I was really thinking I'd do a lurve excerpt today to honor Valentine's Day. But I'm going to be doing that on Friday over at Austen Variations with my new WIP.
So I decided to go the sort of anti-love route instead. This is for all of you out there who hate V-Day, or who are just plain bored/sick/tired/annoyed by it. Me, I don't care a fig about the holiday. I'm married, and have been for a long time, and we've gotten to the point where it's like, do we really need to celebrate this? We have our anniversary, what do we need this day for? So for all of you who don't want to read yet another mushy-gushy love scene or kissing scene, check out my first chapter from COLLIDE.
The sky was a rich blue, the kind that belonged over a Van Gogh wheat field, not the lawn in front of Hank’s family ranch. The bright sun warmed the bare skin of my arms and legs while a breeze blew into my hair, twirling the ends like silk. But I couldn’t breathe.
All this cloying perfection suffocated me, right down to the plaid blanket I sat on, the wicker basket full of wine and roses, and Hank. Especially Hank, and the four words he had just spoken. Four little words that sucked the air right from my lungs.
It really was a sweet proposal, and I knew Hank thought he was going all out with the picnic and the perfect day, as if he had ordered it all especially. It would’ve been easy to say yes. In fact, I felt the word at my lips, so close, so ready to slip out, before I swallowed it back down.
Hank knelt across from me, the cowboy hat I used to think was so sexy perched against his knees. He’d ruffled his hair as soon as he took it off to avoid hat head, but all it did was give him a look of wispy childlike innocence. The kind of look that was hard to erase. And yet, all too easy.
His smile froze before it fell altogether. He leaned back on his heels. “What?”
“I’m really sorry,” I said, not taking my eyes from his, “but I can’t.”
“Maggie…” He reached for me, then dropped his hand. “Why?”
I couldn’t answer because I didn’t know. I’d loved Hank since I was a freshman in high school. Everything about him, from his worn jeans to the dirt under his fingernails and how he masked the smell of horses with Calvin Klein cologne. How he called all women “ma’am,” how he could tame the wildest horse and yet every touch on my skin was gentle.
I loved Hank. But I couldn’t say yes. It was the “yes” that made it so hard to breathe.
“I’m not ready.”
I should have seen this proposal coming. We’d talked about the future lots of times, of being together and living on Hank’s family ranch and having kids one day. But it seemed so far off. Unreal. We were only nineteen, after all. It was an adult’s life we talked of, and I didn’t feel like an adult.
“Then I’ll wait. We’ll wait.” Hank scooted closer, his knees pressed into my thighs. “You can finish community college, and by then Dad will let me run the ranch on my own and—”
“No.” I couldn’t let this go on. This was his dream. For a long time it had been my dream too, but I knew in that moment I’d only been borrowing it until I could find my own.
Hank gaped. Then, jamming his hat on his head, he stood and walked away, his shoulders hunched.
“Hank.” I followed. I couldn’t leave things like this. “I’m sorry. I really am.”
He whirled around, brushing my forehead with the brim of his hat. I was taller than Hank without it. The hat gave him height, which is why he wore it all the time, even in church. My dad thought it was sacrilegious, but he never made Hank stop.
“You’re sorry?” His sunburned face turned a deeper shade of red. “Maggie, we’ve been dating for four years.”
The pain he was trying so hard to hide brought tears to my eyes. “I know.”
“This is what comes next.” He tipped my chin up with his finger. Hank loved to touch my face, always marveling at my smooth, pale skin compared to his year-round sunburn. “I want it, your parents expect it—”
My eyes narrowed at that, and he quickly changed tack.
“I love you. Don’t you love me?”
I swallowed. “I’m sorry.” I couldn’t explain, couldn’t say I love you like I had so many times before. There was nothing I could do but escape.
Hank followed. He pleaded. He even cried. I cried. He didn’t touch me.
“Please don’t do this,” I said.
The swish of his footsteps behind me died out. He’d finally given up.
“Maggie!” he shouted. “At least let me give you a ride home!”
But I couldn’t do that either. I needed to get away from him. Away from myself.
Hank called out again but I ignored him. I didn’t stop until I reached the gravel road leading off Hank’s family property.
I half expected Hank’s pickup to come by, with him hanging out of the window telling me to get in. But he never showed and I was grateful. It was a long walk back into town, but it gave me time. Time to cry, to hate myself, and to think.
A year ago, I’d graduated high school with a mediocre GPA and a diner job I’d had since I was fourteen. My grades weren’t good enough for a top university, so I’d enrolled in the local community college, kept the job where everyone knew my name and gave me crappy tips, and stayed with Hank.
But the whole time I’d had this dream. An alternate life I imagined living when I went to bed at night, or while zoning out at the diner.
In this alternate life, I left Hank and Hillstone behind and moved far away—to Las Vegas. I had fabulous friends, a big studio apartment, a job at a trendy boutique, and best of all I danced with Essence Dance Theater, a renowned contemporary dance company I’d seen perform once.
Maybe this alternate life was straight out of a TV show, but I couldn’t help wanting something different from what I knew. It’s not that I didn’t have great friends, because I did. But Drina was at Brown, Stace and her boyfriend were backpacking in Europe, and Melissa had changed her name to Misty and moved to California to be closer to the Mother Ocean, as she called it.
Only I was left, and Hank. Me and Hank. Hank and I. And my parents. Me and Hank and my parents. And his parents and his horses. Me and Hank and my parents and his parents and his horses.
It wasn’t enough, yet it was all too much.
My pinkie toes began to sting, the beginnings of blisters. Hillstone was still a mile off. I passed the Williams farm and their pasture of Jersey cows. The same pasture where I’d watched Stace and Melissa/Misty get wasted at Fox Williams’ annual New Year’s party while I drank a hot chocolate, because my dad would have murdered me if I had one sip of alcohol. I trudged by the old, rotting barn that everyone said was haunted by headless chickens. I slipped off my sandals as I entered Hillstone, the gravel turning to chipped pavement, hot under my bare feet.
Hillstone was all I knew. It was familiar and safe. Like Hank. But if I couldn’t say yes to Hank, I couldn’t say yes to Hillstone either.
Maybe it was time to make my daydream a reality.
By the time I got home, the perfect sun was setting in perfect rays of pink and orange. It turned the white siding of my house into the color of Pepto Bismol. I sat on the porch, wrapping my skirt under my legs, unwilling to go inside.
“Maggie?” Mom’s voice called through the screen door. “How was your date?”
She knew about the proposal. I could hear it in her voice—the hope, the barely contained excitement.
“We broke up,” I said, quick and painless. Like how I’d refused Hank. Except that hadn’t been painless at all. And neither was this.
My mom was by my side in seconds—one of those superhero Mom tricks I figured I’d inherit one day if I ever had kids. I didn’t even hear the screen door slam like it always did.
“Honey, why?” Mom put her arm around my shoulders. “What happened?”
I couldn’t meet her eyes. “I said no.”
Her silence said everything.
I gave her the side eye. “You knew he was going to propose, didn’t you?”
“I might have known a thing or two.” She pulled my head against her shoulder. “Are you okay?”
“Not really.” I’d given up something. I’d given up a life, a future that was certain once, a future I’d set for myself whether I’d wanted it or not. I couldn’t keep living in Hillstone, going to community college, working at the same diner. I wanted to be a different Maggie Hale. I needed to be.
It was time for me to try.
If you want to read more of COLLIDE and find out what happens next, you can check it out on Amazon and other ebook retailers! Happy V-Day!