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Authors: L. E. Chamberlin

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For Life (Reclaimed Hearts Book 1)

BOOK: For Life (Reclaimed Hearts Book 1)
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FOR LIFE

Reclaimed Hearts Book1

 

L.E. Chamberlin

©2015 by L.E. Chamberlin.

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, or used in any manner whatsoever without the express permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

 

 

PROLOGUE

November 1, 2003

Grady

 

Am I that drunk? I’m standing in our bedroom with a fading hard-on, my ears still ringing from her words.

…fuck away from me…

…move out tonight…

…full custody…

I don’t feel like I’m all that drunk. Or maybe in the time that it’s taken me to lose my wife I’ve sobered up. My body feels loose, but my mind is suddenly sharp as I realize the magnitude of what’s just happened.

Cassie just threw me out.

She’s furious, and she meant every word she said before she locked herself in the bathroom. I know she’s been walking around with those words bottled up inside her for a while, but I was too much of a pussy to talk to her. I have nothing to say for myself. Everything she said to me is true, and that’s not even the half of it. I’ve failed her in every possible way.

I fumble for my duffel and start shoving clothes in it, my stomach roiling. I’ve been a shitty husband. I know I have been. I should’ve called tonight. I thought about it, and then I just…

The truth is, I’ve been avoiding this. Not her, my gorgeous wife, but
this
. The light in her eyes has been fading, and tonight it was gone altogether. The way she looked at me - not with adoration and desire like she used to, but with anger and disappointment - cut me to the bone.

In the dark, I could reach for her and pretend things were fine. Her body moved with mine like it always had, and her kisses weren’t tainted by the shadows in her eyes. In those moments I could fool myself that everything was the same as it was in the beginning, before it all got so complicated. Until tonight, when the light died and I knew I couldn’t fool myself anymore.

Fuck, if only we could go back…

I wouldn’t go back to the very beginning. The very beginning doesn’t have our kids. But sometime earlier, maybe a year ago? Two years ago? That’s when things were good. That’s when I was a better man.

We were happy then, Cassie and I and our babies. Suddenly I have the urge to see my kids, to reassure myself that they’re okay. I haven’t spent nearly enough time at home lately, and they’re growing so fast. Every time I look at them, they’re different. I peek into my little Chloe’s room, and when I’m certain she’s still asleep, I walk to her bedside to look at her.

I think it’s safe to say that although I haven’t been a completely shitty father, I’m not winning any Father of the Year contests. A lump forms in my throat as I stand over my daughter’s bed, watching the delicate rise and fall of her chest below the blankets. Mr. Tibbles, the ginger kitten I surprised Cassie with for birthday last year, has taken to Chloe instead and is in the crook of her tiny arm as usual. In the sliver of light from the open door the cat glares at me for interrupting his peaceful sleep. Or maybe he knows what a bastard I am, too.

I can’t bring myself to touch my daughter. If she wakes up and looks at me with her solemn little owl eyes I’ll lose it. I should’ve been at that fucking recital. I don’t need Cassie’s words to feel that dart of shame. I know Chloe will forgive me, but I don’t deserve her forgiveness.

Finally, I get the nerve up to stroke a lock of her hair, and she shifts slightly. Afraid to wake her, I slip from her room and go next door.

Caden’s room is an aquarium of glowing sea creatures. The lamp my mom got him for his Nemo-themed bedroom was his favorite present last Christmas, and now it spins happily in the dark, illuminating his space with its bright colors. My small son is flung across the bed like a starfish, his curls a dark puff on the pillow.

Pinching the bridge of my nose doesn’t keep the tears from scalding my eyes. I remember how I held my son in the hospital the night he was born and promised him I would teach him to be a man. I’ve fucked it all up. I’m not a man, I’m a failure. My word means nothing, and they’re all better off without me. I kneel at the side of Caden’s bed and kiss his tiny fingers before I go.

Downstairs I take the keys to the Corolla off the hook and leave my other set of keys to the Subaru. It’s the newer, safer car and I’ve been driving it because I can fit our band’s gear in the back. But someone else is going to have to drive it now - I need to leave her the safer car.

On the way out the door I’m halted by the sight of our first family portrait. I stop and stare at it through a blur of tears. Caden smiles a toothless grin from Chloe’s lap, and Cassie leans into me like woman who’s happy. Who trusts her man. Who has everything in the world she could possibly want.

I deserve this. Fuck, I know I do, but I’d do anything to take it back. I’d give anything to rewind the clock and start over, to find the moment where I started fucking up and make it right. To look at Cassie and see that look in her eyes again, that bright light of love, there isn’t anything I wouldn’t sacrifice. How did I fuck it up so badly? And why? I had everything in the world, and I let it slip through my fingers.

I kiss my fingertips and press them to the glass over our family. For a second I think I should run upstairs and try to make her change her mind. But then I remember the pain in her eyes when she told me to leave. If I’m ever going to make this up to her, it isn’t going to happen tonight.

I have no idea what happens next. But I believe, with all my heart, there’s a place where Cassie and I can be happy again, and I’m going to do whatever it takes to get us there. Even if it takes the rest of my life, I’ll never stop trying. I say a silent prayer for my wife and kids and walk out of the house I can no longer call mine.

CHAPTER ONE

October, Present Day

Cassie

 

“I am walking out this door in thirty seconds whether either one of you are with me or not!” I holler up the stairs.

No one pays a damn bit of attention to me.

Awesome.

The morning started with me swinging my legs over the side of the bed and stepping squarely in a pile of cold cat vomit. (Thank you, Mr. Tibbles.) I heard Chloe hit the snooze button at least three times, and my son - who told me just last week that since he’s a freshman now, he’s going to start using an alarm clock -
still
had to be roused. Both started the day in a grumbly mood, fighting over their turns in the shower and generally being pains in the ass. Now I’m dying to go to work just so I can have some peace and quiet.

I open and slam the door shut, still standing inside the foyer, and watch as a blur of teenage legs tumbles down the stairs.

I have no patience this morning for a lovely send-off. I remind them how lucky they are that I’m not making them ride the bus. Really, it’s lucky for me, since if they rode it they’d have to get up a full hour earlier, making my day even shorter. But on days like this I didn’t mind giving them a waspish reminder of my motherhood sacrifices.

Halfway to school I realize my son isn’t wearing his retainer.

“Cade, did you forget something?”

“What, Mom?” My boy is the picture of his father, dark hair and blue eyes, his newly lean jaw reminding me so much of Grady at his age. This summer he’s grown five inches and developed muscles I never expected my soft-cheeked baby to have. I swallow a lump as he gazes back at me through the rearview mirror, earnest and sweet now that his morning grogginess has worn off. It still surprises me that I can look at my teenagers and see glimpses of their sweet baby selves in their almost adult faces.

“Your retainer, bud.”

“Sorry, Mom, I must’ve left it in the bathroom when I brushed my teeth.”

“As soon as you get home from school, okay? No excuses.”

“Yeah, but I have cross-country this afternoon, remember?”

“Right,” I sigh. “As soon as you can, then, if you want to be done with braces by the end of the year.”

“Yeah, Ma. As soon as I can.” He’s my easy one, my sweet baby who still steals everyone’s heart with his ready smile and cheerful temperament.

Next to me Chloe stares disdainfully at some imaginary imperfection in the mirror, picking and prodding and contorting her face into a number of grotesque expressions before finally snapping back the visor with a huff. Where Caden is the image of his dad, Chloe is a perfect mix of me and my ex. Features of other relatives peek through, too - my mother’s delicately arched eyebrows frame Chloe’s wide gray eyes, her uncle Carl’s distinctive dimple flashes smack in the apple of her cheek. She’s my tempestuous one, always pushing me, quick to anger and slow to forgive. We’re too much alike, my oldest and I, and most of the time that’s more curse than blessing.

How they both became teenagers in the blink of an eye I have no idea. One minute they were infants and I was scrambling to figure out how to understand their needs. Next they were toddlers, into everything and driving me crazy. It didn’t help that I was working and caring for them alone most of the time. Grady, their father, is a loving dad who’s quite active in their lives now, but when they were little he was rarely home. He always loved them - I’ll never deny his emotional devotion to his children - but he took much longer to grow up than I did, and our family couldn’t wait for him to get it together. I filed for divorce when Chloe was six and Caden was just three, and it’s been just me and the kids ever since.

I’ve dated. I had a few dates that led nowhere, and then a couple years ago I was with a wonderful man named Adam. I loved him, I really did, but when it came time to move forward, I just couldn’t do it. Adam had been patient, but he deserved someone who could at least work toward the commitment he wanted, and I couldn’t promise that I’d ever want to marry again. Not after everything that happened with Grady. So I let him slip through my fingers.

I push thoughts of Adam’s sweet smile out of my head. There are still times I wonder if I made a mistake, letting him go. But when I think of the heartbreak and loss I experienced when Grady and I split up, I know I made the smart decision. At least on my own I’ll never have to live through that kind of hell again.

But Adam’s happily married with a new baby and you’re still alone,
the snarky little voice in my head reminds me.
So who’s really the smart one?

I don’t have an answer for that, so I peek again at my kids. My babies are the reason I have to be so careful with my heart. Caden plays a game on his phone, his face animated. Beside me, Chloe cracks her gum. She’s got her ear buds in and is nodding her head to some tune as she stares out the window, frowning at some point beyond the horizon. A couple more years and they’ll both be off living their own lives, a thought that fills me with dread. My whole adult existence has been centered around these two, so what will I do without them? Get a dog? Take up some random hobby, like scrapbooking or geocaching? I wonder idly how my friend Sandra - who is single and has no kids - fills her days. Pilates, yoga, shopping, meditation, sex with younger men? Apart from the sex, it all sounds incredibly boring to me. But that’s coming from the woman who spends her days trailing behind a couple of teenagers like some road-weary handler to the stars, doing laundry, cleaning up cat vomit, and dealing with constant, mysterious attitude from her teenage daughter.

Around the time I started dating Adam, Chloe shoved me out of her life, and I’ve been trying to figure out a way back in ever since. She was twelve at the time, and everyone I talked to about it said it was just adolescence, that it happened to all kids at that age, that she would get over it. She seemed to like Adam well enough, so I didn’t think it was about him. Her distance puzzles and saddens me, though. Now, as she finishes her last year of high school, I wonder if I’ll ever get my daughter back. She’ll be in college next year, and I don’t want the same thing to happen between us that happened with me and my mother.

Chloe has her bag slung over her shoulder as we pull into the parking lot and her fingers are on the handle before we even stop. When I say goodbye to her, she slides out of the car with a sullen face and barely a backwards flick of her fingers. Caden shrugs both arms into his backpack and leans down to say a proper goodbye to me, smiling and waving when he heads off like the happy kid he is. Then they both disappear into the throng of teenagers to begin their day, and I head off to work alone.

By quarter past ten, I’ve had my two-cup limit of coffee and cleared my inbox. I’m the acting director of a small community foundation that assists nonprofits, a position that became mine by default when my director was diagnosed with cancer. It’s feast or famine work. Some days, the phone doesn’t ring and things are slow. Other days, we’re slammed with phone calls and pop-ins, deadlines and disasters.

Jai, my new administrative assistant, has just gone over the schedule for the day. Fresh out of college, my right-hand man is sharp, energetic, and more of a perfectionist than I am. Our ancient, inefficient admin retired shortly after our director left, and I vowed to replace her with the best person I could find. I’m not sure the board likes my selection - Jai isn’t the kind of pigeon-breasted matron we’ve had in the past - but he and I have the perfect working relationship, a rare gift that I’ve been thankful for every single day of the five months he’s been with me.

Now he makes a disparaging noise in his throat and looks pointedly at his watch. “That heifer is late again, isn’t she?”

“She’s always late.” Sandra was supposed to be here at ten o’clock, but I always give her a twenty minute buffer, because my friend moves at her own unapologetic pace.

Jai shakes his head and strides back across the hall to his own office to type up a press release about an upcoming funding opportunity. I stretch my sore neck - an old injury from being rear-ended in my car one morning - while I wait for Sandra to arrive and show me the proofs of the gala invitations she designed for us.

She finally wanders in from Pilates predictably late and impressively chic, looking like an ad for healthy living with her glowing cheeks and well-rested gaze. Sandra, I should emphasize again, is single. No children. She doesn’t even have a cat. I have a moment of bitterness about her carefree existence before I remember she dodged quite a bullet with her first husband and is entitled to some happiness, even if I am envious about her calm mornings.

From my desk I watch her pause across the hall and drape herself against Jai’s door frame. Her voice drops to the seductive purr she always uses with men and I sigh and roll my eyes, realizing I probably need to get up and save the poor guy.

“I told you, you’re barking up the wrong tree,” I chastise her, shooing her away from his door. “Quit sexually harassing my admin.”

I usher her into my office and turn back to mouth a quick apology to Jai, who straightens his bowtie and looks at me gratefully over the top rims of his glasses. When Sandra’s back is turned he gives a little theatrical shudder before he returns to his work, his long, dark fingers resuming their movement on the keyboard.

I close my door and scold Sandra for her continued flirtation with poor Jai.

“He’s so adorable,” she sighs. “Maybe he just hasn’t found the right woman yet.”

“There is no right woman for Jai,” I remind her, shaking my head. “You’re shameless.”

“Can’t blame a girl for trying.”

I take in her expensive outfit and annoyingly toned body. “Did you lose more weight?” I ask, hoping to divert her attention.

It works. She looks pleased even though she shrugs and waves her hand dismissively. “I just finished a cleanse, so yeah, probably.”

Damn her, she does look great. Meanwhile I’m still carrying around the extra fifteen pounds I never quite lost after having Caden, nine and a half of which is probably in my ass.

“So what have you got for me?”

She shows me the mock-ups for the gala invitations on her tablet, and they’re gorgeous. No surprise. My friend’s artistic genius is the reason I put up with her fluid sense of time, otherwise I would never mix business and friendship. One of our board members has been using the same graphic designer for years, and the designs are tired and stale. I’m hoping Sandra can infuse a bit of freshness into our annual affair’s promotion this year.

“Ohhh, I like that blue,” I gush. The subtle silver sheen of the background is adorned with the most beautiful swirls of color. She’s made it look wintry without the overdone snowflakes they’ve always had on past invitations.

“I couldn’t decide between the cerulean and the lapis, so I did you a couple of each. I think lapis pops more with the silver. But it’s your call.”

“You’re a genius. I’m gonna have to get a really great blue dress now or otherwise I’ll be shaming these invitations.”

She laughs. “Thanks. But get your board to approve them before you choose your dress. I have a terrible feeling they’re going to say no to these invitations.”

“No chance. They owe me. And these are prettier than any we’ve had so far.”

Our 10th annual Diamond Gala is four months away and I need to get these cards finalized and into people’s hands, only first I’ll need to run them by my board’s fundraising subcommittee. They’re notoriously picky and only agreed to give Sandra a shot at this year’s design because I raved about her work. I pray they won’t stonewall me the way they do about so many other things.

“Speaking of owing…” Sandra begins slyly, a gleam in her amber eyes.

“No, no, no, a million times, no. I see that look, and I’m telling you, it’s not happening.”

But she won’t be put off. “Will you trust me just this once? Cassie, he’s British.
British
. His name is Gavin and he is
to die for
,” she gushes. “Tall, blue eyes, completely sexy. He’s does Pilates at my studio and all the women are wild about him.”

“If he’s so sexy why aren’t you after him?”

She makes a face. “No way. He’s
widowed
. And he’s got
kids
.” She says the last bit with a little too much disdain and I glare at her. “No, come on, you know what I mean.
Small
kids. You know, a lot of work.”

Because teenagers are a walk in the park?
I think to myself, but I bite my tongue. She doesn’t know any better.

And maybe this Gavin guy is worth meeting. It’s been a long time since I went on a date. I could use some male attention. Even if it’s not a love match, which I’m sure it won’t be, I could stand to get my mojo back.

She’s shocked when I shrug and say, “Sure. Give him my number and tell him I’ll have coffee.”

“Seriously? But hon, remember, he’s British. I’m not sure he knows what coffee is.”

“Well he will if he wants any parts of me,” I declare. “I don’t do tea. Come on, let’s talk pricing and then I’m kicking you out of here so I can get some work done.”

“You work too hard,” she says with a sigh. “You need to have some fun. Lighten up, get swept away in a romance. Find your soul mate. It’s not too late. You’re only, what, thirty-seven?”

BOOK: For Life (Reclaimed Hearts Book 1)
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