Becoming Natalie: Chapter 4

Bursting into the entryway, Natalie turned in a half circle. Her heart pounded in her chest. The kitchen lay in front of her. To her right, the bathroom. She moved past both rooms, calling out for her father. She hadn’t been in his apartment in at least a year, but nothing had changed. If anything, he had downsized on the amount of Booth paraphernalia. Last time she had visited, he had an old telephone booth in the entryway. She was pretty sure he still had a restaurant style booth as his dining table.

She entered the living room, eyes sweeping the floor for her father. The bedroom door stood ajar.

“Dad,” she called, her voice breaking.

She pushed open the bedroom door and moved inside.

Bright sunlight streamed in through the windows. Squinting, she held a hand over her face. Spots danced in front of her eyes. Blinking, she moved out of the path of the light.

Her father sat on the floor, a full suitcase open in front of him. Huge spiral bound books overflowed from it, some of them half open on the floor, displaying huge maps. She blinked again, unable to believe what she saw. One of the titles read Toll Booths in New England.

“Okay,” she said slowly. “You’re getting out of control.”

He glanced up at her as if he hadn’t heard her come in, yelling for him. “I bet I could sell some of this on eBay.”

I bet this would qualify as proof of your insanity,” she said, picking up a guide to toll booths in Missouri. “When are you planning on visiting the Midwest?”

Shrugging, Dylan lifted two of the atlas-sized books and set them aside on the floor.

Natalie glanced at his open closet and groaned. “Were you trying to wrestle this out?”

Her father scooped more books out of the suitcase, his eyes glued to the pile.

“I thought you were already packed,” she said, crossing her arms, “and just had to get your suitcase?”

Pressing his lips together, her father shook his head.

“Are you just trying to waste all of my time?” she asked, throwing her hands up in the air.

Dylan shrugged. Avoiding looking at her, he pulled the last toll booth book from the suitcase and added it to the pile. Then, still keeping his eyes from hers, he stood, legs shaking. Shuffling over to his dresser, he tugged open a drawer.

“Are you going to ignore me? Because I can just go home.” She shook his keys. “You can stay here, in your sad apartment, and hire a visiting nurse or whatever.”

“Have some respect,” he snapped, throwing a glare at her.

“Oh, now you can look at me?” She paced, her hands shaking. “You talk about respect, yet you don’t respect me!” Stopping in front of him, she jabbed a finger in his face.

“Stop talking to me like I’m a child,” he said, picking up a pile of tee shirts and dropping them into the suitcase.

“Then stop treating me like your slave!” She spun away, nearly crashing into the phone booth. So much for him getting rid of things. She slammed her palm into it.

It rocked slightly. “Be careful with that!” he said, rushing over and steadying it.

Blowing out a puff of air, she stalked toward the door. “Whatever,” she said. She stomped back into the living room. Slumping into the couch, she buried her face in her hands. Tears stung her eyes. So far, she kept doing exactly the opposite of what she meant to do. She needed to be a better daughter, no matter how difficult her father was. She was all he had, she reminded herself. Whatever mistakes he had made in the past, he didn’t deserve to sit in his apartment all alone while he healed. She rubbed her palm, still stinging from the impact with the phone booth, on her jeans.

Maybe she was crazy, she surmised. Her father didn’t deserve her help.

Still, she had nowhere else to go—unless she wanted to hang out with her stepfather until she found her own place. Gritting her teeth, she closed her eyes. She had made quite the mess.

“Ready,” her father sang, dragging his suitcase behind him. Its sides bulged, as if he had stuffed some of the toll booth guides back in.

Cringing, she got to her feet. In just a few strides, she was at his side. “Let go,” she ordered, tugging the suitcase from his grasp.

“It’s heavy,” he protested.

“No shit,” she said, using both hands to drag it toward the front door. “That’s why I’m going to slide it down the garage stairs.”

He nodded as if he approved, and followed her to the door.

* * *

Getting the suitcase down the stairs proved to be harder than she had thought it would be. It didn’t slide very far, and got turned around, catching on the rungs of the railing. Scowling, Natalie tugged it from between two posts. A sharp pain lanced through her finger. Shrieking, she yanked her hand away. She stared in horror at the bloody spot where both her acrylic nail and real fingernail had been.

“What’s the matter with you?” her father asked from the top of the stairs. “It’s just a nail.”

Speaking from between clamped teeth, she said, “You don’t understand. It’s like having a nail ripped out twice.” The words came out slurred, as if she were drunk. Scrunching her face up, she balled her other hand into a fist, digging her nails into the palm of her hand to distract herself from the pain. Maybe, she surmised as she sucked in a deep breath, this was all karma for some horrible act she had committed in a past life. She didn’t believe in past lives, though. Exhaling, she opened her eyes. Her finger throbbed. The sooner she got her father up to the campground, the sooner she could get it fixed.

Then she remembered her empty bank account and maxed out credit card. Maybe her father would pay for it. Looking up at him, peering down at her with an expression on his face somewhere between concern and disbelief, she reconsidered. Maybe pigs would fly.

After a few more minutes of tugging with one hand, holding her injured hand out of the way, the suitcase popped free. She clambered over it, nudged it with her foot, and it slid down another few inches. Several kicks later, she got it to the bottom of the stairs.

If she ever found a new job, she was going to buy him a rolling suitcase with a long handle.

She dragged it to the pickup, its bottom scuffing against the asphalt.

“Be careful,” he chided, running behind her with his arms open, as if he was going to catch it.

Rolling her eyes, she released it, shoulders dropping. All she had to do was lift it into the bed of the pickup, and she was home free—sort of. The thing had to weigh seventy-five pounds or more, though.

“I can get it,” Dylan said, reaching for it. Beads of sweat rolled down his face.

She swatted his hands away. “Why don’t you get in and start the air?” She smiled at him and handed him the keys. Nodding, he took them and turned toward the passenger’s side. Shaking her head, she used the back of her hand to wipe the sweat from her own face. It was just after noon, and had to be already ninety degrees. Summer was rolling in, in full force.

Natalie looked back at the task at hand. Wincing, she spread her legs, crouched into a squat, and lifted the suitcase. Arms buckling, she hefted it over the gate and into the bed. She started to tumble, caught herself with her elbow on the truck’s corner, smacking her bone into hard chrome.

“Gah,” she screamed, clutching her elbow and hopping up and down. If she made it to the lake without any more injuries, it would be a miracle. Come to think of it, she surmised, scowling down at her blistered heels, she had done nothing but get hurt since arriving in Connecticut.

Whimpering, she walked to the driver’s side. She pulled open the door and slid in. Cool air brushed against her face, and she rested her head against the seat for a moment.

Then, slowly, she realized which song was playing.

She reached for the button to change the station, glancing at the digital display. The first button was the same station. Groaning, she pushed the second button. A car commercial replaced the horrible crooning.

“What do you have against Bon Jovi?” her father asked, reaching for the first pre-programmed button.

“No way,” she said, covering the dashboard. “I’m driving, my music.”

Her father snorted. “This is my truck,” he said.

Deja vu pressed down at her, making her feel as if she hung upside down. Taking a deep breath, she began backing out of the driveway. The sooner they got on the road, the sooner they would be at the campground. Maybe she could talk him into paying for her nails and a bottle of wine.

They hadn’t been on the highway for ten minutes before he started again.

“Why aren’t you getting onto 691?” he asked, twisting in his seat as they passed the exit. The expression on his face reminded Natalie of someone who had just run over his own dog.

Gripping the steering wheel with both hands, she smiled and said, through her teeth, “Because I’m driving.” She felt like a crazy person. She wondered if maybe her father needed medication.

“You’re going to hit traffic if you stay on 84,” he grumbled, crossing his arms. Slouched in his seat, he looked like a kid whose parents wouldn’t take him to McDonald’s.

“Dad,” she said sharply. “We’re going to hit traffic no matter which way we go. As you’ve reminded me a hundred times, I got to the hospital too late in the day.” She huffed, tightening her grip on the steering wheel.

He sank lower in his seat. “I don’t know why you have to yell.”

Pressing her lips together, she stared at the road in front of her. 84 was pretty empty, considering the time of day. She supposed it was because all of the kids were still in school—for another couple of weeks, anyway. If they had left even ten minutes later, she might be dealing with that traffic. Once they got to Route 2, they would be home free—at least, she hoped so.

The sun shone brightly down on the pickup. She smiled. Despite her misgivings, it would be nice to stay at the lake for a few days. At the very least, she could catch up on her tan—as long as Dylan didn’t keep her working all day. Up at the site, there was mostly shade. She would have to keep moving her chair to get even a fraction of sunlight. Down at the beach on the lake, though, it was a different story. Her smile widened. On a Monday, there wouldn’t be anyone else there. She would have the whole beach to herself. Granted, she might not get down to the beach until the next day. Still, she found herself looking forward to being there. Nestled in the country, away from the city, she could get a handle on her problems.

She wiped sweat out of her eyes. Blinking herself out of her daydream, she glanced down at the temperature. “Why did you turn the air down?” she asked, sneaking a look at her father.

He sat with his arms wrapped around himself, body slightly hunched over. “I’m cold,” he grumbled.

She bit down on her lip. Usually, she was cold out of the two of them. ”Cold?” she repeated, pointing out the window. “It’s like ninety degrees out.”

Shoulders drawn up to his ears, her father made a face. “I think it’s the damn blood thinners,” he said.

She turned the temperature down a little. Instantly, he started to shiver. “Why do you have to be so dramatic?” she whined.

“Why can’t you be more understanding?” He pressed the off button. “Open up your window, if you’re so hot.”

Pulling in a deep breath through her nose, she then exhaled through her mouth. She needed to find a way to compromise with him, or the rest of the ride was going to be miserable. “How about we leave the air on, and you can close the vents on your side?” She gave him a smile, proud of her solution.

“My truck,” he insisted, turning and looking out the window.

“Dad,” she tried, but he stared out at the passing trees.

She opened her window a few inches. Wind rushed inside, whipping her hair around, ruining her part. The air felt cool, though—compared to the warming interior of the pickup, anyway. She took both hands off the steering wheel, yanking the hair tie off her wrist in the same motion.

“What are you doing?” her father gasped, grabbing the steering wheel. The pickup lurched to the left.

Natalie yanked it away, correcting their path. “I’ve got it, Dad,” she said. “I do this all the time.”

“Did they teach you that in driving school? Is that what I spent all that money for?” He waved a finger in her face. “Don’t do that ever again, unless you want to give me another heart attack.”

She wanted to tell him that he stressed himself out, but kept her mouth shut. Her hair flew into her face again. Using one hand, she tucked it behind her ears. The next few days, she decided, were going to be anything but relaxing.

* * *

“Take this right,” her father instructed.

“I know,” she said, even though she didn’t. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been to the campground.

Half out of his window, her father pointed up. “They’re getting a new sign,” he said.

“Why don’t you get back in the truck?” she replied, turning onto the dirt road. The truck bounced, its tires kicking up stones. She could just imagine him getting clobbered in the head with a stray rock. As much of a blessing it would be to have him quiet for a while, she did not want to go back to the hospital with him.

Safely back in his seat, her father grinned at her like a kid at a circus. “This is going to be great, Lee,” he said. “You’ll be thanking me for taking us up here.”

She smiled, despite the knot of anxiety in her stomach. The old stop sign loomed ahead. Attached to it, she knew, was a white sheet of paper declaring that visitors pay inside. She had completely forgotten the fees. As far as she knew, the campground didn’t take debit cards. Besides, she didn’t need anymore overdraft fees. “Um, Dad?” she asked, already slowing the truck.

Her father leaned out of his open window again, his eyes closed, a smile on his face. Birds chirped from the trees above. A breeze rocked the mountain laurels softly. The air smelled crisp and clean, like dirt and water and woods.

Loosening her grip on the steering wheel, she shouted his name.

He jumped. Turning toward her, he raised a hand in frustration. “You’re going to kill me,” he declared. “What do you want?”

Taking a deep breath, she patted his arm. “Sorry. Listen, how long are we going to be here?”

He hand a hand through his hair. For the first time, she realized his hairline was receding. Regarding her with his brown eyes, he shrugged. “As long as it takes.”

“Well,” she said slowly, “I need to know, so I can pay them.” She pressed her lips together, resisting the urge to lick them. She had left her lip balm in her purse, which sat on the floor behind her. Since her father wouldn’t let her take her hands off the steering wheel, getting it while driving would have been a miracle. Licking her lips would just chap them even more. As soon as she found a new job, she was going to have to invest in some good lip balm, the kind that didn’t dry her lips out so she would have to use more.

Her father nodded, as if thinking to himself. She expected him to say that he would take care of her. Instead, he said, “You’re going to have to pay for yourself, kiddo.”

Her mouth dropped open. She stared at him. He couldn’t be serious. She started to argue, to say that if she didn’t know how long she was going to be there, she couldn’t possibly pay. Then she remembered that he didn’t know about her apartment or her bills or the job she had left. She suddenly wished she had taken Benjamin up on his offer.

“Or,” her father said, a slow smile breaking across his face, “you can become a co-signer on the site. You’d get your own pass. Of course, you’d be responsible for maintenance and—”

“Whoa,” she said, holding up a hand. “I can’t be a co-signer. I’m here to take care of you, not the trailer. I didn’t even know we were coming up here, Dad.” She shook her head at him.

“Come on, Nat,” he said. “Your mom was a co-signer. It’ll be fun, like old times.”

Scowling, she tipped her head back. She couldn’t believe he had really gone there. “If you hadn’t cheated on her,” she said to the ceiling, “she would still be a co-signer.”

Her father said nothing.

She looked back down, glancing at him out of the corner of her eye. They sat just a few feet from the stop sign. She could either drop him off and go back to Waterbury, or stick it out. Being a co-signer wouldn’t be the end of the world, she surmised. At the very least, it would buy her a free vacation. Nodding to herself, she straightened. She needed to look at her situation as just that, time off before moving on to the next phase of her life—whatever that was.

Licking her lips, she eased the truck forward. “Okay,” she told her father.

“You’ll do it?” he asked. The light in his eyes almost made it worth it.

“What do I have to do?” She pulled up to the stop sign.

He smiled. “Nothing, kiddo. You’re all set.”

Eyebrows furrowing, she turned to look at him. “What do you mean?”

He patted her hand. “You’re already a co-signer. I called them from the hospital. Go on, you can just roll right through, here.”

Her hands fell into her lap. She stared at him, mouth open. Her head started to turn. Her lips began to move.

A car behind them honked its horn.

She glanced into the rearview mirror. A station wagon sat behind them, a rack of bicycles strapped to its roof. One of the bikes was askew, as if it had lost a strap.

“Let’s go home,” her father said, motioning for her to drive.

She wanted to argue, but for better or worse, the trailer was going to be her home, for who knew how long.


Natalie might not survive a summer back home with her father.

CONTINUE READING

Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4 · Chapter 5

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Becoming Natalie: Chapter 3

Both of Natalie’s eyes actually twitched. She crossed her arms in an effort to keep from exploding. “Where, then, do you think we’re going?” she asked. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea that her father had his own room. If she tried to strangle him, there would be no one to stop her.

Dylan smiled, his eyes nearly closed. “Laurel Lock,” he sighed.

Natalie snorted. She balled her hands into fists, her fingernails biting into the palms of her hand. “The campground,” she said. “Really? Why would you go all the way to the campground instead of home?”

A snore escaped from her father’s lips.

Slamming her hands down at her sides, she stalked toward his bed. “Dad,” she said sharply.

He jerked awake, glancing around the room. His cheeks turned pink. “Did I just fall asleep?”

Rolling her eyes, she leaned over him. “Why are we going to the campground?” Her chest heaved. She shouldn’t have left New York. Taking care of her father had seemed like something noble to do, like paying a bill. Instead, she felt on the verge of a breakdown. Tears filled her eyes. She scrunched her face up, willing them away.

“Natalie,” he said, as if she were a five-year-old who wouldn’t listen. “My cardiologist said I need to keep my stress levels down.” He shifted, burrowing deeper into the bed. “Where is it more peaceful than the lake?”

Taking a deep breath, Natalie smoothed the blanket over him. “Yes,” she said slowly, “but the campground is an hour away. What if something happens? Shouldn’t you be closer to your cardiologist?”

He waved a hand at her, scoffing. “They have five hospitals in the area,” he said. “Besides, if I’m going to drop dead, it’s going to happen no matter where I am.” He grinned.

She did not smile back. “Okay, but what about all of the work it takes to maintain the site? Have you even opened up yet for this season? It’s already June.” She visualized the site, the piles of leaves that would have accumulated throughout the previous fall, and the blanket of pine needles that never stopped growing. All of that work would put stress on her father’s heart. Knees weak, she wobbled over to the chair next to the bed. Maybe, she surmised, he was crazy.

“Easy there, killer,” Dylan said, watching her. “You can help me with all of that stuff.”

She leaned forward. “I can what?” She looked down at her manicure. “These hands were not made for raking.” The rest of her wasn’t made for camping, either. The trailer sported a claustrophobic, standing-only shower with the water pressure of a rag. Her father did all of his laundry in a coin-operated washing machine, then hung it out on the line to dry. He cooked on a grill. The only air conditioning was the breeze that moved between the trees, coming up from the lake below.

“Lazy, your generation,” her father said. “Is it so much to ask for you to help your own father?”

“You didn’t ask!” she said, jumping to her feet. Heat flushed her cheeks. “You don’t get to boss me around anymore. I’m twenty-three years old!”

Propping himself up on his elbows, Dylan inclined his chin. “The decision is final,” he said.

Glaring at him, she crossed her arms again. He glared back.

A nurse poked her head into the room. “Visiting hours ended five minutes ago,” she said.

Natalie ran a hand through her hair. “Fine,” she told her father. “I need to get some sleep anyway.” She grabbed the keys from the foot of the bed. Anger roiling through her, she left the room.

“Goodnight,” her father called after her.

She kept walking.

The second she climbed inside of the pickup, the tears started streaming down her face. She pulled the door closed behind her and put her head down on the steering wheel. Body shaking, she let the sadness take over. She could always fix her makeup later—not that it mattered. There was no one to impress. Benjamin was two hours away, and had probably moved on to some other girl. All of her college boyfriends were scattered throughout the country.

She laughed, a stream of snot flying from her nose and landing on her upper lip. Cringing, she wiped it away with the back of her hand, then onto her jeans. There were no more napkins in the truck. She couldn’t even clean up when she got back to her father’s apartment, because she hadn’t gotten the key from him.

She was officially homeless.

She could call her mother. Linda kept an open door policy. Her stepfather Edward, on the other hand, did not. While he hadn’t hit her since she was a kid, Natalie doubted he would be warm and inviting. No, he would find ways to make her feel unwelcome, until she had no choice but to leave.

She shook her head, wondering why she had ever thought she could stay with her mother. Every time she visited, she thought things might be different. The truth was, she was better off sticking with her father.

She refused to go back into the hospital and beg him for the house key, though. Besides, visiting hours were over. They probably wouldn’t let her back in.

Considering her options, she started the pickup. It rumbled to life, shaking underneath her. It sounded a little like it needed an oil change. Frowning, she listened for a moment. It wasn’t like her father to let things go when it came to his vehicles. She would have to remember to take it somewhere. While he had taught her how to do an oil change and a bunch of other car things, the thought of getting dirty made her shudder.

Besides, changing the oil would not help her get some sleep.

She could knock on Mrs. Spinelli’s door and see if she could crash on her couch. It was after nine o’clock, though, and the old woman was probably long asleep.

While the pickup wasn’t comfortable, she could pull into the driveway and sleep in the cab. It would be like camping, but only for one night. There was no back seat, though, and she couldn’t imagine trying to sleep sitting upright. Plus, she needed a shower. Snot and tears were already crusting on her cheeks. What she really needed was a long, hot bath.

She left the hospital parking garage, heading toward the Courtyard Marriott. It was only a few minutes down the street, had a private parking garage, and the most comfortable hotel beds she had ever slept on. She could just throw it on her credit card. A little more debt wouldn’t kill her.

Few other cars occupied the streets of downtown Waterbury. Only a couple red lights got in her way. She pulled into the lot of the hotel, guiding the pickup toward the parking garage. Yawning, she pulled into the first available spot. She slid out, grabbed her suitcase from the bed, and marched toward the entrance.

The doors opened automatically as she walked into the lobby. Ceilings high like a cathedral loomed over her. Dark wood, red and orange upholstery, and coffee shop style chairs decorated the large room. A sign boasted free Wi-Fi, but not a single businessman occupied the tables in the late hour.

Natalie dragged her suitcase to the front desk. No one stood behind it. There was no bell to ring. A wall separate the desk from some kind of employees-only area. She drummed her fingers on the dark wooden surface, hoping someone was nearby and would hear her. No one came. Clearing her throat, she craned her neck, trying to see over the tall desk.

A guy her age poked his head from around the wall. Muscles rippled under copper skin, evident despite the hotel uniform he wore. His nose took up most of his face, but his jawline was slight. Dark curls whispered across his forehead. “Help you?” he asked, dark eyes dancing. Despite his exotic looks, no hint of an accent laced his words.

She wondered if anyone actually could help her, but didn’t say so. Instead, she smiled. “I just need a room for the night.”

He raised an eyebrow at her. “You don’t look like the people who normally stay here,” he blurted. A lock of curly, dark hair fell into his face. He brushed it away.

“Excuse me?” She slapped her hands down on the counter. “I’m a customer. You don’t get to talk to me that way!”

He bit down on his lower lip. “Hate to point this out to you,” he said, “but you have mascara all over your face.”

Eyes widening, Natalie patted at her cheeks. Sure enough, her fingertips came away with crusty bits of dried mascara. “Oh, no,” she said, fresh tears welling in her eyes.

The concierge, whose gold name tag read Rohan, pushed a box of tissues toward her. She plucked one and dabbed at her eyes. “At least your face is wet now,” he said, making a scrubbing motion over his own face. “You can get all that gunk off.”

She stared at him, hand frozen. “Do you even know the first thing about hospitality?”

“Do you know the first thing about picking a good mascara?” He smirked.

Disgusted, she threw the dirty tissue at him. “Give me a room,” she said, digging in her bag.

“Well, I can’t just give you a room,” he said, flicking her tissue onto the floor behind him. “They cost money.”

She scowled at him, plunged a hand into her bag, and withdrew her wallet. Still glaring at him, she plucked her credit card from its pocket and snapped it down on the counter. She grinned at the sound it made. Nothing made her happier than the sound of plastic.

Rohan snorted. “Should I call security?”

“What the hell for?” she demanded, pushing the card closer to him.

He picked up the card. “You just seem a little crazy. Full size or queen?”

“You’re not going to offer me a king?” she asked, putting her hands on her hips. The height of the desk made it hard for her to look intimidating, though. From her side, she had to look up at him a little.

“Why would I offer you a king sized bed?” he asked, typing on a keyboard she couldn’t see. “You’re here alone.”

Her jaw sagged open. “How the hell do you know?” She thought of Benjamin, and all of the times he had reserved rooms for them, with California king beds and room service that delivered chocolate covered strawberries. The memories stung, and her shoulders sagged. “Just give me a queen,” she said, almost visibly deflating.

Nodding, he tapped a few more keys, then swiped her card. She knew he swiped it because of the sound it made—another sound that made her smile. If all else failed, she could still count on her American Express card, even if she would probably never pay it off. Propping her elbow on the counter, she rested her cheek on her hand, humming.

Rohan cleared his throat and plunked her card down on the counter. “Your card’s declined,” he said.

She blinked at him. “It’s what?”

“Denied. Won’t work. No dinero.” He shrugged. “Sorry?”

Natalie snatched the card up. “You’re not supposed to say it like that,” she said.

Rohan steepled his fingers. “And how am I supposed to say it?”

“You’re supposed to say ‘Sorry, ma’am, but your card has been declined. Do you have another method of payment?’” She slid the card back into her wallet and handed him her debit card.

“What are you, a robot?” He typed something in the computer and slid her card.

She swallowed hard, her mouth dry. Her hands shook, and she moved them out of his sight. There was no money in her checking account. If her debit card was accepted, it would be a miracle. She took a deep breath. She needed to stay calm, act normal. Trying to remember what they were talking about, she reached for a pamphlet about the hotel’s amenities. “I used to work at Macy’s,” she said, remembering. “People expect you to act a certain way. It’s upscale.”

Laughing, Rohan handed her card back. “You think Macy’s is upscale?” He shook his head. A printer behind him spit out a sheet of paper. He turned his back to her, retrieving the sheet.

“They sell Coach and Michael Kors,” she said, holding one hand palm up. Never in her life had she ever met anyone like the concierge. She wondered what was wrong with him.

“It’s just funny,” he said, turning back to her. He placed the sheet on the counter and tapped a line at the bottom. “Sign here.”

She scrawled her signature, turning the dot on the letter I in her name to a heart. “What’s funny?” she asked, grabbing her bag.

“Nothing,” he said, handing her a plastic room key. “Enjoy your night.”

Rolling her eyes, she turned away from him. Maybe, when she woke up in the morning, she would discover that it had all been some kind of dream. Sometimes, she smoked weed with Benjamin. Maybe she had smoked something laced. It would be just like the bastard to not tell her. She couldn’t remember smoking, though. The last thing about Benjamin that she remembered was their phone conversation from that morning. She could have hallucinated that, too, though, she surmised as she stepped into the elevator.

* * *

When the alarm went off on her phone the next morning, Natalie opened her banking application and checked her account balance. Grimacing at the negative one hundred dollars and overdraft fee, she logged out of the app. Toiletry bag in hand, she stumbled into the bathroom and turned on the shower. She had showered right before crawling into bed, but she couldn’t start her day without it. Showers were like a ritual for her: wash off the dirt before bed, wash away the sleep for the day.

She drove back to the hospital with the radio on full blast, the bass of a Katy Perry song booming through the speakers. Everything was going to be okay, she told herself. She was going to play dutiful daughter for a few days while her father healed from his surgery. Then, she would stay at her mother’s for no longer than a week. In the meantime, she would find a graphic design job in Hartford or even New London, close enough to home so that she had a backup plan, just in case. Or, she could go back to school, taking out another student loan so she could live in the dormitory again. It would be nice to not have to worry about things. Plus, it would give her a chance to make some friends she could actually keep in touch with.

Pulling into a parking spot, she shook the negative thoughts out of her head. It wasn’t that she didn’t have any friends. Life after college was just too busy. Everyone lived too far away.

Despite her optimism, she took her time getting to her father’s room. She doubted that she could stomach yet another argument. And, if he was still hell bent on staying at the lake while he got better, she was going to scream. Still, it would only be a few days. She could probably handle it. Maybe she could even talk him into getting her a hotel room in the next town over. She would have to explain why she couldn’t afford to get one herself, though.

Arriving at his room, she knocked on the door frame, then strode in. “Good morning,” she chirped, forcing a smile. “How did you sleep?”

Her father sat in a chair, fully dressed, his lips turned down at the corners. “Good afternoon, you mean,” he said.

Natalie glanced up at the clock. “Morning,” she corrected. It was only 11:30. She wondered if it was a generation gap thing.

“They served me lunch at eleven,” Dylan said. “It’s the afternoon now.”

Rolling her eyes, she changed the subject. “You’re all dressed. Are they discharging you?”

“Any minute now,” he grumbled, glancing at the door. “Takes forever in these places. They practically force you to stay, then they won’t let you leave.”

“Well, you did  have a heart attack,” she said, sitting down on the hospital bed. “How are you feeling, by the way?” It felt strange, to be talking to him as if he were her father. He felt more like a stranger, someone she only saw once in a while and had to be cordial with. Once they were done with medical talk, she wouldn’t be able to think of anything else to say to him. Unless, of course, he picked a fight with her. She could always count on that.

A nurse walked into the room, holding a packet of papers. “Here you are, Mr. Booth,” she said, handing the sheets to Dylan. “Take care, now.” She gave Natalie a nod, then strode out.

Dylan held the papers out to Natalie. “Read these while I drive,” he said, standing from his chair. “We’ve got to pick up my suitcase at the house.”

Natalie snatched the keys from the hospital bed. “Oh, no,” she said, standing. She tucked the papers into her purse. “You’re not driving anywhere.”

“The hell I’m not,” her father said, holding out his hand. “That truck is in my name. I’m driving it.”

Sighing, she patted her purse. “I saw something about not driving for forty-eight hours,” she said.

“It said that?” Dylan’s shoulders slumped. “I can’t even drive? I drove myself in here while I was having chest pain.” He shook his head. “I should’ve stayed home. This is ridiculous.”

Natalie stared at him, eyes wide. “Do you hear yourself?” She shook the keys at him. “Let’s go.”

The drive back to her father’s apartment was about as pleasant as having her wisdom teeth removed. Her father kept trying to tell her where to turn, and how to ease on the brakes at stop signs and red lights. When another driver passed them at a stop sign, horn blaring, Dylan rolled his window down, leaned out, and told the driver to shove it up his ass. By the time they got to his apartment, Natalie’s knuckles were white from having gripped the steering wheel so tightly. She wondered if she was too young to have a heart attack. Staying in the hospital, with her father stuck at home, might be a blessing.

“Put your blinker on,” Dylan instructed as they arrived at the house.

“Why? No one’s behind me!” She pulled into his driveway, wishing for a shot of vodka or maybe just a shotgun.

The second she rolled to a stop, her father swung his door open.

“Easy there,” she said, turning off the truck. “Let me help you.”

He waved a hand at her. “I don’t need your help getting out of the truck.” He walked over to the stairs slowly, wheezing slightly.

“Are you really going to climb all of those stairs?” She was pretty sure two flights of stairs counted as exertion.

Skirting the stairs, her father walked up a slight incline to a garage door that she hadn’t noticed.

“And how are we going to get in without a key?” She crossed her arms, leaning against the pickup. “Are you listening to me?” she asked, watching as he stopped at the garage door.

“Hush,” he said, flipping open a panel that covered the box. He punched in a code. The ground vibrated under Natalie’s feet, and the garage door opened.

Gaping, hands hanging limp at her sides, Natalie stared at him. All he’d had to do was give her the code, and she could have saved her money—or lack thereof.

“You coming?” he asked, stepping inside.

She peered in. Only a single flight of stairs led to the second floor. They were carpeted, and had railings on both sides. He would have no trouble with them. Plus, she surmised as she shook her head, she might strangle him if she followed him. “I’ll wait here,” she said.

Shrugging, her father ambled toward the stairs, whistling an Eagles song.

Mumbling swears under her breath, Natalie walked back to the pickup. She was going to have to figure out how to get him to pay her back for the hotel room. It was only fair. She pulled her phone out of her bag and logged back into the bank application. Looking at the negative number only made her feel worse. She sighed. She was going to have to find a new job sooner rather than later. With any luck, she could move into her own place by the end of the month.

Glancing at the garage door, she paced, wondering what was taking so long. If all he had to do was grab his suitcase, it should only take a couple of minutes. She thought of the stairs and the way he had wheezed. Maybe letting him go alone hadn’t been such a good idea. Maybe he had gotten hurt, or even had another heart attack.

She walked to the open garage door, biting on her lower lip. Pausing at the entrance, she wondered if maybe she was overreacting. Maybe he was just using the bathroom, or had gotten a phone call. Shaking her head at herself, she walked away.

Halfway back to the pickup, she paused again. Maybe she should at least call up to him, just to make sure. She would feel awful if something was wrong and she hadn’t even tried. Good daughters checked on their fathers, no matter how crazy they made them.

She went back into the garage. The scent of old oil and spray can paint greeted her. A big black stain marred the floor. In the corner, her first tricycle hung from a large hook. She smiled, thinking of the times he had taken her up to the tennis court to teach her how to ride it. Later, he had taught her how to ride a real bike, with training wheels, and then finally, one without.

The door to the apartment stood ajar. Her heart fluttered in her chest.

“Dad?” she called up to him. When he didn’t answer, she moved to the stairs. “You okay?” she called, raising her voice even louder.

No response.

Heart thudding in her chest, she took a step up the stairs.

A loud thud from overhead made her jump.

“Dad!” she screamed, and flew up the stairs.


Natalie might not survive a summer back home with her father.

CONTINUE READING

Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4 · Chapter 5

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Becoming Natalie: Chapter 2

Blue tile, white tile. Her eyes crossed staring at it. Glancing down at her toes, she examined the nail polish on them. If only she had thought to bring a bottle. She looked back up at the clock on the wall. Only two minutes had passed since she last looked at it. The second hand ticked its way around the numbers. As always, her phone was dead when she needed it the most. A few rounds of whatever free game looked the most fun would help kill the time.

Scowling, she went back to checking the tiles. Whoever did the floor had forgotten to alternate them in a few spots. She wished she could cut them out and swap them. Surely St. Mary’s would appreciate her home improvement skills.

Scooting off the chair, she got to her feet. There had to be a better way to wait. She walked to the nurse’s station, flip flops slapping against her feet, the sound echoing off the hospital walls. Aside from the occasional overhead call, the surgical waiting area sat in silence.

“Yes,” the nurse said, rolling her eyes.

Natalie couldn’t blame her. She had probably asked five times in the last half hour if there was any news. She gave the nurse a smile. “Is there somewhere I can buy a magazine here?” Despite her best efforts to read TIME and Arthritis Today, she just couldn’t get interested. She needed Cosmopolitan or People. Even Oprah would do.

“Gift shop. First floor.” The nurse looked away, severing the connection.

Getting to the gift shop would be a way to kill time all on its own. The hospital was separated by several walkways and elevators that led to different units. Walls boasted brochures on heart health and pregnancy, but what Natalie really needed was a map of the place. It wasn’t even a big hospital.

She got on the first elevator she found and rode it to the ground floor. Waiting for the doors to open, she held her breath. Stainless steel slid aside to reveal a coffee shop in the center of the lobby. The scent of French roast wafted toward her, and for a moment she thought about getting a cup. The cup holder in her father’s truck had yielded exactly three dollars in change, though, and if she was going to buy anything, it was a magazine.

Stepping off the elevator, she skirted the coffee kiosk and headed to the gift shop on the far side of the lobby. The usual heart shaped Get Well balloons revolved in the windows, moved by a draft that Natalie couldn’t feel. She passed through the entrance, her eyes drawn to a rack of magazines. As she started toward them, she passed a shelf of teddy bears. Pausing, she lifted one from its spot. Sandy brown, its big black eyes stared up at her. Its tiny mouth smiled at her. Its face was sweet, like a kitten’s. A big red heart was stitched onto its chest. It reminded her of a bear her father brought home for her once, when she was little and he still worked for the moving company. It wore the company’s tee shirt and smelled like vanilla and her father’s aftershave. Every time he went away, she hugged it while she slept, breathing in its scent.

She wondered if the bear was still in her things at her mother’s.

Putting the bear back in its place, she continued to the magazines. It only took her a few minutes to scan through the titles and prices. The only ones she was interested in were too expensive. A few comic books and crossword puzzles were in her budget. She couldn’t remember the last time she had read a comic, if ever, though, and didn’t want to have to ask the nurse in the waiting room for a pen.

Twisting her lips, she stalked out of the gift shop. She wondered if the day could get any worse. She supposed it could, if her father died or if she broke a nail. Heat flooded her cheeks. Comparing a broken nail to losing her father was probably the worst thought she had ever had. Pressing the call button for the elevator, she whispered a silent prayer to whatever god might be.

“Please don’t kill him or anything,” she said under her breath.

The elevator doors opened and she strode on, once again riding alone. She wondered what it would be like to have siblings. She might still be taking care of her father, but at least she wouldn’t be alone. Her mother sure as hell wasn’t going to help her, no thanks to her father.

As the elevator stopped on the surgical floor, she realized she could have at least bought a coffee.

“Your father’s awake,” the nurse said without looking up.

Natalie froze, one foot outside of the elevator. “What?”

Eyelashes fluttering as she rolled her eyes again, the nurse repeated herself. “Do you want to see him? He’s in recovery.” As Natalie opened her mouth to say no thanks, the nurse surged forward. “Come this way.” She stepped from behind the nurse’s station and walked down the hall, leaving Natalie no choice.

Recovery turned out to be a large room that looked like some kind of war infirmary. Several hospital beds lined the walls. The only one with a patient in it was her father’s. Another nurse stood by his side, holding a cup of water and a giant pink swab.

Her father peered at the nurse from under heavy eyelids. He opened his mouth, tongue lolling. His hand lifted and he jabbed a finger in the direction of the cup.

“No, Dylan,” the nurse at his side said. “You can only have a little.” She painted his tongue with the swab. Water trickled into his mouth and his throat worked as he swallowed it. He moaned. “That’s it,” she said.

“More,” he said, his voice surprisingly strong.

The two nurses exchanged exasperated glances. When the nurse at his side saw Natalie, she held out the cup and swab.

“Thirsty,” her father gasped.

“Dylan, we’ve been through this,” the nurse said. She beckoned for Natalie to join her. Placing the cup in Natalie’s hand, the nurse stepped to the side and darted away. Without another word, both nurses headed toward the exit.

“Wait,” Natalie said, but both nurses kept walking.

“Be right back,” one called.

“Don’t let him drink it. Use the swab,” the other directed.

Then they disappeared around the corner, leaving Natalie alone with her father.

“Dammit,” she said.

“Is that you, Nat?” her father asked, his eyes wide open.

“Don’t be so dramatic,” she told him.

“Gimme that cup,” he said, his voice hoarse. His eyes pleaded with her. One of his hands reached out toward her, his arm shaking a bit.

She gently pushed his arm back down. “Okay, Daddy,” she said. “You’ve got to rest.” Dipping the swab in the cup, she swirled it around. Then, giving him a timid smile, she held the swab out to him.

He moved fast for a man who had just had surgery. His hand slapped hers, sending the swab spinning through the air. It landed on the floor with a plop, droplets of water painting the tiles.

Natalie’s jaw dropped open. A red mark bloomed on her hand. Her skin stung. Her fingers twitched. Shaking, she drew her eyes away from the swab on the floor and met her father’s eyes.

“Gimme that cup,” he rasped.

“You hit me!” she screeched. Her voice echoed off the walls. She glanced toward the door, but neither of the nurses appeared.

Her father shrugged. Struggling on his elbows, he raised himself into a sitting position. “Cup,” he gasped, stretching his fingers out toward it.

She backed away, her eyes never leaving his face, moving toward one of the empty beds across the room. She set the cup down on a tray next to the bed. Then, still staring at her father, she said, “Get it yourself.”

“Why did you go and do that?” her father yelled.

“Because you hit me!” she fired back, holding up her hand. The red splotch had receded a bit, but she could still see the mark where his hand had connected with hers. She couldn’t think of a single time her father had ever hit her. Even when she was a mouthy tween, he had left the discipline to her mother, who firmly believed in the timeout chair. She went almost her entire childhood without being hit, until her mother married Edward. Shaking her head, she cleared the memories away, narrowing her eyes at her father. “Are you going to apologize?”

“Apologize for what?” he asked, gasping. He shifted in the bed, leaning up against the pillows. “All I did was ask you for the water.”

“And you slapped me,” she said, still holding up her hand for him to see. Tears stung her eyes.

He shrugged. “It was an accident,” he said, lowering his voice. He offered her a smile. “Now, come on. Bring that cup of water back here.”

Resisting the urge to stick her tongue out at him, Natalie shook her head. “They said you can only have a little at a time.”

“So give me a little,” he said, his voice rising again. He sounded desperate, like a man trapped in the desert instead of a hospital bed. “I’m so thirsty,” he said. “Come on, Lee.”

She froze at the old nickname. A smile tugged at her lips. Memories of fishing and camping rushed her. She thought of the teddy bear again. Her knees buckled. Then her hand throbbed, breaking the spell. She looked at it. A welt began to rise where the red mark had been. “I’m not giving you any water,” she said. “I don’t even want to be—”

“Everything okay in here?” One of the nurses stood in the doorway, a hesitant smile plastered on her face. Maybe, her expression said, I shouldn’t have left them alone.

Dylan scowled. “Everything’s great. I’m only dying of thirst here.”

“You’re not dying,” Natalie said.

“Then why did I have a heart attack?” Red splotches blotted his face. His eyes glared through her, and his chest heaved.

“Okay,” the nurse said, crossing the room. She pressed her hands to Dylan’s chest. “Let’s lay back down.”

“When can I take him home?” Natalie asked, stooping to pick up the soggy swab.

“Well,” the nurse said, pushing a button on the side of the hospital bed, “we’d like to keep him another night to monitor him. Then, if everything’s okay, he can go home.” She smiled as the bed lowered, forcing Dylan to lay flat on his back. The bed hummed, and Natalie’s father’s scowl deepened.

Natalie put her hands on her hips. “They told me I had to be here to take him home when he got out of recovery,” she said. Her nerves rattled and she felt heat rush through her. Without looking down at her arms, she knew her skin was breaking out in a rash. “Do any of you people know what you’re doing?”

The nurse raised an eyebrow at her. “Recovery time can’t be rushed,” she said, smoothing Dylan’s sheets. She patted his hand. “You’ll be out of here as soon as possible.”

Gritting her teeth, Natalie threw up her hands, a wordless scream of aggravation erupting from her throat. Without another word, she stomped out of the room, tears blurring her vision. Fatigue tugged at her, amplifying her frustration. She stormed all the way back to the parking garage, her father’s keys clenched in her hand. The rash on her arms itched the way a heat rash did, and she balled her other hand into a fist to keep from scratching it.

She wished she had stayed in New York. She probably could have just crashed with Benjamin for a few days until she found a new place to live. Or, she surmised as she unlocked her father’s truck, she could have fought the eviction. She wasn’t that far behind on rent. Maybe she could have saved up and paid her landlord weekly.

Tears trickled down her cheeks. She hadn’t even tried to salvage her life, which meant that it hadn’t meant that much to her in the first place. Maybe a part of her had wanted to come home. She wondered if she could blame it on temporary insanity. She sure as hell didn’t want to be around her father anymore.

Sliding into the driver’s seat, she turned on the truck. She flipped open the center console and rummaged through a pile of crumpled receipts for a fast food napkin. A splotch of grease marked one corner, but the rest of it was clean. She dabbed at her face, careful not to smear her makeup. It was a good thing she had gone for the waterproof mascara that morning, she mused as she dried her eyes.

Nodding at her reflection in the rearview mirror, she put the pickup into reverse and backed out of the space.

The drive back to her father’s house only took a few minutes. Grateful, she parked in the driveway next to a shiny Lincoln. Mrs. Spinelli must be home, Natalie mused. On shaking limbs, she climbed the stairs back to her father’s apartment. Her luggage still sat on the deck, untouched. Snorting, she pulled it over to the front door with her. Then, retrieving her father’s keys from her pocket, she pushed the house key into the lock. It only went in halfway.

Stunned, she pushed harder, jiggling it. It didn’t fit. She withdrew it and examined the lock. Nothing blocked it, that she could see, anyway. She squinted at the key. No grease or other debris clung to it. She tried it again. The key still did not fit.

Swearing, she kicked at the door. Somehow, her father had given the nurses the wrong key. Maybe, in his fear and pain, he had strung the wrong keys together. She saw him, stooped over his kitchen table, one hand clasping his chest, the other fumbling through his box of key rings. The man had more sets of keys than she would ever know about. He had keys to the apartment, keys for the truck, spares for cars he no longer owned, and even a copy of the key to the house they had lived in before the divorce.

Sighing, Natalie shoved the ring of keys back into her pocket. Digging in her bag, she pulled out her cell phone. All she had to do was call the cardiology unit and see if they could put her through to her father. Someone had to have a spare key. It would take some time, but Dylan could make a few phone calls, and Natalie would be on his couch by bedtime.

Nodding to herself, she pressed the home button to wake up her phone. A black screen greeted her instead of her lock screen. She tipped her head back, stomping her feet. She had never charged her phone.

Swearing, she tossed it back into her purse. The rash on her arms tingled and itched, and she sucked in a deep breath. She needed to calm down. Her eczema cream sat on a shelf in the medicine cabinet of her New York apartment, and she had no idea when she would next be able to get a refill.

Blowing out a puff of air, she grabbed the handle of her suitcase. A moment later, she started down the stairs, dragging her luggage behind her.

At the bottom, she checked the heels of her feet. Fresh scrapes joined the blisters from her first trip to Dylan’s apartment. The wounds oozed bright red blood, and she grimaced. She hadn’t been home for twenty-four hours, yet she was already completely broken.

Tossing the suitcase back into the pickup, she steeled herself for yet another trip back to the hospital. She wondered how many times she had driven back and forth, then decided not to try to count. It would probably only make her feel worse.

By the time she parked the truck in the parking garage, the sun was dipping below the skyline. Stomach rumbling, Natalie slid out of the driver’s side. With every step, the blisters on her feet stung even more. She tucked her hands into her pockets to avoid scratching or picking at anything, and walked back into the hospital.

The scent of antiseptic greeted her once again. Another stronger scent burned at her nostrils, and she forced herself to breathe through her mouth. A bitter taste danced on her tongue. Scowling, she walked by a maintenance man spraying the same spot with a bottle of Windex, over and over. The blue fluid bounced off the glass and into the air. He glanced at her, a vacant expression in his eyes, as if he had just shot himself up with heroin.

Shivering, Natalie hurried away.

The surgical unit was even more quiet than when she left it. Saying a silent prayer to whatever might be listening, she stepped off the elevator and walked back into the recovery area. All of the beds were empty. She bit down on her lower lip.

“Do you need help?” a nurse asked from behind her.

Relief washed over Natalie. “I’m looking for my father,” she said, giving the nurse his name.

“Right this way,” the nurse said, leading her back into the hall. She pointed to a room down at the end.

Natalie thanked her and made her way to the room, hoping her father was awake. If they had moved him into a room, they had probably already given him whatever medications he needed for the night.

When she peeked inside, though, Dylan sat staring at the television. He had the room to himself for the moment. Apparently it was a slow night for heart surgeries.

“Kiddo,” he said, nodding in her direction.

Rolling her eyes at the lame nickname, she stepped into the room. She pulled the ring of keys from her pocket and jingled them at him. “Why did you give the nurses the wrong key?”

He cocked his head at her, eyelids drooping. So they had given him medication. Blinking a few times, he shook his head. “I didn’t give you the wrong key,” he insisted.

“Um, yeah, you did,” she said, tossing them at him. They landed at his feet, bouncing on the mattress.

Leaning forward, he picked them up. He moved like an elderly man, his body stiff and slow. Holding the keys in his hand, he shook his head again. “Nope. These are the right ones,” he said.

Natalie threw her hands up in the air. “Dammit, Daddy. Why do you have to make everything so hard?”

“I’m not making anything hard,” he said, forcing each word out. He slumped back against his pillows. His eyes slipped closed.

“Oh no,” she said, stalking toward him. “You are not falling asleep yet.” She shook his shoulder. “Where is the house key? Who has a spare?” Tears threatened to spill down her cheeks again. She blinked them away.

“You don’t need the house key,” he said, a soft smile spreading across his lips. His eyes drifted closed.

“Why not?” she demanded, shaking him again.

Dylan opened his eyes a crack. “Because,” he said, “we’re not going home. We’re going somewhere else.”


Natalie might not survive a summer back home with her father.

CONTINUE READING

Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4 · Chapter 5

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Becoming Natalie: Chapter 1

Natalie stared at the pile of bills on her gleaming coffee table. One was an eviction notice—she just knew it. Another was for her American Express, followed by her overdue Victoria’s Secret card. Sighing, she looked down at her checkbook. She made $60,000 a year. There was no reason for her to be so broke. Tapping the book with lacquered nails, she considered her options.

She could claim bankruptcy. Her mother had done so, years and years before. She had only been six or seven, but she still remembered moving out of the apartment and into the cramped little studio, where her four-post bed was replaced by a tiny twin. Her dresser hadn’t even fit in the same room.

No, she couldn’t claim bankruptcy. Besides, she surmised, there were probably rules about making sixty grand a year and crying poor.

She stood and went to her closet. Hundreds of designer items hung in neat, color coded rows, the tags still hanging from their sleeves and belt loops. She could try selling some of it on eBay. Pulling a sweater dress from the ranks, she held it up against her, bangles on her wrist clattering against each other. She bought it to wear to work, and just hadn’t gotten around to it. Maybe she would wear it later in the week. She put it aside.

Running her fingers through the clothes, she shook her head. She couldn’t part with any of it. Even if she never wore those Diesel jeans or the red Michael Kors bag, they were more than just apparel.

She sat on her bed, rummaging through her mind for a third option. There was none. She was screwed.

The phone in the living room rang. She swore. She was tired of bill collectors calling. She wasn’t even sure why she had the line. She only ever used her cell phone, anyway. It rang again. She should probably just let it go to voicemail. No one ever called her landline.

The phone rang again, and she stood, scowling. If it were a computerized bill collector, the bot was being awfully persistent. Maybe it was an actual human. She stalked to the living room. Snatching the handset from its cradle, she pressed the talk button.

“Yeah?” she answered.

“Ms. Booth?” a woman asked.

“Who’s this?” Natalie demanded.

The woman paused. “Is this Natalie Booth?” she asked. She sounded like a twelve-year-old girl, her voice lilting at the end of each word.

Natalie bit down on her lower lip. Very rarely did bill collectors call her by name. She glanced at the caller ID, and her eyes widened. Her heart slammed in her chest. “Yes,” she managed. She thought of the last time she had seen her mother. She hadn’t looked sick, but the stress was slowly wearing on her. Natalie swallowed hard. She sucked in a breath, sitting down on her love seat.

“Ms. Booth, I’m calling on behalf of your father. My name is Rosie. I’m a nurse at St. Mary’s Hospital.”

Natalie clenched the arm of the couch with her free hand. Her mouth went dry.

“I’m so sorry to tell you this,” Rosie continued.

Natalie gasped. No. Not her mother. Not her sweet, beautiful, loving mother. Tears dribbled down her cheeks.

“Ms. Booth?” the nurse asked. “Are you there?”

“Yes,” Natalie managed.

“Your father suffered a massive heart attack early this morning. We’ve stabilized him, but—”

Natalie loosened her grip on the arm of the couch. “My father?” she repeated.

“Yes,” the nurse said. “He—”

“Why are you calling me?” she asked, her breath returning to normal. She leaned back against the throw pillows, closing her eyes. Her mother was okay. Her mother was alive.

The nurse cleared her throat. “You’re listed as his emergency contact,” she said slowly. Papers shifted in the background. “It says here you are his only child, currently living in Manhattan. Is that correct?”

“Yes,” Natalie said slowly, “but I’m not his emergency contact. You’ve made a mistake. Call his sister, or someone else.”

The nurse sighed. “I’m sorry, Ms. Booth. I know these situations can be . . . awkward. But you are his only listed contact, and your father’s condition requires a lot of care. Some decisions need to be made—”

“No,” Natalie said. “Not me. I can’t do this. You’re going to have to call someone else!” She jumped to her feet, pacing the room.

“There is no one else,” Rosie said. “You’re going to have to come down here, sign some paperwork. We need to do a few procedures and need your permission.”

“Have him sign it!” she said, her voice rising.

“Natalie,” the nurse said, “your father is currently unable to make decisions for himself.”

Her heart lurched. “What does that mean?” she asked, her voice sounding like a child’s.

The nurse took a deep breath. “It means,” she said, “that without your help, he could die.”

Natalie stared down at her toes, red nail polish glinting in the light. Wiggling them into the plush carpet, she watched as they disappeared into the fluffy white fibers. The faux fur rug was her favorite thing. It was like walking on the back of a giant fluffy cat. Any time life got hard, all she had to do was bury her toes in the carpet, and everything was fine.

“Ms. Booth?” the nurse asked. Her voice sounded as though it funneled from a million miles away. Tinny static crackled. Natalie wondered how landlines could still sound so horrible when humanity had things like high definition television and wireless headphones. “Natalie, are you there?” the nurse asked again, her voice snapping into clear transmission.

“Bad connection,” Natalie said.

“As I said, you need to come down here as soon as possible. We need to put stents in. It’s not a complicated procedure, but we do need someone to sign for permission. It would be a different story if the patient—your father—were awake.” A fresh wave of static drowned out everything else the nurse said.

Natalie held the phone away from her ear. Of course it was up to her. If her parents were still together, it would be up to her mother. She probably wouldn’t even be living so far from home. Snorting, she looked around her apartment. Her eyes fell back on the eviction notice. Gambling had never been her favorite thing, but if that letter was what she thought it was, she would go home. At least, for a little while.

Cradling the phone between her cheek and shoulder, she leaned forward and scooped the letter from the coffee table. In one swift motion, she tore it open. The words at the top, typed in all capital letters, confirmed her suspicions.

“Okay,” she told the nurse. At the very least, she could go to the hospital, sign whatever she needed to, and go to her mother’s. She had been begging for a visit, anyway. By the time Natalie got to Connecticut, she would have a backup plan, and no one would know what happened.

She cringed at the thought of returning to Waterbury. The only thing left in that city, she mused as she went back into her bedroom, was crumbling buildings and crackheads. She couldn’t understand why either of her parents remained there, especially when they hated each other. Opening her closet door again, she peered inside.

The biggest suitcase she had wouldn’t fit even a fraction of her wardrobe. The irony did not escape her. She should have listed everything on eBay when she had the chance. She couldn’t even afford a storage unit. Sticking her tongue out, she began sifting through, looking for the most practical pieces and the ones she absolutely couldn’t part with. Anger seared through her. Her father was always inconveniencing her life.

When she finished packing, she dragged the suitcase into the living room. The wheels caught in the fluffy rug, and she swore. Yanking at the rug, tears streaming down her face, she wondered how different things would be if her parents hadn’t divorced. She would probably still live at home, and wouldn’t have to leave her rug behind. She ran her fingers through the fibers, tears dripping onto her hand.

Her life was a hot mess, she concluded.

Standing, she looked around the living room. A pair of scissors sat on the coffee table, on top of a stack of magazines. A few weekends before, she had pretended she was a collage artist. She hadn’t even gotten past cutting out a few images. Benjamin swore there was an artist inside of her. All she had to do was find it.

At the thought of Benjamin, she froze.

Tapping her chin with a manicured finger, she tried to think of a way out of ending things between them on a bad note. She didn’t want him to think she was flaking out on him. Up and moving out of state did look pretty bad, she surmised, but she had a good reason—mostly. She just had to convince him that she was worried about her father.

She sat down on the couch and pulled his phone number up in her contacts. She wondered what he was doing on a Sunday morning. More than likely, he was golfing somewhere. Rolling her eyes, she tapped her phone and let the call connect.

“Benjamin Ryan,” he answered, even though he knew it was her.

“Hey,” she said, examining a chip on one of her fingernails.

“Natalie,” he crooned. “It’s so early.”

Okay, then, he probably wasn’t golfing. Glancing at the clock, she rolled her eyes again. It was almost eleven. “You’re spoiled,” she said, thinking of his huge waterbed. Automatically, she remembered the way his skin felt under her fingertips as she ran her hands across his bronzed chest. Soft and hairless, toned and tight, she would have never guessed that he was closer to forty years old. She wished she had time to say goodbye—to really say goodbye. He had a hot tub in every bathroom, and the thread count on his sheets mirrored the play cash in his wallet. The last time she spent the night, she had lain on top of him, chest to chest, feeling his heart race against hers. He wasn’t the worst lover, but he wasn’t the best boyfriend, either.

“Hello?” he breathed. “Earth to Nat.”

“Bad news, Ben,” she said, crossing her legs. She imagined him sitting up in bed, one eyebrow arched, the sheets cascading away from him as he moved.

“Oh?”

The question only punctuated the image in her mind. She struggled to hold the giggle that threatened to escape. Everything about Benjamin Ryan was textbook playboy. Even the way he moved and spoke was a cliche. She wondered if she, too, was a cliche, by association. Sucking in a deep breath, she let him have it: “I’m moving back to Connecticut.”

Silence met her on the other end.

“Ben?” She pulled her phone away from her ear, checking to see if the call was still connected. It was. “You all right?”

“When?” he asked.

She squirmed on the couch. “This afternoon. Now.”

“Why?” The question settled heavily on her ears. He didn’t actually want to know why she was leaving. He wanted to know why she wasn’t putting in her two weeks’ notice.

Amping up the actress she always wanted to be, she said, “My dad, he’s sick. He had a heart attack or something. I’ve gotta go take care of him.” Then, she threw in a sniffle, for good measure.

“Nat, Ryan & Sundry needs you,” Benjamin said. “We’ve got that huge deal with the Giants coming up. I can’t trust anyone else to take care of their print design.”

She thought of the huge Mac desktop in her office. She would miss designing on that thing. “I’m sorry, Ben,” she said. “You think I’m thrilled to just up and leave, too?”

“Why don’t you just take a vacation? I can talk to HR. You’ll be fine.” She could practically hear him smile.

He didn’t get it. “Ben,” she said, letting his name linger in her apartment. She couldn’t tell him she was getting evicted. She couldn’t let him know about the credit cards.

“Or what if you work remotely?” She could see him, throwing the sheets back and slipping out of bed, his naked penis dangling in the late morning light.

Stifling a laugh, she shook her head. “I’m not going to have time, Ben,” she said. “The nurse said it’s really bad. I’m gonna have to take care of him.”

“Dammit, Nat, you’re leaving me at such a bad time.”

She wanted to tell him that he would find someone else, that there were plenty of girls who had majored in graphic design. They just weren’t all stupid enough to sleep with their bosses. Instead, she said, “I don’t have a choice.”

At first, he said nothing. Then, he laughed. “No, I guess you don’t.”

Without another word, he ended the call.

* * *

The train hit a bump, smashing her knee against the seat in front of her. She swore and rubbed at the spot. The scent of sweat and greasy food enveloped her. Wrinkling her nose, she placed a hand on her luggage, steadying it. Another bump rocked the train. Unlike the few flights she had been on, not a single word of reassurance was uttered over the loudspeaker. Natalie guesses that turbulence on a train was normal.

Rolling to a stop, the train’s brakes let out a whoosh. The conductor muttered the stop name, and Natalie had to strain to hear what he said. Static crackled around his words. She frowned. “Any idea what he just said?” she asked the woman sitting across from her.

But the doors whooshed closed and a fresh slew of passengers stumbled around, looking for seats. Natalie’s heart fluttered in her chest. Not only could she hardly make out the stops when they were announced, but there were no more seats left, other than the one her suitcase barricaded.

“Excuse me,” a delicate voice sniffled. She sounded like she had the flu, or a sinus infection.

Natalie groaned, clutching the handle to her suitcase protectively.

“Anyone sitting there?” the girl asked.

Shifting in her seat, Natalie looked from her luggage to the space between her knees and the next seat. She got the feeling that her train wasn’t meant for anything other than daily commute. Licking her lips, she looked back up at the girl.

“Can you speak English?” the girl asked slowly. She shifted in her Converses. A backpack hung from her shoulders. A camera dangled from her wrist. She peered at Natalie with blue eyes, the interior lights reflecting off her glasses. Another bump sent her jolting into the air, and she clenched the seat, her knuckles white. “Any way you can move so I can sit?” she grumbled.

“Sure,” Natalie said, sighing. Bringing her knees to her chest, she slid the suitcase in front of her.

“Thanks,” the girl said. She sat, shoulders heaving. “You never get used to that.” She gave Natalie a watery grin.

Natalie smiled back, then let her gaze wander out the window. There was no point in talking to anyone. She would be off the train in an hour or so. Making friends was not on her priority list.

“So where are ya going?” the girl asked from beside her. She blew her nose into a tissue.

Natalie winced.

“Don’t worry,” the girl said. “It’s just allergies.” She jerked a head toward the window. “Worst thing about summer.” Reaching for her backpack, she squeezed a glob of hand sanitizer from a bottle on a keychain. She rubbed her hands together, then held one out. “Charlotte,” she said.

From the seat in front of her, two guys about her age argued over whose drawing was better.

“Your lines are so much cleaner,” one said.

“No way, dude. Yours is so much more detailed.”

Natalie fought the urge to peek over the seat and see what they were doing. All she could see were the tops of their heads. One wore a Pokemon snapback and the other wore a Cardinals fitted. She didn’t think they were related, or even gay. She wondered whether they were the kinds of artists who went to the city for the weekend, selling as much as they could out of their backpacks.

“Um, hello?” Charlotte waved a hand in front of her face. “You all right, there?”

Swallowing, Natalie nodded. “Sorry. I’m just tired.” Tired didn’t even begin to cover it, but she wasn’t about to tell a stranger about her problems.

Charlotte nodded. “I hear ya.” She leaned across Natalie, pulled her camera off her wrist, and snapped a picture as they rolled by a station. “This weekend was a blur!”

Natalie raised an eyebrow. “Um, kinda short on space, here.”

The other girl didn’t seem to hear her. “I’m just glad this thing’s on time. They were delayed all weekend because of that thunderstorm.” She snorted. “Like the MTA’s never seen rain before.”

“Sure,” Natalie said, looking back out the window.

The speaker above them crackled to life. The conductor uttered the next stop, sounding like a robot whispering.

“Good luck to them,” Charlotte said.

Natalie turned to look at her. “How can you understand what he’s saying?”

The train lurched to a stop and another group of passengers clambered on. They frowned at the full seats and shuffled toward the next car. The doors hardly closed before the train got moving again.

“This is so dangerous,” Natalie said, looking down at her hands. Her knuckles were white.

“Which stop are you?” Charlotte asked. “Wait, let me guess. New Haven?” She shook her head. “Nah, you don’t look like a student or crackhead.” She pulled lip balm from a pocket of her backpack and spread some onto her lips. The scent of cherries wafted toward Natalie. “Waterbury?”

Natalie nodded. “Pretty sure I’m going to miss it, though.”

“Well, you haven’t missed it yet.” Charlotte grinned. “Lucky for you, that’s my stop, too.”

Breathing a sigh of relief, Natalie let her head rest against the seat.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Charlotte said.

Natalie quirked an eyebrow at her.

“People always use the backs of the seats to help them move, and there’s a bathroom on the train.” When Natalie just looked at her, Charlotte said, “There’s never any soap. They don’t wash their hands.”

Whipping her head away from the seat, Natalie returned to watching the world slide by.

The stop came sooner than she thought it would. The train hit a bump, the speakers overhead crackled, and Charlotte stood.

“You coming?” the other girl asked.

Natalie almost wanted to say no, that she had gotten on by mistake. There was still time. She could still go back to New York, up the elevator, and into her apartment. But the nurse said her father could die, and she didn’t hate him enough to let that happen. She shoved her luggage away from her, stood, and exited the train.

A breeze ruffled her maxi skirt. Sunlight lanced down at her, and she lowered her sunglasses. She hugged the handle of her suitcase to her chest, mind whirling. She couldn’t remember ever having gone to St. Mary’s, at least not recently. She was pretty sure it was on the bus line, but had no idea where the closest bus stop was.

“You good?” Charlotte asked from beside her.

Biting her lower lip, Natalie nodded. “Totally.”

“Are you sure? I can give you a ride somewhere.” Charlotte fished out keys from another pocket in her backpack. “I’m licensed.” She winked.

Clearing her throat, Natalie reconsidered. A ride was a ride. “Do you know where St. Mary’s is?” she asked.

“The hospital?” Charlotte cocked her head, looking a little like a sad puppy. Natalie nodded, and Charlotte waved for her to follow. They descended the stairs leading from the platform, weaving past people attached to luggage and cell phones. Apparently Natalie wasn’t the only person coming home. She followed Charlotte out into the parking lot, where the other girl led her to a beat up green Sunfire. “Despite the way this thing looks,” Charlotte said, unlocking the trunk, “I’ve never been in an accident.”

Nodding, Natalie lifted her suitcase inside. She slid into the passenger seat and buckled her seat belt.

Charlotte started the car. She pulled her blonde hair into a messy bun and lifted sunglasses from the rearview mirror. “Who are you visiting?” she asked as they left the parking lot.

Natalie decided to go for honesty. “My father,” she said, looking out the window as they joined downtown traffic. The area looked vaguely familiar. “He had a heart attack.”

“Damn,” Charlotte said as they stopped at a red light. “That sucks.”

Natalie shrugged. “For me, mostly.” She felt the other girl looking at her, and sighed. “He’s not the easiest person to get along with.” She studied her hands in her lap. Once upon a time, she had been the epitome of the term daddy’s little girl. They had regular Sunday dates. She wondered if they would be on a father-daughter date instead of meeting up at the hospital, if things were different.

The rest of the ride passed in silence. Natalie wondered whether she had said something wrong, or if maybe Charlotte’s own father had passed away. It was too late to fix it, though. They pulled in front of the hospital. Charlotte kept her foot on the brake but didn’t put the car in park. She popped open the trunk. “Here you are,” she said.

“Thanks,” Natalie said. She slid out of the passenger seat and walked around to retrieve her luggage. The hospital loomed above her, casting its shadow down. With a tug, she freed her suitcase from the trunk. “Thanks again,” she called, slamming it shut. Charlotte said nothing. The little Sunfire whirred away, leaving Natalie alone.

Sighing, she turned toward the hospital.

Cool air conditioning greeted her as she entered. She hadn’t realized how long she had gone without it, on the train and in Charlotte’s car. Brushing back a strand of sweaty hair, she considered finding a bathroom and freshening up. She didn’t want the hospital staff to think she was a scumbag and dirty. She passed door after door, though, and did not see a bathroom.

Rolling her luggage up to the information desk, she made eye contact with the woman behind it. “Hi,” she said, lowering her sunglasses. “I’m looking for my father. He had a heart attack.”

“Name?” the woman asked.

She gave it.

The woman frowned. “Your father’s name, sweetheart.”

Sucking in her cheeks, Natalie squeezed the handle of her suitcase even tighter. “Right,” she said. “It’s Dylan Booth.”

The woman tapped on her keyboard, made a few mn-hmn sounds, and looked up from her screen. “He’s in cardiology,” she said, giving Natalie directions.

Her heart thudded in her chest, and the floor swam up at her. The word cardiology sounded so much more formal. Colors plunged into view, sharp and clear. Every speck on the floor looked as if she were looking at it through a microscope.

She reeled backward, catching herself at the last second. The woman behind the desk seemed not to notice, though. Casting one more glance at the desk, Natalie collected herself and walked away.

Switching elevators and rolling through the halls, she felt stupid for bringing a whole suitcase with her. She should have dropped it off at her father’s first. Looking back, she should have done a lot of things, she surmised. The cardiology ICU sat bathed in silence. Only one nurse sat at the nurse’s station, and her name tag read Brea.

“Excuse me,” Natalie said, rolling her suitcase until it rested against the desk. “Is there a Rosie here?”

Brea brushed waist length brown curls over her shoulder. Her blue eyes measured Natalie. Then, slowly, she shook her head. “She’s gone for the day. Is there something I can help you with?”

“Dammit,” Natalie said, and the nurse flinched. She kicked at her luggage. She could have spent one more night in her apartment. Scowling, she glanced across the hall at the room her father was in. With no more money for another train ticket, all she could do was move forward. She gave the nurse her best smile. “Rosie said I had to come sign some forms for my dad.”

Brea nodded, her neck lengthening like a giraffe’s as her head bobbed up. She shifted some papers around, then plucked a folder from underneath a Victoria’s Secret catalog. Slapping it on the desk in front of Natalie, she used a French-manicured nail to show Natalie where to sign.

“How is he?” Natalie asked, scribbling her signature.

“Sleeping,” the nurse said, picking up the catalog. “They usually do. Takes a lot out of you.” She turned the page.

Natalie nodded and went to the next form. “DNR?” she asked. “What’s that?”

“Do not resuscitate. It’s if your father codes and we have to bring him back.”

“Codes?” Natalie frowned. “You mean, like, dies?” She stared at the form. She almost wished her father were awake. Then she could at least ask him. If he was awake, though, they wouldn’t have made her come sign the forms. She sighed. She couldn’t remember a single time she had ever talked to her father about his last wishes. Even when her parents were together, their conversations never exactly got heavy. Her parents never went to church, so she had no idea what either of their religious preferences were. “What should I put?” she asked Brea.

The nurse shrugged. “Is your father super religious? Like, is he Catholic?” She indicated the walls.

“Are most patients here Catholic?” Natalie asked. She supposed religious people would choose St. Mary’s over Waterbury Hospital. Reaching into her bag, she pulled out a tube of lip gloss. Putting on lip gloss always helped her think. She smeared pink over her lips. Her father lived on the second floor of a two-family home. An elderly woman lived on the first floor. Old ladies were usually Catholic, especially the Italian ones. So, Natalie surmised as she put her lip gloss away, Mrs. Spinelli was probably the one to call the ambulance. Checking the box, she moved on to the next form.

When she finished, she closed the folder and slid it back to Brea. “So, thanks, I guess,” she said, retrieving the handle of her suitcase.

“Wait,” the nurse said. She plunked a set of keys down on the desk. “These are for you.”

Natalie stared at them. Closing her eyes, she smiled. Maybe she should start believing in a god.

“I was also told to let you know that the pickup is in the valet.”

Grabbing the keys, Natalie turned to leave. Then, as Brea’s words sank in, she turned around. “Who told you?”

Brea smiled sadly at her. “Your father. He drove himself in.”

Her mouth fell open. Before she could say anything else, Brea returned to her catalog.

Walking on her tiptoes, Natalie went to the doorway of her father’s room. Machines beeped around him. An oxygen tank whirred. He lay on his back, his head tilted, his mouth wide open. In the half light, he looked at least ten years older. Tears stung her eyes. Swallowing hard, she walked away, the image of her father sleeping burned into her mind like the flash after a photo.

* * *

Shutting the truck off, Natalie leaned her head back against the seat. The engine ticked in time with the beat of her heart. Warm sunlight slanted in through the windows, and birds chirped from the trees above, but she felt cold. With any luck, she could be at her mother’s in a few hours. First, though, she needed to get herself together. A nap on her father’s couch and a shower would do the trick.

Clutching the keys in one hand and dragging her suitcase behind her with the other, she staggered up the wooden staircase. Every few steps, the suitcase skidded into her heels. By the time she reached the top, blood trickled from fresh blisters. She fumbled through the keyring for the house key. Once upon a time, he had given her a copy. It sat somewhere in her apartment in New York. The landlord would throw it away, whenever he figured out that she had left.

Sighing, she began to insert the key into the lock. Her phone vibrated in her bag, making her jump. Swearing, she dug it out and pressed it to her ear. Static buzzed, then a familiar voice began talking.

“I’m so sorry,” Brea, the nurse from the hospital, said.

Natalie’s heart slammed into her throat. She tried to say something, but her airway felt blocked. She squeezed the keys, metal biting into the palm of her hand.

“I forgot to tell you,” the nurse continued. “Your father went into surgery shortly after you signed the forms.”

Air whooshed into her chest. Gasping, Natalie let go of the keys and sank to her knees. The wood from the deck scraped against her skin.

“Has anyone run you through his post-surgery instructions?” Brea asked.

“What’s there to talk about?” Natalie said, her voice rising. “I signed the forms. That’s all I had to do. Rosie said so.” She felt like an indignant toddler, insisting the crayons wrote on the wall, not her. Blood trickled onto the greying wood. Using her thumb, she swiped at one of the blisters. A sliver of skin hung from the wound.

“The procedure is pretty simple,” the nurse said. “After his initial recovery period, he will be released into your care. You can take him home.” Natalie could practically hear her smiling. “Your father is going to be just fine.”

Gritting her teeth, Natalie tore off the slice of skin. Sharp pain lanced through her heel, then the throbbing stopped. She pressed her thumb to the wound.

The last thing she wanted to do was take her father home. So much for taking a nap.


Natalie might not survive a summer back home with her father.

CONTINUE READING

Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4 · Chapter 5

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10 Kick-Ass Books I Read in 2016

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One thing I was determined to do in 2016 was read more. I often get caught up in the “should”s, as in I should be _____ instead of reading. (Really, you can replace “reading” with anything. I so need to stop “should”ing on myself!) My goal was to read 25 books; I read 31—or at least, that’s what Goodreads says. I didn’t track all of my reads, so I’m sure this number is a bit off.

The following 10 are my favorite reads from this year, in no particular order. Check them out, and load up your Kindle!


F*ck Love, by Tarryn Fisher

F*ck Love would, gun to head, be my favorite book of 2016. I read it during a weekend while Mike was away at an art show, and I couldn’t put it down. Helena and Kit’s story was absolutely insane, in the best way possible. Months later, I still can’t stop thinking about it. This dark and gritty romance is exactly the tone of book I hope to write someday.

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Lex Talionis, by S.A. Huchton

What’s better than a revenge story? A best friend’s revenge story! Lex Talionis also joined F*ck Love in my list of all-time favorites. This was another one that I couldn’t put down. It’s also got a romantic element that had me rooting hard, plus an ending that is super rewarding.

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Luther: The Calling, by Neil Cross

My mom kept recommending I watch Luther, the show on BBC about a detective who might be just as crazy as the killers he chases. I borrowed this from her and had to seriously reign myself in from reading it in one sitting. I then proceeded to binge half of the series; it’s going to be a while until the next season comes out, so I’ve slowed down quite a bit to savor it. Complex, mysterious, and smart, Luther is one of my all-time favorite characters. It doesn’t hurt that Idris Elba is so damn sexy.

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If I Stay and Where She Went, by Gayle Forman

These books are a back-to-back must. I can’t imagine having to wait for the sequel. I borrowed If I Stay from the library and basically cried my way through it. It was so poignant and heartwrenching. Where She Went was just beautiful, and worth running back to the library for.

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Collateral, by J.C. Hannigan

The final book in the Collide series, Collateral was quite the grand finale. I’ve loved Harlow from the moment J.C. told me about her, and it’s been such a great experience watching her grow and come into her own. A suspenseful romance, Collateral is raw and real. And don’t even get me started on how freakin’ hot Jax is. He’s seriously the perfect boyfriend—and my all-time favorite book boyfriend!

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The Year We Fell Down, by Sarina Bowen

This was the first book—that I can remember reading—with a disabled heroine that fully captures what it’s like to live in a limited body. I devoured it in one sitting because I loved Corey and I absolutely had to know whether she and Adam would be together. Though Adam is only temporarily injured, he’s the epitome of the perfect partner. I haven’t read the rest of the series yet, but I really need to get on that!

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I Am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai

My sister brought this over one day, urging me to read it. I’d been wanting to, so no argument there! Malala tells the story of how she defied the Taliban and fought for girls’ education alongside her supportive father. It was such an inspiring and enlightening read. I was 13 on 9/11, so I remember it well but there was still a lot that I didn’t know; it was fascinating to read about the global effects of the so-called “War on Terror.” More importantly, Malala’s bravery was so empowering and uplifting.

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Pretty Pink Ribbons, by K.L. Grayson

Going in, I didn’t know that this was a breast cancer book, but I figured it out pretty quickly, as I have several loved ones who have fought breast cancer. Though it’s in a series, Pretty Pink Ribbons is a complete standalone. It’s quite the rollercoaster, emotionally speaking, but the ending is so worth every second of heartache.

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Kaleidoscope Hearts, by Claire Contreras

This was another one that I devoured. Contreras writes so beautifully, and I fell deeply in love with Estelle and Oliver. I related to a lot of their problems, and I got really attached to their friends and family members. I picked up the complete series box set, so I’m still making my way through the rest of the books. Kaleidoscope Hearts was just lovely.

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Let’s Get Digital, by David Gaughran

And now for something completely different! If you’re new to self-publishing or have been at it for a while and looking for a refreshing book with some publishing and marketing tips, Let’s Get Digital is an insightful, quick read. I promptly grabbed Let’s Get Visible to widen my education, and have already learned a lot.

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There were some books that I started but didn’t finish because I just didn’t get into them, and there were others that were re-reads of old favorites. Honestly, I’ve been watching a lot of TV; by the end of the day, I’ve got too much brain fog to focus on reading. Still, I’m really happy with my reads for 2016.

What were your favorite books this year? Let me know in the comments below!

Just One More Christmas: Chapter 1

Rowan stared out the almost too-shiny front window of Elli’s. It’d long been replaced since the wild thunderstorm a few months earlier, but the glass was nearly reflective. She suspected it had more to do with Matt’s obsessive cleaning of the window than the actual glass itself.

She sighed. Snowflakes drifted down from the sky, painting the quiet Main Street in soft white. The scene was picturesque—or it should’ve been. Watertown’s Christmas cheer contest was in just three days, and she was nervous.

Actually, “nervous” didn’t even begin to cover it. She’d entered Elli’s—the bakery she’d inherited from her aunt Katherine—with confidence, but that was before The Curse started.

Yes, she was definitely calling it The Curse now.

It was more than a funk. She’d been in baking ruts before—where no matter what she did, she botched every single recipe—but that was years ago when she was still a student. She was a pastry chef—one with certification and her own business. She never messed up the recipes she’d made a thousand times before. It was getting to the point where Matt—her handsome business partner and boyfriend—was taking over her morning work. She was even ruining plain old bread. No matter how carefully she measured, it ended up too salty or completely flat.

She was cursed, plain and simple.

She sighed again and looked away from the pretty town. Normally, snow would cheer her up. It was almost Christmas, after all. But if she couldn’t pull it together, Elli’s would not only lose the competition, but they’d become the laughingstock of the town.

Her shoulders slumped. “C’mon, Aunt Katherine,” she whispered. “Be my angel and guide me or something.”

The bells over the door jingled and Rowan straightened in her seat. A vaguely familiar young woman strode in, a red Starbucks cup in her gloved hand. She was decked out in full winter attire: the world’s cutest knit cap, a red sweater wrapped several times around her neck, and cozy UGG boots. Rowan glanced down at her flour- and chocolate-streaked chef’s jacket. Matt should be up front greeting customers—not her.

“Hello,” she said, managing not to sound like a total Scrooge. “What can I get for you?”

“Hi there,” the other woman chirped. “I’m from over at Tilly’s.” She pointed in the direction of the little café. “I’m just scoping out the competition.” She peered into the display case, not even trying to look ashamed. “All you have are sandwiches? Where are those famous cookies and cheesecakes I keep hearing about?”

Rowan suppressed a groan. Tilly’s Café, to both her and Matt’s chagrin, had opened about a month earlier. The town only allowed three total bakeries, but Elli’s hadn’t had a competitor in years. Everyone loved Elli’s. There was no need for another place like it. But Tilly’s had roared in, taking the space where the old chocolate café had once been. The owners fixed up the inside, repaired the stage, and reinstated the open mic nights and other events the town had loved when Rowan was a kid. Elli’s couldn’t possibly compete with that vibe, considering they didn’t have enough space to add a stage.

There had been no stopping it, though. Technically Tilly’s was well within their right, and the town approved it unanimously. Competition, everyone said, was healthy.

Rowan disagreed.

Composing herself, she lifted her chin. “Gotta keep our secret weapons hidden until the big day.”

“Ah.” The woman lifted a finger. “Good plan.” She held out a hand. “We haven’t met yet. My name is Tilly. Are you surprised?” She simpered, perfect dimples appearing in each cheek.

Rowan shook hands with her and resisted the urge to gag. Tilly was sugary sweet, in that completely fake way that some women adopted. “So you’re the baker?”

Tilly scoffed. “Oh no, sweetie, I’m the director. I have people baking for me.” She glanced Rowan up and down. “I’m assuming you’re the baker here. Where’s your director?”

“You’re looking at her,” Rowan said, not bothering to hide her disdain.

“Oh my. That’s telling.” Tilly shook her head and clucked her tongue in disapproval. Straightening, she sniffed the air, her delicate nose wrinkling. “Is something burning?”

Eyes widening, Rowan darted out of the front room and careened into the kitchen. “No, no, no,” she protested, yanking open the oven door. But it was too late. The pan she withdrew and placed on the counter held a dozen nearly black red velvet cupcakes. She slumped against the stainless steel counter.

“Well,” Tilly said from the kitchen entrance, “it’s been a pleasure. I’m really glad I came by.” With one last condescending smile, she turned and left.

Rowan glowered at her back. “I’m really glad you’re a total bitch,” she muttered. She shook her head at herself. That was hardly even a comeback.

“Are you talking to yourself again?” Matt strolled into the kitchen from the back room. He carried a clipboard in one hand and pushed back brown curls from his eyes with his other.

You were supposed to be watching the cupcakes,” she accused.

“I was?” Green eyes shifted from side to side. “I thought I was taking inventory.” He pointed to the clipboard.

Jabbing a finger at the ruined goodies, Rowan scowled. “Tilly’s owner came by. She was a complete tool.” She crossed her arms.

“Sorry, babe.” Matt put the clipboard down. It clinked against the stainless steel counter. He drew her in for a hug, and she couldn’t help but relax against him. With his green eyes, cherub-like curls, and muscular arms, he was living, breathing Ativan. “Still on that streak, huh?”

She huffed. “It’s a curse.”

“Nah.” Stepping back a bit, he lifted her chin with a warm finger. “It’ll pass. You’re Rowan, Elli’s amazing baker.”

Snorting, she shook her head. “More like Elli’s walking disaster!”

“It’ll be okay.”

“Oh yeah? When? The day after the competition?” She stepped completely away and put her hands on her hips.

“It’s no big deal. It’s just a contest.”

Her eyes widened. “Just a contest? Matt, you must have amnesia. Elli’s has won every single Christmas cheer contest for the past ten years.”

“To be fair,” he said, “that’s only because we’ve been the only bakery in town.”

Rowan’s jaw dropped open. “Are you saying we didn’t deserve those awards?”

He held up his hands. “I’m just saying that there was no one else in our category. It’s been, well . . . a piece of cake.”

“I hate you right now.”

He chuckled and slapped his thigh. “Sorry, I couldn’t help it.”

Rolling her eyes, she turned back to the burnt cupcakes. “This event always meant a lot to Aunt Katherine. Christmas was her favorite holiday.” Tears stung her eyes. Exactly six months had passed since Katherine had suddenly died—well, suddenly to Rowan. She’d had no idea that Katherine was even sick. She’d been out in New Jersey, licking her wounds and hoping to sever her family ties all the way down to her DNA. She’d been so, so wrong.

Matt cupped her shoulders. “I know,” he said quietly. Those green eyes bore into hers, pulling her back from the abyss. He smiled. “What if we go through Katherine’s recipe book? Maybe you just need to try something new.”

“And botch one of her sacred recipes?” She shook her head. “I don’t think I could handle it.”

“Well, it’s better than ruining your own recipes and beating yourself up.” His lips flattened. “Actually, it’d be great if you could just stop the self-flagellation altogether. Ro, you’re a freakin’ magician in the kitchen. Everyone has a bad day now and then.”

“A two-week bad day?” she asked. Still, she bent down and retrieved the cherished recipe book from its spot, nestled in a wicker cube that also housed Katherine’s lucky apron. She eyed the apron thoughtfully. “Maybe I should put that on.” Her forehead wrinkled. “Or . . . not. It’s probably better if I don’t taint it.”

She plunked the recipe book onto the counter. It was a two-inch binder wrapped in a floral pattern fabric. Each of Katherine’s recipes was tucked into a clear sheet protector, written in her looping hand that Rowan had always loved. She flipped it open and skimmed through the contents. “What do you think?”

He drummed his fingers on the counter. “Something we don’t make very often . . . and something easy.”

“Hey.” She swatted at him.

“No offense.”

Shaking her head, she read through the list again. “What about Aunt Katherine’s candy cane cookies?” She tapped the photo with a fingernail that she’d nibbled down to the nub.

“Those are good,” Matt agreed. “She made them the first year I worked here.”

“You mean the year you stole my job?”

“Yeah. That year.” He grinned. “Anyway, she wouldn’t let me touch them. I could only watch. She was so particular about how everything was done.”

“In the best way possible.” Rowan smiled. “She always wanted to make sure you were paying attention, that you really learned how to bake with your heart.”

He nodded, then pressed a kiss to her cheek. “Bake with your heart, babe.” He picked up the clipboard again.

“You’re not going to help?”

“I believe I just did.”

“You know what I mean.” She began laying out the ingredients.

Grimacing, he continued toward the store room. “And hang around you? That’s bad juju.” He strolled away, whistling “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

“Brat,” she called after him. Still, she smiled. Despite their rocky beginning, Matt was the best thing that had ever happened to her.

Rolling up her sleeves, she got to work.

She flipped on her favorite Christmas music playlist—a mix of piano-only songs on Spotify. With the cheerful tunes drifting through the kitchen, she started mixing the dough. Mixing was always her favorite part. Though she used a mixer, there was just something so soothing about watching all of the ingredients come together. She combined butter, sugar, egg yolks, and peppermint extract, watching as the paddle stirred the wet components together. Her shoulders loosened and a sappy smile played on her lips.

This was it. She was going to break the curse, if it was the last thing she did.

Switching the mixer to low, she stirred in the dry ingredients. The dough churned, becoming more and more solid with each turn. It was hard to believe that, at one point, she’d been willing to give all of this up.

Once the dough was mixed enough, she shut off the machine and separated it into two equal halves. She swaddled one in plastic wrap and set it aside. Maybe covering it completely was going overboard, but with her luck she’d splash red food coloring everywhere and she’d end up with completely red cookies instead of candy cane-shaped cookies, alternating in red and white.

She hummed to herself as she dyed the other half of the dough red. Already she could see the perfect little candy canes, positioned in the display case so that every other one of them were Js, their sugar sprinkles glistening.

Using her hands, she shaped each ball of dough into a flat square, smoothing the edges into perfection with a bench scrape.

The front door jingled again, and she cringed. “Matt,” she called.

“It’s just me.” Her best friend, Charlotte, practically floated into the kitchen. Her face glowed, and Rowan suspected it had little to do with the cold weather.

“Tell me everything,” Rowan said as she wrapped the squares, “in just one more minute.” She tucked the dough into the walk-in refrigerator, taking a moment to admire her work. Content, she hurried back into the kitchen. “Go!” she told Charlotte.

“Okay, so you remember Amarie?” Charlotte said, unable to hide the goofy grin that clung to her lips like confectioner’s sugar.

“How could I forget?” Rowan tossed everything into the pot sink for later scrubbing.

“Well,” Charlotte drew out the word, “she added me on Facebook a while back.”

“Uh-huh. I remember,” Rowan prodded.

“She hasn’t posted much lately, because of finals and all that, but . . . she’s coming home for winter break!” Charlotte clapped her hands together and bounced on the balls of her feet, her hair flying off her shoulders. Usually dyed one bright color or another, Charlotte had made no exceptions for the holiday season and had turned her naturally blonde locks into cheery Christmas red.

“That’s awesome, Char,” Rowan said with a smile. “So are you gonna make a move?”

Charlotte’s smile faded. She took a deep breath. “She’s still with Jason,” she admitted.

Rowan nodded sympathetically. “We’ll just have to plan a get-together and then you can sweep her off her feet!”

Her best friend shrugged. “I don’t know . . . I mean, I know she’s queer. My gaydar has never failed me. But . . .”

“Jason puts a wrench in the plans.”

“Exactly. I’m not into adultery.”

“They’re not exactly married,” Rowan said, lifting a finger.

“Right, but they’ve been together a while now. Over a year? Maybe even close to two. And I don’t think she knows she likes girls, too, Ro. Like, maybe deep down, but not really, you know?”

Rowan nodded. She slung an arm around Charlotte. “We’ve got to cure you of this crush, babe. It’s only going to tear you apart.”

Charlotte twisted her lips to the side. “I know it. I barely know the girl. I’ve never felt so connected with anyone before, though. It sounds freakin’ stalker-ish.”

“Nah. I get it.” Rowan shrugged out of her chef’s jacket. “How about we go get our Starbucks fix? I’m really craving a peppermint mocha now,” she said, sniffing at the faint traces of the oil on her hands.

Charlotte giggled. “So I take it your streak has ended?”

“I think so,” Rowan said. “I can feel it.” She pulled on her winter coat, a black parka that fell to her knees. Though Charlotte had tried talking her into dying her whole head green, Rowan had gone back to her natural mousy brown—just until the competition was over. She meant no offense to Charlotte, but she’d wanted to be taken seriously, and she was glad now that she knew how put-together Tilly was.

Linking arms with Charlotte, Rowan called out to Matt that they were heading out, and promised to bring him something back. Arm in arm, she and Charlotte stepped onto Main Street. It was at least a mile walk to Starbucks, but with Charlotte she didn’t even feel cold. They chitchatted as they walked, catching up on their lives. Charlotte had started bartending school so that she could be a mixologist at The 545, the lounge she was a short order cook at.

“This way I can chat up cute girls and make some extra money in tips,” she reasoned.

“Makes sense to me.”

Rowan glanced into the windows of the various shops they passed. Main Street was always cute, but it had an even more special vibe during the holidays. Each bare tree was wrapped in white string lights, the lights intertwining and forming a canopy above the sidewalk. It was pure magic, she surmised.

By the time they stepped inside Starbucks, though, her cheeks and nose were numb.

“My treat,” Charlotte said, blocking her from the chip reader.

“No, mine,” Rowan insisted. “You got the last time.”

“So?”

“Plus Matt’s ordering too. C’mon.”

Charlotte stuck out her tongue playfully and gave the barista their orders before Rowan could argue further.

“You,” Rowan told her, wrapping her in a one-armed hug.

“Me.” Charlotte beamed.

They took their coffees and sat down at a table.

“So,” Charlotte said meaningfully, dragging out the word. “Any special Christmas plans with Matt?”

Rowan tilted her head, her eyebrows furrowed. As far as she knew, they were each spending Christmas with their families. They saw each other every day anyway. They could exchange gifts any time.

“Seriously? He didn’t invite you to Christmas dinner with the family?”

“So what? I mean, he doesn’t really have a lot of family. It’ll just be his mom, his little brother, and him. He doesn’t get to spend much time with them.”

Charlotte gave her a flat look. “You guys have been together for like six months now.”

“Four, technically. Actually . . .” Rowan counted. “Three.”

Her best friend rolled her eyes. “Six,” she said firmly. “That month or whatever you were ‘broken up’ so doesn’t count.”

“Either way,” Rowan said, “it’s family time.” She suppressed a groan. “Family time,” to her parents, meant ditching their children just before the holidays for their annual cruise. “What are your plans?” she asked, changing the subject.

“The Butler family tradition: Christmas Eve mass and a stern talking-to about how God hates gays.” She rolled her eyes.

“I’m sorry, love.” Rowan reached across the table and gave her best friend’s hand a warm squeeze. “Any way you can skip?”

“Only if I’m bleeding to death. And even then . . .” She shrugged.

Rowan raised her coffee cup in a salute. “To family.”

Charlotte knocked her cup against Rowan’s. “Happy holidays.” She giggled.

A little while later, they headed back to Elli’s. Full dark had fallen in the meantime and, with it, the temperature. Rowan huddled deep into her coat.

Charlotte walked her to the door and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “Good luck with those candy canes,” she said. She hopped into her warm car, thanks to her remote starter when they were still a block away, and waved as she pulled from the curb.

Taking a deep breath, Rowan hurried into the warmth of Elli’s. She hung her coat up, then went into the walk-in.

Matt bent over a shelf, his black Dickies accenting his ass.

“Nice,” she said flirtatiously.

Straightening, he turned and wrapped her in a hug. Full, warm lips pressed to hers. “Aw, look who’s cold. Let me warm you up, baby.”

“In the walk-in?” Rowan lifted an eyebrow.

He smirked. “We could do it in the kitchen instead, if you prefer.”

“Tempting,” she said, twirling away, “but I’ve got a hot date.” She grabbed her chilled dough and took it to her station, leaving him chuckling after her.

Heart thudding in her chest, she eyed the dough on the stainless steel, willing it to cooperate. “All right,” she said. “Let’s break this streak.”


Rowan is determined to win the town’s Christmas cheer contest, but she’s in a funk—for the past two weeks straight, she’s managed to botch every single recipe. With the judging day only a few days away, can Matt get her back on track?

 Just One More Christmas is a standalone holiday romance novelette set six months after the novel Just One More Minute.

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Read the South of Forever Series FREE on Kindle Unlimited

Extra, extra, read all about it—the South of Forever series is now available on Kindle Unlimited! It’s also got some updates.

  • The prequel novel is now a free bonus when you join the South of Forever email list. I’ve long struggled with finding the proper place for this story; it’s important to the SOF series, but I think a lot of readers were confused. No more! Readers get it free. Click here to get your copy.
  • I’m testing new cover designs. What do you think? My favorite is SOF3. Poppy looks like she’s having the time of her life! And her rockin’ hair is love. 😍
  • Kindle Unlimited subscribers can read the entire series at no additional cost. Learn more about KU and sign up here! You’ll also get the first 30 days for free.
  • I’ve resumed working on SOF4. More info on that soon!
  • Paperbacks back in stock in 2017. More details soon.

Start binge-reading the South of Forever series now!


Book 1: Diving Into Him

Jett might be sober, but she can’t kick her addiction to Koty.

Read a Sample: Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4 · Chapter 5

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Book 2: Savannah’s Song

Savannah’s forever has a secret that could destroy them—and the band.

Read a Sample: Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4 · Chapter 5

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Book 3: What Happens on Tour

South of Forever’s first tour is about to begin, and so is Poppy’s career—if she can keep all her lies straight.

Read a Sample: Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4 · Chapter 5

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Happy reading!

December 2016 News and Goals

dec2016goals_12022016

I’m going to keep this one short, because my wrists and fingers aren’t happy with me right now.

First things first: What do you think of my new blog theme? Well, okay, it’s not new. It’s WordPress’s Twenty Fifteen theme. I think it’s slick!

Nerd things aside…

cover_ebook_jomm_600x900_11282016-2

Just One More Minute is now available. Grab your copy now!

Kindle · iBooks · Nook · Kobo · Google Play · More

Or, if you’d like a free copy in exchange for your honest review, please click here.

"Just One More Christmas" (Not Just Any Love Series, Book 1.5), by Elizabeth Barone

Speaking of Just One More MinuteI’m currently writing a Ro/Matt Christmas story, “Just One More Christmas”! It will be available very soon for $0.99. Make sure you’re on my email list; all my subscribers will get a free copy.

In case you missed it, I’m currently on hiatus from social media. Here’s why, and here’s a bit more of an in-depth post on my illness.

On to the goals!

I’m also reading a lot more. I missed reading! I recently finished I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai—the girl who fought for education and was shot in the head by the Taliban. It was an inspiring read, and also really insightful into the war on terror and its global effects. I strongly recommend every American reads it! We tend to live in a bubble out here.

I’ve also been reading Cold Fire by Dean Koontz—which is, as always, very good—and Chris Fox’s Write to Market. I’m learning a lot about writing better books, which is always a good thing! For some reason, I never finished David Gaughran’s Let’s Get Digital, so I restarted it. I think I just forgot I was reading it, to be honest. Brain=mush. Mostly, though, I’ve been focusing on the Koontz and Fox books. Then there are the many books on my iPad that are begging to be read…

Bookworm problems, am I right?

via GIPHY
via GIPHY

That’s it for my December goals!

What are yours? Leave me a comment and let me know!

Just One More Minute: Chapter 5

Just One More Minute, by Elizabeth Barone

The house fell silent all around Rowan. She stood in the entrance, eyes adjusting to the darkness. She’d forgotten to leave a lamp on. Groping for the light switch, she took several deep breaths in through her nose. It was bad enough, sleeping in Katherine’s house, knowing her aunt was dead. Leaving the lights off was like asking for her imagination to run rampant.

She swallowed hard. She knew she was being ridiculous. She didn’t believe in ghosts. Even if she did, Katherine wouldn’t haunt her. Finding the switch, she flipped the light on, bathing the entryway with light. Sighing, she moved toward the stairs.

After leaving Elli’s, she’d driven around aimlessly. The thought of going back to Katherine’s empty house weighed her down. In New Jersey, in her apartment building, there was always someone around. She could count on the squeak of the floorboards above her head or the soft sigh through a wall to placate her loneliness. Katherine’s closest neighbors were visible from any of the windows, but far enough away that Rowan might as well be on a deserted island.

If she kept the house, she was going to have to find a roommate.

Trudging up the stairs, she replayed her conversation with Matt. No matter how hard she tried, he kept slipping into her thoughts. The last thing she wanted to do was analyze everything he’d said to death. Yet his words—Give me two weeks—looped through her mind. It was almost as if he was trying to woo her. Those bright green eyes had burned into hers, charming her, willing her to give in.

Reaching the landing, she went straight into the bathroom, ignoring the bedroom on the left. Katherine’s room. Eventually she’d have to go in there. Once again she found herself thankful that her aunt hadn’t passed away in the house. There was no way she’d be able to even hang out there, never mind sleep.

She still couldn’t believe the house was hers. She turned on the shower and grabbed her caddy from one of the cabinets under the sink. It felt wrong to take her aunt’s shampoo bottle out of the shower and replace it with her own. At some point, she was going to have to get over that, too. Katherine didn’t need to shower anymore.

She burst into tears. Stripping off her clothes, she stepped into the stream. The hot mist sprayed her face, washing her grief and makeup away. Still, she scrubbed at her face for several long minutes, shoulders absorbing the impact of the water. The heat pounded away at the knots in her muscles, loosening her up. When she was clean and all cried out, she shut off the water and stepped out, wrapping a giant fluffy towel around herself.

Her aunt had always had the best towels.

She dried off quickly, then retreated to the guest bedroom. Her long hair sent droplets sluicing down her belly. Shivering in the central air, she dove under the covers. Before she drifted off, she set her alarm for the morning.

* * *

Dawn came too soon—if she could call it that. The sky outside the house was still dark. Rowan groaned as the alarm on her phone pierced the thin veil of sleep. Swearing, she crawled out of bed and turned it off. For a moment, she considered just going back to sleep. Matt couldn’t exactly force her to meet him. She did need to figure out what to do with Elli’s, though. The sooner she wrapped things up in Connecticut, the sooner she could get back to her life.

She sat up. Her hair cascaded down her back as she moved. A frown tugged at her lips. Her life. She barely had friends. Most of them were people she’d met and hung out with in college. Sure, she had Sean. He was more like her boss, though, no matter how much he looked out for her. And just before she got the news about Katherine, she was trying to figure out what to do with her life. It was true that she didn’t want to work at the diner for the rest of her days. Technically, her blogging could support her—and she could take that with her back to Connecticut.

Nothing actually held her down to New Jersey.

There wasn’t much for her in Connecticut either, though.

Give me two weeks, Matt’s voice sauntered through her thoughts. A tingle ran down her spine. If he meant more than training, he could be her reason for moving back home. She squeezed her eyes shut. He’d already hurt her, though. Letting him back in would be reckless. Then again, it wasn’t as if she’d ever really let go. Those green eyes were still haunting her.

Throwing the blankets off, she climbed out of bed. She was being ridiculous, but she owed it to herself to check out all angles of the situation. And she wouldn’t let him get too close, she vowed. If anything, he could be a fun distraction while she figured things out. Maybe she would even find some closure and finally stop thinking about him.

There. Her logic was totally sound.

Traipsing through the guest room to the bathroom, she grabbed clothing. Then she started the shower and got ready for her day. Her makeup became her war paint. She drew her hair into a messy bun and surveyed herself in the mirror. Her tank top, capri leggings, and sneakers were okay for a morning in the bakery, but something was missing. She took a deep breath.

Then, she made herself walk into Katherine’s room.

Ignoring everything else, she marched straight to the closet. She tugged open the double accordion doors. Amidst her aunt’s blouses and dresses, Rowan spotted what she needed. She clutched the pastry chef’s jacket to her chest and fled the room.

Properly outfitted, she left the house.

On her way to Elli’s, she stopped for a hot latte and a bagel. After a moment’s hesitation, she doubled her order. It would be rude to walk in with nothing for Matt, she told herself.

Despite her pit stop, she arrived before him. She didn’t have keys to Elli’s, so she perched on a chair at one of the outdoor tables. Sipping her coffee, she checked the time on her phone. It was 4:55am.

She didn’t wait long. A pickup swung into the parking lot, pulling abruptly into a slot. Matt jumped out, two coffees and his keys balanced in one hand. He strode toward her and her heart skipped a beat. As he neared, he hesitated, glancing from the coffees in his hand and the goodies on the table in front of her.

He laughed nervously. At least, he sounded nervous. Maybe she was projecting. Joining her, he set his coffees down and unlocked the door. “I guess we won’t be short on caffeine.” He pushed the door open, plucked the two styrofoam Dunkin Donuts coffees from the table, and nodded for her to go in.

Gathering her own things, she stood. She moved past him, chewing on the inside of her cheek as she dredged up an equally light response. “If you’re trying to sway me,” she said, “you should’ve stopped at Starbucks.”

“I’ll remember that.” He set his things down on the checkout counter and flipped on some lights. Leaning against the counter, he surveyed her pastry jacket. “I didn’t think you were coming.”

“Well, I’m here.” She opened the paper bag and handed him a bagel. “Cheers.” She tapped her bagel against his, then took a big bite. “So,” she said between swallows, “do you guys still make the ciabatta first?”

Elli’s had the best sandwiches—mainly because of their bread. Some of her best memories were lunch breaks during that first summer working with her aunt.

Matt nodded. Grasping the bagel with his thumb and forefinger, he turned his hands so his palms faced the ceiling. “These hands have rolled out some serious ciabatta.”

Her eyes fell on his hands, square and broad. They were perfect for kneading dough. And other things. Heat flushed her cheeks. She knelt, pretending to search for a fallen crumb. Her bowed head hid her face, thankfully shielding her from his view. Around him, she could barely control herself. She needed to get it together.

Straightening, she took a deep breath. His eyes met hers and she came undone all over again. Those green eyes were bright despite the early hour, studying her. His full lips twitched. Pressing her thighs together, she looked away and focused on finishing her bagel.

“Rowan,” he said, breathing her name.

She dropped the bagel. Annoyed with herself, she glared down at it.

“I’ll get it.” He closed the space between them and bent to retrieve the bagel. Brown curls caressed his forehead. The muscles in his arm rippled as he dropped the bagel into the paper bag. Then, slowly, he stood. Barely twelve inches separated them. He tilted his head down and peered at her through his lashes. With his eyelids drooping, he looked like a sex god.

Her throat made a strangled sound and she pushed past him, breaking the spell. He was messing with her, she realized as she burst into the kitchen. Even worse, she was going to lose this game.

She bent over the stainless steel counter in the middle of the room, gripping its edge. Part of her wished he would come up behind her, arms encircling her waist. She could practically feel the heat of his body. Her breath came out in ragged gasps. She needed to remember that he’d broken her heart. Not to mention the job he’d stolen. Her eyes narrowed as her thoughts cleared. Yes. She needed to harness that anger and wear it like a shield. Otherwise, she was done for.

At least he had the decency to give her time to collect herself. By the time he strolled in, she had already pulled out ingredients for the ciabatta and was sifting flour into the giant industrial mixer. She patted the machine appreciatively. She’d missed having such an appliance.

“I’ll just start on the cannoli, then.” His fingers brushed her arm as he passed. Heat seared through her nerves. She glared daggers at his back.

Forcing herself to focus, she got back to work.

“Did you give any thought to my proposal?” he asked as he added flour, cinnamon, and sugar into the smaller mixer.

Rowan had to admit, she’d missed this world of sweets. Though she loved serving guests at Sean’s, there was something special about working in the kitchen, getting her hands plastered in dough.

“I barely slept,” she confessed, going for honesty. “I just don’t know what to do. This used to be my dream.” Lifting a hand, she gestured to the gleaming kitchen.

“It can be your reality,” Matt said in a low voice. Their eyes met across the kitchen.

She slanted a delicate eyebrow at him. “You have no idea what you’re asking.”

“Then make your case.” He smirked. “What’s so great about New Jersey?”

“My apartment is closer to New York City than Katherine’s house is,” she said, turning the mixer on. “And that means more Junior’s cheesecake.”

He lifted a shoulder. “I should care because . . . ?”

She gaped at him. “You’ve never had Junior’s cheesecake?” Jabbing a bench scraper toward him, she shook her head in dismay. “I thought Katherine took you under her wing.”

He shrugged. “What’s the big deal?”

“Nailing their recipe has been her life’s work,” Rowan chided. “At least, it was when I worked with her.” She frowned. So much had changed.

“I’m sure it was still important to her,” he said gently. A heartbeat passed. She heard him draw in a breath. “What happened between you two, anyway?”

She dropped the bench scrape. It clanged off the table and onto the floor. Stooping to pick it up, she tried to calm down. He had a lot of nerve asking that. She couldn’t figure out what game he was playing. Maybe he enjoyed torturing her—on more than one level. “I thought we came here to discuss Elli’s.” She tossed the bench scrape into the pot sink.

“Fair enough.” He finished mixing the dough for the cannoli shells. With a practiced hand, he divided the dough, flattening each into a disk. He swaddled them in plastic wrap and carried them to the walk-in cooler. When he returned, he joined her at the large mixer.

“So let’s talk. What did you decide?” He crossed his arms.

“You act like it’s so easy.” She dumped the ciabatta dough into a bowl coated with olive oil, covered it, and set it aside to rise.

“Isn’t it?” His eyes bore into hers.

“Are you trying to intimidate me?” She scowled at him.

Matt’s eyes widened and he took a step back. “No.” He held up both hands, palms facing her. “Well, okay. I’ll lay out my cards.” His arms dropped to his sides. “For me, it is simple. I need this job.”

She crossed her arms. “I’m sorry, but this is the last thing I need right now.”

“So what do you need? Maybe I can give it to you.” His eyes were steady. He meant what he said, she realized.

Throwing up her hands, she whirled around. She leaned on the counter. “I need time,” she muttered. “Everything is happening so fast. I can barely keep up. Last week, I had the whole summer to figure this out, maybe even longer.” More importantly, she’d had a lifetime to make up with Katherine. She’d taken her aunt for granted. Dipping her chin, she closed her eyes.

“You said this used to be your dream.” He indicated the bakery they stood in. “What’s stopping you?”

“My family, for one.” She snorted. “I left to get away from them. Coming back . . . it feels like giving up, you know?” She shook her head. He didn’t know. She’d seen him with his mother at the wake. Without having to hear their conversation, she could tell they were close. At the very least, his mother wasn’t grilling him about his life choices or pressuring him to give a new and especially potent strain of weed a chance. Her entire childhood had been a precarious balancing act of proving to her parents she was a good hippie child and secretly planning her escape as soon as she turned eighteen. Her parents weren’t bad people. They just weren’t her people.

All throughout high school, especially, she’d felt like a weirdo. She wasn’t a prude or goody two shoes. If she hadn’t been constantly bullied into trying different drugs, she might enjoy a joint now and then. In her adult life, she enjoyed a nice full glass of wine every once in a while. She wasn’t twenty-one yet but it wasn’t too hard to buy a bottle. It just depended on which package store she went to.

But no. Her first—and only—high had been a nightmare. She’d had a panic attack and her entire family had just laughed at her, told her to suck it up, and tried to force her to take another hit. She would feel better, they insisted.

She shuddered at the memory.

So no, Matt couldn’t possibly understand. She knew next to nothing about him, but she’d never read any of his family members’ names in the police blotter.

He touched her arm gently, but she jerked away. She’d had enough. She couldn’t run Elli’s with him. It had been stupid of her to even entertain the idea. Her place was in New Jersey, away from the rest of the Ellis family. Maybe she didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life yet, but she knew she didn’t want to waste any more time in Connecticut.

Without a word, she shrugged out of the pastry jacket and dropped it into the laundry bin. Her sneakers squeaked on the floor as she strode across the tiled kitchen. She could hear her heartbeat pounding in her ears. The front end—and the door—felt so far away. Suddenly she thought she would just leave Connecticut that day. No need to wait any longer.

“Where are you going?” Matt called after her.

Ignoring him, she sprinted through the front end, weaving around tables. She burst into the hot summer morning. Despite the muggy air, she felt better at once. She slowed as she neared her car, pulse thrumming in her throat. A quick glance over her shoulder told her that Matt hadn’t bothered to follow her.

Good. She’d had enough of him.

She slipped into the car. Though the vents almost immediately pushed cold air into her face, she shut the air conditioning off and rolled down the windows. She needed real air. Guiding the car out of the parking lot, she relished the feeling of the breeze on her skin.

She may have botched her weekend home, but from this moment on, she was going to do better. She owed it to herself.

A plan formulated in her mind. She’d stop at Katherine’s, pack her things, and lock up. There wasn’t any real tidying that she needed to do. The place had been spotless when she arrived. Her aunt had never let the house get even slightly dirty.

Then she’d make for New Jersey, stopping for nothing. As soon as she got back to her apartment, she’d call Sean and find out when she could pick up her next shift. She’d get in touch with her aunt’s lawyer later in the week and find out what she needed to do to sell the house and Elli’s.

She nodded to herself.

As she stopped at the first red light on the way to Katherine’s, though, she wondered when she would stop running.


JUST ONE MORE MINUTE
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A down-on-her-luck waitress inherits a bakery with the man who stole her dream job—and broke her heart.

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Let’s Get 50 Reviews for Just One More Minute!

jomm_50reviewsblitz_12012016I’m still unplugged to focus on my health, but I also don’t want to lose momentum with my career. It’s a double-edged sword. What I’ve decided is, while I won’t be checking Twitter/Facebook/etc, I’ll still post bookish things using HootSuite. And I’ll continue with my marketing plan for Just One More Minute.

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The next thing on my list is a 50 reviews blitz for this month, meaning I’d really like to get the book to 50 reviews or more on Amazon. Why? Because word on the indie author street is, once a book has 50-60 reviews, Amazon starts suggesting it in emails to their customers—hence more eyeballs on my little book. Since I can’t afford a NetGalley or even a co-op, I’ve had to get creative to get those reviews. For my last few releases, I’ve been offering incentives, AKA… presents.

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Here’s how it works.

Every time we reach a new milestone, I’ll give you, my readers, some kind of Just One More Minute bonus or giveaway. In the past, I’ve done this in multiples of five, but this time I’d like to try something different.

Right now, Just One More Minute has 4 reviews on Amazon. This is a great start! When we get to…

  • 15 reviews posted to Amazon: I’ll do a live reading on my Facebook author page
  • 25 reviews posted to Amazon: I’ll post a giveaway on my Facebook author page for a signed paperback copy of Just One More Minute*
  • 30 reviews posted to Amazon: I’ll post a raw chapter to my blog from Any Other Love, the companion novel starring Charlotte and Amarie (release date TBA)
  • 40 reviews posted to Amazon: I’ll post a bonus chapter to my blog, starring Rowan and Matt spending a day at the beach
  • 50 reviews posted to Amazon: I’ll post a giveaway on my Facebook author page for a signed poster of the Just One More Minute cover, a signed paperback, and other awesome swag*
  • 60+ reviews posted to Amazon: I’ll post a giveaway on my Facebook author page for my complete ebook library

I know we can at least reach 50 reviews by the end of December!

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So how can you help?

If you’ve already read Just One More Minute, great! Please go post a review on Amazon (and any other site, like Goodreads). Your review can be as simple as a couple sentences saying whether you liked the book.

If you haven’t purchased a copy yet, you can buy your copy here. After you read it, post your honest review on Amazon and any other site.

If you can’t purchase a copy but would still like to help, email me at elizabethbaronebooks@gmail.com and tell me which format you need. If you’re reading on a Kindle, please include your Kindle email address (and make sure you’ve added my email address to your approved senders list). I’ll send you a free review copy!

Please note that at this time, I’m unable to process emails quickly; I’m currently checking my inbox every Monday (though sometimes I sneak on in the middle of the week), to save my hands and wrists. Just be patient with me, pretty please. 😘

I know with your help, we can totally do this.

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*U.S. residents only