There are only a handful of authors that I can always count on to deliver emotionally satisfying stories that beg to be read in a single sitting, and Catherine Bybee is one of those rare authors for me. Her knack for creating vivid, endearing characters always shines in her stories, and this is especially true of her newest release. I am so excited to share with you an exclusive first look at the first chapter of When It Falls Apart, and a little chat I had with Catherine about her new book and series.
NATASHA: It’s no secret that I’ve been a huge fan of your books from the moment I found myself binge-reading through some of your earlier series—Weekday Brides, First Wives, Richter—all in an attempt to immerse myself in your brand of storytelling for as long as I possibly can. Tell us more about this new series, The D’Angelos, and the characters we get to meet.
CATHERINE: Thanks for all those hours of reading, Natasha. In When it Falls Apart, you’re going to dive deep into Brooke’s life, where she has to give up her world to take care of her ailing father. A subject that many of us know all too well. Only her father wasn’t there for her growing up and she’s finding a lot of resentment in the process. Enter the D’Angelos. A tight-knit Italian family living and working in San Diego’s Little Italy. Add Mr. Tall, Dark and Italian, Luca… and you have a summer read that will leave you craving wine and pasta.
NATASHA: When It Falls Apart is a different kind of book for you. It’s a Romance as much as it is a stirring tale of familial love, sacrifice, and bonds that remain strong even in the face of abandonment and neglect. There are parts of it that feel incredibly personal and candid. Tell us what inspired you to write this story.
CATHERINE: That’s easy. Me! My father abandoned me as a child. We didn’t meet until I was a teenager, but he really didn’t step up until I was an adult. And now that I have to take care of him, and often neglect my own life… yeah, the emotions can get pretty high. I know I’m not alone in this roll and wanted to write a story that others could relate to and perhaps find strength in. Or if nothing else, accept that it’s okay to feel the way they do when caring for an aging family member.
NATASHA: When It Falls Apart is set in San Diego, California. The heroine moves there from Pacific Northwest and makes it her new home even before she falls in love with the hero. Was that particular setting important to you?
CATHERINE: Write what you know, right? I recently moved to San Diego, well almost five years now. I wrote this book in the middle of the pandemic and the only way I could taste Italy was to visit Little Italy. I thought if nothing else, all the pasta I ate would inspire this book. And of course, I grew up outside of Seattle, so moving to California and away from the rain was another easy thing to write about.
NATASHA: From your social media posts, we can see that you’re currently writing your latest novel in Florence, Italy. Will that be the setting of one of the future novels in The D’Angelos series?
CATHERINE: Yes, actually… the third book. Gio’s story. Chloe and Dante’s book is already in the final editing stage. But stay tuned on social media, I’ll be visiting Bali soon, which is in part where Chloe’s story takes place.
NATASHA: What do you wish your readers to take away from the story in When It Falls Apart?
CATHERINE: I think the biggest takeaway is that they’re not alone. Not alone in caring for a loved one. Not alone in feeling some resentment for the selfless time it takes to do this job. No alone in the pure frustration of this job. And that often, when we’re at our lowest point, where when we look around and find ourselves floating on the life raft without a paddle…somewhere there is someone, or maybe something, that rises up and helps us. And that love often arrives when you’re absolutely not looking for it.
The wretched shriek of the telephone ripped the deep bliss of sleep instantly from her head and had Brooke shooting up off the pillow. Her heart started to pound as the second ring did in fact prove she wasn’t hearing things and the phone was ringing. Her palm smacked the lit screen of her cell phone.
“San Antonio Hospital” flashed like a bad omen.
Beside her, Marshall moaned at the interruption and rolled over.
Brooke took a deep breath and answered. “Hello?”
“This is her.”
“I’m calling from San Antonio Hospital’s emergency room. We have your father here.”
Brooke swung her legs off the side of the bed, turned the light on.
“Is he okay? Did he have another stroke?”
“No, no. Not a stroke.”
Marshall sat up behind her. “What’s going on?”
Brooke placed her hand over the receiver. “It’s my dad.” She turned her focus back to the conversation on the phone. “What’s wrong with him?” she asked.
“He has a bowel obstruction.”
Brooke sighed with some relief. That didn’t sound too bad. The last time she received a middle-of-the-night call, he was having a stroke. And that had ranked right up there with flirting with death. “Okay.”
“I’m going to admit him and see if we can stabilize him before taking him to surgery.”
“You’re the surgeon?” Brooke thought she was talking to one of the nurses.
“Yes, I’m sorry, I should have said that right away. I’m Dr. Dubois. Your father is really sick, Miss Turner. I understand you’re his advance care director for health issues. I’ll need your permission for surgery.”
“He can’t consent?”
“No. The medication we’ve given him for pain has elevated his confusion . . .”
Brooke pushed off the bed, switched the phone to her other ear.
“Babe?” Marshall questioned.
She lifted the phone from her ear briefly. “Dad needs surgery.”
Marshall let out a sigh, and Brooke tiptoed from the bedroom into the kitchen and turned on the lights. Not that she needed to be quiet since they were both wide awake now, but the late hour made her want to walk softly and whisper her words.
She sat at the small dinette set and pulled a pad of paper and pen in front of her to jot down notes as Dr. Dubois spoke. The momentary relief of hearing her father only had an obstruction quickly turned to dread at how deadly his condition could be. The doctor described some rather disturbing scenarios involving blood infections and ICU admissions. Brooke lifted a hand to her lips in an old habit of biting her nails, caught her nervous response, and twisted a lock of hair instead. Her eyes narrowed on the clock. It was just after midnight. Late-night flights were a crapshoot for availability.
By the time she was off the phone, her anxiety was making her twitch. Her mind scrambled with how she was going to rearrange her schedule to accommodate her father . . . again.
Footsteps told her Marshall had walked into the room. He moved around her and crossed to the sink, where he turned on the water and filled a glass. Wearing only a pair of lounge pants, he turned to face her and leaned against the counter. “How bad is it?”
“It doesn’t sound good.”
She looked up, and he averted his eyes.
Brooke reached for her laptop and opened it. She needed a flight.
“You’re leaving.” His voice was accusing.
“What about Florida?”
They were scheduled to go to Key West the following week. Marshall made his living creating travel vlogs for YouTube, and he’d been grounded a lot over the past few years. They’d been looking forward to this trip. “You’ll have to go without me.”
The disappointment in his voice snapped her chin up. “My father is sick.”
“Your father is always sick.”
Why did he do this? Why did he always do this? Marshall’s judgment on her relationship with her father came through in his digs, sighs, and shakes of his head. “I’m his only daughter.”
“You have a stepsister.”
“Who is going through a divorce and has her own ill parents. It’s not the same.”
Marshall rolled his eyes, drank from the glass. “This is getting old.”
They’d argued about this before when she’d returned from California after almost six months of rehabilitating her father. The first couple of weeks had been touch and go. But once it became certain her father would survive, the long haul of rehab took over. A lengthy stay at an in-patient rehabilitation center was followed by daily visits to physical, occupational, and speech therapy when he returned home. He progressed from a wheelchair to a walker to walking on his own, albeit slow and wonky, and if a stranger was watching, they’d think he’d been drinking. His speech suffered, but he managed well enough. And the right side of his body simply didn’t speak to the left side very well.
But he’d survived.
“What do you expect me to do?” Brooke asked Marshall.
He ran a hand through his hair. “Is he dying?”
She narrowed her eyes. “I don’t know. I hope not.”
A flash of something she didn’t want to name crossed over his face.
“How long will you be gone this time?”
“My dad is in the hospital right now with a possible expiration date on his life and all you want to know is how long I’ll be gone? I don’t know, Marshall. A week. A month . . . A year?” Three years she’d been with this man. Six months in they both agreed that marriage was a paper that neither of them needed. Both of them from divorced families, hers several times over and his twice . . . they didn’t need it. They agreed to keep it honest and faithful. And they’d done that. At least she knew she had. Their base was Seattle, but they traveled often. She worked from home with a creative marketing company, which had made life easier when her father got ill two years prior.
“I don’t get it, Brooke. It wasn’t like the man was around for you growing up. I don’t know why you bother.”
Her backbone stiffened. He wasn’t wrong. She hated him for pointing that out. “It isn’t for you to understand. You either support me and my decisions or you don’t.”
For several moments they stared at each other. Her expression neutral. His blank.
Finally, Marshall set his glass in the sink and left the kitchen without any further words.
She squeezed her eyes shut, swallowed the hurt that pooled in the back of her throat, and typed in her airline of choice.
* * *
“I can take you to the airport.”
Marshall stood at the door while Brooke rolled both suitcases from the bedroom and hiked her massive purse on her shoulder. “Carmen is picking me up.”
Brooke had booked the flight, slept the rest of the night on the couch, and all but ignored Marshall as she packed.
“I’m hurt. There’s a difference.”
“Babe . . .” He placed a hand on her shoulder. She shrugged it off.
He dropped his hand.
She paused. “For what?”
“That you’re mad.” He quickly corrected, “Hurt. That I hurt you.”
She rolled her eyes and reached for the door.
“I have to go.”
“Those are big suitcases.”
She’d packed as much as she could fit in the luggage she had. The last time, she’d been caught unprepared and needed to buy clothes. That wouldn’t happen again. “Are you afraid I won’t be back?”
The look in his eyes said he wasn’t lying.
“Good. I might not.”
Marshall’s jaw dropped.
Her heart raced in her chest and her pulse soared as she spoke. “Last night I needed the man in my life to put his arms around me and ask if I was okay. I needed him to see if there was something he could do to make things better. All I got was a whiny kid that was mad that I was screwing up his vacation.”
Marshall recoiled. He was three years her junior, something they’d joked about in the past, yet his lack of maturity seemed to be playing a role now. “I guess I deserve that.”
She started past him and he grabbed one of her suitcases. “At least let me help you out.”
Without argument, she allowed him.
Carmen had her car parked in the red zone with the engine running.
Her best friend jumped from the driver’s seat and rounded to the back of the car. “Perfect timing,” Carmen said.
Marshall hoisted both bags into the trunk and closed it before standing back.
He looked at Brooke and she stepped out of his orbit . . . making it clear she wanted nothing to do with any goodbye hugs, kisses, or promises. The restless night on the couch reminded her of those she’d had during her father’s rehabilitation. She knew that the days with her dad were likely numbered, and this was only an example of Marshall’s behavior around things he didn’t approve of. His lack of support before bothered her, now it crushed her.
He stood back and pushed his hands in his pockets. “Call me when you get there.”
She’d text at most.
Brooke offered a nod and opened the passenger door.
“See ya, Marshall,” Carmen said as she slid behind the wheel.
They pulled away from the curb.
Brooke glanced in the side mirror as Marshall watched them drive away.
“What was that all about?” Carmen asked.
“Marshall is a selfish ass.”
Carmen started to laugh and continued to until Brooke looked at her. “What?”
“You’re just now figuring that out?”
They turned the corner and Marshall disappeared from sight. She focused her attention on the road in front of them. “I’m having second thoughts about him.”
Carmen glanced her way, then back to the road. “You’re serious.”
Not trusting herself to speak, Brooke nodded.
They were silent for a full minute. “Do you want me to say something? I mean . . . I don’t want to say ‘I never liked the guy’ and then have you all in love with him next week and you mad at me. I don’t want to say ‘He’s the best guy for you’ and you break up and you hate me.”
Brooke closed her eyes, turned her head toward the passing cityscape of Seattle as they made their way onto the freeway en route to the airport. “I won’t hate you for being honest with me.”
Her friend took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“Are you sure? I don’t want—”
“I’m sure, Carmen. Give me your gut feeling without censor. Even if I don’t want to hear it.”
Carmen tightened her grip on the steering wheel, licked her lips . . . and Brooke knew what she was going to say before the words left her mouth.
“He made you happy . . . the first year. Well, the first six to eight months.”
Before her father had his stroke.
“You haven’t been happy since. He convinced you that you don’t need the fairy tale.”
Carmen looked over. “Yes. You do.”
Her friend was wrong about that, but her heart was in the right place.
“Marshall isn’t the guy for you. He’s young, selfish, and can’t commit to a dog let alone a wife or children.” Carmen sucked in a sharp breath. “God, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”
“It’s okay.” The loss of that time wasn’t something Brooke liked to think about . . . ever.
“No, it’s not. I’m sorry, Brooke.”
Too much loss . . . too many emotions swam in the back of her throat.
She needed to change the subject. Fast.
Carmen reached out and placed her hand over Brooke’s. “You need a man who wouldn’t dare let you go to your father alone. He wouldn’t question your relationship. He’d simply be there and hold your hand because you needed it. You don’t deserve anything less, Brooke. That’s all I’m saying. If you think that’s Marshall, then fine. I don’t think it is. And as long as you have him in your life, the other guy isn’t going to show up.”
The tears that had threatened all night and all morning finally pooled and started to spill.
Carmen voiced so many things that Brooke had said to herself. Not the stuff about the next guy. She didn’t give two thoughts about the next guy . . . At the very least Marshall should have cared about how she felt.
“I can fly down.” Carmen’s voice was soft.
“I have a husband . . . he’s capable of taking care of our son. If my friend needs me, I’m there. Say the word.”
Brooke squeezed Carmen’s hand. “I’ll pull that card if I need it.”
They turned into the departing terminal at SeaTac airport and climbed out of the car. After retrieving her luggage from the trunk, they hugged. “Thank you . . . for the ride. And your honesty.”
“Don’t hate me tomorrow if you change your mind.”
“I won’t. Love you.”
“Love you, too. Call me when you land.”
Brooke kissed her friend’s cheek, and walked into the airport.