Authors: Theresa Paolo
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #New Adult, #General, #Contemporary, #Juvenile Fiction, #Love & Romance
Also by Theresa Paolo
InterMix Books, New York
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
An InterMix Book / published by arrangement with the author
InterMix eBook edition / July 2014
Copyright © 2014 by Theresa Paolo.
copyright © 2013 by Theresa Paolo.
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To Eric. My rock. My best friend. My everything.
Life didn’t just throw me lemons. Oh no. As a former state champion shortstop, I sure as hell would’ve been able to field a few pieces of fruit. Instead¸ life tossed my ass into a ballpit full of them. For the first time in my twenty years, I lost my way. Lying on my childhood bedroom floor, soaked in sweat, heart racing faster than an Olympic runner—it was the moment I should’ve had an epiphany.
But I ignored the nightmares taken from my own reality and struggled to get back in bed. Pain exploded in my thigh, shooting through my whole body. You don’t realize how important it is to have use of both your legs until a bullet rips through one of them.
A bead of sweat burned my eye. “Son of a bitch!” I yelled just before collapsing on my mattress.
My door flung open, and I saw, hated, the fear widening my sister Liz’s eyes. Fear never used to be a part of her and now it was ingrained in her every fiber.
She stormed in, kicking at the pile of clothes I had on the floor, spinning around in a circle, hands out like a sumo wrestler. “Josh! What’s the matter?”
I was waiting for her to pick up one leg and stomp it down. I pulled myself up to lean against the dark blue wall, and I choked back the laugh surfacing. I glanced up at her and displayed my best smile. “I’m fine, Liz.”
I reached for the pain pill on my nightstand and downed it with the bottle of water she’d left me earlier. I instantly felt guilty for trying to take the pain away.
Her eyes narrowed in on me. “Then what was that noise? I was in the kitchen, and I heard a loud thump and then you screamed.”
I didn’t remember screaming. At least, not outside of my dream. “I fell out of bed.”
“Well, that was dumb,” she said, arching an amused eyebrow. If she only knew the truth. But I wouldn’t burden her with that shit. She’d gone through enough the day that gunman shot up my college. She had the privilege of watching my nightmare unfold, thanks to the local news station. Later, she told me she had completely shut down, not knowing if I was alive or dead, consumed with guilt because of the stupid fight we’d had over her jackass ex-boyfriend.
I flung my pillow at her head. “I didn’t do it on purpose.” She caught it, not that I didn’t think she would. I taught her how to catch a football when she was five and a softball when she was seven. I’d always been proud she could hang with the guys.
“I would hope not.” She tossed the pillow back, aiming for the wall instead of me.
It drove me crazy how she treated me like glass about to shatter. I was a damn jock, could bench press three hundred pounds, made the winning catch at state, and I worked out regularly. At least, I did up until a couple of weeks ago, before my life was thrown into a garbage disposal, crushing everything around me.
Now my sister was scared to throw a damn feathered pillow at me.
“So you’re okay?”
I ran my hand through my blond hair, pushing it out of my eyes. I needed a haircut. “I’m good.”
“Are you sure?”
I rubbed at my chin. Needed a shave too. “Yes.”
More than anything, I hated how much she worried about me. Watching as if I were an illusion that would vanish at any minute. I wasn’t a ghost. I’d survived, unlike so many others who didn’t make it out of the building that day. I was one lucky bastard. I should’ve been dead.
Instead, the bullet intended for me was the one that ended it all.
In an unexpected move our tormenter turned the gun on himself and with a single bullet through his head it was finally over. At least I thought it was. Little did I know I would relive the moment over and over again. “Josh?” Liz pushed on my shoulder, and I shook the visions of that horrible day from my mind. “You don’t seem okay.”
“I am. Just tired.”
“I have to get to class, but the home health aide should be here in an hour. I can have Zach come hang out with you until then?”
I closed my eyes and willed away the anger. I knew they were all concerned. Even if they were driving me freakin’ crazy. “I don’t need a babysitter.” Not that it would change the fact that my parents thought I did. A home health aide? It was ridiculous.
“Coming from the guy who couldn’t figure out how to use the microwave.”
“Ha ha. When did you become a comedian? I must have missed the memo.”
“You didn’t get it? I even put it on pink paper with purple hearts. You would’ve loved it. Totally your thing.”
I reached for my pillow and hurled it back at her. Once again, she caught it. But she didn’t throw it back. She walked over to my bed, placed it down, and sat on the edge.
Her hazel eyes darted toward me, suddenly glossy with tears. She bit her lip to keep it from quivering. “It’s good to have you home again. I just wish you didn’t have to get hurt.”
“Me too,” I said and looked down at my useless leg.
Liz sat for a moment then stood up. “Call me if you need anything. Maybe you should head downstairs, so when the aide gets here you won’t have to have her wait for you to get to the door. Oh and I made a batch of peanut blossoms. They’re on the counter. Are you sure you don’t need anything?”
“Liz . . .” Her brown hair whipped around her as her eyes snapped back to me. She did something to it. It looked blonder. Didn’t she know I was the natural blond of the family? “I’m fine. Go. To. Class.”
“Okay I’ll be back later.”
“Do me a favor?”
Her hands landed on her hips. “Excuse me?”
“Go home, lil sis. I appreciate everything, but really, I’m okay. It’s time you went back to school. You’ve missed too many classes. Besides, I’m sure Sadie misses her roommate.”
Her mouth parted, then her lips pushed into a thin line, and I knew it was killing her not to argue with me. I kind of wished she would. Normalcy was all I really wanted. The first week I didn’t mind all the fussing, but two weeks in and I was ready to jump out a window.
“I suppose I could. I mean, Zach could at least stay the night and—”
I held my hand up at the way her lip curled. “I’m thrilled you two are back together, but please spare me the gory details.”
Her mouth, about to say something nauseating I’m sure, snapped shut when she saw the clock on my bedside table.
“Shoot! I have to go.”
“Yes, I’m fine,” I said before she could ask one final time.
“Remember to call me if you need anything. The aide will be here soon.”
She stood there staring at me like I was an injured puppy. I gave her a dirty look, and she rolled her eyes.
“Okay, bye. Oh, and put a shirt on,” Liz said as she ran down the stairs.
Thank god. I loved my sister, but holy shit she was exhausting. We were always close, but since the shooting, she’d been a pain in my ass.
My phone blinked on my nightstand, and I picked it up to see a text and six missed calls. One from my coach and five from clients. Coach probably wanted to see how I was doing. He was hopeful I’d be back on the field next year. Fat chance. My contracting clients, I’m sure, had heard about the shooting. They shouldn’t have expected me to hang sheet rock or paint their shutters after being shot. Maybe they were just calling to see how I was. I didn’t care enough to find out. I clicked over to the text message.
Dude where you been? Everything okay?
I hadn’t talked to my best friend slash roommate since he’d visited me in the hospital two weeks ago. The way he’d looked at me, the fear in his eyes—it was enough for me to know he would never be able to look at me the same. All he would see was a victim, and I’d had enough of that shit from my family. I couldn’t deal with it. One of us living through the nightmare was more than enough.
I hit delete without responding, and when I heard the front door shut, I closed my eyes. As the lights dimmed, I saw flashes of blood, the eyes of a lost soul came to life, and I was back there. Opening my eyes wouldn’t make the visions go away.
Sleep wasn’t the only thing that triggered visions, so there was no point anyway. They popped into my mind constantly. I never knew which vision it would be.
I was in hell for less than an hour, yet there were thousands of ways my mind remembered it. Down to every tiny detail. Getting used to the memories was hard enough. But accepting they would be a part of me forever . . .
A knock on the door took me out of my head. My eyes popped open, and I was no longer in the hallway of the Kramer Science Building. I was back in my bedroom.
I stood, balancing all my weight on one leg, and hopped to my crutches. This shit was getting old. Taking each step one at a time was way too slow. I plopped my ass on the stairs and scooted myself down, keeping my leg extended.
Mom had wanted me to stay on the couch instead of my bedroom so I didn’t have to navigate the stairs. I’d refused. I was already inconveniencing my parents enough. Dad shouldn’t have to ask me if it was okay to change the channel on his own damn TV. I shouldn’t even be here. They got rid of me for almost two years and then because of one fucked-up day I was back.
Another knock. Jeez she was impatient. Didn’t she know I had a bullet hole in my leg?
I slid to the second-to-last step, held the crutches out to the floor and used them to help me up. Thank god that before the shooting I’d had an active workout schedule, or I wouldn’t have been able to get my ass up. Another knock.
“You’re going to knock a hole through the door,” I grumbled as I opened it, shifting my weight to lean against the doorframe.
“Uh . . .” I heard and looked up into the last pair of eyes I thought I’d never see again. They were still bluer than a robin’s egg. Heart racing, words lost, I blinked, afraid she was another vision. Nope, she was still there. Reddish-blond hair, just as silky smooth as I remembered, only longer. I’d bet my ass that under those Winnie the Pooh scrubs, her boobs were just as nice too.
Her eyes drifted down, staring at my bare abs. She stepped back, eyes shooting to the ground just like they used to two years ago at the water park, before I’d chipped away at her shy exterior.
“I must have the wrong house,” she muttered and turned away.
“Kat, wait!” I yelled and went to run after her, but I forgot about the crutches. As soon as I put weight on my bum leg, a very unmanly scream erupted, and I fell flat on my face. I maneuvered to my side so I wasn’t eating grass anymore and tried not to wince.
“Oh my god, Josh!” She dropped to her knees at my side, resting cold hands on my shoulder. “Are you okay?” The skin on the bridge of her nose still scrunched when she was concerned, I noticed.
Her small hand reached out to my hair and ran through it. I closed my eyes, bringing forward all the memories I’d stored away.
The chase. The catch. The loss.
She leaned back, holding a blade of grass she’d pulled from my hair. A single touch and I wanted more. I glanced at the grass and then my eyes travelled to her hand, particularly to the ring covering the tattoo I knew was on her ring finger. Funny. Mine was covered by a ring too. Better to be hidden than reminded of my biggest regret.
“So you do remember my name,” I said as I flashed my most charming smile to disguise the humiliation and pain coursing through me.
At first glance, her big eyes were filled with worry, but at my smartass remark she snapped them away from me. Her entire body retracted, and I felt like I’d been shot all over again.
“Of course I remember your name.” Disgust filled her tone. She stood, wiping at the grass on her knees before handing me one of my crutches.
“Thank you.” I used the crutch to help me up, Kat giving me her shoulder to lean on. My leg was screaming, but being close to Kat was like a drug, numbing the pain. My face lingered close to her hair and I couldn’t believe it. “You still smell like cotton candy,” I whispered in her ear as I inhaled more of her scent.
She jumped away from me, and her blue eyes widened. My balance swayed, but I managed to stay upright. It was hard to believe this was the same girl who used to snuggle into my chest and rain kisses down my neck. Right now she was acting like I had the bubonic plague.
“Are you my aide?” Until I asked, I didn’t realize how desperately I wanted her to be. Needed her to be. Every memory from our summer together was a kick to my stomach, knocking the wind right the hell out of me.
She tucked a reddish-blond strand behind her ear, her fingers lingering on the pearl earring in her lobe. “I guess so, but I’ll tell my manager to switch me for someone else.”
I moved closer to her, resisting the urge to reach out and cup her cheek. The urge was stronger than anything I had ever felt. But I fought through the desire, keeping my hands to myself. “Why would you do that?”
“Because this isn’t going to work?”
How could it not work? There were many things I was unsure of, but one thing I knew for certain. We were good together. “Why not?”
She didn’t say anything, choosing to flash me an evil glare instead. Too bad for her the only thing that had an effect on was in my pants. Even in her anger she was gorgeous.
Her hair fell in soft curls on her shoulders, dipping dangerously close to the V of her scrub shirt. Despite my best efforts, my gaze drifted to the crease. After an enjoyable few seconds of recalling all the times I got to see beneath her shirt, I glanced back up and looked deep into the blue depths of her eyes. Kat had always been more than a body to me.
“It’ll be just like old times,” I said, hoping she would remember the best summer of my life. Working the water slides, watching her from the highest point of the park as she sold cotton candy. Meeting up behind the Blue Lagoon to make out. Having lunch at the Aqua Café, where we’d share a basket of fish-shaped fries and chicken fingers because as much as she loved them, she could never finish them on her own.
A brokenness flashed across her face, the same expression I’d witnessed when she found out her mom had cancer. My heart ached for her all over again, especially since I’d left her at a time when she’d needed me the most. But she never stopped me.
I told her to stop me.
“We could pick up where we left off. Go back to the way things were.”