Author: CJ McKella
Release Date: May 9, 2016
Genre: Contemporary Romance, Romantic Suspense
Purchase: Amazon US
Callie Winters left Idaho seven years ago, shrouded in secrets and lies, and vowed to never look back. Walking away from the only boy she ever truly loved, Callie works hard to forge a new life for herself. Waking one day to find herself homeless and penniless, she returns to Idaho where she finds a man in place of the boy she loved so long ago.
Tate Corbin spends his days jumping fires, trying to forget the girl who obliterated his heart seven years ago. Happy at last, Tate is ready to move on with a new love, but doubt takes seed when a ghost from his past returns. He vowed to never let her in again, but the embers of the past begin to burn hotter than ever before.
As the friendship is rekindled, secrets are revealed and new threats surface. Second chances are meant to be a way to start over- but how far do you go to protect it?
Author Name: CJ McKella
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Release Date: May 9, 2016
7 years ago – Tate
I’m in love with you. The words sit on the tip of my tongue, but as soon as I open my mouth to speak, fear sweeps through me like a barbed ball, slicing them apart. Bitterness coats my throat, protecting it from the jagged edges of each syllable as I swallow the words back down.
Taking a sip of my soda, I watch Callie get up from the table and wander over to the jukebox where she greets her friend, Mari. Using her left hand, she gathers the long strands of her auburn hair to hold it off her neck while leaning over to browse the song titles. She quickly punches in a combination before turning for me to see her face light up as she laughs at something Mari says.
Callie and I have been best friends since we were seven years old when her family started coming to the lake. When we were younger, we’d spend our summer mornings lounged in front of the TV with a bowl of Frosted Flakes waiting for Animaniacs to come on, before spending the afternoon swimming and building sandcastles. Every winter break we’d go to the Winter Festival together where we’d gorge ourselves on funnel cake and ride the Tilt-A-Whirl until we were green in the face. She was the one person who I told everything to. Well, almost everything. In return, I braved being in a car while she took driving lessons, held her hand during scary parts of a movie, and consoled her when her family dog, Bevo, passed away.
I only have a week before she leaves to go back to Texas with her family and her boyfriend, Zach, but there’s news I need to share with her before she leaves. If only I could manage to get more than two minutes alone with her…
“So, how’d it go?” Matt asks, as he slides into the booth opposite me to grab a handful of fries. “Was she completely stoked?”
“I didn’t tell her yet.”
“What? Why not?”
I sigh and run my thumbs along the surface of my glass, wiping away the condensation. “Because it’s not private enough in here. I don’t need the whole town knowing I got in. Besides, I don’t want Golden Boy to be there when I tell her.”
Matt chuckles and shakes his head. “Well, seeing as how he refuses to let her so much as breathe without his approval, I think you’re going to have a hard time getting her alone before she leaves.” He jerks his head in the direction of the dance floor and my attention shifts back to Callie.
My heart tries to pummel its way out of my chest when I see her dancing with him. Her arms are draped lazily around his neck and his are wrapped possessively around her waist, his class ring pressed against the small of her back. He dips his head down to whisper something in her ear and she tilts her head up to look at him with a small smile.
I wonder if he knows her face well enough to know that it’s fake. That when she smiles genuinely, a dimple appears on her left cheek and the left corner of her lip lifts higher than the right, making her smile slightly crooked. That when she smiles genuinely, she doesn’t blink three times as though it’s taking a tremendous amount of effort to do so.
I hate that it’s his arms wrapped around her, when it should be mine. That it’s his lips she kisses every night, when it should be mine. That it’s his voice she hears before she falls asleep, when it should be mine.
They started dating a little over a year ago when Callie went to visit the campus at the University of Texas and he accidentally ran her off the sidewalk with his golf cart. A college sophomore, and two years older, he was one of those “good on paper” kind of guys. Good genes, great grades, and an even greater family pedigree. It didn’t take long for Callie to fall under his spell, so when she told me he was going to be coming to the lake for the last month of summer, I knew if I didn’t do something, she’d slip right through my fingers and wind up with him. He didn’t deserve her.
“I think now’s about as good a time as you’ll get,” Matt says as the song slows to an end, and Zach places his hands on the sides of her face, bringing his lips to meet hers before pulling his cell phone out of his back pocket and heading out the front door. “You better hurry before he comes back.”
I know Matt’s right. If I don’t try to get her alone now, I probably won’t be able to do this in person. Gulping down the remainder of my Coke, I look over at Matt who gives me a quick nod of encouragement and I push off the booth and make my way over to Callie. She’s back by the jukebox picking out another song as I approach.
“I am effectively ending our friendship if you pick that song.” I tease as I step beside her and eye her index finger which is hovering over ABBA’s Dancing Queen.
She glances sideways at me as her lips curve into a devious smirk, her dimple taking root as she punches in a combination on the box. I groan and shake my head at her.
“Well, there goes eleven years of friendship, down the drain. I hope ABBA is worth it,” I say as I turn my back to her and start to walk away.
I hear the sound of her laugh followed by the click–click of her heels against the floor before I feel the warmth of her fingertips wrapping around my wrist. “Tate Corbin, you’re such a drama queen,” she says as she drags me out to the dance floor. “Now, get over it, and get ready to dance with your best friend. Our song is next.”
“Callie, you know I don’t like to dance. Especially to shitty pop music.”
The current song winds to a close, and I brace myself for the torturous sounds of one of the worst songs ever created, but am surprised when instead, a slow, bluesy note blares through the speakers.
“I know,” she says with a smile as she holds out her hand to me, “which is why I chose this song instead.”
Billie Holiday’s All Of Me begins to play as I stare at her hand. I want nothing more than to dance with her simply because for a few glorious minutes I’ll get to hold her, but the last time I tried to dance with her, I stepped on her foot and almost broke her toe.
Sensing my hesitation, she steps forward to intertwine our fingers, and heat sears through my skin when her palm presses lightly against mine. “We’re not ten anymore, Tate. I don’t have cooties. You don’t have to be afraid of touching me.”
I know she doesn’t mean it in the way I’m picturing, but my mind instantly imagines my lips pressed against the smooth contours of her body, tasting the sweetness between her thighs and the saltiness of her skin. My dick instantly hardens, straining against my jeans and I let out a long exhale trying to think of anything else.
“Okay, one dance. But you have to promise you won’t laugh if I step on your feet, and that you’re not having Mari secretly record this to post on YouTube later as blackmail.”
She throws her head back and laughs. “First of all, I was thirteen and hormonal when I snuck into your room and videotaped you doing your Arnold Schwarzenegger impression. I was pissed that you threw me in the lake. How was I supposed to know that my brother would find the tape and play it for the town at the Founder’s Day parade? But I promise, no one’s videotaping our dance. At least, not to my knowledge.”
“I never did get you back for that, by the way.”
“It’s okay, we have the rest of our lives left, I’m sure you’ll find a way.”
I snake my arm around her waist, drawing her so close I can feel her tits pressed up against me and hear shallow breaths escaping her lips. Tilting her head back, our gazes tangle as she looks at me beneath long, thick lashes and eyes varying shades of blue; it’s like staring into stained glass.
“See?” she says as we sway to the beat. “This isn’t so bad, now is it?”
“The song’s not over yet. I still have a good minute to fuck it up and break your toe.”
“You’re ridiculous, you know that?”
“Yes, but you know you’d be lost without me.”
She playfully swats at my arm. “I sure am going to miss your modesty when I’m gone.”
“Well, luckily you won’t have to.”
Her eyebrows knit together as she cocks her head to the side, studying my face. “What’s that mean?”
“I got in.”
Her arms drop to her sides as she takes a small step backwards. “Got in where?”
“The University of Texas. I start in the fall just like you, just like we’ve always talked about.”
“You didn’t accept just because that’s where I’m going, right?”
“Of course that’s why I accepted. I’m tired of only being able to see you a couple months out of the year, Callie. This way, we’ll get to hang out all the time. We can go to the football games and frat parties together. My dad even knows a guy who owns a mechanic shop near the campus, so I’ll be able to work part-time to keep my dorm room stocked with cheddar Pringles and Pepsi for when you come over to watch movies.”
I wait for the excitement to come, for her lips to break into a smile as she throws her arms around me in happiness. But it doesn’t come. Confusion slides over me as I watch her shake her head, mumbling something to herself before taking off, weaving her way through the crowd of people until she pushes through the back exit. I don’t know what the fuck just happened, but I’m not leaving here until I find out. Glancing around, I make sure Zach isn’t nearby, and as soon as I see him standing out front, still on the phone, I break into a sprint, shoving my way through the room until I reach the back door.
The night air feels warm against my skin and I slow my pace to a crawl when I see Callie sitting on a faded picnic bench with her knees tucked up by her chin and her arms wrapped around herself. A single light attached to the outside of the building flickers sporadically until completely dying out, leaving a sliver of moonlight to illuminate the alley.
“Callie?” I ask as I approach and slide onto the bench beside her. “What just happened back there?” She purses her lips and swallows, but doesn’t say anything. “Callie, you can talk to me. It’s me, you can tell me anything.”
“Don’t you see? That’s the problem.”
“I’m not understanding.”
She blows out a harsh breath and turns to look at me. “You’re always thinking of me first. Always trying to find ways for us to spend time together, doing things that you hate, like dancing, because you know it’ll make me happy.”
“And this is a bad thing?”
“Yes!” she throws her hands up in the air. “It makes it impossible to tell you things you won’t want to hear, because I don’t want to let you down.”
“Callie, you could never let me down.”
She stares down at her skirt, running her fingers along the hem until she finds an errant thread and runs it through her fingers. “I’m not going to UoT this fall.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Zach’s transfer to USC was approved, and he starts in two weeks. I’ve decided to go to California with him.”
She says it so quietly I’m not sure I heard her correctly. But when I look into her eyes, I see it. Fear. Guilt. A dull throb begins to pulse in my temples, forcing me to close my eyes as I try to figure out where this is coming from.
“Is this because of what happened?” I ask raking my hands over my face. “Because moving to California won’t change anything, Callie. It won’t erase the past.”
“It’s not,” she says quickly. “It’s not about that.”
I want to believe her, but the guilt is written all over her face. She hasn’t gotten over what happened. Hell, I haven’t either, but Callie’s been the single beam of light in my days filled with darkness. Seeing her face, and hearing her voice is how I get through each day, how I cope. Apparently, Callie’s way of dealing with it is by running away from me, but I’m not ready to let her go. There’s something she’s not telling me, and I need to know what it is.
“Look, Tate, now’s not a good time to talk about it. Can we just take a rain check on this—“
Without letting her finish, I turn and place my hands on either side of her face, gently pressing my lips to hers, hesitating until I feel her lips part allowing me to deepen our kiss. I know I should care that she’s with someone else, but I don’t, because she was mine first. She’s always been mine, she just didn’t know it.
While she was out dating other guys, I sat on the sidelines, watching idly, too chicken-shit to tell her how I felt, while my heart felt like it was being hollowed out like a pumpkin. But that one night a few months ago changed everything. And now she’s trying to run, but I refuse to let her go without a fight.
My heart feels like it’s about to fly right out of my chest as her tongue meets with mine and a soft moan slips through her lips. Cradling the back of her head with my hands, I slowly lower her onto her back on top of the table, while peppering kisses along her jawline. I take my time kissing down her neck to her collarbone, letting my tongue savor the sweetness of her skin.
“Tate,” she says breathily, as her hands press lightly against my chest. “Stop.”
Swallowing hard, I pull back and look her in the eyes. “You can’t tell me that you didn’t feel anything when I kissed you. I know you did.” When she doesn’t respond, I know without a shadow of a doubt that I’m right. “Callie, don’t go to California. I’m in love with you. Go to UoT like we always planned. This is our chance to be together.”
Her eyes drift closed, letting her long dark lashes rest against the tops of her cheeks and when she opens them, I see it. I see that she loves me, too. I reach out for her hand, but frown when she pulls away from me. Her expression shifts as her eyes stare at the ground, refusing to meet mine, and her lips narrow into thin lines. I can see the cogs working in her head as she tries to figure something out, and when her nostrils flare, all traces of acceptance have fled.
Gripping the edge of the table with such force that her knuckles are blanched, she shakes her head and lets out a cold, sarcastic laugh. “Do you know how many nights I dreamt of you saying those words to me? Every time you went on a date, or slept with another one of your bimbo cheerleader groupies, I wondered why not me? This whole time I thought you only saw me as your friend, nothing more, and now you tell me you’re in love with me?”
“Look, Callie, I know I should have said something sooner. But I was scared. Scared of losing you.”
“And that’s the problem. You’re only telling me now because I’m moving. If I didn’t tell you I was going to California, you wouldn’t have said anything.”
“That’s not true. I—”
“It doesn’t matter,” she interrupts. “Because it’s too late.”
“It’s not too late,” I insist, shoving off the bench and turning to stand directly in front of her. “Don’t go to California. Please. We can make this work, I know we can.” Extending my hand, I brush a strand of her hair out of her face, tucking it behind her ear. “I love you and I want to be with you, and deep down, I know you love me too, Callie. I saw it in your eyes.” I step closer and run my knuckles along her cheek to her jaw, cupping her chin between my thumb and index finger. “I’ll go wherever you want to go. Just give me a chance. Give us a chance.”
She takes a shaky breath and pushes my hand away from her. “I’m sorry, Tate, but I don’t love you like that anymore.”
Her words feel like a dull knife hacking into my heart, serrating it into pieces until it’s completely eviscerated. I look away as I clench and unclench my fists, trying to rein in my emotions, but when I look back at her, I realize she’s lying. Her face is cold and hardened, but I see it in her eyes, the way her pupils are dilated and the pain drifting behind them.
Why are you lying to me, Callie? What are you trying to hide?
“You don’t mean that,” I say.
She frowns and folds her arms over her chest. “Yes, I do.” She pauses and for a brief moment, I see sadness flash across her face, but just as quickly her steely mask is back in place. “Zach asked me to marry him, Tate. I said yes.”
My eyes widen in shock as her words send me stumbling backwards. Fisting my hands in my hair, a low, guttural growl rips from my throat. Desperation from losing her curdles into anger at this entire situation and I whirl around, stepping toward her until our bodies are just inches apart. Anger rolls me in thick waves and her hands tremble slightly as she tries to smooth the wrinkles out of her skirt.
“And so what? That’s it? The fact that I’m in love with you means nothing to you? It’s not even worth considering what we have? Because we have something, Callie, whether you want to admit it or not, it’s always been you and me. No one is ever going to know you the way I do. No one is ever going to love you the way I do.”
Her bottom lip quivers as she clasps her hands tightly in her lap. “Sometimes love just isn’t enough.”
I close my eyes and grit my teeth in a lame attempt to trap my sanity inside.
“Okay, so forget the fact that I just told you I’m in love with you, and despite the fact that you refuse to admit it, I know you love with me, too. Forget the fact that the only reason I was going to the University of Texas was because of you. Forget the fact that you’ve wanted to go there since you were ten, I mean for God’s sake, Callie, you fucking named your dog after the damned school’s mascot. But forgetting all of that, what about your dream of becoming a doctor? Of your dream to pledge to your mom’s sorority? You always said you hated California, especially Los Angeles because it’s all smog. I mean, what about what you want? Because honestly, none of this sounds like you. This all sounds like Zach. And yeah, I’m not afraid to say I think he’s a complete tool and you deserve better. Someone who knows you well enough to know you would never choose to live in California. Someone who doesn’t disappear for hours at a time without letting you know where he is. Someone who loves you enough to always put you first.”
“Wake up, Tate. Life isn’t some fairytale where we all wind up with our happily-ever-afters. If you’re looking for a place where all your dreams come true, then maybe you should take a damn trip to Disneyland because this is real life and shit happens.”
“Are you in love with him?”
“Are. You. In. Love. With. Him?”
She hesitates, and that’s the only answer I need.
“I do care about him.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
“No,” she finally says. “I’m not in love with him, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen later on, and it doesn’t change my decision.”
“And so what? You’re just going to move to LA and become some kind of plastic trophy wife that hangs on his arm while he goes on to pursue his dreams while you push yours aside? Become his personal Vanna White? If you want me to solve the puzzle, Callie, then you’re going to have to give me a fucking clue because I’m not understanding any of this.” She flinches and for a second I consider apologizing, but the words dry out and disintegrate on my tongue. “And what about your parents? They’re just fine with this new plan of yours?”
“It no longer matters what they think.”
Her voice has a hardened edge to it and I can see her chewing on the inside of her cheek, a nervous habit she picked up when she was younger and never could get rid of. Normally I find it adorable, but in this moment I’m so frustrated, I can barely see straight.
I shake my head. I feel like I’m staring at a painting I’ve looked at my entire life, but everything looks wrong. It’s like the colors are bleeding together, blurring the image, and making it impossible to decipher what I’m looking at. Callie’s parents come from old money, with deep roots in the oil industry, and deeper roots in their belief in a solid education at their Alma Mater. For them to suddenly be okay with their values going out the window makes absolutely no sense.
“Callie, I don’t know what’s going on, or why you’re hiding things from me, but you can tell me anything. I know things have been hard the past month, but that’s also why I know we can get through anything together. I’m always going to be here for you to lean—”
“Don’t you get it, Tate?” she interrupts. “I can’t keep relying on you for support. You need to be able to live your own life. You’re always putting me first, and it’s not fair to you. You need to find your own happiness and pursue your own dreams.”
“You’re my happiness. As long as I have you in my life, I don’t need anything else. I may not have Zach’s money. I can’t buy you expensive jewelry or whisk you off to Paris. I know my family doesn’t belong to fancy country clubs or wear designer clothes, but I can give you all of me. I can promise you a future where you’ll never go a single day without knowing how much you’re loved.”
“And that’s the problem.” She pauses and when she looks up at me, tears streak her cheeks and I can feel the anguish pouring out of her. “Things have been so messed up lately, and I just need a break from it all.” Her voice grows quiet as she speaks these next words. “And that’s why it kills me to say that I think after I leave here, I need you to give me space.”
“What do you mean by space?”
“I think it’s best if I don’t talk to you, at least not for a little while.”
“Are you fucking kidding me, Callie? I tell you I’m in love with you and you respond by saying you don’t want to talk to me anymore?”
“I’m so sorry,” she says. “But this is what’s best, at least for right now, just until things settle down a bit.”
I don’t know why she won’t tell me what’s going on or what caused her to make this decision, but at this point, I no longer care. I laid my heart out on the line for her and she completely obliterated it within a matter of minutes. Devastation rolls through me with the realization that she’s choosing Zach not out of love, but out of status. Her words replay in my head. Sometimes love just isn’t enough. Understanding strikes through me like a match catching fire and I know now what she was trying to say. I’m just not good enough. I’ll never be good enough. A bitter laugh escapes my lips at the realization of how foolish I’ve been.
“Fine. You want space? You’ve got it. I won’t try to contact you after you leave here, and I don’t ever want to hear from you again, Callie. I don’t want to know when you settle into your place in California and what the city’s like. I don’t want to know when you get married or where you have your honeymoon. You can forget every memory of me and keep your tongue from speaking my name, because as soon as you leave here, you can be damn sure that’s what I’m going to do.”
“I’m going to forget the way it feels to hear your voice on the phone, and I’m going to forget the way it feels to see your smile. I’m going to forget the way it feels for my heart to love you, and maybe one day I’ll forget the way it feels to have it completely broken. I hope you’re happy with Zach, Callie, and I’m sorry that I wasn’t good enough.”
I can hear choked sobs coming from her lips, but I refuse to look at her, knowing if I do, I’ll shatter. Instead, I square my shoulders, take a deep breath, and walk back inside the restaurant, leaving my bleeding heart outside to die alongside the girl who murdered it.