If We Fall: A What If Novel, page 1
If We Fall
A What If Novel
© 2018 Nina Lane. All rights reserved.
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No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
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Cover photography: Sara Eirew
Cover design: Concierge Literary Designs & Photography
About the Author
Also By Nina Lane
IF WE FALL
A What If Novel
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We fell in love. Then our world fell apart.
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Don’t miss the FREE prequel to Josie and Cole’s story. Click here to download IF WE LEAP.
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IF WE LEAP (prequel)
IF WE FALL
IF WE FLY
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Click to sign up for Nina’s newsletter and receive a free novel.
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Ten years ago
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Where was he?
I glanced again at my phone. No message or text. The knot of concern in my chest tightened. It wasn’t like Cole not to let me know if he was going to be late. Also, he wouldn’t be intentionally late to my parents’ surprise twenty-fifth anniversary party, which my sister and I had been planning for months.
Then again, he’d been working overtime finishing classes for his final semester at Ford’s College. He also worked three jobs—sternman on a lobster boat, carnival game operator at the Water’s Edge Pier, and assistant at the Maine State Aquarium. Most nights he returned to our tiny, cluttered apartment long after I was asleep, then he was gone the next morning before I woke.
We’d been living together for almost a year now, and he always left me notes and texted me frequently whenever we were apart. But tonight, I hadn’t heard from him in over four hours.
That definitely wasn’t like him.
Trying to suppress my concern, I slipped my phone back into my purse and rejoined the lively party. “Great Balls of Fire” pounded from the DJ’s speaker system, and multicolored balloons accented poster-sized photographs of my parents and the Happy Anniversary signs I’d painted. Dozens of family friends and their children enjoyed dancing, plenty of food and drink, and entertainment from a magician, a face painter, and a balloon artist.
“I can’t believe you did this.” My mother, resplendent in a silk crepe de Chine maxi dress embroidered with flowers, appeared at my side. Though I’d followed her artistic career path, she had always possessed a bohemian, stylish flair that I lacked. While I shuffled around in ripped jeans and stained T-shirts, she wore fashionably artistic clothes—Indian-print skirts, patterned scarves, hats.
Even after twenty-five years of marriage, people frequently wondered how Benjamin Mays—tall and handsome, but as conservative as a preacher in his khakis and chambray shirts—had landed the elegantly creative Faith.
The question usually answered itself when people saw how my mother and father looked at each other. Like butter melting on toast. Honey dissolving into hot tea.
“You deserve it.” I slipped my arm around her shoulders. “I’m just glad everyone was able to come. Are you all ready for your big anniversary trip to Europe?”
“Yes, thankfully. Your father still has to pack a few things, though.” She sipped a glass of champagne, her gaze drifting over the room. “I haven’t seen Cole yet. Is he working late?”
My chest tightened. “I think so.”
She glanced at me perceptively, a crease appearing between her eyebrows. Not wanting to worry her, I waved to a server who was making the rounds with champagne. “Have another glass and enjoy yourself. I’m going to check on the buffet.”
I wove my way through the crowd, pausing to speak briefly with several guests. I retrieved my phone again and stepped outside on to the covered front porch.
Where was he?
Agitated worries pitched and rolled in my head. He’d gotten tangled in a flying line and was dragged overboard. His battered old Ford had broken down on some isolated road, and he’d been abducted by aliens. He’d gotten lost in the woods. He—
“Josie!” His deep voice surged against my heart.
My breath caught. I turned, squinting through the dim illumination of the streetlights. He ran toward me, suit jacket flapping open, tie loose around his neck, two bouquets of wildflowers clutched in each hand.
Cole. The boy I had a crush on when I was nine years old. The crush that turned into a wild love.
I hurried to meet him, relief billowing through me. We met halfway down the sidewalk. He extended his arms. I leapt right into them and hugged him hard, pressing my face to his damp hair. The soapy, clean smell of him filled my nose.
“I’m so sorry.” He pulled back to look at me, his blue eyes simmering with contained excitement. “We were late getting back, and the catch was incredible which means a much bigger paycheck, but I left my phone on the boat and I was going to come right over but I stank like hell, and then at the docks I ran into Dave Jamison.”
I squeezed his hands. “I’m just glad you’re okay. Who’s Dave Jamison?”
“He’s the oceanographer professor visiting from Boston U,” Cole explained hastily. “I’d applied for a spot on his research cruise to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s privately funded, so it was in high demand and I didn’t get in. But he just told me one of his students had to drop out, and he offered me the position. Two weeks. We’ll be able to test the microbial sampler on the sea floor.”
His face lit up like he’d just told me they would be raising a pirate’s treasure chest from the deep. I smiled. My concern slipped away, replaced by happiness and pride that all his hard work would be rewarded. Not wanting to use his father’s money, Cole had put himself through five years of the undergrad Marine Sciences program at Ford’s. A spot on a prestigious research cruise would not only enhance his credentials and future opportunities but allow him to do the work he loved.
“That’s amazing.” I slid my arms around his waist and stood on tiptoe to kiss him. My entire being filled with the light and heat we generated so quickly. “Congratulations. No one deserves a spot on that cruise more than you.”
“I’m sorry I’m so late.” Shifting the two flower bouquets to one hand, he finger-combed his damp hair and attempted to smooth the wrinkles from his shirt. “Do I look okay?”
Okay was an understatement for Cole Danforth’s appearance. Tall and muscular with sun-streaked brown hair and thick-lashed blue eyes, his skin tanned golden-brown…my guy was as tempting and delicious as warm cinnamon toast.
“You look incredible,” I assured him.
He extended a bouquet of wildflowers to me and knotted his tie. We returned to the party, where he gave my mother the second bouquet and whispered something that made her smile and hug him with boundless affection.
“I told her I was looking forward to the day you and I get to celebrate our twenty-fifth anniversary.” He winked at me.
“Oh my God.” I pressed a hand to my chest. Every age my heart had been—eight, eleven, nineteen—came together in one swelling, happy beat, a chorus of song. “I have loved you forever, Colton Danforth.”
“Can I get a picture of you guys?” Teddy approached us, his digital camera in his hands, and a cake pop stuck behind his ear. For safekeeping, I assumed.
Cole wrapped his arm around my shoulders, pulling me into his side as we smiled through several snaps of the shutter. The celebration continued on a wave of happiness. When the clock approached one, my father signaled to me that it was time for him and my mother to leave.
“Come with us.” I tugged Cole’s hand as we walked to the foyer. “I came over with Mom, Dad, and Teddy. I’m sleeping at their house tonight so I can drive them to the airport tomorrow morning. Teddy’s coming too. We can drop them off and go out for breakfast.”
“Waffle Castle?” Cole asked hopefully.
“Yes! Butter Pecan Special for the win!” Teddy gave a fist pump as he skirted past us, balancing a white bakery box in one hand.
A flurry of activity followed as we pulled on our jackets, gathered our belongings, and said goodbye to the guests who had followed us to the door. Teddy’s camera continued to flash on and off.
“Last picture, Mom and Dad!” he shouted at our parents.
“I’ll take one of you all.” Cole held out his hand for the camera and gestured for me to join my parents. “Vanessa, over here.”
My older sister and I stood on either side of our parents, our arms entwined and my mother holding the wildflower bouquets Cole had given me and her. Teddy posed in front of us, pointing gleefully to the bakery box, which must have held leftover cake.
After the camera flashed, my parents eased away to say final goodbyes to a few well-wishers. Teddy opened the bakery box and scooped out a fingerful of cake.
I picked up my purse and glanced toward my parents. They stood alone near the coatrack. My father rested his hand on my mother’s cheek. They gazed at each other with expressions of such tender devotion that my heart skipped a beat.
Would Cole and I be the same way in twenty-five years? Would we have children and celebrations filled with friends and laughter? Would we still hold hands, steal kisses, exchange secret smiles?
I wished for the answer to be a resounding yes.
As I started past him to the door, he stopped me with his arm and bent to press his lips swiftly against mine. I absorbed the warm kiss, his salt-and-citrus scent, the light rasp of his stubble. My soul fluttered with love, happiness, and the tiny but ever-present fear that we were too fortunate, it was too good, we were too young. Everything about us was too perfect.
“Come on, Josie Bird.” Cole lifted his head and placed his hand on my lower back, guiding me to the door. “Let’s fly.”
What if I had known it would be our last kiss?
What if I had known how hard we would fall?
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I can’t find my flashlight.
Dread creeps up my spine, intensifying my sweaty-palmed anxiety. I turn on the second interior car light and rummage through my black backpack again for my 3100 lumens, quad core LED, rechargeable aluminum Fenix U52 Cree flashlight with its beautiful 276 yards of throw. I always keep it in the side pocket for easy access, but right now—when I need it the most—I can’t find it.
I pull in a heavy breath. I shouldn’t have driven myself here from the train station, but the train from Boston had been late and all the cabs gone. I’d had to choose between renting a car or spending the night alone at the station. I might’ve made the wrong choice.
The combination of driving and darkness has ratcheted my stress to new levels. Plus four days of cross-country travel from California to Maine on trains and buses, not to mention more lack of sleep than usual, are taking their toll. My eyes are peppery with fatigue, my muscles ache, and I’m struggling not to be entirely freaked out about returning to my hometown for the first time in ten years.
Though I’ve told myself I need to confront my phobias, I didn’t mean all at the same time.
I unzip the main pocket of the backpack, pushing aside my clothes, toiletries bag, and a book to reach the bottom. Nothing. For the third time, I search the other pockets, though the growing dismay in my stomach tells me I’m not going to find it.
Getting to my knees, I squeeze over the console to reach my art case in the backseat. I haven’t opened the case once during my trip, but I search it anyway. Nothing except watercolors, pencils, pastels, and charcoal.
With a groan, I shove open the door and step into the late June night. Cold salty air rushes against my face, stilling me for an instant. I’ve lived in San Francisco for almost a decade and the smell of the ocean is nothing new, but this is the Atlantic. This is lobster, fried dough, fireflies. This is splintered old picnic tables, sunburned noses, blueberries.
I slice through that thought before it has a chance to form. I bend to feel the floor of the rental car. Nothing. My travel bag in the trunk only has more clothes and my sleeping bag.
After slamming the trunk, I zip up my old army jacket. The small circular parking lot, empty aside from my car, only has one light casting a yellowish tinge over the pavement. Heavy coastal fog obscures the moon.
I squint at the cove, a half-circle of black water. Pallid dock lights cast shadows on the fishing boats and the hulking shapes of the warehouses.
On the opposite side at the Water’s Edge Pier, brighter lights illuminate the restaurants, souvenir shops, and pubs. At the end of the pier, the colorful Ferris wheel spins, twinkling merrily, the carousel and smaller carnival rides clustered at the base. It’s a welcoming sight, promising noise, people, lights—all the things that scare away whatever lurks in the dark.
If I can make my way to the pier, I can buy another flashlight at one of the shops. It won’t be anything like my Fenix Cree, but at least it will provide me with some light.
I tighten my grip on the open door. The stretch of beach between my car and the pier is shadowy and badly lit. I’m parked at the end of the road. The only way to drive to the pier from here is to take the isolated two-lane road around town. Which means more driving in the dark. I’d managed to get here from the train station without having a panic attack, but I’m inching closer to the edge.
To my right, the southern hill is nothing but an endless swath of black. I can’t see the cottage at the top of the path, the towering pines that shelter it in a half-circle.
I can picture it, though. Lopsided and odd, Watercolor Cottage is the only building on the steeply graded slope of the southern hill—all the other proper houses having had the good sense to be constructed on the flatter land near downtown Castille.
By contrast, my mother’s former studio, still in defiance of all good architectural planning, is latched to the hill like a barnacle. My father had intended to build the house to align with the landscape, but—knowing nothing about either house-building or landscaping—he made it up as he went along. And so the cottage became a mishmash of weird angles, sloped ceilings, misshapen doorways, and floors that tilt downhill.
My mother had loved it madly. The cottage had been her escape, the place she went when she needed to work in solitude. Now I need to do the same thing there.
I haven’t been to the cottage in well over ten years. It’s a quarter-mile hike up the hill, and I can’t even start walking without a flashlight.
A chill prickles my skin. I get back in the car and slam the door. The pale stream of the headlights reaches the edge of the beach before dissolving.
Through the windshield, I see the silhouette of a tall man walking from the docks lining the harbor. I watch him for a second before realizing he’s coming toward my car.
Probably a police officer patrolling the harbor who thinks he’s about to catch a couple of kids making out.
I lock the doors. The headlights catch a pair of large black shoes, distinctly male. He walks with a long, steady stride, each step certain, like he knows his way around here. He’s wearing dark trousers and a black jacket open to reveal a suit and tie. Not a cop’s uniform. I should get out of here.
Just as I reach for the key, a sudden familiarity bolts through me. I know that walk. That body. That—
Before he steps fully into the glow of the headlights, I look away. My hand shakes as I start the ignition. Then his knuckles rap on the glass of the driver’s side window. My breath sticks in my throat. I don’t know what to do.
What if I’m wrong? What if it’s not him?
Or…maybe worse…what if it is?
Wary, I glance out the window. He steps away from the car. The overhead light illuminates his face. Our eyes meet with a charge so strong that time both dissolves and expands in the same instant.
Other author's books:
- AllureThe Erotic LightIf We Leap: A What If PrequelStickyArouse: A Spiral of Bliss Novel (Book One)Sweet Surrender (Sugar Rush #3)Adore (Spiral of Bliss #4)If We Fall: A What If Novel
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