Sometimes secrets kill. Maybe slowly, maybe painfully. Maybe all at once.
Melissa smiles. She flirts. She jokes. But she never shows her scars. Eight months after tragedy ripped her from her closest friend, Melissa is broken. Inside her grows a tumor, fed by grief, rage, and the painful memory of a single forbidden kiss.
Javier has scars of his own: a bullet wound, and the memory of a cousin shot in the heart. Life in the States was supposed to be a new beginning, but a boy obsessed by vengeance has no time for the American dream. To honor his familia, Javier joins the gang who set up his cousin's murder. The entrance price is blood. Death is the only escape.
These two broken souls could make each other whole again--or be shattered forever.
Our time will come. And we'll be ready.
Praise for Before You
"Beautiful. . .will settle deep in your heart." -- New York Times bestselling author Sophie Jordan
"Will hook and hold you. . ." --National bestselling author K.A. Tucker
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By Amber Hart
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Amber Hart
All rights reserved.
The beach is a moving canvas of people.
Cabanas and waves and bathing suits and sand castles all blend together to create a serene picture of life on the coast. The sky is on fire with blues and yellows and oranges. Tiny puffs of clouds like wisps of cream. Sunscreen lotion saturates the air, smelling like SPF and sweat. I squint through the blaring sun and walk toward a crowd of girls lying on their bellies with the strings to their tops undone. Bare backs naked of tan lines.
"Frozen margarita, extra salt," I say, giving the drink to a girl with blond hair a shade darker than mine.
I balance the tray on one palm. Hand off drinks with another. Like a machine dispensing snacks.
"Piña colada." Next girl. "Sex on the beach." Next. "Vodka and tonic." Last. "Rum and Coke."
I smile. Compliment one of the girls on her leg tattoo. Girls love compliments. Eat them up like sugar. Delicious sugar that serves to fatten my wallet.
I don't know these girls. I don't know most of the people splayed out on the beach like a deck of cards. Ordering alcohol like water, trying any reprieve to cool themselves down from rays that bake them to burnt crisps.
It's too hot to be alive today. The air is breathing fire all over me. The sun is pressing so hard into my skin that it's turning red. If I close my eyes, I can imagine my skin melting off like wax. I'm dripping sweat. Body glistening as though I've jumped in the water. I haven't.
"Thanks," the girl with the leg tattoo says.
One of the girls ties her top and flips over, insistent on showing me her hip tattoos. Two pink bows wrapping up the package of a perfect body.
I remember what it was like to have a perfect body.
"Love it," I say. And I do.
I can never get a tattoo there.
I don't wear bikinis anymore. My swimwear is a collection of one-pieces. Covering certain fragments of me that I'm not willing to show. Holding me together. Though admittedly still racy, especially the one I've got on today, which hugs me like a glove, fitting my every muscle and curve. It's white with wavy ruffles like sea foam over the material around my breasts, plumping them up. A simple tie in the back to support the front. A runway of fabric lining my stomach. Nothing but tiny pieces coming together, exposing skin.
My tray is still stacked full of drinks for another group of people. They look like towers. Like a whole miniature city of skyscrapers and small circular buildings crammed together. Drowning in liquid.
I wait for cash.
A quick glance tells me that the five girls have tipped me something close to fifteen bucks. Not bad.
"Enjoy the heat," I tell them by way of good-bye.
On to the next customer.
All around me, sun tints skin a soft brown, sometimes red. Corners of beach towels flutter in the slight breeze like stingray wings. It hurts to look at the ocean, glittery and reflecting light, a million liquid jewels on display.
I've already checked IDs for the five guys waiting for drinks. They're tall and muscular—with the sort of deliciously ripped bodies that belong in a place like this—each ordering Corona bottlenecks. I hand out beers and accept their cash. Flirt a little. Makes for better tips.
"What are you guys doing out here today?" I ask. Grin.
"Nada, mami," one says in a Latino accent, taking a seat on a lounge chair. The others follow suit. "Just enjoying this weather. Wanna enjoy it with me?"
He pats his lap. Like I'd actually sit on it.
"Can't," I say. Wink at him. "Have to work."
The guy leans forward. Checks me out. I check him out right back. Shaved head, nice lips.
The others check me out, too. Except for the one that walks up behind me, joining the group. He sits with his body angled toward the water, dark sunglasses on, hair falling in his face.
"I'll have one, too," he says, still not looking my way.
What is so interesting that you can't look a person in the eye?
I check the water. Nothing out of the ordinary.
"ID, please," I say. Nothing personal—can't serve underage. Even though I'm eighteen and understand. It isn't worth losing a prime job at the busiest hotel on the beach. A job that pays really well, with customers that tip even better.
He hands it to me, still not looking up. I glance at it. I don't need to see his full face to know that it's not him. Looks more like the guy sitting next to him than the guy handing it to me.
"Gonna have to do better than that," I say.
I need the money that this job provides. With three sisters away at college and Mom working double nursing shifts to support them, I need whatever I can get. Everything we have is already stretched thin. A bubble about to pop.
His rough sigh says he's not happy with my response. He turns to me. I can see his full face now.
Tick, tick, tock.
Time breaks into a million shards. Tiny slivers of moments. Trapping me. My breath catches. Nerves are a fishhook reeling in any response I could've had.
He sees me then. Moves his sunglasses to the top of his head to get a better look. He's watching, watching, watching ... me. Eyes narrow. Unbelieving.
I can't find enough seconds to understand what's happening here. I heard he moved away. I'm searching desperately for a breath of fresh air, but I can't find one.
Wavy brown hair that's almost black. Thick lips that I've kissed once before.
I'm staring at tattoos that wrap around his shoulders, hugging him. A hundred different images, all black and white. Photographic. I'm looking at a sun over his left collarbone, the only bit of light shining into the chest piece. Clouds ripple under his neck like waves. His shirt is off and I'm staring too hard, I realize, because his friends start laughing.
It's a memorial. The piece is to remember someone he lost.
There's a timbre in his voice that makes my insides gooey. I'm melting ice cream on this hideously hot day. He says my name like it's painful for him, looking at me with those incredulous eyes. Willing me to say something, anything, but I can't. I can't.
I run away instead. My feet propel me forward, fast, churning sand beneath my heels. I don't care when a shell cuts the underside of my foot. Or when tiny grains of sea bottom become a natural Band-Aid.
I need to breathe.
I hate that he is here right now.
I love that I've been given another chance to see his face.
"Wait," he calls from behind me.
I won't stop.
Fast, fast, faster.
He won't stop.
Just go, just go, just go.
I'm not quick enough.
"Wait," he says again, grabbing my arm lightly.
Five fingers that burn memories into my skin.
I turn to the sound of his voice.
"Javier," I say, choking on his name. Choking on the memories.
Me and Faith, my best friend. At this same beach. Months ago.
Javier and his cousin Diego, in the water. Faith needed to get Diego's attention. Faith needed Diego in so many ways. I needed to know what Javier's mouth tasted like. I told myself that it'd be fun.
Love was Faith's style. Fun was mine.
I try to shut out the memory, doors closing on my past. Can't.
Javier's lips were every bit as amazing as I'd thought. Plump and gentle and rough and perfect.
We never did more than that. Never talked about the fun day at the beach. Never pursued what we left behind.
I never told him that I've wanted him ever since.
"What are you doing here?" Words are talons clawing their way through my throat.
"I'm with mi familia," he replies, greedily drinking in my features. "My brothers and a couple amigos."
I wonder if he notices that my hair's grown longer, silken fingers tickling my waist. How my eyes have grown heavy with the burden of worry. Javier's face is too much. His face reminds me that I don't have Faith anymore because loving Diego broke her. Faith's in another country now, building schools for underprivileged children, because she doesn't want to live near all the memories. And I'm a memory. Javier's face reminds me that Diego is gone. Both realities are excruciating.
"I thought you left," I say.
"Melissa, cabana five needs their drinks," a coworker says, passing Javier and me in the sand.
I barely hear his voice. I'm too lost in Javier. My coworker, Brock, stops. Sees Javier. Backs up.
"Everything okay?" Throws a defensive arm around me.
Brock is protective like that. He looks out for the girls that work here. It's necessary with all the alcohol we serve. Every now and again, a guy thinks he has the right to a piece of our skin.
"I'm good," I tell him, shrugging his arm off.
Javier looks at Brock, an empty stare.
"Holler if you need me," Brock says.
At more than six feet, Brock is built strong and tall enough to intimidate. He's half Latino, all dark eyes and hair. But Javier has the advantage by a short inch.
"Will do," I say, and Brock leaves.
"I made a trip up the coast for a couple weeks, if that's what you mean." Javier picks up where we left off.
I want to ask more. What's up the coast? When did you get tattoos?
Why do you look so much like Diego now?
Not so much in his features, though they were cousins, so there's a family resemblance, but more in the air about him. His hair is longer, brushing the back of his neck, mixing with his eyelashes in the front. Ink marks him. He's still Javier, but roughened. I guess that's what grief does to a person. When the pain is too much to bear.
"Okay," is all I say.
"You work here," he says.
His eyes steal a glance at the water. I wonder if he's remembering our time together. I am. His lips on mine. My body so close to his. Two people, a tangle of limbs. The water licking our nearly bare skin. A prickling up my back as his fingers braved the peaks of my spine. A place and time when Diego and Faith were here.
He tears his eyes away.
"I should go," I say.
I don't want to go. I don't want to stay.
"Yeah," he says. "Me, too."
I want to ask if he's okay. A glance tells me he's not. His eyes give him away. Their look betrays his pain. Diego was Javier's cousin, but they were best friends, too. I know the void of losing someone you love. I miss my best friend so bad that it hurts, that it actually nips at my heart to remind me daily. But at least I know she's still there. That maybe one day I can visit her.
Diego isn't anywhere.
Javier slips his sunglasses back on, a cover to shield his soul. I'm telling my feet to move because I need to get out of this spot. But all I can think about is how I can't see Javier's eyes anymore. I need to see them. Even with shades on, I feel his stare.
"Melissa," he says, like he needs to tell me something. Like maybe I don't need to leave just yet.
And he's gone.CHAPTER 2
I'm walking away from Melissa, but every step I take is painful.
Slicing me up, these memories.
I hadn't planned on seeing her.
I hadn't planned on remembering the day we spent together. That was a time when things were good.
My brother Eduardo is on my trail.
He wants me to wait for him, but I need to be alone. Alone, alone, alone. My thoughts are alone in their misery. I don't dare share them. I lock them in separate files within my mind and never for one minute let anyone see the full scope of what I have planned. Of the anger I wish I could unleash on the ones who took my cousin from me.
To them, Diego was a pawn, at their disposal.
He wasn't a heartbeat that they had the right to end.
Diego became another name in their book of murders; another forgotten cause; a face that they blink at and instantly the memory is gone. Job done. On to the next one.
They stole a member of mi familia, my blood. My best friend. There are so many, many memories.
Us playing soccer as kids. ¡Golllllll! Diego would yell every time one of us scored. Competitive by nature. Brothers by heart.
Us eating mi mamá's home-cooked food, mostly grown in her kitchen garden, slim as the portions may have been. She could make something out of nothing, that woman.
Us as children barely tall enough to reach the counter, grabbing a piece of candy from the local store whenever they gave it away for free on holidays. Because we couldn't afford much. No, that's a lie. We couldn't afford anything. But we were together, always together.
I walk to the parking lot, carrying my sandals in my hand. I welcome the burn of scorching hot pavement on the pads of my feet. Welcome the pain because it's all that I know now.
My brother follows. I hop in my truck. Close my eyes.
"Give me a sec," I say through the open window. Though I know there's no way that'll happen.
"What's with that girl?" Eduardo hops in the truck with me.
"Chica I used to know."
A chica I didn't bother to date since mi mamá has never been okay with her boys dating girls who aren't Latina. Family bonds and all. She's old school. Thinking that I need someone who knows the culture and food and ways of our people.
I close my eyes and recall the night that reminded us all.
"¿Quién es ella?" mi mamá asks in Spanish, wondering about the girl Pedro's brought home for dinner.
I watch the girl, brown hair and the lightest shade of gray eyes. She's pretty, I find myself thinking. But white. Mi mamá's rules are clear when it comes to white girls.
"My girlfriend, Teresa," Pedro answers.
"¿Tu novia?" she asks. "No. Imposible."
"It's not impossible, Mamá," Pedro replies.
Mi mamá's eyes narrow. I know this look. We all do. Her temper is hotter than the spices she's setting on the table.
"You," she says, looking at Teresa, "get out of my house."
She's not yelling. Her voice is frighteningly calm. A harsh breeze laced with the coldest chill of winter.
"You have no place here," she tells Teresa. "And you"—she points to Pedro—"know better."
Teresa looks scared. Pedro stands his ground.
"Now," mi mamá says.
I can't stand to see the look on Pedro's face so I leave the room. But not before hearing arguments from Pedro, and sobs from Teresa.
Eduardo kicks my leg and I open my eyes. He watches me.
"This has to do with Diego, doesn't it?"
And Melissa. "No."
Melissa encouraged Faith and Diego's relationship. Which meant I saw her often. We were the best friends who tagged along with the couple enamorados.
Melissa makes me remember him. I don't do well with surprise reminders.
But Melissa also makes me think of the water. Of that day. Of a time when I wasn't walking in a minefield, watching my every step. Diego's murder has taught me that one wrong move, one slight shift ...
and an entire world can be blown to bits. Earthquakes can rumble the ground and split open the earth and swallow all that was once good.
It can make you see things in a different light. It can open your eyes to a new tomorrow. One filled with darkness and sorrow and so much anger.
My brother's voice disrupts my thoughts.
I am a liar.
Everything has been about Diego's death. Almost eight agonizing months ago.
"You have to let him go."
I clench my fists. "Cállate la boca." It's the nicest warning I'll give. And I'm only giving it because he's my brother.
"He was my cousin, too, you know."
"It's not the same."
And he knows it. Diego and I did everything together. We were the same age, eighteen, unlike my brother, who's older by almost three years. It's not like I lost a wingman. It's not like he moved away. He's gone. Permanently.
The night my cousin died was a normal night at La Plazita, a few blocks of street dedicated to Latino cuisine, culture, markets, dancing, and more. I know that because I'm the one who dropped Diego off there to meet Faith. A final destination, it turns out.
Diego wanted to surprise Faith that night. I think he planned on showing her a glimpse of our Cubano heritage. Faith was good for Diego in a way that nothing had been for a long time. I liked the change I'd been seeing in him.
Excerpted from After Us by Amber Hart. Copyright © 2015 Amber Hart. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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