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Fall With Me

J. Lynn


  For the readers.

  Hope you enjoy!


  Writing acknowledgements can be the hardest part of completing a novel. You never want to forget to thank someone, but ultimately you know you will. So I’d like to keep this short and sweet. Thank you to my agent, Kevan Lyon, and the team at Harper­Collins—­awesome editors, Tessa Woodward and Amanda Bergeron; the amazing marketing and sales support team; and Inkslinger, who worked tirelessly to bring this book to you.

  A big thank you to you, the reader. Without you, this book would not be possible. None of this would be possible.




  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  About the Author

  Also by Jennifer L. Armentrout


  About the Publisher

  Chapter 1

  Only ten minutes had passed from when I’d plopped myself down in a plush cushioned chair inside the sunny waiting room until I saw scuffed white sneakers creep into the line of my vision. I’d been busy staring at the wood floors and thinking that private care facilities must bring in a lot of money to have such expensive-­looking dark wood.

  Then again, Charlie Clark’s parents had spared no expense when it came to their only son’s long-­term care. Got him in the best facility in Philadelphia. The amount of money they spent yearly had to be astronomical—­and definitely more than I made bartending at Mona’s and doing web design on the side.

  I imagined they thought it made up for the fact they visited Charlie only once a year, for like twenty minutes. There were better, more forgiving ­people in the world than me, because the familiar burn of irritation I felt whenever I thought about his parents was hard to ignore as I dragged my gaze up to the welcoming smile plastered across the nurse’s face. I blinked once and then twice, not recognizing the copper hair or the fresher, younger hazel eyes.

  This lady was new.

  She glanced up at the top of my head and her stare lingered on my hair for a moment longer than normal, but her smile didn’t falter. It wasn’t like my hair was that crazy. I’d switched out the deep red streaks for chunky purple ones a few days ago, but it did look like a hot mess in the quick bun I’d twisted the long lengths into. I’d closed down the bar last night, which meant I hadn’t gotten home until after three in the morning, and getting up, brushing my teeth, and washing my face before I made the drive into the city was a hell of a feat.

  “Roxanne Ark?” she said as she stopped in front of me, clasping her hands together.

  My brain screeched to a halt at the sound of my full name. My parents were bizarre. Like there was a good chance they were cokeheads in the eighties or something. I was named after the song “Roxanne,” and my brothers were Gordon and Thomas, which mostly made up Sting’s real name.

  “Yes,” I said, reaching for the tote bag I’d brought with me.

  Her smile remained firmly in place as she motioned to the closed double doors. “Nurse Venter is out today, but she explained that you come every Friday afternoon at noon, so we have Charlie ready.”

  “Oh no, is she okay?” Concern pinged around me. Nurse Venter had become a friend over the last six years I visited. So much so that I knew her youngest son was finally getting married in October, and her middle child had just had her first grandchild last month, in July.

  “She’s come down with an end-­of-­summer cold,” she explained. “She actually wanted to come in today, but we all figured it would be better if she took the weekend to recover.” The new nurse stepped aside as I stood. “She did tell me that you like to read to Charlie?”

  I nodded as I tightened my grip on my tote.

  Stopping at the doors, she tugged off her clipped name badge and swiped it over a sensor on the wall. There was a popping sound and then she pushed the door open. “He’s had an okay ­couple of days. Not as great as we’d like,” she continued as we stepped in the wide, brightly lit hall. The walls were white and bare. No personality. Nothing. “But he was up early this morning.”

  My neon-­green flip-­flops smacked off the tile floors but the nurse’s sneakers made no noise. We passed the hall I knew led to the community room. Charlie was never a fan of hanging out in there, which was so strange, because before . . . before he’d been hurt, he’d been such a social butterfly.

  He’d been a lot of things.

  Charlie’s room was down another hall, a wing specially designed to have views of the sprawling green landscape and the therapeutic pool that Charlie had never enjoyed. He hadn’t been much of a swimmer before, but every time I saw that damn pool outside, I wanted to punch something. I don’t know what it was about it, maybe because it was something the rest of us took for granted—­the ability to swim on our own—­or maybe it was the fact that water always seemed so limitless to me, but Charlie’s future was severely limited.

  The nurse stopped outside of his closed door. “When you’re ready to leave, you know the drill.”

  I did. When I left, I had to stop by the nurses’ station and check out. I guessed they wanted to make sure I wasn’t trying to steal Charlie away or something. With a happy little nod in my direction, the nurse spun in her sneakers and power walked back down the hall.

  Staring at the door for a moment, I drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. I had to every time I saw Charlie. It was the only way to get the messy ball of emotion—­all that disappointment, anger, and sadness—­out of me before I walked into the room. I never wanted Charlie to see that. Sometimes I failed, but I always tried.

  Only when I thought I could smile without looking slightly crazed, I opened the door, and like every Friday for the last six years, seeing Charlie was like taking a throat punch.

  He was sitting in a chair in front of the large floor-­to-­ceiling window—­in his chair. It was one of those papasan chairs with a vibrant blue cushion. He’d had it since he was sixteen, got it for his birthday just a few months before everything changed for him.

  Charlie didn’t look up when I stepped into the room and closed the door behind me. He never did.

  The room wasn’t bad at all, rather spacious with a full-­sized bed neatly made by one of the nurses, a desk I knew he never used, and a TV that I’d never, in the six years, seen turned on.

  Sitting in that chair, looking out the window, he was so thin, beyond willowy. Nurse Venter told me that they had trouble getting him to eat three square meals a day, and when they tried to change it to five smaller meals, that hadn’t worked either. A year ago, it had gotten so bad they had to do a feeding tube, and I could still taste that fear, because I thought I’d lose him then.

  His blond hair had been washed this morning, but it wasn’t styled and was much shorter than how he used to wear it. Charlie had favored that artfully messy look and he had rocked it. Today, he was wearing a white shirt and gray sweat pants, not even the cool kind. No, these had those elastic bands at the ankle, and God, he would’ve thro
wn a fit if he knew he’d be wearing them now—­rightfully so, because Charlie . . . well, he had style and taste and so much.

  Walking toward the second papasan chair with a matching blue cushion I’d bought three years ago, I cleared my throat. “Hey, Charlie.”

  He didn’t look.

  There was no disappointment. I mean, it was there, that “this isn’t fair” feeling, but there wasn’t a new wave of the breath-­stealing dismay, because this was how it always was.

  Sitting down, I placed the tote beside my legs. Up close, he looked older than twenty-­two—­years older. Face gaunt, skin washed out, and deep, unforgiving shadows under once lively green eyes.

  I drew in another deep breath. “It’s ridiculously hot out there today, so don’t make fun of my cut-­off shorts.” Back in the day, he would’ve made me change out of them before even daring to step out into public. “The weather ­people are saying the temps are going to be record breaking by the weekend.”

  Charlie blinked slowly.

  “Supposed to be really bad storms, too.” I clasped my hands together, praying that he’d look at me. Some visits he wouldn’t. He hadn’t for three visits, and that terrified me, because the last time he’d gone that long without acknowledging me, he’d had a horrific seizure. Those two things probably had nothing in common, but still, it caused knots of unease to form in my stomach. Especially since Nurse Venter had explained that seizures were fairly common in patients who’d suffered that kind of blunt-­force trauma to the brain. “You remember how much I like storms, right?”

  No response.

  “Well, unless it spawns tornados,” I amended. “But we’re in Philly, basically, so I doubt there’ll be many of them roaming around.”

  Another slow blink I caught from his profile.

  “Oh! Tomorrow night at Mona’s, we’re closing the bar to the public,” I rambled on, unsure if I’d already told him about the plans, not that it mattered. “It’s a private party thing.” I paused long enough to take a breath.

  Charlie still stared out the window.

  “You’d like Mona’s, I think. It’s kind of trashy, but in a weird, good way. But I’ve already told you that before. I don’t know, but I wish . . .” I added, pursing my lips. as his shoulders rose in a deep and heavy sigh. “I wish a lot of things,” I finished in a whisper.

  He’d started rocking in what appeared to be an unconscious movement. It was a gentle rhythm, one that reminded me of being in the ocean, slowly pushed back and forth.

  For a moment, I struggled with the impulse to scream out all the frustration rapidly building inside me. Charlie used to talk a mile a minute. Teachers in our elementary school had nicknamed him Mighty Mouth, and he laughed—­oh goodness, he had the best laugh, so infectious and real.

  But he hadn’t laughed in years.

  Squeezing my eyes shut against the rush of hot tears, I wanted to throw myself on the floor and flail. None of this was fair. Charlie should be up walking around. He should’ve graduated college by now and met a hot guy who would love him, and go on double dates with me and whatever man I dragged along. He should have done what he’d sworn he’d do and published his first novel by now. We would be like we were before. Best friends—­inseparable. He’d visit me at the bar, and when it was needed, he’d tell me to get my shit together.

  Charlie should be alive, because this—­whatever this was—­was not living.

  Instead, one fucking night, a strand of a few stupid words and a goddamn rock had destroyed everything.

  I opened my eyes, hoping he’d be looking at me, but he wasn’t, and all I could do was pull it together. Reaching down, I slipped a folded sheet of watercolor out of my tote. “I made this for you.” My voice was hoarse, but I kept going. “Remember when we were fifteen, and my parents took us to Gettysburg? You loved Devil’s Den, so that’s what this is.”

  Unfolding the painting, I held it up for him even though he didn’t look. It had taken me a few hours over the course of the week to paint the sandy rocks overlooking the grassy meadows, to get the right color of the boulders and the pebbles in between them. The shading had been the hardest part since it was in watercolor, but I like to think it came out pretty damn cool.

  I stood and walked the painting to the wall across from his bed. Fishing a tack out of the desk, I hung it next to the other paintings. There was one for every week I visited him. Three hundred and twelve paintings.

  My gaze traveled over the walls. My favorites were the portraits I’d done of him—­paintings of Charlie and me together when we were younger. I was running out of room. Would have to start with the ceiling soon. All of the paintings were of the . . . past. Nothing of the present or the future. Just a wall of memories.

  I made my way back to the chair and pulled out the book I’d been reading to him. It was New Moon, and we’d gotten to see the first movie together. Almost got to see the second. As I cracked it open to the last page I’d left off at, I was convinced that Charlie would’ve been Team Jacob. He would never go for emo vampires. Even though this was the fourth time I’d read the book to him, he’d seemed to like it.

  At least, that’s what I told myself.

  Not once during the hour I spent with him did he look at me, and as I packed up, my heart was as heavy as that rock that had changed everything. I leaned down close to him. “Look at me, Charlie.” I waited a heartbeat as my throat clogged. “Please.”

  Charlie . . . all he did was blink as he rocked slowly. Back and forth. That was all, as I waited a full five minutes for a response, any response, but none came. My eyes dampened as I pressed a kiss against his cool cheek and then straightened. “I’ll see you next Friday, okay?”

  I pretended he said okay in return. It was the only way I could walk out of that room and close the door behind me. I checked out and as I made my way outside into the blistering heat, I found my sunglasses in my tote and slipped them on. The heat did wonders for my chilled skin, but didn’t warm my insides. It was always like this after I visited Charlie, and it would take until my shift at Mona’s started before I was able to shake off the coldness.

  As I walked toward the back of the parking lot where my car was, I swore.

  I could see the heat wafting off the pavement, and I immediately wondered what colors I’d need to mix to capture the effect on canvas. Then I saw my trusty Volkswagen Jetta, and all thoughts of watercolors vanished. My stomach flopped heavily and I almost tripped right over my feet. There was a nice, practically new truck sitting next to mine.

  I knew that black truck.

  I’d driven it once.

  Oh Man.

  My feet refused to move so I came to a complete standstill.

  The very bane of my existence was here, who oddly was the same person who had a reoccurring starring role in all my fantasies, even the really dirty ones—­especially them.

  Reece Anders was here, and I didn’t know if I was going to punch him in the nuts or kiss him.

  Chapter 2

  The driver’s door opened smoothly, and my heart—­my damn, traitorous bitch of a heart—­skipped a beat as a long denim-­clad leg appeared, along with flip-­flops with a tan leather thong. Why did I have to have a thing for guys who were ballsy enough to wear flip-­flops, because, oh dear, I really did think that was entirely sexy paired with faded jeans. Another leg appeared, and the door blocked the torso for a moment—­only a second. The door closed, and I got an eyeful of a worn Metallica shirt that did very little to hide a well-­defined, totally yummy-­in-­my-­tummy six-­pack. The shirt was practically mating with his stomach, clinging to each ripple. It was doing the same to his biceps, essentially taunting me.

  That was it. The shirt was being a spiteful man-­bitch.

  I dragged my gaze up over broad shoulders—­the kind of shoulders that could bear the brunt of the weight of the world, and had—­to his face. H
e was rocking some sexy black sunglasses, looking damn good doing so.

  God, Reece looked great in casual clothes, panties-­on-­fire hot when he was wearing his police uniform, and when he was naked, he could seriously induce a visual orgasm.

  And I’d seen him naked. Well, sort of. Okay, totally saw his goods, and they were goodie-­gumdrops kind of good.

  Reece was classically handsome, the kind of guy with the bone structure that had my fingers itching to sketch—­angular cheekbones, full lips, and an honest-­to-­God jawline that could cut cheesecakes all day long. And he was a cop, serving and protecting, and there was just something entirely badass hot about that.

  Unfortunately, I also hated him, absolutely loathed him. Ah, well, most of the time. Sometimes. Pretty much whenever I gazed upon his perfection and started lusting after him. Yeah, that’s when I hated him.

  My girlie parts were feeling that vibe right now, meaning in this moment, I disliked him. So as I tightened my hand on the tote bag I carried, I popped out a hip like I’d seen Katie, a . . . well, odd friend of mine, do when she was about to deliver a verbal smackdown.

  “What are you doing here?” I demanded, and then promptly shivered—­shivered in the hundred-­degree temperature, because I hadn’t spoken to Reece in over eleven months. Well, not counting the words Fuck off, because I’d probably said that to him, oh, about four hundred times in the last eleven months, but whatever.

  Dark brows shot up over the frame of the sunglasses. A moment passed and then he chuckled, as if what I said was the most amusing thing ever. “How about you actually say hi to me first?”