a season for hope (sarra cannon)

A Season For Hope

 

By Sarra Cannon

 

 

 

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2013 by Sarra Cannon

 

eISBN: 978-1-62421-021-1

 

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.

 

Cover designed by Sarah Hansen @ Okay Creations

 

Editing Services by Janet Bessey at Dragonfly Editing
http://dragonflyediting.blogspot.com

 

Find Sarra Cannon on the web!

 

http://www.sarracannon.com

 

        

 

To Kylene Noel
 
You're not just my cousin, you're also one of my best friends.
Seeing you at Christmas was a highlight of growing up.
Thankful for you this season and always.

 

Prologue

 

I glance up at the clock on the wall.

It’s two minutes after and the professor is still talking. If he doesn’t wrap it up soon, I’m going to stab myself in the eye with this pencil.

Under the table, my toes tap against the ugly green carpet. My bookbag is already packed up. I sling it across my shoulder and sit at the edge of my chair. The girl next to me gives me the stink-eye and I’m tempted to stick my tongue out at her, but instead, I just look at the clock again.

Preston is waiting for me. Yesterday, he texted and said he had something really important he wanted to talk to me about, and I haven’t been able to calm the butterflies in my stomach since.

We’ve been together for just over three years, but the past few months have been rocky to say the least.

I’m praying he wants to talk about how we can reconnect. I’ve been bugging him about us taking a trip together over the holidays, but he doesn’t want to leave his twin sister, Penny, since she’s newly pregnant and had some complications in the early months. I completely understand that, but at the same time, I’m desperate to bring his attention back to me.

Most of our relationship has been a never-ending push and pull. I pull him toward me, he pushes away. I push him to make more of a commitment and he pulls farther away. I’ve learned to be a good-time girl, always going with the flow and being careful not to demand too much of him.

But the things that used to work with him aren’t working anymore.

I swallow, my mouth dry as a bone.

I have a bottle of water in my bag, but I’m not about to open it back up. My fingers tremble and I squeeze my pencil tighter, taking down the last few notes as the professor finally wraps up the lesson.

This is our last class before the Thanksgiving break, so I guess he wanted to make the most of it, but I’m so done. I’ve barely been listening as it is today. My notes make zero sense, but I don’t even care. I just want to bolt.

The moment he dismisses us, I push through the throng of students and make a run for the exit. I’m out of breath by the time I walk out into the cold afternoon air. I breathe in and out, my heart racing. My stomach feels sick with worry. Whenever your long-time boyfriend says he needs to talk, it can only mean one of two things. Either he’s wanting more. Or he’s breaking up with you.

I shiver and pull my coat tight, wrapping my scarf around my neck and over my lips.

He asked me to meet him at his car, so I’m hoping he’s planning to take me to dinner. I dressed up more than normal just in case but these high-heeled boots aren’t the best for jogging across campus. I force my feet to slow down, mentally kicking myself for being so nervous. So desperate.

Preston has his own parking spot on campus. It’s one of the perks of being a Wright. He’s practically royalty in this town because he comes from the wealthiest family in the state of Georgia. His great-grandfather started Fairhope Coastal University and his parents are still huge contributors.

As I turn the corner of the administration building, his sleek black BMW comes into view and my heart catapults into my throat. He’s sitting on the hood fiddling with his cell phone. I smile as he turns toward the sound of my boots clacking against the sidewalk.

But the way he smiles back—all sad and sorry—is like a punch straight in my gut.

He doesn’t want to reconnect with me.

My legs grow weak and I struggle to keep it together. I’ve worn a mask for him a hundred times before, and I’m good at it. The happy, carefree girlfriend. Always up for a good time. The girl who never asks for more than what I have right this moment.

Once I realized those kinds of demands only put distance between us, I learned how to be what he wanted me to be. Easy and fun.

But today I’m struggling to keep the mask in place.

“Hi,” I say. I set my backpack down on the sidewalk and lean into him. When I go to kiss him, he turns his head at the last second and my lips settle on his cheek.

I almost dissolve into frantic tears and it takes an enormous amount of self-control not to.

Deep inside, my brain is refusing to believe what my heart already knows. This can’t really be happening. Not after everything we’ve been through. Not now, please.

“Hey,” he says. He stands and slips his phone into his back pocket. He doesn’t touch me and the absence of affection might as well be a slap across my face. “Can we go somewhere?”

I want to say no. Part of me wants to tell him that I’d rather he just got it over with so I can get home and move on with my life. But part of me knows that right now, I have no life outside of Preston Wright.

“Sure,” I say. “Do you want to go to dinner or something?”

He draws his bottom lip into his mouth. “I was thinking maybe we could just go back to your place,” he says. “Maybe take a walk on the boardwalk for a few?”

My apartment is on the other side of campus, really close to the beach and the long wooden boardwalk that leads up to the pier.

“Great, yeah,” I say, playing my part of the agreeable girlfriend.

Always.

The ride to the boardwalk is tense and awkward. I try to start several conversations, but Preston’s answers are short and don’t leave much room for follow-up. I press my legs together tightly, wanting to curl up into a little ball and hide my face until this whole thing is over.

The tiniest hope still lives in my pit, saying this isn’t what I think it is. But ten minutes later, he’s walking beside me saying the words I never wanted to hear.

“Life has gotten really complicated lately,” he says. “With Penny having a baby and my internship with the company, I haven’t had a lot of time to spend with you and I’m really sorry.”

“It’s okay,” I say. I reach for his hand and he squeezes it and lets it go. My heart sinks further into my stomach.

“It’s really not,” he says. He stops in front of a bench and stares out at the ocean. “I don’t know how else to really say this.”

Then don't say it. Please.

I swallow and my mouth feels like it’s filled with sand. I can’t say anything. I can’t even fight for this. All I can do is watch as it slips away.

“I think it’s time we both moved on, Bailey.” He looks into my eyes and I know there’s nothing I can do to change his mind. “The past three years have been amazing, but I feel like I’m changing. I want different things than I wanted a few years ago.”

Tears well up in my eyes. “What did I do wrong?” I whisper.

He shakes his head. “You didn’t do anything wrong,” he says. He smiles. “You’re perfect, Bailey. I really care about you. I don’t want you to blame yourself. It’s just that the past few months have completely changed me. I need some space and some time to figure out where I go from here.”

I look down toward my boots, hot tears streaming down my face. I try to tell him what I’m feeling. I want to say that I’ll change with him. That I’ll figure out a way to be everything he wants. Only, the words won’t come. When I open my mouth to speak, a sob chokes me. I lift my hand to my throat and turn away, not wanting him to see me like this.

He clutches my arms and pulls me back toward his warm body. “I’m so sorry,” he whispers into my hair. “I never meant to hurt you.”

Hurt doesn’t even begin to describe what I’m feeling.

Devastated. Smashed. Completely destroyed.

Preston Wright was everything I ever wanted. And as he wraps his arms around my shaking body one last time, the world around me spins faster and faster. I fall down, deep into the blackest of holes. A hopeless place where broken hearts live and die and dreams of the future become memories of something that will never, ever be real.

Chapter One

 

Three weeks later

“Rise and shine.”

I open my eyes to slits and groan as my roommate Monica bursts through the door to my room, a tray of juice and eggs in her hands. She pulls the shades up and sunlight streams into the room.

I sink deeper into the comforter, pulling my pillow over my head to block out the light.

Monica yanks the covers off my body and sits down beside me. “Today is the first day of the rest of your life. Now get your gorgeous ass out of bed.”

She smacks my thigh and it makes a sharp popping sound. I sit up and rub the area, a red hand print burned onto my skin.

“What the fuck was that for?” I say. I scramble toward the edge of the bed and pull my sheets and comforter off the floor and back up onto the bed. It’s cold in here and I had been nice and warm before she barged in like some militant nurse in a nut house.

She picks up the glass of orange juice and holds it out to me. “It was supposed to be motivational,” she says. “Now drink your juice like a good girl.”

I pout and turn away, trying to recreate my cocoon.

Monica sighs and lays down behind me. She rests her bony chin on my arm. “Come on, Bailey, you’ve got to get out of bed,” she says. “It’s been weeks. I’m starting to lose my patience, here.”

Anger and guilt go to war inside my chest and familiar tears spring to my eyes. Tears are my best friends lately. I’ve spent more time with them than anyone else.

“Just leave me alone, then,” I say. “I didn’t ask you to fix me.”

I swipe at the tears but they’re falling too fast. They soak into my pillow and my knotted hair. I haven’t showered in days.

“When was the last time you ate something?” she asks.

I shrug and close my eyes. “I’m not hungry.”

“You have to eat,” she says. “You have to get out of this apartment. You’re missing too much class, Bailey. I’m worried about you. This week is the last week before finals. If you don’t go to class and at least get the notes, you’re going to fail.”

“I don’t care,” I say, sniffing. I know I’m being pathetic, but I don’t have the energy to be more than this.

“Fine,” she says, sitting up. “How about this? You’re supposed to work this afternoon. Mr. Edwards said if you called in sick one more time, he was going to have to let you go, didn’t he? If you miss work, how are you going to pay rent next month? You’re already behind. If I have to, I’ll find another roommate and kick you out on your ass.”

I turn and sit up. My face is twisted and crumpled. “You’d do that?”

She has her arms crossed in front of her chest and her lips are a thin, tight line. “No,” she says, her eyebrows cinched together. “But I will if it means you’ll get up and go to work.”

My shoulders fall and I reach for a tissue on the nightstand. I blow my nose and wipe my face. “I can’t do it,” I say. “I’m just so tired all the time.”

Monica’s voice softens. “You’re tired because you sleep all the time,” she says. “I promise that if you’d just get up and at least force yourself to go through the motions of being a real human being, you’d start to feel better.”

I smile through fresh tears. “I don’t feel human.”

“I know.” She sits beside me and runs her hand through my long hair, pushing a strand behind my ear. “Breaking up sucks balls. I get it. But there’s more to life than Preston fucking Wright.”

“Is there?” I ask, looking up.

She gives a sad smile and nods. “I guarantee it,” she says. “And you’re not going to find it laying in here like an invalid.”

I pick at the tissue in my hand, pulling it apart until it almost crumbles into dust. I know she’s right, but it’s so hard to face everyone. I used to walk onto campus knowing I was the girl everyone envied. I was Preston’s girl. I sacrificed a lot to earn that title. And now it’s gone. I’m no one anymore.

“It’s time,” she says. “You did a good ‘
Bella Swan in the woods after Edward left
’ impression, but now it’s time to rejoin the land of the living and prove to him he made a huge mistake.”

I blow my nose again and swallow back more tears. “Did you just work a Twilight reference into my already bad day?” I ask and she smiles. “Besides, you're forgetting that Edward came back to Bella.”

Monica walks to the door, then turns back and shakes her head. “Honey, Preston is not your Edward. Trust me on this.”

I laugh as she disappears.

Maybe she’s right. Maybe it is time. Although, as I force myself out of bed and into the shower, I wonder at the fairness of only having three weeks to mourn something that took three years to build.

Chapter Two

 

Campus is packed. A couple of people wave or say hi as I pass, but I’m already late for work and don't feel like being social.

I spent way too much time in the shower, letting the hot water soak into me, as if it could heal me.

It didn’t.

My heart was still broken when I emerged, my skin pink and raw. I knew I was running late, too, but I couldn’t rush getting ready. I’d already run into Preston once before when I looked like hell. Red puffy eyes. Knotty hair. No makeup. I probably looked like I’d been hit by a bus. And the pity in his eyes was too much to handle.

So I never leave the house anymore without looking perfect. Or at least not like a homeless person.

The Cup, a coffee shop and cafe where I work, is located in the student center at the other end of the quad. I decide to take a shortcut through the science building because there’s a bridge leading to the student center from there. Plus, it’s freezing cold outside.

I’m out of breath as I race up the stairs to the second floor. My feet hit the landing, but before I can reach for the heavy metal door, it flies open. My brain registers the danger, but I’m moving way too fast to stop myself as the door connects with my forehead.

Pain explodes behind my eye and across my cheek. I fall backward. My hands flail, searching for anything that might break my fall. Strong hands reach out and grab my arms.

“Shit, are you okay?” a guy asks.

I can’t answer. My vision blurs and the pain spreads like fire across my cheek. I keep my hold on the guy and sink toward the floor, holding both hands up to my face. Something warm and sticky seeps from a gash above my eye. I pull my trembling hands away and force my eyes open. Bright red blood stares back at me and my stomach churns.

I close my eyes again and take a slow, deep breath in. I’m going to faint.

The guy who hit me throws his bag on the ground and unzips it quickly.

“Lean against the wall,” he says, easing me toward the cool cinder-block. He’s squatting beside me. “Watch your hands a sec. Let me clean this up so it doesn’t get infected.”

His voice is calm and soothing, but my heart is thumping and I’m close to tears. I never should have left the apartment. What if the rest of my life is just a series of painful events?

I lower my hands for him, but keep my palms up against my legs, not wanting to wipe the blood on my clean jeans.

He puts his hand under my chin and lifts my face up toward his. I feel vulnerable and exposed. Stupid. Who gets hit in the face by a door?

For the first time since I was hit, I really open my eyes and look at the guy who hit me. My mouth drops open slightly and I breathe in, a tingle spreading through my veins. He’s a few years older than me. A grad student maybe? And he’s hot as hell. I study him as he cleans my forehead with an alcohol swab.

His dark-blond hair is long and tousled, dipping down near the collar of his grey t-shirt. As he wipes the blood from my face, the muscles in his arms flex slightly and stretch the material at his bicep. His jeans are worn and his sneakers have holes in them. When he lifts his hand to my head again, I notice a tattoo on the inside of his wrist, but can’t see it well enough to make out what it says.

He looks up and sees me studying him. His eyes are hazel with flecks of bright green and something about him suddenly seems so familiar. In my daze, I can’t quite place him.

He reaches back inside his bag and pulls out a bandage, placing it tenderly over the cut. His fingers linger against my cheek.

I briefly wonder what kind of guy carries alcohol swabs and bandages in his backpack, but the feel of his warm skin against mine distracts me. After being out in the cold wind, I wish I could lean into him.

“Were you a boyscout or something?” I ask, my hand fluttering up toward the bandage. When he looks confused, I add, “The bandages and alcohol.”

“Oh,” he says, smiling. “Med student.”

I raise an eyebrow. “I guess in terms of running into doors, I’m lucky there was a future doctor behind this one.”

“That was totally my fault,” he says. “I was in a hurry to get to the lab and I came barreling through the door like an asshole. You sure you’re okay? Do you feel lightheaded or anything?”

I shake my head and go to stand, but the room spins and I sink back down. “Maybe a little.”

“Hang on,” he says. “I’ll be right back.”

He stands and goes back inside to the main second-floor hallway.

I lean my head back against the wall and close my eyes for a second, but everything spins and my stomach lurches. I open my eyes again and take several deep breaths. My hands are trembling.

My life is such a mess right now. I feel like I’m struggling against the tide, a strong undercurrent of sadness constantly dragging me back under.

I can’t live like this.

The door behind me opens again, and I swipe at the falling tears.

He sits down beside me on the stairs. He hands me a plastic cup full of ice water. “This should help some,” he says.

“Thanks.” I take a sip of the water and hold it in my mouth for a while, letting the cold of it counteract the rolling nausea in my stomach. I swallow and feel the cold liquid make its path down my throat. “Do you need to be somewhere?”

He shakes his head. “No,” he says. “I want to stay and make sure you don’t need to go to the med center.”

“I’m fine, really,” I say. I’m not even close to being fine, but he’s a stranger and he doesn’t need to know that. “You said you were rushing somewhere.”

He leans back against the stair rail. “It’s not important,” he says, his hazel eyes staring straight through me. As if he can see what I've been going through. “Were you heading to a class? I don’t think I’ve seen you in this building before.”

“No,” I say with a laugh. “I was on my way to work.”

“Just my luck,” he murmurs.

I turn my head to the side. “What does that mean?”

He shakes his head. “Nothing,” he says, the smile taking over his face now.

I can’t tear my gaze away from his lips. My stomach flutters and I swallow, feeling slightly breathless.

I want to ask him more, because I feel like there’s more to it than that. But I’m crazy late for work and I can’t afford to lose my job.

“I should probably get going,” I say. I stand slowly and wait for the head rush, but I actually feel okay.

He stands and grabs my bag for me. “You sure you’re feeling up to it? I can wait with you here for a while longer if you want,” he says.

I shake my head. I have a pounding headache, but I don’t think sitting here is going to cure it. “I’m fine. I’m actually pretty late.”

“I’ll walk with you, then,” he says. He opens the door to the second floor and I walk inside. “It’s the least I can do after slamming into you like that.”

I study him for a second. He’s been so sweet and attentive and now he’s offering to walk me to work? Talk about a good bedside manner. I thought men like this only existed in fairy tales or made-for-TV movies. There’s got to be something wrong with him.

And if there’s not, he’s way too good for me anyway. Besides, my heart is too broken to even think about being attracted to someone else.

“I’m good,” I say. I hand him my empty water glass. “Thanks, though. See you around…?”

“Judd,” he says. His fingers brush mine as he takes the glass. “Judd Kohler.”

My stomach flutters again, catching me off guard. I turn fast and nearly smack into a water fountain jutting out of the wall. I stumble around it, blushing.

When I get a few steps further, he calls out to me. “Wait.”

I stop and look back at him.

“You didn’t tell me your name,” he says.

“Bailey,” I say, unable to control the smile that spreads across my face.

He raises his hand in a wave. “Be careful around doors, Bailey.” he says.

“I will.” I raise a hand in a half-wave as I disappear down the bridge toward the student center.

It doesn’t occur to me until I get all the way to the door of The Cup that I haven’t stopped smiling.

Chapter Three

 

Work goes by surprisingly fast. There are a ton of customers today. The semester is winding down and everyone is studying for finals, so I know we’ll be busy from here until the Christmas break.

My manager, Mr. Edwards is in good spirits, singing along to the Christmas carols playing on the local radio station. The outside windows have been sprayed with fake snow and we’re selling yummy new drinks like peppermint hot chocolate and snickerdoodle lattes.

When I cash out at seven and head back toward my car, there’s a spring in my step I thought I’d never get back.

It’s dark out and colder than it’s been all year. I hitch my backpack higher on my shoulder and shove my hands into the pockets of my purple leather coat.

I hit the sidewalk leading to the main student parking lot and out of habit, glance toward Preston’s parking spot. It’s late, so I don’t expect to see him. But there he is.

The sight of him creates an ache deep inside. I wish there was some kind of tradition where every time you broke up with someone, they had to wear a collar that would beep whenever they got within a hundred yards of you. No more surprise attacks. My heart can’t take it.

At first, I only pay attention to him. The curve of his mouth. His dark hair and eyes. His tall, muscular body.

But the sound of laughter pulls me from my self-pity trance and I really open my eyes.

Leaning against the side of his car is a girl with short blond pigtails. I can’t see her clearly from here, but I can see him. And the way his eyes shine when he looks at her slices through my soul.

My chest tightens and I breathe in slowly.

Just seeing him is hard enough, but seeing him smiling down at another girl is too much.

I turn and run toward my car, fumbling with the keys. I finally manage to get it started, but by the time I do, my vision is blurred with tears.

I press my head against the headrest and close my eyes. There must be some cosmic rule that says whenever you start to feel happy again after a breakup, the universe must slam you with a surprise sighting just to remind you how much you’re hurting.

Will I ever get over this feeling? Will I ever be able to see him and not feel this tight ache in my core?

And the shitty thing is that I knew this was coming. I knew he was pulling away from me. Ever since Leigh Anne, his ex-girlfriend, came back into town this past summer, things were tense between us. Understandably.

Preston may have cheated on Leigh Anne with me way back in high school, but I always knew he regretted that. I spent the past three years trying to make him see that there was nothing to regret. That I was just as good as her. But even before she came back here, I felt the truth of his love for her somewhere deep inside.

When she returned to Fairhope, it was like the last straw between Preston and me. Even when he was kissing me, I knew the fire had gone out.

And I was helpless to get it back.

Leigh Anne might have met and fallen in love with someone else, but I think something about seeing her again and realizing what he’d lost made Preston start searching for something beyond what I could give him.

Yet here I am, nearly six months later, still clinging to what we had. Wishing I could make him love me.

I start the car and head back toward my apartment, a sadness hanging heavy in my heart. I feel hopeless. Completely lost.

I think there’s been a part of me that was still hoping he’d see the light and come back to me. Even after three weeks of not talking, I guess some irrational hope still lingered. Like maybe he would see me across the quad and realize he’d made a terrible mistake.

But seeing him with someone else broke the last of that hope. It’s really over between us.

I swipe at a falling tear as I zip the car into my parking spot in front of the small apartment on the east end of campus. All I want to do is go inside, take an aspirin and crawl into bed.

The TV is on in Monica’s room, so I sneak past and close my door behind me. But when I go to set my things down on my bed, I notice a large garment bag spread across it.

My stomach twists.

Fuck
.

How could I have forgotten?

I throw my bag and coat on the floor and carefully unzip the white garment bag. I pull the red dress out and hold it up, barely able to breathe.

It’s strapless with a tight ruched bodice adorned with white pearls under the bust. The skirt flares out just above the knee. A beautiful lace pattern is hand-stitched along a split in the fabric where it ruffles and hitches up, revealing a layer of white lace underneath.

It’s my dream dress. Ordered nearly seven months ago from a very expensive boutique in Atlanta specifically for this year’s Christmas Memories Charity Ball. The ball is an event Preston’s mother throws every year at her house. I had planned on going with Preston and if I’m being honest, when I saw this dress, I had a distinct mental image of me wearing it with him kneeling at my feet, a ring stretched up toward me.

I move in front of the mirror and hold the dress up against my body. I adore this dress, but of all moments for it to arrive, now is just about the worst possible one.

My mother yelled at me when she found out how much I’d spent on it. I had to put it on layaway, making payments once a month to slowly pay it off, but at the time, I was certain it was an investment in my future.

The perfect dress for the perfect night.

I can’t bear to look at it anymore.

I slip it back inside the bag and zip it up, then push it to the back of my closet. The dress has already been altered specifically for me, so they won’t take it back now. I’d rather just hide it away where I won’t have to look at it and think about what might have been.

Chapter Four

 

I go into the bathroom to wash my face and as I remove the bandage, I gasp at the swollen purple cut underneath. I look hideous.

My face crumples in tears and I let them flow. I wrinkle my forehead and the cut stings as it stretches and breaks open. A few drops of warm, sticky blood trickle down the line of my eyebrow. I grab some tissues and press them against the wound, my chest hitching with each sob.

My life is a complete mess. I sink down to the floor. I don’t want to live like this anymore.

The door to my bathroom opens and Monica steps inside. When I look up, her face falls and she comes to sit beside me on the cold tile floor.

“What in the world happened?” she asks. She puts a hand on my leg and studies my eye. “I was about to come in here and bitch you out for sneaking in without saying hi, but now I’m going to yell at you for not telling me you were hurt. What did you do?”

I shrug and sniff, pulling the bloody tissues back. “I ran into a door,” I say.

She raises an eyebrow and cocks her head to the side. “Seriously?”

“Yes,” I say with a laugh that comes out more like a half-sob. “I was trying to take the shortcut through the science building and ran right into a door as this guy was pushing it open.”

“That asshole,” she says. “Did you punch him in the nuts?”

I roll my eyes. “It wasn’t his fault. I was the one running.”

“I can’t believe you went to work like this. What if you have a concussion or something?”

“I don’t have a concussion,” I say. “The guy who hit me was a med student. He made sure I was okay.”

Monica sits back against her heels. “Oh really?”

I roll my eyes and toss the tissue toward the trashcan. I miss and have to scoot forward to pick it up again.

“Was he cute?” she asks.

I wipe my face off and stand up, avoiding her eyes. “I guess,” I say, not wanting to admit to her that I thought he was gorgeous. I’m too busy being sad and pathetic to let one ounce of possible happiness in the door.

She stands up and peers over my shoulder, studying my face in the mirror. “It doesn’t look so bad,” she says, but she’s grimacing as she says it.

“Liar.”

She turns around and leans against the edge of the cabinet. “Is that all that’s wrong?” she asks. “You were crying pretty hard.”

I close my eyes, so incredibly tired of crying all the time. I barely even recognize myself anymore. I’ve become one of those pathetic women who cry at the drop of a hat and never get over the one that got away. If I’m destined to be sad and lonely for the rest of my life, I’d rather the rest of my life only last about five more minutes.

“I saw him,” I say.

“Preston?”

I nod. “I don’t think he saw me, thank God,” I say. “Especially after seeing how bad this cut looks.”

“You’re gorgeous,” Monica says, rubbing my arm. “Even with the cut.”

I try to smile, but can’t really manage it. “He was talking to some girl,” I say. “I didn’t recognize her, but there was something in his expression that really got to me. He was into her. I could tell.”

Monica sighs.

“I mean, I guess I knew it was bound to happen eventually,” I say. “I wasn’t expecting him to stay single forever. But still. It sucks so hard.” And here come the waterworks again. Anger rushes through me along with fresh tears. “I just want to go to sleep and never wake up.”

“Fuck that,” Monica says. She grabs my shoulders and turns my body toward her. “Bailey, listen to me. That’s bullshit and you know it. I don’t ever want to hear something like that come out of your mouth again.”

I swallow, my eyes wide. There’s real anger in her voice.

“Come on,” she says. She stomps out of the bathroom and I follow her toward my closet. “We’re going out.”

I groan. “Mon, I really don’t want to go out tonight,” I say. The thought of having to act happy in a crowd of people makes me feel sick to my stomach. “Hello? Concussion?”

“You said you don’t have a concussion,” she says. She goes through my closet one hanger at a time, evaluating each piece in an instant and moving it to the side with determined fury.

“Well, I still don’t feel that great. I have a pounding headache.”

“Go into the kitchen and grab some aspirin or something. Drink some water,” she says. “We’re going out and you’re going to have fun. I refuse to let you give up on life because of a man.”

I don’t go into the kitchen. Instead, I collapse onto my bed and crawl under my blanket. “I’d rather stay here.”

“And do what? Lay in bed crying and feeling sorry for yourself? What exactly is that going to accomplish other than making you feel worse?” she says. She puts a hand on her hip. “You’re in a danger-zone here, Bailey. If you don’t at least try to snap out of this depression and sadness, it’s going to swallow you whole. Preston Wright is not the only man alive. He’s not even the best man alive. You have to find a way to start seeing past him to all the other possibilities for your future.”

I pull the blanket over my head.

“Throw yourself into your paintings,” she says, her voice getting louder. “Create something new for yourself. Go out. Make new friends and get rid of those stuck-up richies who haven’t called you in weeks. Sleep with six different guys in a week if that’s what it takes. I don’t care. Anything but laying in this bed all day letting the depression steal your soul.”

I curl into a tight ball, terrified of what she’s saying, but knowing she’s right.

“I’m begging you,” she says after a few moments of silence, her voice softening as she sits at the edge of the bed. “Just come out with me tonight. If you’re having the worst time of your life, we can come home. But I need you to at least try. The deeper you let this pull you down, the harder it’s going to be to ever recover. Trust me, I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”

Slowly, I sit up and let the blanket fall away from my face. She’s talking about her mother now. Her parents divorced when Monica was young and her dad took off to god-knows-where, leaving her mom to raise three kids by herself. Only, her mother never really got over her broken heart. She suffered from depression most of her life and finally succumbed to it, taking her own life just five years ago when Monica was in high school.

Until now, it hadn’t occurred to me why Monica was so determined to help me get over this. Why she was pushing me so hard. But now I get it.

I’ve been so wrapped up in my own sorrow, I couldn’t see how this was affecting her.

“Okay,” I say, placing my hand on hers. “But promise we can at least go someplace dark where no one will notice I look like I was in a violent fight with a badger.”

Monica laughs and throws her arms around me. “Thank you,” she says.

I stand up and go to my closet.

“What color looks good with a black eye?”

Chapter Five

 

After a quick dinner and a couple of starter drinks back at the apartment, Monica and I start walking toward the boardwalk. Our apartment is only a few blocks away from the busy strip of shops, restaurants and bars along the beach. It’s the perfect location and after turning twenty-one earlier this year, we both had big plans for spending most of our weekends down at the bars, taking in the ocean views while sipping on cocktails.

Sadly, it’s mostly been Monica walking down here with some of our other friends.

“It’s about time you came down here with me,” she says.

“Of course, I have to choose the coldest damn night of the year to walk to the beach.” I shiver and pull my scarf tighter around my neck. I left my gloves back at the apartment, and my hands are freezing. “Do you think anyone will even be out? They’re saying there’s actually a chance of snow this weekend.”

“Snow in Georgia? At the beach?” She laughs. “I wouldn’t count on it.”

I shrug and look up at the night sky. The clouds are low and look white from the lights of the boardwalk shining up toward them.

“Besides,” she says. “It’s the last weekend before finals and people will be leaving to go home soon for the holidays. Everyone will be out.”

My stomach tightens as I think about Preston and the blond mystery chick. What are the odds I might run into him tonight?

I swallow down the worry and press on, determined to prove to Monica that I’m at least making an effort.

As we walk, I concentrate on the pretty decorations. Wreaths, silver bells, red ribbons. It’s beautiful out here.

Christmas has always been my favorite time of year, but I’ve barely even noticed it this year.

My mother always says that Christmas is a season for hope. As Monica and I walk toward the nightclub near the pier, I send a prayer up toward the stars that hope will somehow find its way back to me.

Chapter Six

 

“Another,” Monica says, motioning to the bartender.

He nods and pours two more shots.

I breathe in deep and grab the glass off the counter. I lift it high, turning toward her on my bar-stool. “Here’s to moving forward.”

“Damn straight,” she says. She clinks her glass against mine and we both throw them back.

The Jager is both sweet and bitter as it hits my tongue. The licorice flavor puckers the sides of my mouth, and I swallow it down fast. My throat burns for an instant and then my belly warms.

My head spins with a feeling of sweet surrender. God, I haven’t felt like this is weeks. Maybe months. It’s like the second I decided to have a good time, something inside me switched on. I feel dangerous, like I’m capable of anything tonight.

Like I’m capable of being anyone.

Right now, I’m tired of being Bailey. I’m so incredibly tired of being the one constantly doubting where I’m heading or how anyone feels about me. I’m done with it always feeling like I’m not good enough. All of that pain is too damn heavy. I can’t carry it anymore or I’m going to fall so far down inside myself that I’ll never come up again.

Monica slams her empty glass down on the counter and grabs my hand. “Let’s dance.”

I hook my feet around the bottom of the bar-stool and try to pull away. Okay, so maybe I don’t feel as free as I thought.

“Uh-huh. No freaking way,” I say.

I look toward the dance floor. It’s a mass of sweaty bodies grinding together in the pulsing lights. Mostly couples. I don’t need that kind of pressure right now.

“You said you were up for anything tonight,” she reminds me. “Stop being so scared to be happy, dammit.”

I pout. “I’m here, right? Isn’t that a start?”

“It’s not enough,” she says. “Come on.”

She offers her hand to me again and I stare down at it, my heart racing. I don’t know why it’s so scary for me. It’s been so long since I was in a place like this without Preston to hold onto.

I’m so used to sitting alone on nights he didn’t want to go out. I centered my entire life around Preston Wright, and I don’t know how to live it without him.

I look into Monica’s eyes and I can see she’s almost reached her limit with me.

She’s fed up, and I get it. I do.

A nervous ball of energy forms under my ribs. My heart beats against my chest. I bite the inside of my lip. Why is this so hard? Wasn’t I just thinking I felt fearless? How can I go back to being scared a heartbeat later? It’s almost as if there are two versions of myself fighting inside of me. One is scared and clings to the past. The other is desperate to change and find happiness.

I swallow, then take her hand.

She screams and throws her free hand over her head. “Yes! Let’s do this,” she shouts.

I laugh and slip off the stool. We weave our way through the crowd of dancers, the music thumping hard and the lights swirling in my vision.

We stop somewhere in the middle of all these people. At first, I’m hesitant. Awkward. I move my body to the music, but I’m composed and completely out of my element. I look around at the faces of the people surrounding me. I recognize some of them from classes. A few of them were friends of mine in high school. I wait for them to notice me, half expecting some of them to look at me with that same pity I’ve been seeing from everyone for weeks.

I’m just the poor dumped ex-girlfriend of the hottest, richest guy in town. I’m no one without him.

But no one looks. No one even notices me.

Monica is easy and free on the dance floor. I watch her, wanting to be more like her. She’s not tied down by anything. She’s just free to be herself and she’s never really cared what anyone thinks of her.