Deleted/Alternative WHEN YOU ARE MINE Scenes

With so many readers finding the Bennett series for the first time with the release of book 4, UNTIL I’M YOURS, it has made me revisit the first books I ever wrote. So many things have changed. Now I write mostly in first person than in third. I think my books are a lot steamier now. But I think my voice is still the same, which as a writer you have to discover and fight to maintain.

Anyhoooo…I thought I’d resurrect a couple of alternative and deleted scenes.

I shared a prologue from Kerris’ childhood before. It can be found HERE.

Below is ONLY FOR THOSE WHO HAVE READ When You Are Mine!!! It is Cam’s last visit with Kris at the hospital, right before he runs into Walsh as he’s leaving. It is unedited, so excuse any errors! It never made it to the light of day b/c the book was exclusively Walsh & Kerris’ point of view.

Hope you enjoy! :-)

 

 AND GO…

Cam slipped into Ms. Kris’s hospital room. He’d meant to come on his lunch break, but things had gotten hectic at the office. Now it was after five o’clock, and he probably wouldn’t have much time before Walsh showed up. He stopped just inside, shocked at how small and drawn she looked against the sterile white hospital sheets. Pain wrapped around his heart like a stubborn vine, squeezing out what little peace he’d had.

He remembered what life had been like before he’d met this incredible woman. The memory of that life haunted him, sometimes dogging him into his sleep, nightmare and memory inextricably woven.

Cam noticed for the first time the simple Christmas decorations someone, probably Jo, had put up. A small tree on the bedside table. A few white lights suspended over Ms. Kris’s hospital bed. A large poinsettia in the corner. The festive touches couldn’t dispel the sense of inevitability hovering in the room like an unwanted visitor.

Cam sat down and pulled out his sketchpad. He hated to see her this way; her light dimmed and, based on the news Kerris had broken to him about hospice, soon to be extinguished. He settled himself at the foot of her bed, careful not to disturb her. He propped the sketchpad on his knees, filling the blank page with the picture his mind’s eye stored of her at her most glorious. Her dark hair spilling around her shoulders, and the lovely skin pulled with taut vitality over the regal bones of her face. Her wide mouth spread into an infectious grin. She stirred, stilling his charcoal pencil and drawing his attention.

“Hi, beautiful.” He tossed the pad to the floor and crawled up to her end of the bed, lying down on top of the covers in her outstretched arms.

He closed his eyes, burrowing his nose into her neck, searching for her smell. Beneath the stench of illness, antiseptic and approaching death, it was still there. He inhaled, content to be held right here as his mother had never held him. Kristeene taught him what a mother should be, and though she’d always called him her second son, he never believed it. Been afraid or unable to accept it. When you have a son like Walsh Bennett, why would you want a worthless piece of shit like him? He’d never envied Walsh’s money or the compounded power that came with the Walsh and Bennett names. He’d envied this, though. He’d secretly coveted this goddess who had given birth to Walsh.

Entitled bastard had everything, had this, handed to him as an accident of birth, and now he wanted his wife.

“Kerris came to see me today,” Kristeene whispered, making Cam wonder if he’d fumed so much he had spoken aloud, or if Kisteene’s maternal clairvoyance kicked in as it had so many times before.

“She told me.”

“She’s so special, Cam.” Ms. Kris ran her hand over the almost shoulder length dark hair he’d left hanging loosely around his neck today.

“Yep.” Cam leaned into the gentle stroke like he had since he was thirteen years old.

“Did she tell you I’m going home tomorrow?” Ms. Kris fixed her gaze on the emotion he knew must be soaking his eyes.

“Ms. Kris, I can’t-I don’t know what I’ll do if you…”

“There’s no ‘if’, baby.” A trembling, skeletal hand traced the arch of his brows. “It’s gonna happen. This is my last Christmas. I’m dying.”

And inside of him, something was dying, too. Something that, early on, had been whipped into a mass of self-contempt, shame and rage, huddled in a corner when he’d first met this woman. It had healed and come to life under her compassion, love and acceptance. Cam was afraid it would die with her.

“I have a peace about it,” Kristeene said.

I don’t!

The denial rattled like a bell in his brain and shook his heart, but he wasn’t going to lay his shit on her; the fact that he couldn’t deal with a death she already seemed resigned to.

“How can you have peace about death?” His voice sounded hushed and solemn in his own ears.

“I believe in an afterlife, Cam. In Heaven, and I believe that’s where I’ll be. And I know that I’m leaving this earth with a clear heart. I didn’t do everything I wanted, but I did a lot. I paid attention to the things that were most important.”

She allowed a small silence to bathe them in contemplation before adding, “And I’ve forgiven.”

Cam stiffened, turning his head to consider her with narrowed eyes. Even sick and near death, she was cagey. There was no way Jo hadn’t told her something about what happened with Kerris and Walsh. She would have been curious about why they were never together when they visited; why they avoided each other like hand, foot and mouth disease.

“Forgiveness isn’t always an option, Ms. Kris.” He broke the words up into bite-size pieces in his mouth.

“When it’s your time, not forgiving isn’t an option. You only ask yourself why. Why would I hang onto that?’”

“I know exactly what I’m holding onto and why.” Cam slipped off the bed, scooping up his sketchpad and thrusting it under his arm, his movements jerky.

“You’ll have to forgive Walsh, Cam.” Kristeene’s breath hitched with the effort it took to pull herself up on her elbows.

“You don’t know what he’s done.” Cam glared at his Chuck Taylors, the black and white blurring with the rage wetting his eyes.

“He kissed Kerris,” Kristeene said, her voice heavy with sympathy.

Cam returned her steady gaze.

“And you think I should forgive him?”

“I think you have to. He and Jo are all the family you’ve got.”

“No, I’ve got Kerris.” Cam knifed the air with one long, slim hand. “And no one, not even your perfect son, will take her away from me.”

“Did you marry her even suspecting a little bit that there were feelings between them?” Kristeene probed and poked around the thing Cam had barely admitted to himself.

Cam glanced at Kristeene, a battered angel, earthbound and more vulnerable, but more fierce, than he’d ever seen her.

“You think I have cancer,” she said. “You just keep holding onto unforgiveness. It’ll eat away at you from the inside. It’ll spread to everything good in your life and destroy it. Including your marriage.”

“He shouldn’t have kissed her.” The lean lines of his body petrified into stone with no outlet for his hostility. “He had no right.”

“No, he had no right. He was wrong, and I’m sure if they could take it back, they would. But they can’t, Cam. And you can let that one moment haunt and destroy your marriage and cost you the best friend you’ve ever had, or you can let it go and move on. Knowing they won’t hurt you like that again. Knowing it was a mistake.”

“I’m not ready for that.” His fingers clawed into twitchy balls at his side, aching to squeeze Walsh’s throat. “I keep seeing them together in my head, and I can’t stand to look at him.”

“You don’t hold her responsible at all?” Kristeene raised the skin where her eyebrows used to rest before radiation left it smooth and naked like a baby’s.

“I know Kerris and I know Walsh. I know who made the first move; who initiated this. He’s been in love—” he cut himself off, turning away to face the window.

“So you did know.”

“I’d have to be blind not to know he felt something for her. At first I assumed he just wanted to screw her like most guys, but then I realized it was more than that.”

“More like what you felt for her?” Kristeene pressed. “And you were afraid, if given time, she’d choose him?”

“Who wouldn’t choose him?” Cam pressed his forehead against the coolness of the window glass. “He could have anyone. She was for me. You know? And I had to lock that down.”

“Seems like an honest conversation would have saved us all a lot of trouble.” Kristeene slurred her words behind him. “But since that didn’t happen, we are where we are. We can’t stay here, Cam.”

“I don’t know where else to go.” Cam laid his clutched fist against the window pane. “I can’t give her up, but I can’t forget. And I can’t forgive Walsh, but I feel like somebody cut my right hand off.”

Met with silence, Cam turned to watch Kristeene, who had dropped off practically mid-sentence into a drug-induced slumber. Had he tired her out? What would he do when she wasn’t around to talk him off ledges?

Jump.

He leaned over her now-still form. He noticed goose bumps on her thin arms and tucked the sheets around her.

“I’ll see you tomorrow.” He kissed the silk scarf covering her slick scalp. “Mom.”

He’d only dared to imagine calling her that, even though she called him son. The sweet rush of feeling almost brought him to his knees by her bed in a weeping, snotty, begging, incoherent pool of grief. He tightened his mouth, staving it off for now, though he saw it coming like a tsunami, and him its helpless shore.

Cam left Kristeene’s room, running his hands over his face in a quick, impatient motion. He bushed away the last of his tears. He glanced at his watch, surprised to see he’d been with Kristeene for more than an hour. He pulled up short on his way to the elevator. Walsh was headed toward him, tall and lean in his gray suit, a preoccupied frown darkening his expression. Cam was prepared to walk right past him, refusing to entertain Kristeene’s admonition to forgive.

I ain’t forgiving shit.

Walsh had other ideas, stepping directly into Cam’s path.

“How was she?” Walsh bypassed the small talk.

“Resting.” Cam addressed his response to some point over Walsh’s shoulder. He tried to step around Walsh, only to find him blocking his way again.

“Step the hell back, Bennett.” Cam spiked the glare he gave Walsh.

“We have to talk about this,” Walsh said, obviously unafraid of Cam’s malevolent regard, unfazed by the barely checked threat clearly written in his fighter’s stance.

“What should we talk about, Walsh? The fact that you want to fuck my wife?” Cam’s voice was a low blow.

“It was a mistake.” Walsh made a quick sweep of their surroundings, looking at the few people waiting in the reception area. “We got emotional talking about Haiti. She was comforting me and it just went there. It won’t happen again.”

“You won’t get the chance again. What part of staying out of our life don’t you understand?”

“The part where you and I aren’t brothers anymore,” Walsh snapped back, fire in his eyes and words. “Dude, you’re not going to throw away years of friendship over one kiss.”

“One kiss. You think I was born yesterday.”

“What?” Cam saw caution creep into Walsh’s eyes.

Cam leaned forward, all aggressive, outraged male. Teeth bared.

“You love her.”

Walsh looked back at him, weariness in every line of his face; written in his eyes. And Cam could see that he was tired of the lies; tired of denying what was in his heart.

“Yeah, I love her,” Walsh said. “But we can figure this out. I’d never do anything about it.”

“Asshole.” Cam brushed past him and prowled toward the elevators. “You already did.”

 

UNTIL I’M YOURS makes iBooks Best 25 + featured in USA Today

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ABOUT THE STORY…

The world knows her face . . .

Mean girl. Goddess. Bitch. Supermodel Sofie Baston has earned those labels . . . yet they don’t scratch the surface of who she really is. Before she can follow her own dreams, Sophie must do her daughterly duty and reel in a “fish” for her father’s business-a tall, brown-eyed entrepreneur who immediately hooks her. He’s a big guy with an even bigger heart . . . but will that heart be open to Sofie once her darkest secret is revealed?

. . . but only one man knows her heart

To Trevor Bishop, Sofie is a beautiful mystery he would gladly spend his life solving. He figures her tough demeanor is armor against a world that’s hurt her too many times. Then Sofie’s deepest wounds are reopened by the powerful, ruthless man who made them. When she musters the courage to take him down, her world shatters. Now Trevor is determined to help Sofie pick up the pieces so they can build a future together. The challenge will be convincing his ice princess that it’s safe to melt in his arms . . .

 

UNTIL I’M YOURS released this week, and I’ve loved seeing readers meet Sofie and Trevor. And fall in love with them! I was nervous about Sofie’s story since she was much-hated from previous books in the series, but I think we really pull back the curtain and see what motivates her. The book is being so well received, iBooks even selected it as one of their Best 25 Books of February.

iBooks 25

Wow! I’m amazed and honored and humbled.

One of the things I hear readers responding to is the complex storyline touching on some sensitive topics like rape and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). I wrote a piece for USA Today/HEA about the role FGM played in the courageous, character-building steps Sofie takes in her journey! You can read the piece HERE.

UNTIL I’M YOURS can be read as a standalone, but if you want to catch up on the previous books in the series, here ya go!

 

Previous Books in the Bennett Series

When You Are Mine

AmazonAmazon UK | B&N | Kobo | iTunes | Google Play  |  Goodreads

 

LOVING YOU ALWAYS

Amazon | Amazon UK | B&N | iTunes | Google Play | Kobo | Goodreads

 

BE MINE FOREVER

Amazon | Amazon UK | B&N | iTunes | Google Play | Kobo | Goodreads

 

 

 

 

UNTIL I’M YOURS Excerpts!

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Excerpt #1 – The first night Sofie Baston and Trevor Bishop meet!

Why am I seeking out Sofie? What is this about? So she’s the most gorgeous woman I’ve ever seen in real life. Looks count for something with me like most men, but not for everything, and from what I’ve heard, she probably doesn’t have much else to offer. But there’s this gulf between what I’ve heard and the woman I met tonight. Maybe the gulf is filled with my preconceived notions.

I see her slumped against the wall as soon as I round the corner, shoes kicked off and wiggling her bare toes. Even witnessing her posture less than perfectly straight, perfectly erect feels like a violation of her privacy. She looks up, squinting into the semi-dark passageway. I can see her much better than she can see me.

“Rip?” She straightens from the wall, her expression becoming annoyed when she realizes it’s not the quarterback. “You’ve got to be kidding me. How many more people have to come through here? What is this? A parade?”

“Oh, I’m sorry for stumbling into your private boudoir.” I lean one shoulder against the wall beside her, stepping close enough to smell the fresh scent she’s been tantalizing me with all night. “I thought these were public bathrooms.”

She holds my gaze in the dim light for a few seconds, not even blinking. Then her lips twitch and spread over the smile people pay to see. From a billboard, that smile hits you like a gut punch. This close, the impact is practically atomic.

“Boudoir?” A husky chuckle suffuses the space separating us. “Did you seriously just break out ‘boudoir’?”

She props her butt against the wall and bends at the waist, slipping on one shoe and then the other. Even the high arch of this woman’s foot is sexy. Every detail I uncover makes me want to go deeper until I’ve discovered them all.

“I like a woman who can laugh at herself.”

My eyes follow the impossibly long line of her legs over the subtle curve of her hips and the surprising lushness of her breasts until I finally reach her waiting gaze, which asks if I’ve looked my fill.

“I wasn’t laughing at myself.” She grins again and inclines her head toward me. “I was laughing at you.”

“I’ll settle for that. Long as you’re laughing.”

She’s not anymore, the humor falling away as quickly as it came. She looks back down the passageway, sleek brows knitting together.

“Did Walsh tell Rip to come?”

“Rip saw a college buddy and stepped away. I’m sure he’ll be down as soon as he gets back to the table and they tell him you’re ready to leave.”

She moves over to a padded leather bench against the opposite wall, seating herself and crossing one leg over the other. She shifts her eyes from me to the men’s room and back again.

“I thought you needed that public restroom.” She gives a regal nod of her head toward the bathroom. “It’s right there.”

“I don’t actually have to use the bathroom.”

I leave it there, waiting for her to ask the obvious question, but I get the feeling Sofie Baston never does the obvious. She leans her back into the wall and narrows her eyes, waiting for me to go on.

“I came to find you.”

She tilts her head and raises both brows, conducting a wordless conversation using only her patrician features.

“Can I ask you a question?”

She nods, confirming that I still haven’t earned words yet.

“Why are you with Rip?”

She sinks deeper into the wall, sliding a few inches down and stretching her legs in front of her to cross them at the ankles

“Why wouldn’t I be?” she finally asks. “Haven’t you read the papers? We’re the perfect couple.”

“He bores you out of your mind.”

“No, he fucks me out of my mind.”

If she was going for shock value, that did it. Only our eyes lock and I realize she’s not trying to shock me. She’s just telling the truth. Her gaze is frank and honest.

“That’s all you want in a relationship?” I hazard a step closer before dropping to the other end of her bench and leaning my back against her wall.

That husky laugh permeates the air in the passageway again.

“Look, Dr. Phil, I’m not one of those sweet girls looking for some man to sweep me off my feet and put a ring on it.” She crosses both arms over her flat stomach, a cynical twist corrupting the beautiful curve of her mouth. “At least not anymore.”

“Kissed too many frogs?”

“Make no mistake about it. Those frogs and I did more than kiss.” Her smile exudes a sexual confidence I’m unused to from the women in my circles, but that I find by the second I more than like. “It’s not so much that I can’t find my prince, as that I’m no princess.”

 

 

Excerpt #2 – Hot in the Kitchen!

As soon as I step into my apartment, I know something’s off. The air feels charged somehow, not like the desolate box I left this morning that only I’ve been inside of for the last few days. And the smell permeating the apartment – heavenly. I would assume I’d left something in the oven, except I don’t cook – ever. Should I call what’s his name back?

Fool that I am, instead of fleeing the scene of a potential homicide – my own – I walk as quietly as I can down the hall toward the kitchen. It’s bright in there for an ax murderer, and most psychopaths in my limited experience don’t hum Benny And the Jets while sautéing dinner. As soon as I enter the kitchen, a well-muscled back and broad shoulders block whatever is cooking on the stovetop. Even though my potential perpetrator faces away from me, I’d know that burnished hair, the wide, hard slope of those shoulders, andthat ass anywhere.

“Bishop?” I’m scared to say his name aloud in case he’s some fevered hallucination the sound of my voice would dispel.

But he turns, a wide smile on those full lips, and opens his arms for me. That’s the only invitation I need. I drop my purse and am across the kitchen practically before it hits the floor. His arms are the sanctuary I’ve needed. Standing here in this circle of comfort, completely enclosed by his scent and his warmth, I feel safe for the first time since he boarded that plane last week.

“You’re here.” I whisper into his neck. “I thought…you aren’t due back for another few days.”

“This is true.” The deep timber of his voice rolls through me like a tremor. He pulls back to cup my face in his hands, and search my eyes. “I wrapped things up early.”

Whatever. Couldn’t care less. He could tell me South Africa floated into the wild blue yonder and he paddled all the way to New York on a piece of driftwood. I wouldn’t ask any questions. All that matters is that he’s here. My fingers wind into his hair, pulling him down and close enough to kiss. We skip slow, sweet kisses and cannon straight to desperate, our groans and panting the only sounds in the kitchen while we devour each other. I can’t stretch my mouth wide enough. Can’t touch enough of him at one time. I need more hands, more nerve endings to absorb this thrill, these sensations.

Trevor hoists me up, and my legs wrap around his waist. He reaches behind him to turn off the food and walks down the hall and toward my bedroom. It’s too far. I can’t wait. I’m too empty. I need him to fill me right here, right now.

“Now, Bishop,” I say against his lips. “Fuck me against the wall. I want…please. Right now.”

Wordlessly, he turns me against the wall. I lock my legs around him tighter while he undoes his belt buckle. The sound of his zipper sliding open has me dripping, has my chest heaving with anticipation. He leans in, taking my mouth captive and then sliding his tongue down my neck.

“Your breasts,” he mutters into the silk collar of my blouse “I want to see them.”

I brace one hand against his shoulder while the other scrambles to loosen the buttons on my blouse, baring the almost transparent bra. My nipples are so swollen from the thought of him, they press painfully against the sheer cups. I tug one satiny shell down to expose my breast. His eyes eat at my naked skin, and his hands slip beneath my arms, lifting me until my breasts are right at his mouth. His lips take my nipple, suckling me, the sound wet and erotic in the silent apartment. Every pull and tug churns the want in my belly, from my core, through my heart until every part of me is electrified with need.

“Are you sure you’re ready?” His words singe the delicate skin around my nipple.

I nod my head frantically, so hollow, so aching and empty waiting for him.

He pulls away to look at me, desire zip lining between our eyes.

“Check and make sure.” He glances at the space where our bodies interlock, the juncture of my thighs, and then raises his stare back up to sear me.

My eyes never leaving his, I slide my hand beneath my skirt and into my panties, rubbing my fingers into the wet flesh there.

“Show me,” he says, eyes almost black, his voice a husky rasp.

 

 

 

UNTIL I’M YOURS Landing Page

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The one-stop for all things related to UNTIL I’M YOURS, Bennett book 4.

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The world knows her face . . .

Mean girl. Goddess. Bitch. Supermodel Sofie Baston has earned those labels . . . yet they don’t scratch the surface of who she really is. Before she can follow her own dreams, Sophie must do her daughterly duty and reel in a “fish” for her father’s business-a tall, brown-eyed entrepreneur who immediately hooks her. He’s a big guy with an even bigger heart . . . but will that heart be open to Sofie once her darkest secret is revealed?

. . . but only one man knows her heart

To Trevor Bishop, Sofie is a beautiful mystery he would gladly spend his life solving. He figures her tough demeanor is armor against a world that’s hurt her too many times. Then Sofie’s deepest wounds are reopened by the powerful, ruthless man who made them. When she musters the courage to take him down, her world shatters. Now Trevor is determined to help Sofie pick up the pieces so they can build a future together. The challenge will be convincing his ice princess that it’s safe to melt in his arms . . .

 

Excerpt #1 - The night Sofie & Trevor meet!

 

Except #2 - Home From Work – HOT!

 

Goodreads Signed Paperback Giveaway!

 

Early Reviews!

“I have never read a hero and heroine the likes of Trevor Bishop and Sofie Baston. Ever…This story is one of my favorite contemporary romance books I have ever read thanks to it’s uniqueness and rich, meaningful writing.” — TeriLyn Reviews

Full Review

“SWOON. Move over previous book boyfriends, Trevor Bishop is going to be sitting on my top shelf for a long time. He’s everything you want in a hero. He’s strong. He’s sexy. He’s kind. He’s brilliant. He is the real deal.” — Becca Reads A Lot

Full Review

“Kennedy Ryan continues to awe me with her words and delivery. The writing is intelligent and beautiful. The storyline, characters (Trevor Bishop – swoon!), and pacing are all phenomenal. I like to live and breathe my reads and Until I’m Yours gave me that and more.” — Shamika, Sticky Reads

Full Review

Spotify Playlist

 

UNTIL I’M YOURS Pinterest Board

 

Teasers!

crevices teaser

 

Sexy lady in a morning bed

 

Fashion photo of a beautiful young woman in a black bustier. Blo

Couple embracing and kissing

 

Male hands touching female bust

 

sexy man

Previous Books in the Bennett Series

When You Are Mine

AmazonAmazon UK | B&N | Kobo | iTunes | Google Play  |  Goodreads

 

LOVING YOU ALWAYS

Amazon | Amazon UK | B&N | iTunes | Google Play | Kobo | Goodreads

 

BE MINE FOREVER

Amazon | Amazon UK | B&N | iTunes | Google Play | Kobo | Goodreads

A Holiday Treat from MY SOUL TO KEEP

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From Kennedy:

Happy Holidays! I wanted to offer something special to those who have read  MY SOUL TO KEEP. A full deleted chapter from the book. More Rhys + Kai!

If you haven’t read the book, I have something for you, too. The first three chapters of the book absolutely FREE right HERE! Hopefully you’ll love what you read.

And for everyone and anyone, scroll all the way down for a rafflecopter giveaway featuring:

  • $5 Amazon Gift Card
  • (5) MY SOUL TO KEEP E-Books (if you’ve read, pass onto a friend!)
  • Or a Signed MY SOUL TO KEEP paperback

My Soul to Keep FOR WEB

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It seems the things worth keeping are often the hardest to hold…

KAI

I had two things in life that mattered. My mother and my music.
Mama was taken from me too soon, and now music is all I have left. It’s the thing that’s pushed me right out of backwoods Georgia into Los Angeles, where the line between fantasy and reality shimmers and blurs. I’m finally making my way, making my mark. I can’t afford to fall for one of music’s brightest stars. Not now. Music is all I have left, and I’m holding on tight with both hands. I won’t let go, not even for Rhyson Gray.

RHYSON

I had one thing in my life that mattered – music. The only constant, it’s taken me to heights most people only dream about; a gift dropped in my lap at birth. I thought it was enough. I thought it was everything until I met Kai. Now she’s all I think about, like a song I can’t get out of my head. If I have to chase her, if I have to give up everything – I will. And once she’s mine, I won’t let go.

 

Young passionate lovers lie

 

a Rafflecopter giveaway
 

About Kennedy Ryan

I just can’t write about myself in third person for one more bio! I’m a wife, a mom, a writer, an advocate for families living with autism. That’s me in a nutshell. Crack the nut, and you’ll find a Southern girl gone Southern California who loves pizza and Diet Coke, and wishes she got to watch a lot more television. You can usually catch me up too late, on social media too much, or FINALLY putting a dent in my ever-growing To Be Read list!

 

Let’s Connect!

 

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Deleted MY SOUL TO KEEP Christmas Scene

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If you haven’t read MY SOUL TO KEEP, I recommend you stop reading now. Instead, check out the first three chapters for FREE! If you have read MSTK, this deleted scene occurs after Thanksgiving when Rhys buys Kai a Christmas tree and before the scene with Rhyson’s parents at Christmas dinner.

Enjoy!

 

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 Kai

In years past, the holidays have been a blur of activity. Everybody wanted Mama’s holiday specials at the Glory Bee. I loved to see newcomers do a double take when a tiny Asian woman, just shy of five feet, would emerge from the kitchen in her apron, making sure they were loving her Southern cooking. She made fruit cake that actually tasted good, cinnamon spice loaves and, of course, her famous mint hot chocolate. We made more money in December alone than any other quarter. We nearly made more money on Christmas morning than the rest of December. While other kids were tearing into their presents, Mama, Aunt Ruthie and I were prepping for Glory Bee Christmas breakfast. Most years, I even managed to recruit San.

You wouldn’t believe how many folks didn’t want to cook breakfast on Christmas morning. They much preferred Mama’s hot biscuits and homemade preserves to anything they could do themselves. We were always up by four that morning prepping, open for business from eight to noon, and home opening our own gifts by two. A strange Christmas; a working Christmas, but I never minded. The money we made that morning didn’t just pay for Christmas gifs. It paid for dance and singing lessons. For cheering and gymnastics fees. For new tap and ballet shoes. Mama never held with me having a job because she knew how demanding my schedule was, but I worked for her.

Inevitably, I’d have Christmas dance recitals, parades, holiday singing competitions. Mama never complained, but just juggled all her responsibilities at the diner, always making sure I got where I needed to be and that she was there when I needed her presence and support.

I settle onto the couch and enjoy the tree occupying the corner of our living room, something I do every night when I get home from The Note. It’s gleaming, beautiful, festive and almost too big for the small space. Rhyson and I argued over the six-foot or the eight-foot. He won, of course. He always wins. The angel tree topper barely fits under the ceiling.

San’s stack of packed bags by the door nicks my heart a little. This will be one of the few Christmases we’ve spent apart. He’s headed to Florida, where his grandmother moved when she retired last year. I’m headed back to Glory Falls to spend Christmas with Aunt Ruthie. San walks into the living room, patting his pockets, his forehead squeezed into a frown. I lean forward and grab his keys off the coffee table, jangling them to draw his attention.

“Thank God.” The frown clears, his handsome face relaxing into a smile. “I can’t afford to be late.”

He takes the keys, looking me over from head to toe, starting with the brightly patterned caftan I picked up at a sidewalk boutique and strappy sandals. Colorful earrings dangle from my ears, Grammy’s gold necklace hangs at my throat. I’ve braided colorful ribbons into my fishtail braid. My make up isn’t heavy, but the fact that I rarely bother, makes even the little I’m wearing scream “special occasion.”

“Hot date?” San plucks my earrings, making them swing against my neck. “Better not let Rhyson find out.”

“Very funny.” I swat at his hand. “Of course not. Rhyson’s just coming over for dinner.”

“So a date at home with Rhyson.”

“It is not a date.” I wish I could turn down the heat in my cheeks. “It’s just…dinner before we go home for Christmas.”

“Dinner with a guy you see every chance you get, who texts you constantly and who bought you a Christmas tree. I can’t wait to see what an actual relationship between you two looks like.”

“San.” I groan and drop my head in my hands. “What am I gonna do about it?”

“About the fact that you’re in love with Rhyson Gray?”

My head pops up like a Jack in the Box.

“I am not. Take it back.”

“Okaaaaayyyy.” His face sobers and he sits beside me, rubbing little circles on my back. “I wouldn’t have suspected it, I mean him being an asshole rock star and all, but he’s a good guy. At least to you.”

“Your point?” I ask, my voice weaker than my words.

“My point is the sooner you work through these issues – the whole I wanna make it big first stuff and your Daddy issues – the sooner you and Rhyson can do what it’s obvious to everyone you want to do.” He leans in to press our foreheads together, a leer on his full lips. “You can fuck.”

I shove him back, and he flops against the couch laughing.

“Shut up, San. You have a one-track mind.”

“You think Rhyson doesn’t?” San flashes his you-gotta-be-kidding-me look. “Wait’ll he gets you on that track.”

I want to shove him again, but the doorbell rings. I can’t stop myself from checking my earrings and smoothing my hair.

“That’s probably your non-date.” San gets up and walks over to the door. “I’ll get it.”

Rhyson and San fist pound and both turn to look at me.

“Hi.” Rhyson speaks first, the long look he gives me warm like the sun on my skin. “You look great.”

“Down boy.” San laughs and walks over to me, giving me a quick hug. “I gotta go, pip squeak.”

“Text me when you land, k?” I squeeze him a little tighter before letting go. “And kiss Grandma Letty for me.”

“Will do. She hates that you aren’t coming with me.” San slings his backpack over his shoulder.

“I need to be with Aunt Ruthie.” I give him a sad smile. “First Christmas without Mama and all, and she could use some help with the Christmas morning crowd at the diner.”

“How long you think she’ll keep the Glory Bee going?” San asks.

Panic spins my head like a top. It never occurred to me that Aunt Ruthie might not want to go on with the diner she and Mama built from the ground. Mama was the cook, for sure, but we’d gotten someone else to help with the food when Mama got too sick to do it anymore. Nobody could cook like Mama, but the sweet lady we’d hired did a great job with Mama’s recipes. The thought that Aunt Ruthie might close Glory Bee rattles me. My childhood is in those weathered wooden tables. My adolescence in that kitchen. My last years with Mama, written on the walls and floors.

“I…well, we’re paying down Mama’s debt so she can keep it. You think it’s too much for her?”

‘I’m sure she’s fine,” San says quickly enough to let me know he’s not sure. “It was a stupid question. I’m late already. Love you. Merry Christmas, Rhyson.”

San speeds out, taking my worry with him. I’m too distracted by the fact that Rhyson and I are alone to dwell on the possibility of losing Glory Bee and all the memories it holds. We just stare at one another for a few seconds, taking in the details. He wears dark wash jeans, and a chunky oatmeal colored sweater hides the dense muscles I wonder about. I’ve never even seen him without a shirt, but I’ve touched him. The pads of my fingers tingle with the memory of smooth, warm skin. My palms heat recalling the shape of the sculpted muscles in his back and arms. My hands remember and my mind wonders.
“Hungry?” I brush past him and into the kitchen, needing to busy my hands before they do something stupid.

He follows behind me more slowly, his pace as careful as the eyes he lifts to watch me pulling out plates.

“I could eat.” He sits down, placing a small wooden box I hadn’t noticed him carrying onto the table.

I go still and smile a little.

“Is that for me?”

“If you’re a good girl.” Rhyson laughs and reaches for my hand, pulling me to stand in the vee of his long legs. “And if you feed me, of course.”

“Of course. We can eat in here.” This close, the dark flecks in his eyes nearly consume the grey. The strength of his legs pressed against my thighs makes the breath in my throat jagged. I can’t draw one smooth breath with his heat surrounding me. If I don’t break this intimate spell, I’ll regret it.

“Let me get one thing before we eat.”

I rush back into the living room, reaching for my composure along the way. I grab a small box wrapped in black paper with a silver bow from under the tree and take it into the kitchen.

“Is that for me?” He reaches for the gift, but I stash it behind my back.

“Maybe if you’re good.” I step farther out of his reach. “And after we eat.”

I’ve been so busy getting the girls at the center ready for the dance competition and working the holiday madhouse at The Note, I didn’t have time to prepare all the dishes I would have liked to for him. Instead it’s a simple roasted chicken with vegetables and mashed potatoes, half sweet and half white.

We’ve actually spent less time together since Thanksgiving. Partly because we’ve both been so busy, and partly because I needed to dial back the intensity of what I felt with him that day. It’s like we’re driving at a breakneck speed, rounding a curve, running out of road, mere feet from barreling over a cliff. I’m not ready for that freefall, and I don’t want this ride to end; to lose his friendship, but I’m not sure how much farther we can go like this. So I tried to slow us down.

I push those thoughts aside and focus on our time alone. I could almost fool myself that we’re just two friends catching up before going our separate ways for the holidays, except as I talk his eyes fix on my mouth. Except he reaches for salt so he can brush his fingers over my hand. Except he could be talking about aliens landing from outer space and I wouldn’t know it I’m so distracted by the heat rising around us every time our eyes catch and hold.

“So Grip’s started working on his first album. It’s incredible. We’re doing a song together. Think Kanye and Chris Martin. You know that song Homecoming? That kind of collaboration. Hip hop, piano kinda thing.” Rhyson taps out a rhythm on the kitchen table. “You should come to Wood and sit in on our next session after the holidays.”

“Wood? Your studio?”

“Well, it’s my friend Gunnar’s studio, but I’m a silent partner.”

“You, silent?” I scoff. “Yeah, right, control freak.”

“You know me well.” An unabashed grin creases his lean cheeks.

I do. Amazingly, I do know him well. We met just a few months ago, but something has connected us almost from the beginning. It defied reason. It pressed through all the barriers that should separate us – his fame, my caution and mistrust – and has bound us over time, over late night dinners, over gut-busting laughter, over intimate moments pregnant with possibilities our bodies long to explore. It has grown through confidences and secrets. Through truth-telling, soul-baring conversations, almost all right here on the lumpy couch in my apartment. I’ve never even been to Rhyson’s house, yet I’d know his shape in the dark, his scent in a roomful of people, and could pick his voice out of a choir.

“That, like everything you cook, was delicious.” Rhyson reclines in the chair, stretching his long legs out in front of him.

“Thank you.” I reach for the dishes, walking them the short distance to the sink. “I wish you could taste the food I’ll be cooking tomorrow in Glory Falls.”

“Believe me, so do I.” Rhyson pulls himself to his feet and crosses over to stand with me at the sink, falling into a familiar rhythm of loading the dishes into the washer after I’ve scraped and rinsed them. “I’d much rather be in Glory Falls than with my parents in New York.”

With the last dish loaded, I prop myself against the sink’s edge, facing him.

“Your first time home since?”

“Since I was sixteen.” His voice is low and deep enough to hide the truth from someone not looking for it.

“It’s okay that you’re nervous.” I reach for his hand, looking up at him.

“So much could go wrong.” He mingles our fingers, pressing them to his chest. “What if this only makes things worse? If that’s even possible.”

His heart thumps strong and even beneath my hand like a mallet against a bass drum. Mine isn’t nearly as steady, trilling in my chest like a blindfolded bird frantically flying and knocking into the bars of a cage.

“Grady will be there.” My words come out breathy, his closeness whittling my voice down to a whisper. “He’ll be your buffer.”

“Yeah, maybe.” He sounds distracted, tugging on my wrist until I’m pressed into the hard expanse of his chest, my hair barely brushing his chin. He lowers his head until his breath is a sweet singe over my lips. “Pep, I—”

I jerk back, knowing if he kisses me, we’ll be around that bend and hurtling over the cliff just ahead, a precipitous fall from which we won’t recover. Once you drive off a cliff, you can’t change your mind. The thump and splat when gravity turns its back on you are inevitable. Rhyson dragged me out of a darkened pit of grief and sorrow. I can’t afford our friendship to be a casualty of this attraction, no matter how it grips me at the throat and chokes my reason.

“We should open our gifts.” I take another step back, easing my body away from temptation.

For a moment, I fear he won’t let me get away with it. His expression hardens, a frown jerking his brows together. I silently plead for just a little more time. He presses his lips against whatever he would say and just nods.

We sit back down at the table, each passing our small parcels to the other. He rips away the black paper but doesn’t open the gift, an eager look on his face as he watches me manipulate the small ornate catch on the wooden box. I laugh as soon as I see his gift glinting against a bed of black velvet.

“A nameplate necklace.” I hold it up to my neck, admiring how the gold name scrawled under my collar bone layers prettily with Grammy’s gold chain.

“It’s like the one Carrie wears on Sex and the City, right?” Rhyson asks with a smile.

“Yes, I love it.” I twist my lips into a wry grin. “Except it says Pepper. You got me a nameplate necklace with a name only you call me?”

He doesn’t disguise the look in his eyes when they drop to the gold glinting against my neck. The look is a claim, hard and possessive before he shutters his expression into something deceptively harmless.

“Our little inside joke. ” He gives me the innocuous smile of a tiger hiding and biding his time.

“What do you think of yours?” I bite my lip, so uncertain. What do you get the rich-all-his life rock star who has everything?

He pulls the gift out of the box I wrapped so carefully. His eyes go wide and a genuine smile overtakes his face.

“A harmonica?” He laughs, staring at me and not the small instrument in his hands I so painstakingly chose.

“Well, you said you’d never played so I assumed you didn’t have one.” My words trip and fall between us in the small kitchen. “And well that’s a shame, so I thought this might be fun. And I know you have a dozen instruments. Rare and expensive. I just thought that something like this would—”

His finger at my lips startles me, that light pressure enough to send my senses into a tailspin.

“You’re rambling.” His mouth softens into an affectionate smile. “It’s perfect.”

“There’s an inscription,” I whisper against his finger.

For a moment, he doesn’t lift his finger, but traces his thumb over the bottom curve of my mouth, an unhurried caress that leaves my lips trembling.

He finally pulls back, flipping the harmonica over to see the writing I had hoped would make him smile.

“Sometimes the little things we’ve overlooked become our favorites,” he reads, running his fingers over the dark wood. He looks up, his eyes moving over my neck and breasts and shoulders. “I’d have to agree with that.”

I will combust before this night is over. It’s like someone spiked my blood with liquor; Fireball enflames my veins, swelling them with a heated rush. A luscious, intoxicating burn. I pop to my feet and stumble to the refrigerator, removing the lemon custard pie Grady told me Rhyson likes.

“Dessert.” I hold the pie aloft as proof that I did indeed have a reason for abandoning the table. For fleeing the flame that always leaps between us.

Rhyson walks over to me, taking the pie and setting it on the counter. Deliberately, slowly like a man lowering a gun to the ground inch by inch, he places his hands at my hips. He’s giving me a chance to pull away, but I can’t. If he decides to press the issue, I’m not sure I’ll be able to resist him. He squeezes my waist as he lifts me off the floor and onto the counter. He steps into the tiny space where my legs spread slightly, leaning until his mouth is right by my ear.

I about die when his breath penetrates my ear, heavy, hot and a little ragged despite his outward calm.

“Kai, I’m not doing this much longer.” He kisses behind my ear, laving the tiny strip of skin with his tongue. I shudder against him. “We’re not going into the next year with things like this between us.”

He pulls back, his broad palms caressing my shoulders and arms through the thin caftan. He presses his forehead to mine, and I’m afraid he’ll be bold enough to kiss me on the lips.

“But tonight, for now,” he says, smiling and lifting one hand to toy with the ends of the braid hanging over my shoulder. “Merry Christmas.”

 

 

 

Signed Paperback + MSTK Tumbler + Amazon Gift Card!

Review Giveaway
Read FREE on KU!

 

 

Hey, hey, hey! MY SOUL TO KEEP has more than 100 Amazon Reviews!
Can I get a what, what! Raise ‘em!
And to celebrate, I have a giveaway going on.

 

 
1st Place –> Signed MSTK Paperback
2nd Place –> MSTK Tumbler
3rd Place –> $5 Amazon Gift Card

Enter the giveaway HERE by posting the link to or screen shot of your review. If you haven’t written it yet, there’s still time. It doesn’t have to be long. It doesn’t have to be 5 stars. For reals. The giveaway will be open for the next week.

Good luck!

MY SOUL TO KEEP Group Read & Discussion!

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I’m so excited to be reading and discussing MY SOUL TO KEEP this week with readers. Some of you have already read and have been waiting to chat. Some have been waiting to read. Either way, it’s time! Next week, Monday, November 30 – Saturday, December 5, we’ll be reading and talking about the book. I’ll be in there answering questions and providing inside scoop on what I was thinking as I wrote part 1 of Rhys + Kai’s journey!

We might just have some giveaways in there!

The discussion will take place in my book group HERE. Once you’re in the group, there’s an event inside called BACKSTAGE PASS. That’s where we’ll be reading & discussing!

If you still need to get your copy, remember you can read FREE on KU, or buy below.

Amazon US
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I have to thank everyone who has supported this book. I never expected it to crack the Amazon Top 100, so that was amazing for me and exceeded all I imagined. So glad to be on this journey with all of you! :-)

 

All the Giveaways!! MSTK Release Celebration!

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In case you missed it, we had an awesome time today celebrating MY SOUL TO KEEP’s release. So many giveaways from some of my great author friends! Everything from signed paperbacks to e-books and gift cards. We’ll choose winners tomorrow, so if you haven’t had a chance to enter yet, here’s ALL the goodies in one place!

 

And if you haven’t picked up MY SOUL TO KEEP, you can read it FREE on KU or grab it today!

 

My Soul to Keep AMAZON

KENNEDY #1:  (2) MSTK E-books

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LIA RILEY:  Paperback ARC

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AL JACKSON:  (3) E-Copies of MSTK

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CORINNE MICHAELS:  Signed CONSOLATION Paperback – International!

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ADRIANA LOCKE:  MSTK E-book + Adriana E-Book

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LEX MARTIN: Signed DEAREST CLEMENTINE paperback

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ELLE WRIGHT:  $5 Amazon Gift Card + E-copies of The Forbidden Man AND His All Night

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AUTUMN GREY:  $3.99 E-Book (Winner’s Choice) + E-Book HAVOC series box set

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KRISTA & BECCA RITCHIE:  $5 Amazon Gift Card + (2) AMOUR AMOUR E-Books

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OLIVIA EVANS:  (2) Brooklyn & Beale E-Books

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KENNEDY RYAN #2:  Signed WHEN YOU ARE MINE PB

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GINGER SCOTT:  WILD RECKLESS + WICKED RESTLESS E-Books

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ELISABETH GRACE:  BUILT TO LAST E-Book

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WHITNEY G:  $5 Amazon Gift Card

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MANDI BECK:  LOVE HURTS & LOVE BURNS E-books!

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GIA RILEY:  A MSTK E-Book + IN PIECES inspired goodies!

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ISABELLE RICHARDS: WHEN FATES COLLIDE Box Set + LOVE/HATE Duet + (5) MSTK E-BOOKS

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KENNEDY RYAN #3:  Signed LOVING YOU ALWAYS PB

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CHRISTINE HUGHES:  OPERATION ONE NIGHT STAND + OPERATION FOREPLAY E-Books (1 winner)

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CLAUDIA BURGOA:  Signed UNLIKE ANY OTHER paperback

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TIA LOUISE:  Signed copy of ONE IMMORTAL or ONE INSATIABLE (winner’s choice) + MSTK E-Book – **Open Internationally**

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RE HUNTER:  E-Copy DISCLOSURE series set

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LAUREN ROWE:  First four club E-books + 1 signed paperback of THE CLUB

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KENNEDY RYAN #3: Signed BE MINE FOREVER paperback

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SOFIA TATE:  FULL Signed set of the Davison And Allegra series.

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K. BROMBERG: Any (1) K. Bromberg E-Book + MSTK E-Book (or any of Kennedy’s)
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REBECCA YARROS: Full Measures E-Book

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MY SOUL TO KEEP – First Three Chapters

 

My Soul to Keep

Copyright (c) Kennedy Ryan, 2015

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

Amazon US
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Signed Paperbacks

Chapter One – Kai

 

Mama has been dying all day.

ALS is a stealthy thief. It stole Mama’s wide, crooked-tooth smile and left her face a plane of twitches and jerks. That funny snap, snap she’d do with her fingers before she started making a fresh batch of biscuits? That saucy little pop and sway of her hips when she raced around the house on Sunday mornings, late for church? ALS snatched those long ago. Now, Mama’s fingers lie limp at her sides on the bed sheets, the complete stillness startling and sad.

ALS is a slow assassin and it’s been killing my mama for five years.

But I only realize now that the sound of her breath—barely a wheeze breezing past her lips—is the sound of her dying today.

“Mama?”

I bundle up a question and a plea into that one word and pray for an answer to either. I’m asking if she’s still here. I’m begging her to stay. Oh, I hear that thin, labored breath. I feel that thready pulse, faintly thrumming through the vellumed skin of her wrist. I know she’s alive, but is she still here? I’ve sensed her soul wrestling with her body all week, trying to break free for the promise of Heaven that keeps Mama going on her hardest days.

The Hospice workers trickle in and out of Mama’s small, orderly bedroom, keeping her as comfortable as a woman slowly choking on her own breath can be. They don’t know if she can hear me. They only know that she can no longer respond. I am left waiting for the battle to end and for her soul to escape its bodily misery. Mama has endured this last stretch of a race I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

I confess there were times I longed for this day. Longed for it to all be over, not just for Mama but for me too. I know it’s selfish, but things have been so hard. So different from before. Most of my life, I have been at the center of Mama’s world. Dance classes, cheerleading, gymnastics, and vocal lessons—I did them all. Our life was a flurry of activity, shuffling between the small diner downstairs Mama owns with Aunt Ruthie and any number of things I was involved in. Mama dedicated a good part of her life and energy to making sure when my big break came, I’d be ready. But the big break is in my heart. And even though months ago, with the last few words Mama could actually speak, she assured me she was ready, I know I am not.

The tears burn like kerosene, but I refuse to close my eyes. What would I miss? Her eyes flickering open for a last glance? Her mouth pulling into that tender just-for-me smile one final time? I won’t look away.

“You need to get some rest, darlin’.”

Aunt Ruthie’s voice sneaks up on me from behind. I drag my eyes from Mama’s face, pale against the faded floral pillowcase long enough to glance over my shoulder. Aunt Ruthie leans into the doorjamb, which I think is the only thing holding her up. Fatigue and weariness have made themselves at home in the deeper crevices around her mouth and eyes. Running Glory Bee, the best little restaurant in our small town, Glory Falls, by herself hasn’t been easy. She may not be blood, but she is family, and she’s been there for Mama and me through all of this.

Mama was the cook of the operation, and Aunt Ruthie, her best friend since third grade, was the business mind. It’s so ironic that as far as I can tell, my Korean mother makes the best Southern food this side of the Mississippi. She’s known nothing but Georgia though, so her Korean heritage is not so much lost as never found. My grandparents, a Southern Baptist pastor and his wife, adopted her days after she was born. They brought her home from their mission trip, much to their congregation’s confusion and then delight. That little, odd-looking girl, so exotic among the farmers and simple, hard-working folks became the sweetheart of Glory Falls Baptist Church. And when Grandpa finally retired, his young assistant pastor was the natural candidate for his replacement and Mama’s husband.

A hurt so old it’s cracked and fragile, threatening to fall apart if I think on it too long, lies heavy on my heart. Daddy should be here. He should be the one holding Mama’s hand and crying and loving her until the end. No telling where he is, but it sure as hell ain’t here. He hasn’t been for many years.

Son of a bitch.

Mama would tap my wrist for swearing. Aunt Ruthie never really cared about the bad words. Her hand on my shoulder reminds me she wants me to rest, but I’m not sure I can leave Mama’s side.

“Go on out to the front porch for a bit, Kai Anne. Grab some air.” Aunt Ruthie’s Southern drawl is even slower than usual, exhaustion dragging at the words.

“No, I don’t want…I can’t…”

The words fade like my hope.

“A few minutes won’t hurt, honey.”

I look up and over my shoulder, snagging her eyes with mine, trying to see if she actually believes it. And if so, how much time do I have left with Mama? A day? Two?

“You really believe that?”

“I’ll call you in here if…” Aunt Ruthie’s words follow the same trail mine do, and I wonder if her hope is as faint. “I’ll call if you need to come.”

Mama’s still as a tomb. Her dark hair fans out behind her. Her eyes are closed, and it’s been days since I’ve seen them open, but I remember those eyes. They tilt more than mine. They’re darker than mine. My skin is a fainter gold. My faith is not as strong. She always said I was the brightest thing in this town, but I am a shadow of her in every way that counts. And when she’s gone, what will I be then?

I settle onto the front step with its loose board that Mama never got around to fixing. Daddy promised at least once a week to replace this board that wiggles beneath my bottom as I wait here for the sunrise. I was eight when he left, and always wondered if Mama never fixed that board because she’d be admitting Daddy was never coming home.

Arms around my knees, shivering against the cold, bare feet on the next step down, I wait. I wait for Mama’s favorite time of day. Mama loved…Mama loves the sunrise. A new day means new mercies, she’d always say. God’s mercies are new every morning. I search the sky now for mercy. For respite. For light. For a stay of the death hovering over our little house tucked down a dirt road. I wait for the sun to stretch up over the horizon, but right now, I only see dawn; that limbo that hangs between night and day. If I can only see the sunrise.

God, give me one more day. One more day of Mama’s fresh mercies.

And just as I’m sure the light is coming to brighten the smudgy hue of dawn, the screen door behind me creaks open. Aunt Ruthie is standing there, face lit by the porch light.

“You better come.” She thumbs at the tears sliding down her hollowed cheeks. “Come on say good-bye.”

This is the break I could never be ready for. Mama breaking free of this world. Free of the pain. This disease has pressed her like a flower between pages. I look back to the sky, but there is still no sun. Still no mercy.

Only dawn.

When I go to Mama, it feels like the room holds its breath, as if it’s waiting for something. Everything is so still. I don’t know how much of my mama is left in this body, frail and stiff and paralyzed, but whatever part of her remains would hate this. She’s fastidious. She’d hate the fact that she cannot control her own drool. That someone else tends to her most intimate needs. When Daddy left, there was a span when Mama was so broken, truly on her own for the first time and unsure if she would manage. For the most part, she recovered. The fiercely independent woman she became would hate all the ways she can no longer take care of herself.

She twists and jerks under the sheets. Even with her eyes closed, a frown puckers her otherwise slackened face. She’s not at ease, and yet I see why Aunt Ruthie called me. At any moment, she may be gone. I wonder why she lingers. Mama believes so deeply in the peace beyond this life. As much as I’ll miss her, as much as I already feel the black hole spreading over my heart like an ink blot, I want that peace for her. I want her to go.

And then it occurs to me. Maybe I know what Mama’s waiting for. I pull back the covers, pressing my fit body to her frail one, laying my warmth against her, and I say the words she used to comfort me countless times. The prayer that many a night she’d say to send me on my way.

“Now I lay me down to sleep.” As soon as the words leave my mouth, tears leak down my cheeks. “I pray the Lord my soul to keep.”

I lean closer, absorbing as much of her essence as I can before she leaves this world because there will never be another like her. I wrap my arms tight around her tiny, fitful body fighting for peace and whisper in her ear.

“If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

And like my words turned a key to the door she needed to walk through, her body stills. I swear the room around us sighs. Mama draws one last labored breath and then no more.

 

 

Chapter Two – Kai

“You’d be late for your own funeral, Kai.”

The words in my head, as clear as if Mama is rushing off the L.A. Metro bus behind me, pounding alongside me on the sidewalk, jar my thoughts. Even as my heart pinches in my chest, my mouth pulls into my mama’s smile. The one her little bits of wit and wisdom always squeezed out of me growing up. The ones that still do.

“I know, Mama.” I adjust my backpack and quicken my steps. “I’m working on it.”

My phone squawks from my pocket. I know it’s Santos, my roommate and best friend, texting me. Bugging me. Worried about me, as usual. Not breaking stride, I pull the phone out, and sure enough.

Santos: What the hell? This is not the day to be late. U OK?

With my head lowered, I rapid-fire my thumbs across the keypad and barely miss walking into a tow zone sign. I stand still to finish the message. I don’t care if it’s Cher waiting at our voice coach’s house. Even she’s not worth a concussion. And as much as I love Cher, that’s saying something.

Me: Up the street and on my way. Missed my bus. Audition was a joke. Can’t wait to tell. Who’s Grady’s mystery guest?

Santos: Hurry your narrow ass up and see for yourself.

I have a sneaking suspicion I’ll be less impressed than Santos, which doesn’t take much. An unabashed celebrity whore, he even gets the autographs of obscure reality stars. Really? Excuse me for not being impressed that you are just like me, only you get paid to shop, eat, and act the fool on camera. That isn’t talent, and I don’t need you to sign anything for me. But thanks.

I stomp the last few blocks to Grady’s bungalow. Every time my foot slams into the sidewalk, I envision that vile man’s face from the audition I just left under it. Any audition that ends with an invitation to suck a man’s dick is suspect, wouldn’t you say? I’m tired of being propositioned and objectified and pressured to sleep with these predators who assume I’ll set up a drive-thru between my legs to get a record deal. I know girls who do that. Some days, I wish I could throw off my principles and take the easy way. On my back and on my knees, but Mama’s voice, even six months after she passed, is still strong in my ears. Strongest in my heart.

Grady’s bungalow is deceptively simple. I haven’t been in L.A. long, but even I know anything in Arcadia costs a pretty penny. At least more pretty pennies than I have to rub together. Grady houses a small studio in the back of the bungalow where he teaches voice and music. He and Santos have been my saving grace in this town. One my longtime friend and lifeline, the other a mentor of sorts who has grown into the closest thing I’ve felt to family since I moved here from Georgia.

The heavy wooden door stands open, with just the screen door between me and the muted sounds beyond the entrance and down the hall. Judging by all the cars in the driveway and along the street, every one of Grady’s students has shown up to meet this mystery guest he’s been dangling in front of us like a carrot for the last couple of weeks. Guess I’m here to bite like everyone else.

I step inside and close and lock the door after me. Even in this neighborhood, you can never be too safe. And I doubt anyone will be coming after me considering how late I am. The living room, with its eclectic mixture of modern and antique, stands empty. The music, now that I’m inside, reaches me from the rear studio.

And what music. I stop, needing to stand still for a moment. Needing these notes to wash over and past me. I’ve never heard Grady’s old baby grand sound like this. Like some magician is coaxing tricks from it, nimbly charming the keys to make miracles. I don’t know classical music very well. Get much beyond “Chopsticks” and I can’t name tunes, but even I know that whoever is playing is brilliant. Just moments before, I needed to stand still, but now my feet urge me forward. I have to see who’s playing. I want to see them in the throes of this.

I stand in the doorway of the studio, ignoring all the other students standing along the walls and sitting on the hardwood floor. My eyes stick to the man I can see just head and shoulders of in the space between the lifted lid and the piano desk. His eyes are closed, and thank God for that, because it would be so awkward for him to catch me gaping at him. I instantly know him, of course. It’s Rhyson Gray, one of the most gifted and well-known musicians in the world, but right now, I don’t see the shiny layers of fame, wealth, and privilege I would typically associate with him. The piece he’s playing holds him captive, sloughing away all those layers until only this raw yearning on his face remains. His eyes are closed tightly, his brows knitted with the passion of the music he seduces out of the piano.

His features are almost too much. His nose is strong, straight, and prominent. His brows are thick, dark, and slashing. His mouth is wide, sensual, and full. The hard angle of his jaw clenches, like this piece he’s playing submerges him in the same emotion drowning me, but he disciplines his face against it. His shoulders are broader than I imagined they’d be, the muscles flexing beneath the white T-shirt covering them as he plays. I’m not even sure if he’s handsome, but I know he’s dangerously magnetic, like the center of a whirlpool. Something that would suck you in and down before you had time to pull away.

I don’t know this piece, but it knows me. Each note slides in, occupying some corner of my soul that’s been barren and empty. And the melody breezes in, scattering dust and cobwebs. Breathing in life. This music, with its rushing crescendos and heaving turns, refreshes me, and I have no idea why. Is it the music? Is it him? Are they separate or somehow inextricably entwined? I love music and know like I know my own name that it is what I’m meant to do, but I’ve never been moved this way by it. Not this deeply, this quickly, this thoroughly. Like those fingers touching those keys are actually touching me. And though I’m completely covered, I feel naked and exposed. I can only hope that no one sees. That he won’t see.

And then the music ends. With a crash of keys, it’s over, and thunderous applause presses into the awed silence that immediately follows. Those who were sitting, stand and clap and cheer. We all know we’ve brushed up against greatness. I’m grateful for the clamor, giving me time to compose myself. To reassemble all the pieces that music broke me into. And the culprit—the man who undid me so effortlessly—­­­opens his eyes like he’s coming to himself. Like he’d forgotten we were even there, voyeurs to this fantastic musical display. And then I see those layers wrapping back around him. It starts with the tightening of those full lips, pulled into a practiced smile. It moves to his shoulders, pressed back with pride. And it settles over his eyes, the naked passion of that music hidden in seconds behind the dark, guarded eyes that all of a sudden stare back at me.

 

Chapter Three – Rhyson

When I was eleven years old taking the stage at Royal Albert Hall in London for the first time, I told myself it was a sea of faces out there in the audience. I never allowed myself to focus on one particular person. In every venue since, whether before thousands or a group as small as Grady’s vocal class, I always block out the faces. I smile. I may even bow, but I blur the faces to remain blissfully oblivious to their expressions of approval, pleasure, or disdain. It insulates me from the crowd and cocoons me inside the music, which is the safest place I have found so far.

Except today, I open my eyes at the end of the Chopin piece, prepared to blindly glance over the crowd in Grady’s studio, when I see a face. A particular face in a sea of faces. Everyone around her claps, but she doesn’t. Her hands hang at her sides, and her expression hovers somewhere between devastation and delight. When music truly affects me, I don’t clap either. I don’t stand to my feet. I absorb. I let the music change me, touch me, and possess me. That’s what she’s doing. I recognize it. Everyone around her appreciated my music, but I can see that she, this girl, communed with it.

She is looking at me. I am looking at her. Her face…I wish I had the right words. I write songs and create music for a living. I practically bleed my thoughts and feelings into everything I compose, into every lyric. But I can’t find the words to adequately describe this girl. Maybe I’ve seen girls prettier than she is, but it’s hard to tell, because even with the width of Grady’s small music room separating us, it’s like I’ve been hurled into an electrical storm. My brain is charged and my thoughts are icy water suspended and trapped inside my head. It’s a face I can only inadequately describe as…extravagant. Like God spared no expense when He made this girl.

If I take her in parts, maybe I will do a better job of this. She has this wide mouth the color of fire-blasted rose petals. Her chin is slightly pointed, narrow, but her face widens and flares at her high cheekbones. Her eyes, the darkest, richest sable—glintless, fleckless, bottomless brown—carry a dramatic tilt, and I am sure a glance from her could seduce me. This, combined with her honeyed skin, make me wonder if she has Asian ancestry somewhere down the line. Her eyebrows are thick and smooth over an abundance of eyelashes. So thick and so long they look fake, but I know they are not. There is nothing fake about this girl. No artifice. Not even makeup. Her beauty is raw and unfiltered. Long, dark hair runs down her back. Of all things, she wears a Madonna T-shirt from the The Virgin Tour. Her skinny jeans mold her slim legs. Small feet in Toms. Simple silver musical notes in her pierced ears. She is this heady mixture of exotic and mundane, and just being in the same room is giving me a buzz. Imagine if I touched her. Imagine if I kissed her. Imagine if I fucked her. I’d be done for.

But I suspect she’d be worth it.

Grady’s hand on my shoulder, his words of praise, and the students crowding around me pry my attention from the petite girl by the door. And when my eyes again seek out that particular face in the sea of faces, she’s gone.