Broken Beautiful Hearts by Kami Garcia

  Three blinking dots in a speech bubble appear on the screen as he types.

  Good as new. I was hoping we could talk.

  I’m not sure how to respond. Is he asking to call me or see me? I test the water.

  i’m free now if u want to call.

  I hit send and immediately wish I could delete the message. It sounds like I’m asking him to call.

  I’d rather talk in person. Can I pick you up?

  Instead of overthinking it, I type back:

  what time? i need to shower.

  Ugh … Why did I mention the shower?

  Is an hour enough time?

  that works.

  As soon as we stop texting, I jump in the shower.

  I’m not one of those girls who take forever to get ready. I’m pretty low-maintenance in the makeup department—blush, lip gloss, and a little concealer if I stayed up too late the night before. My thick waves won’t yield to a blowout, so my style choices are limited to ponytail or no ponytail. But today, I spend a ridiculous amount of time deciding between the two.

  I finally settle on wearing my hair down. Owen has a way of looking at me that leaves me feeling exposed. My hair will give me somewhere to hide.

  Choosing something to wear is more complicated. In an effort to make sure this doesn’t seem like a date, jeans are the obvious choice. But then I have to decide whether to go with a long-sleeve T-shirt or step it up a notch and wear a sweater. After changing four times, I end up wearing the first outfit I tried on—jeans and my fitted, super-soft V-neck pullover, and a gray infinity scarf.

  Dutch howls from downstairs, which means the doorbell rang and I didn’t hear it. I peek out my bedroom window. Owen’s SUV is parked at the curb.

  Has it really been an hour already?

  I do a quick check in the full-length mirror on the closet door. My perfectly arranged curls, “just bitten” lip stain, and black V-neck that hugs my curves make me look like I spent an hour getting ready. I flip my head forward and rake my hands through my hair to mess it up a little. Then I rub my berry-colored lips with a towel. The hair trick works, but my lips end up pinker.

  The doorbell rings again and Dutch howls like crazy. On my way out, I throw on my oversize Adams High soccer hoodie. Nothing says not really trying like a ratty hoodie.

  Why am I nervous? It’s Owen. We’re friends.

  Friends who kissed last night.

  I walk downstairs and open the door.

  Owen’s eyes skim over me, and all I can think about is the way his lips felt when he kissed me. His damp blond hair is finger-combed in the sexy-sweet look that he has perfected without realizing it. He breaks into a smile and shakes his head.

  “What?” I look down at my outfit.

  “You look even hotter with your hair all wild.”

  “Whatever.” I close the door and slip past him. Hot isn’t a word guys use to describe me. Cute? Maybe. But hot? No way.

  Hot is for girls like April. I’m more of the girl next door type. After years of fighting it, I’m finally okay with it.

  I cross the lawn and Owen rushes ahead of me to open the car door. When I get in, he raises an eyebrow. “No argument?”

  “I’ve given up on this one.”

  Owen seems nervous, too. He turns on the radio, and then turns it off again. “There’s somewhere I want to take you, if that’s okay.”

  “Sure. Where?”

  “I kind of want it to be a surprise.” He glances over at me, and I melt a little. I start to say something, and he adds, “Before you say anything, I just want to remind you friends do surprises, too.”

  He knows me better than I thought.

  “That’s not what I was gonna say.”

  He grins at me. “Liar.”

  I try not to smile, and Owen laughs. He doesn’t look anything like he did last night when I dropped him off. His cheeks have color again, and he’s back to his adorable smart-ass self.

  He takes the windy back roads instead of the street to get to the mystery destination.

  “Where did you say we were going?” I ask innocently.

  “Nice try. This is the scenic route to my house.”

  “Are we going to your house?” I’d love to see his room. You can learn a lot about a person from the things in their bedroom.

  “No. The place I’m taking you is in the woods behind my house.” He pulls off and stops in a clearing.

  “The woods?”

  “It’s not like we’re going camping. Pretty much everything around here is forest.” He glances at my knee brace. “And it’s not far or uphill.” He wipes his hands on his jeans like his palms are sweaty. “I don’t know why I’m making such a big deal about this. Now I feel kind of stupid. It’s just this place. You’ll see.”

  I get out before Owen has a chance to rush around and open the car door for me. He notices, but he lets it slide.

  “You ready?” he asks.

  “Yeah. I want to see this mystery place.”

  He reaches toward me, as if he’s going to take my hand. Then he pulls his arm back and shoves his hand into his pocket instead. The kiss definitely complicated the just-friends plan.

  The Tennessee forest is gorgeous. The trees are losing their fall leaves—shades of yellow, orange, and red that I’ve never seen before. “It’s pretty out here.”

  Owen looks around at the woods he probably played in all the time as a kid. “Yeah, I guess it is. This is sort of my backyard. Just a little farther.”

  Suddenly, he seems nervous, like he’s about to show me his bedroom.

  The trees open up, revealing a path. This must be what he wanted to show me.

  “Oh my god, Owen. Is that a tree house?”

  “It’s not really high up enough to be a tree house. My dad built it when I was a kid, and my mom is pretty overprotective. She was convinced I’d fall out. So it turned into a tree fort.”

  The tree house is nestled among three huge oaks. It’s small with a flat roof, but branches and vines have grown around the outer walls, and now it looks as if it’s part of the forest.

  Owen’s dad nailed four logs onto a tree trunk to serve as steps. Owen is right. It’s not very high. The platform is just above his head.

  Owen hops onto the first step and offers me his hand.

  “I can’t climb up there.” If my knee gives out or I miss a step, I could end up in even worse shape than I am now.

  “I’m not asking you to climb.” He’s still holding out his hand.

  “Are you gonna lift me up with your Superman arm and set me up there?” I ask.

  “You’re such a smart-ass. Hop on my back. I’m gonna carry you up.”

  I take a step back. “No, you’re not.”

  Owen jumps down and kneels in front of me. “Just hop on my back. It’s four steps.”

  I don’t move. After watching Owen pin Ricky Dios and put him in a chokehold, I think he’s strong enough to carry two of me.

  He looks up at me. “I’d never let anything happen to you.” The way he says it makes it feel as though he’s talking about more than just carrying me up the steps, and it gives me goose bumps in a good way. “Trust me, Peyton.”

  He doesn’t know what he’s asking. How impossible it feels to trust any guy after what happened with Reed.

  But things are different with Owen.

  We’re friends, and my friend Owen won’t drop me.

  “Okay. But if you drop me, I will kill you.”

  Owen motions for me to hop onto his back. When I wrap my arms around his neck, it changes things. He hooks one arm under my leg. “Okay, ready?”

  It takes him less than two minutes to pull us up the steps, but it feels like forever—and not because I’m afraid I’ll fall.

  We reach the platform and he sets me down, so my legs are dangling over the edge. It isn’t high, but it must have felt like a tower when he was a kid.

  Owen dusts himself off and ducks through the doorway. “You coming?”

nbsp; I follow him inside.

  The tree house is one huge room with two open windows, and right now it’s full of leaves. I would’ve loved this when I was younger—having a place that was all my own.

  “This is amazing.” I turn in a circle and check out the space.

  Owen’s initials are carved next to the door, above NO GIRLS ALLOWED.

  I tap on the words. “I’m not supposed to be in here.”

  Owen looks me in the eye. “You’re an exception.”

  Coming up here was a mistake. I can’t stop looking at his mouth, and all I can think about is the way it felt when he kissed me. If I didn’t need his help to get back down, I’d take off right now.

  Owen sits on the floor and pats the spot in front of him. “Come on, have a seat. This is as good as it gets.”

  From where I’m standing, it looks pretty good. I sit in front of him, and it’s impossible to ignore his big brown eyes.

  He’s quiet for a moment. “I’m sorry if I scared you last night.”

  “I’m just glad you’re okay. And I wish you’d told me.”

  Owen leans forward and rests his hands on my hips. With what seems like no effort, he gently pulls me forward so we’re practically nose-to-nose.

  “You’re the first person I’ve ever wanted to tell. Only a few people know about my condition—my parents, my doctors, and now you.”

  He must be exaggerating. “What about your friends?”

  Owen shakes his head. “Nope.”

  “Why didn’t you tell them?”

  He looks away. “I didn’t have any symptoms as a kid. Then two years ago, I had an … attack. Everything changed overnight. The doctors wanted me to stop kickboxing and wrestling, and I was spending more time at their offices than at practice. So I quit the wrestling team. I started avoiding my friends. I didn’t want to tell them what was going on. That’s why Titan has a problem with me. We used to be friends.”

  “Really?” I can’t picture Owen and Titan hanging out.

  “Titan wrestled, too. When I quit, he took it personally. He said I bailed on the team. He was right.”

  “You should’ve told him why you quit. You don’t have anything to be embarrassed about,” I say gently. “Lots of people have asthma.”

  “The type I have isn’t common, and I have to manage it. I wasn’t used to having any limitations, and suddenly I had tons of them. The last thing I wanted to do was tell my friends and get stuck answering a bunch of stupid questions.”

  “Maybe they wouldn’t have been stupid?”

  “I guess I was scared,” he admits. “I didn’t feel like myself anymore.”

  “I get it.” I feel that way all the time now. “But Cutter and Lazarus must know?” I can tell from his expression that he hasn’t told them. “Cutter is your trainer. She shouldn’t be in the dark.”

  “Cutter might not look at me the same way if she knew. I know you don’t understand, but it could change things.”

  He’s right. I don’t understand. He’s taking unnecessary risks with his life because Cutter and Lazarus might see him differently?

  “Do you honestly believe that?”

  Owen studies the weathered boards on the floor. “It changed things with my dad. It changed him.”

  I scoot closer to Owen and touch his hand. “What do you mean?”

  “My dad was a kickboxer. He started training me as soon as I could walk. Mom says I was a natural, so my dad kept training me—every single day except for Thanksgiving and Christmas.”

  “That seems a little extreme.” I don’t want to judge, but Owen doesn’t sound thrilled about it.

  “Extreme is a good way to describe him. My dad’s dream was to compete in the Olympics or fight in Thailand, at Lumpinee, a famous boxing stadium. Only the best of the best compete there. But he didn’t make the cut. So his dream became my dream.”

  “That’s a lot of pressure for a kid.”

  Owen nods. “But it was the only thing I knew. And pissing my dad off was dangerous.”

  He means literally.

  I can see it in his eyes.

  “Did he hurt you?” I thread my fingers through Owen’s and he closes his hands around mine. He gently pulls our hands toward his chest and I move even closer.

  “Yeah. But not as bad as he hurt my mom.”

  The world around me stills.

  “He hurt her?” The words sound like a whisper when I say them.

  Owen clutches our intertwined hands against his chest. “He pushed my mom around all the time when I was growing up. Sometimes he hit her. I tried to stop him, but he was stronger than me, and he was a better fighter. So I started studying jiu-jitsu at twelve. It’s the only martial art that’s popular here because it’s great training for wrestling. I couldn’t beat my dad at kickboxing, so I changed the game. I had to do something to protect my mom.”

  Owen looks away. This can’t be easy for him to talk about. “A year later, I had the attack. When the doctors diagnosed me, my dad went ballistic. He didn’t want a ‘defective son.’ That’s what he said to my mom right before he threw her across the living room.”

  “Oh god.”

  “That was the first time I really tried to fight him. I lost and he bailed.” He takes a deep breath. “I didn’t have anyone to train me. It’s not like there are a ton of martial arts instructors hanging around Black Water. But I was interning for Cutter, and I knew about her background in martial arts and Lazarus’ experience training boxers.

  “At first, Cutter didn’t want to do it. She was already pissed off because I told her that I didn’t want to follow through with the internship. I think Lazarus talked her into helping me. She agreed to train me and I started competing in MMA. I realized that my body could still do what I needed it to do.”

  “But you told me that fighting increases the odds of you having an attack.”

  “Sure, if I’m not careful. And last night I wasn’t. I should’ve used my inhaler before the fight. I don’t know what I was thinking. But none of that means I can’t fight.”

  “Why are you telling me all this? I mean, why me?”

  “Well, I sort of had to tell you about my asthma.” He gives me a sheepish smile.

  “That’s true.” I let out the breath I’m holding.

  Owen scoots forward so his knees are on either side of mine. “But I’m glad I told you the other stuff, too.”

  “Me too.” I swallow hard. “But last night … that can’t happen again.”

  “An asthma attack? I agree,” he says, acting serious.

  “You know what I’m talking about.”

  “You mean when we kissed.” His eyes lock on mine, and I can feel him kissing me again.

  “I don’t want to date anyone,” I blurt out.

  “I know you felt something when I kissed you. And I haven’t been able to think about anything else since. Just tell me why you won’t give this a chance. That’s all I’m asking.”

  I want to give him a reason, but I can’t tell him the truth.

  He ducks his head so he can look at me. “What are you thinking?”

  That I let things go too far, and now I’m in over my head. That I can’t stop thinking about you, either, and it scares the hell out of me. And I really wish you would kiss me again.

  But I can’t say any of those things. I look down and let my hair fall over my face.

  “Talk to me, Peyton.”

  “I can’t.” The words come out as a whisper.

  The silence stretches too long and Owen inches closer. “How about if I go first?”

  I peek out from behind my hair. “Okay.”

  He catches on to my hair trick and brushes the long waves off my shoulders. His fingers graze my neck, sending a shot of heat through my body. “I think someone hurt you, and now you’re scared of getting hurt again.”

  Talking about this, even when I’m not doing the talking, is harder than I expected.

  “My last relationship ended badly.” I try n
ot to think about the night of the party. “It was complicated. We had a lot of the same friends, and people took sides. His side.”

  “I’m sorry.” Owen touches my leg and runs his hand back and forth between my knee and my ankle.

  “I don’t really want to talk about it,” I say softly. “I just want to focus on getting my knee back in shape. And I’m not here for that long. There’s no point in dating anyone.”

  By anyone, we both know I mean him.

  “Why? Because you’re going back home? You’d be going to college in the fall anyway.”

  “I just can’t.”

  “But you did feel something. Right?”

  I can’t lie. My heart is beating so hard he can probably hear it. And I don’t want to lie to him about anything else.

  “What do you want me to say?” I look away and watch the leaves rustling on the tree branches outside.

  He presses his fingers against my back. “I want you to admit that you felt something when I kissed you. I need to know I didn’t imagine it.”

  “I felt something, but it doesn’t matter. Whatever this thing is between us, it can’t happen. So I’m trying not to think about it, and you’re making it really hard.”

  Owen’s hand grazes my cheek, and he tucks his finger under my chin and gently turns my face toward him. “I don’t think I can turn off the way I feel about you. I wasn’t looking to get involved with anyone, either. I’m taking off as soon as I graduate to backpack around Europe and Asia.” He hesitates. “But I can’t help it. Every time I look at you, all I can think about is holding you and kissing you. Making you smile.”

  It takes me a second to recover. “We’re attracted to each other. Sometimes that happens with friends.”

  I’m trying to reason away my feelings, and I’m doing a terrible job.

  Owen traces my jawline, and his fingers trail down the side of my neck. His hand pauses there, his thumb against my shoulder and his fingers curved around so they’re touching the back of my neck. It’s the way you touch someone before you pull them in for a kiss and I want him to kiss me even though I shouldn’t.

  “If you really don’t want anything to happen between us, I’ll back off. But it’s going to be hard, and it’s not what I want.” He rests his forehead against mine. “And it’s been a long time since I’ve wanted anything. But if you don’t want a boyfriend, I don’t have to be your boyfriend. I’ll take whatever I can get.”

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