Chapter One – Emma

My lungs are on fire, my body aching with every step forward, and all I want to do is collapse into a puddle of nothing but sweat and death on the ground. Every breath I pull in feels like sweet agony, but I don’t stop.

I can’t stop.

Anyone who ever says they actually like running is a liar.

No one can possibly like this garbage feeling of death.

Still, I push myself harder and harder with every passing second. Not because I like it, but because running is the only way I’ll be able to reach my goals.

Running is the only way I can make my dead brother Danny proud… you know, from his cushy life beyond the grave.

I bet ghosts don’t have to run.

“Tacos,” I wheeze when I finally cross the finish line and collapse next to my best friend. “Someone needs to get me tacos. Maybe tequila with salt and a lime to bring me back from death, but I’ll settle for tacos.”

Kennedy sits there on the grass in the middle of the track at Birch Harbor High School with a stopwatch that she’s supposed to be using to time my laps, snoring. Her red hair covers her face and her arms hold the watch against her chest. She doesn’t have a care in the world while I’m practically dying.

“Are you kidding me?” I kick her leg from my place next to her, and she snorts in response. “Come on, Kennedy. I needed you to time me. The stupid physical fitness standards are ridiculous.”

She opens one eye and glares at me the way only she can, shoving her hair out of the way. “I’m going to kill you,” she mutters. “I was timing you. Until the last lap because you slowed way down and Nox could walk faster than you were moving.” She throws the stopwatch at me. “Now, let me go back to sleep.”

“But I want tacos,” I whine pathetically. “Can’t you sleep later? You know, when you’re home alone for the night because your stupid fiancé has to work? After we eat tacos.”

That gets her up. There are very few things in life that Kennedy will pass up, and tacos isn’t one of them.

“Fine, but we’re not going to Lucy’s. I want real tacos.”

That’s how we find ourselves all the way out at Alta’s Takeout, halfway to the island and an hour from Birch Harbor. But that drive is how we get the best tacos in the entire world. Alta’s place is the absolute best in the county, and maybe even the entire state, probably the entire Northeast, and she knows it. The older woman steps out from behind the counter, and I can’t help wanting to hug her. She can’t be more than five feet tall, and she has the type of curves that pinup models had in the fifties. Her black hair has silver streaks in it, and she’s just so stunning for someone my mom’s age that I can’t believe she has four kids.

“Alta,” I groan around one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever had. “I don’t know how you do it. But you make the best meat I’ve ever had in my mouth.”

Alta laughs, and Kennedy snorts from her seat across from me. I don’t care. They both know what I meant to say; it’s not my fault that running makes me crazy.

When I open my mouth to tell Kennedy to suck on a potato, she isn’t even looking at me. Instead, she’s staring over my shoulder with wide eyes, and my face flames as I realize we aren’t alone.

“Emma Hayes.” Alta claps her hands together, momentarily distracting me from the fact that I’m about to be embarrassed. “You kill me, niña. Dominic, why can’t you find a girl like Emma?”

I turn to see none other than Dominic Ortiz, Alta’s son, and the man who stars in every single one of my fantasies standing there with a strange look on his face while he watches me shove the last bit of one of my tacos into my mouth.

See, I don’t care how uncomfortable I get, there’s no chance I’m gonna give up the tacos that are on my plate. Even if I’m saying the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard come out of my mouth.

When he sees me staring, I swear I see him bite his lip before answering his mother. “Lo siento, Mama. There’s no woman out there like Emma.” His eyes lock on mine, and I can’t help the blush that creeps up my neck and into my cheeks.

How does he always know exactly what to say to make my panties melt without even trying?

“Damn straight,” I say with a nod, then I turn back to my plate. But I feel his gaze on me the entire time. And when he clears his throat and I dare to look up, we lock eyes again. I see the same desire there that I saw the night of Parker and Remy’s wedding.

Right before he vanished into thin air without so much as a kiss between the two of us.

Although, in the pale light of the hangover I had the next morning, it was more than clear that Dom isn’t the man for me. Not only is he a friend of my brother’s, but they served together overseas, and they work together at Birch Police Department. The last thing I need in my life is another controlling man, or another cop for that matter.

Knowing the truth and the harsh reality doesn’t mean I won’t continue to check him out every single chance I get.

A piece of potato hits the side of my face, and I look up to see Kennedy staring at me with huge eyes. “What the fuck was that?” She pops another fried potato into her mouth and glares when I don’t immediately give her an answer.

“Nothing?” I try for nonchalance, but it just comes out like a garbled mess of a question that I don’t know what to do with. “Nothing,” I try again with more conviction, but Kennedy isn’t buying any of the bullshit that I’m throwing her way.

“You never told me what happened at the wedding after me and Linc bounced out, you know.” Kennedy stares at me while spearing one of her potatoes with the plastic fork that Alma gives with all of her take-out orders. “Did something happen between the two of you? Something involving naked shenanigans?”

“No.” It almost feels impossible for my face to get even redder than it was before, but I still feel my skin grow hotter under her questioning.

“Holy shit,” she mutters mutinously. If it wasn’t me in the hot seat, I may have laughed at the comical way her eyes widen. “Something did happen between the two of you. Why don’t you tell me?”

Rather than answer her, I sit back in the booth and do my best to ignore the traitorous emotions that fill every pore of my being. Embarrassment, humiliation, rage, and a giant bowl of self-flagellation were the only things I took home from Parker and Remy’s wedding. And none of those emotions are things that I want to share with Kennedy. Not only is she one of my best friends, but she’s engaged to my older brother. The last thing any of us need is an awkward conversation about me getting rejected where Linc may have to defend my honor against one of his best friends.

When the alarm on my phone starts to go off, my heart stutters nervously in my chest. In my rush to devour the food in front of me, I almost forgot that I have plans.

Plans that must have stuck in the back of my mind on an unconscious level, because I haven’t had the tequila I wanted when I was running.

“I gotta go.” I stuff the last bits of my last taco into my mouth and pick up my trash, careful not to leave anything behind. “I’ll see you tomorrow? Same time and place?” Kennedy and I have a routine, and I have a goal in life that I’ll never accomplish if I don’t get my ass back out onto the track every day.

Kennedy sighs deeply and then nods, staring at her food like she’ll never eat again. “As soon as I get home, Linc’s gonna eat the rest of my food.”

“Nonsense,” Alta says suddenly as she pops up next to the table like a banshee appearing out of nowhere. “You’re going to take that man his own food and if he tries to eat yours, you stab him with this spork.” She waves the plastic utensil in the air like a weapon, and I almost pee myself from laughing so hard.

While Kennedy and Alta move to the counter and Alta starts getting a take-out container ready for her to bring home, I sneak out through the side door as quietly as I can.

“Where you going?”

I scream and whirl around, reaching out with my fist to hit first and think second. Except Dom knows exactly what he’s done and grabs my fist before it can connect with his chest because he’s so tall that I couldn’t reach his face without jumping.

“What the hell, Dom?” I grab my hand back and think about kicking him in retaliation for the heart attack I’m currently experiencing.

“You left without saying goodbye.” He shrugs, and I look up to see him run a hand through his beard, staring at me contemplatively. Like I’m a wild animal that he wants to put down.

Instead of sighing like a hormonal teen ready to fawn and gasp and flirt at the sight of the muscles in his arm flexing while he stares at me, I clear my throat and look down at my feet. “I’ve got nothing to say to you, Dom.”

“Don’t have anything to say my ass, bonita. There’s plenty to say.” When I don’t answer him and don’t even look up, Dom shifts so that he is directly in my line of sight and pokes me in the forehead. “Dios mío. You’re the most stubborn woman I’ve ever met in my life, you know that, right? And that’s saying something because I’ve got sisters and a mother that could try any man’s patience.”

That gets my attention, and I glare at him with every bit of the fury that I have at him rejecting me. “You’re in my way, Dom. I don’t want to have to call your mom out here. Or better yet, my brother to come and deal with your shit.”

“Oh.” Dom laughs out loud. “You mean the brother who literally called me on my way home to tell me that he saw your car here and that I should come sweep his pain-in-the-ass sister off her feet so that he could have his fiancée back? That brother?”

I want to slap the expression off his face, but I know I can’t reach. Instead, I kick the rocks at my feet and pretend that I’m kicking him in the shins. It’s either that, or I’ll climb him like a tree. I know better than that. Being with Dom will bring nothing but trouble, and I know he isn’t lying about my brother, either. Linc makes sure to point out that I’m stealing too much of Kennedy’s time. Every single day.

“Look.” I sigh deeply and turn my attention to Dom, trying not to let his beard melt my resolve. “I just want to go home. I’ve had a long day. I’m tired, and my muscles are starting to hurt from the run I went on before dinner. So unless you’re going to put your hands to use and give me a massage, I’m going.” I step around him, ignoring how little space there actually is between the two of us. “I’ll see you later, Dom.”

The entire drive home I think about what his hands on me would actually feel like, and all I can come up with is one word.


Too bad I’ll never get a chance to experience it.

I barely pull into my driveway by the time the sun goes down, and the telltale little girl with blond pigtails sitting on my doorstep is a sign that I’m almost late for the most important part of my day.

“You’re late,” Bianca chimes like an angel as she bounces up from my stairs when I finally grab all my bags and slam my car door. “But Momma sent me with a batch of lasagna for you if I can stay here tonight.” Her eyes dart across the street to her house, and I have to fight to keep a smile on my face when her dark-brown eyes fill with tears. “If you want me to.”

“Don’t worry, Bee.” I nod toward the front door. “You carry the lasagna. I got the goods, and we can stay up late with a movie, okay?”

Bianca Hart, whose parents bought the house across the street from me four years ago, is one of only two people in the entire world that I’ll blow off food for. Between her and my nephew, there isn’t much room in my life for anyone else.

Especially once I start getting ready for my next step in life. Then I probably won’t even have time for much of anything at all.

In the distance, even through the closed windows and doors of my house, I hear Bianca’s parents starting to fight, and I know our night is about to get worse, before it gets even the slightest bit better. And I know that if I don’t make the call, one of them will end up in the hospital, or worse. While Bee can’t see what I’m doing, I slip my phone from my pocket and send my big brother a text.


Linc… They’re at it again. Bee is here with me. Can you call it in like you’re driving by or something so I can take care of Bee?


I got it. Take care of her. I’ll handle them.

Sighing, I put my phone away and go back to work, distracting Bee from everything terrible the world feels like throwing at her.

“Tell me a secret, Emma.” Bee sits across the kitchen table from me while I put away all the groceries and junk I got at the store earlier. “Something nice.”

I look up from the bag of marshmallows I’ve been contemplating tearing into and see the tension in her eyes. The fear that her world is going to fall down around her ears and there’s nothing she can do about it.

It’s too much for a seven-year-old, that’s for sure. Swallowing down the sudden rock in my throat, I shut the pantry door and lean against it while I press my lips together in thought.

“Did you know…” I trail off, trying to come up with something. Bee stares at me like I’m about to answer all of life’s greatest questions, and I can’t let her down. Not with all the crap she has going on at home. “Oh.” I snap my fingers together in triumph, because who else should I let in on my deepest secret besides her? “Do you know what I’m training for? With the running and the working out, even though I hate it? I haven’t told anyone who doesn’t absolutely need to know.”

Bee shakes her head, her pigtails dancing on air with the movement. Her eyes light up with the excitement of a shared secret.

I step away from the wall, moving until I’m standing right next to her, and then I lean down so that we are face-to-face. “I want to make a difference,” I tell her quietly, even though there is no one else in the house to hear our conversation. “I want to do something for all the people in the world who don’t have anyone they can call for help. The ones who don’t trust the people coming to help them right now.”

Bee’s eyes, still bright with the excitement of what I’m telling her, start to fade slightly as her mind begins to process what I’m telling her.

“I’m going to train to be a police officer, Bee.” The smile and relief I feel for telling another person my secret vanishes the instant I see her shoulders slump. “Hey.” I pull her into my arms, wrapping her in a tight hug. “What’s wrong, little bee?”

Bee cries against my chest, and I can’t for the life of me figure out what’s wrong. What I said that broke her heart.

When she pulls away after what feels like forever, her face is red and her eyes swollen. Her sobs fade into hiccups and she stares at me like I’ve just stolen all her candy on Halloween.

“If you leave, who’s going to protect me from Daddy?”

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