Saturday, March 26, 2016

Preview of Damaged: Book 1.5 in The Fragile Line Series

Synopsis

Jenny Boston couldn’t wait to get out of high school and out of Willow Grove. She was tired of the way people looked at her and judged her based on lies one boy told. She was tired of never being good enough, always being the second choice.

If only they knew her real story.

When the college scholarship she hoped for doesn’t come through, she has no choice but to stay where she is. Things couldn’t get worse, could they?

Then a mistake with a friend leaves a life-long imprint on her heart. 

Her best friend shatters her trust and her heart, leaving her hopeless.

Determined to hold fast to her dreams, she tries again, finding a boy who seems too good to be true. She puts her whole heart into what they share, only to be left behind.


Damaged, with more scars on her heart than she can count, she gives up, losing the only person that truly matters in her life.


June 1995

When Kevin and I arrived at the lake, someone had started a big bonfire, which I deemed completely unnecessary since it was ninety degrees. There were a number of cars there, most of which I recognized. Tyler’s truck was noticeable and my eye always looked for Sadie’s car, and of course it was there.
I started to feel uneasy and was pretty sure this had been a bad idea. “He’s not going to talk to me with her here.”
“Yeah, he will.” I wanted to believe Kevin. I followed him closely to the crowd and surveyed the group. Tyler sat near Ryan looking morose. Ryan was trying to play a guitar and everyone was laughing.
Sadie sat across the circle from them and stared at Tyler, or was she watching Ryan? I couldn’t be sure. Her long hair was down, hanging around her shoulders like a cloak, and I wondered how she could stand that in this heat and humidity.
Tyler spotted Kevin and me and darted his eyes to Sadie, probably checking to see if she had noticed me. I glanced toward her, too. She was giggling, paying no attention to us.
Tyler approached, but walked past us. Kevin followed him and I followed Kevin.
“What the hell are you doing, Kevin? Why did you bring her?” He wouldn’t look at me.
“Shut up and stop being such an ass. She is your friend and you are treating her like crap. For what? On the hope that Sadie miraculously comes back to you? Dude, she’s going to college. She’s not hanging onto you. Get over it already.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Kevin shrugged. “Maybe not, but I do know that Jenny is one of your best friends and she has done everything for you and now you are treating her like this. Get over yourself.” I watched as Kevin turned to walk away, but he stopped.
“Jenny,” Kevin said, looking at me, “my brother is an ass and apparently doesn’t know when there’s a good thing right in front of his face. I told him that last night and he said he knows. He knows, Jenny. Don’t let him get away with this crap.” This time he did walk away, but not without telling me, “I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be over there.”
 I stared after him wishing he would come back and not leave me alone with Tyler, who was obviously angry at me.  
“He did say one thing that made sense,” Tyler said. I turned to face him. “You should let go and stop hanging on because this will never happen.”
“What will never happen?”
“Us, Jenny. You’re nobody to me. I don’t even consider you a friend anymore. Haven’t you noticed I haven’t called?
His words cut into me like a knife, unleashing the anger that I kept deeply hidden. “Oh, I’ve noticed. And I wouldn’t have come here if Kevin wouldn’t have told me you wanted to see me. I don’t want any relationship with you, Tyler! You’re a loser and I’ve sat by and watched what you’ve done to Sadie! I’d be stupid to want to be any more than your friend!”
He studied me for a moment before he walked away. I watched him return to his spot next to Ryan. Kevin was nowhere to be seen. I made my way over to some picnic tables in the distance and sat atop one.
It seemed like hours passed before he came back to me.
“Where’s your brother? I’m ready to go,” I said as he approached.
“I’m sorry. I don’t want to lose you.”
I rolled my eyes. “Whatever. You know you’re not.”
He smiled at me; I looked away. “I know it’s my own fault,” he said, “what happened with me and her.”
I looked at him again, followed his gaze. His eyes were settled on Sadie. She lied in the grass, sleeping or passed out maybe. “There you go. Maybe she’ll wake up and fall in love with the first person she sees. It’s possible, her being a princess and all.”
He turned to me. “You wanna go for a walk?”
“Sure. She won’t see us through her sleep, will she? I don’t want to ruin your chances, you know.”
He laughed. “I manage to do that just fine.”
“I’m glad you realize that.”
I followed him along the shores of Willow Lake in silence. The sun had set and darkness surrounded us, sans the dim light that filtered from the bonfire. The air was still hot and humid, the lake as smooth as silk.
The silence was comfortable. Things could be easy with Tyler, if I let them, if he let them. As long as I convinced myself I didn’t want anything more than what we had right here, then everything would be fine.
“It’s gonna suck with Ryan being gone.” He threw a pebble into the lake and sat on the jagged rocks that lined the shore. “You been working a lot?”
“Just about every day.”
“You still seeing Roger or whatever his name is?”
“We’ve both been working a lot, so I don’t know.” I felt his eyes on me and glanced in his direction to confirm I was right. The moon glowed brightly and his eyes shone like two pennies.
He smiled sheepishly and looked at the ground. “I don’t know about this, Jenny.”
“You don’t know about what?”
He met my eyes. “This friend thing.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t think it should bother me that you’re seeing someone.” He threw another pebble. “It makes me want to kiss you and try to convince you not to see him.”
My heart skipped a beat. I laughed to cover my feelings. “It bothers you?”
“Strange, isn’t it?”
“Well, yeah it’s strange. Especially if you only see me as a friend.”
He sighed. “Maybe I don’t.”
I stood up. “Just stop. Friends, that’s it. That’s all I want. Don’t even act like it’ll be anything more just to get me in your bed!”
He stood too. “I know. I know. Sorry.”
“You’re always sorry.”
“It’s not impossible, you know.”
“What’s not?”
“Us.”
I walked away. He was trying to play with my mind and emotions and I wasn’t going to listen anymore. I told my mind to shut down, not let the words in, not let him get to me. He couldn’t get under my skin again, bend me to his will.
“Jenny, c’mon,” he called from behind me. “It’s not impossible. Maybe I do want you. I’m just having a hard time moving past this friend thing.”
I turned around and eyed him suspiciously. He was lying, I knew it. He only wanted one thing. “Fine. Hold my hand and let’s walk back over there. I’ll sit by you and you’ll acknowledge me and act like everything that’s been happening between us for two years is true.”
“Jenny….”
“That’s what I thought.” I turned away from him again, but he grabbed my arm, pulled me to him.
“Don’t walk away.”
“I have to, Tyler. I have to go hide in the shadows again until your brother takes me home, where I should have stayed in the first place.”
He brought his lips down on mine and kissed me, a long, sensuous, perfect kiss, but it meant nothing. To him at least. To me, it was what I longed for everyday for the past two years. The best days were always the ones where he wanted me.
He pulled back and searched my eyes. “You’re always so angry. I wish you’d smile just once.” 
“What would I smile about?” I whispered, unsure I had the strength to speak in an audible voice.
“This,” he said lowering his mouth to mine again. I tried not to relax and enjoy the feelings he gave me, but I did. He pulled away and smiled at me. I couldn’t help smiling back. “Thank you,” he said.

July 1996

Ryan had called me at work the night he came home on leave. “Did you get my letter?” he asked.
“What letter?” I asked, honestly not remembering the nonsense scribbled on the little piece of paper.
“With the check?”
“Oh, yeah.”
“I was hoping you’d write back.”
“Why?”
He sighed. “Because, Jenny, I miss you.”
“What is there to miss?” I let out a short laugh. “It was one night.”
“That’s all it’s been so far. It can be so much more.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Me and you. I’m home until Tuesday. Let me take you out.”
“I don’t think so.”
“C’mon, Jen. Gimme a chance.” He sounded desperate.
“Ryan, why are you doing this?”
He didn’t answer right away. “I can’t forget about you. Every day you’re on my mind.”
“You know why that is. If I would’ve never told you when I was pregnant you would’ve forgot about me a long time ago.”
“No, no. That’s not it.” He exhaled. “Ok, I’m gonna tell you something, but you have to promise not to think I’m nuts.”
“Too late for that,” I grumbled.
“I’ve prayed a lot for you. It started way back when, and even after I got the letter from Tyler and knew what you did. I was pretty mad and stopped praying for you, but you kept coming to mind when I would pray and when I’d be in church and whenever I had a quiet moment.” He paused. My heart was beating so hard in my chest I thought he’d be able to hear it over the phone. “So I started praying for you again. And I think God’s trying to tell me we should be together.”
I’d always known Ryan and his family went to church, so his spirituality was likely a big part of his life. And since giving my life over to Christ it meant a lot to me as well. But I’d never prayed about Ryan. Why would I? Should I have been praying for him?
“I know you don’t go to church or nothing,” he went on, “but this is a big deal for me. So if I seem like a psycho who can’t move on from a one night stand, I’m sorry. It’s just that if I don’t tell you the truth about how I feel then I think I’d be letting God down.”
My mind reeled with what he said. Apparently I’d missed something about praying for relationships, but since mine with Tyler had always been fine it never occurred to me. “Fine,” I said. “I’ll meet you tomorrow. But somewhere no one will see us. If Tyler finds out--”
“No, no. He won’t.”
The next evening I met him at a park by the Des Moines River. No one would find us here. For some reason, I once again took extra time with my clothes and hair, wearing a little makeup. I’d chosen to wear my favorite shorts. They were Tyler’s favorite too; they showed off lots of leg he said. I donned a navy blue tank top and let my hair fall around my shoulders, despite the unbearable heat and humidity. Usually I pulled it up in a ponytail.
He was already there when I arrived. I parked next to the familiar car he and Brooke had shared in high school. He appeared at my door and opened it for me. “You look beautiful,” he said as we walked.
I couldn’t answer him, or even look at him for too long. He’d grown to someone almost larger than life with muscles bulging in places I didn’t know there were muscles.
He looked good enough to eat.
Tyler had put on weight since we’d been together, but not like Ryan. Tyler’s weight gain had been in his stomach and face. He didn’t shave and shower every day, and sometimes I had to remind him when it was time for a haircut.
Ryan obviously didn’t have these problems.
We sat on a bench, our knees lightly touching. There was a fishy smell to the air, but the sun was setting behind us, the light streaming from in between the downtown buildings and reflecting on the murky river. It was an interesting spectacle, but I don’t think he noticed. His eyes burned holes into the side of my head.
“Jenny, why won’t you look at me?”
“I didn’t know I needed to.” I crossed my arms over my chest. “I don’t want to be here.”
“Why?”
I finally looked at him. His eyes were dark and full of some emotion I wasn’t familiar with. He smiled at me and I noticed how soft his lips looked. My eyes went back to the river. I couldn’t look at him. My thoughts weren’t my own when I did.
“Because when I see you, or even hear your name, I think about, I don’t know, I think about what the baby would have been like, what he would have looked like. It’s like you haunt me or something.”
“He?”
I nodded.
“How do you know?” His voiced was choked with emotion, his eyes still on me.
“Oh, I don’t know for sure.” I faced him. “It’s just a feeling I have, er, had, I mean.” I’d never shared that with anyone, even Tyler. “I even picked a name,” I whispered against the sound of the water flowing in front of us.
“A name? For our baby?”
I sighed and wished I’d never said anything. “Yeah.”
“What…what is it?”
“Mason.”
“Mason?”
“Yeah.” I faced him again. His eyes were distant now; no doubt imagining his son whose name would have been Mason. “Sorry. We can talk about something else.”
“No, I like this. What do you think he would have looked like?”
“You, I hope,” I said with a laugh.
He smiled. “You don’t see yourself the way others do.”
I laughed. “Yes I do!”
“No, Jenny. You don’t realize what a beautiful person you are.”
“Sure.”
“Why are you with Tyler?”
“Why does everyone keep asking me that?”
“Why aren’t you asking yourself that?”
My brows pulled together as I did ask myself that. “He’s always been there for me.”
“Really? When Sadie jumped you at prom, where was he? When your car broke, how long did it take him to fix it? And did he ever give you a ride anywhere? He was there when it worked for him. And I’d be willing to bet it’s about the same now. Do you know where he’s at right now?”
I had no idea where Tyler was; I never did. “It doesn’t matter. I trust him.” As soon as the words slipped off my lips, I regretted them. Ryan would turn them against me.
“So did Sadie.” His words stung and I thought about all the time Tyler was gone and never told me where he was. There could be any number of girls he was seeing. Or maybe just one. It didn’t matter; one or one hundred, he was supposed to be with me.
“What’s your point?” I asked.
He stared into my eyes to the point I was uncomfortable. Again, I had to look away. He moved closer to me and pulled my arms away from me, holding my hands in his. “I’d want him to have your eyes.”
“Who?”
“Mason,” he whispered.
I pulled away from him, rolling my eyes. “There is no Mason.”
He took my hands back. “Give me a chance, Jen. I’ll be home in less than three years. And I’ll spend every moment of every leave with you until then. After that, it’ll be every moment we breathe. You’ll find out what it’s really like to have someone who’s always there for you.”
His words were so convincing, and I debated very seriously. But then when I thought of going home and telling Tyler we were over, that I’d chose Ryan, and packed my stuff and moved back to my mom’s, my chest ached. “I can’t leave him, Ryan. I waited three and a half years for him to be mine. Our relationship is perfect.”
He rested his hand along my jawline, rubbing my cheek with his thumb. “Give me a chance, Jen. Give me the next four days to prove to you all the ways I’m better for you than he is.”
There’d been a time in my life when this would have never seemed possible. But sitting by the river that night with one of the best looking, smartest, most perfect guys I ever knew, anything seemed possible. And as if there were some merit to Ryan’s belief that God wanted him to be with me, scripture came to mind.
Everything is possible if you believe….    
I shivered and closed my eyes as the words went through my mind. This couldn’t be happening. My heart was being pulled in two directions, and the tug was definitely stronger in one direction than the other.

May 1999

Spring hadn’t come to Illinois. Instead winter jumped straight to summer. Alex disagreed with me, saying that this was beautiful spring weather.
“It’s only eighty-five,” he argued. “You’re just used to that Chicago weather. It’s warmer down here.”
“You’re nuts. This is Central Illinois, not the deep south.”
He shrugged. “Well, this is nothing. Just wait until summer really gets here.”
Nonetheless, I turned on the air conditioning in his car as he drove me and Angel to a park near the lake. “Angel’s hot,” I told him when he looked at me.
He had packed a picnic lunch. Was there anything more perfect? I doubted it. Tyler would have never in a hundred years thought to plan a picnic at the park.
When we got to the park, I unbuckled Angel from her car seat while Alex got the picnic supplies out of the trunk. I followed him to a shady spot under a large maple tree. I watched tentatively as he pulled a checkered blanket from the bag and spread it over the grass.
Angel started to squirm in my arms and I let her down. She made a bee line to the playground. I followed her, lifting her to the swings and then to the slide. Alex joined us, and together we pushed Angel on the swings, he behind her, me in the front.
“You want to eat?” I asked her after a while.
She didn’t answer, but I was hungry, so I stopped the swing and plucked her from the rubber seat. But she reached out for Alex, who’d moved to my side.
He smiled his flawlessly perfect smile at my daughter and held out his hands for her. She wrapped her little arms around his neck and he squeezed her right back, planting a kiss on her pudgy, little cheek.
My heart swelled with love in the perfection of the moment. I almost wanted to cry, but a happy cry, thinking about how lucky and blessed I was.
The three of us sat on the blanket while Alex pulled sandwiches from the picnic basket. “Peanut butter and jelly,” he announced, obviously proud of his culinary skills.
Angel’s sandwich was cut in little squares and she eagerly shoved the first one in her mouth.
“Apple slices,” Alex continued, pulling the items from the basket. “Pretzels. Pudding cups. And for dessert, cupcakes.”
I raised an eyebrow at the homemade cupcakes. “Did you make those?”
He gave me a half smile. “No. My mom did.”
I chuckled. “This is nice,” I told him.
“Thanks.” He took a big bite from his sandwich. “How’s yours? Is it ok? I used apricot preserves.” He said apricot, ‘ape-ricot.’ I couldn’t help laughing.
“What did you use?”
He furrowed his brow. “Ape-ricot preserves. It’s like jelly, but made with real fruit.”
“You mean ap-ricot?”
He laughed now, understanding. “No, I mean ape-ricot.”
“So, do you like to-mah-toes, too?”
“No,” he said, still chewing. “To-may-toes are fine. So are po-tay-toes.”
Our eyes met over the sandwiches, apples and pudding cups. “I love you,” I said.
“I love you, too, Jen.” He gave me that half smile again. “But I forgot something for us to drink.”
“What? No, pop?”
He laughed. “I never would have brought pop. I would have brought soda, but not pop.”
“That’s ok,” I said. “I lived up there for seven years and I always said soda. It’s like it was ingrained in me.”
The two and a half hour drive between Springfield and Joliet didn’t seem like much, but they were worlds apart, both in dialect and the overall way of life.
Angel stood up, looked at me with peanut butter smearing her cheeks. I dug in the diaper bag and found the baby wipes to clean her face. Then I gave her an apple slice. “Do you have spoons for the pudding cups?” I asked Alex.
His eyes went wide. “No.” He looked in the picnic basket, digging frantically. “I can’t believe I forgot spoons too!”
“It’s ok,” I said. “It’s the thought that counts.”
He snorted. “Well, apparently I didn’t think very much as I planned this.”
I opened one of the vanilla pudding cups, held it to my mouth and stuck my tongue in, pulling out a dollop of pudding. “Who needs a spoon?” I said.
He laughed. “You got a little…,” he said, brushing his finger at the corner of his mouth.
I ignored him, sticking my tongue into the pudding again. “A little what?” I tried to purposely get more pudding on my face.
Amused, he stared at me, a smile frozen on his beautiful face.
“Can you get it? The pudding?” I asked, pointing to my mouth. I handed Angel another apple slice. Alex had cut them thin enough for her to eat.
He reached into the picnic basket and pulled out a napkin. “Here,” he said, handing me the paper square.
“You remembered napkins, but not spoons?” I asked. He shrugged. I balled the napkin up and tossed it at him playfully. “I want you to get the pudding off my face.”
He picked up the napkin I had tossed at him and smoothed it out, and then reached across the blanket. I grabbed his wrist. “Can I have a kiss?” I asked.
His eyes grew playful as he took the pudding cup from my hand. He stuck one finger inside and scooped an ample amount of pudding out. I thought he was going to eat it, but instead, he went toward me, smearing my mouth with vanilla pudding.
“Hey!” I yelled.
He was laughing as I licked my lips and moved in to kiss me, pudding and all. My intentions for him wiping the pudding from my face were to get him close enough to kiss. I didn’t intend for there to be more pudding on my face, but it didn’t really matter.
I pulled him on top of me, lying back on the blanket as he kissed me. His kisses were so soft and gentle and full of love. The warmth that spread from him to me was like a wildfire that I doubted could ever be extinguished.
Angel plopped herself onto us, her lips making little kiss sounds. I pulled her to me, kissed her forehead. I took the napkin from Alex’s hand and wiped my mouth and his of the pudding.
Then I prayed. I prayed while I stared into his eyes as blue as the sky and asked for God to let Alex be the guy for me. The one who would love me forever and never let go. The one who would be a father for Angel. The one who I would spend the rest of my life with.    

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Pieces Preview

Pieces should be available for purchase later today or tomorrow on Amazon. Here's the preview I promised last weekend but didn't get done. For those of you desperate to see Sadie rise above her demons, you may find some of that in this installment. However, real life cannot be fixed in the pages of one book. Most alcoholics and addicts suffer for years before they are able to be well. The same applies to victims of domestic violence. The average abused woman will leave her abuser seven times before she's had enough. And let's not forget the the alcoholics, addicts, and abused woman who do not survive for these reasons. I believe in Sadie, and I hope you do to. Her story is a beautiful one, and I promise you, it has a beautiful ending. 

Book Summary: 
The pieces of Sadie’s life are falling from her heart like rain, and she doesn’t even care. Having lost so much in such a short period of time, she wonders if she’ll ever feel whole again. Then Ryan strips her of one of the biggest pieces of herself.

Ryan is tired of picking up the pieces Sadie keeps dropping of herself. No one seems to realize that every time she loses a piece of herself, his pieces fall out of place as well. Something has to change. Somehow, he needs to keep things in order.

Trevor trails behind Sadie, picking up every piece she drops. He has to be the opposite of Ryan to gain her affection, but at what price? When she begins to take up a piece of his heart, he knows a fragile line has been crossed, and there’s no turning back.

Torn between the promises she made to Alex and all she feels for Corey, Jenny isn’t sure which piece of her heart to pick up and which to leave lying on the ground. She reaches out to Sadie for advice, but it takes more than that to realize what she really wants.

Corey didn’t just give Jenny a piece of his heart; he gave her the whole thing. Despite not knowing who Jenny will choose, he gives her all he can give. When he realizes his all might not be enough, he resorts to desperate measures.

In this third installment of The Fragile Line series, Mile 258 starts to get noticed and their future brightens, as long as the guys can keep the pieces of their lives fitting neatly together and not overlapping one another. Fragile lines will be crossed, invisible strings will be strung.  

Something from the beginning:
Sadie Montgomery rested her head on Ryan’s chest, listening for his heartbeat. Sometimes she wasn’t sure he had a heart, so it was reassuring to hear it.
He played absently with her blonde curls. She lived for these moments. When he was silent, his hands soft, love seeming to be an emotion he knew and felt.
She forgot what a normal relationship looked like- not that she ever had one- until Corey and Jenny got serious. He always smiled at Jen, said sweet things, held her hand, offered to do things for her. Sadie wondered why that couldn’t be her. Not that she wanted to be with Corey, she just wanted Ryan to treat her that way.
“Baby, have you talked to your lawyer lately?” Ryan asked.
“Not since Wednesday.” Sadie was suing her old employer for sexual harassment after being fired. She claimed her boss said she could keep her job after failing a drug test in exchange for sex.  
“What was the offer again?”
“One-twenty-five. He thinks I should hold out for at least two.”
He sighed. “We need money now though.”
She sat up, narrowed her eyes. “If it were up to me, I’d hold out for ownership of this county. And since I’ll never have any dignity or self-respect, I think I’ll wait until the money makes me think I can buy self-worth.”
His expression softened. “I didn’t mean anything. Chill out.”
She stood, picked up her near-empty drink. “What you meant was you can’t take care of me and you need my money to do what you should be able to do on your own.” She went to the kitchen, seething, so sick of his inability to take care of her. Especially after all she had done for him.
After filling half her glass with vodka and topping it off with Sprite, she returned to the living room. Dropping to the couch, she took a long drink. Before she got comfortable, he pulled her long blonde hair, jerking her head back. She cried out from the pain.
“Watch your mouth.” He let go of her, pushed her to the other side of the couch. “I’m as sick of being here as you are.” They’d been staying at Trevor and Corey’s apartment for weeks now, ever since their furnace went out.
She scoffed, pulled her body into the fetal position. “Do something about it then.”
He glared at her, and then turned his focus back to the TV. She waited a few minutes before grabbing her drink. She sipped until half the glass was nearly empty. Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes. Warmth grew throughout her body. She drank at a steady pace all day and only sucked down her drinks quickly when she wanted to escape. When she crossed from her constant buzz to actually being drunk, Ryan didn’t seem as mean, her life didn’t seem as hopeless, and Aaron didn’t seem as dead.
When she opened her eyes, he was staring at her. She stared back, finishing her drink. “I don’t understand why I love you so much,” he said. 
She rolled her eyes. “Because you’ve known me so long you feel obligated to.” He told her that once. They had known each other their whole lives, their parents being friends, attending the same school and church.
He chuckled. “No, what I said was I’ve known you so long it would be impossible not to love you.”
“Same thing.”
“It’s not, but whatever.”
Their eyes held, and gone was the moment when he pulled her hair. “So why do you love me so much? ‘Cause it seems like you hate me.”
His mouth formed a straight line. “Did you seriously just say that?”
She smiled sweetly, but said nothing.
He moved on top of her, her empty glass fallen to the floor, holding her down. His huge hands pinned her arms above her head.
She kicked him. “Stop!”
He brought one of his hands to her throat. “Look, I know you want to die. You want me to kill you, and that’s why you keep picking fights with me. It’s not gonna work. I’m not gonna rot in jail for your stupid ass. So, if you want to keep pissing me off, then you’re gonna deal with my anger, no matter how I dish it out.”
She was unfazed, partly because she was suddenly drunk, partly because nothing he did scared her. “So, what’re you gonna do?”
*
Jenny Boston stared at the little gold ring of hearts in her jewelry box and wondered how she could word an email to end her relationship with Alex Starr. He couldn’t have really thought she would wait two years, could he?
            She tried to remember what had made her love him, but she could barely recall the sound of his voice. His face she remembered, thanks to photographs. His blond hair, blue eyes, tanned skin. She couldn’t remember how his eyes looked when he said he loved her. The feeling of his lips on hers was gone. The scent of his skin, gone.
            All of it had been replaced by new memories. Fresh ones every bit as deep as the ones Alex had given her.
            She pulled the ring out of her jewelry box and returned it to her left ring finger, remembering how it signified a love that would never end. But like a fire without a flame, time had turned her love for Alex to embers that might never be relit.
            At the sound of the apartment door opening, Jenny took off the ring and dropped it back into the jewelry box. She went into the living room to see her mom taking off her coat, dropping her purse to the couch.
            At twenty-four years old, Jenny lived with her mom again.
            “Hi, Mom.”
            “Well, hello stranger. To what do I owe this pleasure?”
            Jenny smiled, amused. She spent nearly every moment she wasn’t at work with Corey. Most nights she slept in his bed, enveloped in his arms. “Sadie and Ryan are staying at Corey’s, and I can’t handle it anymore.” She paused. “So, he’s coming over here. I’m making spaghetti.”
            Her mom nodded. “Ah. I see.” She hung her coat, turned back to Jenny. “Are you upset Ryan didn’t leave Sadie for you?”
            Jenny laughed. “Not even close.” Her mom eyed her cautiously, maybe wanting more explanation. “Their furnace is broken, so they’ve been staying over there until they get it fixed. There’s nothing between me and Ryan, and Sadie and I are friends.”
            “Never thought I’d hear you say that.” Her mom went to the fridge and removed a can of soda. “So, I’m finally gonna meet this Corey guy?”
            Jenny glanced at the clock. “Yeah, he’ll be here soon.” She turned on the pot of water to start boiling the pasta. The sauce had been simmering for half an hour, the salad tossed, garlic bread ready for the oven. “But I haven’t told him about Angel.” She caught her mom’s eye. “And I don’t need a lecture. When the time is right, I will.”
            “She’s your daughter. You shouldn’t be ashamed.”
            “I’m not.” She stared at the pot of water while her mom went to the living room.
            While she waited for the water to boil, she went back to her bedroom and gathered up the photos decorating her room and placed them on her closet shelf. The last thing she needed were the faces of Alex and Angelica staring back at her, reminding her of all her secrets and lies.
            This made her feel like she was betraying her daughter, like she was ashamed.  At this point, after more than a year of being around Corey, not to mention having known Sadie and Ryan for ten years, how could she tell them she had a daughter living in Springfield she couldn’t take care of?
            A knock on the door prompted Jenny to close her closet and move into the living room where her mom had opened the door. There stood Corey, still in his work clothes, a duffle bag over his shoulder, looking as beautiful as a late summer sunset. His pale blue eyes sparkled, his smile warm. In his hands was a small bouquet of carnations.
            “You must be Corey. I’m Tammy.”
            He held out his hand. “Nice to meet you, Tammy.” He offered the flowers. “These are for you.”
            Tammy moved from the doorway, flowers in hand, to let him inside. “Jenny, get a vase.” She followed Jenny into the kitchen, leaving Corey in the living room. “He’s friends with Ryan?”
            “Only by obligation. They play in that band together.” She poured the pasta into the boiling water; put the garlic bread in the oven.
            It was one of the few Friday nights Corey’s band, Mile 258, didn’t have a show. After dinner, where Tammy inquired a million things of Corey, he and Jenny disappeared to her bedroom. They changed from their work clothes into shorts and t-shirts.
            “What’s everyone else doing tonight?” Jenny asked.
            “Don’t know. Don’t care.” He pulled a bottle of Malibu rum from his bag. “Got cups?”
            She giggled, went to the kitchen, grabbed a deck of cards from the junk drawer, and two small juice glasses. “Go fish?” she asked when she returned.
            “Same rules?”
            “Sure.” The rules were if you had to “go fish” you also had to take a shot of liquor.
            They were sitting on her bedroom floor near the foot of her bed. A bedside lamp illuminated the room. A few go fishes into the game, Jenny felt heat in her cheeks. She got up and pushed the “play” button on her CD player while Corey got his third go fish. Shania Twain filled the air.
            “Seriously? Country? I thought you were a rock ‘n roll girl.”
            She laughed. “There are lots of things you don’t know.” His expression hardened. “Besides, Shania is a crossover artist, don’t you think?”
            “Yeah, to pop. Another genre that sucks.” He looked at his cards. “You have a five?”
            She had a five, but wanted him to feel a buzz like hers. “Go fish.”
            He narrowed his icy blue eyes, but took a card from the pile, then drank the shot.
             “Do you have a five?”
            He looked at his deck of cards for a moment, before realizing what happened. “Hey, that’s cheating!” He tossed the card at her.
            “How about a king?”
            Without even looking at his cards he said, “Go fish.” He poured more than a shot into her glass. “Drink up.”
            She did.
            The game continued this way for a while-- both of them lying about their cards, forcing the other to drink.
            “Let’s up the ante,” he said. “Let’s do a truth or dare when you get a go fish, along with the shot.”
            She considered this in her intoxicated mind. A dare she could handle; a truth, not so much. “Ok, fine.”
And of course, when she asked for a jack on her turn, he poured her a shot. “Truth or dare?”
“Dare.”
He handed her the glass of rum. “I dare you to take off your shirt.”
“Seriously? When did this become strip poker?”
He chuckled. “You want truth?”
Without contemplating, she said, “Sure.”
He licked his lips, waited for Jenny to drink her shot. “Have you broken up with Alex yet?”
Their eyes met and held. It had been three weeks since she took off Alex’s ring; two weeks since she and Corey had crossed the fragile line out of friendship and into something more. But, no, Jenny hadn’t technically broken up with Alex.
She heaved a sigh and pulled her t-shirt over her head.
“Jenny…”
“Don’t.”
He looked at his cards, the pain written on his face. “It’s your turn.”
“Do you have a…kiss?”
“Go fish.”
“I don’t know what to say. I mean, how am I supposed to break up with someone in an email?” She picked up her t-shirt and put it back on.
“Dear Alex, I’ve met someone else and he lives here, not in Pakistan. Sorry about your luck. Sincerely, Jenny.”
She stifled a laugh. “It’s Tajikistan. And it’s not that easy. We made promises to each other.”
After a moment, he asked, “Do you have a jack?”
Absentmindedly, she tossed him the jack. “Cheater.”
“That’s what Alex will be calling you if you don’t break up with him.”
“You’re an ass.”
He smiled. “Like you didn’t know.”
“Do you have an ace?”
He tossed her the card. “Are you mad?”
“If I wasn’t drunk I might be.”
“You’re drunk?”
“Just a little.”
He leaned toward her. “Truth or dare?’
“I didn’t have a go fish!”
“You’re not drunk!” He looked at his cards. “Do you have a ten?”
“Go fish!” She poured rum into his glass. “Truth or dare?”
“Truth.”

She realized there was only one thing she wanted to know. “Did you sleep with Sadie?”

Something from the middle: 
“Pull your hair up so it doesn’t get in the food,” Ryan told Sadie. They were in their little kitchen. He was going to show her how to make pancakes.
“I thought you liked my hair down.”
“I don’t like it in my food.”
“I won’t put it in the food.”  
Was it really necessary to explain this? “A piece could fall out and end up in the batter.”
She blinked at him, leaving the impression she still didn’t understand his point. “But you still like my hair, right?” Her long blonde curls were pulled into a careless bun. “It’s not too long?”
He took a deep breath. She could be so exhausting. “Your hair is beautiful.” Pulling her close, he wrapped his arms around her. “Don’t ever cut it.”
She smiled at him, kissed his chin. “I won’t.”
He glanced at the clock. It was only nine o’clock and he didn’t have to be at work until three. Tomorrow he was off, but the rest of the week he worked twelve hour shifts. Trevor seemed to be taking a back seat when it came to his duties at the gym lately. Maybe he was planning to quit. He hoped that was the case. Even though he’d barely worked there two years, he would be a shoo-in for the manager position.
“How do you know when to flip them?”
He pointed at the pancakes. “Watch the edges. When they look dry and the bubbles on the top start to pop, that’s when you flip them.”
“So, now?”
He nodded and watched as she flipped all three successfully. A small squeal escaped her lips when the last one hit the pan. He couldn’t help smiling with her. It took so little to make her happy.
As they ate, he asked, “Do you want to go shopping? I don’t have to work until three.”
She shrugged. “If you want to.” Lifting her fork to her mouth, she asked, “Where do you want to go?”
He wanted to go to Ritz’s Music, which was in the mall, to get a new guitar. “The mall.”
“Definitely. Did you think I wouldn’t go?”
They ate quietly and he tried to think of something else to say that would make her happy. He’d really lost his cool with her over the weekend. Brooke got married and he didn’t go. He could’ve lied to her and told her he and Sadie broke up. Being his twin, she would have seen right through his lie. Instead, he’d taken out his frustration on Sadie, calling her names, telling her he hated her, pointing out how he’d chosen her over his own sister. He gave her a black eye, and was pretty sure there were injuries he couldn’t see. The one thing he truly regretted was telling her he wished she would have stayed with Aaron.
Life wasn’t easy by any means, but going through it without Sadie would be worse. She gave him a reason to try. He needed to prove he was worthy of her and her love. There was a time in his life he never would have imagined thinking that. He be worthy of her. But now, given the relationship they shared, the ups and downs they faced, he knew people said she could do better. Or she would be better off without him.
Maybe she would be. He had missed the signs she had alcohol poisoning. At least he had the sense to call Jenny that night. She could have been dead by the time he got home from his show. She hated having a babysitter, as she called it, but it was for her own good. The suicide talk had subsided, but he could never be sure. If she would get a job, maybe she would feel better about herself.
Today, shopping could possibly do the trick.
“Maybe this weekend you and Jenny can go down to Michigan Avenue and shop.”
Her eyes went wide. “Seriously?”
He smiled and nodded.
“Just me and her? Without you?”
He nodded again.
“Seriously? Me and Jenny? No Trevor? You’re gonna let me go downtown with just Jenny?”
“Well, if Trevor wants to go, I guess he could. And I want you to take the train.”
She waved her fork in the air. “Whatever. I’ll walk if I have to!” Her smile faded. “Why are you letting me go?”
“What do you mean?”
She sighed, set her fork on the edge of her plate. “You don’t let me do things like that. Especially not with Jenny.”
He met her eyes, narrowed them slightly. “I can try, can’t I?”
“Try what?”
“Try to make things better.”
They stared at each other for a moment, and he figured she was making a mental list of the things he could do to make life better. Something about having this money now, the financial stressors gone, made him feel better about his ability to take care of her. Even if it was technically her money.
She was sick with addiction. He told her she would go to rehab when this money came, but neither had mentioned it. After he buttered her up by loosening his grip on her every move he’d suggest it. He’d do it in a loving moment, let her know his concern was genuine. The way things were now, she saw rehab as a way he tried to control her. And if she didn’t want to get better for herself, it wouldn’t matter how much time she spent there.
She stood and grabbed the plates from the table. He grabbed her wrist. “I love you.”
She smiled, but it didn’t meet her eyes. “I love you, too.”
He let go, and she went to the kitchen. She reappeared, looking like she wanted to say something. He raised an eyebrow and waited.
“We never kiss. You know, like make out.”
He chuckled. “Make out?”
Her smile was beautiful. “Yeah, like in high school.” She giggled. “Just kiss, and that’s it.”
He held his arm out; she came to him, his arm sliding around her narrow waist. “Two things. First, who did you just make out with in high school? And second, what’s the point in just making out?”
She giggled, dropped to his lap. Snaking her arms around his neck, she touched her nose to his. “Tyler and I just made out, until…well, until we started doing other stuff. And there were other guys. Making out is nice. You know someone really likes you if they can kiss you that long without having sex.”
“What other guys?”  
“What?”
“What other guys did you make out with in high school?”
Her cheeks flushed, her eyes fell. “None.”
“That’s what I thought. Not even Josh?”
She scrunched her nose. “No. I’m sure he would’ve liked to, but no.”
“I know he would’ve liked to.”
She rested her head on his shoulder. “Did you like me then? When Josh liked me?”
He sighed and weighed his options. If he told her the truth, her feelings would be hurt. She developed a crush on him around the time they graduated high school, but he didn’t feel that way for her. In fact, he didn’t feel anything until about a year after they started dating. Even then, his thoughts were often somewhere else. But the way she loved him was exceptional, and he started missing her after spending leave with her. Who’d ever thought, five years later, it would turn into this?
All he wanted was to make Jenny mad by being with Sadie.
“I thought about you all the time.” This was the truth. She didn’t need to know his thoughts centered on having sex with her. She was beautiful, after all. He didn’t know a guy who hadn’t fanaticized about having sex with her.
She giggled and kissed him once. “Can we make out? Like we’re in high school?”
“Thought we were going to the mall?”
“Just for a little bit?” Her voice was small, like a child begging for one more ride on the merry-go-round, and he had to give in.

Something from near the end: 
There had been a time when Jenny thought this day would never come.
Two years had nothing on forever. That’s what she and Alex told each other to get through the last few weeks before he left? The ring he’d placed on her left hand to signify how their love would never end had seemed true at the time.
Jenny never imagined so much could happen in two short years.
She breathed in the baby-sweet scent of her daughter’s hair, her heart filling with all the regret that can be acquired in such a short time. Yes, two years is a long time, and no, it had nothing on forever. But when you’re apart from someone you love, it’s an eternity. It gives you ample time to fill your mind with doubt and anxiety and questions of your own self-worth.
Angel was asleep next to Jenny, her breaths even and perfectly measured. She arrived earlier to Jackie’s house and spent the day with Angel. It had been far too hot for the park, so instead they went to an indoor playground and Dairy Queen afterward. When they came home, she bathed her own daughter for the first time in nearly two years. In fact, Alex may have been there the last time she gave Angel a bath.
Jenny turned her head to see the clock. Alex was due in town late tonight, maybe around midnight, and she asked him to call no matter the time to make arrangements for the morning. She had specifically said morning. The sooner she got this done, the sooner she could relax and feel this stress dissolve.
She gently slid her arm from under Angel, careful not to wake her. The little girl drew a ragged breath, but returned to her normal cadence.
Creeping out of the bedroom quietly, she made her way to the living room where Jackie had laid out a blanket and pillow for her. She got comfortable and pulled the cordless phone to her chest, waiting for it to ring.
Less than an hour later, it did.
“Hello?” she said, her voice suddenly choked with emotion.
“Jenny?” Alex’s voice came across the line, sounding as she remembered it, not as it had when she called him in that hospital across the world.
“Alex?”
“How are you?”
Jenny breathed in deep. “Good. How are you?”
“Fine. Glad to be home.” He cleared his throat. “How are Angel and the boys?”
His mind filled with the images of Alex playing with Angel and her nephews, and her dreams of what a wonderful father he would be. “They’re good.”
“Were you sleeping?”
“No. I was waiting for your call.”
There was uncertainty in his voice. “Can you see me tonight?”
She sat up. “Tonight?”
“Yeah.”
“I guess.”
“If you wanna wait….”
“Wait? No, I can see you tonight.”
He sounded relieved. “Ok, good. Do you remember that park we went to that one time? When we had the picnic?”
“On the lake?”
“Yeah, there. How about in, like, forty-five minutes?”
“Ok. I’ll see you there.”
Forty-five minutes later, Jenny pulled off East Lake Drive into the parking lot to the park. There was one car in the lot and she hoped it was Alex. As she pulled into a spot near it, Alex got out of the driver’s seat of the other car.
His blond hair was considerably longer, falling almost to his shoulders, but the same sky blue eyes she had once loved shone in the moonlight. He came to her car door and opened it. Taking her hand, he led her out of the car and drew her into an embrace.
She let her arms go around him, taking heed to the familiarity of his touch. Had it really been two years? Being here now, seeing him, feeling him, smelling him, it seemed it was just yesterday she said goodbye.
No, two years had nothing on forever.
“Alex. God, I’ve missed you so much.”
He pulled back slightly, met her eyes. “I’ve missed you, too. You look beautiful. Better than I remember.”
“You, too. I forgot….”
He smiled, and her heart melted. “I forgot, too, but now, seeing you here, holding you….”
She nodded, well aware of all the emotions surging through her. “I know.”
“Let’s go by the water.”
They walked hand-in-hand to the shore. The moon hung low in the sky, reflected off the still waters of Lake Springfield. City lights shone in the distance on this hot summer night. Jenny had no reservations in the moment when they sat together, facing each other, still holding hands.
She smiled, suddenly feeling apprehensive. “Two years really isn’t that long.”
“Seems like it was just yesterday that I left.”
They studied each other, Jenny reflecting on all that had happened since the last time they were together. “So much has happened….”
His gaze fell. “I know.” His eyes lifted, but they were shadowed now. “Things that can’t be undone.”
Corey’s face entered Jenny’s mind, and she quickly dismissed it. Alex was home. She had waited for this day for two years, and now it was here. How could she have ever forgotten him? He was more beautiful than she remembered, with a new depth to his eyes, making him seem older, wiser.
“Jenny, there are some things--”
“I know.” She looked down at their hands linked together and wondered why she ever doubted his love for her. He was going to give her a chance to explain. Understanding was one of his distinguishing qualities. He hadn’t judged her before. Why would he start now?