Broken Beautiful Hearts by Kami Garcia

  Owen looks a little embarrassed. “What if I apologize?” He sounds sincere, but he also already gave away that he doesn’t want to piss off Cutter.

  “It doesn’t matter. I don’t want to hang out with a fighter.”

  “First off, I’m not a fighter. I’m a kickboxer. Second, we won’t be hanging out. Cutter will leave a long-ass list of exercises for you to do, and I’ll help you do them.”

  I toy with Dad’s dog tags and weigh my options. I can’t afford to leave and risk offending Cutter. Not when she’s the only person in Black Water capable of helping me get back on the field.

  I walk back to the ring. I hear Owen’s footsteps behind me. Cutter and Lazarus are exactly where we left them, except now they’re huddled around Cutter’s phone.

  She taps on the screen. “That’s after he won the bronze for the one hundred meter, in the Summer Olympics. Fifteen years later and he still looks great.”

  “If you say so,” Lazarus says.

  Cutter sees us and pockets her phone. “Did you two lovebirds work things out?”

  “No,” I say at the same time Owen says, “Yes.”

  “And we aren’t lovebirds,” I say.

  Cutter dismisses my comment with a wave. “People fight for three reasons—survival, aggression, and attraction. When I lived in China, I watched pandas do the same thing.”

  Did she just compare me to a panda?

  “The female pandas snapped and took swings at the males, and the males gave it right back. But they never hurt each other,” Cutter explains. “That’s how you know it wasn’t aggression. Eventually, they would stop fighting and pair up. That’s what happens when it’s attraction.”

  “Then what?” I ask. “The pandas live happily ever after?”

  Cutter smiles, as if she’s pleased with herself for giving me what has to be the worst analogy I’ve ever heard.

  “What about praying mantises?” I ask. “After they mate, the female bites off the male’s head.”

  Dead silence.

  Maybe I went too far?

  Cutter laughs. “You catch on fast, Peyton.”

  “Actually, I do. That’s why I won’t need Owen’s help.” I feel Owen’s eyes burning a hole through me. “After you show me the exercises, I won’t have any trouble doing them on my own when you’re at the university.”

  Lazarus rubs his head and eyes Owen. “She really doesn’t like you. This whole thing is looking more praying mantis than panda.”

  Owen’s cheeks flush.

  “What the hell did you do to make this girl so angry, Owen?” Cutter asks.

  He glares at me. “Nothing.”

  “We were partners in English class. We just don’t get along,” I say. “Oil and water. That kind of thing.”

  “Then you’d better work it out,” Cutter says as she and Lazarus walk toward an office under the caged clock on the wall.

  “Oil and water?” Owen sounds offended. “We’ve had a total of two real conversations.”

  “Four, including this one.” I head for Cutter’s office and Owen follows me.

  The office door is open, but I still knock.

  “Come in,” she says.

  The office walls are covered in posters of martial arts moves and photos of Cutter—at tournaments, hitting a tall piece of wood with wooden prongs sticking out of it, or bowing in front of an elderly Asian man. A bookshelf holds medical texts and journals, alongside titles like The Art of War, The Heart of the Warrior, and The Adversary Within. It’s all a little too Zen for me, and the atmosphere suggests a level of calm that I’m not feeling.

  “That was fast,” Cutter says.

  Owen clears his throat. “I think Peyton is right. The two of us working together is a bad idea.”

  The words sting, something I didn’t expect.

  Owen tugs on one of his hand wraps with his teeth. He unwinds the cloth in a long strip, tosses it on the floor, and starts on the other hand. “I’m not even your intern anymore.”

  Lazarus shakes his head, as if something bigger is happening here and it has nothing to do with me.

  Cutter crosses her arms and studies Owen. “You might not be my intern, but unless you want to start paying me to train you, you’ll help out when I ask.” She points at the cloth strips. “And don’t leave your wraps on my floor.”

  Owen picks them up and shoves them into the pocket of his hoodie.

  Cutter spins the seat of her chair toward me. “And you have two choices. Option A: Do physical therapy with Owen, or Option B: Find someone else to help you. There is no Option C.” She motions between us. “For either of you. Decide what you want to do and let me know,” she says, shooing us out of her office.

  Owen follows me and closes the door behind us. I lean against the wall outside Cutter’s office and he walks over and stands beside me.

  “I guess that means we have to work together.” He doesn’t sound any happier about the situation than I am, but it makes me feel like I’m the one forcing this on him.

  Tension coils in my stomach. I want to let us both off the hook, but Cutter has me backed into a corner. “We’ll meet up to satisfy Cutter,” I say. “But you’ll do your thing and I’ll do mine. Minimal interaction.”

  Owen sighs. “Okay.”

  I turn to leave and I look back at him. “Don’t look so depressed, Owen. I’m only here for a few months.”


  Nobody Left to Run with Anymore

  HAWK’S BLACK SUBURBAN idles in front of the YMCA. I can’t wait to get out of here.

  My uncle has his window rolled down, and a Southern rock song is playing. His arm is hanging out the window and he’s nodding in time to the music as he taps the rhythm against the side of the SUV.

  I circle around the front of the Suburban.

  Hawk sees me and pushes my door open from the inside. He turns down the radio, just as the lead singer complains that there’s “nobody left to run with anymore.”

  “Where are the Twins? Is everything okay?” They were supposed to pick me up.

  “Coach extended practice until seven to go over the playbook. Cam texted me to see if I could swing by and get you.”

  “Sorry. I don’t want to be any trouble.”

  “I don’t mind at all. But I was thinking. You probably don’t want your grease monkey uncle driving you around when the boys are tied up.”

  “Restoring classic cars hardly makes you a grease monkey.”

  “I’ve got an old Jeep in the garage that needs some bodywork, but it runs great. I’m planning to restore it and sell it when I have time. You could use it while you’re here.”

  “That’s really nice of you, but I can’t take one of your cars.”

  What am I saying?

  Driving equals freedom. I wouldn’t be tied to the Twins every time I want to go somewhere.

  “It was just a thought,” Hawk says gently.

  “Actually, the doctor never said I couldn’t drive. At home I had nowhere to go, so I never thought about it. I’ll check with her tomorrow. If she says it’s okay, will you take a test drive with me?”

  “It would be my pleasure. I survived teaching the boys to drive.”

  The Suburban passes the Best Darn Diner in the Whole Darn State. Black Water students sit in the booths next to the window.

  “Doesn’t Christian want to borrow it?” I ask.

  Hawk laughs. “Your cousin already crashed one vehicle. I’m not letting him drive a car I’m planning to sell.”

  “What makes you think I’m a good driver?” I do have a clean driving record. I’ve never even had a ticket. Did Mom tell him?

  “Just a hunch. And you’d be doing me a favor. It’s better for the engine if someone drives it.”

  I’ll have a car. Just thinking about it makes me smile. “Okay. Thanks.”

  Hawk nods his approval. “It’s nice to see you smile. Don’t let anyone take that away.”

  Somebody already did, but I’m finally ready to t
ake it back.

  “So how did physical therapy go?”

  I twist wet strands of hair from my ponytail around my finger. “It went.”

  He glances at me from under the bill of his University of Tennessee Volunteers cap. “I’m not sure I like the sound of that.”

  “It was fine.”

  “Some people have a hard time with Cutter. She’s … difficult.”

  “Actually, she was cool.” Except for her terrible idea to have me work out with Owen. “How do you know her?”

  “Cutter grew up in Nashville. I was working the door at a bar down there before I joined the Marine Corps. That’s where I met her. She was already in med school, impressing the hell out of everyone—and pissing them off. Cutter was always getting herself in trouble. She came home to visit one weekend and I got her out of some. That’s how we became friends.”

  “Why did she stop performing surgery? She said something about liking sports more than surgery and martial arts more than medicine.”

  “Cutter came out of operating room one day and handed in her resignation. Then she fell off the grid. Ten years later, she showed up in Nashville. She told me she’d been living in Asia. But she missed whiskey and Elvis, so she came back.”

  “Did she tell anyone why she left?”

  We turn onto Hawk’s street and he pulls into the driveway. “Some people want to live life on their own terms. They don’t want anyone else deciding their fate. Cutter has always been that kind of person.”

  Hawk walks into the house and Dutch greets us, howling like he wants everyone in town to hear him. My uncle pats the bloodhound on the head with one hand and holds the door open for me with the other.

  “You don’t have to hold it open.”

  My uncle laughs and closes the door behind us.

  “Your grandma would rise up out of her grave if I didn’t.” He drops his keys in a bowl on the table by the door. “It’s a Southern thing. And if the boys don’t hold it open for you, I’ll send her after them, too.”

  It’s easy to picture my grandma, a stubborn spitfire like my mom, haunting the Twins because their manners aren’t up to her standards. I’d forgotten how funny my uncle is sometimes. He’s cool, in the uncool way some adults manage to be cool.

  “We have dinner around seven after the boys get home from practice,” Hawk says on his way to the kitchen. He stops in the doorway and looks back at me with kind brown eyes that look like Mom’s. “I know you weren’t crazy about the idea of coming to Black Water. Seeing me every day can’t be easy for you. But I’m glad you’re here.”

  I wish being around Hawk didn’t remind me of how Dad died—at least the parts I know. I don’t blame Hawk. It wasn’t his fault.

  “That’s not the reason I wanted to stay in DC.” Okay … it’s one of them. “I didn’t want it to look like I was running away. I don’t want him to think he broke me.”

  “I hear you. But leaving doesn’t always mean you’re running away. Sometimes you have to regroup before you go back and fight another battle.”

  “There won’t be another battle. I already lost the war.” And my best friend.

  “Don’t be so sure. You’re a fighter like your mom. Don’t let a pathetic excuse for a boy change that.”

  At the mention of Reed, a chill runs up the back of my neck. I excuse myself and go up to my Tennessee bedroom—that’s what I’ve decided to call it. I unstrap my RoboCop brace and change into sweats and an oversize T-shirt.

  I call Mom and fill her in on the first day. I tell her about my room and Black Water High. I give her the rundown on my classes, minus the Weasel, and I tell her about Grace. I don’t mention April, Titan, Owen, or my demonic locker number. That stuff will just stress her out.

  After I get off the phone, I’m out of distractions and my thoughts go straight to Owen.

  What’s my problem? Why am I thinking about him?

  Because he’s a hot smart-ass, who defended Tucker from bullies … who flirted with me behind a barn and promised to protect me from bears … who made my skin tingle when he touched me. But he’s also a frustrating pain in the ass who thinks I’d be interested in dating a jerk like Titan.

  Then there’s the other thing about Owen.…

  He’s a fighter.

  And I have to do PT with him.

  I definitely didn’t see the fighter part coming. Black Water is the land of football. Who kickboxes in a tiny-ass town in Tennessee?

  Owen Law.

  And he looks hot doing it.

  I wish I could snap a picture of Owen and send it to Tess. She’d think he’s good-looking too.

  It’s impossible to understand how much you need someone until that person isn’t around. Losing Tess feels permanent, like there’s no way to Krazy Glue our friendship back together.

  A long howl followed by an even longer one comes from downstairs.

  The front door slams, and it sounds like someone is dropping rocks on the floor downstairs. The howling stops and the bickering starts. The Twins are home.

  On my way down to the kitchen, the scent of fried chicken wafts through the air and my stomach rumbles. Suddenly, I’m starving.

  So what if Owen is at the YMCA when I’m there?

  He’s one guy.

  One guy I have to work out with three times a week.

  I’ll ignore him during PT and avoid him the rest of the time. If he gives me any crap, I’ll hand it right back to him. Or maybe throw more water bottles at him.

  At the bottom of the steps, football helmets and pads are strewn across the floor in a trail leading to the kitchen. That explains the banging I heard. A week with Mom and she’d have the Twins putting away their gear and doing their own laundry.

  I step around the pads and follow the smell of fried chicken.

  The Twins mill around the kitchen, wearing grass-stained football pants with their sweaty Warriors football shirts. Cam opens the fridge and gulps milk straight from the carton—the only way I’ve seen him drink it so far. Christian tears open a party-size bag of barbecue chips, leans his head back, and shakes the chips directly into his mouth. There’s no sign of the fried chicken I smelled, not even a KFC bucket.

  Hawk points at the chips. “Put those back. We’re about to eat. Go sit down.”

  Christian shakes the bag over his mouth before returning it to the pantry. He notices Cam walking toward the long farmhouse table, and he tries to rush past him. Cam catches on and grabs the back of his brother’s shirt to stop him, but Christian is faster and he shoves Cam against the fridge.

  Dutch raises his head from his spot underneath the kitchen table. Nothing fazes the bloodhound.

  Cam regains his balance. “You’re going to pull a punk move like that when I’m not paying attention?”

  “Stay sharp, boy!” Christian yells back in an exaggerated Southern accent and a clipped tone.

  “You’d better hope Coach doesn’t catch you imitating him. He’ll have you doing push-ups until your wrists break,” Cam warns.

  “That’s enough,” Hawk says, opening the oven. “Sit your tails down. And if one of you breaks my fridge, you’ll spend the spring mowing lawns to replace it.”

  “That’ll give Christian something to look forward to,” Cam says, following me to the table. He pulls out a ladder-back chair for me at one end and drops into the chair beside it.

  I gesture at the chair. “I’m not sitting at the head of the table. One of you should sit here.”

  Christian takes a seat across from his brother. “We’re not allowed. House rules.”

  Hawk looks over his shoulder at us. “Don’t make me sound like a drill sergeant. Go ahead and tell her why.”

  “We used to fight over that spot,” Christian explains.

  “Which always turned into a wrestling match,” Cam says.

  Christian shrugs. “One night we broke some dishes.”

  “Is that the way you tell it?” Hawk shakes his head and pulls a large foil pan out of the oven. ?
??These two were rolling around and bumped right into their mother.”

  The Twins exchange embarrassed looks, and Hawk continues, “She dropped the Thanksgiving ham on the floor, platter and all. A Southern woman takes pride in four things—her kids, her appearance, her house, and her cooking. I thought she was going to put you both over her knee.”

  “How old were you?” I ask the Twins.

  “Eight, maybe?” Christian guesses.

  “Seven,” Cam corrects him. “It was the year before…”

  Their mom died.

  Nobody wants to say it.

  “Right.” Christian’s eyes cloud over for a moment, then he snaps out of it. “For the record, Cam started it.”

  Hawk carries two huge aluminum foil pans to the table and places them in the center. He makes another trip to grab biscuits, a ready-to-eat bag of salad, a glass bowl, and two bottles of salad dressing. The aluminum pans, extra-crunchy fried chicken, and breadcrumb-dusted mac and cheese look familiar, and I realize they’re Stouffer’s frozen dinners.

  Stouffer’s mac and cheese was a mainstay at Tess’ house. I’ve eaten the fried chicken at plenty of potluck dinners, but never at home.

  Before Dad died, he did all the cooking and nothing came out of a freezer pan. After we lost him, I took over the cooking. Resorting to frozen food would’ve been another reminder that he was gone—that everything in Mom’s life and mine had changed. I wonder if it felt that way to Hawk and the Twins.

  It’s easy to forget that my cousins know how it feels to lose a parent, too.

  Hawk rips open the salad bag and dumps it into the glass bowl. “Go ahead and eat.”

  No one reaches for the food. Are the Twins thinking about their mom?

  “You like fried chicken?” Christian picks up the pan and holds it out to me.

  “Yes.” I take two legs and set them on my plate. “Thanks.”

  The moment the crispy brown coating touches my plate, the Twins descend on the pan like locusts. Water glasses wobble and silverware clinks as they reach across the table in a rush to fill their plates. Christian grabs four pieces of chicken and digs into the mac and cheese, serving himself three heaping spoonfuls. Cam shakes the bread basket above his plate as if he’s planning to empty it.

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