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I shouldn’t be alive.

I should’ve died in that plane crash.

Instead, I survived.
Thrived, even.
After all, I’m a rock star and a billionaire.
There’s nothing I can’t buy.

Nothing, except peace.

And when it all comes crashing down around me…
The guilt.
The pain.
The sorrow.
That’s when she appears.

The one woman I’m not allowed to love.
I needed her to fill the void after everything was lost.
There she was, ready, and grieving too.
Both of us are broken, shattered people.
So why does she make my heart want to beat again?
I need a new reason to keep breathing.
And I think that reason—is her.


EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT: Famous Last Words

Claudia Burgoa

AVAILABLE NOW

An angsty new tale of hard losses and second chances is out this week from Claudia Burgoa, and you can read the prologue and first chapter right here.

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Prologue

Brahms

The disorienting roar of the helicopter blades slices through the air, overwhelming my eardrums. Their constant thwap-thwap-thwap feels like a heartbeat, both steady and frantic, vibrating through my entire body. I try to make sense of my surroundings, but everything feels trapped and anchored. Although my senses blur together in a dizzying swirl, the chilling sensation of the stretcher beneath me keeps me tethered to reality.

Voices and murmurs weave together into a distant hum, but the piercing squeak of the wheels beneath me stands out, a sound I can cling to in this overwhelming whirl of noise. Suddenly, the heavy doors groan open and then slam shut, cutting off the overpowering sound from outside. A brief silence follows, only to be broken by a loud, commanding voice.

“Move it, people,” a man barks, urgency evident in his tone. “Get him prepped, and let’s assess those wounds. And get those X-rays started.”

Another voice, softer but equally concerned, adds, “Contact the orthopedic surgeon.”

The mention of surgery sends cold tendrils of fear down my spine. Surgery? My eyelids, heavy and reluctant, fight to stay open. My mouth, parched and battered, struggles to find words, while the metallic taste of blood serves as a bitter reminder of what I’ve been through. Every inch of me aches, but my mind, my mind is fighting another kind of battle: the past.

The past I’ve tried desperately to forget claws its way back to the surface. Memories from nine years ago flood my mind, as vivid and raw as the day it happened. I can still hear the screams, smell the acrid smoke, feel the flames threatening to lick my skin. 

No matter how hard I’ve tried to outrun the past, it always catches up, sinking its teeth into my still-open wounds. Nine years later, those memories have lost none of their terrifying clarity—the sounds of panic, the inferno surrounding us, the realization that we wouldn’t escape unscathed.

And then, there’s the image of him. Zane. My best friend. And suddenly it feels like only moments ago we were side by side among the plane’s wreckage, our breaths shaky, and our faces streaked with sweat and blood. I was certain I wouldn’t make it out alive, but I was praying he would live through it all.

“We’ll get out of here,” he had whispered desperately, pinned down and unable to move. “We have to.”

His last words play in my mind. The broken promises after the losses and the bitter ending. And maybe this is just like that movie “Final Destination”—the survivors picked off one by one no matter how hard they try to cheat fate. If so, then it’s my turn. This must be the agonizing end I somehow evaded over a decade ago.

Zane’s voice pleading for hope haunts me, intertwined with memories of flames and panic. In my mind I’m trapped between the twisted metal and scarlet stains, certain that this is finally it. Death has come to collect me, just like it took the others.

Knowing this might be my last moment, my mind drifts back to her.

The love of my life.

The woman I lost and can never have because life is too fucking cruel.

She was collateral damage, my rose among thorns, the eye of my hurricane.

I can almost conjure her—midnight hair, brown eyes just as dark that pierced my soul. She was a forest fire—beautiful, untamable, and destined to destroy me with her hate.

She continues to be like a dream forever out of reach, always slipping through my grasping fingers no matter how I chase her. Her memory is a bittersweet agony, a ghost I can never recapture.

Even now, I can almost smell her flowery perfume and feel her touch on my skin. She was a dream I chased but could never hold, always dancing just out of reach, leaving me awake with an aching heart and a broken soul. 

Her memory is my only comfort now at the end. Of all the things I’ve lost, she is what I mourn most of all.

She’ll haunt me forever.

She’s my greatest love—my only love.

The greatest regret among many.


Chapter One

Seraphina

Let’s open our own center, Blythe said.

It’ll be the best in the New England area—and maybe New York, she assured me.

We’ll be on top of the world within the next couple of years, she promised.

And like a sucker, I believed her, caught up in her infectious excitement. I quit my job and convinced my father to let us rent the ten-acre property where my childhood home stood. With so much privacy, it was perfect. We built a facility, along with a couple of bungalows to complement our services.

Everything had been working well for the past three years, until now; we’re about to lose the land and the employees are ready to quit. I don’t blame them though, with the way things look, I would also be searching for a new job. 

How could this happen?

We were blindsided by the office manager, accountant, and landlord—my father, Thatcher St. Clairmont. He did a poor job at everything. The mortgage is upside-down, the bank account nearly empty. We can barely pay our employees, and our suppliers . . . well, that’s another story and a half.

Technically, he destroyed everything we built. And I know, it’s something I should’ve seen coming, but I trusted my father with my life. Who would’ve thought he was doing a shitty job at his work and in life?  After he died, his lawyer and close friend delivered the news: sorry, Seraphina, you’re fucked and not in a good way. 

Okay, he didn’t say it in those terms. It was something like: the property has two mortgages, and both are past due. The bank probably might foreclose on  it soon. The business and your father’s bank accounts are overdrawn and . . . some of the suppliers haven’t been paid for the last couple of months. That explained why every time we call them asking for our next delivery they keep demanding payment. They didn’t screw up our account—my father did.

Now, we’re scrambling to figure out how we’ll pay the loan before the bank repossesses the property. Luckily, we live in a small town where people give second, third, and even fourth chances—including the local bank. They gave me three weeks to come up with a solution before they kick us and all our patients out of the rehab center.

My first idea was to sell all the other properties my father left me. At least, I assumed he was going to leave them to me since I was his only living child—and relative. When I asked about them, the lawyer explained that he didn’t have much to his name.

See, I’m literally fucked. I feel guilty about this whole thing, because I’m dragging Blythe with me. Though, she assures me it’s also her fault. She’s the one who insisted we rented my father’s property instead of looking into a commercial building closer to Hartford, like I suggested from the beginning. 

The past doesn’t matter, though, right? I wish that were true. I continue thinking about my father’s behavior and wondering how I missed all the signs. I wish he had at least used the monthly rent we paid to cover the mortgage. 

“Maybe we should sell you, Evangelina.” I touch the dashboard of my old car. It’s been with me since I graduated from high school. She’s been a great car, but desperate times call for desperate measures. The money I get from her might cover a salary or two.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to take my frustration on you,” I tell Evangelina while I caress the dashboard.

God, I need to stop talking to objects about my issues, but it’s not like I have many people who I can tell what’s on my mind during these crazy times. My best friend is suffering along with me. It wouldn’t be fair to add my guilt and pain to her own suffering, would it?

I wish I knew where the money went that Father used to have—the St. Clairmont family comes from old money. He had to be dropping the money into the fireplace for it to disappear. There’s no other explanation and maybe one day I’ll figure it out.

Frustration and anger boil inside me along with the pain of having lost the only family member I had left. The memory of everyone who’s died threatens to drown me in sorrow—my siblings, my mother . . . everyone I love gone too soon. I’m alone, trying desperately to keep the remnants of my old life from crumbling completely.

The people in this town are trying hard to support me, even help me. The cookie sale Mrs. Romano kindly organized when she heard we were in trouble covered the employee salaries. 

It’s amazing to see others helping me, but it makes me realize that my father hasn’t done much for me in years. And I mean it in terms of emotional support. He pretended to be there for me, when in fact it seems like he was stealing from the center. I have so many questions, and he’s dead.

Still, I can’t help myself but yell: what the fuck were you thinking, Dad?

Followed by: why did you hate me so much?

I guess things were weird between us, and I never realized it until now. I thought we had a great relationship. I was his last living relative, and I checked on him daily—even when I didn’t like drunk Dad. But as I keep discovering so many unsettling things about him, I’m starting to wonder if his love for me was also a lie.

It’s probably an unfounded theory. The high levels of stress and anxiety are just starting to make me think the worst about him. But deep down, I know he cared. I have to cling to that, even as everything else falls apart around me.

As I’m driving toward Whispering Pines, a small Massachusetts town just thirty minutes north of Boston, my phone rings. It’s Blythe. It takes me a few seconds and some courage to press the green button on the dashboard and answer her call. Listen, I’m more than happy to speak to my best friend, except lately every time I pick up her call, she’s ready to spill bad news, and today I can’t handle it. Not when, as I said, I feel responsible for this mess.

“Yes?” I answer tentatively.

“Hey, babe, you’re not going to believe what I just got,” Blythe exclaims, her voice bubbly with excitement.

I grip the steering wheel tighter, bracing myself. This is probably just another bad omen, I think gloomily. Blythe laughs during the worst times. Her motto is: if I don’t laugh, I’ll be sobbing all the time.

“A lost lottery ticket with the winning numbers?” I guess half-heartedly, keeping my eyes fixed on the road ahead.

She laughs. “Nope, but it might be almost as good as that.”

As good as that? I can’t see anything that might be able to save us. A miracle, are those even happening in this millennium?

“Alright, you’ve piqued my interest,” I admit, but try to hide any hint of hope because this can be yet another terrible idea. “Tell me about this amazing new opportunity.” 

My gaze stays fixed on the road ahead, but fingers gripping the wheel a little firmer as I brace myself.

Could this unexpected luck be our way out? Or is it just another pipe dream?

“We might have a celebrity guest that’s going to save the center,” she gushes over the phone.

I can practically picture her grinning ear to ear, maybe even throwing an old-school air fist pump—because, in her mind, we’re still stuck in the late 2000s.

“Come again?” Her words catch me off guard, so I need her to repeat or . . . what is she talking about?

“You heard me right, a celebrity guest will be our salvation.”

I still don’t understand what she means by it. “Oh, a celebrity guest. Is this your way of telling me that you bumped your head and had a dream or something?” I ask, not hiding the sarcasm in my voice.

She lets out an unamused huff, undeterred by my skepticism. “No, my pessimistic friend. We might have a solution to our problems. And I’m actually riding this good news. I won’t let you pull me away from my beautiful meadow of rainbows, flowers and good things.”

Lately, it feels like I’ve been caught in a rain cloud of setbacks. Hard to get pumped about much of anything.

“Alright, I’m listening. But who exactly is this ‘celebrity’?” I probe, trying to mask the growing curiosity in my voice. I don’t want her to think I’m on board with what sounds like a scheme or . . . what is this?

In my mind, she might be talking about some pop star or actor who’s related to a neighbor or something like that. This person is probably offering to help us raise money through their social media, or they’ll even organize a telethon—is that still a thing? I recall Mom watching those back when I was young. She’d always donate and call her friends so they would do the same.

Instead of making up theories, I ask, “Are they going to remodel the center or use it for some kind of reality show? Extreme Makeover: Unlucky edition.”

“You do have a crazy imagination.” She chuckles. 

“That’s all I have left,” I say, trying to laugh at myself but obviously failing. “Tell me about this celebrity then.”

“So, we got this call from a guy saying that his client needs a place like ours for their rehabilitation.”

I hold my breath hoping she’ll add more to it, but she doesn’t. So I ask, “What kind of rehabilitation do they need?” My voice drips with skepticism as I guide the car around a curve, both hands steady on the wheel.

“They weren’t specific about it, but they will forward all the information after we sign an NDA,” Blythe explains, her voice more businesslike and less giddy.

“So, we don’t even know what they want?” I reply, trying not to sound frustrated.

“Does it matter?” Blythe asks casually, as if I’m missing the point of this conversation.

“Of course it matters. What if they’re confusing us with a mental health institution?” The patient could be someone who needs to get clean because celebrities’ lifestyle sometimes is a mix of parties and public appearances. The pressure is so much that they take opioids, street drugs, or drink themselves to oblivion.

We only have professionals who focus on ensuring our patients recover from bodily injuries, or we help them adapt to any new changes due to illnesses or accidents. The thought that my father fucked the center when this was created to aid people like him makes my blood boil with anger.

“Their client needs a private center,” Blythe goes on. “Due to his addictive personality—they didn’t want to specify if he was an alcoholic, drug addict, or both—he needs to be in a holistic place where pain meds won’t be administered.”

“We’re not that kind of facility,” I interject before she goes any further. “Though we avoid giving medication, we’re not going to admit a person who needs to get clean.”

“The thing is that there’s no such facility that will do both,” she argues. “But we could be it for them, and maybe we can try something new and different that will bring us patients like those. It’s called innovation.”

I let out a weary sigh, raking a hand through my hair as I keep my eyes on the road. “Why do I want to go through the trouble when we’ll probably lose the center anyway and they’ll have to move their client?”

“This is where it gets interesting,” she says with a giddy voice.

“Interesting as in they’ll pay us with publicity, or interesting as we can charge them whatever we want, and we might be able to buy us some time to save the center?” I ask doubtfully and yet, I’m hopeful because we need a win.

“This guy said, ‘Price isn’t a problem,’” she says. “They’re willing to pay whatever, but they have several requests. They don’t want more than two or three people to treat their client. No one, absolutely no one else can be aware of his existence in the center. Since discretion is key, I’m thinking we can have them in your old house.”

“No,” I reply, my knuckles going white from clutching the steering wheel so hard. 

“It’s the perfect place for this patient. You have everything there—a gym, wheelchair accessibility . . . This could help us save the center, Seraphina. We have to at least consider it.”

I almost wince as I squeeze the wheel tighter, hands cramping. I feel caught between desperation and dread. This client could be the ticket out of our mess, but diving into the unknown is unsettling. 

“Just say yes,” Blythe insists.

“I need a moment to think, okay?” I murmur, focusing on the road ahead but feeling the weight of the choice bearing down on me. Knowing how my friend thinks, I add, “At least until I talk to Dad’s old friend.”

“Well, they expect an answer within the next couple of hours,” Blythe replies. “If we agree, they’ll have their people check the premises and add security.”

I let out a long exhale. It’s a big decision with little time. But the center is everything. Our dream, our purpose, and it helps so many people. But . . . “Security?” I repeat, wondering who exactly is trying to get our services.

I don’t tell Blythe that the house has some sort of security system already. It’s from the time when . . . why does it seem like the past is trying to come back? Ever since Dad died, the memories are more vivid, even my dreams.

This, having a celebrity in that house feels so familiar and daunting. What if I can’t handle it? But do we have any other option? I pray that we do. Should I tell Blythe why it’d be best not to do this? I love her dearly, but there are things I haven’t told anyone about my family’s past. It’s best if they remain buried.

“Honestly, I don’t know if it’s such a good idea to have anyone in that house,” I say, trying to figure out if there’s another place we can put this person. We have plenty of available rooms in the main building. I don’t understand why we have to make special arrangements for them.

“Well maybe, it’s because a famous person might create a commotion, and that will disturb our other clients,” she states sarcastically.

“Why don’t you skim through the news to figure out who this person is? Could it be a politician or an ambassador who had an accident?” I suggest. “I see the potential here, but I can’t just dive in without knowing more before we decide to sign the NDA.”

“You really need to learn to trust more,” she fires back. Her voice crackles with impatience through the car’s speakers.

“May I remind you that the people I loved weren’t honest with me—we’re fixing the crap my father pulled,” I tell her as I switch lanes.

“So there’s more to it than your father, huh?” she says suspiciously. “Why haven’t I heard more about this before? I’m your best friend.”

I scoff, the old wounds aching just as the new ones still bleed. Mom said she was okay after . . . but that past doesn’t matter. We don’t discuss Mom, or anything that happened before it was just Dad and me. Instead, I end the call and hope my father’s friend can give me a hand.

Somehow, I have the feeling that letting someone into the old house might be a bad idea and probably the beginning of another tragedy. But we’re out of options . . . and out of time. What choice do I have but to take a leap of faith? I pray that I find it soon.

Copyright © 2024 by Claudia Burgoa.

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