Unbreak My Heart, page 1
Table of Contents
A Preview of A Change of Heart
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For my mother, who will cry when she reads this dedication. I love you, Mom.
Thank you to my daughters, who ate more fast food than any of us were happy about and smiled the entire time. I love you. To my parents, who made dinner and coffee and took care of my girls so that I could write, and my sister who listened to me plot: Thank you.
To Nikki, who never sugarcoated any of her feedback and loves these characters as much as I do: Thank you a million times.
To Ashley, who opened a thousand doors for me when she convinced me to send Unbreak My Heart to her agent, to Toni who cheered me on through every sleepless night, and to Donna who has been with me since the beginning of this journey, I can never thank you enough.
To my agent, Marisa, who was so excited the first time she read Kate and Shane’s story that she was texting me as she read, and my editor, Alex, who spent hours upon hours making sure everything in Unbreak My Heart was just right: Thank you.
To the readers and bloggers who have gotten me this far, I owe you big, and I hope you love this story as much as I do.
Why are we going to this shit again?” I asked my wife as she messed with her makeup in the passenger-side mirror.
“Because it’s important to your cousin.”
“She’s not my cousin,” I reminded her, switching lanes.
“Fine. It’s important to Kate,” she answered, losing patience. “I don’t understand why you’re being a dick about it.”
“How often do we get out of the house with no kids, Rach? Rarely. I’d rather not spend our one night alone at some fucking coffeehouse filled with eighteen-year-olds.”
“Damn, you’re on a roll tonight,” she murmured in annoyance. “Kate asked me to this thing weeks ago. I didn’t know you’d be home.”
“Right, plans change.”
“I promised I’d go! I drop everything for you every time you come back from deployment. You know I do. I can’t believe you’re acting like a jackass because of one night that I had plans I couldn’t change.”
“I highly doubt Kate wants me here,” I mumbled back, pulling into the little parking lot that was already filled with cars. “She’s going to hate it when I see her crash and burn.”
I hopped out of the car and walked around the hood to help Rachel out of the car. I never understood why she insisted on wearing high-as-fuck heels while she was pregnant—it made me nervous. She looked hot as hell, but one day she was going to fall and I was terrified I wouldn’t be there to catch her.
“You really have no idea, do you?” she said, laughing, as I took her hand and pulled her gently out of her seat. “How in God’s name did you grow up together and you still know so little about Kate?”
“You know I didn’t grow up with her.” I slammed the door shut and walked her slowly toward the small building. “I moved in when I was seventeen and left town when I was nineteen. She’s not family, for Christ’s sake. She’s the spoiled, weird niece of the people who took me in for a very short period of time.”
Rachel stopped short at the annoyance in my voice. “She’s my best friend. My only friend. And she freaking introduced us, in case you’ve forgotten.”
“Not on purpose.”
“What’s that supposed to mean? What wasn’t on purpose?”
“She was pissed as hell when we got together.”
“No, she wasn’t,” Rachel argued. “What are you talking about?”
“Never mind. It’s not important.”
“Can you please, please, just be nice and not act like you’re being tortured when we get in there? I don’t know what your deal is with her—”
“I don’t have a deal with her, I just wanted to take my gorgeous wife out to dinner tonight, and instead we’re going to watch her friend sing for a bunch of teenagers. Not exactly what I was hoping for.”
I reached out to cup her cheek in my palm and rubbed the skin below her lips with my finger. I wanted to kiss her, but after all the lipstick she’d applied in the car, I knew she wouldn’t thank me for it.
“We’ll go somewhere else afterward, okay? I think she’s on first, so we won’t be here long,” she assured me with a small smile, her eyes going soft. She knew I wanted to kiss her; my hand on her face was a familiar gesture.
“Okay, baby.” I leaned in and kissed the tip of her nose gently. “You look beautiful. Did I tell you that yet?”
“Well, you do.”
She smiled and started walking toward the building again, and I brushed my fingers through the short hair on the back of my head.
It wasn’t that I disliked Kate. Quite the opposite, actually. When we were kids, we’d been friends, and I’d thought she was funny as hell. She had a quirky, sometimes weird sense of humor, and she’d been the most genuinely kind person I’d ever met. But for some reason, all those years ago, she’d suddenly focused in on me, and the attention had made me uncomfortable.
I wasn’t into her, and her crush had made me feel weird, uncomfortable in my own skin. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, but shit, she just didn’t do it for me. She was too clean-cut, too naive and trusting. Even then, I’d been more attracted to women who were a little harder, a little darker, than the girl who still had posters of fairies on her walls at seventeen.
So I began avoiding her as much as I could until she’d brought home a girl wearing red lipstick and covered in tattoos after her first semester in college. I’d ignored the way Kate had watched me with sad eyes as I’d monopolized her friend’s time and completely disregarded her hurt feelings. I’d never liked Kate that way, and I hadn’t seen anything wrong with going after her new friend.
I’d ended up married to her roommate, and from then on I’d acted like Kate and I had never been friends. It was easier that way.
“Come on, baby,” Rachel called, pulling me into the darkened coffeehouse. “I see a table, and my feet are killing me.”
Why the fuck did she insist on wearing those damn shoes?
“Can I get you anything to drink?” a small waitress asked us. Like, really small. She was barely taller than the bistro table we were sitting at.
“Can I get a green tea, please?” Rachel asked.
“Sure! The green we’ve got is incredible. When are you due?”
“Not for a while.”
“Black coffee,” I ordered when the friendly waitress finally looked my way. Her smile fell, and I realized my words had come out shorter than I’d intended.
“Sure thing!” she chirped with a tight smile before walking away.
“Seriously, Shane?” Rachel growled in annoyance.
“What?” I knew exactly what. I’d been a jackass, but I wasn’t about to explain that the crowded coffeehouse was making me sweat. People were laughing loudly, jostling and bumping into each other around the room, and I couldn’t see the exits from where we sat.
“Hey, San Diego,” a familiar voice called out over the speakers. “How you guys doing tonight?”<
The room filled with cheers, and Rachel’s face lit up as she looked past me toward the stage.
“Aren’t you sweet?” Kate rasped with a short chuckle. “I dig you guys, too.”
The crowd grew even louder, and my shoulders tightened in response.
“There’s a coffee can being passed around, who’s got it?” She paused. “Okay, Lola’s got it now—back there in the purple shirt with the Mohawk. When you get it, add a couple dollars, if you can, and pass it on.”
The crowd clapped, and Kate chuckled again over the sound system. “I better get started before you guys riot.”
I still hadn’t turned to look at her. Frankly, I didn’t want to embarrass her if she sucked. I didn’t—
The clear notes of a single guitar came through the speakers, and I froze as the entire room went silent. Completely silent. Even the baristas behind the counter stopped what they were doing to watch the stage as Kate began to sing.
Holy shit. My head whipped around, and I felt like I’d taken a cheap shot to the chest.
Her voice was raspy and full-bodied, and she was cradling her guitar like a baby that she’d held every day of her entire life. She was completely comfortable up there, tapping her foot and smiling at different people in the crowd as they began to sing along with her.
It was incredible. She was incredible. I couldn’t look away. This wasn’t some silly idea she’d had on the spur of the moment. She knew exactly what she was doing, and these kids knew her. They freaking loved her.
And she looked gorgeous.
Her hair was rolled up on the sides in something Rachel had attempted a few times. I think they were called victory rolls? I’m pretty sure that’s what Rach had called them when she couldn’t figure them out. Her skin was smooth, and she wore deep-pink lipstick that made her teeth bright white under the spotlight. She was wearing a T-shirt that hung off her shoulder and ripped jeans that were so tight, I wasn’t even sure how she’d managed to sit down.
I blinked slowly, and she was still there.
“I tried to tell you she was good,” Rachel said smugly from my side.
“Did she write that song?” I asked, turning to look at my wife.
“Babe, seriously? It’s a Taylor Swift song.”
“This one’s a Kenny Chesney song.”
“I know this one,” I murmured, looking back toward the stage. “Does she only sing country?”
“Hell no. It’s mostly other stuff, but it’s usually got a theme. Tonight is obviously about kids…teenagers, since the donations are going to some stop-bullying charity.”
I nodded, but my eyes were on the stage again as Kate danced a little in her seat, tapping out the beat of the new song on the front of her guitar. Had Kate been bullied? I didn’t remember anything like that, but like I’d told Rachel, I’d only stayed with Kate’s aunt and uncle for a little over a year before I left for boot camp. Maybe I’d missed it. The thought made me grind my teeth in anger.
Kate pursed her bright lips then, blowing a kiss with a wink for the crowd.
My breath caught.
I pushed my seat back from the table and grabbed Rachel’s hand, pulling her over to sit on my lap.
“What are you doing?” she whispered with a laugh.
“If I’ve gotta stay here, I’m getting some perks.”
“Yeah.” I leaned in and kissed her hard, ignoring the lipstick I could feel smearing over my lips. I slid my tongue into her mouth and felt her nails dig into my shoulder as she tilted her head for a better angle. God, kissing her still felt as good as it had the first time I’d done it. I hadn’t known that loving someone so much was even possible before I’d met her.
“Rain check?” she asked against my lips as she reached out blindly and grabbed a couple of napkins to clean off our faces. Her face was flushed, and I wanted nothing more than to leave that fucking coffeehouse and get her alone.
My wife was the most beautiful woman I’d ever known, and it wasn’t just her looks. She’d grown up like I had, scrounged and fought for every single thing she’d needed—and I was proud of the family and the life we’d built together. We’d come a long way from our nasty upbringings.
“Can we go home yet?” I replied with a smirk as I wiped my face.
“Hey, you two in the corner!” Kate called into the mike, interrupting the incredibly sexy look Rachel was giving me. “None of that, I’ve got kids here.”
The crowd laughed, and I glanced sharply at the stage.
Kate was smiling so brightly that she looked giddy. “That’s my best friend, right there. Isn’t she gorgeous?”
The crowd cheered as Rachel laughed softly in my ear and blew a kiss at Kate.
“I wanna know who the guy is!” a girl called out from across the room, making everyone laugh.
“Eh, that’s just her husband,” Kate answered flatly, making the crowd snicker. She met my eyes and winked, then grinned before looking away and starting in on the next song as if she hadn’t just made my stomach drop.
We watched her for almost an hour as she fucking killed it on stage. Then I ushered Rachel out of the building without saying good-bye, making excuses about wanting to beat the rush of kids.
I had the distinct impression that I knew very little about the woman I’d been avoiding for the past ten years, and I wondered how I’d missed it. She wasn’t the awkward girl I remembered, or the sloppy woman in sweats and tank tops that Rachel occasionally invited over to the house when I was home.
The Kate I’d seen on stage was a fucking knockout—confident and sassy. I knew then that I’d continue to avoid her, but for an entirely different reason than I had before.
Two months later
Evans Web Design,” I answered my phone as I switched lanes on the freeway. God, traffic was a nightmare.
“Is this Katherine Evans?”
“Yes, who’s this?”
“Sorry, this is Tiffany from Laurel Elementary School. I’m calling because you’re Sage Anderson’s emergency contact number—”
“Is Sage okay?” I interrupted, flipping off the car that honked at me. Why the hell would they call me and not her mother?
“Sage is fine, Ms. Evans. We were just wondering if you knew who was supposed to pick her up from school today? Class ended about thirty minutes ago, and no one was here to get her.”
“Her mom picks her up,” I replied, looking at the clock on my dash. “She didn’t call?”
“No, ma’am. We’ve been trying to reach her, but haven’t been able to.”
“It is,” she agreed.
“Okay, well, I’ll come get her and try to get ahold of Rachel, but it’s going to take me at least half an hour.” It looked like my appointment downtown was going to have to be postponed.
“That’s totally fine. Sage can just hang with me in the office.”
“Okay, tell her Auntie Kate will be there soon.”
I hung up and pulled off the freeway so I could turn around. Shit, if I tried to go north I’d be stuck in stop-and-go traffic for the next two hours. I navigated back streets working toward Sage’s school, calling Rachel over and over. The longer she didn’t answer, the more my stomach tightened.
My best friend wouldn’t forget to pick up her child at school. She was a second grader, for pete’s sake. It wasn’t like her pickup time was any different than it had been for the last two years. Something was off.
It took me less time than I thought to get to Sage’s school, and I whipped into a parking space with shaky hands.
I had an awful feeling in my gut that I couldn’t seem to calm.
“Hey, I’m looking for a girl, short, dark hair, goes by some ridiculous plant name…” I said in my most serious voice as I reached the front office.
“Auntie Kate! I’m right here!”
“You just have to sign her out,” the office lady said with a grin.
I signed Sage out and walked her to my car, popping the trunk to pull out the spare booster I kept there.
“Where’s my mom?” Sage asked, bouncing around on her toes. The excitement of riding around in my car had obviously eclipsed the trauma she’d endured by being forgotten at school.
“I’m not sure, kiddo,” I answered as I got her situated in the backseat.
“Daddy’s at the range today!” Sage informed me as we made our way to her house.
“Yeah, he’s been home for a long time.”
“It sure seems that way, doesn’t it?” I replied cheerfully. She had no idea.
I didn’t mind that Rachel wanted to spend time with Shane while he was home. I totally understood it. But it sucked being the friend who was ignored when someone’s significant other came home from yet another military deployment. I practically lived with Rachel while Shane was gone—she hated being alone—but the moment her husband stepped foot on American soil, I was persona non grata again.
It had been happening for years. I wasn’t sure why it still bothered me.
“Mom’s going to have a baby soon,” Sage piped up from the backseat as I turned onto their street.
“I know, pretty exciting, right?”
“Yeah. She’s having another brother, though.”
“What’s wrong with brothers? I have two brothers,” I reminded her, pulling into their empty driveway.
I climbed out of the car as she started to answer and looked at the quiet house in confusion when no one came to greet us. Where the hell were Rachel and the boys?
Sage continued rambling on as I helped her out of her seat. “—wanted a sister. Boys stink, and they only play with boy stuff—”
“Kate?” someone called from across the street. “Where’s Rachel? She was supposed to pick up the boys like two hours ago!”
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