your cuddle buddy on some nights. My mother, who brings me sweet tea when I can’t make it out of the garage, leave my office, or lock everyone out of the back of the house ‘cause I’m in the zone. My husband for giving me everything I never knew I wanted. My siblings for not crawling up my ass when I couldn’t go out and hang because the voices in my head were finally talking. To my friends … there are too many of you to mention in fear I may forget someone. You guys are my favorite part. Never pushing me to do “things” because you understand my special brand of crazy. For always making sure I’m my truest self and calling me on my sh*t when I act a fool and

pretend I’m something I’m not. For putting up with the book stuff on the regular because my dreams are your dreams, and together, we can push each other further. For all of you … for loving me. To my beta readers for DEMANDING chapters once they knew I’d been diligently working. Thank you for the honest feedback and the drive to give you more, which meant I had to write more. Thank you for being you. And thank God for giving me you. To my readers … I hope you’re okay with this turn I took. I know you’re used to similar stories from me, stories you depend on. I hope that even though you might be upset with me, you understand I had to write what was in my heart. This story, although it’s not a traditional romance,

was something I could only dream of writing, and it took me three years to build the courage to write it. Yes … THREE long, painful years of withholding these characters because I feared how you would take it. I knew Charlie and Rowan’s story before I knew Skylar and Mira’s. I knew these two before the others said a word on paper, but my fear held me back. I hope you love them, you mourn with them, and you’ll rise above … just like them. And finally, to the greatest team a girl could ever ask for … Tiffany Fox, my brilliant editor, who never fails to amaze me. You took me on with the understanding I can never meet self-imposed deadlines My work isn’t always the best, but you made it shine … and for that … myself, along with these phenomenal characters, are in your debt. Melissa Gill with MGBookCovers who started out

as a friend in a reader group, who did my first cover, and who came back to nail this cover like nobody’s business. Meli, you’re not only a gifted graphic designer, you’re also a fantastic mother and friend. I’m happy to have someone like you in my corner. My agents, Stephanie Phillips and Marisa Corvisiero … it took me forever to get this one out. Marisa, you knew this idea first and all but demanded I get it on paper before the momentum left … and Stephanie, you followed up, made sure I was working, and pushed me to actually finish. You’re both what dreams are made of. Thank you.

About the Author

Ashley Suzanne has been writing as long as she can remember. As a youngster, she was always creating stories and talking to her imaginary friends. Thankfully, her parents also carried this love of fiction and helped her grow into the writer she is today. Ashley is a bestselling author and spends equal amounts of time writing and reading. Being the true book whor* she is, Ashley would rather dive into a good book before going out of her house. Giving up her career in Real Estate, Ashley has officially moved to hermit status. When Ashley isn't coming up with her next story, you'll most likely find her on the couch with a kindle in her hand (probably watching some crappy reality show while annoying her husband by telling him all about her new book boyfriend or spending quality time with her two gremlins ... Sorry, I mean

adorable children.)

OTHER WORKS BY ASHLEY SUZANNE THE DESTINED SERIES Mirage (book 1) Inception (book 1.5) Awakening (book 2) Façade (book 3) Epiphany (book 4) Destined Series Box Set (All 5 Books in One) Pinnacle (A Destined Novella) FIGHT OR FLIGHT SERIES – All books can be read independently (Random House—Loveswept) Raven (book 1) Cutter (book 2) CLAIM SERIALS (Also available in Korean Translation) Claim: Volume 1 Claim: Volume 2 Claim: Volume 3 Claim: The Complete Collection (box set) THE UP IN SMOKE SERIES Rekindle (book 1) STAND ALONE NOVELS Calling Card (Also available in Portuguese Translation) Breaking Noah (Random House—Loveswept) (Co-Authored with Missy Johnson) Accidentally on Purpose (Co-Authored with S.E. Hall) Ashley’s Facebook Ashley’s Website Sign up for Ashley’s Mailing List

Ashley Suzanne is represented by Marisa Corvisiero with Corvisiero Literary Agency and Stephanie Phillips with SBR Media.

Sneak Peek of Embody by S.E. Hall Chapter One Bellamy

“Tell me you feel it starting to sprinkle,” I groan in foolish hope. “No,” Brynn laughs. “Did you, um…” “Piss on my foot? Yep, pretty sure I did. With the added bonus of backsplash as it hits the ground. Let’s not forget that party favor.” “Spread your feet farther apart, and quit making me laugh,” she snorts, wobbling in her compromised position. “I’m no expert at this either and you're gonna make me pee on myself too.” What the hell am I doing? I’m beyond

positive that my parents did not scrimp, save, sell and pawn everything they could, plus work double shifts to send me to college so I could master “the art of squatting to pee in the woods.” And Brynn Kendrick, crouched down in what very well may be a bed of poison ivy with me? Definitely outside her comfort zone as well. But then again…is a patch of poison ivy anyone’s comfort zone? The only reason we’re at this party, in a field, obviously lacking restrooms, is because Brynn’s softball teammates had berated her unmercifully into coming. I’m not sure if they want her here for the right reason—because she’s a great girl—or because her mom’s the coach and if Brynn’s here, they might not get in as much trouble for having a party if caught. Either way, I wasn’t about to refuse to come with her.

When Brynn and I met on campus it was instant friendship. One somewhat socially introverted, goal-oriented girl in search of a topnotch education meeting another like soul. And we’ve been inseparable, best friends, ever since. I am pretty comfortable saying what I think in a small crowd, especially made up of people I know, so I’m not quite as reserved as Brynn, but it’s close. So, being our best chance at a “spokesperson” against any really bad ideas that often “pop up” at these shindigs, no way could I let my girl navigate the shark-infested waters of a college party alone. And our pre-party pact included the golden rule: Never leave your wingwoman. So, if one of us really has to pee, we both have to traipse through the maze of protruding limbs and scratchy bushes to pee. “Are you done?” She asks, still squatting.

“Yeah, you?” “Yes, but as a novice, I have a question.” “Ask away. Although, considering I just pissed on myself, I doubt I have the right answer.” “What do we, you know, wipe with? A leaf? Drip-dry? Geez.” She looks around, as though a roll of toilet paper will magically appear. “This sucks.” “Excuse me, Brynn?” Ryder calls out from his watch post. “Not that I’m eavesdropping, but I have an idea on how to help.” “Oh my God, he heard us. How embarrassing,” Brynn whispers her agony. I muzzle my laughter—she would never see the humor in this situation. Not only is Brynn very conservative and as inexperienced with the world that is guys, dating…and dating guys as I am...but

she’s absolutely nuts about Ryder Banks. And he worships the ground she walks on; hasn’t taken his eyes off her since the time they spent together at Brynn’s oldest sister Skylar’s wedding. But no one is allowed to acknowledge or speak aloud of “the thing” between them, because even they won’t give it all they’ve got...downplaying it and denying themselves true happiness because of Brynn’s family. Overprotective doesn’t even touch upon the “ways” of my best friend’s very large, extended family of crazies. Wonderful, loving, cool AF crazies...but regardless, more than a little insanely “involved.” I haven’t met them all, but the ones I have? They are fascinating in both the most admirable, and scary as hell, of ways.

“Brynn, answer him,” I urge her to “woman-up” and find out his plan. “My calves are starting to cramp. I’m not a star ballplayer like you, feeling the burn here.” “I’d rather not. Just leave me here. I can’t face him now, or ever again.” “Okay,” I pretend to agree, then yell, “Ryder, I’m coming out, but Brynn wants us to leave her here. Ya know, in the woods, at night, alone, at a party.” “You did not just say that. Paybacks are an evil, sneaky bitch, Bellamy,” she hisses. “Like hell that’s happening,” Ryder yells back, his voice sounding closer with each word. “My eyes are closed, I swear. One of you pioneer women come over here and grab my socks. I took ‘em off for ya to…uh…use.” “You,” I designate Brynn before she can

even try to send me. “He’s your escort, not mine. Go get those socks!” Not that I mind the fact he came along, watching out for us party newbies, keeping us safe, but no way am I waddling, drawers around my ankles, over to him with pee trickling down my legs. Her admirer—her job. “Have we met? You know I’m not doing that! No way.” She’s shaking her head, glaring at me. “I mean it. I think I’m almost dry now. Tell him never mind, please.” “Ryder,” I turn on my phone’s flashlight and hold it up in the air. “Walk toward the light and throw us the socks.” “Alright. And I’m not looking, I promise,” he answers and I hear twigs start snapping as he approaches. “Here comes one.” The balled-up sock lands within reach, and I

snag it, giving Brynn a sassy smile. Cleaned up, I toss the sock, fix my clothes and stand...now dry and dressed. “Still want to be left here, or should I go get the other sock for you since I’m no longer squatting with my ass hanging out?” I tease her. “Please,” she grates, low and annoyed. “Go get it. And thank you, friend.” I jog over to Ryder, retrieving the sock in his hand, and gently pat his cheek. “You’re a decent guy, Ryder Banks. I’ll be sure to put in a good word for ya. Be right back.” Brynn gets situated, still a bit prickly at her embarrassment and my goading, as we start toward Ryder...only for her to stop suddenly, causing me to slam into her back. “What the…”

“Ssshh!” She cuts me off. “Do you hear that?” Yes, indeed I do. Someone is screaming like a banshee. “Brynn! Answer me God dammit! Where are you?” “Oh, Ryder,” she blows out dejectedly. “You didn’t.” “Now, let me explain,” he wears a sheepish frown, holding out both hands. “He texted me and asked where I was, and if I’d seen you. He was worried, Brynn. I couldn’t lie to him.” “Brynn! Counting to five and I’m dialing him!” The mystery lunatic screams again. “Dialing who? And who’s yelling? What am I missing?” I fire off my questions.

“It’s my brother. Ryder told him where we were. And that’d be my father he’s threatening to call,” Brynn mutters. “Oh,” is all I can think to say. Haven’t met the brother, but I have met Mr. Kendrick, so I shiver for her at the thought of him being called. Brynn’s dad is the sexiest DILF I’ve ever seen, but every bit as frightening as he is handsome. I’m also next to certain he has mob ties...or is the “Godfather.” I’d believe either one. “Yeah, oh,” Brynn deadpans. “You told him, you can answer him,” she clips at Ryder. “Come on,” Ryder sighs, reaching for Brynn’s hand, which she denies him. When we emerge from the woods, Ryder hollers, “JT, over here, man!” My Lord, Mary, Joseph and all the disciples...running toward us is an exact replica of Mr. Kendrick. The definition of a BILF. Seriously,

they should put his picture beside the word in the Urban Dictionary. Not that I’ve ever acted on an ilf with anyone, but my vulgar opinions are my own, to be only slightly ashamed of privately. “Brynny, what the f*ck?” the damn beautiful man growls when he reaches us. “Why didn’t you answer me, and what the hell are you doing at a field party full of drunks?” “Calm down, I’m safe. Ryder’s here to protect us,” she answers him casually. “I’m not an idiot. I’d never come alone.” “Oh, I’m well aware that Ryder knew where you were. In the damn woods! Swear to God man, I’ve been cool about you spending time with my baby sister, but if you were out there playing grab ass with her, I’m gonna beat the ever-lovin’ sh*t out of you!” A huge vein pops out on his forehead and he moves to charge Ryder, but my calm, quiet

friend Brynn turns rabid monkey, intercepting his attack by propelling herself onto his back, pulling his hair and kicking her legs. “Jefferson Tate, you stop it right now!” she screams. “You know better than that.” “f*ck, Brynny!” he howls and drops to his knees. “You clipped a nut with your damn foot. Get the hell off me and start explaining this wilderness hike of yours, or I swear, one ball in my stomach or not, I’m gonna be kicking some ass!” He’s a Kendrick man all right...ready to throw down for one of his own and quick with the profanity-filled threats I have no doubt he’ll deliver on if needed. So, unnoticed and forgotten, I step from the background to attempt and help my friend. “Um, hi.” I offer him my hand. “I’m Bellamy Morgan, Brynn’s friend. We haven’t met, but, can I help you up?”

“Bellamy,” he repeats, turning my name into something else altogether, spoken with a deep, indecent consideration that rattles every bone in my body. He takes my hand and smirks, devilishly sexy, when I gasp, taken aback by the spark that zings up my arm at contact. “No, we definitely haven’t met. I’d remember you.” He stands, keeping hold of my hand. “I’m JT Kendrick, Brynn’s older brother. It’s very nice to meet you, Bellamy.” My entire body blazes with foreign, exotic heat from the molten suggestiveness in his smoldering, dark brown eyes, locked on mine and the gradual slide of his tongue over his full, bottom lip. “It’s, uh, very nice to meet you too,” I fumble out in a skittish stammer, trying to retrieve my hand, which his bold grip won’t allow. “I just wanted to make sure you knew I’m here with

Brynn and Ryder and assure you, nothing was going on in the woods that should worry or upset you.” “No?” He arches a single brow, as dark as his eyes. “Then what was happening? The party, is that way.” He points without looking away from me, adding a crooked, irresistibly provocative grin to his unwavering gaze. “JT!” Brynn’s sharp tone pierces the air. “You need to trust me and not ask questions that might embarrass anyone.” “Ah, but beautiful Bellamy here wants to tell me, don’t ya?” He winks. I have no siblings, and no guy has ever made it past two dates with me, but I work parttime at The Pit Stop to help my parents with the costs of college. It’s a burger/ice cream dinerthemed little hole in the wall that all the jocks frequent...so I’m practiced in the ways of co*cky

guys who know they have the right stuff to be co*cky. And I’ve learned, the best defense with those types of guys is an offense so bold it knocks them on their pretty asses. I gulp down my nerves, raise my chin, and project a bravado he’s doing his best to make impossible. “If you must know, Jefferson, Brynn and I had to find adequate coverage to squat and take a piss. Not the sexy scandal you envisioned? Sorry to disappoint.” “What is happening?” I hear Brynn whisper behind me. “I believe,” Ryder answers her just as notquietly-enough, “that your friend has rendered JT Kendrick speechless.” Click HERE to continue reading …

First of Many - Ashley Suzanne(ang.) - PDF Free Download (2024)

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Phone: +577037762465

Job: Product Hospitality Supervisor

Hobby: Gardening, Web surfing, Video gaming, Amateur radio, Flag Football, Reading, Table tennis

Introduction: My name is Manual Maggio, I am a thankful, tender, adventurous, delightful, fantastic, proud, graceful person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.