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       Can't Hardly Breathe, p.1

          part  #4 of  Original Heartbreakers Series  by  Gena Showalter / Romance & Love / History & Fiction
Can't Hardly Breathe

New York Times bestselling author Gena Showalter returns with an irresistible Original Heartbreakers story about a woman who's never felt desired and the man who wants her more than air to breathe...

Bullied in high school, Dorothea Mathis's past is full of memories she'd rather forget. But there's one she can't seem to shake--her long-standing crush on former army ranger Daniel Porter. Now that the sexy bad boy has started using her inn as his personal playground, she should kick him out...but his every heated glance makes her want to join him instead.

Daniel returned to Strawberry Valley, Oklahoma, to care for his ailing father and burn off a little steam with no strings attached. Though he craves curvy Dorothea night and day, he's as marred by his past as she is by hers. The more he desires her, the more he fears losing her.

But every sizzling encounter leaves him desperate for more, and soon Daniel must make a choice: take a chance on love or walk away forever.





Praise for New York Times bestselling author Gena Showalter "Showalter...rocks me every time!"

--Sylvia Day, #1 New York Times bestselling author "Showalter writes fun, sexy characters you fall in love with!"

--Lori Foster, New York Times bestselling author "Sassy, smart characters and an expertly woven, unconventional plot, The Closer You Come showcases Gena Showalter in all her shining talent."

--Kristan Higgins, New York Times bestselling author "Showalter makes romance sizzle on every page!"

--Jill Shalvis, New York Times bestselling author "Emotional, heart-tugging, kept me turning the pages!"

--Carly Phillips, New York Times bestselling author "With compelling stories and memorable characters, Gena Showalter never fails to dazzle."

--Jeaniene Frost, New York Times bestselling author "The Showalter name on a book means guaranteed entertainment."

--RT Book Reviews

"The versatile Showalter...once again shows that she can blend humor and poignancy while keeping readers entertained from start to finish."

--Booklist on Catch a Mate "Gena Showalter is a romantic genius."

--San Francisco Book Review





Also available from Gena Showalter and HQN Books The Darkest Promise The Darkest Torment The Harder You Fall The Hotter You Burn The Closer You Come All For You (anthology featuring "The One You Want") The Darkest Touch Burning Dawn

After Dark (duology featuring "The Darkest Angel") The Darkest Craving Beauty Awakened

After Moonrise (duology with P.C. Cast) Wicked Nights

The Darkest Seduction The Darkest Surrender The Darkest Secret The Darkest Lie

The Darkest Passion Into the Dark

The Darkest Whisper The Darkest Pleasure The Darkest Kiss The Darkest Night The Vampire's Bride The Nymph King

Jewel of Atlantis Heart of the Dragon Twice as Hot

Playing with Fire Catch a Mate

Animal Instincts The Pleasure Slave The Stone Prince From Harlequin Nonfiction Dating the Undead (with Jill Monroe) From Harlequin TEEN

Lifeblood

Firstlife

A Mad Zombie Party The Queen of Zombie Hearts Through the Zombie Glass Alice in Zombieland Twisted

Unraveled

Intertwined And look for Can't Let Go coming soon from HQN Books!





Gena Showalter

Can't Hardly Breathe





To Jill Monroe, the best friend a girl could have.





Contents

PROLOGUE

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

CHAPTER THIRTY

EXCERPT FROM CAN'T LET GO BY GENA SHOWALTER





PROLOGUE

SOME PEOPLE EXCELLED at high school. Other people...didn't.

Dorothea Mathis sucked so hard she made everyone else in the "didn't" category look like rock stars.

Fighting the urge to vomit, she entered the hallowed hallways of Strawberry Valley High, home of the mighty Stallions. Today marked the first day of her sophomore year.

I'll do better this go-round. No matter what. She would be strong and brave and stand up to Harlow Glass, the school bully; she wouldn't run away. She would talk to other students at lunch, and she would make new friends; she wouldn't hide in the band room. Somehow, she would convince everyone to use her given name rather than the nickname her family had cursed her with--Dottie.

Or Spotty Dottie. Or Dot dot dot, followed by laughing and pointing at the freckles on her face. Or her personal favorite, Dottie the wannabe hottie.

Today she forged a new path. I can do this!

Oh, crap! What if I can't do this?

Insults she'd heard adults whisper behind their hands claimed center stage in her mind.

Bless her heart. Her face would turn milk into sour cream.

Poor girl. She could make a freight train take a dirt road.

Heaven's above. She's probably got to sneak up on a glass of water just to get a drink.

What did looks matter? So she was technically considered obese. So her eyes were too big for her face, and her teeth were crooked. Well, her teeth used to be crooked. The braces were definitely helping. So she had a mass of frizzy corkscrew curls and looked like the human version of a Dalmatian. So the heck what. She was a good person with a good heart. Nothing else mattered.

I can do this, she repeated.

Squeals of happiness rang out as kids reconnected with friends. Dorothea smiled and waved at everyone, whatever their clique, but hardly anyone acknowledged her. No biggie. Right? Improvement took time. RIGHT?

She forced herself to trudge on, head high. If only her besties were here. Lyndie Scott and Ryanne Wade. They would build her confidence.

You're beautiful.

You're so freaking smart.

You have the best sense of humor around.

A few months ago, Lyndie's dad married Ryanne's mom. They were a real family now, sisters on paper as well as heart. This year, the lucky girls were being homeschooled. Ryanne's mom enjoyed having her only daughter nearby, and Lyndie was so quiet and reserved she functioned better in a contained environment.

When Dorothea had asked her mom about the possibility of being homeschooled, Carol had responded, "In order to feed and clothe you and your sister, I have to work two jobs. I can't take on another responsibility, honey."

Carol owned and operated the Strawberry Inn. Unless there was a festival in town, very few guests ever stayed overnight. For extra spending money, she waitressed at the all-night diner just down the street.

Dorothea had pouted. "You don't understand, Momma. Without Lyndie and Ryanne, I'll have no friends. I'll be tormented."

Carol had looked at her with compassion. "I'm sorry, honey, but girls like us have to learn to be as tough as nails. It's the only way we can find happiness."

Girls like us. Different? Unattractive?

Dorothea's attention returned to the present as the gorgeous, popular and oh, so cruel Harlow Glass stepped into her path. Two other gorgeous, popular and oh, so cruel girls flanked Harlow's sides. Madison Clark and Charlene Burns.

"Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the ugliest girl of all?" Harlow asked.

"Spotty Dottie," Madison piped up.

"The wannabe hottie." Charlene smiled a cold smile.

Despite the heavy thud of her heartbeat, Dorothea stood her ground. Want change? You have to be the change. "My name is Dorothea."

"Oh, my bad. Dorkthea." Harlow held up a can of whipped cream as if it were a weapon of mass--

Wait. Had the vicious brunette just called her Dorkthea?

Dreams of a successful school year began to implode.

Harlow sneered at her. "Are you going to cry? You look like you're going to cry."

Madison and Charlene giggled.

As Harlow sprayed a stream of whipped cream into one girl's mouth, then the other, she said, "Look, Dorkthea, I'm not going to sugarcoat the truth because you'll probably eat it. You are a dork. And ugly. And fat. Face it. You're a disgusting she-creature."

Dorothea's cheeks blistered with humiliation, her lungs deflating. She'd tortured herself all summer, running five miles every morning. Still she carried extra weight.

Be strong. Be brave.

"I won't sugarcoat the truth, either," she said, lifting her chin. "True beauty isn't the size of your body but the size of your heart. Your heart is small, making you the most hideous girl I've ever met."

Sky blue eyes glittered with venom.

Madison and Charlene huffed and puffed with indignation.

Score! Harlow-1, Dorothea-1. All tied up.

"Ask any boy in school to choose between the pretty girl and the nice one with a heart of gold," Harlow grated. "Heck, ask any boy in the world! Guess who will win every--single--time."

Be strong. Be brave. Stand up for yourself! Easier said than done. Harlow had a way of stripping a girl of her humanity and leaving a wounded animal.

"Who a boy chooses doesn't matter," Dorothea said, knowing deep down it was true. "With your own words, you proved boys can be as ignorant as you are."

The girl's mouth opened and snapped closed.

All right. Time to go. Before things got worse!

Could they get worse?

Yes! Dorothea took a step backward, intending to run...when she smacked into a wall. No, not a wall, but a person, she realized with a gasp. As strong hands settled on her waist to steady her, she glanced over her shoulder to see--

Daniel Porter!

Her crush. Her eternal flame. Her one and only. A senior just as beautiful on the inside as he was on the outside.

She'd adored the boy since the first day of kindergarten, when she'd skinned her knee during gym, and he'd come to her rescue, acting as her crutch while she limped to the nurse's station.

Today he was taller, of course, and cut with muscle...and he was peering at her with the most beautiful gold eyes framed by thick black lashes. Peering at her. Not the other girls. But...his hands still rested on her waist. He could probably feel the fat rolls underneath her shirt.

Tensing, Dorothea jumped away from him to sever contact.

He frowned at her. "Everything okay here?"

His voice! So low and husky. Her heart leaped into her throat, making it impossible to breathe or speak or even pretend to be cool.

Unaffected by his presence, Harlow flipped her dark hair over her shoulder. "This is a private conversation. Move along, Daneroni."

Two years ago, when Harlow had given him the nickname--Daniel plus pepperoni--he'd had a problem with acne. But he didn't have a problem anymore. The summer sun had cleared his skin, bronzing him to perfection. In his black T-shirt and faded jeans, he was the guy every girl dreamed of dating.

An-n-nd he stepped in front of Dorothea...acting as her shield? Her eyes widened as he leaned down, going nose to nose with Harlow. "You're the queen bitch. Everyone gets it. Don't be surprised when someone pushes you off your throne."

The color drained from her majesty's cheeks, but she gave her hair another flick, as if she'd never been more confident. "You obviously lost brain cells when you gained biceps, so I'm going to let this infraction slide. Just know this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Now--move--along."

He crossed his arms over his chest. "How about you give me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I'll actually like and move to a new town?"

Dorothea gaped. Daniel Porter, the hottest boy ever born, had just out-bullied Harlow Glass.

Forget crushing on him. There, in that moment, Dorothea fell madly, deeply and passionately in love with him. My hero!

Harlow kissed the tips of her fingers, then blew him a kiss with only the middle one extended. "Come on, girls," she said as she shouldered him out of the way. "Let's give Daniel time to think about the error of his ways."

The group marched off. Madison glanced over her shoulder to wink at Daniel.

Something dark rolled through Dorothea. Jealousy? She moved, blocking the love of her life from the blonde and perfect cheerleader's view. "Thank you. For everything."

He bestowed his full attention on her, and oh, my stars. She almost melted into a puddle of goo. His eyelashes! They were so long they curled at the ends.

When he smiled at her, revealing straight, white teeth newly freed from braces, she forgot how to breathe.

"Don't let Harlow's cruelty get you down," he said. "She likes herself, which means she has terrible taste. I think you're perfect just the way you are."

Her still-thumping heart dropped into her ankles. Perfect? Her?

He gently chucked her under the chin. "See you around, Dottie."

He knows my name! A nickname she suddenly loved.

As he strode down the hall, she called, "Yes! I'll see you around!" Then her cheeks blistered with humiliation. Shrieking at him like a banshee? Not cool.

And oh, wow, had he seriously called her perfect?

Waves of feminine pride flooded her, something she'd never before experienced. Shoulders squaring, chin lifting with more attitude, she made her way to her new locker and dropped off her backpack.

A senior--Jessica Kay Dillon--had the locker next to hers. Tears welled in Jessie Kay's eyes as she wiped whipped cream off the door. Dorothea caught the remaining letters--L-U-T--and swallowed a groan. Harlow must have spelled slut.

Jessie Kay had a reputation as "easily had and easily forgotten," and Dorothea's heart suddenly ached for her. The pretty blonde and her sister Brook Lynn had lost both of their parents. Their uncle had come to stay with them, but he must not have had any money to spare, because Jessie Kay's clothes were ill fitting and threadbare.

Dorothea repeated what Daniel had just said to her, because--obviously--the words had the power to change everything. "I think you're perfect just the way you are."

"Like your opinion matters," the blonde snapped before stomping away.

A little of Dorothea's newfound confidence wilted. I'm strong. I'm brave. I'm perfect. Daniel wasn't a liar.

She floated to first period on a cloud of euphoria. What if she flirted with him? How would he respond? Would he ask her out? What if he fell in love with her, they got married and had a million babies?

Dorothea smiled. She had two long-term goals: become a meteorologist, and have a large family. She'd always been fascinated by weather, in all its many forms, and the more kids she had, the more people who would be obligated to adore her. Now, however, she added a third goal: enchant Daniel.

What career did he want for himself? What college did he hope to attend?

As her teacher droned on and on, Dorothea watched the clock, desperate for lunch hour to arrive so she could see Daniel. What if he invited her to sit at his table?

What if his friends teased him about spending time with her?

Her stomach twisted into sharp little knots. Maybe she should admire Daniel from afar. Just until she'd changed her social status from dead to alive.

But shouldn't he like her regardless of her station?

By the time first...second...and third periods ended, she'd worked herself into a lather about whether or not to approach Daniel. Was she reaching too high too fast? Oh, crap, she was, wasn't she? When had anyone ever wanted her?

Dorothea trudged to the cafeteria. When she spotted a smirking Harlow, she whipped around and rushed to the band room, her sanctuary, as if her feet were on fire.

She would be brave tomorrow.

She glanced over her shoulder as she turned the doorknob. Spotting Jessie Kay, who may or may not have noticed her, she quickly and quietly shut herself inside. The lights were out. Good. If Harlow had given chase, she might not think to look here. And if she did look here, she might not see Dorothea in the shadows.

Coward! Shame coated her skin like a sticky film. This isn't strong, and this isn't brave. Daniel would never fall for--

A low moan drifted through the air.

Oh, crap! Someone had beaten her to the hideaway. Someone injured?

Dorothea rounded two rows of ceiling-high shelves, each stacked with different musical instruments and--

"Mmm, that feels good."

The voice dripped with pleasure, not pain, and struck Dorothea with the force of a lightning bolt. Madison Clark.

"You like that, sweetheart?"

Ice crystalized in her veins. That voice belonged to Daniel. The love of her life...the boy she'd hoped liked her back.

He was here with Madison Clark. And he'd called the cheerleader sweetheart.

"Yes, oh, yes," Madison said, and moaned again.

Dorothea's hands balled as she continued trudging forward. She had to see this. Had to see Daniel's betrayal up close and personal.

What betrayal? She didn't know. Only knew her insides were shredded.

When she reached the end of the shelf, she peered through two flute cases--and swallowed a cry of despair. Daniel had Madison pinned against the wall. He towered over the girl, his wide shoulders engulfing her delicate frame.

"Where did you learn--Oh!" Madison liquefied in his arms. "Don't stop."

Daniel chuckled. Or purred. Dorothea wasn't sure which. She fought for breath, her lungs pulverized like two slabs of chicken. This boy...he was the reason her heart beat, and the reason it broke into a million little pieces.

He didn't choose me. He chose her.

He's a fool. Just like Harlow.

Worse, he was a liar. Dorothea wasn't perfect. She would never be the girl a boy like Daniel desired.

She sniffled, then slapped a hand over her mouth. Unnecessary. Neither Daniel nor Madison stopped what they were doing, too wrapped up in each other...
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