Authors: Dori Lavelle
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Family Life, #Romance, #Contemporary
TO LOVE AGAIN
Learning To Live Again 2
By Dori Lavelle
To Love Again (Learning to Live Again 2)
Copyright © 2015 by Dori Lavelle
All Rights Reserved.
Cover Art: Clarise Tan
Editor: Leah Wohl-Pollack and Samantha Gordon
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the internet or any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.
Shaun Brannon is broken to the core. But even though Kelsey's heart is cracking as she helps him carry the weight of his past, she can't walk away from her promise to be there for him, and she can't ignore her deepening feelings. So she tries to accept the little he's offering, even though she wants it all. But after months of wrestling with her emotions, she decides she must risk losing him by asking for more than he's prepared to give her.
Shaun won't admit it, but he aches for more than Kelsey's warm body in his bed. The problem is, something stands between them. The whole truth about what happened eight years ago. When Kelsey demands to have all of him or she'll walk away, he knows the time has come to tell her the truth. But the fear of reliving the past is just as paralyzing as the thought of losing her.
One month since they had agreed to be friends with benefits, and Shaun hadn’t spent the night once. Until today.
Kelsey’s heart swelled as she gazed at him. The urge to touch him, to sweep the lock of dark hair from his forehead, to feel the graze of his stubble against the palm of her hand, was so strong she bit her lip to restrain herself. She didn't want to wake him. Every time he left her, he left her bed so cold.
She satisfied herself with watching him, amazed that his peaceful, chiseled face was the same one that reflected so much pain most of the time. The pain that caused him to keep her at arm’s length, at least when it came to a relationship.
Thirty minutes later, exhaustion taunted her and she gave in. She yawned, flicked off the nightlight, and gently pulled the white sheets up over her naked body. She drifted off to sleep with a tiny smile on her face, content and comforted by his warmth and the sound of his breathing.
Not even an hour had passed before a jerking movement woke her and she opened her eyes. She couldn't see a thing in the darkness, but she felt Shaun thrashing and groaning in his sleep, as if struggling to free himself from something.
Heavy-hearted, Kelsey turned on the light again. It would be cruel not to wake him when he was having a nightmare.
"Shaun." She touched his shoulder. Then she brushed that lock of hair off his damp forehead. "It's all right. It's just a dream."
Disoriented, Shaun sat up, his rippled muscles flexing and relaxing. "Fuck." He swiped at the beads of sweat on his forehead with his hand. "What happened?" He blinked furiously.
"You had a nightmare...I think."
Please just calm down and go back to sleep. Don't leave. Please stay.
Shaun swung his legs out of bed and rested his elbows on his knees, dropping his head into his hands. "Sorry about that."
Kelsey kneeled behind him on the bed and wrapped her arms around his shoulders, inhaling the smell of soap and cologne lingering on his skin. "You have nothing to worry about. It's normal to have nightmares after everything you went through."
His already-hard muscles tensed under her touch. "Let's not talk about that." He shrugged—a slight shrug, but it was enough to send a message to Kelsey.
A wave of humiliation swept through her, and she disentangled herself from him. Since opening up to her about his past a month ago, he refused to talk about it anymore. When she broached the subject, he got annoyed. But Kelsey had fallen for him, and she wanted to know more; she felt she had to know his pain in order to navigate the path to his heart, to find a way to reach him, comfort him, heal him. But he guarded his past like a hawk.
"Okay." Her voice was husky with pent-up emotion.
He turned to look at her, his grey eyes clouded. "Why didn't you wake me?"
"You were so peaceful." Kelsey swallowed back a sob. "I thought..."
"You should have." His tone was hard.
Kelsey fell back against the covers, which still smelled of his cologne, her perfume, and their passion. She hugged a pillow to her body. "What's so wrong about you spending the night? It doesn't have to mean we're dating."
His thick lashes shrouded his gaze and he turned away. "I just prefer to sleep alone, in my own bed."
"Fine." Kelsey hardened her voice to match his. "Leave." She climbed out of bed, pulling the bed sheet along with her, wrapping it around her body and knotting it at the front between her breasts. She walked out of the room and went downstairs to the kitchen for a drink.
Five minutes later, there was a shuffle in the living room, then the front door clicked closed. She waited another five minutes, then went to lock it. She rested her forehead again the wood and squeezed her eyes shut, trying but failing to stifle the anger blazing through her. She was furious at herself for being so vulnerable with him. Each time he refused to let her in, he cracked her heart a little bit more.
But it was her own damn fault. Shaun had been clear from the start about what he wanted. She had willingly walked into their twisted arrangement. Now she was walking away with the scars.
He was broken beyond repair. Why couldn't she just let go? Why did she stay when being with him hurt so much? How much more could she put herself through?
Shaun sprinted along the beach, the sand whispering under his running shoes. He ran until the cold wind tore at his cheeks, and the air he breathed turned to shards of ice inside his lungs, piercing them from within. He ran until his eyes watered with tears he wished he could shed. But he was incapable of crying. His wife died eight years ago, and he hadn't even cried at her funeral. Instead, his guilt tormented him day and night. There was no way of easing the pain. No way of escaping what he'd done.
Kelsey was a one-night stand gone wrong. He’d wanted just one night with her. No promises, no strings attached. One night of passion, and then they would continue being friends. Then she broke the rules. So had he, only she didn’t know it. He couldn't deny it any longer. She had unlocked something inside him, a small window to his heart. Why the fuck did he let her in?
The muscles in his legs were on fire now, threatening to go numb with pain. Panting like a dog on a hot day, he slumped forward and rested his hands on his knees, exhaling clouds of steam. Then he dropped to his knees and scrunched his eyes shut, listened to his thumping heart reprimand him. What had he been thinking, telling her about his past? He hadn't told her everything that night on the beach, but he’d said enough. And now he had to deal with the consequences.
As the floodgates burst open and the old torturous emotions flooded in, he struggled just to breathe. Kelsey only made things worse. The pleading in her eyes that begged him for more than just sex. He couldn't do it. He couldn't offer her more than what they'd agreed on. He couldn't let her get too close, or she might see the secrets he was still hiding deep within. The pain, the anguish, the regrets.
Since he couldn't clear his mind by swimming in the freezing sea, he ran. Every single time after he'd slept with her. Spending the night was never an option. And he always walked out the door, straight into the darkness, without looking back. He refused to catch a glimpse of the broken hopes in her eyes.
He preferred to run. He ran away from the past, he ran away from the guilt. He ran like hell away from Kelsey. He knew he was using her, but he couldn't do anything but run.
EIGHT YEARS EARLIER
It was hard for Shaun to believe that just two days ago was his and Carmen's wedding day. Now, he watched his new wife through a window as she lay in a hospital bed, in a coma. It had been two days since he last saw her green eyes, saw her smile, heard her laugh. Two days that felt like a bloody lifetime. The loudest he'd ever heard her laugh was on their way from the wedding reception, just moments before the accident. He had never seen her happier.
Her face was ashen now, and the raven hair that peeked out from the bandage on her head was dull against the hospital sheets. On their wedding day, it had been beautiful and glossy, pinned on top of her head in an intricate updo.
Shaun’s back hit the wall as his legs threatened to give way. He knew he should go in and be with her. But it got harder each time he walked out. The heavily bandaged woman in there, attached to beeping machines, the woman who had undergone an eight-hour lifesaving brain surgery, the love of his life, was there because of him. He'd survived the crash with a deep cut down his back. But compared to her injuries, he'd left without a scratch.
How could he have been so stupid to drive when he had alcohol in his system? The police said the alcohol level on his breath had been below the legal limit, but Shaun didn't give a fuck about that. It had been enough to make him lose focus, just for a second. And that second counted.
He finally dragged himself into the room and slumped into the chair next to her bed. He would be there for her no matter what.
Talking softly, he ran a thumb over Carmen's cold hand, hoping she could feel him, his love reaching out to her, begging her to return to him. But her limp hand lay motionless in his. He lifted it to his lips and kissed each knuckle, taking his time. "Come back, my love. Come back to me. Come back to us. We still have a honeymoon to go to, you know." He was lying. He had canceled their honeymoon in the Seychelles.
He watched her doll-like face, remembering their words at the altar. "Till death do us part," they'd said.
He pinched the bridge of his nose. No fuckin' way. He was not ready to part yet. Their life as a married couple hadn't even had a chance to begin. What had they done to deserve what had been handed them? If anybody deserved to be happy, it was Carmen. A woman who had always put others ahead of herself. She was a nurse; she helped others heal. Surely, fate had made a mistake. This tragedy was meant for someone else. Not her.
Shaun blinked and a tear trickled onto Carmen's hand. "Baby, wake up and we'll have one hell of a honeymoon. Anywhere you want." He threw his hands in the air and laughed. "Fine, we can even go to Disneyland."
Carmen had been a child at heart. She believed life was meant to be celebrated, or every day would be a waste. She had always been determined to find a slice of happiness in every moment. And she usually did. But because of his carelessness, he'd possibly robbed her of that, all the happy memories she had gathered during her life.
Even if she woke up, there was no knowing how much of her he’d get back. Would she still be the same girl he fell for? The girl who threw caution to the wind and approached him at a college party, telling him she'd regret it if she didn't ask him out? Would she be the same girl who woke him in the early hours of the morning to watch a bird perching on a branch outside the window? The girl who didn't think twice about slipping out of bed at midnight to go eat ice cream on the porch swing while watching the waves crashing on the beach?
Would she even remember him at all?
Fifteen minutes after Kelsey arrived home from her cooking class, Shaun appeared at her door, looking sheepish.
"Hi." She blocked the door with her body.
"Kelsey." He pinched the bridge of his nose and took a deep breath. "I shouldn't have stormed out on you like that. I'm sorry."
Kelsey blinked and leaned against the doorframe, arms crossed. "Shaun, I understand what you're going through. Really, I do. But it doesn't mean you can lash out at me. All I tried to do was comfort you. Be there."
He closed his eyes briefly. "I know, I know. I was a fool. When the nightmares come, I can't think straight. They take me back there." He paused. "But you're right, it doesn't give me the right to act a fool."
Kelsey sighed. "No, it doesn't." After he left that night, she'd thought long and hard. She’d tried to put herself in his shoes. What if it were her, and she’d lost her husband because of an accident she'd caused? How would she be able to live with herself?
"I forgive you this time," she said. She couldn't blame him for his actions. She had known from the start that he had his demons, and had offered to be there for him anyway, to be his friend, even though she wanted more. A deep desire swelled inside her: a need to protect him from himself, to be the shield between him and his past. "Want to come in?"
Shaun shook his head. "Maybe later. I have to finish up a few chapters. My agent is expecting an update tomorrow night. How about we go out for dinner at The Hot Pot later?"
Kelsey nodded and found a small smile for him. "Sounds good."
Shaun and Kelsey had just finished their meal at The Hot Pot when the owner, Lucy, walked over to their table to get their plates. Before she returned to the kitchen, she bent to whisper in Kelsey's ear. "Can I have a word with you for a moment?"
"Sure." Kelsey met Shaun's eyes, gave a small shrug, and stood up to follow Lucy to the back of the restaurant.
Lucy's office was like a closet with a tiny window. A half-eaten slice of cheesecake sat on the desk, balanced between overflowing stacks of cookbooks. The only other pieces of furniture were two chairs, a rickety old shelf, and a computer with a printer next to it.
Kelsey sat down on one of the chairs.
Lucy sat behind the desk and leaned forward. "How's your cooking course going?"
"It's going very well. I'm enjoying it a lot."
"Learning a lot?"
"Much more than I'd expected to in such a short time."
"I'm glad. I wish I'd had the same opportunity as you when I was growing up. My parents couldn't afford it."
"You mean you haven't gone to any type of culinary school?"
Lucy's eyes gleamed. "Everything I know, I taught myself. My first job was as a dishwasher in a fancy restaurant in Limmery. I watched the chefs, made notes, practiced at home, and worked as a cook there for years until I could open my own restaurant."
"That's some achievement." Kelsey wasn't surprised that Lucy had made it all on her own. Kelsey had eaten at The Hot Pot enough to know that Lucy was not only hardworking, but that she loved what she did. That love became the warmth with which she welcomed her guests.
"Anything is possible. Kelsey, I asked you here because I want to make you an offer."
Kelsey edged closer to the edge of the chair. "What kind of offer?"
"Do you get much practice outside of class?"
"Now and then I cook at home, but not often." In the past month, she had cooked two or three meals and invited Shaun to join her. She didn't like to go through the effort of cooking a meal only to eat it alone.
"What would you say if I asked you to come and work here part time? That way you can earn a bit of money on the side."
A warm glow spread through Kelsey's body and she smiled. The Hot Pot had no stars attached to it, but experience, however insignificant it appeared to be, was something money couldn't buy. "You mean that?"
"But I've only been at The Cooking Academy for a few weeks. What if I get it wrong?"
"You can start with easy meals and move on to more complicated ones. The truth is"—Lucy pursed her lips but her gaze didn't waver—"our second cook has fallen chronically ill, and we could use an extra pair of hands."
Kelsey's brow furrowed. "I'm so sorry to hear that."
"That's all right. Apart from that, Chef Frank is a friend of mine. He said you're a good student with great potential."
Kelsey's smile broadened. "I had no idea. It still amazes me how small this town is."
"It sure is. We're one big family."
"Lucy, I'd love to work for you."
"That's excellent." Lucy pulled a sheet of paper and a pen from a drawer and scribbled something down. "You can work evenings after classes, Tuesdays through Fridays. You can work the whole day every other Saturday, and have Sundays and Mondays off."
"That sounds perfect." Gratitude filled Kelsey. "Thanks so much, Lucy!"
"No need to thank me. I'm hiring you because I need you."