Broken Beautiful Hearts by Kami Garcia

Owen reaches over my shoulder and around the back of my neck, and puts his hand over my ear—almost like he’s cupping it. The next thing I know, my body is turning away from him and my balance feels off. Before I have time to panic, Owen’s arm slides up my back, like we’re on a dance floor and he’s dipping me.

  He lowers me down to the mat gently, with his hand cradling my head. The sensation of his fingertips on my scalp sends a current tingling along my spine. Owen flips one of his legs over my body so that he’s straddling me, without actually sitting on me. He stays on his knees, supporting his weight. One of his hands is still behind my head, and his other hand is planted on the mat next to my cheek. He leans over me, his face hovering above mine. His gaze drops to my mouth, and I suck in the tiniest breath possible. His lips part, and I imagine reaching out and touching his full bottom lip—running my finger down the indentation in the center.

  Suddenly, he sits up on his knees, my body still pinned between his legs. His hands move to my wrists, holding them against the mat. He looks down at me with a cocky smile. “Still think you know how to defend yourself? A real attacker wouldn’t break your fall.”

  For a moment, I forget about the reason I’m pinned against the mat. He must feel my pulse pounding against my wrists.

  Why Owen? Why now—at the worst possible time?

  “Did I hurt you?” Concern flickers in Owen’s eyes.

  “No. But I don’t understand what happened. I started to turn and it felt weird.”

  “Like you were off balance?” he asks.


  “If you put your hand over someone’s ear and pull them in the opposite direction from behind, it throws your inner ear out of whack. Your inner ear is what controls your equilibrium.”

  “Maybe I don’t know as much about self-defense as I thought.”

  Owen releases my wrists and tucks the loose strands of hair that escaped from my ponytail behind my ear. “I’ll teach you the basics if you want. It won’t earn you a black belt, but you’ll know how to protect yourself if someone tries to hurt you.”

  I look away when he says the last part. “You don’t have to.”

  Owen helps me up, and I lean against the ropes, trying to make sense of everything I’m feeling. His arm skims my waist as he reaches for the rope behind me. He brings his other hand up to my cheek. It hovers there for a moment—frozen in place.

  The same way I feel right now.

  Finally, he tucks another strand of hair behind my ear and leans closer. “Let me teach you, Peyton. I don’t want anyone to hurt you.”

  Too late.

  I almost let the words slip out.

  “You got quiet on me. Does that mean you’re thinking about it?” Owen asks.

  What were we talking about?


  Me and Owen rolling around on the floor together … his face inches from mine on a regular basis. Me wanting to kiss him.

  “Peyton?” Owen watches me with an intensity that makes it hard to concentrate.

  “Yeah. Sure.” Why am I agreeing to this? “If we have time after PT and everything.”

  When he hears the last word, he smiles. He’s still sweaty from training. Unlike most guys, he doesn’t smell like a dirty pair of gym socks. It’s crazy and I’d never admit it to anyone, but I think he smells like the ocean—clean and salty. And it’s not helping with the attraction issue.

  Owen holds one of the ropes I’m leaning against. If I move the slightest bit, the side of my arm would graze his hand. I inhale and get another hit of his intoxicating scent.

  “I don’t want a boyfriend,” I blurt out.

  It’s a defense mechanism. Fight or flight. Except words fly out of my mouth and my feet stay planted on the floor.

  Owen leans closer. “Who said I want to be your boyfriend?” His breath tickles my neck.

  “You’re right. I should’ve said that I’m not looking for a hookup.” I step to the side and move out of reach.

  “You don’t seem like the kind of girl who randomly hooks up with guys.” He’s leaning against the ropes where I was standing a moment ago.

  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

  Owen walks over to where I’m standing. “You’re stubborn and you don’t take any shit. And don’t look at me that way. It’s a compliment.”

  “Maybe, if you’re a drill sergeant.”

  “You’re the kind of girl a guy wants to keep around for a lot longer than one night.”

  I tilt my head to the side. “How many nights, exactly? Are we talking two or three, or a whole week? I want to keep my expectations realistic.”

  Owen looks down at me. “You’re taking this all wrong. I wasn’t saying I wouldn’t want to be your boyfriend. I was just giving you a hard time. You made it clear you weren’t available the first night we met. I believed you.”

  Part of me regrets it—the same part that told me how lucky I was the first night Reed kissed me. The part I can’t trust anymore.

  He takes a deep breath. “But we can still be friends, right?”

  Unbelievable. I’m getting an updated version of the “let’s be friends” speech from a guy I’m not even dating.

  “Or do you have too many friends already?” he teases.

  Getting closer to a guy I’m attracted to and I can’t date is a bad idea—like playing with matches over a puddle of lighter fluid.

  Owen holds his fists in front of him, like a boxer meeting his opponent in the center of the ring before a fight. “Friends?”

  I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason. Some things just happen, and you have to live with the fallout.

  Miracles have explanations.

  Love at first sight isn’t an inexplicable phenomenon. It’s science—biology and pheromones.

  Owen is still holding out his hands. “Have you ever watched a boxing match?”

  “Sure. Why?”

  “Boxers touch gloves at the beginning of a fight as a show of respect.”

  “Are we going to fight?” I hold back a smile.

  “Are you ever gonna go easy on me?”

  “Probably not.”

  Owen grins. “I can live with that.” He holds out his hands, still balled into fists between us. “Friends?”

  I search his dark eyes for an indication that I’m not crazy to trust him. There’s no way to be sure. I think about coincidences and excuses, giving up and fallout.

  I ball it all up in my fists and touch mine against Owen’s. “Friends.”


  Things We Can’t Forget

  “ALL RIGHT, EVERYONE,” Miss Ives says as she stands in front of the class the next day. “We’re going to take a look at the next novel we’ll be reading.”

  She walks around passing out books.

  Owen is sitting across from me, and she hands him two copies of the book.

  Please let it be a book I’ve already read.

  Owen gives me a paperback, and the moment I see the cover my mood instantly changes.

  The cover depicts a row of silhouettes, each carrying a large pack.

  My gut wrenches as I read the title, hoping I’m wrong about the subject matter—and, at the same time, knowing I’m not.

  The Things They Carried.

  They. The soldiers on the cover.

  With a trembling hand, I turn it over and skim the description on the back.






  Bile rises in the back of my throat, and a firestorm of images from my nightmares rains down on me.

  Dad sinking in the water—his heavy pack dragging him down. Water swallowing him as he thrashes. His hand raised, reaching for someone to pull him out, until he loses the battle and the water closes over him, as if he were never there at all.

  Dad, hanging from a wire below a helicopter, focused and calm. The sound of automatic weapons firing, round after round. The
helicopter jerking to the side as it is engulfed by billows of black smoke. The wire swinging, with Dad clinging to it. He’s reaching again, but there’s nobody left to help him.

  I’ve had nightmares about those scenarios and all the other ways Dad could’ve died during a Recon mission. The nightmares started the day I found out my father was dead and I’ve been having them ever since.

  But one nightmare haunts me more than the others, because it’s the closest to what really happened that day, at least according to Mom. She knows the whole story—all the details I’m too terrified to hear. The part she told me is awful enough.

  Dad and two of his Recon “brothers,” on his fire team, moving silently through a crude stone tunnel, underneath a hotel in Fallujah. Darkness and the sound of their breathing, each time they inhale and exhale. In and out. In and out. The sound of the explosion inside the tunnel. He looks up when he hears an avalanche of rock sliding and cracking, just in time to catch a glimpse of the tunnel coiling before it collapses on them.

  “Peyton?” Owen’s voice shatters the images.

  I focus on his face—worried brown eyes searching mine—his forehead furrowed and lips parted. I drop the book like it’s radioactive.

  Owen watches me for a moment without saying a word. In the background, Miss Ives drones on about the Pulitzer Prize and the canon of American literature.

  “Peyton?” he tries again.

  Say something.

  But I can’t find the right words. Or any words.

  “Do you feel sick?” Owen puts his hand on my wrist, and the weight of it combined with the roughness of his fingertips calms me.

  “I’m fine,” I mumble. “I got light-headed.”

  His hand is still on my wrist, and I let the soft pressure of his fingers moving back and forth over my pulse point drag me out of what’s left of the tunnel.

  “You should go to the health room. I’ll take you.” Owen’s hand slips from my wrist and moves to the back of his chair as he turns toward the front of the room. He’s trying to get Miss Ives’ attention.

  “Please don’t,” I whisper.

  He leans over the desk, keeping his voice low. “You look like you’re about to pass out.”

  “I’m okay. I swear.” I’m not and he knows it.

  Miss Ives scrawls a name on the board. “The author, Tim O’Brien, was the only member of his unit to survive the Vietnam War.”

  Like Hawk.

  “In his novel, he tells stories and anecdotes about the soldiers who died—the men he never forgot.”

  Like Dad, Rudy, Ghost, and Big John—the recon operators who died in the tunnel.

  “O’Brien tells us about the things the soldiers carried with them—the physical mementos and reminders of home, like photographs and letters.” Miss Ives continues talking, but I can’t make sense of the words.

  What did Dad carry with him?

  Owen’s eyes dart to the worn paperback. “It’s because of the book, isn’t it?” he whispers, leaning closer. “That’s why you’re so pale. Is it your dad?”

  “I don’t want to talk about it.” I let my dark waves fall over my shoulder to hide my face.

  “But he died in combat?”

  “On a mission.” I touch the spot on my shirt where Dad’s dog tags rest close to my heart, under the fabric.

  “You should tell Miss Ives. She’ll assign you another book.”

  “I’m not telling her.” I can’t.

  Owen rakes his hands through his hair. He hasn’t taken his eyes off me. He’s either worried or freaked out. “Are you sure?”


  The details I just shared with Owen are more than I tell most people.

  The rest of the period passes in a blur of discussion about the author, the significance of the novel, and other things I tune out. When the bell rings, Owen follows me out of the classroom and we walk down the hall together. He doesn’t ask questions or make small talk to fill the silence. He just stays beside me, angling his body toward the hallway traffic so no one bumps into me.

  “I’ll catch up with you,” Owen says as we pass the boys’ bathroom.

  I keep walking. “I’ll be at my locker.” Burying this novel under whatever I can find.

  I’m not paying attention when I get there.

  April and Madison are a few lockers away, laughing and whispering. They’re probably talking about me. But then again, they seem to talk about everyone so who knows?

  I turn the combination on the lock, watching them.

  April gives me an icy stare, her long auburn hair pulled up in a tight ponytail with the front hair-sprayed halfway to heaven. It’s getting colder outside, and they’ve swapped their jean skirts for skintight jeans. They look like they escaped from a Barbie Dreamhouse.

  I pop the lock and open my locker.

  The door flies open, and suddenly everything is falling out. I cover my head. Objects just keep falling and falling. I don’t even have that much stuff in my locker. I try to back up and I stumble.

  I hit the floor and my butt breaks my fall.

  Suddenly, I realize what’s tumbling out of my locker, and the familiar shapes and the sound they make when they bounce on the floor.

  Soccer balls.

  At least a dozen of them, rolling and bouncing across the scuffed floor of the hallway. Brand-new soccer balls. Someone spent a lot of money to embarrass me.

  I sit up, determined to hold on to what little self-respect I have left. April and Madison, along with some of their friends, dissolve into hysterical laughter. They don’t even try to hide it.


  Getting up from the floor without putting too much weight on my knee is tricky. I’m still trying to get back on my feet when I feel a strong arm encircle my waist.

  “Are you all right?” Owen whispers in my ear. He’s behind me. He pulls me up, then circles around so he’s standing in front of me.

  “I’m fine.”

  But I’m not. I’m furious and humiliated.

  It’s such a juvenile prank, and instead of just laughing it off, I ended up falling on my ass. I want to pick up every single ball and chuck them at April’s head.

  I catch a glimpse of Christian charging down the hall, and he looks pissed off. He’s heading straight for us.

  “What the hell is going on?” he demands.

  “April put a bunch of soccer balls in Peyton’s locker,” Owen says.

  Christian picks up a soccer ball and walks over to April. “If you think screwing with Peyton is gonna get me to come back, you’re wrong.”

  She knocks the ball out of his hand. “No one wants you back, and I’m not the one who did this.”

  Madison moves closer to April and crosses her arms. “She was with me in class the entire time. We have more important things to do than make a fool of your cousin.”

  Christian slaps his forehead. “Oh, well, if you say April was with you, that changes everything. Because you’d never lie for her.”

  I slip past Owen and push Christian out of the way so that I’m nose-to-nose with April. “Your little prank was funny. I would’ve done something like that in sixth or seventh grade.”

  April narrows her eyes. “Then you should tell the person who did it, because it wasn’t me.”

  I square my shoulders. “I hope not, because I won’t be in this brace forever. And I’m pretty sure I could still kick your ass with it on.”

  “Are you threatening me?” April sounds shocked. If what I have witnessed over the past week is any indication, I’m probably the first girl who has ever stood up to her.

  “It’s not a threat. It’s a promise.” I snatch the soccer ball out of Christian’s hand and tap on the side of it. “These are a lot harder than they look. I’ve seen a couple of girls get their noses broken when they’ve taken a ball to the face.”

  April shrinks back. “If you throw that at me, you’ll get expelled.”

  “Don’t worry. I’d never come after you on ca
mpus.” I smile at her, and it’s a real smile. Then I chuck the ball at the locker behind her. It smacks against the metal, inches from April’s ear, and she yelps.

  People in the hallway laugh.

  “Are you crazy?” she screams at me. “You could’ve hit me with that thing!”

  “Exactly.” I turn and walk away, knowing Christian is still standing between the two of us. I wouldn’t put it past April to pick up a ball and chuck it at me when I’m not looking. Everything about her says sore loser.

  The drama has attracted a small crowd, and a few people give me a thumbs-up while others laugh at April. It doesn’t make the situation any less embarrassing, and the black-and-white balls rolling around the hallway are a cruel reminder of how long it’s been since I’ve played.

  I slam my locker shut as I pass it, kicking aside some soccer balls.

  “I don’t know why you’re blaming me,” I hear April say. “I’m glad I’m not with Christian anymore. I traded up.” April looks over Christian’s shoulder and waves to someone behind him.

  A good-looking guy with dark hair rushes to April’s side and puts his arm around her. “What’s going on?” He’s wearing a Warriors basketball hoodie, and he’s at least a foot taller than everyone else nearby.

  “Christian’s bothering her again,” Madison tells him.

  The basketball player tightens his hold on April protectively and turns to Christian. “What’s the deal? Are you bothering my girl?”

  “Your girl?” Christian laughs.

  “Yeah,” the basketball player says. “You got a problem with that?”

  “Seems like you’re the one with the problem now,” Christian says. “She’s all yours.”

  Dylan takes a step toward Christian and pushes April behind him. “If you wanna be an asshole, we can go outside and take care of this.”

  “You really want to go there?” Christian steps forward. The two of them are only inches apart. “’Cause basketball season is coming up, and your team won’t do very well if you can’t play. I think we both know you can’t take me.”

  Owen shoves his way between Christian and Cameron. “Nobody’s going outside. Neither of you can afford to be benched.”

  “I don’t have to worry about that,” Dylan says. “Basketball season hasn’t started.”

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