Collateral damage, p.1
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       Collateral Damage, p.1

           Katie Klein
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Collateral Damage


  COLLATERAL DAMAGE

  by

  Katie Klein

  A companion novel to CROSS MY HEART

  **Though not a sequel to the story, the author

  highly recommends you read CROSS MY HEART first**

  Copyright 2013 by Katie Klein

  This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author's imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

  All Rights Reserved

  No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from Katie Klein.

  True love can blossom in unexpected places. This is Parker pretending not to care. . . .

  Parker Whalen and Jaden McEntyre are a wrong fit from the start. Jaden is driven and focused, Harvard Med School within reach. Parker has a past—a reputation—and the rumors about his mysterious habits abound. So there’s no reason why, when they're assigned to work together on a project in English, they should discover they have anything in common, or even like each other, and they definitely shouldn't be falling in love.

  What they have? It isn't real. Because the truth is, Parker Whalen is a liar. This has never mattered…until now. Because lying to someone you care about—someone who matters, someone who believes in you—that's when people get hurt. And Parker is about to hurt Jaden in the biggest way imaginable.

  Table of 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

  Chapter Thirty-One

  Chapter Thirty-Two

  Chapter Thirty-Three

  Chapter Thirty-Four

  Chapter Thirty-Five

  Chapter Thirty-Six

  Chapter Thirty-Seven

  Epilogue

  Q and A

  Message To Readers

  About the Author

  PROLOGUE

  I'm a liar.

  I don't lie because I want to lie. I lie because I have to lie. It's part of the territory—a side effect of what I do. Like the dizziness that comes with the heart medication. The numbness that may occur with the use of an inhaler. You just have to decide: die of heart failure or suffocation, or deal with a little nausea and tingling.

  Some days it doesn't bother me. Other days I wish I had a normal job, like my friend Erik who works in a Hamilton high-rise as a medical billing specialist. Or even Mike Rusch—Rusch to his friends. Rusch and I graduated training together. He spends most of his day parked along Highway Fifty-eight waiting for some sucker to come along. A sucker who's late for work. Late for a meeting. Late for an appointment. The reason never matters. Not really.

  I just lie.

  It's scary how good I am at it—that lies fly off my lips without my even thinking about them.

  Sometimes it's not even a direct lie. It's a lie by omission.

  Like the ring.

  She was never supposed to see that ring.

  But she did, and then there was the jumping up and down and the screaming and God...the screaming. I never got down on one knee. Never officially even asked her. But I didn't not ask her.

  Callie sighs, threads her arms around my neck, presses her warm body against mine. It's been four years. Four years of bodies pressing together.

  "I'll miss you," she murmurs, whispering into my ear, fingernails grazing my hairline. I breathe in a trace of vanilla and jasmine, the perfume I bought her for Christmas, and pull her closer.

  "I'll miss you, too."

  We hold this embrace for what feels like forever and no time at all, standing on the sidewalk just outside her townhouse, already aching for one another. The streetlights cast a strange, pinkish glow over the buildings and the shrubs lining the walkways and the cars parked in the lot. My breath smokes in the frigid air. I already can't feel my nose.

  It's going to be a long ride home.

  I tip my head and study the starless sky, half expecting a flurry or two—the first snowfall of the season.

  But I know better.

  "If you have a free night this week," Callie begins, pulling away from me, "maybe we can meet halfway."

  "It's only a few more months," I promise.

  "Yeah." She straightens the collar of my leather jacket and fixes her eyes on mine—those brown, puppy dog eyes on the verge of tears.

  Shit.

  Sunday nights, saying goodbye—it sucks. And that's no lie.

  I bend low and kiss her softly on the lips.

  "I love you," she says, smiling, gazing at me from beneath her black lashes.

  The reply comes easily, practiced, uttered a thousand times over: "I love you, too."

  "Drive safe."

  "I will. I'll call you when I get there."

  I swing my leg over my motorcycle, latch the strap on my helmet. The engine rumbles, roaring to life. One final wave and I'm off, leaving Callie standing on the step of the townhouse we share on weekends and holidays, my grandmother's ring on her finger.

  It was my mom's idea.

  The ring.

  I was passing through the hall, minding my own business, when she called me into her bedroom and handed me the gray jewelry box containing the engagement ring my grandfather had given my grandmother on her twentieth birthday. The ring took my breath away. It was beautiful—a large, round diamond surrounded by a dozen or more smaller diamonds in a platinum setting.

  An heirloom piece.

  That's what my mom called it.

  My grandparents died more than a decade ago. My grandmother died first. She had a stroke. They put her in the hospital and then a nursing home. She never recovered. My grandfather started to deteriorate not long after she died. He grew thinner. Didn't go out as much. Rarely smiled and never laughed. Within nine months he was gone, too. It was a shock to everyone who'd seen him with my grandmother. He stayed with her, by her side, strong until the day she died.

  He went downhill fast, is what everyone said.

  Whenever Mom talks of them, it's always about how in love they were—how she knew that after the first one passed, the other would quickly follow. It seemed impossible for one to go on living without the other.

  The ring brought my grandparents fifty years of happiness.

  They'd want me to have it, Mom assured me.

  For Callie.

  The moment I saw it I knew Callie would love it. I couldn't have found a better ring than if I'd trolled a hundred malls. A thousand stores.

  "There's no rush," she said. "But you've been dating a while now...."

  My fingers tighten around the handlebars as I weave in and out of Hamilton traffic, passing under streetlamps and towering office buildings. I love the city. I love the bigness of it all. The world constricts a little when I reach the suburbs. Neighborhood after n
eighborhood, each identical to the last. And by the time I squeeze onto that empty, two-lane road leading to Carson County an inhaler doesn't sound like such a bad thing. It's practically a necessity, even.

  It's my fault. I should've told Mom to hang on to it a while longer. Not that I don't love Callie, and not that she doesn't deserve a ring. Jesus. Anyone willing to put up with me for four consecutive years deserves something.

  But Callie—she's only twenty. I just turned twenty-one. We haven't even discussed marriage. It's come up over the years, but never seriously. There was never a let's sit down and have this talk do you think we're ready for this next step kind of conversation.

  If I would've been thinking—if I would've been smarter—I would've taken the ring out of my backpack. I would've remembered it was in there and never sent her looking for my history book, too lazy to roll off the couch and get it myself.

  Callie didn't seem surprised at all. She was almost expecting it. It was as if I planned this all along—casually asking her to go in my bag, knowing what she'd find. And then she called her mom and it was like her mom expected it, and her dad, and the whole damn thing just snowballed.

  Four years is a long time. High school graduation. Her degree. My training. Maybe she should have been expecting it. We both have steady jobs. Savings accounts. Insurance.... Hell, we're doing a whole lot better than most married people I know.

  And the ring fit perfectly.

  I'm not exactly a believer in signs, but if there were such a thing, that would have to be one, right? Grandmother's ring. Girlfriend's finger. All is well in the universe. If it didn't fit.... That's when I should worry.

  And I love Cal.

  I would've proposed, anyway. I would've thought up something amazing—something that would've blown her mind.

  I would've proposed to her.

  Eventually.

  CHAPTER ONE

  When Ms. Tugwell, the English teacher, calls for us to choose a partner, no one asks for me. No one utters my name, taps me on the shoulder. No one looks my way. I have succeeded in making myself invisible here. I am someone to fear. Avoid. Ignore.

  I flip back a few pages in my English binder and skim notes from one of last week's lectures on American Romanticism. I like Poe—his stories. I like a guy who knows where he stands. I mean, shit. If you're going to murder someone, cut him up in a million pieces. If you can't have the love of your life, bury yourself with her when she dies. If you're going to do something, do it all the way. And, above all else, trust no one.

  I search every row, looking for a stray—someone without a partner. But I'm the only pariah in this cold, cinderblock classroom wallpapered with celebrities reminding me to READ and that IT IS NEVER TOO LATE TO BE WHAT YOU MIGHT HAVE BEEN.

  Good.

  I'd rather work alone, anyway.

  Ms. Tugwell rolls through the roster, calling names. Everyone announces his or her partner. I'm sure I can convince her to let me fly solo. A group of three isn't exactly fair.

  "Jaden?"

  Nothing.

  The teacher lifts her head, adjusts her glasses. I turn swiftly toward Jaden's seat.

  It's empty.

  Shit.

  Jaden isn't here.

  Shit. Shit. Shit.

  I should've pushed harder for AP English. They don't have to do this stupid project. Even if they did, they'd never need a partner. It's insulting.

  "Parker?"

  I don't bother looking up when Ms. Tugwell addresses me. I already know how this ends. "Yeah?"

  "Your partner?"

  I lean back in my seat, clear my throat. "Yeah. I don't have one."

  She smiles, obviously pleased, and pushes her huge glasses further up her nose. "Great! You and Jaden can work together." She scribbles the note in her book.

  And it's like a black cloud descends. But, when I glance to my right, when I gaze out that long row of windows I remember that the clouds descended a long time ago—that we haven't seen the sun in weeks. That it's not possible for the world to get any darker than it is today. And I wonder if I'm the only one who notices.

  Great.

  Ms. Tugwell passes around packets of information highlighting the project requirements. I flip through the blue pages, skimming.

  The reading list is censored.

  Figures.

  She's just returned to the lectern when the classroom door opens and Jaden slips inside.

  "Nice of you to take time out of your busy 'saving the planet' schedule to join us, Miss McEntyre," she says.

  I feel a smile tugging at my lips. Everyone else laughs. If there is one thing Jaden McEntyre is known for, it's showing up late.

  "Poverty doesn't sleep, Ms. Tugwell," she replies. "If I don't do my part, who will?"

  That's the thing. See, Jaden's tardiness is overlooked. It's overlooked because she is Resident Humanitarian, both beginning and ending our days at Bedford High with the gentle reminder that Columbian orphans need shoes, too. Or that there are people in this world who have to walk a mile both ways to access clean drinking water. Or that it's important to eat at least three servings of vegetables a day. Because of this, she has been gifted with an infinite hoard of GET OUT OF CLASS FREE cards.

  I'd love to pull that shit on my teachers, but it works for Jaden.

  She is the exception to every rule.

  This is going to be a nightmare.

  "This assignment will not be turned in for another two months," Ms. Tugwell continues, "but that doesn't mean you should wait until the last minute. You and your partner should make plans to meet as soon as possible, then regularly until it's due. I'd suggest you get together before the end of today, so you can decide what literary piece you will focus on. You'll find the list of acceptable works in the information packet on your desks."

  Jaden's hand lifts. "When do we pick partners?" she asks, eyeing the packet.

  Ms. Tugwell adjusts her glasses. "About three minutes ago," she replies, matter of fact.

  I suppress a grin.

  That's right, Jaden. Partners have already been picked.

  She apologizes. "I wasn't here."

  Sucks to be you. Should've been on time.

  "I know you weren't, so I had the pleasure of assigning you one." And then, the announcement we've all been waiting for: "You and Parker will be working together."

  I can almost hear Jaden's breath escaping her lungs from two rows away. A quiet gasp. I'm sure the disbelief—the utter shock—is plastered across her face. Her life, as she knows it, is officially over.

  "Thanks," she mutters.

  I can't tell if she's serious or not. Jaden doesn't generally do sarcasm—especially with teachers. But there's no way she's happy with this little arrangement. And that's when I make the mistake of glancing over at her. She looks at me, and our eyes meet for the very first time. For the first time ever, I'm sure, since I can't recall seeing such a piercing shade of green until now. An almost transparent green—shallow seawater green, the bud of a newborn leaf green. I remain as still as possible—frozen, frowning as she assesses. Evaluates.

  I know what she's thinking.

  Stereotypical bad boy.

  And in this single, uncomfortable moment, Jaden's cheeks flush pink. Her lips part. She shifts in her seat, uneasy, then turns her attention to the little blue packet that just royally screwed us.

  She doesn't look at me again for the rest of the period.

  Parker: One.

  Jaden: Zero.

  CHAPTER TWO

  Mr. Coleman's AP Chemistry class is something out of a nightmare. Last class of the day. It doesn't help that I've heard this lecture three times already. It doesn't help that the room is burning up—the thermostat set to Hades. It doesn't help that my lab partner doesn't know how to keep his damn elbows in his own space.

  I lift my hand, but I don't wait for Coleman to call on me.

  That's because I have a problem with authority.

  "Can I use the pass?" I ask, already
on my feet and halfway across the room before he agrees.

  Coleman thinks I have a tremendous amount of potential, but that I am unfocused and undisciplined. That's verbatim from last term's report card. I scored a B minus. I think the minus is what threw him.

  My boss signs my grade reports every six weeks, then reminds me not to try so hard.

  I snatch the pink laminated paper off Coleman's desk and slip into the hallway. As soon as the door shuts, I can breathe again. Eight hours in this place and it's like the walls start closing in on me—pinching me in. It was never like this the first time around.

  Once upon a time, I owned halls like these.

  Fluorescent lights flicker overhead, and down the way a class erupts in laughter—a class that is clearly not discussing the wonders of ionic bonds. A class I should've signed up for.

  I can get away with five minutes—maybe ten—so I stop at the water fountain to kill time. The motor hums to life as I drink, and, when I finish, I head for the bathroom.

  Inside, I toss the hall pass onto the wet counter and lean toward the mirror, examining my reflection, scrutinizing the dark, puffy skin beneath my eyes.

  Too tired. I should take the weekend off. Skip the drive to Hamilton.

  If I could figure out where the drugs are coming from, I could drop out already—get back to the real world.

  I've just turned on the faucet to wash my hands when the bathroom door swings wide—when Jaden McEntyre stumbles inside.

  I watch her right herself, heart hammering in my ears. The halls are supposed to be empty. Everyone's in class.

  Then it hits me: Jaden McEntyre is in the men's room.

  "What the hell are you doing?" I demand to know, half outraged, half curious.

  Uncertainty plaits itself in her features—her eyebrows as they pull together, the frown tugging at her lips—as if she was hoping I could tell her. She straightens, chin lifting in an effort to appear more confident. Composed. I still have a good half a head on her. She's tall for a girl, but I'm taller.

 
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