[Note From Frolic: We are so excited to bring you the full prologue from Sarah Smith’s upcoming novella ‘If You Never Come Back‘ out June 9th!]
About If You Never Come Back:
I hate Valentine’s Day for one reason and one reason only: Wes Paulsen.
He came into my life like a wrecking ball one year ago today. After an incredible night together, we were inseparable for months. I’d never been happier in a relationship—neither had he. We were just starting to build a life together when everything changed…
Turns out Wes was hiding things from me—big things. I wanted to work through it, but he walked out, never giving me—never giving us a chance. I didn’t know how I’d be able to get over him, but I threw myself into my art. After months of working nonstop to escape the memories of Wes, my career’s finally taking off and what do you know—Wes walked back into my life. Once again on Valentine’s Day.
One year to the day that we met.
I’ve spent six months hardening my heart. It should be easy to reject him, to tell him I’ve moved on. But he’s doing everything—and more—to win me back. He’s being the boyfriend I’ve always wanted. It’ll take everything in me to resist him—I’m not even sure if I can. But I’ll sure as hell try.
Valentine’s Day, this year
The second I set my eyes on Garret, I knew he would be good for one thing and one thing only: eye candy.
I was wrong. Sort of.
He is actually excellent eye candy. Six-foot-three, sandy blond hair, icy blue eyes, strong jawline. All of that on top of his build, which resembles that of an Olympic swimmer, and he’s hands-down the best-looking guy in this bar.
But what’s throwing me for a loop is his choice of conversation topic: eating pets.
“Kind of crazy, don’t you think?” He gestures, martini in hand. “Weird that we think it’s acceptable to eat cows and chickens, but not cats and dogs.”
The frown on his face doesn’t convey irony like I hope. Just pure, unfettered confusion. As if the single greatest mystery that exists on planet Earth is why we aren’t all chowing down on our pets.
I drain my glass with a long sip, the vodka burning my tongue. I wince, longing for the taste of tequila instead.
I will the urge away. No tequila, not ever again.
Stacy the bartender offers a single sympathetic nod as she refills my glass, this time with top-shelf vodka. I open my mouth to request the cheaper vodka, but she answers with a pointed stare. No need to explain, she wordlessly says. You have to listen to this guy talk about eating kittens and puppies on a date. The least I can do is offer a few splashes of decent alcohol.
And this is how I spend Cupid’s special day, sitting across from a hunky weirdo in the bar where I work part-time, trying not to choke on my drink.
Thank heavens that my cousin Remy isn’t here. He owns this bar, the Dandy Lime, and if he overheard this guy, he would immediately call him out. Ask him at maximum volume why Garret’s chatting about such a creepy topic. It would be entertaining and embarrassing. I love Remy to death, but it would cause a scene.
“Um, what now?”
I don’t even bother to hide the disgust in my response. I cross my arms and lean back on my barstool, widening the space between us. Garret carries on, unbothered by my reaction. Evidently, he can’t tell by my body language and dead silence over the last few minutes that I’m just not into this conversation.
He flashes a toothy grin, that same one that made my stomach flip when we locked eyes while perusing the stacks at the bookstore yesterday. That grin must be a decoy he uses to rope unsuspecting women into dates before he drops the bomb that he advocates for eating pets.
He rests his hand over my hand that’s sitting on the bar top. His clammy palm feels like a giant slug on my skin.
“So. You ready to get out of here?”
Over the rim of my glass, I squint. When I slam it down on the counter, his broad shoulders shrug up to his ears.
Garret clears his throat just as the faintest shade of pink makes its way up his pale neck and cheeks. “I just figured…well, it’s Valentine’s Day. And um…I thought you’d be up for something more.”
I yank my hand out from under his, then take another deep breath. This time when I exhale, it’s slow, measured. There are a million invisible fire ants crawling under my skin, compelling me to toss the rest of my drink in Garret’s face for assuming I’d be willing to sleep with him just because it’s February fourteenth. Screw that.
“You know something, Garret? You’re pathetic. I don’t know why you would think I’d be desperate enough to go home with you, especially after I’ve had to sit here and listen to your bizarre monologue about eating cats and dogs.”
I fish a handful of dollar bills from my purse and slam them on the bar. “That’s for my drink and tip. Don’t leave without paying for your own.”
When I stand, I leer at him. This time he’s the one leaning away. He’s got nowhere to go, though, as the wooden edge of the bar top is digging into his back, blocking his escape.
“For the love of Christ, never, ever speak of pets as food again. It makes you sound like a serial killer.”
I yank my purse from the back of my stool before shrugging on my coat. With the fire currently coursing through my veins, I don’t even need to wear a jacket. And the single-digit chill outside will do well to cool me off. But taking the time to button my coat gives me a few extra seconds to tear Garret a new asshole.
“Lose my number,” I snap. “And if you know what’s good for you, don’t come back here again. The owner isn’t a fan of arrogant pricks like you.”
Garret offers nothing in the way of protest. Just silence and a nod. I’m out the door before I can take another breath.
I stand outside on the snow-covered pavement and breathe deep. This winter in Bend, the biggest city in central Oregon, has been a bitch with sub-zero temperatures and record snowfall. Normally, a heat demon like me would groan at having to stand outside in the icy cold. But it’s the perfect opportunity to quell the rage and frustration ravaging my insides. Hopefully these slow, even breaths I’m forcing out will work. Hopefully, that frigid arctic air will take the edge off the fire coursing through me.
I try for a minute, but judging by my racing heartbeat, the sweat beading at the back of my neck, the burn in my eyes, it’s an utter fail.
It’s not all Garret’s fault. The shit-show conversation was all him, but the reason I stand here barely able to keep myself from sobbing on a public street corner is completely on me. I don’t know why I thought Valentine’s Day would ever be normal again. I should have just stayed home in my pajamas, binged Netflix, and eaten three cartons of Haagen Dazs. Going for a drink at this bar on this night, where one year ago my world turned upside down, was the worst idea I’ve had in a long time.
Hot tears freeze against my cheeks as the frigid wind whips against me. This day will never, ever be normal again. It will never be anything other than a taunting reminder of my worst heartbreak.
A warm whoosh of air hits the backs of my legs as the door to the bar swings open behind me. Quickly, I wipe my face dry with the back of my mitten-covered hand. The last thing I need tonight is a pitying look from a passing stranger. But there are no footsteps behind me like I expect. Just the nearby downtown street noise of car honks and snow slushing against tires.
There is a single breath though. One sharp inhale, then a throat clearing. Then my name, spoken by the one person I never, ever thought I’d hear from again.
I know it’s him without even having to turn around and look. The low, whispered tone he employs is so different from how he used to say my name, but I still recognize it. I’d remember that rasp anywhere.
I almost don’t believe my eyes when I spin around to look at him. It’s been six months since I’ve laid eyes on him, six months since we’ve uttered a word to each other. No phone calls, no texts, no form of contact between us for more than one hundred and eighty days. But that sure as hell is him.
That mass of thick brown hair, that smooth tan skin, those earthy brown eyes. The only thing different is his facial hair. What was once the sexiest five o’clock shadow in the universe is now a well-groomed beard.
And his body…damn, that body. Even thick winter clothing can’t mar his killer physique. He’s still the proud owner of thickly muscled legs and a broad chest. All that traveling must have kept him in killer shape—
Emotion grips me by the throat, and I blink. Drooling over Wes’s exquisite body is not allowed. A handful of silent seconds passes, and I’m not tearing up anymore. In fact, all moisture has left my body. My throat is so dry that when I try to speak, I fall into a hacking fit.
He takes a step toward me, but I shake my head. Holding up my hands is my only defense. He gets the message loud and clear because he stays away. I let out a breath, relieved. If he touches me, I might fall to the ground. Or punch him. Hard to say, given how he left things. How he left me.
I whip out my phone and pull up a rideshare app. My apartment is just over a mile away; I could walk. But I need to retreat. Immediately. I can’t endure one more minute in Wes’s presence, especially after that god-awful date. If I stand here any longer than I have to, there’s no telling what I’ll do. A car ride home is the fastest way—the best way to protect myself.
I swipe my finger across the screen. The next available car is due to arrive in one minute.
“Shay, are you okay?”
His brows knit together, and my stomach does a backflip. Raw concern paints his face. Everything from the frown lines on his forehead to the purse of his lips conveys that it hurts him to see me like this. Six months ago, I would have handed over one of my organs for that look to flash across his face. That look that says he wants me and nothing else.
Instead, my body reacts differently now. I’m armed with a dry throat and unblinking eyes, struggling to process the fact that Wes Paulsen is standing twelve inches from me.
The phantom taste of tequila hits my tongue. It’s spiced oak and smoke and the faintest hint of caramel.
The silent command inside my head is useless. The flavor still dances on my tongue. It was his drink, then mine, then ours. And when he left, it was all I could taste.
It’s all I can taste right now.
I sink my teeth into my tongue, letting up just before I draw blood. Now all I taste is fire and acid. No more tequila. Not ever again.
The gray sedan that is my ride pulls up to the curb. For three seconds, I stand between the car and Wes, my eyes darting back and forth between them as if I’m a lost dog who can’t remember which one is my rightful guardian.
Wes tugs at the hem of his coat. It’s the same black puffer coat he wore the night I met him, a year ago today, in this bar.
“I just…can we talk?” He takes a single step toward me.
The invisible dam inside me breaks. Every word he said the night he left comes flooding back.
I snap out of my haze, blinking back the tears begging to fall down my cheeks. “Stay away from me, Wes.”
I jump into the car, slamming the door behind me. I don’t turn around to look at him. I don’t even peek at the side view mirror to catch a farewell glimpse. I just stare straight ahead, my vision blurry from all the tears.