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This heart of mine, p.1

This Heart of Mine, page 1

 

This Heart of Mine
 



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This Heart of Mine


  Begin Reading

  Table of Contents

  About the Author

  Copyright Page

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  St. Martin’s Press ebook.

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  To the donor and family of the donor from whom my husband received his kidney and his second chance at life: thank you for giving us the precious gift of time.

  To Dr. Anna Kagan, my husband’s transplant nephrologist, whose bedside manner and caring nature inspired the fictional Dr. Hughes in this novel. Thank you for your kindness, and for all the effort in keeping my husband alive and kicking. Thank you for the heartfelt hug you gave me and my daughter that scary day when they moved my husband into ICU; it warmed my soul and speaks not only to your ability as a doctor, but to the caring person you are beneath the white coat.

  To Dr. Bree, my husband’s cardiologist, who told us that if he got a kidney, his heart could improve. Your words gave us hope when others seemed to steal it from us.

  To my husband, who went through it all and almost never complained. You set the bar of whining so high, I don’t know if I can meet those standards, but I’m going to try. Thank you for being the man you are. The man I love.

  ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

  Writing a book requires such dedication that so often an author’s ability to do it stems from the support of those around her. So thank you to my family, to my friends. To my agent, Kim Lionetti, who after listening to this idea said, “You are going to write this book!” To my new editor, Sara Goodman, who took over This Heart of Mine midproject and helped make it what it is today—thank you for all your work. And to Rose Hilliard, who got the book up and going and whose belief in me and my career never wavered.

  MAY 13TH

  “It’s over, Eric. Accept it. Let it go, would you?” The words echo from a cell phone into the dark night.

  Eric Kenner sits at the patio table in his backyard, listening over and over again to Cassie’s voicemail. Listening to the pool’s pump vibrate. Listening to the pain vibrate in his chest.

  “I can’t let it go.” Pain tumbles out of him. It is so damn wrong. He can’t accept it.

  Glancing back, he sees the light in his mom’s bedroom go off. It’s barely eight. She probably took another Xanax. His mom can’t accept things either.

  Why did life have to be so damn hard? Was he cursed?

  He hits replay on his phone. Hoping to hear a crack in Cassie’s voice, something that tells him she doesn’t mean it. There’s no crack in her voice, just the one in his heart.

  He bolts up, sending the patio chair crashing into the concrete. Snatching the piece of furniture, he hurls it into the pool. The chair floats on top of the water. While he feels as if he’s sinking, drowning.

  He swings around and shoots inside. Moving through the kitchen, then the living room, he stops in front of the forgotten space that was his father’s study.

  His dad would have known what to do.

  Eric walks in. The door clicking shut shatters the silence. The room smells dusty, musty, like old books. The streetlight from the front yard spills silver light through the window. The beige walls look aged. The space feels lonely and abandoned.

  The huge clock on the wall no longer moves. In here, time has stopped—just like his dad’s life.

  Eric’s gaze lands on the flag, the one the military handed him at his father’s funeral. The thing sits on the worn leather sofa, still folded, as if waiting for someone to put it away.

  They called his dad a hero—as if remembering him that way would make his death easier. It hasn’t.

  It would have been his dad’s last mission. The day he left, he’d doled out promises—camping trips, redoing the engine of the old Mustang in the garage. Promises that died with him.

  Moving behind the mahogany desk, Eric drops into his dad’s chair. It creaks as if complaining he isn’t the man his dad was. Leaning forward, Eric opens the top drawer.

  Swallowing a lump that feels like a piece of his broken heart, his eyes zoom in on one item. He reaches in and pulls it out. It’s heavy and cold against his palm.

  He stares at the gun. Maybe he does know how to fix this.

  If he can find the courage.

  1

  ONE MONTH EARLIER

  APRIL 13TH

  “You lucky bitch!” I drop back down on my pink bedspread, phone to ear, knowing Brandy is dancing on cloud nine and I’m dancing with her. I glance at the door to make sure Mom isn’t hovering and about to freak over my language. Again.

  She isn’t there.

  Lately, I can’t seem to control what comes out of my mouth. Mom blames it on too much daytime who’s-the-baby-daddy television. She could be right. But hey, a girl’s gotta have some fun.

  “Where he’s taking you?” I ask.

  “Pablo’s Pizza.” Brandy’s tone lost the oh-God shriek quality. “Why … why don’t you come with us?”

  “On your date? Are you freaking nuts?”

  “You go to the doctor’s office, you could—”

  “No. That’s hell no!” I even hate going to the doctor’s office. If people stare long enough they see the tube. But this isn’t even about me. “I’d die before I get between you—”

  “Don’t say that!” Brandy’s emotional reprimand rings too loud. Too painful.

  “It’s just a figure of speech,” I say, but in so many ways it’s not. I’m dying. I’ve accepted that. The people in my life haven’t. So, for them, I pretend. Or try to.

  “But if you—”

  “Stop. I’m not going.”

  There’s a gulp of silence. That’s when I realize my “lucky bitch” comment brought on the pity invite. Brandy’s worried I’m jealous. And okay, maybe I am, a little. But my grandmother used to say it was okay to see someone in a beautiful red dress and think, I want a dress like hers. But it wasn’t okay to think, I want a dress like hers and I want her to have a wart on her nose.

  I don’t wish Brandy warts. She’s had the hots for Brian for years. She deserves Brian.

  Do I deserve something besides the lousy card fate dealt to me? Hell yeah. But what am I going to do? Cry? I tried that. I’ve moved on.

  Now I’ve got my bucket list. And my books.

  The books are part of my bucket list. I want to read a hundred. At least a hundred. I started counting after I got out of the hospital the first time I survived an infection from my artificial heart. I’m at book twenty-eight now. I won’t mention how many of them were romance novels.

  “Leah,” Brandy starts in again.

  The chime of the doorbell has me glancing at the pink clock on my bedside table.

  It’s study time. Algebra. I hate it. But I kind of like hating it. Because I hated it before I got sick. Hating the same things as before makes me feel more like the old me.

  “Gotta go. Ms. Strong is here.” I bounce my heels on the bed. The beaks on my Donald Duck slippers bob up and down. Lately, I’ve been into cartoon-character slippers. They make my feet look happy. Mom’s bought me three pairs: Mickey, Donald, and Dumbo.

  “But—” Brandy tries again.

  “No. But you’re gonna tell
me everything. All the sexy details. How good he kisses. How good he smells. How many times you catch him staring at your boobs.”

  Yep, I’m jealous all right. But I’m not a heartless bitch. Well, maybe I am. Heartless, really heartless, but not so much a bitch. I carry an artificial heart around in a backpack. It’s keeping me alive.

  “I always tell you everything,” Brandy says.

  No, but you used to. I stare up at my whirling polka-dot ceiling fan. Even Brandy’s walking on eggshells, scared she’ll say something to remind me that I got a raw deal, something that will make me feel sorry for myself. I’m done doing that. But I hate hearing that crunch as people tiptoe around the truth.

  “Leah.” Mom calls me.

  “Gotta go.” I hang up, grab my heart, and get ready to face algebra.

  I really hate it, but it’s number one on my bucket list—my last hurrah. Well, not algebra, but graduating high school. And I don’t want a diploma handed to me. I want to earn it.

  I spot Mom standing in the entrance of the dining room turned study. She’s rubbing her palms over her hips. A nervous habit, though I have no idea what’s got her jittery now. I survived the last infection and the one before that. She hears my footsteps, looks at me. Her brow puckers—another sign of serious mama fret.

  I stop. Why’s she so nervous? “What?”

  “Ms. Strong couldn’t make it.” She’s rushes off faster than her hurried words.

  I hear someone shuffling in the dining room. I’m leery. Hesitant. I move in. My Donald Duck slippers skid to a quick stop when I see the dark-haired boy at the table.

  “Shit.” I suck my lips into my mouth in hopes I didn’t say it loud enough for him to hear.

  He grins. He heard me. That smile is as good as the ones I read about in romance novels. Smiles described as crooked, mind-stopping, or coming with a melt-me-now quality. I swear my artificial heart skips two beats.

  He’s one of the Kenner twins, either Eric or Matt, the two hottest boys in school. I used to be able to tell them apart, but now I’m not sure of anything. If I combed my hair today. If I brushed my teeth. If I have on a bra?

  I close my mouth, run my tongue over my fuzzy-feeling teeth, trying to quietly suck them clean.

  Glancing down, away from his eyes, I rock back and forth on my heels, my Donald Ducks’ bills rocking with me. Should I run back to my room? But how pathetic will I look then? And if I do, he’ll leave. Lifting my gaze, I realize I’m not sure I want him to go. I kinda like looking at him.

  “Hey,” he says.

  “Hey,” I mimic and realize I’m hiding the backpack behind my leg. I give my bright red tank top a tug down to cover the tube that extends from the backpack and pokes into me under my left ribcage. A hole that kinda looks like a second belly button. Yup, I’m hiding the very thing that’s keeping me alive.

  “Ms. Strong couldn’t make it,” he says as if reading my mood and realizing he needs to justify his being here. “She asked me to sub.”

  “For how many extra credit points?” I wait for him to tell me he did it just out of kindness. And, if true, it would mean he did it out of pity. I’m not sure I’d enjoy looking at him anymore. I’d rather be someone’s means to a better grade. Brandy told me that everyone in school knows about my dead heart.

  “Fifteen. I got lazy and didn’t turn in some homework. You’ll pump me up to a B.”

  “You should have held out for twenty.”

  He smiles again. “I don’t think it was negotiable.”

  Moving in, I try to guess which twin he is. I try to figure out how to ask, but everything I think of sounds lame. Let him be Matt.

  I had a thing for Matt since seventh grade. It might have been wishful thinking, but in tenth grade I thought he liked me too. Not that it ever went anywhere. He was football, I was book club. He was popular, I was … not. Then I started dating Trent. A guy in book club. A guy I let off the hook as soon as I found out my heart was dying.

  “Your books?” he asks.

  I don’t understand the question, until I see he’s pointing to my backpack.

  Crap! I freak a little. I have several pat answers in my head that I came up with when Mom, afraid I was turning into an agoraphobe, insisted I get out of the house. But I can’t remember them. The silence reeks of awkwardness.

  So I go with the truth. “No. It’s my … heart.”

  “Shit.” He spills my favorite word.

  I laugh.

  His eyes meet mine and he smiles again. Yup, it’s kinda crooked. My mind’s not working. And I’m melting.

  “Oh, you’re joking,” he says. “Right?”

  I nod yes then shake my head no as if I don’t know the answer.

  His smile fades like a light on a dimmer switch. “Seriously?”

  “Seriously.” I move to the desk in the corner. One-handed, I pull my math book from a drawer and drop down in the chair across from him. My heart lands in the chair beside me, so he can’t see my tube.

  When I glance up, he’s doing exactly what I expect. Looking at the books so he doesn’t have to look at me. People have a hard time facing me, facing my death, maybe even facing their own mortality. I understand, but it still bothers me.

  He turns a page. The silence is so loud, I can almost hear the page float down to find its place. “Ms. Strong said we should start on chapter six.”

  “Yeah.” Disappointed, I flip my book open and consider letting him off the hook, telling him I’ve got this, assuring him I won’t mention it to Ms. Strong. But I look up, and I’m suddenly feeling selfish.

  Hey, he’s getting extra credit.

  He glances up, and before I can look away, our eyes meet and lock. And hold. Longer than they should, because it feels … too. Too much. Too intimate. As if we’ve passed some invisible barrier. Like when a stranger stands too close to you in line.

  We both look away.

  He smacks the book closed. He flinches.

  “What happened?” He whispers the question. His tone sad, sweet, and somehow still sexy.

  I admire that he asked. Most people don’t.

  “A virus. It killed my heart.” I hate the haunted look I see in his eyes. The sexiness vanishes. “It’s highly contagious.”

  The oh-poor-you look on his face flips right to fear. Joking with him feels right.

  I lose it. A laugh bubbles out of me and I feel instantly lighter.

  “Real funny.” He chuckles.

  A crazy thought hits, one that says there’s something almost … rusty about his laugh. And bam, I remember. I feel like the heartless bitch I swear I’m not for forgetting.

  Not quite a year ago, his dad, a soldier, was killed. I’d been in the hospital, right after my condition had been diagnosed. His dad had been on the news, where they showed the pictures of soldiers and asked for a moment of silence.

  I feel my smile slip from my eyes, my lips, and fall completely off my face. I know the look he sees in my eyes is probably the same pity-filled expression I saw in his seconds ago.

  “I’m sorry,” I say. “About your dad. I just remembered.”

  Ah, hell. Now I made his smile fall off his face. I should’ve kept my mouth shut.

  “Yeah.” He looks back at the book. “It sucks.”

  “Sort of like this.” I motion to my backpack.

  He glances again at the chair holding my heart. “Was it really a virus?”

  “Yeah. The virus caused myocarditis.”

  His gaze sticks to my backpack. “How does it work?”

  It’s a question no one has ever asked. “Just like a heart. It’s a pump. Sends my blood through my veins and throughout my body.” I summarize the surgery to connect the pump that’s in my backpack and the batteries I have to carry.

  He makes a face, even rubs his chest as if feeling empathetic pain. “So you have a tube going inside you?”

  I touch my shirt, right under my left rib, where the tube goes in. “Gross, huh?”

  “Yeah, but i
t’s keeping you alive, so … not really.”

  I agree. The hesitant footsteps easing down the hall pull my gaze from his.

  Mom stops at the door. “Do you guys need something to drink or eat?”

  She’s rubbing her palms on her jeans again. Her pinched maternal concern locks on me. She’s worried I’m mad about his being here. It’s odd that I’m not.

  The only person from my old life I’ve allowed to be close to “Dying Leah” is Brandy. And the only reason I allowed it was because she wouldn’t go away. Both Mom and Dad have been pushing me to get out some. Socialize. There was even mention of my going back to school. I nixed that idea really fast. I want to graduate, but facing my peers while carrying my heart … Unh, uhh. Not doing it.

  I have good reasons too. In seventh grade, Shelly Black had leukemia. She came to school bald, wearing a scarf. Everyone tried not to show her how difficult it was to see her that way. She wasn’t even my close friend. But my heart hurt for her. I’d rather be alone than put people through that. Then I look at the dark-haired hottie sitting across from me and wonder if that’s what he feels now.

  Then again, he chose to come here. He’s asking me questions and seems interested in my answers. And it feels good talking to him. Like I’m a normal high school kid talking to a friend. An extremely hot friend.

  I’m still not going back to school, but why not take advantage of this?

  “I have sodas and chips.” Mom’s voice drags me back to reality.

  I wait for him to answer. He declines with a thank-you.

  Mom leaves, and we dive into algebra. We spend the next twenty minutes reading examples; then I do problems for him to check and see if I understand. It’s not really awkward, but it’s tougher than it is with Ms. Strong. I can’t concentrate on math, because I’m concentrating on him. About which twin he is. Matt? Eric? Eric? Matt?

  I recheck my answers before I push him the notebook. While he’s reviewing my problems, I’m studying him. The shape of his lips. The cut of his jaw. The slight five o’clock shadow that tells me he’s shaving.

 
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