Kacey Cleary’s whole life imploded four years ago in a drunk-driving accident. Now she’s working hard to bury the pieces left behind—all but one. Her little sister, Livie. Kacey can swallow the constant disapproval from her born-again aunt Darla over her self-destructive lifestyle; she can stop herself from going kick-boxer crazy on Uncle Raymond when he loses the girls’ college funds at a blackjack table. She just needs to keep it together until Livie is no longer a minor, and then they can get the hell out of Grand Rapids, Michigan. But when Uncle Raymond slides into bed next to Livie one night, Kacey decides it’s time to run. Armed with two bus tickets and dreams of living near the coast, Kacey and Livie start their new lives in a Miami apartment complex, complete with a grumpy landlord, a pervert upstairs, and a neighbor with a stage name perfectly matched to her chosen “profession.” But Kacey’s not worried. She can handle all of them. What she can’t handle is Trent Emerson in apartment 1D. Kacey doesn’t want to feel. She doesn’t. It’s safer that way. For everyone. But sexy Trent finds a way into her numb heart, reigniting her ability to love again. She starts to believe that maybe she can leave the past where it belongs and start over. Maybe she’s not beyond repair. But Kacey isn’t the only one who’s broken. Seemingly perfect Trent has an unforgiveable past of his own; one that, when discovered, will shatter Kacey’s newly constructed life and send her back into suffocating darkness.
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K.A. Tucker writes captivating stories with an edge. She is the bestselling author of the Ten Tiny Breaths and Burying Water series and the novels He Will Be My Ruin, Until It Fades, and Keep Her Safe. She currently resides in a quaint town outside Toronto with her husband and two beautiful girls.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Five Ways to Fall
■ ■ ■
I’ve never seen that look on Daddy’s face before.
He’s had it since he walked back from the pay phone. “Go on, now,” he urges, his gruff voice cracking. “Go on inside.”
“But . . . why?” I whine, casting wary eyes at the truck-stop diner, empty but for a man with a Santa beard.
Daddy rests his hand on the steering wheel and turns his body to face me. “Reesie, baby.” I don’t like his tone. It’s that serious one that makes my bottom lip wobble. “I need you to go back inside, sit down in our booth, and ask that nice waitress for another piece of that pecan pie you like so much,” he says slowly, evenly.
I swallow back my tears. “Alone?”
His face tightens, like he’s mad. “Only for a little bit.”
“And then you’ll come in?”
He squeezes his eyes shut and I’m afraid I just made him really angry, but . . . I’ve never gone anywhere alone. I’m only five. “Remember that Daddy loves you, baby girl. Now go on.”
Stifling back a sob, I slide along the old bench seat and push the heavy old Ford truck door open.
“Reesie,” Daddy calls out as my red shoes hit the sidewalk.
Turning, I see his hand wiping at something on his cheek before he gives me a wink and a smile. The truck door makes a loud bang as I swing it tight. Holding my breath, I climb the steps and push as hard as I can against the diner door, the jangle of the bell ringing in my ears. I dart across the black-and-white checkered floor and climb into our booth—the one we were sitting in before Daddy called Mommy; it still has our dishes on the table—just in time to see the taillights of Daddy’s truck disappear.
When the nice waitress with the big hair comes by, I tell her my daddy will be here soon and I order that piece of chocolate pecan pie with a please and thank you. I sit in that booth and gobble it up, thinking how lucky I am to get two pieces in one night.
And I wait.
With my chin resting on my palm, tucked into the corner of the booth, I stare out that window, watching for the familiar blue truck to reappear, checking the door every time that bell jangles. When the kind policeman sits down across from me and asks me where my daddy is, I tell him he’ll be here soon.
■ ■ ■
There’s no kind policeman to comfort me now. No nice lady bringing me a piece of chocolate pecan pie to combat the sourness in my mouth. But at least this time I wasn’t abandoned.
I’m reminded of that the second I see my stepfather’s face through the small glass window in the door.
His salt-and-pepper hair is more salt than pepper and he’s gained at least ten pounds around his waist since I last saw him—nine years ago—but there’s no mistaking Jack Warner. I don’t think he recognizes me, though. The way his steely blue eyes wander over my violet hair . . . my piercings . . . the giant “Jared” tattoo that coils around my right shoulder, I think he’s wondering if the police officer led him into the wrong room.
I’m lucky that I’m even in a room this time. Normally they throw you into a holding cell or make you sit in an uncomfortable chair next to a drunk named Seth who stinks of malt scotch and body odor. I’m pretty sure the female arresting officer felt sorry for me. By the lethal glare she threw at Jared and Caroline as I was escorted out of Lina’s apartment, past their apartment door, on my way to the cruiser, the officer wasn’t impressed with what she’d heard of the situation.
She didn’t hear it from me, of course. Growing up around lawyers, I’ve learned not to say a word to the police without one present. It was my best friend and next-door neighbor, Lina, who declared that the apartment I trashed earlier today is still technically mine—even if my name isn’t on the lease—and that they should be arresting the thieving, heartless bitch who stole my husband.
Unfortunately, I’m the only one sitting here now.
I hold my breath as I watch Jack take a seat, adjusting his slightly rumpled suit jacket on his large frame as he tries to get comfortable in the hard plastic chair. It’s ironic—in this moment, it feels like he’s both an integral part of my childhood and a complete stranger.
I can’t believe I called him.
I can’t believe he actually came.
With a heavy sigh, he finally murmurs, “Reese’s Pieces.” He’s looking down at me the same way he did when I got caught rearranging the letters of a Baptist church sign to read something no nine-year-old girl—or twenty-year-old, for that matter—should have in her vocabulary. Despite the severe strain in our once close relationship, warmth immediately spreads through my chest. I haven’t heard that nickname in years. “So . . . destruction of private property?”
I guess the cops filled him in. “I prefer to call it artistic expression.” The canvas included Caroline’s prissy clothes, her pretentious throw cushions, and that damn pornographic picture of them hanging over our bed. “Besides,” I raise my hands, stained in crimson, and offer in a deadpan tone, “they can’t prove it was me.” When Lina found me sitting quietly in the dim kitchen light of her apartment, where I’ve been staying for the past two weeks, she let out a single yelp before realizing that I hadn’t turned into a homicidal maniac and was in fact covered in red paint. I probably should have made the cops’ job harder and showered before they arrived.
A tiny sad smile creeps over his face. I wonder if my attempt at humor adequately hides the crushing heartbreak and rejection that I’m drowning in after finding out my husband was having an affair with his high school sweetheart.
“I phoned Barry on my way here. Sounds like you’ve kept him busy these past few years.” By his clenching jaw, I see that wasn’t an easy call for Jack to make, even nine years later. Not surprising. Friends since they could barely walk, Jack and Barry were once equity partners together in his law firm. Until Barry had an affair with Jack’s wife.
All relationships instantly dissolved in a bath of bitterness that obviously hasn’t fully drained yet. Glancing at his hand, I can’t help but notice the absence of a wedding ring. I guess he hasn’t remarried. After what my mother put him through, I don’t blame him.
“And I understand why you called me now. You didn’t have a choice, did you?”
“Not really,” I admit, focusing on the stars and circles I’m finger-drawing over the table’s cold metal surface. Barry is a high-priced, successful criminal lawyer who has gotten his unruly stepdaughter out of more than one debacle. The last incident was on my eighteenth birthday when I decided it would be funny to go retro and moon cars.
One of those cars was a police cruiser.
The cop was an uptight prick.
And I was drunk.
After helping me avoid indecent exposure and underage public drunkenness charges, Barry announced that my juvenile record was sealed, I was now an adult, and he was officially washing his hands of me. Three months later, when my mother left him for husband number four, it really became official.
“I’m surprised Annabelle’s new husband didn’t want this swept under the rug quickly.”
“I didn’t phone Annabelle. I don’t want her to know about this.” I stopped calling her “Mom” when I was eight. We both agreed it wasn’t fitting for a woman whose true passions lay in exclusive club status and dirty martinis.
My doodling finger freezes suddenly. “You didn’t phone her, did you?” That would be like handing her torpedoes for an effective insult air strike. She had called it after all. She’d said I didn’t have what it took to keep my “blue-collar pretty-boy” husband happy for long.
Jack chuckles softly, though there’s no mirth in it. “No, I definitely did not phone her. What would I tell her, anyway? You weren’t exactly informative on the phone. Sounds like you’re in some hot water, though.”
My sigh of relief slides out and I’m back to doodling. “That’s what they tell me.” When the cops started throwing around words like “larceny” and “threats of bodily harm”—things that sounded excessive and unfitting, but permanently damaging to my fresh and clean adult record should they stick—I knew I wasn’t going to talk my way out of this one. It didn’t help that I used the picture of Caroline for target practice during my rampage, leaving a pair of scissors strategically placed through her eyes. “It’s a good thing you still have that same law firm. You were easy to find.”
Jack folds his arms over his chest and regards me with an unreadable face. A tiny part of me—the angry little girl lost somewhere inside—is ready to burst, to demand, “How could you have left me? I know why you left my mom, but how could you have shoved me out of your life so easily, too? I didn’t cheat on you!” But I bite my bottom lip. Pissing off the one person who can help me right now wouldn’t be smart. And I need to be smart.
Finally Jack leans back in his chair and says, “Okay, Reese. Start from the beginning and let’s see how we can solve this.”
I press my lips together to keep from smiling. Not because this is amusing. It’s just that we’ve been here before. This really is starting to feel like days long since lost, when we’d meet up in the kitchen around midnight—after Annabelle had gone to sleep, when Jack was finally home from work—to contemplate my latest mischief over bowls of ice cream. He’s even adopted the same hypnotic tone that always got me talking when my teachers, my guidance counselor, or anyone else really, couldn’t. I’m pretty sure he uses it on all of his clients.
Twenty minutes later, after I’ve given him a rundown of my situation, I hear his disappointed sigh. “Working in a pet shop, Reese?”
“Not anymore.” After leaving work early with the flu and coming home to the big discovery of Jared and her in the shower—oddly enough, the more it replays in my mind, the more it begins to resemble the shower scene from Scarface—I spent a week in Lina’s bed, heavily sedated with Jim Beam and Nyquil. My boss fired me over the phone.
I don’t care.
“And eloping in Vegas with a guy? At nineteen years old? After knowing him for six weeks?” I know that the chuckle that fills the room now isn’t directed at me, even before his words confirm it; Jack’s laughing at the irony of it all. “And you were always so adamant that you’d never get married.”
I have no answer to that, except a quiet “I loved him,” as the painful knot forms in my throat, as I fight the sob from tearing out of me. I did. I think I still do, despite how much Jared has hurt me. Since that day eight months ago when I stepped out of my best friend Lina’s apartment and quite literally ran into her neighbor, a reincarnation of a mint-eyed Greek demigod, I knew that I had met my soul mate. Fireworks exploded, lightning struck, electricity coursed. All that love-at-first-sight bullshit that I didn’t believe in—I instantly became a poster child for it. Common sense flew out the window with a cement block tied to its ankle.
Jared said he felt it, too.
And now, after six months of marital bliss, without a single warning sign, he’s back with her.
That rotten illness festering inside me enflames with the thought, the humiliating reality a burn that doesn’t want to subside.
“Look, Reese. I know you’ve always had a wild streak in you, even as a little girl. These choices you’ve made since I saw you last, though,” his head is shaking, “possession of marijuana . . . trespassing . . . underage drinking . . . a fistfight?”
“It’s not really that big a deal. A lot of people drink and smoke pot in high school,” I argue, adding, “I’m just the one who kept getting caught.”
“Drag racing?” He stares at me questioningly.
“Those were derby cars and that was totally blown out of proportion,” I clarify.
Jack slides his glasses off and gives his face a rough rub, looking exhausted. It’s a four-hour drive from Miami to Jacksonville and he arrived here five hours after I called, meaning he pretty much dropped everything to come. I can’t help but wonder why he’d do that.
“At least I didn’t get knocked up,” I joke.
By the look of exasperation he shoots me, he doesn’t find that remotely funny. “I had hoped you were too smart to get into this kind of trouble.”
“I guess even smart girls can make a clusterfuck of their lives, can’t they?” I mutter, though his words sting.
Because they’re true.
There’s a long pause, where Jack’s mouth twists in thought as he regards me. “What are you going to do with yourself now, Reese? How are you going to make up for this?” When I was little, Jack always asked me for suggestions as to how I should be punished for my various childish misdemeanors. I think it was his way of getting me to agree on the outcome without looking like the harsh stepfather. I was pretty good at coming up with suitable penances and it was definitely preferable to sitting in a chair while my mother shrieked about what an embarrassment I was to her, the gin sloshing out of her martini glass with her mad hand gesticulations.
But I’m not a little kid anymore and Jack’s not asking me to come up with a suitable punishment. He’s asking me how I’m going to fix my life.
All I have for him is a defeated shrug.
Because that’s how I feel right now. Defeated. “I don’t know. Get another job, I guess.”
“What about college?”
The eye roll happens before I can stop myself. Jack always hated my eye rolls. “My transcripts aren’t exactly going to woo the administrative offices.” Neither will the private school expulsion, earned when I broke into a teacher’s office and stole a midterm exam.
“Because you couldn’t do the work?” My arched brow answers him. “Because you didn’t do the work,” he answers for himself, shaking his head, his face a mask of extreme disappointment. “Is this how you want to live your life? In and out of police cars? Working minimum-wage jobs? In unstable relationships?”
“Does anybody ever really want that?”
Jack’s right. I was smart. Some may say I’m still smart. But I’ve made so many wrong turns along the way, I don’t know how many right ones it will take to course-correct.
I don’t know if that’s even possible.
I sit in silence, listening to the monotonous tick-tick-tick of the second hand on the wall clock above, watching Jack as he spends an exorbitant amount of time playing with the gold Rolex on his wrist, his breaths deep and ragged. I don’t know that I can count on him. I mean, he forgot about me once. Looking at the twenty-year-old version of who he once knew, he’s probably ready to stamp “lost cause” across my forehead.
And then he settles those kind gray eyes on me. “I honestly didn’t know what to expect when I arrived, but I had a long car ride up to think about it.” Folding his hands together on the table in front of him, a stern expression settles over his face. “I have a proposition. It comes with conditions, though.”
A small exhale escapes me as I c...
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