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Every Breath

Nicholas Sparks

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

  Copyright © 2018 by Willow Holdings, Inc.

  Cover design by Flag. Cover photography by Linda Pugliese. Hand lettering by Nick Massani.

  Cover copyright © 2018 by Hachette Book Group, Inc.

  Hachette Book Group supports the right to free expression and the value of copyright. The purpose of copyright is to encourage writers and artists to produce the creative works that enrich our culture.

  The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book without permission is a theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like permission to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), please contact [email protected] Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.

  Grand Central Publishing

  Hachette Book Group

  1290 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10104

  First Edition: October 2018

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  ISBNs: 978-1-5387-2852-9 (hardcover), 978-1-5387-2853-6 (ebook), 978-1-5387-1468-3 (large type), 978-1-5387-1434-8 (international), 978-1-5387-6399-5 (signed), 978-1-5387-6398-8 (B&N signed), 978-1-5387-1577-2 (B&N)








  Kindred Spirit

  PART I Tru


  Sunset Beach

  Autumn Afternoons

  Dinner on the Deck

  A Walk in the Dark

  Sunrise and Surprises

  A Love Letter

  Moments of Truth


  Father Time

  No More Tomorrows


  PART II Sands in the Hourglass

  The Box



  Day by Day


  Author’s Note

  About the Author

  Also by Nicholas Sparks

  Discover More Nicholas Sparks

  For Victoria Vodar


  For me, the creation of any novel is a bit like I imagine childbirth to be: a process of anticipation, terror, grinding exhaustion, and eventually, exhilaration…an experience that I’m glad I don’t have to endure by myself. By my side every step of the way, from gestation to squalling birth, is my longtime literary agent, Theresa Park, who is not only incredibly talented and intelligent, but has been my closest friend over the last quarter century. The team at Park Literary & Media is hands down the most impressive, knowledgeable, and visionary in the business: Abigail Koons and Blair Wilson are the architects of my international career; Andrea Mai finds innovative ways for me to partner with retailers like Target, Walmart, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble; Emily Sweet manages my myriad social media, licensing, and brand partnership endeavors; Alexandra Greene provides essential legal and strategic support; and Pete Knapp and Emily Clagett ensure that my work remains relevant to a constantly evolving readership.

  At the publisher that has debuted every one of my books since The Notebook, there have been many changes over the decades, but during the past several years I’ve been grateful to have my work championed by Hachette Book Group CEO Michael Pietsch. Grand Central Publishing Publisher Ben Sevier and Editor-in-Chief Karen Kosztolnyik have been recent but very welcome additions to the team, bringing with them fresh ideas and new energy. I’ll miss GCP’s VP of Retail Sales, Dave Epstein, who—together with his boss Chris Murphy and PLM’s Andrea Mai—helped shape the retail strategy for my last few books. Dave, I wish you many peaceful days of fishing during your retirement. Flag and Anne Twomey, you bring magic and class to each of my book jackets, year after year. To Brian McLendon and my extremely patient publicist, Caitlyn Mulrooney-Lyski, thank you for shepherding the marketing and publicity campaigns for my books with such care; and to Amanda Pritzker, your attentiveness and effective collaboration with the team at Park Literary are much appreciated.

  My longtime publicist at PMK-BNC, Catherine Olim, is my fearless protector and straight-shooting advisor, and I treasure her counsel. The social media whizzes Laquishe “Q” Wright and Mollie Smith help me stay in touch daily with my fans and have encouraged me to find my own voice in this ever-shifting world of virtual communication; I’m grateful for your loyalty and guidance over the years.

  In my film and TV endeavors, I’ve had the same remarkable team of representatives for 20+ years: Howie Sanders (now at Anonymous Content), Keya Khayatian at UTA, and my dedicated entertainment attorney Scott Schwimer. (Scottie, I hope you enjoy your namesake in this book!) Any author would be lucky to have his or her Hollywood projects shepherded by this Dream Team.

  And finally, to my home team: Jeannie Armentrout; my assistant, Tia Scott; Michael Smith; my brother, Micah Sparks; Christie Bonacci; Eric Collins; Todd Lanman; Jonathan and Stephanie Arnold; Austin and Holly Butler; Micah Simon; Gray Zurbruegg; David Stroud; Dwight Carlblom; David Wang; my accountants, Pam Pope and Oscara Stevick; Andy Sommers; Hannah Mensch; David Geffen; Jeff Van Wie; Jim Tyler; David Shara; Pat and Billy Mills; Mike and Kristie McAden; longtime friends, including Chris Matteo, Paul DuVair, Bob Jacob, Rick Muench, Pete DeCler, and Joe Westermeyer; my extended family, including Monty, Gail, Dianne, Chuck, Dan, Sandy, Jack, Mike, Parnell, and all my cousins, nephews, and nieces; and finally my children, Miles, Ryan, Landon, Lexie, and Savannah…I say a prayer of thanks for your presence in my life, every day, and with every breath.

  Kindred Spirit

  There are stories that rise from mysterious, unknown places, and others that are discovered, a gift from someone else. This story is one of the latter. On a cool and blustery day in the late spring of 2016, I drove to Sunset Beach, North Carolina, one of many small islands between Wilmington and the South Carolina border. I parked my truck near the pier and hiked down the beach, heading for Bird Island, an uninhabited coastal preserve. Locals had told me there was something I should see; perhaps, they’d even suggested, the site would end up in one of my novels. They told me to keep my eye out for an American flag; when I spotted it in the distance, I’d know I was getting close.

  Not long after the flag came into view, I kept my eyes peeled. I was to look for a mailbox called Kindred Spirit. The mailbox—planted on a pole of aging driftwood near a saw grass–speckled dune—has been around since 1983 and belongs to no one and everyone. Anyone can leave a letter or postcard; any passerby can read whatever has been placed inside. Thousands of people do so every year. Over time, Kindred Spirit has been a repository of hopes and dreams in written form…and always, there are love stories to be found.

  The beach was deserted. As I approached the isolated mailbox on its lonely stretch of shoreline, I could just make out a wooden bench beside it. It was the perfect resting place, an outpost of reflection.

  Reaching inside the mailbox, I found two postcards, several previously opened letters, a recipe for Brunswick stew, a journal that appeared to have been written in German, and a thick manila envelope. There were pens, a pad of unu
sed paper, and envelopes—presumably for anyone who was inspired to add their own story to the contents. Taking a seat on the bench, I perused the postcards and the recipe before turning to the letters. Almost immediately, I noticed that no one used last names. Some of the letters had first names, others had only initials, and still others were completely anonymous, which only added to the sense of mystery.

  But anonymity seemed to allow for candid reflection. I read about a woman who, in the aftermath of a struggle with cancer, had met the man of her dreams at a Christian bookstore, but worried that she wasn’t good enough for him. I read about a child who hoped to one day become an astronaut. There was a letter from a young man who planned to propose to his sweetheart in a hot air balloon, and still another from a man who wanted to ask his neighbor on a date but feared rejection. There was a letter from someone recently released from prison who wanted nothing more than to start his life over. The final missive was from a man whose dog, Teddy, had recently been put to sleep. The man was still grieving, and after finishing the letter, I studied the photograph that had been tucked inside the envelope, showing a black Labrador retriever with friendly eyes and a graying muzzle. The man had signed his initials A.K., and I found myself hoping he would find a way to fill the void that Teddy’s absence had left behind.

  By then, the breeze was steady and the clouds had begun to darken. A storm was rolling in. I returned the recipe, postcards, and letters to the mailbox and debated opening the manila envelope. The thickness indicated a substantial number of pages, and the last thing I wanted was to get caught in the rain as I trekked back to my truck. Flipping over the envelope as I debated, I saw that someone had printed on the back The Most Amazing Story Ever!

  A plea for recognition? A challenge? Written by the author, or by someone who’d examined the contents? I wasn’t sure, but how could I resist?

  I opened the clasp. Inside the envelope were a dozen or so pages, photocopies of three letters, and some photocopied drawings of a man and woman who clearly looked to be in love with each other. I set those aside and reached for the story. The first line made me pause:

  The destiny that matters most in anyone’s life is the one concerning love.

  The tone was unlike the previous letters, promising something grand, it seemed. I settled in to read. After a page or so, my curiosity became interest; after a few more pages, I couldn’t put the story aside. Over the next half hour, I laughed and felt my throat tighten; I ignored the uptick in the breeze and clouds that were turning the color of charcoal. Thunder and flickers of lightning were reaching the distant edge of the island when I read the final words with a sense of wonder.

  I should have left then. I could see sheets of rain marching across the waves toward me, but instead, I read the story a second time. On that reading, I was able to hear the voices of the characters with utter clarity. By the time I read the letters and examined the drawings, I could feel the idea taking shape that I might somehow find the writer and broach the possibility of turning his story into a book.

  But finding that person wouldn’t be easy. Most of the events had taken place long in the past—more than a quarter century earlier—and instead of names, there were only single initials. Even in the letters, the original names had been whited out before the pages were copied. There was nothing to indicate who the writer or artist might have been.

  A few clues remained, however. In the part of the story dating back to 1990, there was mention of a restaurant with a deck out back and an indoor fireplace, where a cannonball allegedly salvaged from one of Blackbeard’s ships sat atop the mantel. There was also reference to a cottage on an island off the North Carolina coast, within walking distance of the restaurant. And in what seemed to be the most recently written pages, the writer spoke of a construction project currently under way at a beach house, on a different island altogether. I had no idea whether the project was now finished, but I had to start somewhere. Though years had passed, I hoped the drawings would eventually help me identify the subjects. And, of course, there was also the Kindred Spirit mailbox on the beach where I sat, which played a pivotal role in the story.

  By then, the sky was positively threatening and I knew I was out of time. Sliding the pages back into the manila envelope, I returned it to the mailbox and hurried to my truck. I barely beat the downpour. Had I waited another few minutes, I would have been drenched, and despite having my windshield wipers on high, I could barely see through the glass. I drove home, made myself a late lunch, and stared out the window, continuing to think about the couple that I’d read about on the pages. By evening, I knew that I wanted to go back to Kindred Spirit and examine the story again, but weather and some business travel prevented me from returning for nearly a week.

  When I finally made it back, the other letters, the recipe, and the journal were there, but the manila envelope was gone. I wondered what had become of it. I was curious as to whether a stranger had been as moved by the pages as I’d been and had taken them, or if perhaps there was some sort of caretaker who occasionally purged the mailbox. Mainly, I wondered whether the author had had second thoughts about revealing the story and come to retrieve it himself.

  It made me want to talk to the writer even more, but family and work kept me busy for another month, and it wasn’t until June that I found time to begin my quest. I won’t bore you with all the details regarding my search—it took the better part of a week, countless phone calls, visits to various chambers of commerce and county offices where building permits were recorded, and hundreds of miles on the truck. Since the first part of the story took place decades ago, some of the reference points had long since disappeared. I managed to track down the location of the restaurant—it was now a chic seafood bistro with white tablecloths—and used that as a starting point for my exploratory excursions, in order to get a sense of the area. After that, following the trail of building permits, I visited one island after the next, and on one of my many walks up and down the beach, I eventually came across the sound of hammering and a power drill—not uncommon for salted and weather-beaten homes along the coast. When I saw an older man working on a ramp that led from the top of the dune to the beach, though, I felt a sudden jolt. I remembered the drawings, and even from a distance suspected that I had found one of the characters I had read about.

  Walking over, I introduced myself. Up close, I became even more certain it was him. I noted the quiet intensity I’d read about and the same observant blue eyes referenced in one of the letters. Doing the math, I figured him to be in his late sixties, which was the right age. After a bit of small talk, I asked him point-blank whether he’d written the story that had ended up in Kindred Spirit. In response, he deliberately turned his gaze toward the ocean, saying nothing for perhaps a minute. When he turned to face me again, he said that he would answer my questions the following afternoon, but only if I was willing to lend him a hand on his construction project.

  I showed up with a tool belt early the following morning, but the tools proved unnecessary. Instead, he had me haul plywood, two-by-fours, and pressure-treated lumber from the front of the house to the back, up over the sandy dune, and onto the beach. The pile of lumber was enormous, and the sand made every load seem twice as heavy. It took me most of the day, and aside from telling me where to place the lumber, he didn’t speak to me at all. He spent the day drilling and nailing and working beneath a searing early-summer sun, more interested in the quality of his work than my presence.

  Shortly after I’d finished hauling the last load, he motioned for me to take a seat on the dune and opened a cooler. Filling a pair of plastic cups from a thermos inside, he handed me a cup of iced tea.

  “Yeah,” he finally offered. “I wrote it.”

  “Is it true?”

  He squinted, as if evaluating me.

  “Some of it,” he admitted, in the accent I’d heard described in the pages. “Some might dispute the facts, but memories aren’t always about facts.”

  I told
him that I thought it might make for a fascinating book and launched into a series of passionate arguments. He listened in silence, his expression unreadable. For some reason, I felt anxious, almost desperate to persuade him. After an uncomfortable silence during which he seemed to be weighing my proposition, he finally spoke: He was willing to discuss the idea further, and perhaps even agree to my request, but only on the condition that he be the first to read the story. And if he didn’t like it, he wanted me to bury the pages. I hedged. Writing a book takes months, even years, of effort—but he held firm. In the end, I agreed. Truth be told, I understood his reasoning. If our positions had been reversed, I would have asked the same of him.

  We went to the cottage then. I asked questions and received answers. I was provided again with a copy of the story, and I was shown the original drawings and letters that enlivened the past even more.

  The conversation rolled on. He told the story well and saved the best for last. As evening fell, he showed me a remarkable item—a labor of love—that enabled me to visualize the events with detail and clarity, as if I’d been a witness to all that had happened. I also began to see how the words would appear on the page, as if the story were writing itself and my role was simply to transcribe it.

  Before I left, he requested that real names not be used. He had no desire for fame—he considered himself a private person—but more than that, he knew that the story had the potential to open old, and new, wounds. The events, after all, hadn’t taken place in isolation. There were living people involved, some of whom might be upset by the revelations. I have honored his request because I believe that the story has larger value and meaning: the power to remind us that there are times when destiny and love collide.

  I began working on the novel soon after that first evening we spent together. In the year that followed, whenever I had questions, I called or visited. I toured the locations, or at least those that hadn’t been lost to history. I went through newspaper archives and examined photographs taken more than twenty-five years earlier. To flesh out even more details, I spent a week at a bed and breakfast in a small coastal town in eastern North Carolina and traveled as far as Africa. I was fortunate in that time seems to move more slowly in both of those regions; there were moments when I felt as if I had actually journeyed deep into the past.