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They break you. Leave you. Take everything until there's nothing left. And frankly, I'm done allowing them to make me feel insignificant. So, forget men. I'll just throw myself into my job, because at least that never fails me.
Jackson has other plans, though. I refuse to be impressed by his perfect body, the cute dimple on his cheek, or the rugged stubble on his face. Jackson Cole can be resisted.
But, I'm only fooling myself.
He's going to wear me down. I can feel it. In the end he'll prove that once again, I'm no one's beloved.
Release date: May 27, 2014
Publisher: BAAE Publishing
Print pages: 391
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To belong to someone.
All I’ve ever wanted is to be loved. I crave it—need it, desire it—more than food and water. I long for undying love and affection. The kind of love that bonds souls. The kind of love that’s so deep two become one.
To be someone’s beloved.
As a child I had my father, who adored and worshipped me—I was his perfect little daughter. He held me when I was sad, kissed my knee when I fell and got hurt, and read me bedtime stories. I was his princess, his daughter, his entire world.
What happens to a little girl when all of that stops? When she’s no longer her father’s perfect angel, but instead a painful reminder of his past. What happens to her when he pushes her aside and shows her he doesn’t want her anymore?
“I just can’t stay, Catherine. It hurts too much.” His eyes are filled with pain and regret.
“Daddy, I love you! Please don’t go. I won’t cry anymore. I’ll be good,” I plead as I look into the dark brown eyes that mirror mine. My heart is begging for understanding from all this confusion and change. It’s my ninth birthday, we finished cake and presents, and he’s leaving. If only I could go back in time and change my wish. I’d forget about the silly bike and wish for him to stay.
“It’s not you, baby girl. You have to understand—it’s too much. Your mom and I don’t love each other anymore.” He looks into my eyes, unwavering, as I continue to plead.
“Don’t you love me, Daddy?” I ask the man who is supposed to love me forever, the man who’s supposed to never leave me.
“I do, but I have to go now. You be good. Good-bye, Catherine.” He kisses the top of my head and I grab onto his leg for dear life. I know, even at this age, this will be the last time I see my father.
He pries me off his leg and turns without another word. And I watch the man who promised to always be there leave me behind without another glance.
He broke me.
He ruined me.
And he won’t be the last man to do so.
“Ashton, I’m running over to Neil’s house. I’ll be back in a bit!”
Our wedding invitations arrived. They’re beautiful, everything I could’ve hoped for. I can’t wait to show him. Not that he’s really into the details, but we spent a lot of time choosing these. It’ll be such a relief when we finally move in together and stop all this back and forth. Ashton and I signed our lease a month before Neil proposed, so I couldn’t leave and screw her out of half the rent. Though I adore my best friend, I would’ve loved to have lived with Neil as we planned the wedding. Thankfully, the big day is in four months and we’ll finally be under one roof. I’m excited and anxious to make everything official.
“Okay. I’ll be here,” she says, walking toward me.
“Don’t get into any trouble while I’m gone.” I wink as I grab my purse and rush out the door. Once I get in the car I send him a quick text.
Me: On my way. I have a surprise!
Ten minutes later, I’m pulling into a parking space in front of his cozy two-bedroom townhome in the trendy section of Hoboken. This area is all older homes on cobblestone streets. It’s a place I look forward to building a life and starting a family in. I gather my purse and the invitations and hop out, excited to share this piece of our future with him. His car is in the driveway, but the door is locked. Digging for my keys, my bag topples over, spilling all my belongings on the stairs. After collecting everything, I use my key to get into his house.
As the door opens I hear a low moan. Slowly I lift my eyes. Nothing could’ve prepared me for the sight before me. I freeze, watching my worst nightmare unfold.
The shock ripples through me, coming in waves of horror and pain.
And no matter how much I want to … I can’t look away.
The man I love, the man I’m going to marry, is having sex with one of my friends.
Neil has Piper bent over on the couch—the couch I picked out—and is taking her from behind. His head is turned toward the door, his eyes are closed, and his face is pure ecstasy as he drives into her, enjoying every second of it while my world crumbles. With each thrust I feel the floor falling out from under me. I can hear them, see them, smell the sex in the air. Each slap of skin on skin, each grunt and moan tears through me like a knife slicing my veins open. I’m bleeding out, and there’s no stopping it.
I close my eyes, begging for this not to be real, hoping this is a sick joke or a bad dream, praying that when I open them again, this cruel vision will fade away. When I gather the strength to look at them, I realize this isn’t a joke or a dream—it’s reality.
Piper’s head is thrown back as she moans. “More. Harder!”
His hands grip her hips as he rears back and rams into her.
“Neil, yes!” Her loud, high-pitched voice screams out, “Oh! I’m coming. Oh. My. God. Neil! Fuck!”
Unable to control the shaking of my hands, the invitations fall to the floor. My sob breaks through the sounds of their pleasure, alerting them to my presence. The air punches through me as both their heads snap up and Neil’s eyes lock on mine.
“Catherine.” He stops moving, staring at me with wide eyes. “I can explain.”
He grabs the blanket off the back of the couch and covers himself, hastily throwing another one at Piper.
“Explain? You can’t fucking explain!” I choke out as the tears begin to flood my vision. “Oh my God! You … you …”
My limbs are tingling and my breathing is shallow as I try to remain standing. Everything around me is fading, but cruelly, my mind keeps the two people in front of me crystal clear. I close my eyes, hoping to give myself a reprieve.
Neil speaks as I grip the doorway for support. “Give me a minute and we can talk.”
I don’t want to talk. I want to pour bleach in my eyes and rip out my heart so it will stop hurting so much. Nothing he can say will erase this. Ever. My heart will never be the same. Cheating is bad enough, but for me to witness it—with one of my friends, no less—is torture.
And she was my friend, or at least I thought she was. Sure, she was never in my inner circle and we drifted apart after college but I never saw this coming. I didn’t know she was even capable of such a vile betrayal. Piper was the one who introduced me to Neil. She dated one of his frat brothers and the four of us used to spend a lot of time together. I knew they broke up a few months ago, but never in a million years did I expect her to go after Neil.
When I look back up, the smug smile on Piper’s face says it all. She wanted this to happen. She’s enjoying my humiliation. Standing here shocked and horrified, watching her with my fiancé while she grins, obviously convinced she’s won whatever game this is … I snap.
I turn, slamming the door, and run as fast as I can. Shakily, I turn the car on and speed out of the driveway. All the good times we had, beautiful memories tarnished by his act of betrayal. As I drive the memories besiege me one by one—good and bad, love and hate, happy and sad.
Our first date ice-skating in Rockefeller Center, Neil skating backward holding my hands so I wouldn’t fall. Two months later, going to the bed and breakfast on the Jersey shore and making love for the first time. He was tender and caring. The love and adoration he had in his eyes as we looked at each other during intimacy. I swipe the tears streaming down my face. It was all a lie. You can’t respect someone then turn around and deceive them.
The memories keep coming.
The ride to the city, playing stupid car games and laughing until my sides hurt and Neil trying to convince me that the Jets would win the Superbowl. When he took me to Little Italy in July and got down on one knee and proposed in the middle of the street. The tears become too much. I can’t see the road, so I pull over. In the confines of my car I lose it. I cry and sob for everything I saw and will never forget. I call Ashton hoping she can calm me.
“Hey, Biffle,” Ash answers.
At the sound of her voice, any emotion I was holding back breaks free. A choked sound rips from my chest and the tears come faster.
“Catherine? What’s wrong?” Her voice changes from singsong to concerned.
“Neil … He cheated on me! I saw it! I … I.”
“What do you mean?”
“I w-went there and he was f-fucking her on the c-couch. I-I can’t-t bre-athe,” I stutter as the phone shakes against my wet cheek and ear.
“Okay, calm down. Where are you?” she asks.
“I d-don’t know! I couldn’t s-stand there and w-watch it,” I cry, weeping on the side of some unknown road.
Ashton takes a deep breath before speaking. “I’m coming to get you. Where are you?”
“Why?” I croak, letting the pain take over.
“Catherine,” she says, authority ringing through the phone. “Listen to me. Can you drive?”
“I g-gotta go,” I say and hang up, right before I throw the phone against the dash.
I can’t talk anymore. I can’t even think. My head is a mess. I want to forget and stop seeing that moment of betrayal on replay.
I grip my hair, screaming in frustration as I try to form coherent thoughts through my agony.
Why? Why after all this time? Why?
Seconds, minutes, hours are lost to me. As the tears begin to ebb, even though the pain doesn’t, I pull myself together enough to drive.
After driving around in circles for hours, my phone has over thirty missed calls and voicemails. I have no idea who they’re from and I don’t care. There are no words of comfort anyone can give me. My life, my future, my everything … is gone.
Somehow I find my way back to my apartment where Neil is waiting for me in the hall outside. Seeing him brings me up short. The last few hours come right back, slamming into me with the force of a thousand bricks, piling around me and threatening to bury me under their weight.
He stands there, staring at me. “Hey.”
“How long have you been here?” My voice is quiet, but there’s no mistaking the undertone of disgust.
“A while. Ashton wouldn’t let me inside.”
My eyes close of their own accord as I try to find any ounce of strength I have left to handle this. The nausea hits me full force and I hunch over, trying to keep the bile down. Looking at him, being around him again, makes me physically sick. He’s destroyed every good memory we’ve ever had. Five years of love is gone. I want to crawl into a hole and never come out. The pain of the last few hours has left me empty.
“Catherine, please.” Neil comes forward and places his hand on my back.
I snap back up, throwing his arm off me. “Do not touch me!”
“I didn’t want you to find out this way.” Neil runs his hands through his sandy blond hair as he huffs.
“Really? How would you have preferred? After the wedding maybe? Or maybe at Christmas?” I glare as moisture returns to my eyes, threatening to spill over.
The tension rolling off of him shifts and he snaps, “I wanted to talk to you weeks ago, but I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want this.” He gestures between us, apparently indicating the “this.” Gone is the apologetic man from a few moments ago. His eyes are cold and devoid of the love that once shined brightly in them.
“You think I did?” I scream in his face. “I don’t deserve this!”
“I need more,” he bites out, completely uncaring that he’s ripping my heart out—again.
“More? What more do you need? I can’t believe this. You cheated on me!”
He steps back, averting his hard stare at the elevator. “It’s been over for a while. I think we both knew this was coming.”
My eyes widen in shock and disbelief. “You’re kidding me, right? Because I didn’t know anything. We were getting married, Neil. How is that knowing this was coming? How many months of planning and building a life together shows me you were done?”
“I’ve been unhappy for months.” He sighs, running his hands through his hair. “I didn’t know what to do.”
“I’ll tell you what you could’ve done. You could have told me! You could have not slept with my friend!” I shout, but my words don’t even penetrate. He stands there, completely apathetic. “So that’s it? You’re going to walk away after five years?”
“Why fight what we both know isn’t going to work?”
I step back, shaken by his words. And then it sinks in: he’s not here to make it right; he came here to end it. To further damage my beaten heart—the heart he bruised and battered with his infidelity.
“This is why you’re here? To tell me this. Now?” I ask with fear choking me.
His voice is empty as the words tumble out of his mouth. “What we have just isn’t enough, Catherine. It’s better this way.”
Without another word he turns and walks away, ending the last five years of what I thought was the beginning of our life together. The elevator door closes and my heart shatters into a million pieces. Broken. This can’t be happening. We were getting married. We were going to have children, a life, a future! No!
I gasp for air, trying to fill my suffocating lungs. Ashton opens the door and pulls me inside while I lose everything I ever thought mattered.
“Shhh, it’s okay.” She holds me close to her chest. “It’s going to be okay,” she murmurs quietly in my ear.
There is nothing to hold me together as I crumble to the ground in complete devastation.
All over again.
Three months later
“Ever wonder what makes these people think they’re going to find love on these stupid reality shows?” Ashton asks as she plops on the couch next to me.
We’re watching another episode of this show where random women try to find their one true love through a series of dates with multiple people.
“No. But maybe we should sign up since the traditional route isn’t working so much.” I laugh, shoveling another spoonful of ice cream into my mouth.
It’s a three-day weekend and we’ve been lazy, drinking wine and watching trashy television and movies. After spending the first month post-breakup wallowing, Ashton put her foot down and forced me to function outside of work. I believed my life was just beginning and there was a happily ever after in sight, but I should’ve known better. This is real life: there is no prince charming, and I’m definitely not a princess. No more illusions of fairy-tale endings. He’s gone, and I’m alone.
“Could you imagine? All these girls are hot too. They’re dumb, but at least they’re pretty. Your company should represent them.”
“I don’t represent celebrities, Ash. You know that. I like being a publicist in the business world. Way less drama dealing with companies versus people.” She tries to snatch the ice cream but I move it out of her grasp. “Can we change the channel? Let’s watch something about blowing people up, or shooting people! I have no desire to watch people fall in love. I’d rather pretend everyone’s miserable like me,” I say, grabbing for the remote as my phone vibrates with a text.
Ashton slaps my hand. “Don’t change the channel. I want to see her cry and be all sad when he picks the other idiot.”
“You don’t want to watch the other girl be happy?”
“Are you crazy? This is better than watching someone get blown up!” Ashton sits up, animated and excited. “She’s going to be all ‘I thought what we had was real.’ We can change it after the first girl gets dumped.” She looks down at the phone and her jaw falls slack. “Neil’s still texting you?”
“If so many people didn’t have my number for work purposes, I’d change it.” I groan and grab the phone.
For two weeks after he chose another woman, I didn’t hear a word from him. Then I started getting periodic text messages. Initially I thought he was concerned, considering he broke my heart and ran over it a few times with an eighteen-wheeler. However, I figured out pretty quickly that he wanted something. His texts were usually about issues with cancelling wedding vendors. But lately, his texting has become more frequent and has focused on us exchanging belongings.
Neil: I have a few things I found of yours. Also, I think I left some stuff at your place.
I’m sure he did, but a few weeks after I found him and Piper together, I burned it. I took everything and anything I could find of his and set it on fire.
At first, I wanted to hold on to anything that was his. Even with how our breakup happened, I loved him. A part of me hoped we could reconnect, find a way to get past everything and move forward. But he never called. I held on to the false ideas of what our life was like—how we loved once and how wonderful he had been. All of those memories I latched on to so tight, hoping if I squeezed hard enough, they’d be enough. But they weren’t.
“You know none of this is your fault, right? He did all of this,” Ashton says while snatching the ice cream from my grasp.
“I know, I know. I want to stop thinking about him and move on, but he was my life for five years. I hate him so much, but then there’s this small piece of me that won’t let go.”
The worst part was when I was depressed. I was barely eating, forgetting things all the time, and the tears were pretty much constant. Days were lost like that. Work was the only place I could function, the only place that wasn’t tainted by memories of Neil and Piper. I could be me there, or at least some semi-normal version of me.
Now I’m in the anger stage, which is working out just fine. Every time I’ve had to explain why I cancelled the wedding, I’ve relived what he did. It’s been humiliating. I’d rather deal with a hundred rabid reporters than call my family to explain how my fiancé cheated and then broke up with me because he needed “more.” I remember the way he was so callous, so emotionless. The Neil I fell in love with wasn’t the same person at the end.
The memory floods back, barreling through my anger, which quickly morphs into sadness as I recall the pain. A tear forms, but I swipe it away before it can descend. Crying is for the weak, and I will not let him break me again.
Ashton smiles and places her hand on mine. “I’m sure there’s a part of you that will always love him. But I’ll help you hold on to the hate because that’s the only emotion that douchebag is worthy of.” Her blue eyes are blazing.
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