Second Chance is just hours away at this point, so it seems only fair to let you get a head start on your reading. Here’s chapter one of Ian’s story, in its entirety. Second Chance will be available on Amazon and Smashwords tomorrow, all other retailers, paperback, and audio coming soon.
There’s no written rule when it comes to tragedy. It can occur at any time. On a normal day, when you’re just having a pint down the pub and timing out your hangover so it doesn’t strike while you’re working that night. Or at a black tie function in glitzy Manhattan high rise with tragically ugly stairs— which was what had happened to my friend Neil Elwood.
My girlfriend, Penny, walked beside me as we trudged through the blowing, now-ankle-deep snow on our way to the parking garage. Well, I called her my girlfriend, but we’d spent the past hour rushing about, collecting things Neil and his wife might need as they waited at the hospital after his daughter’s horrific car accident. Penny and I hadn’t really had time to go over the particulars of our newly reconciled relationship.
I glanced down at her wet, red toes peeking out from her complicated silver heels. She’d get frostbite soon if we didn’t get her inside.
“Let’s go to your place,” I suggested, putting my arm around her shoulders to draw her under my coat. She had a long wool one on, but beneath it, just a strapless black evening gown with a long slit up the back. She wasn’t dressed for traipsing all over New York in a snowstorm.
She nodded and leaned closer, but didn’t speak until we got into the car. Her teeth chattered. “Are you going to stay?”
“I thought I might. Rather than risk the drive.” In light of what had just happened to Neil’s daughter—and her husband, the poor bastard—it seemed the safest choice.
“Good.” She stared straight ahead as we pulled out. “I don’t want you to go anywhere tonight. Not without me.”
We drove to her place in silence, and I parked on the street, content that tonight, at least, there was no danger of anyone stealing my car. I’d never stolen cars for a living, but I assumed inclement weather had some effect on a successful outcome.
In the lobby of her building, I checked my watch. Was it really only half past midnight? It seemed like it should be a quarter to next Thursday. I certainly felt as though we’d been awake for five days. The whiplash from elation at my reconciliation with Penny to my horror at Neil’s current nightmare had sapped all the strength from me. And while I wished I could concentrate on the former, the latter had seized my brain the way the cold would seize the engine of my car in the morning.
I trudged up the stairs after Penny. Her twenty-three-year-old legs could handle living in a fourth floor walkup. My middle-aged body had already been through the wringer tonight, and I found myself lagging farther behind, weighed down by my thoughts. I’d known Neil’s daughter, Emma, since she’d been born. For fuck’s sake, he’d come to me, drunk and crying, the night he’d found out he’d gotten Valerie pregnant. He’d proved himself an incredible father, though Emma had still grown up with her mother’s spitfire temper and withering condescension. Somehow, Emma had made them likeable traits.
“Ian?” Penny asked from the top of the stairs. The sickly fluorescent lighting of the hallway deepened the circles beneath her eyes. “Are you okay?”
“No, Doll,” I answered her honestly. “But I will be. Especially once we get you warmed up.”
“Don’t worry about me,” she said softly as she unlocked her door. “Worry about Neil and Sophie.”
“I will, I swear,” I promised as we stepped into her tiny apartment. “But let me worry about you for a bit, as a distraction.”
Penny’s roommate, Rosa, sat on the sofa, her dark hair piled on top of her head in one of those massive loops of hair universal among women. She frowned when we entered, and my first thought was, that’s quite rude, until I remembered the last time she’d seen Penny, we’d been thoroughly broken up.
“What’s he doing here?” she demanded, fixing Penny with a cold, demanding stare.
Penny shrugged off her coat, and I caught it for her. “It’s a long story.”
“Condense it for me.” Rosa’s gaze flicked to me, her eyes narrowing for a moment. “Because the last time we talked about him, you two weren’t a thing.”
“Well, now, we’re a thing again,” Penny said wearily. “Like I said, it’s a long story. I promise I’ll tell you every detail once he’s not around and it’s not so awkward. But right now, I’m exhausted.”
Christ, I’m right here. Can they not see me standing next to this conversation?
“Her boss’s family was dealt a blow tonight. Penny had to deliver some clothes to the hospital for them.” I tried not to be confrontational; after all, Rosa only wanted to protect Penny, a feeling I understood well enough. But Penny was emotionally and physically drained. She needed space, and I would see that she got it.
Rosa’s expression softened, but not by much. “I did think it was a little early.”
“It definitely doesn’t feel early,” Penny groaned, kicking off her shoes. “And I definitely can’t feel my toes.”
“All right, let’s get you into a hot shower to warm up.” I sounded like my sister, bossing people around for their own good, but in this case, it was very much for Penny’s own good. Hot water chased off cold chills. And if she disagreed with me, I’d just tell her that it was an old Scottish wives’ tale. She’d feel like she had to do it or risk offending me.
But she offered no resistance. “Okay. Let me get my bathrobe, though. And you can put your coat in my room.”
Penny’s bedroom was barely large enough for the both of us to stand in at the same time. Her bed was a full-size, tiny in comparison to the huge, comfortable California king at my place. When she clicked on the wall switch, hundreds of fairy lights illuminated the space in a ring around the ceiling. None of the furniture matched, and most of her life’s possessions were crowded into plastic bins. Her bathrobe lay across her unmade bed. She leaned down to straighten the covers. If her face wasn’t so cold and windburned, I assumed she would be blushing.
“Stop,” I admonished her gently. “I’m not going to judge your cleanliness. I’m just glad to be here.”
“Yeah?” Her bottom lip trembled as she looked up at me. “You are?”
I had to kiss her. I couldn’t help myself. I’d never be able to kiss her enough to make up for our long separation. I leaned down to meet her sweet, soft mouth with my lips, and she gripped the sleeves of my coat for balance.
Our breakup had been stupid. There was no other way to describe it. Penny and I belonged together, despite all of our differences. She was younger than me, by a lot. Thirty years, unbelievably. My life and career were stable and successful, while hers were just starting out. She still saw the world ahead of her as endless and full of possibility, while I spent my days mostly worrying that I’d grown a suspicious mole I hadn’t noticed, yet. But none of those differences mattered when she was in my arms.
She pulled back, her eyes on mine. “I don’t ever want to break up again. I don’t want to lose you. Not when it’s so easy to lose people we love.”
“I’m not going anywhere.” I couldn’t guarantee that, but neither could she, so it wasn’t worth mentioning. “Go get in the shower.”
She turned and nodded over her shoulder. “Unzip me?”
“With pleasure.” Despite all we’d been through tonight—and the fact that I’d nearly put my back out fucking her on a conference room table only hours before—the thought of getting my hands on her naked skin managed to distract me from my gloom. I pulled down the tab slowly, watching in fascination as every inch of her skin was revealed. The black lace of her strapless bra was flimsy enough I could see the tan skin beneath. The gown fell away, and she shimmied it down her hips, totally oblivious to how sexy she was, even when she didn’t intend to be.
She popped the hooks on the back of her bra and groaned in relief, tossing it to the floor. “That thing is evil.”
“I see that,” I murmured in sympathy, tracing the long, red impression the band had left in her skin. “Whenever you’re in need of rescuing from one of those terrible devices, call upon me.”
Though she was tired, she laughed. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed that sound.
She grabbed her bathrobe, and I got the briefest glimpse of her gorgeous breasts as she pulled it on. Tying the belt, she turned to me with a lopsided smile. “You can ogle me later. Right now, I just want to get feeling back in my feet.”
I kissed her forehead. “Go on. If you need any help, just give a shout.”
While I would have loved to get into that shower with her, to worship every wet, naked inch of her body, the night had been too long and fraught with emotion. I didn’t have the energy, so it was better to wait until I could do it properly. I’d plead inclement weather as an excuse to skip mass in the morning, and spend the time burrowed under the covers with Penny in her cold little room, instead.
Rosa still sat on the sofa, trying very obviously to eavesdrop without being very obvious about her eavesdropping. As Penny went off to the shower, I sat on the other end of the couch and pretended, momentarily, to be interested in the animated comedy on the television.
“Is this Family Guy?” I asked, feeling woefully out of touch.
“American Dad!,” she responded, never taking her eyes from the screen.
My bow tie hung, untied, around my neck, and I slipped it free. Though I hadn’t noticed its presence, I somehow felt more relaxed with it off. “I suppose you want an explanation, and you’ll be angry with me until you get it?”
I folded the tie in my hands, then unfolded it again as I spoke. “I’m sure Penny will tell you what happened, and I’ll let her fill you in on the more specific details. There was a miscommunication—”
“Lies do not equal miscommunication,” she interrupted.
“True. And I did lie. But I didn’t lie to Penny.” Why was I justifying my actions to a stranger? A condescending twenty-something stranger, at that?
Because you love Penny, you idiot. You love her, and you want the people she loves to believe that, too.
“I lied to my sister,” I admitted. “About why I got divorced. There are various personal reasons behind that. But I never cheated on Penny, and I never lied to her. I can’t say I won’t hurt her again. I don’t know if I will. But if I do, I know for a fact that it will be an accident, just like I know for a fact that it will take you a long time to believe that.”
Rosa finally looked at me, with far less anger than she’d displayed when we’d first arrived. “She was really messed up, you know.”
“I do. But in fairness, I was pretty messed up, myself.” The day we’d broken up, Thanksgiving Day, had been brutal. One minute, I’d considered Penny a near-permanent part of my life. The next, she’d cut me off completely, and all because I’d been too stupid and protective of my ex-wife to tell my family the truth of why my marriage had ended.
“Yeah, you sound like a mess,” she agreed. “But I do believe that you love her. She played those voicemails for me.”
“This is supposed to be the moment I get embarrassed, isn’t it? I’m not. I would have broadcast those pathetic messages in Times Square to get her back, if I had to.” I looked forward to a time when the mention of the separation didn’t mimic the symptoms of cardiac arrest. Tonight, when so much seemed uncertain, I didn’t foresee that panic fading.
Rosa tilted her head, as though she were appraising a fine painting or reading a particularly confusing subway diagram. “I think you might be a good guy, Ian. But Penny trusts a lot of guys who look good on paper, but aren’t so great in practice.”
“On paper, I’m a fifty-three-year-old divorced man who until a couple of months ago ate peanut butter off plastic spoons for most of his evening meals.” There was no chance Penny hadn’t mentioned the peanut butter.
Rosa didn’t look surprised at all by my admission, confirming my suspicion. “Yeah, and you waited for her. Not as long as some guys—”
“Don’t.” I couldn’t stand to hear myself held to such a low standard. “Don’t give me credit for that. It wasn’t a heroic feat to respect her.”
A smile curved Rosa’s mouth, though it was certainly a reluctant expression. “Fair enough.”
The conversation actually felt as though we’d made some headway toward her not hating me. I didn’t want to fuck it up, so I gestured to the television. “So, can you explain to me why that fish is talking?”
By the end of the episode—which, I had to admit, did contain briefly clever moments—Penny emerged from the bathroom, looking a lot more like herself. She’d been stunning tonight, with her short blonde bob combed back in stiff waves and her body encased by a tight sheath of velvet. She looked just as stunning in her bathrobe, with wet hair and dark streaks near her eyes where her mascara hadn’t washed completely off.
“Do you want to go to bed?” she asked, and it was more of a command than a question.
Not that I needed to be told. “Yes, before I pass out and fall over on your roommate.”
I followed her into her room shut the door behind us. Rosa bid us goodnight just before it closed.
Penny stepped up close and ran her hands over the front of my shirt then over my shoulders and down my sleeves, to where I’d rolled them up my forearms. “Guys in tuxes aren’t nearly as hot as guys who’re half out of their tuxes.”
“Well, if you see a hot guy half out of a tuxedo, let me know, and I’ll chase him off.” I didn’t want her to make assumptions about what I planned to do in her bed. “Right now, I’m about to get fully out of mine and into your bed. For sleep, only.”
She sighed, but smiled. “Yeah. It’s kind of hard to be in the mood with everything that’s going on.”
I could have pointed out that it was hard to be in the mood when you’re fifty-three and you just had vigorous sex a few hours before, but it bothered her when I pointed out our age difference. I wasn’t about to rekindle our relationship, then immediately slide back into one of the behaviors that had ended it in the first place.
But when Penny dropped her robe to the floor, I wished I were a much younger man.
She got under the blankets and tried to rearrange them as I undressed. “Sorry, it’s not like I’ve been sharing the covers a lot lately.”
A lot? My stomach turned over. We’d been broken up for over a month, and it wasn’t as though she’d been under any obligation to remain celibate. “Oh, not a lot?” I tried to laugh, but it had a difficult time making its way past the lump in my throat.
She looked up from tucking the blanket under her chest and froze in confusion.
God, but this was embarrassing. I cleared my throat. “Right. It was a bad joke. Obviously, if you had…you know… If you’d, well… It wouldn’t change anything. We weren’t together, and—”
“Ian, it was just something I said without thinking,” she assured me quietly. “We were only broken up for, like, six weeks. I didn’t sleep with anybody else.”
I let out a long exhale of relief. “Good. Not that it would have mattered. You weren’t beholden to me to not sleep with anyone else. But you said ‘a lot’, and that led me to believe—”
“Did you sleep with someone else?” Her voice had a sharp edge to it. Our breakup had been motivated largely on Penny’s fear that I would be unfaithful. Her ex-boyfriend had cheated on her, and the experience had shaken her. While it wouldn’t have been cheating if I’d slept with someone else—Penny and I had been broken up, after all—it would have shattered her trust in me.
I’d never been happier to have not gotten laid.
“No.” I watched her uncertainty turn to relief. “I couldn’t think of anyone but you. I was half a person while we were apart.”
“You were a whole person.” She drew her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. “You were just a hurt whole person.”
“So were you.” I got into bed beside her. She slid down to lie against me and rested her head on my shoulder. We’d been apart for weeks, but she fit into the crook of my arm as though she’d never left.
“I got your voicemails.” She idly pushed her fingers through my chest hair, the way she’d done countless times before when we’d lain sleepy and entwined in bed.
“I know you did. Rosa said you played them for her.” Now, the embarrassment set in. “And I know they were pathetic, and bordering on harassment.”
“I forgive you.” She snuggled her face into my armpit. “I missed the way you smell.”
“That disturbs me. But if it makes you happy, who am I to judge?”
We didn’t say anything else. Maybe there was nothing to say. That seemed unlikely, considering how abrupt both our breakup and our reunion had been. But perhaps tonight wasn’t the night to work through whatever residual issues we had left. Tonight, I would hold her and stroke her back and try to get some sleep while worry for my friend still gripped my mind.
Shortly after three, my phone’s screen lit up, the generic ringtone startling me from my doze. At some point, Penny had rolled onto her side, and she still snored away. I blinked at the phone and tried to make out the name on the display.
No phone call this late could be good news.
My hand trembled as I slid my finger across the screen to answer. “Everything’s okay, yeah?”
“No. Everything is…” Sophie said, her voice a raw wound.
“Ah, Christ.” I closed my eyes. I’d heard what she hadn’t said. This is going to kill Neil.
“Can I just talk to Penny, please?” She’d rightly guessed we would be together.
“Sure thing.” I reached for Penny and shook her shoulder, and she startled awake, blinking at me in the glow of the fairy lights. I whispered, “Wake up, Doll,” and handed her the phone.
God, but she was breathtaking, even sleepy and confused.
And fragile. Emma was so young. So young and, judging from the horrified expression on Penny’s face as she said, “Oh, no,” gone from this world. In a single, horrible night, Emma had been taken. Her youth had been no protection against death.
It could happen to Penny.
Technically, it could happen to anyone. I knew that painfully well. It could happen to both of us as we sat in bed. A gas main could explode, or the ceiling could cave in on us. I supposed it would be all right if I died; I’d had more life than some, and I didn’t fear what came after. But I didn’t want it to happen to Penny.
She finished her call with Sophie and handed me my phone. “Ian…”
“I know.” I hated that I knew. I hated that it had happened. I hated that my friends would go through unimaginable pain, and I hated that I was powerless to do anything about it. The uncontrollable finality of death gripped me in a cold sweat.
“We should get married.”
It took me a moment to realize I’d just said those words. But I didn’t regret them one iota.
Penny’s eyes grew wide, and she blinked slowly. “Um…maybe now isn’t the best time to talk about something like that.”
“It’s a great time,” I insisted, because I was clearly out of my mind. What the fuck was I doing? I hadn’t read any guidebooks on the subject, but I assumed a freshly divorced person shouldn’t run out and immediately remarry to a woman he’d known for less than six months.
The fact that I wasn’t frightened at all was cause for serious worry, as well. But nothing could deter me. Proposing might be foolish, but it was right; I knew that beneath all the conventional wisdom. “We want to start our lives together, yeah?”
“Well, yeah, of course. But I don’t—”
“Then, let’s go,” I urged. If she had the good sense to turn me down, I would either be happy, or devastated, I couldn’t tell. “On Monday, let’s go to City Hall and get married.”
“I…I can’t. I have to work. With all of this, Sophie is going to need me to handle a lot of stuff for her.”
I took Penny’s hands in mine. “We’ll go on our lunch hour.”
Her hesitant smile grew into a full grin. Despite her smudged makeup and the crease lines from her pillowcase, my ribs ached at her utter perfection.
“This is really stupid,” she warned me. “And it’s not the way I ever expected this to go.”
Of course. How had I been so thick? Penny had never been married before. She’d never gotten the chance to have the wedding every woman dreams of, or at least what popular culture insisted they should. Penny had been a twenty-two-year-old virgin when we’d met, so to say there was a touch of the traditional about her would be a fairly large understatement.
“You want the dress and the flowers and the cake.” I dropped my head in shame. “I’m sorry. This was selfish of me.”
“I didn’t say no.”
I looked up. The single, bashful dimple in her cheek deepened as her gaze met mine. “I just meant that you haven’t really proposed to me properly. ‘Let’s get married’ is nice and all, but if we’re not going to do the dress and the flowers and the cake, I at least need you to take a knee.”
That would be the one tradition she would adhere to, I moaned in my head as I pushed back the blankets. Kneeling on her arctic floor would be unpleasant enough, but I also had to suffer the embarrassment of trying to stand up again. This is for true love, you bastard. It’s not too much to ask. Get on down there and make her want to be your wife.
I didn’t even have a ring.
The floor was a slap of ice when it met my bare knee. Proposing in boxer shorts hardly seemed like the most romantic thing I would ever do for Penny, but her eyes glittered in the light as though Mr. Darcy himself knelt before her.
I wished I hadn’t thought of that prick. He’d set the bar too high for all of us.
I reached for Penny’s hand, and she slipped it into mine gladly. I exhaled sharply, paused to psych myself up, and said, “Penelope Parker. Will you…” What, spend the rest of her life with me? I hoped it wasn’t the rest of her life, or it would be tragically short. We were thirty years apart, for Christ’s sake. “Will you be mine for the rest of my life?”
She squeezed my hand and nodded. “Yes, Ian Pratchett, I will be yours for the rest of both of our lives.”
Suddenly, neither of us were as tired as we were before. When I climbed back onto the bed—with more grace and less difficulty than I’d expected, thanks to whichever saint handles nearly-nude marriage proposals—I moved over her until she lay across the bed, trapped beneath me.
“Am I a bad person for being intensely happy, right now?” she whispered, reaching up to lay one hand against my cheek.
I turned my face to kiss her palm. “Am I a bad person for being intensely horny, right now?”
She shook her head a little. “People respond to tragedy in all kinds of weird ways.”
“And people generally respond to a new engagement with happiness,” I reminded her. I would be damned if she’d feel guilty for enjoying the one good thing that had happened all night. Well, that, “And getting back together with a person they loved very much and from whom they were separated, that’s a cause for happiness, too.” I paused. “You did love me very much, didn’t you?”
“No, I do love you very much. And I will love you very much.” She lifted her head, closing the gap between our mouths all the way. Then, she drew back. “But not in a physical sense again tonight.”
“I understand.” I kissed the tip of her nose, then rolled off her. She wiggled up to the pillows and fumbled between the bed and the wall to pull the plug and kill the fairy lights. Faint orange glowed dimly through the window, and in it, I could make out the shape of her ear, the slope of her neck, the curve of her waist. Things I’d thought I’d remembered, but which looked so different now that I actually had her there with me. What else had I forgotten about her in that short time? The terror of how fleeting a memory truly was squeezed my chest. There would come a day that she forgot something about me, as well.
I spooned up behind her, an arm over her waist, burning an indelible impression of her body, how it felt next to mine, into my senses.
“Keep holding me?” she asked plaintively, one hand clutching my forearm tighter.
I closed my eyes and breathed in the scent of her hair. “Always.”