A new adult novel from Entangled's Embrace imprint... Sometimes it takes letting go of the past to find out who you want to be.
During his semester abroad, Griffin Reed almost gave his heart to a girl who loved someone else. Lesson learned. Now he's home, where following in his father's footsteps may not be what he wants, but it's what his parents expect. It might be taking the easy road, but he doesn't see a way out.
Something that could have killed Maggie Kendall took away the person she used to be instead. Her condition makes her dependent on sticky notes, photos, and medication just to get through each day. The last thing she needs is a distraction—or someone new to disappoint.
What they refuse to see is they are perfect for each other. Maggie makes Griffin want to be a better man, and he makes her believe a future is possible. But these two have to find a way to share the secrets ripping them apart, if they're ever going to have a chance at happiness.
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By A.J. Pine, Nicole Steinhaus, Karen Grove
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 A.J. Pine
All rights reserved.
Where is it?
Shit. Shit. Shit. Where is it?
I always put my phone right back on the nightstand after I wake up. Step one is turning off the wake-up alarm. Step two—turn on bus alarm. But I can't freaking remember if I turned on the bus alarm because I can't find the phone, the one that should be sitting right where I'm looking.
It's not that I don't recognize the irony. Girl sets alarm on phone so as not to be late for bus. Girl can't remember where she put phone from the time she woke up until right this moment.
It's been a harrowing thirty minutes. Miles will feel like shit if he has to dock me a quarter-hour's pay again. Then I'll feel like shit for making him feel like shit. The usual.
I rifle through my drawers and medicine cabinet in the bathroom. Again. No luck. When I see the bus schedule I taped to the mirror, I flip it off for good measure. It doesn't matter now if I know the time because I can't leave without the phone. I am more than naked without it. I'm helpless.
In the kitchen, I half expect to find it in the freezer. Wouldn't be the first time. Instead all I find are my pills sitting on the counter with a sticky note reminder that reads: Morning dose.
I thought I took them already, but I'm going to trust the Post-it. I always trust the Post-it. And a girl and her blood thinners are almost as good of a pair as a girl and her cell phone.
That's when I hear the DEFCON 1-style alarm, the one specifically for my bus reminder, coming from my room. Here I thought the new alarm-tone would work in my favor, but I didn't take into account that it wouldn't matter if I didn't know where my phone was.
The sound is muffled, but I chose that alarm for good reason. Even if the phone was buried six feet under, I'd at least be able to identify the land under which it was laid to rest.
I follow the sound back to my room, to my nightstand, exactly where it's supposed to be. In the top drawer, under a small towel, is my phone, yelling at me that I'm getting close to missing the bus.
"I know!" I shout at it. "But you need to come with me, got it?"
Smooth move on my part. The towel triggers a memory from last night—Miles texting to say good-night as I washed my face before bed. I must have walked in here to return his text, patting my face dry with the towel that just stole most of my morning prep time. Shit. I may not remember my bedtime routine, but I do remember when towels weren't such a threat to my daily routine. I laugh, the bitter sound audible even amid the noise still erupting from the drawer.
I grab the rogue cell, turn off the alarm, and pivot to leave the room.
After two years of putting my life back together, I'm still startled, sometimes, when I see the bulletin board on my wall. It's the tool that keeps me going and also the reminder that in seconds—literal seconds—one angry blood vessel can alter the course of a girl's life.
I run the tips of my fingers over the miniature Polaroids—one of each of my professors, captioned with their names and the courses they teach. Many more are of customers, and for a few seconds the tension eases at the recognition of those who are now regulars—Amber from the movie theater, George and Jeanie—the ones who never roll their eyes when I mess up an order or hesitate before greeting them by name.
I step from my bedroom and yank the door shut behind me.
"Right here, Paige."
I give her a cursory wave as she stands in my open apartment doorway.
"Sorry. I let myself in when I heard the weird alarm. And the shouting. Is everything okay?"
I nod. "Just trying not to miss the bus. I'll be late for work if I do."
She glances behind her, down the stairwell, and when she turns back to face me, she cringes.
"What?" I ask.
She shrugs and tries to force a smile. "Do you mean the bus that just drove away? I could hear it from my room. I wish I had a car, Maggie. I really do."
"Crap!" I grab my coat and bag, making sure not to let go of my phone, and push past Paige and down the stairs. Maybe I can catch it at the corner.
As I risk my life hopping down the stairs two at a time, I hear Paige yell from our hallway.
"Hey, Maggie! You forgot to lock up again! Want me to do it for you?"
"Yes!" I shout, and I'm out the door and running—for a bus that just turned the corner a block away and is now out of sight.
* * *
Don't be late.
No Hi or Hey or anything other than an echo of my mother's words from last night's voicemail.
On the way.
I text back when I hit a stop light, shaking my head that Nat has stooped to Mom's level.
Don't they know? I'm a Reed. Anything less than ten minutes early is certifiably late, according to the family handbook. I've had twenty-three years of practice, going so far as being born a week ahead of my mother's due date. If there's one thing my family can depend on, it's a Reed being on time. In my case, that's about the only thing they depend on, except my sister's text tells me I might not even have that going for me anymore.
I'm already ahead of schedule, having given myself an hour to make a thirty-minute drive. I don't blame my sister. If she hadn't sent the text, Mom would have had Jen or Megan do it. Besides, once they see my face, the time of my arrival won't mean shit. Like I said—they can depend on me to be there, but the state I'm in when I show up is anyone's guess.
I laugh at the thought of my father's first glimpse of the swollen, purple skin beneath my right eye. Ouch. I wince, the laughter aggravating the still-developing bruise. I knew the girl was at the bar with someone, but she was a willing participant, which means she used me as much as I used her. Too drunk to truly feel the crack of her boyfriend's fist against my face, I retaliated only for show, leaving the asshole with a split lip and me with a split knuckle ...and my face the picture-perfect image of the would-be mayor's son. Sometimes it's nice to feel something other than numb, and this morning I'm definitely feeling something.
I laugh again when my eyes fall to the fading ink on my hand. She still gave me her number.
At the next light I grab the water bottle from my drink holder and down the whole thing along with a few ibuprofen tablets. I may not be able to change the way I look, but I can at least get rid of the hangover and increasing pain. Coffee. I have time for coffee. I flip on my turn signal to head a couple miles off-course, step on the gas, and then just as quickly pause when I see her—a girl on the sidewalk, walking backward, thumb in the air.
Her eyes meet mine, and she smiles. It's not like she's the first girl to smile at me, but shit this girl is beautiful. Even with an intersection between us, that much I can tell. Instead of turning, I cross the intersection, flipping on my hazards as I pull over to the curb and open my window.
"Are you ... hitchhiking? For real?"
She looks at me, eyes narrowed. "My thumb in the air didn't give it away?" She takes a step closer. "Is that what the last hitchhiker did to you? If so, I can understand your hesitation. I'm pretty fierce."
I smirk, followed by another wince. Shit. Her sarcasm doesn't faze me. But her auburn hair hanging in two long braids, freckles, and pale pink lips, those do. I'm officially fazed. "But you're in suburban Minneapolis. And it's damn freezing. Who hitches a ride out here?"
Better yet, who stops for a hitchhiker in the 'burbs?
When they look like this girl, I sure as hell do.
She steps off the curb and walks right up to my passenger door. Her bravado falters as she struggles to rest her elbows on the window's frame, my truck taller than she seems to have anticipated. I smile but bite back the gesture as she regains her composure.
"It's thirty-five degrees in November, and I have two miles to go. Are you going to give me a ride or not?"
Her hands, covered in fingerless gloves, tap in anticipation against the door.
"So you're just going to get in the car with a complete stranger?"
She cocks her head to the side and fixes her gaze on me, then smiles.
"I trust your eyes."
I arch a brow. Shit. Gotta remember that hurts.
"Probably the most trust a girl has ever given me." I smirk.
She isn't fazed. "Bruised or not, you can tell a lot about a person from his eyes. Plus ..." She leans in through the window. "It's warm in here, and I'm still standing outside."
I glance at the immaculate interior of my Ford Expedition, at the buttons on the center console indicating the warmers for my leather seats. Then I look back and watch her eyes roll. Disdain? Impatience? Probably both.
"Crap," I say under my breath but not quietly enough.
"Excuse me?" asks this annoyed Pippi Longstocking hitching a two-mile ride. And there's something in that voice, in her I've-got-you-figured-out expression, that should warn me not to mess with her. But I give my judgment the morning off. Hell, I'm pretty sure I gave it extended vacation leave.
"I was just imagining your inner monologue. Can't believe this asshole is making me wait in the cold while he cranks up his heated seats. Something like that?"
"Something like that." But I see it; she's fighting the upturned corners of her mouth.
I unlock the door and reach across to open the passenger side.
"Ahhh, so Pippi knows how to smile."
She doesn't respond at first, her quick wit suddenly lost in her faraway green eyes. When she clicks her seat belt secure, the sound jolts her back from wherever she was, and she turns to me. "Nope. It's the eye," she says. "Must be distorting your vision."
"Ouch. Pretty harsh for the guy who just saved you from the cold."
"I don't need saving." Her words are calm, but her eyes are now focused and sharp. "But thanks. For the ride. I didn't know it was going to be this cold out today."
Then without warning, she extends her left hand toward my face, but I don't flinch when she rests it against my cheek. Her thumb sweeps across the swollen skin under my eye, and I suck in a breath, partly from the tenderness of the bruise and partly from the tenderness of her touch. My eyes fall closed when she doesn't pull away, and I hear her breathe in.
"This is new?" she asks, and I open my eyes and nod, impressed she didn't ask the obvious question: Does it hurt? Her gaze moves from my face to the broken skin on my hand, and she chews on her lip. "Let me guess. I should see the other guy?"
I shrug. "He threw the first punch. I threw the last." I don't mention that, with the combination of Scottish whisky and my eye swelling shut, it was nothing more than luck that I even made contact. And I sure as hell don't tell her it was because of a girl.
Nope. No mention of the asshole's girlfriend who kissed me anyway or that the kiss was merely provocation for him to introduce his fist to my face.
It's been almost two years since I said good-bye to the girl I never intended to fall for, especially when she was falling for someone else. Then the text came last night.
Jordan: How's my favorite Minnesotan who used to live in Aberdeen? We're going to see you at the reunion Thanksgiving weekend, right? Please say you're coming! Miss you!
We. A hard word to miss. Not I, but we. It's not like I don't know that she and Noah are still together, that they're the real deal. But I wasn't. Real, that is. I don't blame her. I never promised her a commitment. In fact, I offered the opposite—fun with no complications. And that's the only way she ever saw me. It's what I do best. I'm all about the fun.
I still haven't responded, at least not to Jordan. No, I saved all my responding for a bottle of Drambuie and some chick on a mission to piss off her boyfriend.
I remove Pippi's hand from my face.
She reaches into her massive brown purse, emerging with a cotton ball and a small travel bottle filled with clear liquid. Flipping up the spout, she pours the stuff on the cotton ball and reaches for my face again. This time I do flinch.
"What the hell?" Before I can finish protesting, the cotton ball touches my skin, the cool liquid immediately soothing the angry-looking bruise.
Pippi smiles and then grabs my hand, gently guiding it toward my face so I can relieve her from cotton-ball duty.
"Witch hazel," she says. "Soothes the skin."
"And you happen to have it with you?"
"I happen to have a lot of things with me. Nothing wrong with being prepared. For whatever might happen. It's helping, isn't it? So don't knock my preparation."
She's got a point. I nod. "Thanks." I don't know what else to say or how else to respond. No one's ever taken care of me like this, let alone someone I barely know.
I'm vaguely aware of the cars honking as they pass us and realize we should get moving before they think we're in trouble.
Again she reaches into that magic bag and retrieves ... a camera? Before I have time to react, she snaps a quick photo of me, and immediately it prints from a small rectangular opening.
"I didn't know they still made those," I say, hoping she's on the verge of telling me where I'm taking her.
Her fingertips grasp the photo, waving it lightly while she watches it develop.
"Wanna see?" she asks.
Our hands extend at the same time, and my fingers brush hers as I grab the photo. My skin against hers jolts something inside me. Again, that distant voice shouting its warning. And again, here's me ignoring it.
"Two things," I say as my eyes shift to the item in my hand. Why the fuck am I smiling in this photo? "What's with the camera?"
When I take a hesitant breath, she grabs the picture back from me and asks, "And the second thing?"
"Right. Uh, where am I taking you?"
I steal a glance at my phone. At this point I should panic at the time. But I don't.
She lifts her bag. "Preparation, remember? And you're taking me to Royal Grounds. The coffee shop. Are you late for something?"
Traffic is light now that I'm out of the city, so I back into the intersection, to the right turn I initially intended to make.
"No. I'm not late." The total lack of sureness in my voice says otherwise, but for some reason I don't care. "And you've gotta be shitting me. I was on my way to Royal Grounds."
She shifts, leaning her back against the door so her whole body faces me.
"I'm almost always late, to the extent that people would probably be disappointed if I was on time." She regards the photo in her hand. "I'm glad I'm not taking you out of your way, but just in case ..." She opens the window and tosses out the evidence of her photo ambush of me. "If you try to kill me in the next two miles, that picture exists, and someone will find it—with both our fingerprints on it."
I throw my head against the back of my seat and laugh, this time ignoring the pain. "Yeah, Saturday morning in the suburbs is prime murder-your-hitchhiker-on-the-way-for-coffee time. I thought you said you trusted my eyes."
She shrugs. "You never can be too safe."
Safe. I let the word hang in the air for a few seconds before responding. "And hitchhiking is safe?"
She sighs. "I like to think of myself as a creative transportation enthusiast."
I roll my eyes. "That's not a thing."
"It's a thing if someone does it," she starts. "I'm doing it, so it's a thing."
"Is it a thing you do on a regular basis?"
Her smirk fades. "No." Her eyes roam around the car. "Please tell me this is a hybrid or some newfangled electric beast."
Nice change of subject, Pippi.
I open my mouth to speak but first pet the dashboard lovingly. "Don't worry, sweetheart. She didn't mean it. You're not a beast." I glance at my passenger who doesn't share my affection for the vehicle that saved her from the early November chill. "No. It's not a hybrid. It's a car that gets me through Minnesota winters. Why?"
She taps her index finger on her pursed lips. "What you must spend on gas, not to mention your carbon footprint—"
Excerpted from What If by A.J. Pine, Nicole Steinhaus, Karen Grove. Copyright © 2014 A.J. Pine. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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