In The Way Back to Us, the third book in the Love Unplugged series by Jamie Howard, a second chance at love is a risk worth fighting for when the past catches up with you.
Gavin MacCormack found the one. He fell in love. Hard. Until one night he ran out for some ice cream and came back to an empty dorm room, closets bare and nothing but a quick hand-written note saying, I’m sorry. Those two words taught Gavin the meaning of heartbreak. A feeling he never wants to encounter again. And as the lead singer of a Grammy award-winning band he's had plenty of opportunities for casual, no-strings fun, which is just the way he likes it.
Dani Winters has had more names than birthdays. On the run with her father for nearly as long as she can remember, she’s lived her life by three rules—always plan for the worst, maintain a low profile at all costs, and never let anyone get too close. Except she broke that last rule once and her heart has never forgiven her.
One chance encounter changes everything. Seeing Dani resurrects feelings in Gavin he thought were long buried, and this time he’s not letting her disappear without getting some answers. But Dani’s life is the definition of complicated and she’s playing with fire by letting Gavin back in. When the time comes to run again, Dani needs to decide if a life without love is worth living, or if it’s time to stop running and fight.
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3 Weeks Later
Living alone wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Sure, it had its perks — like the copious amounts of time I could walk around the condo naked as a jaybird — but my overall impression of solo living was: quiet and boring. I'd happily relocated to give Felix and Jules their own space, moving my bags and boxes a whole floor up to the condo directly above them, but I'd be lying if I said I would've been opposed to a whole Three's Company situation.
I readjusted myself in the fancy, modern chair I'd dragged over to the floor to ceiling windows, the leather giving an annoyed squeak at the motion. New leather, expensive leather, was a bitch.
Rolling the blue rubber ball around my palm, I bounced it off the wood floor with a quick flick of my wrist. Meeting the glass with a satisfying thunk it arced back through the air and into my hand.
Thirty seconds later my phone buzzed and I unearthed it from my pocket. Yes, pocket. Like I said, new leather was a bitch. A sticky bitch that made pants a necessity.
I snickered at my phone.
Me: You don't get any points for repeats.
Felix: Then stop repeating.
Me: Don't you have anything better to do than bother your neighbor? Like plan a wedding perhaps?
I knew damn well the wedding planning was still in the earliest of stages, the wedding itself likely a year and half away. Celebrity weddings, as I was told by Juliet's new high-strung wedding planner, Annabelle, required precision, planning, and preparation. The three P's. My suggestion of a backyard wedding was not taken well and was greeted by stifled laughter from the newly-engaged couple and all the heat of raging hellfire in Annabelle's fiery glare.
Another message arrived with an insistent vibration.
Felix: Dude, don't even say that word. It's Beetlejuice. Two more times and Annabelle will appear in a cloud of smoke with tablecloth swatches or forty different types of glassware to look at.
Me: Remind me why Jules hired her?
Felix: We both agreed to hire the person with the best references. Sadly, that was her.
Me: Odds her previous employers were too scared of her to provide bad references?
Felix: Four called her "fabulous." Three went with "flawless." Three more for "fantastic."
Me: More appropriate F word: ferocious.
Felix: Or feral.
I burst out laughing and managed to drop my phone. It bounced a little, landing face up. Underneath it, a corner of white poked out, taunting me. Immediately my hand went to my pocket, fingering it, but like I'd expected it was empty.
I scooped up my phone first, leaving the offensive little rectangle lying on the floor, printed side up. Even without looking I knew what it said. Well I knew what it said generally. In a swooping, swirling font was the name of a catering company, below that a phone number, fax number, and email address.
A week ago I'd casually asked Juliet about the catering company she'd used for the gala. A day later she'd slipped their business card in my hand with only a sympathetic glance doused in regret. Like, without me even telling her, she'd intuited absolutely everything that lay between Dani and me. Like she knew how that stupid little cardstock rectangle was both a present and poison.
It'd been burning a hole in my pocket ever since. The possibility of it needling me, harassing me, making me wonder things I had no business wondering — like if they'd give me Dani's number if I asked for it. Or if I even wanted it. What I'd do with it if I had it.
I gritted my teeth together, hating myself for even considering it.
I retrieved it off the floor in one smooth motion, striding over to the kitchen. My foot landed on the pedal of my garbage can, the lid dutifully opening. Everything inside me hesitated as I worried the edge of the business card with my fingernail, edging it closer to the garbage and then letting it retreat toward me.
My head hurt. My heart ached. But on top of the layer of pain was a tiny speck of hope that was trying to take root. A little seedling of maybes and what ifs that would tear me apart if I let them, let her, back in my life. I'd been down that road already and fallen off the cliff when it had mysteriously vanished from underneath me. No way. Not again.
Carefully, I folded the card in half, making sure the edges were flush. That wasn't satisfying enough though. Unfolding it, I ripped it decidedly in half, then in half again for good measure, letting the pieces flutter out of my hand. They looked harmless sitting on top of a banana peel and next to a crumpled up to-go bag, but I knew they were anything but.
I let the lid slam shut and reached for my phone again.
Me: Meet me at the Blackbird?
I was already throwing on my jacket when the response came through.
Ben: Give me ten.
My pencil scratched across the cream-colored paper of my notebook, words flowing from my mind through that sharpened piece of lead with an unsurprising ease. It was always like that when it came to her, when I let my mind retreat into the darkest corners of my memories where Dani lived. I rarely let myself do it, but I allowed myself that small reprieve when it felt like my head would burst with all the things I wouldn't let myself say.
I did it with only two conditions. One: that it was always done in pencil. Something impermanent. A few angry strokes of the eraser and it would all be gone, banished in the way I could never get the ache in my heart to just disappear. And two: they would never, ever leave that paper. They'd never be recorded. They'd never be performed. It was my own personal catharsis that would never be shared.
I tugged a hand through my hair, the other still studiously copying down the lyrics to my most recent never-gonna-happen song. The Blackbird was a blur behind me, the rest of the customers at the bar and the bartender existing only in the periphery of my thoughts. It wasn't until I'd written the last word that the world came back to me. Or maybe it was the opposite, that I came back to the world.
I blinked, looking around me, and started in surprise when I found Ben on the stool to my right, a small fizzy glass of something clear already sitting in front of him.
He blinked back at me. "Welcome back."
I hastily shut my notebook, pressing a hand down on the worn black leather cover to keep it from curling back open. "Been here long?"
He shrugged. "Long enough."
I ran my tongue over my lips, my mouth trying to work out what I wanted to say. Ben and I had been friends, bandmates for years, but we were sadly lacking one-on-one time. Normally my first call would have been to Felix, but times were a-changing. I knew that if I needed him he'd come at the drop of a hat, but there was something particularly grating about his sunny smile when I was wallowing in my own misery. Clearly if I needed to wallow — and I so, so did — then who better to wallow with than the man who walked around with his own personal rain cloud?
He picked his glass up and swirled it, the ice cubes clinking together in a delightfully musical way. "You wanna talk about it?" The corners of his eyes tightened, as did his mouth. I think the appropriate term for the expression was cringing, which coaxed a smile out of me. The last, and I do mean the last, thing Ben would ever want to do is talk about it. Especially when the possibility for reciprocation existed. Ben lived in ever-existing fear of someone making him do that exact thing — talking about it.
"I'll make you a deal." I leaned an elbow on the bar top, swinging my legs over to face him, my gaze coasting over the rest of the room. "I won't talk about the thing I don't want to talk about. You won't talk about the same thing you never want to talk about yet are constantly thinking about. And we can each get blissfully lost in our drinks and talk about absolutely anything else."
"You know there was an easier way to say that." He scowled at me. "Just, 'no.'"
I clapped my hand on his shoulder. "But, see, if we all talked like you, in as few words and syllables as possible, then we'd miss out on some really fantastic words. Like —" I gave my mind a quick search for some long ago stored SAT words, "— effervescent and verisimilitude and ignominy." I held up a finger. "Plus, if I'd said 'no' then we'd just be sitting here. Staring sullenly at each other."
He muttered something under his breath that involved a string of curses and the Lord's name.
I spun around on my stool, my mood already lifting since I'd exorcised my mental demons and done a little bit of verbal sparring with Ben. "What's with the service tonight?" "New girl." Another shrug. "Bonnie's showing her the ropes."
"New girl, huh?" I cocked an eyebrow, leaning forward to look down the length of the bar. Two figures stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the end, too far for me to pick out anything other than the fact that she was short and thin.
"Consider me amazed that you can still come here and not get drinks thrown in your face." He rolled his eyes. "Or that you can get drinks that haven't been tampered with."
"C'mon, man. There's never any ill will where I'm concerned because I'm honest. They all know that it's a one night thing and they shouldn't expect any more. Sometimes there are some repeat customers, but even then they know what the expectations are — sex, mind-blowing orgasms, the fun stuff." My ass hit the stool and I sighed as my stomach growled. "Honestly, you should take a page out of my book. And no, I'm not just talking about the no-strings sex, though you could certainly use some of that." I winked at him. "But I think you'd manage to dispel some of this whole doom and gloom attitude if you just laid it all out on the table with Rachel."
He glowered — yes, fucking glowered — at me. "I thought we weren't talking about it."
The thing about Ben was that he was tragically hung up on our long-time friend, his brother's best friend, Rachel. At least we thought that was the case. When it came to Rachel, Ben was even less talkative, which was to say that he didn't talk about her at all.
I held up a finger. "Technically, I said you wouldn't have to talk about what you didn't want to talk about, not that I couldn't talk about it to you."
"You're a little shit, you know that?"
My laugh was cut off by the long overdue appearance of Bonnie and her supposed trainee. "Sorry, Gav. What can we get for you tonight?"
And then for the second time in three weeks, it happened. Time stretched, my heart fell out of my chest and splatted onto the floor, and I forgot how to speak. Because Bonnie's new sidekick just happened to be the thing I didn't want to talk about.
Dani's chin lifted, her shoulders inching almost imperceptibly higher. This time around I was able to take in a few more details — the thin silver ring that pierced her nose, the dark sweep of eyeliner that lined the top and bottom of her eyes, the sharp edges of her collarbone peeking out from underneath her black T-shirt.
I tried to force myself to breathe, to relax, to chill the hell out.
What actually happened was that I sucked in a breath, nearly choked on it, and managed to spit out, "Four Roses, neat." I shook my head, instantly remembering that the shock of Dani mixed with a bender wasn't the best combination. Been there, done that. "No, water."
Bonnie stared at me like I was in the process of growing a third eye in the middle of my forehead. "I think you can handle this one, Dani. I'm gonna ..." She hooked her thumb over her shoulder.
Dani's tongue darted out, taking a sweep of her lower lip. And I could not have hated myself more for the way my gaze tracked it from left to right.
"Bottled or tap?"
"What?" The words made absolutely no sense to me. That after all this time that's the first thing she'd say to me.
One eyebrow lifted. "I said, 'bottled or tap?'"
My fingers tightened around the edge of the bar. "Bottled."
"Hold on a second," Ben chimed in, narrowing his eyes at us. His finger wagged back and forth while one of his rare smiles teased at his mouth. "Do you two know each other?"
Dani seemed to pause, like she was waiting for me to deny it, but in the end neither of us answered him.
As if to counteract my death grip on the bar, she drummed hers casually against it. "Sparkling or flat?"
"You do, don't you?" Ben's chest shook with silent laughter. "I'd like to remind you that technically, technically, I'm not breaking the rules —"
"We don't," I said, my voice flat. "She's no one."
Dani turned around, water bottle in hand and set it in front of me. Her crystal clear blue eyes met mine and without an ounce of emotion she said, "That'll be six dollars."
Three fucking hours. That's how long I made myself sit there, pretending like my eyes weren't following Dani's every move, like I wasn't drinking in the husky sound of her laughter or the way the tip of her nose crinkled when she smiled. I used my water bottle like a stress ball, the plastic crinkled and dented from how many times I'd squeezed the hell out of it.
What was she doing here?
I couldn't stop thinking it. The words wouldn't stop circling around my head. It couldn't be a coincidence, could it? I could buy that we'd both end up in the city. It was a big place. But the gala and now this, her working at The Blackbird? My place? That far surpassed a minor coincidence, which left me with two options: intent or fate. And with the way Dani had reacted, or hadn't reacted to seeing me, and the way she wasn't even looking at me, let alone talking to me, intent didn't seem like the most reasonable conclusion. What point would there be to searching me out only to ignore me?
Then again, I didn't believe in fate. Not anymore.
I spun my water bottle cap on the bar top, watching it wobble until it saucered and came to a rest. I was done torturing myself inside my own head. "Heard anything from Rachel?"
Ben's gaze flicked from his phone, to me, and back. "Ian said the job's going well, Cali is wonderful, and there's a very distinct possibility the company might offer her a permanent position."
Ah. The lightbulb went on inside my head. The cause of Ben's most recent Rachel distress was that she might relocate to the opposite coast. News that he didn't even hear from her firsthand. I guess pining for someone was a bit more difficult to do with several thousand miles between you.
I shrugged, my hand involuntarily tightening around my water bottle as Dani moved into my periphery. The bottom edge of her shirt drifted up as she reached for a bottle of something or other on the top shelf. "It wouldn't be the first time some company or another offered her a permanent home. Everybody's trying to pin her down, and yet she's never agreed to any of them."
Rachel did something with computers and security and hacking. I wasn't entirely sure what all the details were but it essentially involved her making buttloads of money while she pointed out to companies their cyber vulnerabilities and gave them solutions for how to fix them. She was pretty badass.
"One day she's going to." The screen on his phone went dark and he lifted a hand to run it over his close cropped hair. "This could be it. You know how much she loves Cali."
That I did. She'd fallen in love with it during college, but for some reason had headed back home after graduation. If you'd given me one guess and the risk that if I'd guessed wrong I'd lose one of my nuts, I'd still posit that the reason she didn't stay in the place she loved was for the person she loved more — Ben.
"You, uh," — I coughed lightly into my fist — "ever think of giving her a reason to stay?"
He shook his head slightly, the muscle in his cheek bunching. "Every damn day." With a disgusted look at his drink — or perhaps it was just the universe he was fed up with and his drink that happened to get the brunt of his stare — he tossed a handful of bills on the scarred wood and left without another word.
I blew out a breath. One day that guy was going to get his shit together and figure out that what he was missing out on was more important than whatever hang-ups were keeping him away. It was still debatable whether that revelation would occur before Rachel had given up and moved on.
It took me a second to realize that with Ben leaving, it gave me a perfectly viable excuse to do the same myself. My chest lightened as the reality of my impending escape dawned on me, right up until the second Dani stopped directly in front of me to collect Ben's payment. Then it was right back to having a freaking cement truck parked on top of it.
With her gaze still focused on the crisply folded bills she asked, "You alright? Anything else you need?"
Anything else I need? Fuck yes. I needed to know why she was here. I needed to know why, after all these years, she waltzed right back into the middle of my life. I needed to know why she left in the first place.
Excerpted from "The Way Back to Us"
Copyright © 2017 Jamie Howard.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Gavin,
Chapter 2: Gavin,
Chapter 3: Gavin,
Chapter 4: Dani,
Chapter 5: Gavin,
Chapter 6: Dani,
Chapter 7: Gavin,
Chapter 8: Dani,
Chapter 9: Gavin,
Chapter 10: Dani,
Chapter 11: Gavin,
Chapter 12: Dani,
Chapter 13: Gavin,
Chapter 14: Dani,
Chapter 15: Gavin,
Chapter 16: Dani,
Chapter 17: Gavin,
Chapter 18: Dani,
Chapter 19: Gavin,
Chapter 20: Dani,
Chapter 21: Gavin,
Chapter 22: Dani,
Chapter 23: Gavin,
Chapter 24: Dani,
Chapter 25: Gavin,
Chapter 26: Dani,
Chapter 27: Gavin,
Chapter 28: Dani,
Chapter 29: Gavin,
Chapter 30: Dani,
Chapter 31: Gavin,
Chapter 32: Dani,
Chapter 33: Gavin,
Chapter 34: Dani,
Chapter 35: Gavin,
Chapter 36: Dani,
Chapter 37: Gavin,
Chapter 38: Dani,
Chapter 39: Gavin,
Chapter 40: Dani,
Chapter 41: Gavin,
Chapter 42: Dani,
About the Author,
Also by Jamie Howard,