As we get closer and closer to the release of Jennifer L. Armentrout’s new red-hot standalone novel—Fire In You—two of my blogger friends and I are honoured to bring you the first three chapters of this heart-wrenching new book.
Stomach churning, I followed Avery toward the back of the restaurant with my gaze trained on the pretty green sweater she wore so I didn’t get distracted. Crowds were weird now, because the chatter made me feel off-balance. Like I was only capturing half of what was going on around me. Keeping up with conversations in large groups or when there was a lot of noise was often as successful as using my forehead to bang a nail into the wall.
Avery’s steps slowed as we neared a table, and Cam looked up with those extraordinarily bright blue eyes of his. The first time I’d met Cam, I’d been struck tongue-tied and unable to formulate simple words. He was that gorgeous, and he was so much in love with his wife that at times I felt a little jealous. To be on the receiving end of that kind of devotion and acceptance was something I’d never felt. Truthfully, I didn’t think everyone in the world got to experience that level of love. It was as rare and beautiful as an albino alligator.
“You’ve found her.” Cam leaned back against the chair, grinning up at Avery. “Good job, wife.”
She grinned as she slid into the seat beside him.
“Sorry,” I said, slipping my purse off my shoulder while I ignored the pointed look Avery shot in my direction. “I was running late.”
The man with his back to me, who I knew was Grady, rose and turned. With a bit of relief, I realized he would be seated to my left. Looking up, I found he was a few inches taller than me and was just as cute as Avery had said. His sandy brown hair and light blue eyes reminded me of the beach. He was smiling, and it was warm and friendly.
“That’s totally okay,” Grady said. “It’s good to meet you.”
“You too,” I replied, flushing slightly as he pulled my chair out and waited for me to sit down. I did just that, carefully placing the strap of my purse on the back of my chair. No way in hell was my Coach purse sitting on the floor. I glanced around the table. “So, um, have we ordered food yet?”
“I put in an order for spinach artichoke dip.” Cam curled his arm around the back of Avery’s chair. “And cheese fries…with extra bacon and cheese.”
“Someone eats like they run up and down a field for a living,” Grady commented, grinning as he glanced over at me. “Unlike the rest of us.”
Cam chuckled. “Don’t hate.”
Picking up the glass of Coke, I took a sip to ease my dry throat and calm the nervous buzz trilling in my veins. “So, Avery was saying you work at Shepherd?”
Grady nodded and spoke directly facing me, obviously aware of my partial deafness. “Yes, but my job is nowhere near as entertaining as Cam’s. I teach chemistry.”
“He’s just being modest,” Cam said, waiting until I turned to him before he continued. “He’s the youngest professor in the science department.”
“Wow. That’s impressive,” I commented, wondering if he knew I’d dropped out of college and what he thought about that. You had to be pretty smart to teach chemistry. “How long have you been there?”
As he answered my question, I saw his gaze drop from mine, flickering over my cheek, but his expression didn’t change, and I wasn’t sure what that meant. “They were telling me you attended Shepherd?”
I nodded, glancing at Avery. “I did…” I closed my mouth, not sure of what else to say. Silence trickled out, and I grabbed my glass again.
Cam came to the rescue, bringing up the subject of seven-year-old Ava’s fixation with soccer. “She’s so going to play.”
“She’s going to dance,” Avery corrected.
“She could probably do both,” Grady jumped in. “Couldn’t she?”
It took me a moment to realize he was talking to me. “With her energy? She could do dance, soccer, and gymnastics.”
Avery laughed. “Our girl is…well, she’s a handful.”
“It’s so strange that Alex is the mellow one out of the two,” Cam mused. “Would’ve expected him to be all over the place.”
“Give him time,” she replied dryly. “He’s only eleven months old.”
“He’ll be playing soccer too.” Cam leaned in, kissing Avery’s cheek before she could respond. “You’ll be carting them both around to practice in a minivan.”
“God help me,” Avery laughed.
The waitress appeared at our table then, stopping abruptly when her gaze roamed over Grady and then halted on me. I hastily looked at the menu, settling on the roasted chicken and potatoes. I didn’t look up at her when I placed my order because I didn’t want to know if she was staring at me or not.
Once she left to put in the order, the conversation picked up again, and I loved listening to Cam and Avery banter back and forth with one another. Those two made me smile even when I wasn’t comfortable with the way it felt or looked.
I was quiet while the appetizers arrived, murmuring my thanks when Grady offered to load up the small plate for me.
“Cam was saying you’re starting a new job on Monday?” he asked, genuine interest shining through his eyes.
“I totally told him who your father is.” Cam’s grin was sheepish. I wasn’t surprised. Cam was a total Lima fanboy. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay.” And it really was. Even though I’d distanced myself from my father’s profession, I was still thoroughly proud of what my father and his brothers had accomplished. “My last name kind of gives it away.”
“I wouldn’t have known,” Grady admitted, his cheeks turning pink when I looked at him in surprise. “I mean, I don’t really follow the whole mixed martial arts thing.”
That mixed martial arts thing had been a part of my life for a long time.
Dad had been at me for years, especially once he opened his new state-of-the-art mixed martial arts and then some training facility in Martinsburg, less than fifteen minutes from where I’d been attending college at Shepherd University. God, I’d been so pissed when I’d discovered that my family had practically followed me to college. Dad would’ve stayed at the Philadelphia location, but one of my five thousand uncles would always be with stalking distance.
Dad had wanted me to come back home and work at the center in Philly, but he’d finally caught on about two years ago to the fact that was never going to happen. Ever. There were too many memories there, too much that reminded me…reminded me of him and of the way I used to be.
But about six months ago, Dad started on me again. So did my mother. So did Uncle Julio and Dan and Andre and, oh my God, the Limas were like mogwai fed after midnight. The pitch had started off differently this time. Andre, who was currently the General Manager of the Lima Academy in Martinsburg, wanted to move back to Philly by the beginning of October, because I guess West Virginia just wasn’t cool enough for him. Dad wasn’t offering me the GM position, but the position of assistant to the GM—a manager position that hadn’t existed before at the Martinsburg location. The assistant manager would oversee the day-to-day functioning of the Academy while helping expand services. He wanted someone he could trust and who knew the business while he found a new GM. The offer was, well, very tempting, but I’d turned it down.
Then Dad showed up at my apartment and handed me a piece of paper that had my salary written on it, along with a slew of benefits, and I would be the stupidest and most stubborn person to refuse that, but even though the offer was amazing, it wasn’t the real reason why I finally accepted it. He just came at the right moment, when I just…just was so damn tired of the windowless room and working a job I didn’t give two craps about. The offer poked and prodded at the Jillian I used to be, and a part of me knew that was who Dad had been trying to reach this entire time with one crazy job offer after another.
“I do,” Cam confirmed, breaking me out of my thoughts.
“We know.” Avery sighed. “We all know.”
“So, you…you really have no clue what my last name means?” I asked, finding it somewhat freeing that there was a red-blooded man who didn’t secretly wish he could climb into the Octagon and walk back out in one piece.
“Not really. Is that a bad thing?”
“No.” I dipped my chin as I smiled and peeked back up at him. “It’s a…a good thing.”
His gaze met mine. “I’m happy to hear that.”
My face heated again, so I focused on my plate. I poked at the cheese fries as my stomach grumbled. If I was at home, I would’ve already consumed half my plate, but I forced myself to not eat like I hadn’t seen food in a week.
The dinner went…surprisingly smoothly.
Cam and Avery kept the conversation flowing naturally, picking up whenever the gaps of silence started to stretch out too long, which didn’t happen often. Grady was easy to talk to, guiding me into conversation. There were only a few times when Cam or Avery had spoken to me and I hadn’t heard them, so Grady had to catch my attention. This didn’t seem to bother them, which made it easy for me to gloss over it.
Our main dishes arrived while Grady was telling me about a new art exhibit that had come to Shepherd. The way his eyes lit up as he talked about the exhibit, you could tell that was the kind of stuff he was into.
And it was cute.
“Sounds like it’s an amazing thing to see,” I said, picking up my fork. “I haven’t gone to many art exhibits recently.” Or ever. Like, seriously. I didn’t go look at art. Not like I saw anything wrong with doing that, but it just wasn’t something I did.
Then again, there wasn’t much I did.
“I can take you,” Grady offered, grinning. “I’d love to.”
My lips parted at the unexpected offer. We were getting along well, so I wasn’t sure why the offer caught me off-guard, but it did. I started to respond, but realized I didn’t know what to say, because I wasn’t sure if I was excited about what seemed like a genuine offer or if I was wholly unmoved by it.
An all-too-familiar feeling swept through me, the one that usually hit me in the middle of the long night, keeping me awake. It was how I had felt when I’d been dating Ben; it was the feeling that had kept me with him, because I didn’t see anything better for myself. Not because I didn’t deserve better, but I…I gave my heart so completely, so fully to someone else, that when my heart was broken, those pieces I’d freely given away weren’t mine any longer.
My heart wasn’t complete.
And that might sound silly and overdramatic to some, but I didn’t care. It was the truth, and I wasn’t sure I could ever feel that way about someone else again. So I had settled with Ben. Would I be doing that again with Grady, if it got to that point? Settling?
Oh God, wait a second.
Was I really sitting here and thinking about settling after I just met this guy an hour ago?
I needed to get a grip.
“Jillian?” Grady said, and I guessed he thought I hadn’t heard him.
“T-that would be nice,” I managed to force out.
He studied me for a moment too long, and I wondered if he could sense my growing nervousness.
“I’ll be right back.” Placing my folded napkin onto the table, I rose and stepped around the chair. I could feel Avery’s concerned gaze on me, and I didn’t want to make a big deal out of anything, but I assured her I was okay.
I just needed a minute.
Making my way through the narrow pathways between the tables, I headed back toward the bathroom. Only once I pushed open the double doors and stopped in front of the water-spotted mirror did I realize I’d left my purse at the table, so there’d be no reapplying my lipstick.
I pumped soap onto my hands and waved them under the facet. Water flowed, washing away the suds as I slowly lifted my gaze to my reflection. Normally when I looked at myself, I didn’t really pay attention longer than was necessary to put makeup on without ending up looking like a tutorial gone wrong.
Standing here now, I really looked at myself, though.
I used to wear my hair up all the time, but I’d stopped doing that every day. My hair now hung in waves and the ends curled over the tips of my breasts. I also used to have heavy bangs, but thank God they were long gone. I’d finally learned how to put on eyeliner. That was another miracle. The slight flush of my face darkened my naturally tan skin. My lips were fuller and my nose straight.
My hair was parted to sweep to the left so it shielded my cheek…and my cheek didn’t look that bad, especially considering how it looked the first time I’d seen it after…after days in the hospital.
Hell, my entire face had been one hot mess.
There was a deep indentation in my left cheek, almost like an icepick had been shoved in there, and as I stared at my right jaw line, I was still amazed by what reconstructive plastic surgeons could accomplish. Half my face had literally been pieced back together with an iliac crest graft with a reconstruction plate and a crap ton of dentistry to give me back a full set of functional teeth.
Plastic surgeons didn’t have magic wands, but they were magicians. If you weren’t looking at me straight on, you’d have no idea that my right jaw was thinner than my left.
You’d have no idea what had happened to me that night.
Now I stared back at myself just like I had done that night, six years ago, standing in a bathroom, mere minutes before my entire life came crashing down.
It wasn’t that I hated the way I looked now. The fact that I was alive meant I was one of those rare, walking and breathing statistics.
But even knowing how lucky I was didn’t change the fact that I felt…deformed. That was a harsh word to use. I didn’t like to whip it out often. Doing so on what was so far a pretty good date was probably not a good idea.
Taking a deep breath, I shook my head. I didn’t need my thoughts going in that direction tonight. So far, the dinner had been amazing. Grady was nice and he was cute. I could maybe see myself going out with him again, to an art exhibit, and maybe coffee.
And that was what had freaked me out.
I was not going to let living freak me out.
I could give him a chance and not worry about whether or not I was settling.
Turning from the sink, I dried my hands and then readjusted my hair so it fell forward, over my left shoulder and cheek. I walked out of the bathroom and into the narrow hall, gaze trained on the floor as I took about two steps before I realized someone was standing right outside the door, leaning against the wall. Before I nearly plowed into him.
Gasping, I took a step back. All I could see were finely cut black trousers paired with…with old black and white Chucks? What an odd combination, but those shoes reminded me of…
I gave a little shake of my head and stepped to the side. “Sorry. Excuse—”
Everything stopped except my heart, because it was suddenly pounding in my chest too hard, too fast. That deep, rough voice. I recognized it all the way to my very core. Slowly, I lifted my gaze, already knowing what I was going to see but refusing to believe it.
Brock Mitchell stood in front of me.