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Fall with Me
By Julie Particka, Edited by Allison Bliss
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Julie Particka
All rights reserved.
I should have known when he never gave me a ring. Granted, with graduation coming, I hadn't expected a big-ass diamond or anything. A little band would have been a sign of real commitment. Words were ... just words.
And that included the ones on my phone.
Hey. I can't go through with it. I love you, but not enough for forever.
Breakup text. I hadn't even earned a handwritten Dear Jane letter. I flipped from Adam's message to the one from Lacey that had come in about an hour later.
I'm sorry. We didn't plan this.
Not only dumped by my fiancé; dumped for my best friend.
And like hell they didn't plan it. In order for my best friend and my lousy, cheating ex to hook up — secretly, for that matter — it had to have been planned. Lacey hadn't gone to Grand Valley with us, so it wasn't like they kept bumping into each other and couldn't help themselves. However this had gone down, it had to have been premeditated.
Adam's message had come the week of finals, right in the middle of my third exam. Right after he finished his last one. He was gone by the time I managed to reach his apartment. He'd left the box of my things outside the door. No note. No nothing.
I was such a fucking coward for not going after either one of them and demanding answers.
And if I could say that much about myself, I could certainly say worse about my best friend and my best guy. Correction. Ex-best-friend and ex- best-guy. If I had my way, I'd get home and be able to start life over and pretend the two of them never existed. Too bad she lived only a couple miles from my parents' house. For the summer, maybe I could just avoid going anywhere she might be.
Then, if I were lucky, maybe she would be moving far away to be with him.
One more hour on the stupid train and I'd be on her turf ... and have to face my parents — tell them why I likely failed my last two exams. Not to mention why I'd waited around campus for an extra two and a half weeks after graduation. Oh, and why the wedding was off. Good times. Good times.
At least I'd only told them about our engagement. It wasn't as if all my friends back home knew, or my friends at Grand Valley for that matter. Adam had made me promise to keep it quiet until we'd told both our families. I didn't believe in keeping secrets from mine, though, and I gave them the news over Easter — weeks before he dumped me.
Take it as the life lesson it is, Jenna. Sometimes secrets are the better option.
I leaned my head against the cool window and watched the scenery roll by. Trees, houses, factories ... all of it seemed so damned alive. All of it chugging right along. Raindrops pinged against the glass, sliding sideways with the forward momentum of the train. Everything was moving on.
Right before exams, I'd gotten two job offers. Two good offers. The first would have meant following Adam. It was the one I'd planned to take. The one I'd accepted. Though I knew it had the potential to damage my professional reputation before I started working anywhere, I wound up calling to tell them I'd changed my mind. Quit before the first day of work because there wasn't a snowball's chance in hell I wanted to live that close to him.
Too bad the position I'd initially turned down because I was so in love had already signed a contract with their second choice. Two weeks of job searches had left me at a loss. Stupid economy. Stupid Adam.
Stupid, stupid me.
At least Dad was doing well enough that he could hire me until I found something else. Definitely not the dream job. Living at home would save money and leave me free to take a position as soon as I found one, though. Plus, being surrounded by people who loved me was a bonus. At the moment, I'd cling to every scrap of good I could gather from this situation.
My phone buzzed, and I looked at the screen.
Jenna sweetheart, I'm stuck with a client. I'm sending the new guy to grab you from the station. If you're up to working, I can use an extra set of hands this afternoon. If not, have him drop you at home. Your mother's making pasta.
I groaned. My parents were awesome, but making pasta with Mom meant lots of time for chitchat. Lots of time for questions. Lots of time for painful conversations I'd just have to repeat when Dad got home for dinner.
I texted back before I changed my mind and decided to wallow in the fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies I was sure Mom would have ready the instant I walked in the door.
I can use the money. Which means as long as you have a hammer for me to swing, just point me at what needs demolishing.
Not ideal, but at least Dad didn't expect conversation on a job. He only wanted work. Smashing the shit out of the walls of his current renovation project sounded like exactly the kind of therapy I needed. My phone buzzed again, and I glanced down expecting an "I love you, Jenna-bear" or a "Great. See you soon." Instead, the message I got made me debate going for the cookies instead.
J, I wish you'd talk to me. I have a lot to tell you. L
Not Dad. Lacey.
I wanted to chuck the phone out the window where it could be caught by the wind and rain and get sucked under the train. Death by locomotive sounded like a hell of an idea. I wasn't interested in her lame-ass excuses or halfhearted apologies. There wasn't a single thing Lacey might have to say that I wanted to hear. Not now. Not ever. Maybe Adam was more to blame than she was, but it took two to tango.
The constant texts were getting old, and a new phone number sounded like the best plan I'd ever had. It wasn't as if she'd suddenly realized what a jerk Adam was and what a horrible mistake she'd made. I'd been there. The idea would last all of five minutes before he'd convince her things were perfect — exactly like he'd done with me.
We were both idiots. I just wasn't enough of one to have any desire to deal with either of them.
The train started to slow down and I stood, grabbing my suitcase from its spot near the door. I'd sold everything else off before I left school. Nothing was left except one bag of clothes, the books I'd shipped ahead, and my laptop. Nothing to remind me of Adam or Lacey. Step one to my "forget they're alive" plan was complete.
Almost home, Jenna. You can do this. Work for Dad for a couple weeks and you'll be able to trade in your phone if you want and get new digits. No more Adam. No more Lacey. The train screeched on the tracks, stopping as my station came into view.
Ignoring the glances from the few people in the car, I finished the mental pep talk: In fact, you're going to skip the new phone, clear your message history and photos, and change your number tonight, before you start job-hunting again. You're only a few minutes from being free of everything that will remind you of Adam Richmond, Lacey Bell, and all their shit.
I lugged the suitcase down the steps, scrambling backward and dragging it after me. When I hit the platform, a strong hand attached to a tanned forearm grabbed the bag's handle. Great. The last thing I needed was someone running off with my luggage. "Back off."
"I can help you." His voice was the sexy kind of growl that came from smoking too many cigarettes or singing until you lost your voice like a million times — only a lot yummier. It reminded me of campfire sing-alongs and sent a shiver down my spine that made my toes curl.
Perfect. A guy with a voice that makes me think dirty thoughts. Precisely what I need.
"Thanks. I got it, though."
Too bad as soon as I said thanks, the guy yanked on the suitcase. The move knocked me off-balance, and the bag clipped my leg. I landed ass-first in a puddle on the platform, grunting as I hit. It could have been worse. At least it wasn't face-first.
As long as the jerk didn't steal my stuff, I'd be fine.
"You never change, do you, Jem? Same stubborn, clumsy beauty you've always been. No wonder your dad sent me to drag you around."
I didn't move from my spot on the platform, just sat there and let the water soak through my capris. My breath came in ragged gasps as I squeezed my eyes shut and wished I could disappear.
No wonder the voice had done horrible things to me. Only one person on the damn planet called me Jem. He'd started with the stupid nickname because I scrawled a note to Lacey once and the letters of my name had run together. He'd asked her who the hell Jem was, and the name stuck afterward. I'd thought it had been his way of flirting, of making me feel special. I couldn't have been more wrong. Which meant theft or no theft, the situation had gotten worse. There would be no forgetting about Lacey today, and my heart sank into the puddle under my butt.
"Hello to you, too." He reached down and grabbed my arm, yanking me upright like I weighed nothing. It put me directly in front of him, close enough to the open neck of his plaster-covered shirt that I could smell faint remnants of the cologne he wore. The same stuff he'd worn in high school. I fought the urge to suck in a deep breath before he stepped away. "You know, my sister's been trying to get in touch with you for a couple weeks. Give Lacey a damn call and get her off my back."
"Fuck me sideways," I muttered. Not only did I have to deal with Sutton Bell and the way his dark hair and blue eyes mirrored his sister's, but he had to go and mention Lacey the first chance he got. The universe had a horribly cruel sense of humor.
"Nah," Sutton said, dragging my suitcase behind him as he headed to the parking lot. "That's not on the menu."
I instantly regretted my ponytail as my ears went hot, my embarrassment on full display. "It wasn't an offer."
"My mistake." He heaved the suitcase behind the passenger seat of Dad's truck and held the door for me. "It was last time, so you can understand how I might make the assumption."
I bristled and scrambled inside as gracefully as I could, biting back the childish retort on the tip of my tongue. Sutton shoved the door closed, leaving me alone with the memory he'd so rudely exhumed from the depths of my brain.
So what if I'd drunkenly come on to him during junior year at the Bells' annual Halloween party? Every girl I knew had hit on Sutton at least once. I didn't know how many offers he'd accepted, but I refused to believe the reports from the female population of Eisenhower High. Because that would have been every one of them.
When he climbed in on the driver's side, I dragged myself to the present and gave an exaggerated sigh. "One lapse of judgment where I drunkenly mistook you for Superman. I mean, you were wearing the costume. Can't hardly blame a girl for that."
"Sure I can. I always blame girls for hitting on me when they think I'm someone else. It's rude as hell."
"Let me make it up to you by telling you the reasons it will never happen again." I ticked them off one at a time on my fingers. "For starters, you're not a good enough guy to pass for Clark Kent, much less Superman. I'm over my bad-boy phase, thank you very much. You're Lacey's brother. You work for my dad. And ... you had your chance and blew it. So no more worries, Sutton. We're just business from here on out."
As I'd talked, his mouth had fallen open for a second, then he snapped it shut and I got to watch as his jaw clenched harder and harder. Good. Maybe he'd lay the hell off now.
Or not. "I'm cleaning up my image, not that it's any of your business. However, that speech would have been a lot more effective if I hadn't seen the way you looked at me at the train station."
"What is that supposed to mean?" I hadn't looked at him. Not really.
"Don't worry about it, Jem. Your secret is safe with me."
In other words, he had successfully managed to throw me off guard and wanted me to stay there. So much for getting the upper hand with him. I'd always failed in that regard.
Sutton was a force of nature.
The guy everyone gravitated toward: Mr. Popularity, star athlete, and class brainiac. Kind of made me wonder why he was working for Dad. I wasn't about to ask about it, or what he meant by the "cleaning up his act" comment.
The last thing I wanted was to seem interested. Of course, the silence gave me way too much time to stew and think about how he'd filled out while I was away at college.
Looking as much as I want now, Sutton. You just keep your eyes on the road so you don't notice. Thanks.
A late growth spurt had turned his muscles long and lean his senior year of high school. He'd been hot as hell then. Now the bulk that had stretched out had returned better than ever. His biceps strained against the rain-dampened sleeves of his polo. And the veins in his forearms begged to be traced by finger. Or tongue. I shivered against the thought of what he'd taste like.
Nope. This summer was bound to be complicated enough without thinking about trying again with him. What was the old saying about the definition of insanity? Doing something over and expecting a new result. I might've been pissed as hell, but I wasn't crazy, yet.
"You know, since you've got all this time while we're on the road, call my sister."
If I let him though, Sutton was bound to drive me to the nuthouse. He was not going to give up unless I shut him down. "I want to talk to Lacey less than I want to talk to you, and that's saying something. So, how about no."
Sutton's jaw set in the kind of hard line usually reserved for comic book superheroes. Which was why I planned to stand by the Superman lie until I died — everyone would believe me. "I don't ask for favors very often, Jem. She's annoying the fuck out of me. Could you please get on the phone with your goddamn best friend so I don't have to kill her?"
"Now that I know her imminent demise is on the table?" I tapped a finger against my lips and pretended to think about it for a few seconds, imagining the ways Sutton might kill her. Strangling her and Adam with each other's entrails topped my list of favorites. "Yeah. I'm thinking that's a bigger 'no' now. Maybe even a 'hell no.' Also, goddamn ex-best friend, if you don't mind."
He released a sigh that was exasperated enough you'd think I was a little kid rather than only three years younger than him. "And what the fuck am I supposed to tell her when she calls again? I won't lie for you."
"Don't remember asking you to. Say I said no." Avoidy-avoider is avoiding again. "Actually, no. Tell her I said that backstabbers don't get to take up my time. If she wants to talk to me, have her talk to Adam. I was always myself with him. After three years, he should know me well enough to pretend to be me. Then everyone's happy."
"Everyone's happy? Is that supposed to be a joke? Because it's not funny. She's not happy. You're clearly not happy. And I've got to say, I'm not exactly brimming with happiness right now, either. What the hell happened between you two?"
There went the "not having to tell this story more than once" plan. At least I only needed to provide Sutton with the SparkNotes version. His words rattled around my brain as I tried to decide how much to tell. "You didn't ask who Adam is."
"He's her new guy." The way Sutton almost spat the words gave me a sliver of hope. Hope for what, I had no idea — though I kind of wished it involved entrails, at least where Adam-the-cheat was concerned.
"And he's my ex-boyfriend. As in, we were dating when Lacey hooked up with him. He broke up with me during finals." There'd never been a ring. The broken engagement could be my pathetic little secret. While I had no choice other than to stomach his knowing that Adam left me for his sister, Sutton didn't need to know the level of humiliation and hurt that went along with it. Sharing this much with him was hard enough, especially since the conversation would probably make its way to Lacey anyway.
God, he was such a guy. Like it didn't matter. Good on Adam for having two chicks at once. Blah blah blah. It made me sick to my stomach. I wanted to jump from the truck and walk the twenty miles home rather than sit here with him anymore.
And I wanted the cookies more than ever.
Excerpted from Fall with Me by Julie Particka, Edited by Allison Bliss. Copyright © 2014 Julie Particka. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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