Authors: Marquita Valentine
After We Fall
is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
A Loveswept Ebook Original
Copyright Â© 2016 by Marquita Valentine
Hard to Fall
by Marquita Valentine copyright Â© 2016 by Marquita Valentine
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Loveswept, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
is a registered trademark and the
colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.
This book contains an excerpt from the forthcoming book
Hard to Fall
by Marquita Valentine. This excerpt has been set for this edition only and may not reflect the final content of the forthcoming edition.
Cover design: Okay Creations
Cover photograph: Â© Colin Anderson/Getty Images
It's been six months since I last spoke to her. One hundred and eighty days since I last saw her battered and bruised face. Four thousand, three hundred, and twenty hours since I last touched her vulnerable body. Not that I'm counting. I shouldn't count. I shouldn't think of her at all.
Over the years, I've escorted countless women to shelters, but none have affected me on the same level as she did. Not a single one. I can't get her out of my head. Can't stop wondering if she's safe, if she's back with her sadistic husband, or if she's lying dead on the side of the road.
It's where she was found the first time. Shuffling down the beltline, no shoes, torn clothes. An extra from
The Walking Dead
looked better than she did. Had less blood on them, too.
Exhaling thickly as I get out of my truck, I head inside the bar where I'm meeting my partner for drinks. We've had a hell of a shift today, and a beer or two is calling our names.
Why this woman? I don't get it. I really don't, and it's not like I haven't had the opportunity to get her out of my head, because I have. Believe me, I have. A lot of women dig the cop uniform. The cuffs, too.
Only for the past six months, I've said no. I guess you could call it a form of self-imposed celibacy. In any case, I'm not buying what they're offering. On one hand, it sucks to not be into any other women, but I'm twenty-eight years oldâhardly some punk with a raging boner and a drive to stick it into anything willingly standing still.
“The FNG is here,” Roberts shouts and I inwardly groan. Why in the hell did Dwight have to invite him? I can't stand that dude, or his nickname for me.
Fucking New Guy.
I haven't been the FNG for ten years, not since I first joined straight out of high school. But since I did a lateral transfer from Forrestville's police department to the city of Charlotte PD's Family Victims Unit, I've been called nothing else by him. All because he was hired a day before me. Other than that, we have exactly the same amount of time in.
Shooting Dwight a glare, I join them at the back of the room. Dwight already has a cold one waiting for me. “This helps.”
“Not my choice, man,” he whispers as I take the chair beside him. Our backs are against the wall, and from our vantage point we can see almost every patron.
Bohannon's is small and locally owned, and has the best beer selection around. Best of all, not many people know about it. Well, until recently, they didn't, and Roberts sure as shit didn't drink here.
“Who told him?” I ask, grabbing the mug and tipping it up.
Dwight shrugs. “He saw your text while I was in the can.”
“Dude, I've told you about leaving your phone around,” I mutter, switching to Spanish. Dwight understands more than he can speak, but since Roberts is barely fluent in English, I don't worry about him getting butt-hurt. “Now that he knows about Bohannon's, we will never hear the end of it.”
“What was I supposed to do?” Dwight asks softly. “Tell him it was a date for two?”
The music kicks on over the sound system and all chances of further conversation about Roberts cease.
Roberts grins at the waitress who hurries to our table. “What's up, baby?”
Patricia gives him a look. Dwight and I have no problem calming Roberts's ass down if need be, but Patricia can take care of herself. And to be fair, Roberts isn't a bad guy, just an annoying-as-fuck one.
“Ah, baby boy, who let you out of your pram?” she coos at him with an Irish accent as thick as the corned beef stew they serve. Patricia has lived in the States for twenty years, but that brogue of hers hasn't faded at all.
I bite back a grin. “How are you tonight, my bonnie lass?”
She hits my shoulder with her hip. “Don't be trying my patience, Hunter. I've not the time for you.” A flirty wink accompanies her admonishment. Then she slides a plate of homemade nachos in front of Dwight and me.
Roberts reaches for the plate, but she smacks his hand away. “Hey!” he nearly shouts before turning to us. “You saw what sheâ”
“âDidn't see anything.”
“Thanks, Patricia.” Dwight tips up his drink to her.
With a nod, she leaves the table.
“You two have dates here often?” Roberts asks, snagging a loaded nacho.
I give him a meaningful look. “We did.”
The door to the bar opens, and automatically my eyes go right to it. Tension floods my body. I don't think that will ever go away. I always expect the person walking in to be carrying. I always think that whomever I'm talking to is lyingâ¦until they prove otherwise.
When I catch sight of a familiar face, the tension begins to ease.
“I thought this was a bar for cops,” Roberts complains.
“Shut up and eat,” I order, and he digs in. Not for the first time, I wonder if he is purposefully irritating to get something he really wants and not what it looks like he wants.
“Walker,” Dwight shouts, his hands cupped around his mouth. “Back here.”
The fire captain for Station 52, Hayden Walker is a good guy. I've worked with him before on ride-alongs when he wanted to ease tensions between the PD and CFD after a brutal misunderstanding that got two civilians and a cop killedâ¦and a firefighter brought up on charges. Hayden had been brought in from down east, from some hole-in-the-wall town near Wilmington, to play nice. Apparently, as a state senator's son, he has a gift for public relations.
“Hayden,” I say, tipping up my chin at him in greeting.
He takes a seat across from me, unconcerned with who might be behind him. I can't fault him, though. Hayden puts his life on the line, but people are usually glad to see his flashing lights. Or, at the very least, they are grateful.
“Thought I'd drop by and see if King's was on the menu tonight,” he says. A flash of his infamous smile makes more than a few heads turn at nearby tables. The women in here cannot keep their eyes off him. He's got that angel-face look combined with a devil-may-care attitudeâwomen dig that more than cuffs.
“Not up for it tonight, but thanks,” I say. My partner won't go because he's a happily married guy with two kids. Even if I wanted to go, I wouldn't attempt to drag Dwight along. Doesn't matter that his wife, Alisha, trusts him. Doesn't matter that he's the most faithful guy to ever walk the planet, I'm not putting any temptation in his path by going to a place known for hot servers and hotter patrons.
Hayden gives Dwight a meaningful look while Roberts continues to shove food in his face.
“You going for a world record?” Hayden asks.
Al pescando y a la mujer, con los dedos ha de ser.
In other words, I can't be too careful.”
“If you were any more careful, you would be a monkâ¦oh wait, you're not that far off,” Dwight says, then leans back in his chair. “Just come out with us, man. Alisha's cool with it.”
“Is this a setup?” I look from my partner to my friend, my eyes narrowing as I shake my head.
did, which is why I wanted to come,” Roberts says around a mouthful of nachos. “Dwight leaves his phone where anyone can read it. Don't forget to pick up tampons on the way home tonight, bro.”
My partner flips off Roberts while muttering, “Shut up, man.”
Hayden rolls his eyes before rapping his knuckles against the table. “Are we going or not?”
“Maybe another time.” I stand. “Thanks for the beer and the company, but I got to see a dog about a playdate outside.”
“At least Jake is getting some action,” Hayden replies with a smirk.
Probably my dog is getting more action than me at the dog park, but he's fixed soâ¦“Later, guys.” I head outside.
Honestly, I should go out with them. Dwight would be an awesome wingman while Hayden doesn't even go for my type of woman. However, neither of them knows what's going on in my head right now or what's been going on in my head for the past six months. Not even my partner knows.
They weren't there when I came on the scene. They didn't see her battered body or the way she clung to me and no one else when attempts were made to get her into the ambulance. They hadn't held her hand on the ride over. They hadn't stood to one side while she was inspected and photographed for evidence against the man who had beaten her.
But I was there, and until I get her out of my head, no other woman will do.
It's late when I get home, but since it's August, the sun hasn't completely set yet. Orange and yellow lights filter down through the huge leaves in the front yard. For once, the small parking lot to the right of the building is filled. All six spots taken.
Looks like someone finally rented the last apartment available. It just so happens to be the one across from mine.
My apartment is one of six in a huge mansion built in the early 1900s that was recently converted. It's quiet. Peaceful. People are friendly but aren't all up in your business.
All in all, it's the perfect place. Though, this neighborhood doesn't hold the best memories for me. I'd gotten into a lot of fights. Fights with other kids and the man who couldn't keep his hands off my mom.
I think that's why I had to come backâto face my demons. To show the people who do remember my family and me that I've done something with my life. That I am one of the good guys now, that I've stopped fighting to stay alive to be a man who fights against crime. Like a superhero. Only without the cool costume or billions in the bank.
Two out of three isn't bad.
Just as I step onto the brick path that leads to the side entrance, I get a glimpse of a woman with light brown hair. She's attempting to balance moving boxes while unlocking the door.
For no logical reason, my heart speeds up. I jog over to her while calling out, “Hey there. Need some help?”
“Gosh, yes,” she says with a laugh that makes my groin tight. Now this is an improvement. I can't see her face, but if that laugh is enough to make me stand up and take noticeâ¦my imagination runs wild. Maybe I don't have to get
out of my head after all.
I pick up a couple of boxes. “Hey, I'm Hunter, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you. I'm Evangeline,” she says, turning to face me. Her body freezesâonly for a moment or twoâbut it's long enough for me to notice.
Besides, I'd recognize those gorgeous blue-green eyes anywhere. “I know who you are.”
“You do?” She scrunches her brow as if she's deep in thought. “I'm sorry that I can't say the same.”
“Maybe I'm mistaken.” Maybe the pope will get married tomorrow. Taking the boxes, I wait for her to open the door.
Another peal of laughter has me rock hard in two seconds flat after it leaves her mouth. “I have one of those faces. Last week, at the grocery store, someone mistook me for Scarlett Johansson. She's filming a movie here, soâ¦”
The only thing the woman in front of me has in common with Scarlett Johansson is the fact that they are both female. I don't know why she's pretending like she doesn't know me, but what I do knowâ¦She's a damn liar.
The woman standing in front of me is Evangeline Ambrose, the same woman I haven't been able to get out of my head for months. The same woman I escorted to a battered women's shelter. The same woman I had no business asking after.
“What a coincidence, someone mistook me for her, too,” I reply drily.
She blinks up at me, her mouth twitching at the corners, but she doesn't laugh again. I know it's because she sees the serious look on my face.
pretty,” she says, giving me a whole other side to her. One I like.
“Most women think I am,” I disagree. What the hell has just left my mouth?
Walking in front of me, she leads the way to her apartment. “Good for them. You, too.”
As she begins to ascend the stairs, my gaze goes right to her ass. The faded denim cups her just right as it stretches with her movements.
“Lived here long?” I ask, trying to keep my thoughts aboveboard, or above her plump ass anyway.
That's all she says until we arrive at her apartment. If I weren't carrying these boxes, I have no doubt she would have run from me by now.
She stops in front of a blue door and unlocks it, before turning to me. “I can take it from here.”
“I'm happy to help you. It's in my job description.”
Her lips part, and the urge to kiss her rides me hard. She's so damn pretty. So delicate. What man in his right mind would ever try to harm someone so much smaller than himself?
A man like your father, that's who,
I remind myself.
“You're the onsite manager?” she asks with false cheerfulness. “How nice.”
I can't believe she's going to continue this lie. I know it's a lie. She knows it's a lie, and she has to know that I know it's a lie.
“Nope,” I reply, hoping that my answer grates on her nerves as much as hers did mine. “Not the manager.”
“Okay, then.” She nods, opening the door and taking the boxes from me. “Thanks again. Maybe I'll see you around.”
“Count on it,” I say with a grin, and walk to the door directly across from hers.
“Dream on,” she mutters loud enough for me to hear.
Oh baby, I don't have to dream.
“What are you doing?” she practically screeches.
“Going home.” Glancing over my shoulder at her, I unlock my door. “That's what I do each day after work.”
“But you can't.”
Turning around, I cross my arms over my chest. “But I can.”
“No.” She shakes her head, her chin becoming mutinous. “I refuse toâ” She smashes her lips together and whirls around, slamming the door behind her.